The Middle of the Brewers (Infield)

The Brewers just made a pretty interesting trade so it seems like a good time to talk about the implications for their lineup, and some of the questions they will need to answer in 2020. Milwaukee sent Trent Grisham and pitcher Zach Davies to the Padres for middle infielder Luis Urias and pitcher Eric Lauer. We won’t talk about the pitchers in this post – what is interesting is how this impacts the Brewers lineup and middle infield next year. Before the 2019 season began it looked like Orlando Arcia and Keston Hiura were the keystone combo for Brewers teams of the foreseeable future. This trade puts that combo into question so let’s take a look, eh?

Keston Hiura was the Brewers first round pick in 2017 – 9th overall – based on his tremendous bat. His elbow in his throwing arm was a mess and there were questions as to whether he would be able to do anything but DH, otherwise he would have been a top 3 pick instead of going 9th to Milwaukee. But Hiura avoided surgery, zipped through the minors, and made his major league debut in 2019 and hit a lot while not really disproving the doubters who said he should only DH. A natural outfielder, Hiura is fairly new to second base and it shows. Still, Hiura made it clear that he was ready to hit major league pitching and should be starting somewhere. After slashing .329/.407/.681 at triple-A San Antonio (155 wRC+), he slashed .303/.368/.570 in Milwaukee (139 wRC+). Hiura crushed 38 homers split evenly between triple-A and the majors, so his power has clearly arrived. Looking back at his half season in the majors, there were two areas of concern in regard to his hitting. First, he struck out 30.7% of the time, almost 8% above league average, so big-league pitchers were able to find some holes in his swing. Hiura walks enough that he should still get on base if his K rate stays that high, but it is something to keep an eye on. Second, the 23 year old former UC Irvine Anteater had an unsustainably high BABIP (.402) indicating a likely drop in his batting average in seasons to come. He has carried a high BABIP most of his career (but not THIS high) and he hits the ball really hard so that accounts for part of the high BABIP – still he was at least a bit lucky. Even if his average comes down some, he will be an excellent hitter with power who hits for a good average and walks enough.

Hiura has only played second base as a professional even though he was an outfielder in college. There are those who doubt that Hiura can handle the position defensively. Neither DRS (-4) nor UZR/150 (-18.9) – two commonly used defensive metrics – liked him at second. Inside Edge Fielding breaks chances into six categories of difficulty with the three easiest being “routine”, “likely”, and “even” respectively. Granted, the numbers are based on a very small sample size, but on balls rated as “likely” to be turned into outs, he managed to succeed only 50% of the time and on balls rated as “even”, he succeeded 66.7% of the time. His arm isn’t a big concern at second base but if it is as bad as advertised what it might do is limit him to three positions: second base, first base – a position he has never played, and DH, which brings us back to the Brewers last move.

Luis Urias is a 22 year old above average defensive second baseman who has hit everywhere he has played – except the Majors (in 302 plate appearances). In the minors he has looked liked a prototypical leadoff hitter with his .308/.397/.433 career slash line who would help defensively at second and not hurt the team at short. He even added some pop at triple-A in 2019 banging 19 homers in half a season, but the questions still remain about his ability to hit major league pitching as indicated by his career slash line of .221/.318/.331. The Brewers think they know the answer to that question, and Urias is only 22, so it isn’t like he is finished baking. I have written this about Urias before and I will write it again – Urias has starter potential. But, where to play him on the Brewers?

If Hiura is locked into the second base spot it would seem that the Brewers plan on playing Urias at shortstop, which would mean the their defensively gifted but offensively disappointing starter from the last three and a half seasons, Orlando Arcia, becomes a bench glove with some pop. At 25, Arcia might be the victim of a high bar he set for himself as a 23 year old in 2017 when he hit .273 with 15 home runs to go with his excellent glove work. The glove work hasn’t gone away, but his bat has not developed as expected. His 86 wRC+ in 2017 was his peak with last year’s 61 being more the rule than the exception. Arcia still exhibits power and gets hot on occasion but his offense really drags down his WAR which has only seen the positive side of the line once in 2017 when it was 1.4. With 1676 plate appearances in the majors it isn’t like the Brewers haven’t given him a chance, but it is hard to give up on someone with Arcia’s tools. The Urias trade indicates that the Brewers are about to do just that – at least as their starting shortstop.

To review, the Urias deal leaves the Brewers with two starting second basemen and two shortstops (in 3 players), one of whom can’t hit enough to carry his excellent glove (Arcia), one who is a fringy shortstop and a good second baseman who hasn’t hit enough in the bigs to start anywhere (Urias), and one player who is probably best suited to DH where he’d be great at it (Hiura). If the deal works out and Urias breaks out with the bat, then the Brewers have an offense-first middle infield that will probably only hurt them a little with the gloves. Additionally, if the universal DH hits the National League in the next year or two then they are set at DH and second with a glove first shortstop if all breaks well. It’s a lot to juggle for the Brewers but Urias is definitely worth the gamble and Hiura’s bat looks elite already so it isn’t a horrible problem to have.

The A’s Have Options At Second But Their Most Intriguing Prospects At The Position Don’t. What To Do?

What a problem to have – stars at all the infield positions, except one. That’s where the A’s are with Chapman, Olson, and Semien locking down the two corners and shortstop to the tune of 17.6 WAR in 2019 even with Olson only playing part of the season due to an injury in Spring Training. It seemed that Oakland had solved second base too when they acquired Jurickson Profar in a three team trade with the Rangers and Rays. He was coming off his best season to date with a 107 wRC+, 2.8 WAR, and was only 25 at the time. It was an exciting move but it just didn’t work out last year. Profar played good defense and still hit 20 homers but his wRC+ dropped to 89 and he finished with a  slash line of .218/.301/.410. The 2019 version of Jurickson Profar disappointed from start to finish.

Heading into 2020 the A’s look to break through the Astros choke hold on the West and earn a postseason series – none of this one and done stuff! So this off-season the A’s will have some tough decisions to make with one of the toughest being who gets the starting spot at second. Profar was very unlucky with a BABIP of .218 where league average was .298. He also retained his improved hard hit rate from 2018 while slightly improving his walk and strikeout rates. And while he mostly played second base for the A’s, he retained his positional flexibility as he has now spent time (at least 38 games) in the outfield and at every infield position but catcher and pitcher. Profar is an excellent candidate for a bounce back season in 2020 if he stays healthy. There is no way he will be as bad as he was in 2019, but that won’t necessarily win him the job because the A’s have other options – two of whom are super talented and out of options, putting their GM in an interesting spot.

One of the other options to play second base, Franklin Barreto, was the top prize in the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. He has appeared on A’s top 10 prospect lists but has yet to take a major league job from anyone yet, and he is now out of options. The A’s must keep him on the big league roster, expose him to waivers where he will almost certainly be claimed by another team, or trade him to someone willing to keep him on their big league club. He turns 24 shortly before the season starts and has had over 200 plate appearances in the majors, but in spite of his tools and his minor league resume, he hasn’t hit a lick in Oakland. Barreto can play second, shortstop, and was tried in left and center at triple-A last season so, like Profar, he also has positional flexibility in his tool kit.

The other prospect who is out of options, Jorge Mateo, is a tool kit all by himself with freakish speed – 80 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale – and some pop. The A’s have to fish or cut bait with the young Dominican middle infielder because, at 24, he has no options left. 2019 was Mateo’s second try at triple-A and he showed off his speed and power hitting 14 triples (he has averaged 16 for 3 seasons in a row now), and slashing .289/.330/.504 while playing mostly shortstop, and some second base. Mateo had been tried in center field in 2017 but not since. So the A’s would most likely have to play him at second base or use him as a reserve middle infielder and pinch runner unless they choose to revive the center field experiment at the major league level. Is there more left in the tank? Maybe – he is only 24, and if there is more growth, then the A’s might have a star on their hands. Mateo has yet to sip even a cup of coffee in the majors so, unless he dominates Spring Training, it would be quite a leap of faith to commit to him sticking on the roster – much less starting him at second base for a contending team.

I have mentioned Profar’s positional flexibility and using him basically everywhere as a multi-tool while starting someone else at second might be a possible solution for the A’s logjam at second. There is however already someone in that spot – Chad Pinder. Pinder, who is much cheaper and can’t become a free agent until 2022 also has power but doesn’t walk as often as Profar. Pinder’s career average is about 10 points higher than Profar’s, but projections have them about even there.

And there is still more! Sheldon Neuse only played second base after he was called up to the A’s in 2019 but has played shortstop, 3rd, first, and the outfield in the minors. In 61 plate appearances in Oakland Sheldon slashed .250/.295/.304 after slashing .317/.389/.550 with 27 homers at triple-A. Neuse probably has the most power of all the second base options but realistically would be limited to the corners and second base where he has put up solid numbers in the minors. That still makes him a good multi-tool kind of guy although the A’s would probably only give Neuse the roster spot if they planned on making him the starter at second.

So now that you know the actors how should the story play out? The A’s will likely only have room to keep either Mateo or Barreto. One of them probably gets traded to a non-contending team for less than their value because of their lack of options. Neuse has options left so, unless he fights the starting spot at second away from the other candidates, he will likely return to triple-A. Pinder was in the outfield rotation in 2019 and probably returns as the designated multi-tool, while Profar gets another shot to be the starter where he should be at least an average hitter and better than average second baseman. Pinder is a year older than Profar and probably is done growing whereas Profar still has a bit of star potential left so there’s that to consider along with the roughly $6 million in price difference between the two men.

There is another way this could go with the A’s deciding to trade Profar if someone is banking on Profar’s remaining star potential. He will play as a 27 year old in 2020 and is in his last year of arbitration eligibility after which he will be an unrestricted free agent. He has played all the infield positions plus left field and the metrics have at times looked favorably upon him at every position, so another team might decide that he should be their starting shortstop where a return to league average as a hitter would make him quite valuable. If the A’s traded him away to open up a roster spot for Mateo and Barreto, or Neuse steals the job away, then Oakland’s second base position would be an interesting and potentially tumultuous situation to watch at the start of the 2020 season.

Jon Gray Is What He Is (Which Is What Again)?

When you are the 3rd overall pick of any draft in any sport, expectations will be quite high for you. Jon Gray is a good pitcher, but one can’t help feel that he is somewhat of a disappointment for the Rockies and their fans. Gray was supposed to be the eventual ace the Rockies have been looking for since Coors Field opened and maybe the game that most represents his tenure with Colorado was his one playoff appearance where he got torched by the Diamondbacks to the tune of 7 hits and 4 earned runs, effectively ending the Rockies season by the time he was lifted after one and a third innings in the 2017 Wild Card game. Gray had gone 10-4 during the regular season and in his second “full” season was starting to prove the Rockies right for taking him with their first pick in 2013. Rockies fans felt pretty good about Gray starting the Wild Card game but that feeling faded to disappointment rather quickly. Gray started the game by giving up a pair of singles followed by a 3 run homer to the first 3 batters he faced in a game the Rockies lost 11-8, so while it wasn’t all his fault that Colorado’s players watched the rest of the playoffs from their couches, he was supposed to be the ace and he didn’t pitch like one when the chips were down.

Flash forward to the 2020 pre-season and the Rockies have seen 114 starts from the “Gray Ghost” who is now 28. 2019 was a nice looking year for Gray who crafted a 3.84 ERA, but in reality maintained almost exactly the same FIP he had posted (4.06 in 2019 to 4.08 in 2018) in 2018 when his ERA was 5.12. FIP is a version of ERA that removes fielding from the equation and looks at what a pitcher’s ERA would be if it were based only on things the pitcher can control like walks, home runs, strike outs and hit batters. A big discrepancy between FIP and ERA in either direction can indicate luck, or lack thereof, on the pitcher’s part. In 2018 Gray was probably unlucky and in 2019 he was perhaps a bit lucky. Part of the smaller discrepancy between ERA and FIP in 2019 was likely due to his much better left on base percentage, along with an increase in his ground ball rate. It is easier to prevent home runs when you make the batter pound the ball into the dirt – this isn’t Skee Ball after all. Gray saw his highest strand rate ever as 75.9% (average is in the 70-72% range) of the runners Gray saw were left on base as he trudged toward the dugout at the end of an inning. Gray was solid if unspectacular and that is the problem. The Rockies expected spectacular and he just hasn’t delivered on that yet. At 28 how long do you wait until you decide to drop the “yet” and just accept what he is? If you are the Rockies, it is possible that what he is now just isn’t enough, and this offseason there is talk of the Rockies, who are always looking for starting pitchers who can survive the rigors of Coors Field home games, shopping Gray around. Is this the beginning of a rebuild or are the Rockies folding on Gray? To frame this a bit more clearly, let’s look at what Gray is right now and what his numbers indicate for the future.

Gray seems to be healthy if you look at his velocity, which is higher than ever with an average fastball at 96.1 MPH last season. Okay, so he broke his foot and missed time again last year, but his arm seems to be fine. Gray brought the cheese slightly less often than his career rate – a bit above half the time – while mixing in his slider, curveball, and change at roughly the same rate as his career numbers would indicate. One interesting (in a bad way) number from 2019 was his hard hit rate which was 43.6 percent placing him in the 96th percentile (again, in the bad way) in the league for that dubious stat. Part of what kept his home run rate down was the average launch angle he allowed of 7.5 degrees. There’s that previously mentioned improved ground ball rate helping him survive.

What else do we know about Jon Gray? In each of the last three seasons he has had a lower ERA in home games than in road games. In 2019 it was a difference of .76 of a run. That is a puzzling split because Gray isn’t the most prolific inducer of the ground ball – on his staff even – which might have accounted for his success in Coors Field. Nor is he the guy with the highest strikeout rate on the Rockies. Home cooking? Whatever is causing him to produce a better ERA at home, he has repeated it for 3 years now. Gray also has some pretty pronounced platoon splits in the last two seasons including 2018 where he posted a 3.87 ERA against righties and a 6.36 ERA against lefties. 2019 wasn’t quite as dramatic – 3.01 against righties and 4.80 against lefties – but it seems that Gray doesn’t have a great approach when he faces a lefty heavy lineup like the Dodgers, or perhaps it is his pitch mix. He still gets K’s but he gives up more hits and walks a lot of lefties. Speaking of his pitch mix, let’s speak of his pitch mix!

Gray featured 5 pitches in 2019, but he so rarely threw the 2-seam fastball (1.2% vs. lefties and 1.3% versus righties) that it is hardly worth mentioning. Versus righties, Gray worked mostly with the 4-seam fastball (47.8%), the slider (38.2%), and the curve (10.5%). Against lefties his approach changed quite a bit throwing the 4-seamer 54.6% of the time, dropping the slider down to 11.7%, almost ditching the curve completely (3.6%) and replacing it with the change (28.9%). What is interesting to note with a pitcher like Gray, who throws his fastball with alacrity, is that the pitch wasn’t all that effective in sending hitters back to the dugout. Against both lefties and righties, hitters’ weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) against him is over .400 (.418 against lefties and .400 against righties). wOBA should be viewed on a similar scale as on-base percentage where anything over .400 is excellent for a hitter so lefties and righties both seem to feast on his fastball. Against lefties, by far his most effective pitches were the slider and change that he worked for wOBA’s of .210 and .228 respectively. Against righties, his two best pitches were the curveball and slider – .172 and .221 wOBA’s respectively. So what does that tell us? It is hard to know what would happen if he threw a lot more sliders and curveballs to righties and sliders and changeups to lefties using the fastball much less and more just to set up the other pitches. It seems like it would be worth a try and I would bet his patterns would change if he went to another team in a trade as the pitching coach tried to get the most out of Gray’s abilities.

So what is Jon Gray? He hasn’t shown himself to be a horse that you can give the ball to every 5th day and count on him working deep into the game – except last year it looked like he would finally get to 200 innings until he broke his foot. He was definitely on pace to best his career high in innings pitched for the second season in a row and he averaged about 6 innings a start. He still strikes out slightly more than a batter an inning and walks 3 per 9 innings, so that’s a quite solid 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. Jon Gray may not be an ace but unless someone is willing to dramatically overpay for him, it seems that trading him would cost the Rockies their best number 3 starter ever who is poised to throw 200 innings in 2020 which would be especially difficult to replace in Denver where no pitcher in his right mind would sign as a free agent. So Gray isn’t an ace – so what? How many pitchers develop into aces? Not many. How many pitchers can regularly succeed in Coors Field and give 150+ innings and 25+ starts a season which Gray has done each of the last two seasons averaging 28.5 starts? Again, not many. So the Rockies need to pretend they just received Gray in a trade and look at him for what he is instead of viewing him as a failed ace. He is a strong number 3 in a world where that is something not to be sneezed at. The Gray Ghost needs to ride again in Coors Field in 2020!

Freeland and Marquez – Alien Abduction or Just a Blip?

If you are a Rockies fan and you are looking for a target upon which to launch your blame arrows for a horrible season, the easy bullseye would be the top of the starting rotation. In 2018 it finally looked like Dinger’s Heroes had finally found two arms to build upon in Kyle Freeland and German Marquez. Freeland finished 4th in the Cy Young voting in 2018 – the highest finish by a Rockies pitcher since Ubaldo Jimenez finished 3rd in 2010 and the only other top 5 finish other than Marvin Freeman in 1994. Only one other pitcher in Rockies history has finished in the top 10, so yeah – it’s hard to pitch in Coors Field. Marquez broke out in 2018 as a 23 year old and it looked like he might even be the better of the two young arms at the top of the rotation for years to come. So 2019 began with high expectations for both young hurlers (Freeland is 26) who had seemingly leapt over Jon Gray as the most promising future ace for Colorado. So when Freeland’s ERA jumped nearly 4 points, the dreams of a postseason berth came crashing down upon the rocky landscape.  Marquez also saw his ERA increase by nearly a full point from 2018 so he couldn’t make up for Freeland’s seeming implosion. Was Freeland permanently broken and had Marquez pitched over his head in 2018?

Kyle Freeland is much loved in Denver in part because he is a local boy, but also because he pitched like an ace in 2018 and helped the Rockies make the playoffs for only the second time since 2010. Unlike Marquez and Gray, Freeland doesn’t throw particularly hard by today’s standards with a fastball that averages about 92 MPH. Where he has succeeded in the past, and most strikingly in 2018, was his ability to limit the home run, and use his five pitch mix to keep hitters off balance enough to limit their ability to barrel the ball. One thing Freeland, or his team, did extremely well in 2018 was turn the double play. Freeland led the NL in inducing double plays with 24. He fell to 37th in 2019 mostly due to the drop off in the number of starts he made in the majors – Freeland pitched just over half as many innings in 2019 as he did in 2018 and had exactly half as many double plays so that seems to be a tool for Freeland – inducing double plays. What’s interesting is that while Freeland gets a decent number of ground balls, he wasn’t even in the top three in his own rotation in ground balls to fly balls ratio in 2018 but finished 5th in the NL in ground ball outs. In part that is due to his lower strikeout rate. Freeland fanned 7.7 batters per nine in 2018, good for 4th on the Rockies rotation. Basically in 2018 Freeland threw a ton of pitches – 2nd most in the NL, had a lot of runners on base – 33rd in the NL in WHIP, and stranded a ton of baserunners leaving 82.8 percent of runners on base – that is a really high strand rate. League average was 72.8%. Is that strand rate a “feature” of Kyle Freeland as a pitcher or a function of something else like the Rockies team defense or just luck? If you look at Freeland in 2019 his strand rate was 62.1 % when league average was 73.1% – much worse, but why?

Digging a bit deeper, Freeland’s percentage of hard hit balls allowed was 32% in 2017 and 31.6% in 2018 – pretty consistent. In 2019 the rate jumped to 40.8% so he was getting crushed for some reason. His home run rate went from 0.98 per 9 in 2017 and .76 in 2018 to an astounding 2.16 per 9 in 2019. Throughout his career in the minors and the majors he had never had a season with a home run rate over 1.00 so clearly something was going on.

Sometimes when a pitcher implodes like Freeland did, you can find a drop in velocity or a dramatic change in pitching patterns or a Blass-like loss of the strike zone. But Freeland’s velocity went up a tiny bit on all of his pitches without losing any movement, according to Baseball Savant. In fact he got more horizontal movement on his change than he ever had. His four-seamer was a little flatter (less vertical change) than it had been in 2018 as was his change. Were these changes somehow responsible for Freeland’s dramatic drop in effectiveness? It’s possible, although one might wonder if the changes had more to do with something in his delivery that made it easier for hitters to differentiate pitches coming out of the pitcher’s hand.

The concept of tunneling has gotten a decent amount of press of late. Tunneling is the concept that pitchers who can effectively repeat their delivery will get more swings and misses when they pair two different pitches that are in the same “tunnel” at the point where the hitter has to decide whether to swing or not. If a fastball and curveball are in the same place at that point and the pitcher hasn’t done anything else to tip his pitch, then the batter is more likely to miss if he thinks he is seeing one pitch but actually gets the other. Conversely, one might expect to see an increase in swing rates inside the zone, an uptick in contact rates, and an increase in the percentage of hard hit balls if batters were seeing the ball better at the decision point in the swing. With Freeland in 2019, batters were swinging more often at pitches both in and out of the strike zone, missing on balls out of the zone more often but making contact more often on pitches in the zone. His swinging strike rate was actually up a bit, but his hard hit ball rate was way up as mentioned earlier. The BABIP against him went up a little bit but really it just got more in line with league average after Freeland’s “lucky” 2018 in BABIP terms – he went from .285 in 2018 to .308 in 2019. The increase in hard hit balls could easily account for the increased BABIP as balls that are crushed are harder to field. So hitters were getting to pitches in the strike zone and crushing them. Is that a sign that Freeland was less inscrutable with his pitches? There is definitely something going on. Pitchers who don’t throw blazing fastballs are probably less likely to get away with pitches over the heart of the plate, but in 2019 Freeland was especially easy to hit when he left one over. Batters missed about 3% less often when they swung at pitches in that zone in 2019 than they had in 2018 and they hit an astounding 43 points better. They also homered twice as often, so whatever Freeland was doing when he threw a pitch over the plate, hitters had a much easier time of it in 2019 than they’d had in the previous year.

After two seasons with a similar approach to pitching in terms of pitch frequency, does this indicate a possible change is in order? Based on pitch values, Freeland’s change isn’t very effective but until last year his four seam fastball was, and it is possible that the change set up the fastball to be more effective. If Freeland were to scrap the change would that make his fastball more hittable? That would depend in part on what he did with his other off-speed pitches and whether or not he can use them to set up his fastball. Just looking at numbers doesn’t make it clear why Freeland’s fastball was so hittable last season, and that is true for all of his pitches. Freeland wasn’t fooling anyone last season and without the ability to dominate, he has to confuse hitters. He appears healthy so it will be up to Freeland and his pitching coach to make sure Freeland isn’t giving any edge to hitters. That might mean changing his pitch mix, his pitch sequencing, his arm slot, or working on repeating his delivery – something to increase his deceptiveness. The Rockies are counting on a return to Freeland’s former effectiveness – maybe not his 2018 levels where he was an ace, but something like a 3 at least.

Even though German Marquez didn’t post numbers as dominating as in his 2018 coming out party, he was still the Rockies ace in 2019 crafting a 3.4 WAR season. The 24 year old with 93 starts in the majors has a career xFIP of 3.58 with all of his home games at Coors Field. He has finished 13th and 7th in K/BB in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and even though his K’s per 9 was down from 10.56 to 9.05, so was his walk rate (2.62 to 1.81) which is why his K/BB rate improved. Like most Rockies pitchers there is a huge home/away split. Last year his home/away ERA split was 6.26/3.67 – just ouch! So imagine him throwing his nasty five pitch mix in a pitcher’s park like Dodger Stadium and competing for a Cy Young every year. That’s how much potential Marquez has. The guy is still learning his craft and is likely to make adjustments after his home run rate and hard hit rate went up last year – and he isn’t 25 yet. His control has improved each of the last two seasons as has his ground ball rate. Limiting traffic on the base paths and keeping the ball on the ground to complement his punch outs should lead to long-term success in Coors Field as well as on the road.

Marquez is young, excellent, and improving, making his 2019 much less of a concern than what happened to Freeland. Marquez also throws quite hard and can tickle the underside of triple-digits which gives him a lot more room for error over Freeland. Freeland has a lot more to figure out than Marquez this off-season. There is still a path to success for Freeland although it is probably a bit of a mystery to him and his coaches since there wasn’t anything obviously visible in the numbers last season. Marquez is the ace and Jon Gray has passed Freeland as the number 2, but the Rockies aren’t going anywhere unless Freeland finds the magic again or someone in the system takes a huge leap forward in development. That last sentence is an ominous one because there isn’t any obvious help coming for Marquez, Gray, and Freelands. Pete Lambert worked out better as a hitter than as a pitcher in 2019, and Antonio Senzatela hasn’t put it together yet after 58 starts in the majors. Yency Almonte has flashed potential, but only out of the pen at the major league level. Jesus Tinoco looked good from time to time but his overall numbers were ugly. All this is to say that the Rockies need Freeland to be effective, and Marquez to make progress if they are going to do anything in 2020 because there isn’t a lot of obvious help coming anytime soon from the other young arms in their organization.

How The New A’s Might Look Like A’s Classic

Welcome to pre-season 2020 where the A’s (in the hearts of A’s fans) are the front runners to win the World Series for the first time since 1989! Yay! Go A’s! I doubt many baseball fans would actually pick the A’s to win it all in 2020 even after winning 194 games over the last two seasons, but the A’s are about to have something in 2020 that they haven’t started a season with in quite a while – a stable, quality starting rotation. Long-time fans of the A’s have been spoiled by some great starting rotations. The 5 dudes who started most of the games for the ’72 A’s all had ERAs under 3, including Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, and Blue Moon Odom. In ’73, Holtzman, Hunter, and Vida Blue all won at least 20 games. The A’s of the early 2000’s had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito winning double figure games to go with ERAs in the 2s and low 3s. If you go back even farther in franchise history the A’s have had some of the greatest pitchers in the game like Lefty Grove and Eddie Plank. That’s why the last few years have been so strange for fans of the green and gold who watched retreads like Edwin Jackson and Brett Anderson anchoring the rotation for A’s teams who actually won and competed for the pennant. Well, it is time to trade in that Craig Minetto jersey because here comes the new wave of A’s rotation studs!

The last few seasons have been sweet surprises for A’s faithful who, if they are being honest, didn’t see back to back 97 win campaigns coming. One of the main reasons that fans and analysts alike were bearish on the A’s win totals was the team’s lack of a strong rotation. If you have been paying attention, you knew that help was on the way, but you’ve had to sit on your hands waiting for some guys to get healthy and other guys to grow up and push their way through the minors. The A’s haven’t had real rotation quality or depth in several years, but in 2020 the A’s will have several decisions to make during spring training that won’t involve scouring the list of unsigned free agent starting pitchers. Let’s just take last year’s rotation – there are three guys set to become free agents, and while the A’s have certainly learned the truth of the aphorism, “There is no such thing as too much starting pitching”, the A’s are unlikely to feel pressed to bring back everyone just because they can eat innings.

Brett Anderson was released by the Cubs mid-season in 2017, then signed by the Blue Jays and granted free agency three months later. The A’s signed him less than two weeks before the start of the regular season in 2018 and again before the start of the 2019 season. It was definitely one of Anderson’s best seasons as he made 31 starts and posted an ERA of 3.89 (ERA+ of 111). This represents only the 3rd time in his career that the 31 year old lefty made as many as 30 starts, but his strikeouts per 9 have been dropping steadily and now sits at 4.6. It would be a surprise if the A’s were to bring him back on anything other than a minor league contract, and considering Anderson’s 31 start season he might not be available to be stashed like that considering the dearth of starting pitching out there these days.

Tanner Roark is another of the three A’s starters who will be free agents at season’s end  and while Roark also started 31 times this season including 21 times for the Reds pre-trade, he was extremely homer prone once he joined the A’s. At 33, Roark is an innings eater, but an expensive one if his last contract is any indication. Someone will pay him to come in and get 30 plus starts and deliver roughly league average numbers, but it probably won’t be the A’s after his less than thrilling audition. The third free agent to be is Homer Bailey. Bailey was another guy who the A’s counted on to deliver league average innings and make 31 starts. Bailey is interesting in that his control was quite good and it led to some really nice ratios – 8.3 K’s per 9 and only 1.8 walks per 9 in his time with the A’s. Bailey gives up his share of hits but isn’t overly home run prone. At 33 Homer might be starter out of the 3 that the A’s would be most likely to bring back because of his excellent control and ability to still get punch outs and keep the ball in the yard.

So who does that leave us? Where to start? There are two young but now established studs who will be in the rotation barring unforeseen complications. Frankie Montas (26) and Sean Manaea (27) have both looked like aces for the A’s, each striking out more than a batter an inning last year, although both have missed time in the last two years. Montas fashioned a 2.63 ERA last year but missed half the season because of a PED violation. Manaea missed most of the season after going down with a shoulder injury in 2018 but came back to close out 2019 with 5 starts and an ERA of 1.21. Manaea and Montas both looked like their beastly selves when they came back at the end of 2019 so that’s likely the top two spots in the A’s rotation right there. A veteran arm who is signed through next season is Mike Fiers. Fiers made 33 starts – yep, another 34 year old with 30+ starts – but Fiers is signed through 2020 and has been consistently mid-rotation reliable in his season and a half with the A’s. Fiers gives the A’s solid innings with good control and hasn’t made fewer than 29 starts since 2014. He is more than an inning eating security blanket, but while his 15-4 record makes him look like an ace, he is less than that. Fiers gives up a few too many home runs, but as long as he limits walks he will stay out of trouble. The fact that he only struck out 6.1 per 9 last season is less frightening because of the A’s excellent infield defense and his flyball tendencies in a home park that has lots of foul territory. Another veteran who will  be back with the A’s is probably unfamiliar to the casual baseball fan. Chris Bassitt is 30 and had struggled with injury and inconsistency his whole career until 2019. Last season marks the first time Bassitt made as many as 20 starts and while he faded a bit at the end (possibly for that very reason), his 25 starts were quite valuable as he struck out just shy of 9 batters per 9 innings while limiting the free pass to just under 3 per 9 innings. With an ERA of 3.81 and an ERA+ of 113, Bassitt picked up on his limited success of 2018 and took off running with it. Bassitt’s four pitch mix will likely be back on display for the A’s in 2020 somewhere near the back of the rotation – testimony to their newfound depth.

The new guys are finally here! If you watched the end of the A’s season you saw two big call-ups – Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk. Luzardo and Puk are the two arms the A’s and dedicated A’s fans have been waiting for. Both youngsters – Luzardo is 22 and Puk is 24 – are top of the rotation arms. Puk made a strong case for the A’s rotation during the 2018 spring training before blowing out his elbow and missing all of that season plus most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 6’7 lefty was used exclusively out of the pen where he flashed high 90’s heat during his 10 appearances with the A’s. He will almost certainly be a starter with innings limits in 2020. Luzardo also came out of the pen once he was called up for 6 appearances and absolutely dominated with his precision command, giving the A’s something to think about. He is a starter but his size – only 6’0 – and past arm issues might make the A’s at least consider using him as a dominating lefty multi-inning bullpen force. As a starter he is probably also a 1 or a 2 at his peak.

There are other arms on their way as some of their draft picks have developed while other injured hurlers have worked their way back from injuries. There are three arms that stand out as being close to the majors and all three of them have had serious issues with health. Their mid-season number 9 prospect, Dalton Jeffries has had cartoonish k/walk ratios (121 to 12 in his short career) as he worked his way up to double-A. At 24, Jeffries has had a hard time staying healthy and last year was the first time he has made as many as 5 starts (15) or pitched more than 12 innings (79) but if he is finally healthy, and can stay that way as his workload increases, then he will move quickly and probably see some games in Oakland in 2020.

James Kaprielian looks the part of the prototypical starting pitcher at 6’3, 210 lbs., but he has struggled mightily to stay on the field missing all of 2017 and 2018. At 25 he has pitched in a total of 27 games as a professional totaling just over 97 innings (with 111 strikeouts and 23 free passes, by the way). The A’s knew what they were up against when they traded for Kaprielian who was injured at the time. The truth is there is no way the A’s could have acquired him had he been healthy. Kaprielan was the Yankees #4 prospect at one time and a former first round pick. By the end of the season the right-hander had finally pitched in triple-A. This is going to sound a lot like Jeffries’ analysis, but a healthy Kaprielian could fight his way into the starting rotation even if that means spending half the season in Las Vegas polishing his pitches, hitting on soft 16, and proving that he is, in fact, finally healthy enough to climb back into the A’s top 10 prospect list.

When the A’s traded Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers they got back some interesting arms who have produced mixed results. One, Frankie Montas, you know about already. You might also know about Jharel Cotton who was in the big league rotation for a bit with his nasty curveball and tantalizing five-start audition in 2016. Or you might remember his ugly 24 start 2017 which was followed by Tommy John surgery. Cotton has been mostly forgotten as he just started pitching again, and not very effectively, in the minors in 2019. He has been passed by several A’s pitchers but he might provide more than rotation depth if he can get back to where he was in 2016. The other arm the A’s received from the Dodgers, Grant Holmes, was a top 5 prospect for the Dodgers after being chosen in the 1st round way back in 2014. It was starting to look like he would stall out at double-A before figuring something out last season and finally receiving a late-season promotion to triple-A. Holmes is only 23 so it’s not like he spent time teaching chemistry and throwing batting practice to the local JC when he was rediscovered. Holmes, like Cotton, and Jeffries is “undersized”, meaning he is shorter than 6’1 and there has been a prejudice against shorter pitchers in part because of the belief that to achieve effective velocity they have to throw with max effort all the time. Just for perspective, of the four horses pitching in this year’s World Series, Scherzer, Strasburg, Cole, and Verlander, Mad Max is the runt of the litter at 6’3. It seems like this is another example of the A’s taking advantage of a market inefficiency once again just as they did with on-base percentage. If Grant turns into a quality starter at the major league level, then the A’s come out on top of the trade even if Cotton never makes it back. It is likely that Holmes, Cotton, and Kaprielian will head up a fierce rotation at triple-A Vegas giving the A’s rotation depth they haven’t had in years.

And that’s not all! There are more starters out there – guys like Paul Blackburn, Daniel Megden, Tanner Anderson – who might see time in Oakland in 2020. That’s the thing about starting pitching. Guys break. Guys lose their command. Things change over time because pitching well in the majors is tough on your body and your brain. No team thinks that there is even a chance that the five guys they name out of spring training will be the five guys who make up the starting rotation at the end of the season. That said, here is what you should hope and expect the rotation will look like starting out the 2020 season. To start the season, the top three guys will be Manaea, Montas, and Fiers unless something changes dramatically in spring training. Those are the guys the A’s will depend on to take their turn every 5 days and deliver above average results. The order might differ somewhat from that and by the end of the season the 4th and 5th starters could break into the top three.

Chris Bassitt could be in the 4th spot as could A.J. Puk, and Jesus Luzardo. Interestingly, all 3 pitchers were good to great in the bullpen last season. Since the A’s will want to protect Luzardo and Puk as they quickly push past their previous highs in innings pitched, they have a few options. The most obvious option would be to stick one of them in the bullpen to limit their innings – Luzardo dominated there at the end of 2019. They could also go to a 6-man rotation to keep all their starter arms fresh and healthy, but that could become problematic if/when they get to the postseason and shorten their rotation, possibly halving the number of rest days for each of the chosen three or so starters. Another slightly weirder option -which they should actually do – would be to use Puk and Luzardo as tandem starters with each going somewhere between three and four innings in each shared start. It would limit their innings naturally, while still keeping the rotation intact and one of them could be quickly stretched out if someone fell out of the rotation. It would also be a built-in rest day for most of the bullpen if the tandem guys were expected to go 4 innings each. The starting pitching depth would support this because the A’s could use Megden and his ilk to fill in for a few turns as one of the tandem guys gets his pitch count up. This could also be an opportunity to let one of the young guys at triple-A get his feet wet in the bigs. While the temptation is there to just stick both Puk and Luzardo in the rotation and ride them to the postseason, Stephen Strasburg just showed what patience can do for a franchise who takes care of their young arms. When Strasburg first appeared in the majors and looked like the next coming of Nolan Ryan, the Nats took some heat for shutting him down to protect him when they had a chance to go deep into the postseason. Protecting him sure paid off this year, didn’t it? The A’s should see that as a lesson for how they should treat their plethora of young arms. They have assembled the depth to create a strong starting rotation while still benefiting from their talent in 2020 and beyond.

If you look at pitching trends the last few years you might think that durable starting pitchers were a thing of the past and that bullpens were where it was at. While there has certainly been a change in usage patterns of pitchers, you only need look at the 2019 World Series to see that teams with dominant, durable starting pitching have an advantage in the postseason. Two pairs of Cy Young candidates squared off against each other and we just watched one of the four go 8 and a third to get his club to a game 7. The A’s have hit on a formula to get them to the postseason and possibly win it all. They have employed average, durable innings eaters, who don’t walk many batters to get them to their tough bullpen arms. They’ve supported their pitching staff with excellent defense and run support. They did this not because they want an average starting staff but because they didn’t have a choice. Now they do. They finally have a choice, and they are going to start running electric arms out there and mixing them with durable innings eaters who don’t walk many batters. Mix that with their still excellent defense and their good pen and the A’s are going to start pushing on the Astros for control of the AL West.

The Rockies Need To Stop Pretending That Four Is Enough

Not to be a broken record, but the Rockies just can’t hit. I have written about this before and if anything it has gotten worse – hence the need to update it. I know they look like they can hit because they finished 9th in MLB in runs scored this year after finishing 7th in 2018. But that’s the fallacy of raw stats – if you don’t figure in the league and the park when you look at the stats, especially in places like Coors Field, then the numbers become misleading. Only the Giants and Marlins finished behind the Rockies in wRC+ – a stat that measures runs created by a player or a team after taking into account the league and the park in which they play (basically the actual run scoring environment). With a team wRC+ of 86, the Rockies were 14% below league average (which is adjusted to 100 every year) and 25% behind the Dodgers. If you look at both leagues together, the Rockies finished 26th out of 30 teams ahead of only the Royals, the Giants, the Marlins, and the Tigers – ack! If you need more proof that the Rockies are swinging wiffle ball bats up there, take a look at their individual numbers. Only four Rockies regulars had wRC+ numbers that were league average and if you attended even one Rockies game you can probably name them – Arenado, Story, Blackmon, and Dahl. Two other hitters broke 100 but neither had even 90 plate appearances (Sam Hilliard and Yonder Alonso). No other Rockies hitter reached 90 and only 3 players broke the 80 mark, including their last two free agent signings aimed at fixing the offense – Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy (Ryan McMahon was the third). Raimel Tapia was the only other Rockies hitter to reach 70 wRC+ with 73, aside from Chris Iannetta who was released after posting a wRC+ of 70 in 164 plate appearances. That’s a whole lot of offensive futility.

If you look at the Rockies offense, position by position (still using wRC+) it might give you a better reference point. The Rockies finished 28th out of 30 teams at first base, catcher, and second base, 18th out of 30 at center field, and 23rd out of 30 in left field. Right field, shortstop and 3rd base were the only three positions where the Rockies finished out of the bottom 3rd – 5th, 10th, and 6th respectively. Oof. If you still aren’t convinced that the Rockies are swinging banjos up there then go do some digging of your own. This is not a new problem for the Rockies and they are going to have a hellish time fixing it in one off-season because it is so widespread throughout their lineup. The Rockies have been unable to fix the easiest spots in the lineup as evidenced by their signings of Desmond and Murphy to fix left field and first base, so why would one believe that they could fix more difficult spots like catcher, second base, and centerfield? It is unlikely that the Rockies could or would fix all of those holes with free agent signings – especially the “would” part (based on their recent history). So that leaves us looking within the organization. Do the Rockies have players currently in their employ that might give them even league average production?

Let’s start with the outfield – center and left (assuming they keep Blackmon in right) – where they have a few potential answers to their current problem. The Rockies ran a slew of guys out there in 2019, including David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, Garrett Hampson, Yonathan Daza, Ian Desmond, and Sam Hilliard among them. Desmond was at least playable for the first half of the season with a batting average of .274 to go with 11 of his 20 homers. His second half was miserable, and I have written quite a bit about him. Let me sum up – Desmond seems like a great guy, but he now has three seasons with the Rockies and his total WAR is -1.7. If he was playing in pretty much any other park it would be obvious that he is killing the team, but Coors Field makes him look like he is at least average, and he is clearly not. The Rockies have to let him go. He is taking playing time from younger players who are better hitters and fielders and he is eating up a ton of outs. Sorry Dezzy, but time to move on.

David Dahl played well when he wasn’t on the IL, and he played all three outfield spots – 37 starts in left, 36 in center, and 19 in right. His defensive numbers (UZR/150) in center improved dramatically in reduced appearances from 2018 from around -17 to around positive 10, but his defensive numbers in left and right weren’t positive. So what kind of outfielder is he really? It isn’t clear, although Dahl is fast so the improved range number in center that drove his improved UZR might reflect real growth. The Rockies could just stick him there and hope he stays healthy, but covering center in Coors Field is extremely challenging as well as taxing on the body and Dahl is fragile as the day is long. It might make more sense just to stick Dahl in left and hope the reduced workload makes his seemingly inevitable stay on the IL shorter than usual. It is hard to find a starting center-fielder who can field the position and hit, but Dahl has made it very clear that health is not in his skill set, so the Rockies have to balance the desire to maximize Dahl’s abilities with the understanding that they will have to go to some lengths to keep his bat in the lineup. That said, Dahl isn’t a star so maybe the Rockies just play him until he breaks. I know that sounds harsh, but that is pretty much the calculus the Rockies are faced with.

Once upon a time, Raimel Tapia was one of the Rockies top position prospects who hit for a high average and showed excellent speed on the bases and in the outfield and possessed a good outfield arm. Tapia is only 25 (roughly the same age as Dahl) and has accumulated 686 plate appearances and a career 73 wRC+. With little power and an inability to draw walks (4.7% walk rate), Tapia makes too many outs to give him regular at bats. It is hard to give up on a top prospect but he is pretty much a known quantity now after playing almost everyday in 2019 and putting up a WAR of -0.9. He could still man a bench spot if you believe that the defensive metrics have been unfair to him, but he swings and misses far too often (22.4% K rate) for a hitter with little power, and has a career UZR/150 of -7.7. He still has electric speed and an excellent arm, but the rest of his game is lacking. Furthermore, Tapia is out of options so the Rockies can’t send him down without exposing him to a waiver claim. Assuming he still has some growth left, his top end is probably a .300 hitter with a .330 OBP with little power. That would be fine for a 4th outfielder or even a fringe starter if you believe in his defense, but that is wishcasting at a time when the Rockies have to make a decision about him as he is also arbitration eligible in 2020. Someone will take a chance on him, but it shouldn’t be the Rockies.

Sam Hilliard came up for the last month or so of the season and showed that he might be one answer. Hilliard has real power, and in his 25 game audition he hit 7 home runs to go with the 35 he hit in triple-A. He walked enough to get his on-base percentage to .356 which could indicate growth or could be small sample size noise. If it is real, then there is hope that Hilliard could be at least a league-average producer in left field or better than that if he could carry center field. It isn’t clear what kind of defender Hilliard will be. He made some rookie errors in his short time up but he is much faster than you would expect for such a big man (6’5 and 238) so there is some hope that he could cover the spacious pasture the Rockies call center field. It would be worth sticking him out there at least for half a season to see what they’ve got, allowing Dahl to spend a (hopefully!) healthy season in left.

Yonathan Daza, who is comparable in age to Tapia and Dahl, hasn’t had much of a chance to play, in part because the outfield was crowded, if not with necessarily superior players, at least with players making a truckload more money or who were out of options so had to be kept on the roster or waived – Desmond and Tapia. Daza raked at every stop in the minors, but he doesn’t have a lot of power (30 homers in 2624 plate appearances) and he isn’t a great base-stealer in spite of his excellent speed (96 steals in 157 attempts). He can play all three outfield spots and his increased walk rate at triple-A suggests a better path forward than Tapia. He didn’t hit in his first exposure to big league pitching and put the ball on the ground more than 50% of the time (like Tapia), but it was only 97 plate appearances. I would expect the Rockies to give him a legitimate shot to displace Tapia as the 4th or 5th outfielder during spring training.

Garrett Hampson bridges the gap in our discussion between the outfielders and infielders. Hampson was a hot mess for the first half of the season after a good spring training where he still lost out at second base to Ryan McMahon. His second half saw the diminutive speedster hitting for average, stealing bases and hitting with more power that resulted in a second half wRC+ of 96. Add to that his good defensive numbers in center field and he could be the starting center fielder/leadoff man the Rockies have been looking for since moving Blackmon to right. He might also be the super utility man – he plays second, shortstop, and the outfield – that Desmond hasn’t been. Hampson has hit everywhere he has played in the minors so the second half run could be the real Garrett Hampson. If it isn’t, the Rockies need to let him prove it if they aren’t going to open the check book to bring in a new hitter. Hampson put up good defensive numbers in center while he was still learning to play there so that bodes well for his ability to get even better. If he could also carry the leadoff spot then the Rockies have a gem. If the Rockies go with a starting outfield of Dahl, Hilliard, and Blackmon, then Hampson could be the fourth outfielder and spell Story and whomever the Rockies decide is the starting second baseman. He could bat leadoff and contribute in the field if the Rockies believe that Hampson of the second half was the real thing. Hampson also played center well enough that he would make a good safety net for a prolonged Hilliard tryout at the big league level.

The guy who beat out Garrett Hampson for the starting second base job during spring training of 2019, Ryan McMahon, is another former top prospect for the Rockies. McMahon is a little younger than Tapia – he will start next season as a 25 year old – but also has a lot of plate appearances under his belt – 765 in the majors. He definitely increased his value from 2018 to 2019, improving in almost every offensive category. His power went way up as he drove 24 balls out of the park. He also dropped his strikeout percentage by two points to a still too high 29.7%, increased his walk rate to an acceptable 10.4%, dragged his average up to .250, and his OBP to .329. All that equaled growth from 69 wRC+ in 2018 to 88 in 2019. Looking at his splits, McMahon was not a platoon guy with pretty even production numbers against lefties and righties. If there is a bit more offensive growth in him, McMahon could possibly justify a starting job next season. If the Rockies think this is what he is, then he could provide some value off the bench or as a trade chip if another team thinks there is more in the tank or they look at the 24 home runs and see a power hitter. McMahon’s defensive numbers have been good to excellent at the corner infield spots and not so good at second base.

McMahon was better than Daniel Murphy at first base both with the bat and the glove but Murphy signed a two year deal and is eating a decent piece of the payroll (and has “magic veteran dust” all over him) so it is unlikely that the Rockies would bench him to install McMahon at first base. Murphy will play 2020 as a 35 year old and is now two seasons removed from his 4.4 WAR 2017. 2019 was a disaster of -0.2 WAR proportions and even if that is the aberration, it is unlikely that Murphy has a 4.0 WAR season in him again after two seasons below 1.0 WAR. For obvious reasons there is no room for McMahon at third. Like with the Desmond situation, the Rockies shouldn’t start Murphy. Trade him if you think you can get anything for him, or make him an expensive bench bat – or release him for the love of Larry Walker! Put McMahon at first base and give him half a year to show whether or not he can be a regular there until another prospect is ready to displace him. The closest minor league option at first base is 24 year old Roberto Ramos. Ramos would likely produce more offensively right now than either Murphy or Desmond after hammering 30 home runs for the triple-A Isotopes in 2019, but didn’t get a call up. He slashed .309/.400/.580 playing first base for Albuquerque so it isn’t clear why they wouldn’t give him the first shot at the position in 2020, aside from the salaries the Rockies are due to pay Desmond and Murphy. Ramos has back to back seasons of 30 plus homers and draws a lot of walks so the power and plate discipline are real even if the average isn’t. Every stop in the Rockies farm system is a good hitting environment so hitting .309 at Albuquerque doesn’t guarantee that Ramos will hit for average in the majors. That said, Daniel Murphy was signed for $24 million through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021 and Ramos would likely match or surpass his production for league minimum.

There is one more infielder who should give Rockies’ fans a reason to get out of bed in the morning – Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers was and is their best prospect and will likely get first shot at taking over at second base. He was good enough that it was once thought that Trevor Story was just keeping the shortstop position warm until Rodgers was ready. Story isn’t going anywhere at the moment, so Rodgers is almost a lock to take over at second assuming his shoulder injury is a thing of the past. The former number 3 overall pick is a natural shortstop who started playing second when it was clear that Trevor Story was a budding superstar. The 23 year old’s minor league career slash line is .296/.352/.503 so there is power in his profile to go with an ability to hit. His walk totals are of some concern as he has only walked at a slightly higher rate than Raimal Tapia but with more power and lower strikeout rates.

The Rockies started the season with a pair of veteran catchers – Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters, but ended up jettisoning Ianetta on August 15th in part because he was 36 and having a pretty mediocre season, but also presumably to see what they had in Dom Nunez. Interestingly, Nunez fits a similar offensive profile to Ianetta in that both men are low average hitters with power who draw a fair number of walks. The logic of the decision is pretty clear. Why carry a 36 year old Chris Dom Ianetta Nunez when you can carry a 24 year old Chris Dom Ianetta Nunez? Nunez had his moments during his 16 game audition, including his first game where he homered and pegged a runner trying to steal second. Nunez is not a top prospect and couldn’t build much on that great first game – he slashed .179/.233/.410 with one more home run in 39 plate appearances and allowed 8 of 9 runners to steal. It is unclear if the Rockies will pair him with Tony Wolters or try to add a veteran to fill the other spot behind the dish. Wolters is fun to watch catch as he is agile and athletic behind the plate, but in this, his first season getting to 400 plate appearances, he managed only a 62 wRC+ and was a -0.5 WAR player in spite of his above average defense. Wolters is 27 and has a 2.1 WAR season in his past so it is likely that the Rockies will bring him back because of his tremendous defense and just live with his bat at a position where the offensive bar is considerably lower. Doubtless the Rockies are wishing they still had Tom Murphy who they waived in March. Murphy finally put it together for the Mariners in his age 27 season blasting 18 home runs and posting a wRC+ of 126 and having a great season as a defender to earn 3.2 WAR. That has to count as an Olympus-sized unforced error as the Rockies never gave Murphy more than 96 plate appearances in any of his 4 seasons where he was called up, even though he was one of their top prospects. So where does this leave the Rockies? It leaves them hurting for some help at a position where there just isn’t much depth anywhere in the league.

Rodgers’ presence puts some pressure on the Rockies to make some decisions about McMahon and Hampson which in turn means they will have to make decisions about Desmond, Murphy, Tapia, Dahl and Hilliard. If the Rockies decide to go young and try to develop a solid core to support their stars, they might go with an outfield of Dahl, Hilliard, and Blackmon and an infield of Arenado at 3rd, Story at short, Rodgers at second and McMahon at first allowing Hampson to get 400 plate appearances as the 4th outfielder and spare middle infielder. Cut bait on Desmond and make Murphy a bench bat or push him out the door also. See if there is a taker for Tapia, give him one more chance to become valuable, or let him go as painful as that might be. Without Tapia around, Daza becomes the 4th or 5th outfielder and probably racks up frequent flyer miles shuttling between Denver and Albuquerque while proving that he is a hitter or another aberration of playing in good hitting environments in the minors. Tony Wolters gets most of the starts at catcher with Don Nunez backing him up and hitting some bombs while hitting .220.

More bad news for Rockies fans – the Rockies farm system is in steep decline based on rankings from multiple analysts. Baseball America ranked them 26th at mid-season based on injuries to their best talent and as well as disappointing seasons from top 100 prospects like Colton Welker and graduate, starting pitcher Peter Lambert. Their top 10 isn’t exciting if you consider Rodgers a graduate, unless you believe Welker and Lambert are a lot better than their 2019 showings. There just isn’t much above high-A. The upshot of that is that the Rockies can’t afford to be timid in their positional decisions wasting the best seasons of their stars. They also can’t afford to give veterans 500 plate appearances who can’t even produce league average offensive numbers. It is time to take some bigger risks before players like Arenado, Blackmon, and Story get sick of losing.

Red Sox Offense – Early Season Blip or Signs of Rot?

It is early in the season so not all is at it seems – Cody Bellinger is probably not going to hit .440 – but the symbolic dividing line between hitters on the Sox with positive WAR and those with 0 or negative WAR is David Price, a starting pitcher. Even that line is a little blurry because two of the players listed above Price have negative Offensive WAR numbers but enough positive defensive WAR to push their overall WAR above 0. Of the seven players listed above Price, only five of them are full-time players. The other two are Michael Chavis, who is a rookie and a former first round pick who is raking in very part-time play, and Christian Vazquez, who is getting most of the catching starts in spite of his 75 wRC+ primarily because of his great defense (3.5 dWAR so far). This raises two questions – is this bifurcated offensive identity real and can the Red Sox win with this many holes in their lineup if it is real? Let’s try to answer the first question – how much of the Sox early season offensive profile is real?

The Red Sox outfield is made up of a superstar in Mookie Betts, a defensive star in Jackie Bradley Jr. (JBJ), and an up and coming star in Andrew Benintendi. Bradley, in spite of his tools and his incredible defensive skills, is a disappointment because he is not the superstar the Red Sox hoped he might become. He looks the part of a star and seemed to be on his way in 2016 when, as a 26 year old, he posted a 5.3 WAR season. As you will hear in this blog quite often, expectation is the killer of many a career and with JBJ, a change of scenery would probably do him some good. In another park he wouldn’t be seen as a disappointment for “merely” putting up defense driven 2+ WAR seasons with occasional streaks of great offense. What Red Sox fans are seeing right now is the worst of JBJ’s offense as he slashed .150/.233/.188 in his first 91 plate appearances. Is that real? No – Bradley is a much better hitter than that and will rebound given time and health.

Mookie Betts is cruising along having an excellent season in line with most of his pre-2018 career, but interestingly his BABIP is quite low for him (.284) which portends good times ahead for Mookie fans and the Red Sox. Even if his offensive numbers stay right where they are for the rest of the season, Mookie will still have contributed star-level offense, although it wouldn’t be his 2018 185 wRC+ effort. He is sitting right around 122 with his career wRC+ at 134. Yes, there is probably more coming from Mookie.

Andrew Benintendi is only 24 but already has contributed 7.4 WAR to the Sox in parts of four seasons and is widely thought to have untapped power potential. So far Benintendi has been remarkably consistent and is within six points of all three career slash line stats. Two possible areas of concern for the Sox would be Benintendi’s spiked strikeout rate which sits at 23.9% up from his career rate of 17.4%, and a BABIP rate of .358 which might indicate a bit of a slide coming as his good luck catches up with him. On a happy note, his hard hit rate is up which might account for his high BABIP (line drives are harder to catch) and might be a sign that more balls will leave the yard off his bat this year.  Basically, Benintendi is young and quite good but his numbers are in line with what he has been in the past, so while there is plenty of room for growth, don’t bet the farm on it happening right now. To summarize the situation in the outfield, Betts and Bradley are not doing what they did last year and will almost certainly improve upon their start (especially JBJ). Benintendi is right in line with what he did last season and with his career numbers; he is young and his power could break out any time. He is not the reason the Sox are slow out of the gate but if his power breaks out, he could put them on his back and drag them back into contention.

J.D. Martinez is a designated hitter who moonlights as a fourth outfielder. By “moonlight” I mean he only does it part of the time and he isn’t really good at it, but the kids need braces so… Martinez is such a great hitter that a team could almost justify playing him at shortstop just to get his bat in the lineup! UZR/150 and DRS are in agreement that he is a poor outfielder, but last season he put together a 170 wRC+ year after a 167 wRC+ year in 2017. That is elite hitting and it makes him worth a lot of money. Martinez hits for a high average (.294 for his career, but .303 in 2017 and .330 last season), hits for power (88 home runs in his last two campaigns), and gets on base (.402 OBP in his 5.9 WAR 2018 season). Martinez is off to another excellent start with a bit less power so far. At 31, he will start to decline at some point, but this year his offensive output should be close to what it has been the last two years. So maybe a little more power coming soon, but other than that he is probably already doing what is expected.

The Red Sox infield has some stars too, although it isn’t quite as locked down as the outfield. The most interesting of the lot is Rafael Devers, the 22 year old 3rd baseman who already has over 800 plate appearances in the majors. What makes Devers so interesting you ask? Well, his power for one thing – scouts project him at 70 raw power and he is already getting to some of that in games (21 home runs last season in 121 games). The rest of Devers’ game is a work in progress from his defense, which hasn’t been good so far, to his control of the strike zone, which seems to be improving this season (strikeout rate down and walk rate up), to his batted ball profile which, uh, well it is radically different so far this season with a ground ball rate of almost 56% (career rate of 48.3%) and a fly ball rate of 20.3% (career rate of 35.2%).  Devers is also without a home run to start the year even though his hard hit ball rate is around his career rate and his soft hit ball rate is significantly down – no matter how hard you beat it into the ground, it ain’t leavin’ the yard! We are talking about only 114 plate appearances so far, so it will be really interesting to see if this is the new normal for Devers. Is this the result of a changed swing path, a different approach at the plate, the pitchers working him differently, or just the result of small sample size hijinks? Time will tell.

While Devers might be the most interesting guy on the dirt part of the field, Xander Bogarts is the best all around infielder on the Red Sox. Bogarts is a 4.5 WAR shortstop with power (23 home runs in his breakout 2018 campaign), a career .284 hitter, and a solid defender depending on which metric you use to measure him (0.1 UZR/150 for his career but 9.3 so far this season). If you are looking for a knock on him, he doesn’t run as much as he used to with only 8 steals last season and none so far in 2019, but you are still looking at one of the best all around shortstops in baseball and he is only 26. The Red Sox just locked  him up with a big, new contract. The start of his season looks a lot like his 2018 season so looking for Boston to improve their offense based on some kind of improvement from Xander is probably misguided. With his hit tool and newly developed power, he is an offensive force, but he is already showing that this season.

2nd base has been the home of Dustin Pedroia for quite some time, and the 35 year old might be nearing the end of his string due to a knee injury that has necessitated multiple surgeries. It is hard to count out a player like Pedroia who would probably play on crutches if they let him, but it isn’t looking good for Petey. He is currently out with more knee problems and is unlikely to return until mid-May at the earliest. Pedroia has only 34 plate appearances since the end of the 2017 season which makes it impossible to know if he will hit even if he does come off the IL. In the meantime, Eduardo Nunez took over at second until he too ended up on the IL. Nunez is close to completing his rehab stint although he has had a rough start to 2019 after a mediocre 2018 (78 wRC+). Nunez is 31 and versatile, but doesn’t steal a lot of bases anymore and doesn’t walk enough to be much of an asset with the bat (.289 OBP in 2018) considering his middling power. If he bounces back to look something like he did in 2017 then his versatility has some appeal in limited stints even if his glove is weak. If he looks like his 2018 self then there are other options who will make fewer outs and play better defense. He is not as bad as his early 2019 numbers say he is, but how much rope will the Red Sox allow him when they have options?

One of those options, Brock Holt, is also injured. After dealing with a scratched cornea, Holt is now out with a sore shoulder. Holt has been awful so far but we are only talking about 19 plate appearances. He is coming off his most productive year with the bat in 2018 when he put up 109 wRC+. Holt is also versatile and if he can get past his injuries, he should post better numbers than Nunez with the bat and with the glove. If Holt can’t make it back, then the most interesting option still standing is rookie infielder, Michael Chavis. Chavis has power and since 2017, has learned to take a walk. He is not a natural second baseman, having played about 11 games at second base – and that includes 6 games this season in the majors. Chavis has primarily been a 3rd baseman, but should be able to hold down the position enough to support his bat if he continues to hit the way he has. You shouldn’t expect him to slug over .600 like he has so far in his first 28 plate appearances, but if he could slug .400 and get on base 33% of the time or so (.436 so far), then he is most likely the best solution at the moment. Chavis might provide enough of an injection of offense to boost the Sox production from a position that has so far been a black hole. Second base has been a disaster until recently so this is another position where it looks like things could improve quite a bit.

Mitch Moreland gets the heavy side of the first base platoon that he shares with Steve Pearce so let’s talk about Moreland first. Moreland hits for good power with three seasons in a row of more than 20 home runs (until last season when he only managed 15), doesn’t hit for much average – a career .251 hitter so far – finally got to a 10% walk rate which bumped his OBP to .325, 8 points over his career rate, and plays solid defense. It is a bit odd to see a team like the Red Sox using a platoon at first base because one would expect them to flex their financial muscle to pay for a beast to cover first base full time. It is a reminder that the salary cap forces every team to make decisions based on salary at some point. Moreland is a decent player but just a notch above replacement level. The same can’t be said of last year’s World Series MVP, Steve Pearce, who gets the short end of the first base platoon and yet still produced nearly 1.6 WAR last season in only 251 plate appearances. The reason Pearce is so valuable in such a modest amount of playing time is his ability to get on base and hit for power against lefties, while also playing good defense at first base. His offensive profile differs from Moreland in that he makes fewer outs because of his batting average that has exceeded .280 in two of the last three seasons and his walk rate, which has topped the 10% mark in two of the last three seasons. As a pair (Steith Pearland?) they make a 2.5 – 3 WAR first baseman who hits 30 or so home runs, hits .260 or so, gets on base about 33% of the time, and plays good defense. It’s a nice job share but both guys are aging and off to slow starts, although Moreland has hit 8 dingers in spite of his .213 average and .290 OBP. Pearce is 36 and Moreland is 33 and both men are on expiring contracts. Next year the Red Sox might shift direction and abandon the platoon, but what about this year? If both men have truly hit the steep part of the decline phase of their careers at the same time, then the Red Sox are in some trouble although it is unlikely that both guys are just done. Moreland is hitting the ball harder than ever and suffering through a .177 BABIP start to his season, while Pearce has such a small sample size that it is hard to make any judgements. Pearce is dealing with a sub-.200 BABIP to date so it would seem that both men should see at least some bounce back toward the mean as the season progresses, which can only positively impact the Red Sox offense. So first base is likely to see an upward trend in production, either through an improvement by the incumbents or through a mid-season acquisition if the Red Sox decide there platoon has expired.

Catcher is not likely to be the position that rescues the Red Sox season at the plate as Christian Vazquez doesn’t get paid to hit, which is good because he mostly doesn’t. Vazquez and Sandy Leon make up the catching tandem now that Blake Swihart has been kicked off the island. Neither Sox catcher can hit a lick. That may sound harsh, and you could argue that they each have the potential to hit based on a half season here or a 200 appearance stretch there, but really, other than the occasional long ball, both men are giant out eaters. Vazquez is getting the lion’s share of playing time and has a career wRC+ of 67 and is currently sitting at 74. His career slash line of .244/.295/.342 is not inspiring but when compared to Leon’s slash line of .225/.288./.337 and wRC+ of 65 so you can see why Vazquez gets the nod more often. To be fair, both men are fantastic defensive catchers and last year the Red Sox offense could easily carry them and their anemic sticks. This year, well, they are still great defenders and there isn’t really anyone the Sox can go out and grab, so they are just going to have enjoy the great pitch framing and game calling and get their offense elsewhere because unless one of them catches fire, Boston needs to look away when they step into the box with a stick in their hands.

The Red Sox are currently sandwiched between the Royals and Orioles at 20th in baseball for wRC+ whereas last season they finished 4th. They are not going to sit at 20th for the rest of the season but they also aren’t going to finish in the top five. Last year almost everything came together including breakouts by Mookie and Bogarts, great performances from Benintendi and Martinez, a career year from Brock Holt, and solid performances from players like Devers, Bradley, and their first base platoon. 2019 has not gone so smoothly and frankly outside of their two young stars and Devers, the position players are aging – everyone who was counted on to start is on the wrong side of 30 except JBJ and Vazquez who are there for their gloves, not their bats. Bogarts and JD Martinez are the only two full-time players who are hitting at the same level as their 2018 season. That is not a formula for offensive growth and decline is inevitable. The Red Sox won’t be this bad the rest of the year and will finish in the top half in wRC+ due in large part to some bounce back from the first base duo and JBJ, an improvement at second base via improved health, or possibly contributions from Chavis. But that isn’t enough to carry them to 108 wins again, and unless their pitching can pick up the slack – their pitching without last year’s closer, Craig Kimbrel, or setup man, Joe Kelly, – they might not be able to climb over the Yankees or the surprising Rays. That would be quite a fall from a World Series victory, but with about 80% of the season left it is too early to get rid of your Charlie Card for the subway ride to Fenway.