Move Over Mookie (to LA) – Alex Verdugo is Here To Stay!

Mookie, don’t go! I am sure the screams can be heard halfway to Cape Cod as Mookie Betts packs his locker and walks away from Fenway for – well, at least one season. He will be a free agent at the end of his 2020 season and could go right back to Boston if that’s what he and the Red Sox want. But for now, Mookie is a Dodger and Los Angeles is abuzz! Although I am not in Boston, it would not shock me if their local sports radio is all gloom and doom over this trade.  He was a favorite son and by all accounts a good guy, famously feeding some downtown Boston homeless folk after a game 2 win in the World Series. No matter what the Sox got back in a Betts deal, fans were going to be unhappy because Betts would no longer be on the team. And while the trade was a bit crazy with its on again off again theatre, the final product is more interesting than the original iteration of the deal. Let’s examine the trade from the Red Sox perspective and look at their now Mookie-less outfield.

The original trade had the Red Sox sending Mookie Betts and David Price with some money to offset some of Price’s contract to the Dodgers and receive Brusdar Graterol (from the Twins) and Alex Verdugo. While Verdugo is still moving to Boston, Graterol’s medicals held up the Boston/Minnesota part of the deal, so now Graterol is heading to the Dodgers and the Red Sox are getting two Dodger prospects instead – Connor Wong and Jeter Downs. As exciting as Graterol was – a pitcher who can throw over 100 MPH – it seems as though most scouts were in agreement that he was going to be a reliever instead of a starter, which diminishes his value. Graterol has had both elbow and shoulder issues and hasn’t thrown many innings as the Twins tried to keep him on the field by babying his arm. Of the two new prospects coming to Boston in the deal, Jeter is definitely the more exciting youngster in spite of the reactions Sox fans might have to his first name – maybe they will think of it as finally having their own Jeter.

Connor Wong can catch and play multiple positions – which is an unusual defensive profile – and he has some power. With a career minor league slash line of .275/.342/.510 and 48 home runs in 904 at bats, he has some offensive tools and at 23 made it to double-A last year. If he can stay at catcher and the Red Sox can improve his hitting approach (his hit tool is projected as a 35 on an 80 scale), then he is going to be a valuable piece of the deal. Otherwise he could become a nice bench piece with some pop and excellent positional flexibility.

Jeter Downs – how ironic that he is now a Boston shortstop – was the Dodgers #6 prospect according to BA (Baseball America) and that’s saying a lot when you look at how deep LA’s system is. Downs is a bat-first guy as a shortstop who scouts believe will eventually end up at second base, but his bat appears good enough to be valuable even if he moves off of short. Downs, the 32nd overall pick of the 2017 draft, is 21 and reached double-A last season. The former Reds and Dodgers top prospect has some power – 43 homers in 1087 minor league at bats, and some speed – 69 bags swiped in 92 attempts, and he seems to be a “greater than the sum of his parts” type player. None of his tools scout above 50, but he has a little bit of everything going on including a walk rate consistently above 10%. His isolated power went up substantially last season and he has posted wRC+ numbers well over 100 at each stop since 2018. If he sticks at short then he should be an above average offensive shortstop. If he gets pushed to second he should still be a decent starter in the majors if he continues his current progression. Everyone, even the Red Sox, needs their own Jeter.

On to the outfield which obviously no longer includes Mookie Betts. Alex Verdugo, who came over in the trade, was ranked the 35th best prospect in baseball before the 2019 season where he established himself as a starter for the Dodgers. Verdugo might take some time to grow on Sox fans because he isn’t a classic masher in right, although he isn’t without power – 12 homers in 377 PAs last year for LA. His hit tool and arm are his best rated tools both projecting as 60s and he is already manifesting both in the majors. He slashed .294/.342/.475 in LA – an excellent pitcher’s park for a wRC+ of 114 in his first lengthy taste of big league pitching. A strained oblique ended his season prematurely which may have benefitted the Red Sox in this deal as it probably held his cost down. The lefty will start the year as a 23 year old and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2025 – that’s a lot of team control for the Dodgers to give up for a year of Betts, unless they feel confident that they can sign their new star to a contract at the end of the season. Verdugo looks like he could be a star and the Dodgers might live to regret this move.

In the other corner outfield spot, the Red Sox just signed Andrew Benintendi to a two year deal for $10 million buying out two years of arbitration. The Sox starting left fielder had a disappointing season in 2019 where he slashed .266/.343/.431 with only 13 bombs, but it looks like a lot of small injuries may have combined to hurt his swing and derail his season even though he still managed to play in 138 games. The former #7 overall pick has been durable in the past and is only 25 so hopefully 2019 was an aberration and we will see the Benintendi who played 151 and 148 games respectively in 2017 and 2018. The big question about Benintendi is whether or not this is all there is. You just don’t see a lot of 70 tools (his hitting tool is projected at 70) or 65 overall value projections, so the expectation is superstar and he just isn’t there yet. 2018 looked like he was going in the right direction with a .290/.366/.465 slash line good for a 122 wRC+ and a WAR of 4.4. That season is now bookended by seasons of 102 and 100 wRC+ and twin 2.0 WAR seasons which is far less than what one would expect from a 65 future value left fielder like Benintendi. Not to make Boston fans even more frightened, but two numbers that are concerning are the slight decrease in his walk rate in 2019 when it dipped below 10%, and his increased K rate which ballooned to 22.8% after two seasons of 17% and 16%. Both of those numbers need to trend back in the other direction pronto or Benintendi isn’t going to get close to his projections. It would be nice to say that young Andrew got unlucky but his BABIP of .333 was 10 points above his career average so that’s not a valid take. If you want to dream a bit, he did increase his hard hit rate quite a bit to 38.1% which is higher than his career rate of 33.2% so maybe that portends a barrage of home runs next season in a huge bounce back season for the diminutive lefty. Red Sox fans have everything crossed on this one!

Which leaves center field to JBJ – Jackie Bradley Jr. – who (sorry Boston faithful) just can’t hit like you thought he would after that incredible 2016 season where he generated 5.3 WAR . Bradley is 29 and has three seasons in a row with wRC+ numbers of 89, 90, and 90 so, in spite of his 21 homers last year, he has to play well above average defense to justify a starting spot – and lucky for you Red Sox fans, he has! JBJ won a Gold Glove in 2018 and up until last season was well-loved by the defensive metrics. 2019 might have been an aberration or it could be that at almost 30 years old, Bradley Jr.’s glove work is dropping off a bit. SInce that 5.3 WAR season he has posted WAR numbers of 2.2, 2.8, and last season’s 1.4. I would throw my money behind another excellent defensive season from the centerfield fixture for the Red Sox even if that just gets him back to 2.0 WAR. The bat though – that probably isn’t going anywhere until it inevitably declines with age and JBJ’s glove can no longer make up for all the outs he makes. Right now he is a low average, high strikeout bat with some pop – he slashed .225/.317/.421 in 2019 which is right in line with his career numbers. His hard hit rates and BABIP were also in line with his career numbers so there isn’t much to hope on there. Appreciate the glove and good base running, and live with the bat until you find the second coming of Tris Speaker (the franchise’s best center fielder).

Beyond the starters, there’s not a lot to be excited about on the bench or at triple-A, but there are two top 10 Red Sox prospects lower down who look like they will stick in center. Jarren Duran might be the heir apparent to JBJ but after dominating two levels in his 2018 debut and then high-A at the start of 2019, he hit a bit of a wall in double-A. Duran is wicked fast and has a 55 hit tool projection. If he can get through double-A this season, then he might get a chance to dethrone Bradley Jr. in 2021. Way far down on the farm is another speedster named Gilberto Jimenez, the Red Sox #8 prospect according to BA. Jimenez is only 18 and will probably start 2020 at low-A so it isn’t likely that he will be eating lobster rolls anytime soon, but the Dominican center fielder hit everything in his 2018 stateside debut as well as his 2019 short-season campaign. Jimenez is raw but has slashed .338/.388/.470 in 491 professional at bats so he is worth watching to see if raw translates into stud as he moves to full season ball.

Dodgers fans are psyched to have Mookie Betts in their outfield and for good reason, but the Betts deal is a good one for Boston. They saved a ton of money and received an outfielder who has already shown he can play in the majors and could turn into a star on the cheap for years to come. If Verdugo wins a Gold Glove and a batting title during his tenure in Boston, which isn’t that far fetched, and Betts leaves LA after a non-World Series season, then the Sox win this trade. In addition, they get to reset the salary cap penalty clock which means they can start spending money again in 2021 which could mean an extension to their competitive window. And if Downs or Wong become starters in the majors, this trade could go down as a genius move by new Sox GM, Chaim Bloom. In the meantime, the outfield will be good to excellent depending on how Benintendi bounces back and how Verdugo adjusts to the American League game and life on the East Coast. JBJ will be JBJ and you need to love what he is and get past what he isn’t. Now your pitching on the other hand…

An Outfield Made of “Ifs” In Pittsburgh   

There is nothing anyone can say to make a fan feel better when their team trades away good players to begin a rebuild – even a soft rebuild. The Pirates just traded one of their best players – Starling Marte – for prospects, without a really great plan to replace him and that is after finishing last in the NL Central and losing 93 games last season. If they were tearing it down to the studs and enacting a hard rebuild, then it might be easier to understand because it is understood that everything must go in a full rebuild. But the way the Pirates are acting feels like they have been directionless and are now starting to rebuild by a thousand paper cuts with this move being a fairly large slash to the hamstring. The Pirates still have some dudes to run out there and provide some excitement but they definitely just got worse for 2020 and since the two prospects the Pirates got back – Brennan Malone and Liover Peguero – are both 19 and haven’t played at a level higher than short season A-ball, it will be at least two seasons before they benefit from giving up Marte. In the meantime, here comes the 2020 season and someone has to take Marte’s spot in the outfield, so let’s take a look at what Pirate fans have to look forward to, aside from a fun ballpark and a great city.

One guy to be excited about last season was Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds was a second round pick in 2016 and a good prospect, but not many people thought he would produce 131 wRC+ in his Major League debut. Reynolds slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers and played poor or decent defense in all three outfield spots depending on what metric you like best, although the metrics agreed that Reynolds played well in right. One number to watch is his BABIP which was very high (.387) in 2019. Normally that would portend a pretty big crash, but if you look at his career BABIP numbers he has never been below .362 at any stop so that should make Pirates fans breath a little easier – you know – if they care about BABIP and worry about Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds is probably a 3.0 WAR player again (3.2 last year) and a two or three hole hitter who will likely start in center and will be a success and even a minor star if he can come close to his 2019 numbers – definitely a keeper.

The Pirates want their 2.0 WAR Gregory Polanco back! There has always seemed to be more to Polanco – some superstar potential that he hadn’t quite reached yet. But at 28 and with the equivalent of about four seasons worth of plate appearances under his belt, Polanco has a career wRC+ of 99 and a slash line of .252/.320/.422. Last year was mostly lost due to a shoulder injury, but Polanco didn’t hit much when he was in the lineup and finished with 87 wRC+ and a slash line of .242/.301/.425. The Pirates would probably be happy with a hot start that would allow them to trade him for more young pieces (if, as it appears, they are intent on rebuilding) or his fourth healthy season of slightly more than 2.0 WAR – 2.2, 2.2, and 2.5 in 2015, 2016, and 2018 respectively. Assuming he is healthy, Polanco will be the starter in right and hit somewhere between the three and the five hole with ‘sigh’ some potential for a big season.

If Reynolds is in center and Polanco is healthy, then Jason Martin is probably playing left. Martin was hitting his way through the Astros system and continued after his trade to the Pirates in 2018 until he reached triple-A. After two attempts at triple-A where his power went away and his OBP cratered, and after Martin had produced a wRC+ of 65 and 83, the Pirates promoted him for 20 games. Martin didn’t do much once he got to Pittsburgh, but maybe the coaches saw something that wasn’t apparent in the numbers. Whatever the case, Martin is probably taking a spot because the other outfielders on the roster are older and have yet to put together even 1.0 career WAR in multiple attempts in the Majors. Martin has a season where he hammered 23 homers at high-A in 400 at-bats so there is some raw power there. There isn’t one standout tool and Martin probably isn’t a future star. But if he could hit enough to be a regular, it would take a lot of pressure off the Pirates who didn’t trade from positional depth when they moved Marte.

The bench is not pretty and I’m not talking about the sunflower seeds on the ground. 27 year old Jose Osuna, 29 year old Guillermo Heredia, and 28 year old Erik Gonzales have generated around -0.1 WAR as a group in 2137 collective career major league plate appearances. Heredia doesn’t hit the ball hard, steal bases effectively, or get on base much. His defensive numbers have been good in the corners and less so in center, but he has played all three spots. That is the profile of a fifth outfielder or a guy who gets stuck in the minors looking for a spot to open up because of an injury.

Jose Osuna is a big man and has some power. He is a corner guy both in the outfield and infield, but his defensive numbers in the outfield haven’t been good and his only favorable defensive numbers have come at third base in a very small sample size. He would probably be a first baseman if not for Josh Bell and his own propensity for making outs. In 623 career plate appearances Osuna has slashed .246/.285/.435 with a 4.8% walk rate and a 17.7% K rate. If he could handle 3rd base with the glove, then last season’s 97 wRC+ might be enough for him to get time to see what’s there. If he has to make it as a corner outfielder with a questionable glove, then the bar is substantially higher.

The most versatile of the Buc’s bench bunch, Erik Gonzalez, has played every position on the field during his professional career except pitcher and catcher, but hasn’t played anywhere long enough for his numbers to prove anything. His scouting numbers make him look like a guy who should be able to play all over the place because his arm and his speed are his best tools. But even a utility guy needs to hit a little to stick these days and Gonzalez hasn’t. In 431 big league plate appearances he has slashed .260/.295/.364 for a wRC+ of 71. For a guy with little to no power, his 4.2% walk rate and 26.9% K rate are disastrous. If you swing and miss that much, you’d better hit the ball really hard when you connect, but Gonzalez has only 6 home runs in the Majors and only one season when he hit as many as 12 home runs in the minors. A fast guy who can play everywhere and throw has his uses but, at 28, it is unlikely that Gonzalez has another gear that we haven’t seen. Yes, it is as ugly as it appears on the Pirates bench.

But wait, there must be a guy or two at triple-A who jumped up and down when the Bucs traded away Marte – right? The short answer to that is yes and no. There’s one guy who is more of a first baseman and another guy who will get his first taste of triple-A this year. The first baseman is Will Craig, who has spent all of 13 professional games in the outfield (all in 2019) but who has a lot of power. Craig has driven 43 balls over the fence in his last two seasons spent at double-A and triple-A, but his hit tool has suffered at the higher levels at the same time as his walk rate has declined and his K rate has inched up. As a first round pick in 2016, he is likely to get some chances in spite of the fact that he is already 25 and he didn’t get a late season call up last September. I’m not sure what the Pirates thought of his audition in the outfield, but he isn’t taking Josh Bell’s first base job so it might be corner outfield or bust unless Bell is the next guy on the bus out of town.

The outfielder who just reached triple-A is 24 year old Jared Oliva. Oliva’s FanGraphs scouting report rates him as having 55 raw power (https://www.fangraphs.com/players/jared-oliva/sa915844/stats?position=OF) but he hasn’t gotten to it much in games. Oliva’s game has been all about speed with 84 steals in 106 attempts. Scouting reports aren’t fond of his defense but the Pirates have stuck with him in center and if he can stay there, then his bat profiles well enough to hold down the job. If he gets pushed to a corner, then he looks fringy as his career slash line of .274/.348/.403 with 15 homers in 1065 at bats – all at double-A and below – doesn’t translate well to a corner spot. If some of his doubles and triples (58 and 17 respectively for his career) can turn into homers he will have a better chance at winning a job in Pittsburgh – probably in 2021 or the second half of 2020.

I’m afraid Pirates fans are going to have to suck it up at the start of the season and hope that they get lucky. For Pittsburgh’s outfield to work three things have to happen. Bryan Reynolds has to be the same guy he was last year holding down a starting spot and playing everyday. If his debut season was a BABIP inflated fantasy that springs a leak, the Bucs are in big trouble. Gregor Polanco has to be healthy and get back to his 2.0 to 2.5 WAR ways or – gasp – have that breakout everyone has been waiting for since his debut in 2014. If he hits like he did in 2019 – ouch. Finally, someone has to step up and take the starting left field spot – probably Jason Martin, but it could be Jose Osuna if he has a big power spring and gets on base more than 30% of the time. If neither man takes hold of the job convincingly, then watch Jared Oliva in the minors and see if he pushes up from triple-A. I doubt Will Craig will get a shot at left, but if he has a hot spring then his power might convince the Pirates that it is worth having him learn the position in the majors because that always works out so well (looking at you Rhys Hoskins). That’s a lot of ifs, I know, but welcome to Pittsburgh where “If ifs and ands were pots and pans we’d all be tinker’s sons” – look it up.

Braves Big Signing Puts Their Outfield In The Spotlight

When one door closes another one opens or so Braves fans will now believe after they saw Josh Donaldson sign with The Twins this offseason, only to have the Braves wrest Marcel Ozuna away from the Cardinals. Donaldson was the Braves big free agent signing before the 2019 season and he stepped in front of Johan Camargo to take the third base job after Camargo broke out in 2018. Now Camargo has a shot at his old job if he can stave off a charge by another youngster, Austin Riley; the Braves have some nice options to fill the spot vacated by Donaldson. Meanwhile, Atlanta now has a new outfielder to work into the lineup. They also have a glut of outfielders so this will take some sorting. Let’s do just that!

It might seem that Ronald Acuña Jr. has it all figured out at age 22 – and maybe he does – but there might still be room for growth there. A 5.6 WAR season as a 21 year old clearly establishes Acuña Jr. as a budding superstar, but comparing his minor league numbers to his big league numbers shows that he might still improve his command of the strike zone. Acuña Jr. slashed .280/.365/.518 last season and each of those numbers was down a bit from his debut – still he hit 41 bombs, scored 127 runs, and drove in 101 for a wRC+ of 126. That is a hell of a season, and he accomplished that while fanning 26.3% of the time and walking 10.6% of the time, numbers that he bested at several minor league stops. Yeah, I know – he probably won’t hit the same way in the bigs that he did in the minors, but remember that he just turned 22. Acuña Jr. is just coming into his power game so there will be some adjustments as he reacts to pitchers adjusting to him. His average dropped in the second half and he whiffed a bit more, but his power numbers increased – 21 homers in the first half in 412 plate appearances and 20 long balls in the second half in only 303 plate appearances. Defensively, Acuña Jr. improved from his debut season and saved runs afield according to both DRS (9 runs saved) and UZR/150 (2.9 runs saved). Add that to his 37 stolen bases and you have a guy who can do everything – and that is Ronald Acuña Jr..

With Acuña Jr. mostly playing center, Ender Inciarte is listed as a 4th outfielder. Having a three-time Gold Glove winner on your bench is quite a luxury and the Braves are hoping that Inciarte’s leg injuries that cost him half of the 2019 season are behind him. 2019 broke Inciarte’s consecutive Gold Glove streak at three seasons, but Ender’s game is not just defense. He was starting to show signs of more patience, at least according to his walk rate which climbed to 11.3% – his career rate is 6.9%. The 29 year old Inciarte has become a more aggressive hitter over the years, but pitchers have a hard time sneaking pitches past him – his contact is always more than 10% above league average as it was again last season. After three consecutive campaigns contributing between 2.9 and 3.1 WAR he has to be disappointed to be a fourth outfielder, but he will get his chances both as a defensive replacement and spelling all three starters, if he is healthy. His best chance to take someone’s starting job might be in right field.

Inciarte’s main competition for a starting job, right-fielder Nick Markakis, is 36 and the Braves just re-signed him to a one year deal for $4 million. Defense is not Markakis’ game, and after putting together a string of negative dWAR seasons stretching back to 2009, it will be interesting to see what the Braves prioritize in 2020. With the bat, Markakis has remained pretty steady contributing between 94 and 115 wRC+. His career slash line is pretty much what he does every year – .288/.358/.424 and while most teams have a use for that, it is hard to defend running him out there everyday to watch him give back a good chunk of what he contributes offensively with his frankly shoddy defense. Markakis only has one season as a Brave at or above 2.0 WAR – 2018 where he put up 2.6 WAR. The batting average and solid OBP are nice, but would you rather have a Gold Glover who contributes a bit less with the bat and is no slouch (Inciarte), or Markakis who is universally hated by the defensive metrics and is 7 years older than three time Gold Glove winner Inciarte?

Marcel Ozuna now owns left field in Atlanta and the signing should pay off mightily. It was a surprise that Ozuna took a one year deal, but it makes sense for him because he is coming off a bit of a down year and is most definitely betting on himself to bounce back in 2020. If I were a Braves fan I’d be drooling at the prospect of a highly motivated Ozuna looking to improve upon his disappointing 2019 where he still hit 29 home runs, put up 2.6 WAR, and slashed .243/.330/.474 for a wRC+ of 110. He accomplished that with a .259 BABIP, well below his .315 career average. With a move from a pitchers park to a good hitters park and a positive BABIP regression, Ozuna could put up a really big year. His career metrics in left field have been quite good so the Braves should get help on both sides of the ball. Projections have Ozuna hitting 30-31 homers and slashing around .272/.341/.490 – and that is projecting a positive BABIP regression still below his career mark. Don’t be surprised if Ozuna surpasses those numbers and gets some MVP love if the Braves find their way into the postseason.

Adam Duvall is probably a bench bat for the Braves, assuming health for the starters, and more time baking for the top outfield prospects. In spite of his serious pop, Duvall has some offensive limitations because of his lack of plate discipline and the strong swing and miss flavor to his game. Duvall’s career slash line is .233/.292/.461 to go with a career K rate of 27.3% and walk rate of 6.8%. At 31, Duvall is pretty much what he is – a decent bat to come off the bench when you need a home run. He also has a solid rep as a defender in the outfield in spite of metrics that disagree with that assessment – he looks average or a tick below. His time with the Braves will probably be short because of the talent already on the big club and the youngsters pushing up from triple-A.

And quite a pair of youngsters they are – Cristian Pache and Drew Waters both reached triple-A in 2019 and both are only 21. They are the Braves #1 and #2 prospects respectively and are both talented center fielders. Pache – ranked 12th overall among baseball prospects – could push Acuna to a corner right now but needs more time in the minors as his bat catches up to his elite defense. Waters – ranked 36th overall –  has plus raw power, but like Pache, needs more time to get his bat closer to his projections before the Braves will commit to him at the Big League level. If both prospects get close to their projections, the Braves will have an incredible outfield for years to come with the potential for three Gold Gloves every year. Pache started to come into his power last year so keep an eye on him. If his bat develops quickly it will be hard to keep him down on the farm.

When the Braves make me GM any second now, I will strongly encourage manager Brian Snitker to put Inciarte in right and move Markakis to the bench. Ozuna will start in left with Acuña in center until Pache is ready. I can see why they started Markakis in the past – mainly because he doesn’t work as a 4th outfielder because he can’t hang in center. Duvall doesn’t cut it in center either, but you can always push Inciarte over to center when Acuña is out and leave the corner spots to Duvall and Markakis when Ozuna sits or when a matchup dictates that Inciarte sits. The amount of talent the Braves have in the organization is amazing and that goes in spades for their outfielders (pitchers too). Obviously the Braves aren’t shy about aggressively promoting young hitters – see Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies – and Pache is such a special talent with the glove that it will be hard to avoid the temptation to bring him up if they are in the hunt. The Ozuna signing was smart and makes it so the Braves don’t have to push Pache or Waters, but that won’t stop them from bringing up one of their young studs if a need arises. Watch out for the Braves outfield as they have the potential to become one of the best units in baseball as soon as this season.

Depth and Power Added to the Rays Outfield

The Tampa Bay Rays are famously a small market team that makes the most out of every bit player, every small advantage, and probably every coffee stir stick as they make a race out of the AL East. They haven’t been shy about moving some parts around this offseason, trading away a starting outfielder – Tommy Pham – and bringing two outfielders on board in Hunter Renfroe and Jose Martinez (who is only called an outfielder because it says “OF” on his baseball card). Did the Rays outfield get better or did they just shuffle deck chairs? Let’s take a look at the two trades and the prospects for the 2020 Rays outfield.

Tommy Pham is a really good hitter and will continue to hit moving forward as he creeps slowly into the decline phase of his career. One aspect of the Rays trade of Pham was that it made the Rays younger. Pham will turn 32 just before the season starts. While he appears to be the type of player who will age slowly and gracefully, everyone ages and declines, even Rickey Henderson, and so too will Pham. Hunter Renfroe, who came to the Rays in the Pham trade, turns 28 a couple months before Pham turns 32. While Pham is clearly a better hitter than Renfroe at this point, Pham is a free agent in 2021 while Renfroe is under team control until 2023. Pham was a 121 wRC+ hitter who contributed 3.3 WAR in 2019 and slashed .273/.369/.450 in line with his career numbers, but put up subpar defensive numbers. Renfroe put up good defensive numbers to get to 1.9 WAR in spite of his 98 wRC+. He has tremendous power (33 bombs in 2019) but struggles to control the strike zone – something Pham is quite good at. That said, what the Rays are probably dreaming on is Renfroe’s improved walk rate each of the last two seasons from 5.6% in 2017 to 6.8% in 2018, and 9.3% in 2019. The K rates are still frightening (31.2% in 2019) and the hit tool isn’t great, but Renfroe will be fine in the 6 or 7 hole hitting 35 homers if he walks 9% of the time like last year. Pham is settling in as a 3.5 WAR player while Renfroe is probably a 2.0 WAR player, unless there is some growth left. Either way, Renfroe will play a corner outfield spot in Tampa Bay and hit a lot of home runs while Pham does his Pham thing in San Diego.

Don’t look into Kevin Kiermaier’s piercing blue eyes or he will steal your soul. It’s good to have a superpower when you don’t hit enough to carry your position which describes Kiermaier. His baseball talent lies in his ability to track down anything hit near him in center field. After winning his second Gold Glove last season, Kiermaier will get another chance to show that he can hit enough to warrant starting. Last season was his second sub-80 wRC+ season in a row (79 in 2018 and 78 in 2018) so it is starting to look that the 29 year old Keirmaier’s bat is lost somewhere. It wasn’t always like this – he was a 104 wRC+ guy in 2016 and a 113 wRC+ guy in 2017, which is plenty good for a Gold Glove centerfielder. Multiple injuries may have sapped his offensive abilities, but the Rays can probably afford to carry Keirmaier’s bat for another season as their team wRC+ was 9th in all of baseball last season even with KK starting the majority of Rays games in center.

Boy, did Austin Meadows have a coming out party last year! Playing most of the season as a 24 year old, Meadows took a giant step forward in his first full season in the majors. A 142 wRC+, 4.0 WAR season in your first full look with the big club is the mark of a superstar, so expectations will be high for the Rays corner outfielder. Meadows looked like he might develop into a hitter who was entirely dependent on his batting average to get on base, but in 2019 he walked 54 times for a 9.1% walk rate. While that isn’t particularly sexy, 33 home runs is. Power hasn’t been Meadow’s highest rated tool and 2019 was only the 3rd season in which he had reached double digits in his entire career dating back to 2013. There were hints that this was coming as he had reached a career high in 2018 with 18 homers. Still, don’t expect Austin Meadows to turn into a 45 homer guy anytime soon, in fact don’t be surprised if his home run total slides back to around 20. His highest ranked tool has always been his hit tool, so while it is possible that a swing change was responsible for the power surge, you can count on the batting average to stick around and the power to fluctuate until he does it again. Meadows’ hard hit rate (over 45%) was high – that is certainly one way to make sure you get on base a lot – just hit the ball really hard. Whatever Meadows turns into, his slash line of .291/.364/.558 was a thing of beauty and can take a little bit of regression and still be worthy of a starting spot.

Jose Martinez came from the Cardinals where, in spite of his bat, he was stuck without a position and that is the problem with Jose – his glove really doesn’t play anywhere. I mean you can always hide a guy in the outfield or at first from time to time if he can rake, which Martinez can. But when Paul Goldschmidt is your first baseman and scouts and analysts describe you as a butcher in the outfield, AND your team has a truckload of outfielders who can actually play the position, you won’t get to show off your bat as often as you’d like. Fortunately the Rays play in that other league where they have that DH rule. At 31, Martinez is more or less a known quantity even though, because of his aforementioned defensive limitations, he only has 1288 plate appearances, or about two full seasons in the majors. The Cards got Martinez’ bat in the lineup by splitting his time mostly between first base and right field. He was bad at both, but more awful in right. Just turn away when he plays in the field and look back at his career slash line of .298/.363/.458 and his career wRC+ of 122. The Rays already have a bat-first guy playing first base in Ji-Man Choi and a new signing from Japan to play DH – Yoshi Tsutsugo, so Martinez will have to work to get at bats, hopefully first base occasionally, the outfield when they have to, and a lot of DH with Tsutsugo who is a lefty (Martinez is a righty).

While “Yoshi” is probably a cool enough nickname, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is one of the best home run hitters from the Nippon Professional Baseball League so he deserves a cooler nickname like “The Wakayama Hammer” or “Blast Master Yoshi”. Regardless of what we call him, Tsutsugo is a masher from Japan, who will be experiencing stateside baseball for the first time this year as a 29 year old. His game was definitely the long ball in Japan (205 career home runs), but he also drew a slew of walks. Tsutsugo is listed as a DH on the depth charts so perhaps the Rays are skeptical about his defensive game. Still, listing him here seems reasonable because Jose Martinez is listed as an outfielder and Tsutsugo was an outfielder in Japan. Until you see him hit in Spring Training and regular season games, it will be hard to say what he can do as there aren’t even projections for him yet. That said, plate discipline is plate discipline. We will have to wait and see about how the power translates.

Last season, depth was a concern for the Rays, and they seem to have taken care of that with moves to bring in Martinez, Renfroe, and Tsutsugo. Another outfielder who came over in the Martinez trade from the Cardinals was Randy Arozarena, who appears ready for the majors after slashing .358/.435./593 at triple-A Memphis last year. Arozarena turns 25 just before the season starts and just had his first taste of the majors at the end of last season where he raked and got on base in 20 at bats which is barely a sip of coffee. Arozarena is probably not a star as his tools are solid across the boards, while nothing stands out at this point. Maybe his best tool is his ability to get on base and that has value. His career OBP in the minors stands at .373 and was above .420 at each stop last year. He has spent some time in center in the minors so he would be a great fourth outfielder and insurance if Kiermaier suffers another injury or gets off to a slow start with the bat. With three minor league options left, Arozarena might just be racking up serious frequent flier miles shuttling back and forth between triple-A and Tampa Bay.

There are obviously other guys sitting at triple-A who might get a chance (like Brian O’Grady), but the Rays finally have enough depth that they don’t need to bring those guys up yet. Unlike last season, they have enough pieces in the majors to withstand an injury or two. It is likely that the starting outfield will be Kiermaier in center with Renfroe and Meadows in the corners – probably Renfroe in right. Martinez and Tsutsugo will find their way out there from time to time, but hopefully grow dust on their outfielder’s gloves. Arozarena is a better bet to take a 4th outfielder spot if there is room. He is a more complete player than Martinez and Tsutsugo (or so it seems now), but they are both capable of generating a lot of offense, where Arozarena isn’t a proven commodity with the bat yet. The Rays bench bats and newly added outfield depth should make the team more slump/injury proof and make the Yankees, if not fearful, at least attentive to what the Rays are doing in 2020.

A Whole Lot of Flaming Batons in the Outfield for St. Louis to Keep in The Air

Things are up in the air and moving around in St. Louis – not in a Hindenberg kind of way, but it is unclear who will cover two outfield spots right now and that’s without considering the Nolan Arenado trade rumors. Most of their infield is stable – it’s a strength of the team – with Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Paul Goldschmidt covering three of the infield spots and three of the top four WAR spots for the St. Louis team in 2019. Tommy Edman mostly took over the third base spot and is the other guy in the top four for WAR from 2019, but could play the outfield if Matt Carpenter takes back third base in Spring Training. Since chaos can be fun, let’s explore the outfield possibilities for 2020 with the caveat that free agent moves (I’m looking at you Marcell Ozuna!) or a big trade could change everything.

Speaking of Marcell Ozuna, he is the 500 pound gorilla in the room, uh, outfield. The 29 year old slugging left fielder is still unsigned, but the noise in the media is that the Cardinals are still the most likely landing spot. Ozuna had what most would consider a down year with a wRC+ of 110, a WAR of 2.6, and a slash line of .243/.330/.474. Some interesting trends to consider – Ozuna swung at fewer pitches in 2019, hit the ball harder than ever, pulled the ball a lot more than in recent years, but had his lowest BABIP ever at .259 (career BABIP of .315). The low BABIP indicates that his batting average should rebound to around his career average of .273 with around 25 to 30 home runs (projections have him hitting 33 next year). Ozuna is a bit volatile with full season WAR numbers ranging from 1.5 to 5.0. That’s a median of around 2.7, which is about what you could expect unless he has one of those outlier years. He is a middle of the order bat and can feel like a superstar at times, but is probably just a really good regular if we are being realistic – possibly for another team. We will have to wait and see.

Center field is a glamorous spot in history where you get to watch Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Trout. The Cardinals have not historically had their best player in center field, although Curt Flood and Jim Edmonds were great players. Flood ranks ninth in WAR and Edmonds 17th for the Cards historically. Stan Musial and Enos “Country” Slaughter were primarily corner outfielders (ranked first and seventh respectively). Harrison Bader is the best bet to be the Cardinals guy in center in 2020 and, while he is fun to watch throw his body around and zip to and fro chasing down everything that flies through the air, 925 plate appearances say that dude might not hit enough to play everyday. Bader turns 26 early in the season and has one good offensive campaign (2018) and one sour one (2019). He strikes out too much (28.8% for his career) and although his walk rate climbed last year, there doesn’t seem to be enough power in his game to keep pitchers honest in spite of decent home run totals in the minors. He has been good for 12 homers in each of his two mostly full seasons but has averaged only 17 doubles in that same span for an ISO (isolated power) of .158 which is slightly below average. With his glove skills, the Cards would be happy if Bader could simply make fewer outs, get on base, and use his speed to turn some of those walks and singles into doubles by swiping a bag. He is 28 for 35 stealing bases in the majors (80% success rate) and his BABIP regressed quite a lot from 2018 where it was high (.358) to 2019 where it was quite low (.268) and one could reasonably expect it to fall somewhere in the middle. He slashed .205/.314/.366 last year “good” for a wRC+ of 81. His wRC+ in 2018 was 107 which is 7% above average so just a return to that would give the Cardinals a good starter in center field. If he can do something with the bat – really anything – that makes him even close to average, the Cardinals would be happy to leave him there for years to come. Bader was a Gold Glove finalist in 2019 and that is worth waiting another year for the bat to come around before turning him into a defensive replacement/fourth outfielder/Miami Marlin.

What is there that would buoy the spirits of St. Louis fans when they hear that Dexter Fowler might be the starting right fielder in 2020? Well, Fowler is still at least average with the bat as evidenced by his 103 wRC+ that was driven by his usual high walk rate (12.9% last year) and a bit of power (19 home runs). His defense drags him down to a WAR of 1.5 which is almost good enough to start in the majors on a good team, but not quite. The move from center to right should help defensively as the bar isn’t quite as high, although it is considerably higher for the bat. Fowler will turn 34 before the season, but should still be able to get close to his career slash line of .260/.359/.419 and be good for around 2.0 WAR if he experiences a positive regression in BABIP (2019: .290/Career: .327). It is clear that he isn’t worth his average annual salary of $16.5 million any more (that runs through 2021), but he can still be useful if used correctly. The Cards won’t be able to move Fowler’s contract so he will be with the team in some capacity and he will probably help more than he will hurt and maybe justify starting.

Keeping in mind that teams need to play three outfielders at a time, that Marcell Ozuna isn’t signed yet, and that Fowler and Bader aren’t locks to start, we still have potentially three starting spots to fill. Lane Thomas is an outfielder! Thomas received his first taste of major league pitching in 2019 and rather liked it. His numbers, while good, don’t represent his career minor league numbers so it would be wise to be cautious. Thomas boasts a career slash line of .252/.329/.421 in the minors, but has shown signs of coming into his power with 27 homers in 2018 and four long balls in 38 at bats in the majors last year. He is a center fielder and the scouts like his fielding just fine, so even if he doesn’t take someone’s starting spot, he would make a good fourth outfielder. Nothing really stands out with Thomas – good defense, speed, and arm with some raw power, but his hit tool is just ok. So if he can’t get to most of that raw power he seems like a fourth outfielder, albeit a pretty good one. He is 24 so some of that recent growth could be enough to turn him into a starter as soon as 2020.

If Tyler O’Neill gets to all of his raw power he will be one of those scary, yet frustrating, Randal Grichuk type hitters – a former Cardinal – with 30 plus homers and an average around .240. Projections have O’Neill hitting 22-24 homers with an average around .237 next season. He already has four seasons worth of minor league at bats and 140 homers, so around 35 a season – the power is quite real. His slash line of .271/.343/.529 doesn’t quite show his struggles to control the strike zone. In 293 major league plate appearances, the 24 year old has a walk rate of only 5.8% to go with a strikeout rate of 37.5%, which just doesn’t work. What that might mean is that O’Neill will have an OBP under .300, which in spite of his power makes him a fringe starter at best even if he is hitting 30 plus home runs a year – wait – you mean like Randal Grichuk?! For O’Neill to stick he has to get the K rate under 30% and the walk rate closer to 10% while keeping the power. If I had a dollar for every guy who needed to walk more and strike out less to make it… That said, if Ozuna leaves then it opens up left field for O’Neill to at least get a real shot to stick. With power like his, someone will give O’Neill a chance (like Randal Grichuk).

Tommy Edman opened some eyes last year. A sixth round pick and mainly a shortstop in the minors, Edman took the third base job away from the struggling Matt Carpenter. He did it gradually throughout the season because he hit and showed power and speed, with 11 homers and 15 steals in 349 plate appearances. Edman also played some outfield, which is why I am talking about him here – also because if the Cardinals trade for or sign a third baseman then Edman has nowhere to play on the infield. The speed isn’t a surprise, but the power is. Between two levels, Edman took the ball over the fence 18 times in 2019 – the first time he has reached double digits in his professional career. Edman is one of those players who seems to have pretty high BABIPs every season, so while there should be a little regression from his .346 BABIP of 2019, it isn’t likely to dip to .280 or anything. As much as I enjoy players like Edman, I don’t expect him to repeat his 123 wRC+ in spite of how hard he plays or how much he hustles. I hope I’m wrong because the world needs more players like Thomas Hyunsu Edman. I expect him to settle in as a 400 plate appearance utility guy in the mold of a Ben Zobrist, or a starter if the Cards don’t pull the trigger on a trade for a star third baseman (and Carpenter doesn’t experience a revival). If Edman starts, I would imagine he gets to 2.0 WAR based mostly on his glove and base running ability, but he could surprise and best his 3.2 WAR of 2019 if he continues to improve with the bat, drawing more walks so can get on base and use his above average speed. His minor league career slash line is .286/.353/.415 so it isn’t like he can’t hit. I could also imagine Edman taking over in right field and giving the Cardinals an improved outfield defense, but a few things have to happen for him to start in a corner outfield spot, like Ozuna signing elsewhere, a trade for a third baseman, and Dexter Fowler showing even more decline in Spring Training.

Probably the most exciting outfield prospect in the organization is also the youngest mentioned in this article. Dylan Carlson is only 21 but made it to triple-A last season after breaking out at double-A Springfield. While it is possible that Carlson could make the parent club out of Spring Training, it is more likely that the Cardinals would at least start his season at triple-A so Carlson could solidify his gains from his breakout season. They have plenty of options and are looking to compete in 2020, so they don’t need to push him after only 72 at bats in triple-A. Carlson will probably make it a tough decision for the team – his slash line at two stops last year was .292/.372/.542 with 26 homers and 20 steals thrown in. Carlson is probably a corner outfielder (who can play center) when he arrives, but he will be a good defender who has power, can run a bit, and controls the strike zone better than some of the other youngsters in this article. In the long term, Carlson is the pony upon which to lay your wagers.

Making a prediction about the starting outfield for the Cardinals at this point is just pulling stuff out of a hat, but here is a hat right here. I have Ozuna signing with the Cards and starting in left. I would imagine St. Louis wants to see if Bader can hit enough for them to run him out there in center every game and help out their pitching staff. I’d love to see one of the young guys start in right, but I expect Fowler to get the nod with Edman at third or getting starts at almost everywhere except catcher, first base, or pitcher. Lane Thomas would then be the 4th outfielder or take over for Bader if he hits his way back to the minors. I don’t think O’Neill will take the job away (and he has one minor league option left) from anyone so Fowler has to bomb and Ozuna has to sign elsewhere for him to make the opening day roster. Carlson is a dark horse for this season, but he opened some eyes in 2019 with his breakout and is the shiniest of shiny things moving forward. St. Louis cleared some of the logjam in the outfield this offseason but there are still a lot of moving parts that need a chance to show if they have value moving forward. Get your tickets to Spring Training so you can watch it all unfold before the season starts.

Young Guns in LA – The Dodgers Youth Aims to Take Over The Rotation

Here’s a headline that could be written about the Dodgers preseason dealings – “Dodgers watch as two-fifths of their rotation signs with other clubs”. Or someone might have written, “Crickets chirp as Dodgers watch top three free agent starting pitchers sign elsewhere”. Both headlines would be accurate, but also misleading as the Dodgers retool their rotation. As things stand, they will be younger, but will they be better? That is the question that is probably keeping Dodger fans fingernails short and ragged this winter.

The LA Dodgers have a long history of great starting pitchers and deep rotations going back to teams with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Don Sutton, or more recently Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, and Fernando Valenzuela. So when you see the rotation member (Ryu) who had the best season on the team depart in free agency, you could react a couple different ways. One reaction might be to wonder if the Dodgers were in some kind of trouble – maybe pushing up against the salary cap. One might also show some faith and think that the Dodgers have a plan. Let’s go with that second approach, that the Dodgers have a plan. With the resources available to the team and the talent they already have assembled, there is no way the Dodgers would prematurely close a competitive window. Let’s see what that plan might be.

Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best, if not the best starting pitcher in all the baseball land for most of the 2010s and still managed to finish third among Dodger pitchers in WAR in 2019 (3.4 WAR) after missing the start of the season because of his increasingly balky back. A couple of trends overlapped in 2019 for Kershaw. One, his walk rate decreased below his career rate as he only offered free passes to 2.07 batters per nine innings (career rate of 2.28 per nine). Two, his home run rate spiked to 1.41 per nine (career rate of .68 per nine). It appears he used his fastball a bit more this year, reversing a recent trend for Kershaw where he went to the slider instead of the fastball. This trend occurred as his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 MPH in 2015 to last season’s 90.5 MPH. At this point, Kershaw is throwing both the “heater” and the slider around 40% of the time. His slider and fastball are still his best pitches according to pitch values with the changeup (he threw it less than 1% of the time in 2019), which is becoming closer and closer in velocity to his fastball, being a break-even pitch at best in terms of pitch value. His big, slow curve has become less and less effective, and while it was still a positive pitch in terms of pitch value, it isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be. That could be an effect of the slower fastball or possibly a side effect of Kershaw missing time during the spring last year and being unable to get a feel for the pitch during the season. Kershaw is increasingly fighting health issues – mainly his back – while at the same time transitioning to a different stage in his career where he no longer is dominant most nights. There is a lot working against him, but he is a hard worker and very smart so betting against him figuring it out and continuing to be excellent would be foolish.

The resident ace of the Dodgers is Walker Buehler, who at 24 just keeps getting better and better – a scary thought for the rest of the NL West. In 2019, Buehler had a 5.0 WAR, increased his strikeouts per nine from 9.90 to 10.61 while decreasing his walk rate from 2.42 per nine to 1.83 per nine, and decreased his FIP from 3.04 to 3.01 in spite of an increase in BABIP against him (from .248 to .290) implying that he was much less lucky in his first full season than in his debut. Buehler is an ace on a great team pitching in a pitcher’s park. If you had to pick a nit because that’s just who you are, you might point to the increased home run rate last season from .79 per nine to .99 per nine. Beuhler threw 182.33 innings in 2019 and the 200 inning mark might be his next target after a supreme 2019 – that’s what an ace might do. With Ryu gone and no big moves to bring in a top starter on the horizon, this is Buehler’s team now.

On most teams, Kenta Maeda would be entrenched in the rotation. He produced 2.5 WAR in 2019 – his second season in a row above 2.0 WAR, and posted a FIP of 3.95. But on the Dodgers, Maeda is a swingman moving from the rotation to the pen to fill whatever hole needs filling. That might be Maeda’s role again in 2019 depending on what the Dodgers do with all their young arms. He has averaged about 24 starts a season for the last three campaigns to go with 35 appearances. In his first season in the states, 2016, Maeda was used exclusively as a starter but has nimbly bounced back and forth between the pen and rotation ever since. He has averaged at least 9 K’s per 9 innings for his career fanning 9.9 per 9 last season. It seems odd to talk about someone who has been a swingman for three seasons now as being consistent, but that’s Maeda. His FIP changes some from year to year as his home run totals vary, but he is always good for about 10 strikeouts per 9 and around three walks per 9. You’d be hard pressed to find another pitcher who is a better swingman because they either make their way into the rotation full time or are only there because they are fringy, and they fairly quickly show that they aren’t good enough to hold a rotation spot. The Dodgers would be wise to avoid fixing what ain’t broke.

Julio Urias is only 23 but we have been hearing about him for so long that it is surprising that he wasn’t Koufax’ locker mate. He had already tasted high-A (with success) at the age of 18 and was a top prospect in a deep Dodgers system for multiple seasons. Last year, Urias threw 79.66 innings in the majors, including 6 starts for the big club. He did a nice job of keeping the ball in the yard (.79 home runs per 9), and got a little lucky – low BABIP and high strand rates – with an ERA of 2.49 and a FIP of 3.43. Urias made his MLB debut in 2016 but still only has 184 innings in the majors. Is this the year he finally is handed a rotation spot and makes 30 starts? On most teams the answer would be yes, but on the Dodgers you have to keep moving not to get caught from behind. There are two guys who have caught Urias and had successful major league debuts so even though he is only 23, this is an important year for him if he wants to remain a starter. The Dodgers might also decide that the best way to keep Urias healthy is to permanently install him in the pen or make him a swingman like Maeda. Ah – the curse of having a wealth of options!

At 30, Ross Stripling, a former 5th round pick, would be a two or a three on most teams, but on the Dodgers he has mostly been the guy who fills in when someone else can’t go. He has 52 career starts and holds a career ERA of 3.51 with 8.77 strikeouts per 9 to go with 2.12 walks per 9. Those are some excellent career numbers, and he has been even better the last two seasons with K rates over nine and walk rates under two. Last year, Stripling pitched in 32 games, 15 of which he started. He induces a fair number of grounders but, in part because he throws so many strikes, Stripling is prone to the long ball with a career rate of 1.14 home runs per nine. If you are keeping track, that’s three excellent pitchers who the Dodgers move back and forth between the rotation and the pen – seems like a strategy rather than an accident. Stripling’s splits as a starter and reliever look pretty similar and a small sample size shows that he can retain effectiveness the third time through the order. He might be the guy the Dodgers try to turn into a full time starter, unless their usage pattern is how they keep him healthy. I would say watch how they open the season with him, but on the Dodgers that would be meaningless because flux seems to be their middle name.

Dustin May – Gingergaard – is a beast. The former third round pick is only 22, but made his big league debut last year making four starts and working another ten games from the pen. With a fastball that touches triple digits from the pen and averages 96 MPH, he induces a goodly number of grounders and has never allowed more than .82 home runs per nine innings at any stop in his professional career. He is stingy with the walk and in spite of his wicked heat, doesn’t get as many K’s as one might imagine. He still managed 8.31 K’s per nine with LA last year and kept his walk rate to 1.3. May has been a starter his whole career and it would be surprising for the Dodgers to do anything else with him, although it has to be tantalizing to imagine him as the heir to Kenley Jansen in the closer role. He just passed 140 innings pitched in a season for the first time in 2019 and he is young, so the Dodgers are likely to baby him a bit because they can and because he could be great. He is also fun to watch with his wild red hair flying all over the place so he is likely to become a fan favorite.

Yet another young stud, but the old man of this crop of youngsters at 25, Tony Gonsolin, made his debut for the Dodgers in 2019 and threw 40 innings for LA including six starts. Although Gonsolin throws hard like May, his best pitch is a change and he gets a lot of swings and misses with his pitch mix. Before last season, Gonsolin had shown good control and that shouldn’t be a concern going forward even after his walk rate spiked in triple-A. He seemed to mostly find his control again once he reached LA. His biggest issue might be the incredible starting pitching depth of the Dodgers and the fact that Gonsolin could provide more bullpen depth where his fastball plays up – near 100 MPH. He looked equally good in his starts so he will be in the mix to stick in the rotation with a strong spring. He has a legit four pitch mix and the Dodgers might be willing to use him for more innings than May or Urias because he is older.

In 2017, when his arm went boom, Jimmy Nelson was looking a lot like the ace the Brewers had been hoping for since they drafted him in the second round. In 29 starts he was 12-6 with a FIP of 3.05 and 10.21 K’s per nine to go with only 2.46 walks per nine. It was a huge leap for the then 27 year old, and it is hard to quantify how much losing him cost the Brewers. He finally made it back to the majors in 2019 for 22 somewhat ugly innings over three starts and seven appearances out of the pen. Nelson had neither the control nor the velocity from before his injury, but the Dodgers picked him up after Milwaukee non-tendered him. Taking a one year flyer on a veteran like Nelson is something you usually see small market teams try, and Nelson will have his work cut out for him to best some of the Dodgers young arms. If an offseason without pain, where he can train like he normally would, brings him close to where he was before the injury, then the Dodgers will have given themselves even more depth in their rotation. Watch him in the spring to see if his control is back and his velocity is back up around 94.

Oh, the depth of the Dodgers rotation! One hears so many complaints that the Dodgers didn’t make any big moves this offseason when they could have chased a top starter, but if you look at the young arms who have already shown the ability to succeed against major league hitting, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Dodgers are built to last AND built to win now in spite of what you hear from their critics. While they could probably have overpaid to attract one of the hot arms that were on the market, they would do so at the cost of slowing the development of one of their three top 100 prospect arms. (I didn’t even mention Josiah Gray who is just reaching triple-A.) Yes, it is important to win when your window opens, but imagine a team where Kershaw is your 3 or 4 which could happen as early as 2020, and you understand why the Dodgers are bearish on signing free agent starting pitchers. As of this moment, Buehler is clearly the 1 and Kershaw the 2, but it gets cloudier after that – not because there aren’t good options, but because there are so many. The safe play would be to go with Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling as the 3 and 4 (in either order) and one of the youngsters as the 5 – probably Urias to start. Gonsolin and May could be great additions to the pen right now and when a starter inevitably goes down work one or both of them into the rotation, so keeping them stretched out in the swing spot would be the way to go. The Dodgers almost can’t screw up and as the season unfolds Dodger fans will be happy that this offseason – as least as starting pitching is concerned – played out the way it did.

Nats or Phillies Outfield – Who Ya Got In 2020?

So you just opened the best present ever – that thing you wanted that does that thing you want it to do better than the other things – and you are over the moon. Nobody you know actually got that thing you got and you know your friends will be jealous, but most of them are already saying how the thing isn’t as good as everyone said it was, and you find a little bit of doubt creeping into your mind about your gift. You ask yourself if your friends are correct or maybe just jealous that you got the thing instead of them, because you know they asked for the thing too. Then you start using the thing and people REALLY start ripping your present saying how getting it was a huge mistake. So you find yourself defending the thing but feeling a bit sick until the talk quiets down because your friends have moved on to complaining about something else. Last off-season the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to be their cool new thing and that’s pretty much what they went through. In 2020, they have to hope that the noise about their outfield takes on a different quality after a disappointing 2019. Harper is theirs for quite some time and the Nationals just won the World Series with a revamped outfield after Harper left so, the question is, which team will have the better outfield in 2020 – the Phillies outfield or the Nationals outfield?

Bryce Harper wasn’t the only outfielder the Phillies signed in 2019. They also signed Andrew McCutchen to a three year deal with a team option for a fourth year. In his age 24 season through his age 28 season, Cutch finished in the top five in MVP voting each season, including winning the award in 2013. McCutchen has aged gracefully enough and maintained some of his power and all of his on-base ability. In fact his walk rate has gone up quite a bit over the last two seasons peaking in 2019 at 16.4% – 3.2% above his career rate of 12.2%. Durability has also been a big part of McCutchen’s game until last season when he hurt his knee and missed more than half the season, managing only 262 plate appearances for the year. When healthy, 33 year old McCutchen is a solid 3.0 WAR player and anyone expecting the 7.0 WAR Cutch is being strongly affected by the off-gassing from the plastic seats in Citizens Bank Park. In his prime, you could count on McCutchen to post a slash line around .310/.405/.500 with 24 homers and 20ish steals from the centerfield spot. While that ship has sailed, a health Andrew McCutchen should be counted on for .260/.370/.450 with a wRC+ of 120, so about 20% better than the average player in the majors. The biggest knock on him has been his defense in centerfield, but now that he is mostly in left field he is putting up good defensive numbers. Cutch will be back in the Phillies outfield and hopefully fully recovered for 2020.

The Nationals have a youngster in left field by the name of Juan Soto. In his first full season in the majors as a 20 year old, he slashed .282/.401/.548 and now owns a career slash line of .287/.403/.535. His 2019 was a 4.8 WAR season driven largely by his 142 wRC+ which was 12th in the majors and 6th in the NL. There are a lot of things to love in Soto’s game but what separates him from most players his age is his incredible strike zone judgement. His 16.4% walk rate placed him 6th in the majors in 2019 and when matched with his power (34 home runs in 2019), it makes him a terror to pitchers. Not surprisingly, Soto’s overall swing rate as well as his swing rate on balls out of the zone are both well below league average – 6.2% below and 8.2% below respectively. If you watched the 2019 postseason, you saw that it was really difficult for pitchers to get him to chase pitches out of the strike zone. That kind of plate discipline means pitchers are forced to throw him pitches over the plate or risk walking him, which they did (walked him that is) 108 times last season. The point of all this is that Soto is already one of the best hitters in baseball and he is about to play only his second full season at the age of 21. That is flat out terrifying. If there is a knock on Soto, it would be his defense which the numbers say was pretty close to average or a bit below. His DRS was at 1 but his UZR/150 was -1.3 so pick your poison. The eye test says he is going to be fine and his tremendous bat can cover a lot of sins. As good as McCutchen is, Soto is establishing himself as one of the three best left fielders in baseball, if not the best, so the Nationals get the nod in left field over the Phillies.

Finding a top notch center fielder is not an easy thing to do. Many teams face the choice of running a defense-first guy out there who they have to hide at the bottom of the batting order, or using a bat-first guy who they hope doesn’t stink up the joint too badly with his glove. The Phillies came into 2019 with former Rule 5 golden ticket, Odubel Herrera as their starter, but lost him to an 85 game suspension for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy. Herrera’s first two seasons showed him to be an excellent defender with speed and a bit of pop and a good bat. His wRC+/WAR numbers in 2015 and 2016 were 111/3.8 and 110/3.7 respectively so Herrera looked like one of those rare players who could defend and hit. He was basically free talent and a minor star – quite a find, especially in the Rule 5 Draft – and entering the 2017 season he was still only 26 with bright skies ahead. While Herrera’s boat didn’t sink in 2017, there was a decline as his on base percentage fell from .344 and .361 in 2015 and 2016 to .325 in part due to his return to his suboptimal walk rate. The low walk totals exposed his reliance on a high batting average to get on base. So in 2018 when his average fell to .255, it dragged his wRC+ down to 96 – just below average – and his WAR down to 0.9. His decline in  WAR wouldn’t have been as precipitous had the defensive metrics not fallen out of love with him. He went from 9.6 defensive dWAR to -9.0 dWAR between 2017 and 2018. Still, Herrera played almost every day, so there was hope that he could right the ship in 2019 in his age 27 season, but the opposite happened. Herrera slashed .222/.288/.341 in 139 plate appearances before his season ended in suspension. A -0.4 WAR (wRC+ of 64) season is hard to come back from, but a suspension for domestic abuse added to the mix might make it hard for Herrera to get another chance to reclaim his starting job. Up steps Adam Haseley.

Haseley was a first round pick in 2017 and debuted in the majors after only 78 plate appearances in triple-A after the loss of Herrera and his backup, Roman Quinn (lost to injury). Haseley will play the season as a 24 year old and did a decent job in his almost half a season audition. All five of Haseley’s homers in the bigs came against righties against whom he hit .282. He only received 52 plate appearances against lefties so his .212 average shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see him carrying the bigger part of a platoon situation until he shows he isn’t a pushover against lefties. Haseley is a good defender with some speed who hasn’t shown the power one would expect from a starting outfielder – 10 homers in 2018 split between double-A and triple-A are his season high. If he finds the power everyone expects him to develop, then he can remain a starter. If he doesn’t, then Haseley is only a stopgap as a starter, or an excellent fourth outfielder. He only has 1136 professional at bats so there is still plenty of room for growth. Haseley has shown the ability to hit for average and take walks. If he only turns into a good glove, leadoff-type hitter, then the Phillies have a starting center fielder for the future. If he adds power to his game then there is some star potential there.

Having two starting outfielders under the age of 23 who have established themselves as valuable starters is a magical situation for a major league team. That one of them is a superstar and the other is a potential perennial Gold Glove center fielder with speed and developing power is enough to make a GM’s head explode with joy. Victor Robles was a top 10 prospect for a couple of years before earning a full-time job in center field in 2019. Robles is already an excellent defender in center (24 DRS in the outfield in 2019) but his offensive game is still a bit raw. He swings at a lot of pitches but also makes contact with pitches in and out of the strike zone. He has always had a thrilling combination of power and speed which was on display last season as he hit 17 home runs and stole 28 bags in 37 tries. His slash line has room for improvement as his .255/.326/.419 shows some impatience. He walked 5.7% of the time and struck out in 22.7% of his plate appearances so his strike zone judgment could definitely improve. His 91 wRC+ isn’t bad for a defender of his caliber, but his hit tool is excellent so the .255 average was a disappointment. He will likely never walk as much as Soto so at his peak he will probably be a high average/low walk totals hitter with great speed and good power. Hitters who are dependent on a high average to carry their on base percentage can be frustrating and volatile, but Robles has so many tools that he should be valuable even in years where his average is low. The Nationals expect him to improve on his rookie 2.5 WAR campaign and be a fixture in center for years to come. At this point, the Washington club has a big edge in center field but that is all reliant on how close Adam Haseley can get to his full potential.

Bryce Harper used his bat and glove to give the middle finger to his detractors and they didn’t even know it. The narrative that Harper was a disappointment was ludicrous. The right fielder for the Phillies had his third best season in terms of WAR (4.6), with his second highest home run total (35) while putting up good defensive numbers (9 DRS and 11.0 UZR/150) after hearing all offseason that he was a liability in the outfield. He even had 13 assists! It wasn’t an MVP year but it was excellent by any standard. His walk rate was high, but so was his strikeout rate as Harper swings at  and misses a lot of pitches. Harper had a much better second half than first half, so that bodes well for an even better age 27 season from Harper. When you slash .260/.372/.510 and there are signs that it will get even better, someone has to get excited for you!

Adam Eaton plays right field for the Nationals now that Victor Robles is the starter in center. 2019 was the first season since 2016 in which Eaton managed to get through the year without sustaining a major injury that cut his season short. The former Diamondback and White Sox player just turned 31, and in 656 plate appearances last season slashed .279/.365/.428. Those numbers are clearly in line with his career numbers, but his wRC+ of 107 was his lowest since 2013. Eaton’s defensive numbers were down too with both DRS and UZR showing him to be slightly below average. So while it was great for the Nationals to be able to run Eaton out there to right field most every day, one has to wonder if all of his injuries have sapped some of his skills. Don’t get me wrong – Eaton was still good, but instead of being a minor star like he was in 2016 and the first half of 2017, he was only a solid starter. He still hits around 15 home runs a season and steals bases efficiently if not that frequently, and his BABIP was almost 20 points below his career average, so don’t be surprised if he hits .290 in 2020 and puts up a 3.0 WAR season. There is a lot to like about Eaton, but he isn’t a game changing force like Bryce Harper, so the edge goes to the Phillies here.

If I had to choose an outfield for the 2020 season I would pick the Nationals. It isn’t because the Phillies have a bad outfield – they are quite talented even though there are some questions to be answered in center field. But moving forward, the Nationals could have a great outfield as Soto – gulp – gets better and Robles continues to develop. The Phillies will get some growth from Haseley, but Cutch is in the decline phase (even if it is slow) of his career, and Harper is already great and probably about done growing, although who knows with that kind of talent. Obviously teams don’t win with just their outfield, but these two teams won’t go anywhere without good seasons from their talented outfield core. It is worth noting that each club has at least one legitimate MVP candidate in their outfield, so while it is exciting to look at that part of the roster, the Phillies and Nationals both have the depth in their lineups to get to the post-season which would be the best present ever for the fans of either team.