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.

 

The Rays Offense – No Longer Held Together With Tape and Glue Sticks?

The Tampa Bay Rays have long had the reputation for developing their own players – mostly pitchers – and then cobbling together the rest of the team with castoffs and role players to maintain one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Well ok, so not too much has changed as their payroll is the lowest in all the land, and still $12 million below the next lowest team at around $61 million. But due to some shrewd trades their offense is no longer so much “Punch and Judy” as it is “knock out punch” at least to start the season. It is safe to say that the Rays surprised most baseball people in 2018 by winning 90 games in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, but 2019 might be more surprising as they were mostly picked to finish 3rd again and are off to a fast start, leading the East by two games over the Yankees and their $208 million payroll and the Red Sox and their league-leading $225 million payroll by five and a half games (Payroll numbers thanks to Spotrac.comhttps://www.spotrac.com/mlb/payroll/). And while their pitching is still tasty, it isn’t all home-spun, as the Rays added free agent starter Charlie Morton to the fold. Yes – the Rays signed a top flight free agent and a pitcher no less. Their pitching is very likely to be close to the top of the league but their offense will determine how far they can push the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays currently sit 6th in all of baseball in wRC+. The question is how much of that is real and sustainable and how much is small sample size aberration? Let’s start with the outfield where homegrown defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier -he of the piercing blue eyes – mans centerfield and recent trade acquisitions – Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows hold down the corners. Kiermaier is one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball, and largely because of how he goes full tilt all the time in the field, he has a hard time staying off the injured list. With only one season of more than 500 plate appearances – his 4.3 WAR 2015 season – it is hard to know what you will get aside from excellent defense when Kiermaier is on the field. With speed and some pop, there has been a lot of speculation about what he could be with sustained playing time and good health but at 29 it would be folly to expect him to get healthier or to become a better hitter. His career 96 wRC+ average would be a nice get for the Rays if he plays in 120+ games and continues his Gold Glove ways in center. So far Kiermaier is sitting at a .262/.308/.476 slash line which isn’t too far from his career numbers. The bump in slugging pushes his wRC+ over 100 and his low OBP illustrates the main knock on Kiermaier’s offensive game – not enough walks (6.8% career walk rate). Still, if he just stays where he is offensively and defensively, the Rays will be thrilled if they can write him into the lineup most days.

Tommy Pham is 31 and didn’t get a chance to play regularly in the majors until 2017 when he put up a 6.1 WAR season for the Cardinals. 6.1 – that is superstar level production, but when Pham wasn’t hitting like he had in 2017, St. Louis traded him to Tampa Bay with some international bonus slot money for three minor leaguers. He still managed a 4.0 WAR season which is still excellent. He is playing like it is 2017 with a slash line of .304/.420/.457 and a wRC+ of 144 so far, looking every bit the part of a superstar. Pham has played center field in the past but is a corner outfielder (playing mostly left field) since the Rays have Kiermaier, so he should produce good defensive numbers as well. Pham hits for some power and gets on base a lot so the Rays are using him mostly in the 2 hole. He should score a lot of runs and drive in his share as well while playing solid or better defense. One of the knocks on Pham has been his inability to stay healthy, but he has surpassed the 500 plate appearance mark two seasons in a row so hopefully that is behind him. Most teams, including the Cardinals, would be thrilled to get his level of production from the 2 hole.

Austin Meadows came to Tampa in the same trade with the Pirates that netted them Tyler Glasnow and passed Chris Archer along to the Pirates. Meadows was a first round pick but never managed to stay healthy enough to make it to Pittsburgh. After a solid cameo in Pittsburgh in 2018, followed by a trade to the Rays, and a good spring training, the 23 year old outfielder won the starting job in right field and was raking when he injured his thumb. He is likely out for a few weeks but didn’t need surgery so with some luck he will pick up mostly where he left off although sustaining a .400 BABIP is just not going to happen. Meadows is more the high average, middle level power (with some projection) kind of hitter. If he can find his way back to his minor league walk rates then that profile will look something like Tommy Pham’s. His slash line, frozen because he is on the IL, is .351/.422/..676. His inflated BABIP and low walk rate (career 6.6% but early season 9.6%) make it unlikely that he will keep that up, but if he can keep his average around .300 and get his walk rate up over 10% and get to 20 home runs (currently at 6) then he will be a solid contributor from the batter’s box. His defensive numbers haven’t been great, but that is a small sample size and he is generally well-regarded as a defender in the outfield. He is a starter for sure and the Rays have reason to hope that he will become a star.

Avisail Garcia is perfectly cast as a 4th outfielder. He hits for power and plays good defense. Yeah, he chases anything in the stadium (league average swing rate is around 67% on pitches out of the zone and Garcia swings about 80% of the time) and strikes out a lot, but if he didn’t he would be a starter and maybe a star. At 27 there is still some room for growth but the Rays most likely understand that Avisail is what he is. The White Sox kept hoping for the star to emerge (like in his 2017 4.2 WAR season) and got tired of waiting for that to happen instead of appreciating what they had – a good defensive outfielder with some pop and a bunch of holes in his approach. He can start for stretches and if he catches fire or finally figures it out then you maybe have a star. He was free talent for Tampa Bay after the White Sox threw in the towel and non-tendered him. So far he is doing exactly what they paid him to do – hitting some home runs, playing solid defense, and filling in admirably for the injured Austin Meadows.

Joey Wendle was acquired from the A’s before the 2018 season and did nothing for the Rays except hold down second base and hit like a mother all season. Wendle slashed .300/.354/.435 producing 3.7 WAR in his first full major league season. The price for Wendle was a high-A catcher so it will be a while before the trade can be evaluated – so far though, the Rays have done very well. Primarily the starting second baseman, Wendle also played some shortstop, 3rd base, and left field so he is versatile enough to get to 500 plate appearances even if there is competition at second base, and excellent with the glove at second base where he produced 5 DRS in his first full season in the majors. Even if Wendle regresses offensively (his 2018 BABIP was .353), he will have value because he is likely to still hit for a decent average and pop a bunch of doubles (33 in 2018) while playing excellent defense anywhere they stick him. Off to a very slow start this season, Wendle then broke his wrist and will miss significant time.

One area that often separates the big money teams from the little guys at the bottom of the payroll ladder is depth and when injuries hit small market teams, they often run into trouble. The Rays have had their depth stretched already this season with Wendle’s and Meadows’ injuries. Brandon Lowe has stepped in and hit with power in Wendle’s absence. The power isn’t a big surprise as Lowe has turned into a power source in his last couple of seasons in the minors. He clubbed 28 homers last year between double-A, triple-A, and Tampa Bay. His .388 BABIP inflated average (.291) has been a bit of a surprise but that will eventually even out. Lowe is another versatile gloveman who has contributed at first, second, and in the outfield corners although his reputation with the glove is not great – but you know, scoreboard. He is only 24 and as a versatile lefty with power, Lowe is a valuable asset for the Rays now and moving forward, but if he is starting everyday, the Rays don’t have any room for another injury or prolonged ineffectiveness.

Ji-Man Choi has one of the coolest names in baseball and the starting first base job for the Rays, at least against righties. The book on him is that he can’t hit major league lefties – not one little bit. His .456 career OPS in very limited playing time against lefties in the majors is ugly, but his splits in the minors are much more promising so we shall see how many chances he gets to disprove the knock on him. Fortunately, Ji-Man lives in a  world where lefties who can pitch are more rare than righties. So far, the castoff from the Brewers, who already have the market cornered on first base types, is hitting .286/.387/.444 with a pair of homers in 75 plate appearances – only 12 of them against lefties. In fewer than 200 plate appearances last season he had 25 extra base hits including 10 home runs. He is going to hit for power and he is going to take walks. He has a .303 career average in the minors, but even if he only hits .270, the power and walk profile plays. So if the Rays keep him away from lefties so be it. He will still have a lot of value with the bat. The glove, eh – let’s just say he is a DH who can play first base rather than a first baseman who will occasionally DH which is the kind of compromise you have to make when you are a small market team like the Rays.

Yandy Diaz will play some at first base because unlike Ji-Man Choi (can’t say that name enough!) he hits lefties and righties. Diaz has become the Rays primary starter at 3rd where he appears to be a pretty good defender with the small sample size caveat. Diaz looks like a power hitter at 6’2 with biceps of legend, but his offensive profile has always been that of an on-base machine. He carries a minor league career slash line of .311/.413/.414 and only has 26 home runs stretched across 1879 plate appearances. This season however, Diaz already has 6 big flies while still reaching base 37% of the time. If he actually has found a consistent power stroke while continuing to get on base like he always has then he is a star. It is a little early to get too excited but his .279 BABIP implies that his .277 batting average is probably a bit low based on bad luck. Keep an eye on Yandy and see if all that work in the gym blasting those monster guns is really paying off, or if he just looks better than the other guys in a tight shirt (but gets on base 38% of the time). He either has value as a starter or value as a star – either way the Rays win.

The Rays top prospect has been Willy Adames for some time now and he made it to the majors last year as a 22 year old. Adames can hit for a decent average, get on base by the walk – 74 walks as a 20 year old is quite a feat – and drives a bunch of extra base hits, although mostly doubles so far (and spot a Cylon skin job from a mile away). His defensive numbers at short weren’t good in extended time last year, but are improved to start 2019. He probably won’t win a Gold Glove but he will hold down the position for sure. His slash line in 2018 was .278/.348/.406 but included a hefty .378 BABIP which might indicate a truer batting average around .250 at this point in his career. The 10 home runs he hit in 323 plate appearances bode will for his future and, even though he is off to a rough start this season, he isn’t going anywhere. A starting shortstop who contributes with the bat is something the Rays haven’t had for a while and he is going to be a foundational player for the Rays moving forward.

Without a doubt Mike Zunino was acquired from the Mariners for his glove, not his bat. In particular, Zunino is coveted for his ability to steal strikes with his pitch framing skills. But Zunino also possesses excellent power blasting 25 and 20 homers in his two close-to-full seasons in the majors. One look at his career slash line (.208/.276/.434) shows the problem with Zunino’s bat – he makes way too many outs. Between his low batting averages and his limited ability to draw a walk, if he wasn’t a gifted pitch framer he might be out of a job. His career wRC+ of 89 at least puts him in the neighborhood of average catchers, but again it is his work behind the plate stealing strikes for his pitchers is why the Rays coveted Zunino. He has three seasons where he produced 2 or more WAR – 4.2 in 2014, 3.9 in 2017, and 2.1 in 2018. The Rays would take that, but Zunino is 28 and might have more in the tank if he fits the profile of a catcher who develops late as a hitter, which is a thing. If his OBP can get to .300 with 20 bombs then the Rays are in business.

It always feels good when the little guy sprints past the big fellas so a lot of baseball fans should be rooting for the wee Rays to beat up on the behemoth Yankees and Herculean Red Sox. So far so good, but the Rays are about out of depth players as they are dealing with two injuries, whereas the Yankees, who have been hammered by injuries already, have shown how deep they really are. New York has stayed close to the Rays even though the Yankees currently have an astounding $81,688,167 worth of player contracts on the IL. That is more than the overall payroll of 9 teams! The Rays will have to hope for luck in the health department or make some moves to give them the depth to stay ahead of the big boys the rest of the way.  Right now they have the bats to complement their pitching staff and beat their 90 wins from last season. The Rays could win the AL East. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, big boys of the East!

 

Can the Yankees Play Moneyball 2, too?

When big money teams start using small-market team strategies then what is left for the small market teams to do other than to have disco demolition night at the park? Last year saw the A’s go with a tape and glue-stick starting rotation and a very deep, very good bullpen that they employed to win 97 games. Oakland was projected to win in the vicinity of 75 games by most prognosticators, so it makes one take notice that they very much out-performed their projections using a novel approach to pitching. The Yankees don’t have to scrimp and save because, unlike the A’s, they have more than two nickels to rub together if they so desire. New York went out and got James Paxton to bolster their rotation, but also traded away Sonny Gray, and now both Luis Severino and C.C. Sabathia are at risk for missing some time with shoulder and knee issues. This off-season they signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal and lost setup man Dellin Betances for the start of the season. Should the Yankees be worried? Have you seen their pen?

When the Yankees traded for James Paxton they knew what they were getting – a supremely talented starting pitcher who was heading into his age 30 season and has yet to make more than 28 starts in a major league season or tally more than 160.33 innings in one big league campaign. Paxton’s fan rate was 11.68 batters per 9 in 2018 which marks the 4th season in a row of improvement for Paxton. His walk rate was at 2.36 per 9 which is below his career rate of 2.60. Paxton throws his mid-90s fastball about two thirds of the time and mixes a curveball and cutter the rest of the time after all but abandoning his change. Paxton’s pitch mix leads to a lot of batters chasing pitches outside the zone – about 5% above league average, and a lot of swinging strikes in general – over 14% of the time – almost 4% above league average. So Paxton throws strikes and also gets guys to fruitlessly chase his offerings, even when they are not strikes. What’s not to love? Well, last year almost 15% of fly balls off Paxton ended up as souvenirs of the home run variety. That is well above his career rate, and HR/FB% is a particularly volatile stat so it is likely that Paxton will get back to his 10% or less rate – especially as a lefty pitching in Yankee stadium. Paxton is good, really good, but a health risk, a pretty hefty health risk.

Who is Luis Severino? Is he the dude who went 19-8 last season? Is he the guy who posted a 2.31 ERA in the first half or the guy who posted a 5.57 ERA in the second half? Right now Severino is the guy who will start the season on the IL (formerly known as the DL) with rotator cuff inflammation. The wishful thinkers have him returning to action sometime in May. That is probably the best-case scenario depending on the severity of the shoulder injury, but shoulder injuries are much scarier than elbow injuries because of the complexity of the shoulder capsule. It looks like the Yankees are not going to have their ace at top form for a good piece of the first half if not longer and that is a tragedy. At 25, Severino has established himself as a top-notch starter who is good for 190 innings – that is nearly impossible to replace. So Paxton is the ace now which bumps Masahiro Tanaka into the two spot.

Masahiro Tanaka is 30 and with three seasons of MLB pitching under his belt, it is pretty clear what he is. The Yankees should expect about 175 innings with low walk totals (around 2 per 9) and 9 or so strikeouts per 9, with a lot of home runs – a career rate of 1.33 per 9 to date. With a career ERA of 3.59, he is in solid number three starter territory. He does it with a slider thrown more and more often – up to 33% in 2018 – and a splitter up to 30% last season with his fastball only seeing the light off day about 26% of the time and decreasing every year. Tanaka always gives up a lot of home runs, but that profile works if his walk rate stays low and he allows fewer than a hit per inning. If traffic increases, and his homer rate stays where it is, then Tanaka will struggle to keep his ERA down. At 30 years old with an elbow ligament that is suboptimal but hanging in there, Tanaka’s 2019 should look a lot like his 2018. He is a solid number three and will hopefully be able to get to that slot rather than spending the whole season carrying a bigger load than what his profile dictates.

J.A. Happ should benefit from the move to Yankee stadium for his home games where it is friendlier for lefty hurlers. He should not benefit from aging as he is now 36. Not that 36 year old pitchers can’t succeed, and Happ had one of his best years ever in 2018 when his strikeout rate jumped to 9.78 per 9 – a career high – and his walk rate dropped to 2.58 which is more than a half a walk below his career rate. His fastball, which sits about 92, was his best pitch last year and he has held onto his velocity year after year. Happ should be good for 160 or so innings which the Yankees will desperately need if Severino, Sabathia, and Betances miss substantial time. He fits nicely into the three slot as long as he holds onto his 3 WAR goodness, and is able to go to the hill 30 or so times.

In 2015 and 2016 it looked like CC Sabathia was cooked, but he took control of his demons and constructed his own revival turning back into a solid contributor to the rotation in 2017 and 2018 with 4.3 WAR over the two campaigns. The 38 year old has announced that this will be his last season and at 6’6, 300 pounds he is having knee problems this spring. The Yankees need him to be the 2017-2018 pitcher or they might be in some trouble. If he can give the Yanks 140 innings of solid mid-to-high 3’s ERA then the farewell tour will be devoid of the gnashing of teeth and might end in some post-season love for Carsten Charles Sabathia. If the knee derails his season then the Yankees are going to have to scramble to fill the void.

Speaking of scrambling, the Yankees signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal at the end of the off-season, which is a good thing if he spends most of the season as a veteran insurance policy, and a bad thing if he pitches like he has the last two seasons and is forced to make 30 starts. Gonzalez is a fastball-curveball-change up pitcher and has lost 2 MPH off of his heater in the last two seasons and closer to 4 MPH since 2015. His change up has not decreased in velocity by as much so the separation between the two pitches has decreased. Not surprisingly, the pitch value of his change up was down dramatically in 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, his fastball value has been up the last two seasons from where it sat before the drop, but his signature curveball has become much less effective.  So what does this all mean? It might mean that the 33 year old pitcher is into the decline phase of his career. It might also mean that he could adjust to his new reality and experience a few more years of success. That said, there aren’t a lot of pitchers who throw their fastball 89-90 who can hold a rotation spot and thrive without a knockout secondary pitch and a third pitch that works to keep the batter from sitting on his other two offerings. If, as it likely is, we get to watch him get a few starts in Yankee stadium, we will see if he has made the adjustment and finds a way to succeed in his new digs.

There isn’t a lot on the near horizon in the minors to help with their pitching staff as their best pitching prospects are a couple years away. The best exception is Jonathan Loaisiga, an undersized right-hander who got his first taste of the Majors in 2018. Loaisiga, who has one of the best baseball food related nicknames ever (Johnny Lasagna), already has a nasty three pitch mix that includes a mid-90s fastball, a curveball, and an improving changeup, but he has been slowed by injuries to the point where in 6 seasons of professional baseball Loaisiga just broke the 180 inning mark for his career. To hope that he could contribute 150 innings this season seems like wish-casting of the highest order. It looks like he might get an opportunity to start in New York as Sabathia and Severino struggle with health issues. He looked pretty valuable in his 9 starts in New York last season as he struck out 33 batters in just under 25 innings and didn’t allow a home run. His ERA was 5.11 and he gave up 26 hits, but for a first exposure to the bigs that was a solid start, even if it was a small sample size. If he sticks in the rotation I would imagine the Yankees would have a pretty firm cap on his innings – 120 or something pretty low – since his season high to date is 80.66. If he makes the rotation then that’s potentially four starting pitchers who might not hit the 150 inning mark. He started the season in the minors as the Yankees sent him down as camp broke, but has already been called up to make two starts.

Domingo German isn’t a top prospect but made 14 starts for the Yankees in 2018 and has already made two starts this season. The 26 year old mixes four pitches well, including a hard slider that he throws as fast as his heater, and a curveball that he throws about a third of the time. Control issues have been his biggest weakness and he has also been homer prone, but he has some swing and miss capability as batters have missed at a higher rate than league average at pitches in and out of the zone. He is at least interesting and if he can eat innings and even be league average then the Yankees have a find.

New York tipped their hand a bit this off-season when they traded for Paxton. Why would the Yankees send a top pitching prospect like Justus Sheffield to Seattle to get Paxton knowing that they probably can’t expect 200 innings from him? Yes, he is great, and not to beat a dead horse or anything but see above – the Yankees might not end up getting a 150 inning season out of 80 percent of the dudes who make up their rotation. Why would they push all in on that “strategy”? The answer is that the Yankees have built what might be the best bullpen in all of baseball. With the off-season acquisitions of Adam Ottavino and the closer formerly known as Zach Britton (now Zack Britton), the Yankees now have five relievers who have been closers or were considered the best relievers on their teams. That is some serious depth. It seems to be the rich guy’s version of the A’s strategy of propping up their suspect rotation with a deep, lights out pen. I doubt the Yankees will employ the opener strategy like the A’s and Rays did last year, but the Yankees could survive injuries to the starters or just a lack of starter stamina with a pen as deep as theirs. Having the kind of depth they have in the pen might also allow the Yankees to keep their starters healthy by keeping their pitch counts down. It will be interesting to watch. The bullpen makeup is likely to change throughout the season but not so much the core.

Let’s start with the guy who will get the most chances to finish games for the Yankees, Aroldis Chapman. His fastball velocity is not what it used to be, down 2 MPH since 2016 to a still ludicrous 99.1 according to Pitch Info (via FanGraphs). His pitch mix has changed some with an increase in sliders to 25.5% last season, up from his career rate of 17.9%. With his changed pitch mix came some interesting results. His slider was more effective as he used it more, and so was his change. Not everything came up roses for Aroldis though as his walk rate was up from a career rate of 4.19 to last season’s 5.26 per 9, as was his hard hit ball percentage – 34.5% – up from a career rate of 27.5%. He was quite hard to get a hit off of though – harder than usual – with a .268 BABIP which might indicate some luck last year and might portend an increase in ERA this year as he drifts back to to the middle of the luck spectrum. It is good to take all those potential signs into account but remember that he is really hard to hit as indicated by the swing and miss numbers both on pitches in the zone (15% lower than league average) and on pitches that would not have been strikes (8% lower than league average). Chapman is still a beast.

It is tough to say who will be the setup guy when Dellin Betances is healthy because the Yankees have so many pitchers to choose from (including Betances). Adam Ottavino had an unbelievable 2018. If you have time, go looking for articles about how he remade himself in the off-season. It is very much a “pull yourself up by your boot-straps” story (plus technology!). Ottavino’s slider is about as nasty as it gets and he threw it almost 50% of the time, mixing in a sinker and cutter. Otto struck out 13 batters per 9 innings and 53% of the balls batters put into play were either ground balls or infield popups. One of the biggest changes in Ottavino’s results was the big drop in the percentage of baseballs that left the yard – down from a career average of 11.8% to 8.6% last season. That number could just be a result of season to season fluctuation or it could be a result of his improved slider. Either way, if he looks anything like he did last year the Yankees could use him to close when Chapman isn’t available or they could use him in the 7th or 8th. Don’t be surprised if his slider usage increases even more in 2019 with the slider-happy Yankees.

Of course the Yankees could go with Zack Britton late in the game. Britton had one of the more amazing seasons ever for a closer in 2016 when his ERA for the season was 0.54. While he hasn’t been that guy in the last two seasons, he has still been pretty good even while he has struggled with injuries. Britton isn’t the type of closer who gets a ton of swing and miss; he is more the guy who gets you to roll over on the pitch and beat it into the ground. His sinker has been one of the best in baseball and it is still good, even though it has slowed two ticks to around 95 MPH instead of 97 MPH. He still threw it more than 90% of the time but didn’t get his usual double-digit value out of it. Batters chased it a bit less often when it missed the strike zone so maybe they were seeing it better. Is it the drop in velocity that is making the sinker less effective or is he getting less sink? Will his velocity or movement (if he even lost any) come back with a stretch of health? His role and effectiveness at the start of the season will give us clues as to how the Yankees use the former closer. He is only 31 so if he is healthy, that sinker will still play and he will continue to have a chance to pitch high leverage situations – possible coming in with runners on base to induce ground ball double plays. When a player has a season that is otherworldly, anything less makes it seem like there is something wrong, but usually what it means is that everything came together that one time and now the player is hitting his middle projections – nothing wrong with Britton at his normal level of effectiveness.

They can always use Chad Green late in a game. Even though he will likely not get to close – and if he does that probably means the Yankees are in trouble having lost three of their stud relievers – but Green could close for many teams. He has a fastball heavy approach that became even fastball heavier in 2018 as he threw his heater about 87% of the time (up from 67.7% in 2017 which is about his career rate) and saw his velocity pick up a half MPH. His slider usage has dropped off two seasons in a row from 29.4% in 2016, to 22.5% in 2017, to only 10.2% of the time last year. His velocity was up on the slider and it was less effective whether through predictable usage patterns, lack of command, or less movement – hard to know. Whatever the case, Green had another really good season even though his hard hit rate was up about 9% as was his home run rate. He took a step back from his superior 2017 numbers but still posted a FIP of 2.86 and a WHIP OF 1.04 over 75.66 innings while fanning more than 11 per nine and walking fewer than 2 per nine. His tendency to pound the strike zone will mean he will give up a few home runs, but hey – still looks like a closer to most teams.

Dellin Betances could close too when he gets healthy. Here are some numbers to ponder – Betances has struck out more than 15 batters per 9 innings pitched each of the last three seasons. If you combine his last three seasons you get to about 200 innings (199.33), which is a good number of innings pitched for a starter for a single season, and he has fanned 341 batters during that stretch. The closest anyone has come in any of the last three seasons was Chris Sale with 308 in 2017. Yes, extrapolating a reliever’s numbers to a starter’s single season workload is an unfair comparison, but if you are looking for a dominant strikeout pitcher Betances is your man. He does it with a pretty even mix of a 98 MPH fastball and a curveball. Batters swung at more of his pitches in 2018 and made more contact by a bit, but his first strike rate was also up and his walk rate was down. With a FIP of 2.47 over 66.66 innings last year, the Yankees pen looks a lot different if his shoulder trouble is significant and he misses more than a few days in the first half.

Yes, there are other pitchers in the Yankees pen but this is the core with the other arms likely to change some over the course of the season. If Betances is healthy soon then the Yankees have plenty of cover for their starting rotation if it fails to provide the innings you would expect from a group you hope to take you deep into the playoffs. The Yankees will run into trouble if Paxton, Severino, and Tanaka go down for a significant amount of time and Betances doesn’t come back healthy soon. There are a lot of question marks in the rotation, but the only one in the pen is how often and how soon can Betances go? Fans should also keep in mind that the Yankees have the resources to go get more help if things start to slip. In the meantime, the Yanks can baby their rotation a bit using the deep pen to keep from overtaxing the starters which might mean none of them break down at all during the season and are healthy when the post-season starts. If they make it to the playoffs and the pen is not over-taxed then they are set up to go deep into the post-season.

 

Is The Indians Outfield A Mistake In The Jake?

Who has the ugliest looking projected outfield for 2019? If you said the crew patrolling the outfield in the park formerly known as Jacobs Field, you might not be wrong. The Indians team that made the playoffs last year did it on starting pitching and an incredible left side of the infield, but that outfield – wow. With the departure of Michael Brantley the question is do the Indians have any outfielders who would start for the Yankees, or Red Sox, or Rays, or A’s, or… You get the idea. Just who will the Indians run out there and what the heck is the plan for the team most likely of all the teams in baseball to win their division?

Projections are usually pretty bleak for players with little or no experience in the majors. It makes sense when you think about how many talented prospects fall flat when they have to face the competition at the highest level. Looking at ZiPS projections for the Indians 2019 outfield, Leonys Martin is the only starter projected to have a WAR above 1.0.  Martin has multiple seasons above 2.0 but he is coming off an interrupted year where he came close to dying from an infection. Martin’s value lies mostly in his glove and he has had only one season with a wRC+ above 100 (103 in 353 plate appearances in 2018) with a career rate of 83. Now 31, Martin’s defense is unlikely to get better so his bat has to be at least close to league average for him to have enough value to start. He has nearly 50 career DRS in center field so his defense is elite if he is back to where he was before he became so seriously ill. Most humans with any kind of heart are pulling for him to play a full season and pick up where he left off.

Martin is probably the only outfielder who is a sure bet to get more than 500 plate appearances. Jake Bauers will likely end up at first base or in left if Hanley Ramirez – yes, that Hanley Ramirez – gets the nod at first base. Bauers has some things to like – decent power, the ability to take a walk, and youth. In 2018 his power was on display with 11 homers and 35 extra base hits in 388 plate appearances for the Rays. Bauers also walked a lot but his strikeout rate was untenable – 54 walks to 108 K’s. He had never flashed a K rate above 20 until 2018 so his 27% rate was probably a shocker to his 24 followers out there. The Indians could really use a guy who can get on base 35% of the time with some power so Bauers should get a chance at 500 plate appearances unless he starts out fanning left and right. He has some speed so if he gets moved to a corner outfield spot he should be decent, although he is a better first baseman at this point in his career. In their fiscal austerity season it would make sense to try to push Bauers to a more challenging part of the defensive spectrum to increase his value until he shows that he can’t do it. He has minor league experience at the outfield corners so it isn’t like they are trying to convert him in the majors.

Bradley Zimmer was an exciting prospect with tons of speed, projectable power, and the shiny veneer that coats all athletic prospects. But Zimmer is 26 now and hasn’t established himself as a major league regular (a slash line of .237/.300/.370 in 446 major league plate appearances). Unlike other top prospects, Zimmer didn’t exactly dominate the minors – his career slash line there is .268/.370/.449. He has shown the ability to get on base via the walk, but just looking at his minor league slash line might make you wonder about his hit tool. Scouts don’t particularly like his hit tool so they are in agreement with what his stats say – Fangraphs has his hit tool at a 30 with the potential to be a 40 on an 80 scale. He looks like he is ready to be a good defensive center fielder right now except that he had shoulder surgery last season and might not be fully ready by opening day (although he finally played a spring training game this week). His arm is one of his better tools so we will have to see if his shoulder is back up to speed when he comes back. With his quality glove, if Zimmer can replicate his minor league slash line in the majors then the Indians have a starting outfielder. But if Zimmer can’t get on base enough to use his speed and he doesn’t start turning his raw power into game power then he will be a 4th outfielder, which would be a huge disappointment for the Indians.

So if Zimmer isn’t the guy or Ramirez doesn’t push Bauers to the outfield then who will the Indians run out there to shag fly balls? There are three youngish guys vying for playing time in the outfield – Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, and Greg Allen – and one not quite as young guy in 28 year old Tyler Naquin. Naquin has had one partial season, his rookie season of 2016, where he looked like a quality starting outfielder, albeit one aided by an unsustainable .411 BABIP. Naquin slashed .296/.372/.514 in 365 plate appearances but then all but dissolved in 2017, in part due to injuries. In 2018 he was nowhere near that 2016 guy – more injuries and ineffectiveness –  and at 28 looks like a one-season wonder. Defensive metrics don’t like him in center but show him to be a good corner outfielder, so his bat needs to get close to his 2016 numbers for him to start. This is likely his last chance to claim a starting job or even claim substantial playing time.

Jordan Luplow drew walks, showed good power, and demonstrated the ability to hit lefties and righties in the minors. So far he has only managed 190 plate appearances in the majors and hasn’t really shown the ability to do anything at the plate. That isn’t much time really, and Luplow should get a chance to show what he can do in an outfield where all the options have holes in their game. The offensive bar is a bit higher for him because he is most likely limited to a corner spot, but realistically center is covered anyway between Martin and Zimmer. At 25, Luplow needs to show what he can do pretty soon before he gets caught and passed by some shinier, newer prospect.

Naquin and Luplow have not made the most of their opportunities this spring but two of the youngsters on the list have – Oscar Mercado has crushed the ball as has Greg Allen. Mercado is younger and is a skilled center fielder, but he has no major league experience, whereas Allen has 300 plate appearances in the Cleveland with mixed results. Both men can fly and Allen showed that he could steal bases at a high success rate in the majors last season (21 out of 25). Allen has shown the ability to get on base in the minors but that hasn’t translated to the majors yet. Mercado has hit for average and shown some game power in his last two minor league stops but hasn’t even tasted major league gatorade yet. Both men play center field, and are reported to both be good defenders, but Allen’s numbers in his time patrolling center in the majors weren’t good. So what to do?

The Indians could gamble and keep both Mercado and Allen since Allen hits lefties better and Mercado, who is a righty, has hit right-handers better the last couple of seasons. The advantage to keeping Mercado and Allen is that there is some upside there and they both give you speed and likely good defense with the ability to play center. Naquin is more of a known quantity and he is a corner guy so that limits him. Since Bauers can play first base then you could hang onto Luplow also since he still appears to have some upside and has the best power potential of any of the players in the outfield mix. That would mean passing on Hanley Ramirez which is probably the right thing to do anyway. If Zimmer starts the season in extended spring training or on the DL and Martin is the starter in center, then you could have an excellent defensive outfield and just hope that SOMEONE hits their weight. A platoon between Mercado and Allen in one corner and either Luplow or Bauers in the other depending on the situation with Hanley would at least give fans some reason for hope. It could work. If you are going to run out a bunch of question marks then it makes sense to support your strength – starting pitching – by making sure you put together a good defensive mix behind them as often as possible. If the Indians can get even middle of the pack production out of their outfield then they should be able to hold off the Twins. Maybe the Indians outfield isn’t as ugly as it looks?

Take a Stroll Down Cardinals Way

The Cardinals Way is synonymous with winning, or at least sustained competitiveness, and the Cards took a step in that direction for 2019 when they traded for one season of Paul Goldschmidt (pending a possible contract extension). While that was the biggest move St. Louis made this off-season it wasn’t the only move. For some, change is strange and frightening, but for Cardinal Faithful change was much needed after three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance (which is not the Cardinal way). But are the Cardinals better for 2019 and/or better for the post-2019 future? They certainly made a move that will help their offense, but did they do enough to improve their pitching?

There is no way Jose Martinez is happy about the Cardinals’ off-season. He went from finally winning and earning a full-time job on a major league team (dude is 30) and experiencing his first full season in the majors as a starter, to having really no place to go. Jose does one thing – he hits the ball and hits is hard (so maybe that’s two things). He may do other things well, like playing guitar, gardening, or recycling, but his baseball skills are all about the bat. His “best” position on the field is first base and he put together a -5 DRS last season. Martinez also played outfield a little, but that didn’t go well either, costing the Cards -6 DRS in much less time. The eye test is wildly in agreement with the stats as Martinez is considered to be a really bad fielder. When you hit as well as Martinez does (a 130 wRC+ through his first 915 MLB plate appearances) you deserve to play in the majors, although in his case, the AL would be a better fit where he could be a DH and emergency fielder (with a first baseman’s glove stored in a glass case with a hammer hanging next to it). If you have been hiding in a cave in the desert you may not know that St. Louis has a baseball team and said team – the Cardinals, not the Browns – traded for Paul Goldschmidt during the off-season. Mr Goldschmidt has a pretty nifty trophy collection that includes four Silver Slugger trophies for the best hitting first baseman in the NL as well as three Gold Gloves. Goldschmidt’s collection of hardware indicates that Jose Martinez will not be seeing much time at first base. Ok, but surely Jose of the Bat must play somewhere so that he is allowed to hit, yes? Well that is a two part question. If we are talking about him playing in the field in 2019, it is going to be mostly in a corner outfield spot, which, as we have established would be a mistake of Hanley Ramirez proportions. If we are talking about the future, well, there has been talk about the National League adopting the DH (cough – abomination – cough) so maybe the Cardinals think that is going to happen for the start of the 2020 season, and since Martinez got a late start on his service time, he won’t be a free agent until 2023. The Cardinals can afford to keep his bat around in hopes that they will have their DH ready to roll when that happens. He will need playing time to keep his batting skills sharp, so that means some time in the outfield, some time at first base, regular work as a pinch hitter, and time as a DH during inter-league play – maybe 400 at bats depending on how often the Cardinals are willing to sacrifice team defense a bit. To answer our guiding question here – yes – first base will be improved although mostly on defense and on the base paths. Goldschmidt is an upgrade over Martinez but not as big an upgrade as he would have been with, say, the Rockies. In addition to making it harder to get Jose Martinez and his thunderous bat into the lineup, there are other consequences to Goldschmidt’s insertion into the everyday lineup.

Matt Carpenter can still hit. I know it didn’t look like it in the first month of 2018 where his slash line was .155/.305/.274, but Carpenter finished the season with his best power numbers (36 home runs) and right in line with his total offensive output (wRC+ of 138). He finished 9th in MVP voting for his offensive exploits and is a mainstay of the Cardinals at the age of 33. Carpenter has been positionally flexible throughout his career, although first base seems to be the best fit for him at this point, even though he was mostly the starting third baseman in 2018. The defensive metrics have had a mixed view of him at 3rd where last year he had a DRS of 6 but a UZR/150 of -2.5, but overall his career metrics are a DRS of -2 and a UZR/150 of -3.8. He isn’t great but he doesn’t kill the team with his glove. That said, he is, as mentioned above, 33, so it is hard to see him maintaining his current level of ability in the field for much longer. Moving Carpenter to first has been a talking point for a couple seasons, but that is not an option for 2019 as everyone and their brother will be competing for the table scraps of playing time available when Goldy needs a breather, or God forbid, gets hurt. So the “fallout” from acquiring Goldy is that Carpenter sticks at 3rd base. That likely would have happened anyway because at the moment no one in the Cards organization is knocking down the door to be the 3rd baseman of the future, but it does block players of value on the roster from playing time. Jedd Gyorko isn’t a youngster but he is the best third baseman on the team and is a decent offensive piece with a wRC+ last year of 110 in line with his last two seasons of 112 and 112 (again). He isn’t a star, but he is good enough to start at 3rd for several teams and now it is unclear where he will find playing time. Gyorko is 3 years younger than Carpenter and has an option year in 2020. He also has some positional flexibility, so he will be a good bench piece for the Cardinals.

Yairo Munoz is a young 3rd baseman – just turned 24 – who has some power and gets on base. In his first taste of the majors he managed a wRC+ of 106 in 329 plate appearances. His defensive work at 3rd wasn’t pretty but most of his time in the minors was spent at shortstop so it’s possible that he could learn the position with enough reps at the hot corner. Like Gyorko, he has the ability to play multiple positions including 2nd, short, and the outfield at various levels of skill (the metrics hated him equally everywhere), but his playing time is likely to be limited in the majors in 2019 since Gyorko covers most of the spots he plays as the reserve. He has a great arm, so it makes sense to eventually give him a shot at 3rd base since Paul DeJong is locked in at shortstop and Kolten Wong is the starter at 2nd. DeJong and Wong are both excellent defenders. Between them they put up 33 DRS in the middle of the Cardinals infield last season. The pair has some warts at the plate but in a somewhat down season for both of them they still managed to be right around 100 wRC+. Munoz could turn into a starting 3rd baseman someday although that day won’t be in 2019 with the Cardinals since Carpenter needs to be in the lineup everyday and he will occupy 3rd base, since Goldschmidt is blocking him from playing 1st base. It is more likely now that Munoz will spend the season at triple-A or turn into a second option at the multi-tool reserve spot getting limited playing time at second, short, and third. Nobody is saying that having Paul Goldschmidt on your team is going to hurt the club, but when you make a trade you need to look at the whole picture including what it does to other players on the team. The Cardinals traded to fill a position that didn’t need filling and so diminished the return by burying valuable parts like Munoz and Gyorko, and locking themselves in positionally. Be excited that you have Goldschmidt but understand that this wasn’t a 6 win gain you just made.

Moving beyond the Goldy implications, the other big move the Cardinals made was the signing of Andrew Miller, probably the most famous middle reliever in baseball based on his postseason performance from 2016. Miller had a mediocre 2018 if you compare him to, uh, Andrew Miller. He still fanned just short of 12 batters per 9, but all his other numbers went south quite a bit including his walk rate which jumped to 4.2 per 9, up dramatically from his 2014 through 2017 rates. Miller suffered through a knee injury and a shoulder impingement so if he is healthy he could return to form, although “if he’s healthy” combined with his age – 34 for most of the 2019 season – should have Cardinals management and fans alike feeling the jibblies at least a bit. The Cardinals have had horrible luck with their free agent relief pitcher signings of late, including Greg Holland’s nightmare of 2018, and the injury-fest that describes the Brett Cecil/Luke Gregerson signings. There are some exciting young pieces in the Cardinals pen, like Jordan Hicks, who at 22 throws his fastball at over 100 MPH. Last season was his first above single-A and it showed, as he walked way too many batters and wasn’t really effective or particularly useful. Ryan Helsley might also see time in the Cardinals pen if he is healthy and the Cards aren’t above using him in the pen instead of continuing to develop him as a starter at triple-A. Dakota Hudson is another hard throwing young reliever who hasn’t put it all together in the majors yet – he walked close to 6 per 9 innings in his debut in 2018, but that probably doesn’t reflect his actual ability if you believe his 2017 and 2018 triple-A numbers where the rate was closer to 3-3.5. If Miller takes on most of the high leverage spots out of the pen, it might actually help the young flamethrowers develop without the pressure of closing or setting up. Unlike the Goldschmidt situation where quality players are being blocked or being forced out of their regular positions, the bullpen needed rescuing so the signing of Miller is likely to help the team now, and from a developmental standpoint.

One thing you may have noticed already is that the Cardinals have aged through these two transactions. Goldschmidt is 31 and Miller is 34. At the major league level the Cardinals look like they are in “win now” mode if you just look at those two moves.  The Goldschmidt deal cost them three young players; Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver both have major league experience and are talented but flawed, at least in the sense that neither has become established yet, and Andy Young just completed his first partial season at double-A and at 24, will likely start the year at triple-A Reno. If you just looked at this deal, it would look like the Cardinals are pushing in a lot of their chips to try to win one more time before rebuilding. But if you look at their moves from the previous season you get a slightly different picture.

The Cardinals made three fairly quiet trades last season to restock the lower and middle ranks of their minor league system. They sent Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for Carter Capel and Jhon Torres. They sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay for Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera, and Roel Ramirez, and moved Sam Tuivailala to Seattle for Seth Elledge. Only two of the players they acquired have even reached triple-A, so the moves were made with the future in mind as the Cardinals traded from a depth of outfielders as well as selling off a reliever who had some value, but who the Cardinals felt was expendable moving forward. Torres and Cabrera are now top 10 prospects for the Cardinals. The major league team is older than it was before their off-season moves but the organization set themselves up for the future in the previous off-season so that they could go for it this season without giving up on their future. It was some good planning for sustained success, which is very much the Cardinals way.

St. Louis has maintained their youth up the middle with DeJong, Wong, and Bader, with Molina holding down the catching position while Andrew Knizner prepares to take over for him. They have some youth on the horizon at 3rd base (Eli Montero and Nolan Gorman are both top 5 prospects for the Cards and top 100 prospects in all of baseball, but still a few seasons away). They have a young player in his prime to play right field in Marcell Ozuna, and an even younger player in Tyler O’Neill in another corner outfield spot who has yet to fully establish himself as a starter, although he slugged 9 homers in his 130 at bat MLB debut. So their position players are all over the spectrum in terms of age and are at various stages of their careers, although their biggest stars are on the wrong side of 30 in Molina, Carpenter, and Goldschmidt so they need someone to take the mantle moving forward – someone like Ozuna or one of the young outfielders. You don’t want your team to age all at the same time – see the Giants of San Francisco – if you intend to contend for a long period of time, so the Cardinals are on the right track here with their position players.

An area where the Cardinals made no moves this off-season is the starting rotation. Adam Wainwright, their former ace, is 37 and has battled injuries and ineffectiveness for a few seasons now. 27 year old Carlos Martinez looked like he might be ready to take over the top rotation spot from Wainwright after three strong seasons in a row (2015-2017), but is now battling injuries of his own. Michael Wacha, who seems like he has been a Cardinal since the Gas House Gang days, is only 27 but he isn’t an ace and is unlikely to turn into one, again in part due to injuries. Alex Reyes was the anointed one who was to be the future ace of the Cardinals but back-to-back arm injuries have clouded the crystal ball for him. Miles Mikolas returned from Japan to throw 200 innings for the Cards with an ERA of 2.83 and a WHIP of 1.07, but Mikolas is 30 so while he was excellent, and an absolute epiphany last season, he probably isn’t going to get better moving forward and he has now had exactly one good season in the majors. If he even repeats his 2018 season the Cardinals will be over the moon, but you would be overly optimistic to count on him to be your ace moving forward. Which leaves us with Jack Flaherty. Flaherty debuted last season as a 22 year old and looked a lot like a future ace, posting an ERA of 3.34 and a WHIP of 1.11 while striking out almost 11 batters per 9. He is the future, and hugely important for the Cardinals pitching staff, even if Miles Mikolas was better last year. St. Louis has a few young arms who still have some development time, but none of them are likely to be aces. John Gant, who was in the rotation last season, has a ceiling of a 3 or a 4, with the usual control caveat. So there are pieces to like already in the rotation but most of the reinforcements are a ways away. Unlike the position players, a key injury or two would throw the rotation into complete disarray because there is little to no depth. Only two of their top 10 prospects are likely to be starting pitchers and one of them (Ryan Helsley) is coming off an arm injury, so likely will be in the pen if he is with the Big Club. The other one – Genesis Cabrera – will probably start the season at triple-A Memphis after not dominating double-A so there is some work there before he is ready to help. There are some starters deeper in the system but nobody who has poked his head up out of the quagmire of uncertainty, so starting pitching is likely to be the Achilles heel of the organization unless they make more moves to shore it up for the present as well as the future.

In terms of their future, the Cardinals, like many teams, will need to work pretty hard to piece together a rotation, probably involving trades and free agency. Their current position players and organizational depth are enough to contend right now and moving forward, but the pitching is going to have to rely heavily on hurlers who have a poor track record of health or who are well past their prime. The future is reasonably bright for the Cardinals but its not without some dark clouds on the horizon. It is exciting to have a guy like Paul Goldschmidt in the fold, even if he is a free agent in a year, but the Cardinals may have to spend their resources on starting pitchers sooner rather than later.

 

The D-backs Leave the Goldy-locks Zone

After shipping their best player to the Cardinals, do the Diamondbacks, who were in the NL West race for most of 2018, have a defining strength like great starting pitching or a terrifying offense? And moving forward, should the team work to shore up their weaknesses this season when they aren’t expected to seriously contend or should they double down on their area of greatest strength in an attempt to get the most out of what they have?  Let’s examine what the Diamondbacks were actually good at last year and whether we can expect that to change.

4th in the league in Defensive Efficiency – what does that even mean? The simple version is that the Diamondbacks were really good at turning batted balls into outs. “DE” is a nice measure of team defense although like most defensive stats, it isn’t perfect. Still, it is good to see a measure that matches the widely held perception that the Diamondbacks were good at defense for the last few seasons and for the purpose of our discussion, in 2018. Understanding how the Diamondbacks became one of the best defensive teams in baseball matters when you are trying to decide if they are likely to be that again in 2019.

Nick Ahmed was a big piece of the defensive puzzle as the Diamondbacks primary shortstop in 2018 and has been considered somewhat of a defensive whiz in his time in the majors. Ahmed hit 16 homers last year which was a bit of a surprise considering he had never reached double figures in long balls in his professional career. Run production isn’t really what Ahmed does. Even last year when his wRC+ was 84 (a career high), he was well below league average as a hitter. The main problem is that he doesn’t get on base enough (.290 OBP playing his home games in one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball), so while the homers are cool and everything, even in his best season by far he hurt the team with his bat. To be clear, Ahmed is there for his excellent glove work. 5.5 UZR/150 and 21 DRS are both really good defensive numbers that support his 11 dWAR – Defensive Wins above Replacement. On balance, Ahmed ended up producing 1.7 WAR which is a bit below what you want from your starter, but fine for a placeholder. He will be back in the same spot unless he gets off to a really rough start with the bat and the Diamondbacks get tired of all the outs and give up on Ahmed.

Paul Goldschmidt is obviously a great hitter averaging 144 wRC+ for his career. But Goldschmidt is not a one trick pony – he is a great baserunner and a really good first baseman with three Gold Glove awards in his last six seasons. dWAR for first basemen is tough because the positional adjustment is extremely steep costing them around 12 runs. You can go look at how dWAR is calculated on Fangraphs.com, but let’s use DRS and UZR/150 to look at Goldy’s glove work. So far, Goldschmidt has saved 50 runs (DRS) and 1.5 runs (UZR/150) as the two measures disagree about how good he is at first base. It is safe to say that Goldschmidt is at worst a good defensive first baseman and possibly more. Losing him is devastating to the offense and at least bad for the team defense. We will circle back to his replacement and what he will bring to the team.

The Diamondbacks second baseman for most of 2018 was Ketel Marte, a converted shortstop who contributed 104 wRC+ with the bat in 2018 as a 24 year old and had a 7 DRS season (1 UZR/150) at second with additional contributions at shortstop. He was a good middle infielder and a particularly good second baseman if not quite at Gold Glove quality. Interestingly, the Diamondbacks have announced that Marte will be their center fielder next year because they couldn’t find anyone else good enough to play the position in their organization and they thought he would be able to make the conversion. Marte is an excellent athlete so he may very well be able to make the conversion and turn into an above average center fielder, but there is certainly a risk. You are essentially letting go of a quality second baseman in exchange for a center fielder who will be learning on the job. It comes down to who the replacement will be at second, as well as how quickly Marte can learn the intricacies of his new position. There is likely to be a drop off in production at both spots at least for part of the season and that will hurt the defense.

The reason Arizona needs a center fielder is because A.J. Pollock, their primary center fielder for the last seven seasons, left via free agency this off-season. Pollock has averaged 113 wRC+ for his career and contributed 50 DRS and 5.9 UZR/150 as a center fielder. The new LA Dodger leaves the D-Backs with “only” one Gold Glove to his credit, in part because of his injury history that has placed him on the DL, costing him a lot of playing time in his career. Still, Pollock’s loss will be felt on offense and defense.

The replacement for Ketel Marte at second base is almost certain to be newly acquired Wilmer Flores. Flores is 27 and has been with the Mets his whole career. He was primarily a shortstop for the Metropolitans, but has played first, second, and third as well. Defensive metrics are a bit conflicted about Flores as a second baseman with DRS seeing him costing the Mets 9 runs over his career and UZR/150 at a more optimistic positive contribution of 1.5 runs. Flores is more loved for his bat than his glove with a career wRC+ of 99 and a career dWAR of -0.3. He will probably benefit from playing everyday, and from playing the same position everyday, so if he can at least be a push defensively at second and a 100 or so wRC+ guy, then that’s not a disaster for the Diamondbacks even if it degrades their defense slightly (which is likely).

Third base was the domain of Jake Lamb since his debut in 2014. Lamb is only 27 and was an All Star in 2017 and has two seasons of 29 and 30 home runs (2016 and 2017 respectively), but lost his job to Eduardo Escobar as Lamb struggled through a horrible season at the plate. His wRC+ of 78 was only slightly offset by his DRS of 5 and his UZR/150 of 3.6. Lamb has never put up good numbers with the glove so if this improvement on defense is real, it might help him resurrect his career as a starting third baseman although maybe not with Arizona as the Diamondbacks have extended late season acquisition Eduardo Escobar through the 2021 season. It is an interesting move in that Escobar is 30 and has only breached 100 wRC+ once in the last three season (2018 where he put up 117 wRC+). Escobar has played literally everywhere including pitching and catching, but has primarily been a shortstop and third baseman. He is solid defensively on the infield and should be a touch better at third than Lamb, unless you see Lamb’s defensive development last season as real improvement. The Diamondbacks might choose to make Lamb the regular at third and use Escobar everywhere in an attempt to rehabilitate Lamb’s profile so they could trade him. They could also keep Lamb as the starter at third and capitalize on Escobar’s versatility, unless there is something we don’t know about Lamb and they don’t think he can return to his previously level or ever get to where they thought he would before last season’s debacle. Either way, it doesn’t appear that there will be much of a change defensively at third base over what they saw in 2018.

If the Diamondbacks make Lamb the regular first baseman then there will almost certainly be a drop off at the position from Goldschmidt. Lamb has played a total of 9 games at first base as a professional and while he will likely be able to make the conversion, even the best case scenario doesn’t have him turning into an elite defender like Goldy in 2019. Arizona has a few other internal options to play first if Lamb struggles or they move him back to third. Christian Walker had a huge 2017 at triple-A and a pretty good 2018 back in the same spot, but has been largely blocked at the major league level and is now 27 with 99 career plate appearances in the Bigs. Walker isn’t a hidden star, but based on his ability to hit home runs and take walks, he could contribute to the lineup given regular playing time. In his limited time in the majors he has put up ugly defensive numbers but the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions about his defensive ability at first base. His minor league numbers show him to be able to play first base cleanly at least. Kevin Cron’s offensive profile looks similar to Walker’s, but he is two years younger and has more power but walks less often. Cron hasn’t tasted major league food yet so the same caveats about minor league defensive numbers apply. Cron is a better prospect than Walker and deserves a chance to show what he can do with major league pitching. He probably won’t be a star but he could be a decent late middle of the order bat, but won’t get a chance if Escobar is at third and Lamb at first. The bottom line at first base is that there will almost certainly be a defensive decline no matter who they use there and there will definitely be a huge decline in offensive production.

One of the returns for Goldschmidt was catcher, Carson Kelly. Kelly has been the understudy to Yadier Molina for a couple seasons now and has put up good pitch framing numbers in his limited playing time. Jeff Mathis is gone after putting up 87 DRS at catcher for his career including 17 last year. Unfortunately, Mathis hit like a wet piece of paper with a career wRC+ of 50 – ack! Alex Avila, who split time with Mathis last year, is a bat first catcher with poor framing numbers but good power. Avila will probably see the light end of a platoon and some time at first base. The defense won’t be as good at the catcher’s spot but the offense should improve significantly with Kelly taking Mathis’ spot.

We have already looked at center field, which will likely see a drop off from Pollock’s defense to Marte’s at least at first, but what about the corner outfield spots? David Peralta will return in left after a huge comeback season here – he put up 3.8 WAR driven mostly by his 130 wRC+ and a career high 30 home runs (his previous high was 17). His defensive numbers show him to be a solid defender with career DRS of 4 in left field and 0.3 UZR/150. His defensive reputation is better than his numbers so he is probably somewhere between excellent and solid. He is 31 so even a slow decline will probably take a little shine off his glove. Still, left field should remain stable from a defensive standpoint.

In the other corner (wearing the snakeskin trunks) is Steven Souza Jr. who is coming off an unmitigated disaster of a 2018 season. Souza Jr. is 29 and was coming off a breakout campaigns with the Rays in 2017 where he hit 30 home runs, contributed 120 wRC+, and saved 7 runs via DRS or 5.4 if you like UZR/150 better. Either way, it looked like he had finally turned into a low batting average/high walk total home run hitter who could play excellent defense in right and probably win all your bar fights for you as he is 6’4/225 and looks like a fast linebacker. Last year he battled multiple arm and back injuries that started in spring training, and struggled to a wRC+ of 84 and saw his defensive numbers drop below zero. If he comes back healthy, then the Diamondbacks should expect a big bump on offense and a slight bump on defense from Souza Jr..

For a team to have one of the best defenses in baseball for multiple seasons takes some intention and a commitment to a philosophy. They have to make a statement with their actions that they will put people in the best positions to succeed defensively and potentially sacrifice some offense to make that happen. With the trade of Goldschmidt, the departure of Pollock and Mathis via free agency, and moving Marte off second base, they are still making a statement – that they no longer believe in fielding the best defense they can. While there are many different ways to win, losing Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Patrick Corbin  (their best starting pitcher last season) makes it look like they are rebuilding. So far this isn’t a typical rebuild where they trade everyone of value for youngsters as they still have Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Peralta, and valuable bullpen arm, Archie Bradley. If they aren’t rebuilding but just resetting somehow then this current state of diminished defense could be temporary as they prepare for their next state whatever that may be. Looking at the lineup as it stands today, less than a week before pitchers and catchers report, it seems that there is almost no way the Diamondbacks are a top five defense in 2019. It isn’t as though they have just shifted ponies and will now be a great offensive team because Pollock and Goldschmidt haven’t been replaced with elite hitters (or really replaced at all). If the Diamondbacks trade some of the aforementioned veterans, then their intentions to rebuild will be clear. If they hold onto them and make some acquisitions to improve at first base or center field then that would seem to indicate that they are just changing direction. Take note during spring training and the first half of the season to see what the Diamondbacks are to become next.

 

The Mets Have All The Second Basemen!

Welcome to an interesting Mets’ off-season where they hired a new GM who was an agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, acquired not one, but two starting second basemen, a starting catcher, a center fielder, and two closers, not to mention some other bullpen parts. That’s the kind of off-season that gets a fan base worked up because the team is doing something instead of standing in place and hoping things will work out. Just because your team does something doesn’t necessarily mean they did the right things to turn them into a playoff team, but the Mets, under Van Wagenen, have definitely done something to change their fortunes for better or worse, especially on the infield. So let’s take a look at the impact of the guys who surround the pitchers on the dirt part of the field.

The catching position once appeared to be a strength for the Mets because they had Travis d’Arnaud back there and homeboy could hit home runs, and maybe more importantly, he could catch and throw. What d’Arnaud appears unable to do is stay healthy.  Only once has he reached 400 plate appearances and that was in 2014 when he stepped into the batter’s box 421 times. in 2018 d’Arnaud made 16 plate appearances in what was a lost season. Now 29, it will be interesting to see what he can do to contribute to the team as the backup catcher to Wilson Ramos, one of the new acquisitions that Van Wagenen signed as a free agent. Ramos is a better version of what d’Arnaud looked like he might be. Ramos is a good hitter – excellent for a catcher – and a decent defensive catcher who posts solid pitch framing numbers and slightly less solid numbers for throwing and pitch blocking. Ramos is possibly the best hitting catcher in the majors not named J.T. Realmuto, and last year bested all the catchers with his wRC+ of 131 – to 126 for Realmuto who did it over 531 plate appearances to Ramos’ 416 PA’s. Ramos has had more surgeries than even d’Arnaud who had TJ surgery last season, so expecting 500 plate appearances out of either of them is foolishness. The hope is that the two of them together can form one relatively healthy catcher. Adding Ramos is a definite upgrade over the other catchers the Mets ran out there in d’Arnaud’s absence. If one of the tandem falters, then Mets’ fans can expect to see a fair amount of someone like Tomas Nido, who has shown some pretty great framing skills and won a batting title in the minors. That said, it is unclear that he will hit enough in the majors to be more than the short defensive end of a catching platoon. For the season to go well for the Mets, they have to hope Ramos and d’Arnaud combine for 600+ plate appearances.

Spring training should determine the starter for the Mets at first. Peter Alonso is 24 and Baseball America just ranked him as the #48 prospect in all the land. He is a big man with huge power who also takes walks, hits for a decent average, and plays poor defense according to reports. Alonso hit 36 homers to go with 76 walks across two levels last season. He struck out 128 times too, but that is a manageable rate if he can continue to draw walks. He seems to be limited to first base and the Mets will deal with his defensive limitations if he hits a bunch of bombs and manages to carry an OBP over .320. His projections expect him to hit 20-25 home runs, bat around .240 with an OBP of .320 or so. That would be a fine rookie season. Anything more than that from Alonso and the Mets are in a good place. Less than that and he likely won’t play if his glove and arm are truly as bad as the scouts say.

J.D. Davis is Peter Alonso-light with the bat. He hits lots of home runs, but not quite as many as Alonso. He gets on base, but doesn’t walk as much as Alonso, and he strikes out more than Alonso. Defensively, Davis is more versatile than Alonso with a huge arm – enough for third base or right field, but without great range or a great glove so you probably don’t want to start him in either spot. Davis has crushed lefties in the minors – OPS north of 1220 in each of his last three stops – so a platoon with Alonso at first might work, although Alonso hits lefties just fine. It is hard to see the Mets carrying both players due to their defensive limitations so again – spring training will tell us a lot about the plan for 2019.

Todd Frazier is a good defensive third baseman but appears to have lost the ability to hit. He can still drive the ball over the fence from time to time – 18 homers in 2018 – but has back-to-back seasons hitting .213. To his credit, Frazier walks a lot so his OBP nudges past .300 every season – but just barely in three of the last four seasons – so he makes a lot of outs. Still, Frazier has been a three to four WAR player in all but two of the last six campaigns. His power does appear to be on the decline accounting for his first sub-two WAR season and his first wRC+ season below 100 since his rookie cup of coffee call up. 2018 was a 1.5 WAR season for Frazier. He is turning 33 before the start of spring training and it looks like his decline might be steep. If he starts, it will likely be at third, although he played a little first base in the majors. If the Mets carry him but don’t start him, then he is likely to see time at third, first, and maybe in the outfield where he hasn’t played since 2013. If he comes out of the gate hitting then the Mets will have a hard time finding spots for all their infielders to play because they have three guys who are second basemen and who will need to play almost everyday because of their bats. One of those three guys could move to first, but realistically the other two need to play either second or third based on their experience. More on that later, but the point is that Frazier could get squeezed out or flat out become a bench bat in 2019, the last year of his contract.

Shortstop is the most settled of the positions, with rookie and former top prospect Amed Rosario set to play everyday. Rosario is well thought of as a defender but didn’t put up good numbers according to DRS or UZR although those same metrics were good in 2017. So we will have to see what Rosario does with the glove in 2019. At this point in his development, his best tool is his speed and in the second half of last season he ran more often and more effectively stealing 18 bags in 24 attempts. He also hit 22 points better in the second half than in the first half, but he just doesn’t walk (4.9%) and he strikes out too much (20.1%) so his speed doesn’t get showcased enough since he isn’t on base often – a .295 OBP. Rosario just turned 23 so there is still likely some growth there and a 1.5 WAR season from a rookie shortstop with tools isn’t a disaster. The anti-Rosario came up last season – Luis Guillorme could step in if Rosario starts off frigid at the plate. Guillorme walks a ton, doesn’t strike out much, has no power to speak of, and is a wizard with the glove. His minor league slash line is .287/.363/.338 so in spite of the on base skills, he will likely transition to versatile glove man in the majors as his projections pessimistically agree on an OPS in the .500s. It will be interesting to see how he develops as he performed well with the bat at Double-A and Triple-A basically rising to the level of the competition. His glove will definitely push Rosario to perform.

Second base is where the logjam resides. Let’s start with the incumbent, Jeff McNeil. McNeil came up about midway through last season and flat out raked – a .329/.381/.471 slap line. He put up 2.7 WAR in half a season based in part on his wRC+ of 137, but also because of his solid work at second base – his primary position with the Mets, and his excellent work on the bases (7 of 8 stealing bases). In the minors, McNeil has been almost exclusively an infielder getting most of his time at second, followed closely by third base, then shortstop a distant third. He has played a total of 8 games in his professional career in the outfield. So it seems logical that he would get more time at second base or maybe third if you found a second baseman you just couldn’t pass up. Reports are that the Mets will try him in the outfield, but we will see what spring training brings. McNeil can hit for average, and found his power stroke in 2018 with 22 homers between double-A, triple-A, and the majors. If his bat is for real, then McNeil needs to be in the lineup everyday. His BABIP was on the high side at .359 but some players have high BABIPs regularly and it isn’t a sign of impending regression. McNeil has carried high BABIPs through most of his career so it will be interesting to see if he is one of those guys, or last season was lucky and he is really a .270 hitter with 10 home run power.

Robinson Cano was acquired this off-season in one of those deals where giant, lumbering contracts are exchanged. The difference with this deal was that the Mets also got a great closer in Edwin Diaz when they took on Cano’s gargantuan contract. This deal is interesting because Cano is coming off a suspension for PEDs in 2018, is 36, and before the suspension was still hitting like a 3-hole hitter. There is a small amount of data now on players’ performance after PED suspension and it doesn’t appear that most of them go in the tank when they are forced to play clean. Is that because the impact of the steroids lingers even after they stop taking them? Do they get better at hiding their transgressions? Were the steroids really helping them that much? Hard to know really, but 36 is 36 and Cano is due for some decline, although decline from perennial All-Star and potential Hall of Fame candidate at least starts out pretty high. His numbers show that he is still a good second baseman even if he isn’t a Gold Glove second baseman anymore. He had his knee scoped in the off-season so he should be at full health in spring training. Not surprisingly, considering that whole multiple Gold Glove thing at second base, Cano has played second base almost exclusively throughout his career getting his first innings at third and first last season. He contributed 4 DRS at second in 2018 despite missing half the season. Moving him to another position in spite of his continued ability to play the position well seems like a mistake and I would imagine he might bristle at the idea although that is hard to know from the outside.

In case you were thinking that two second basemen wasn’t quite enough, the Mets also signed Jed Lowrie from the A’s. Lowrie is coming off his best season in the majors (with 4.9 WAR and a wRC+ of 122) and his best back-to-back seasons in the majors in part because he stayed healthy. Injuries have cost Jed a lot of time in the past and he turns 35 the first month of the season. Last year he looked like an excellent defensive second baseman as he contributed 5.6 wins according to UZR/150. It seems possible that putting him in one position and leaving him there for two seasons has had a positive impact on his defense which intuitively makes sense. So the Mets have signed him and claim that their intention is to move him around the infield like a Ben Zobrist or a Marwyn Gonzalez. That type of player has value, and Lowrie can definitely do it, but is that the best way to get the most out of Jed? He has certainly done that in the past, but his recent experience, coming off the best two season stretch of his career, implies that he does best when he gets to play everyday and play second base, or at least the same position everyday. His numbers certainly don’t paint him as a good third baseman or shortstop and he is no longer in his prime. That is not a knock on Lowrie at all. He was the A’s MVP last year and received some AL MVP votes, but he is a human and as such it makes sense to look at the context in which he has succeeded the most and try to capitalize on that. But the Mets have made their roster bed so let’s see what they can do to maximize the situation that they have created.

McNeil is the youngster in the “I’m a second baseman but we can’t ALL play here” mix and he has a decent amount of experience at third and wheels enough that it seems he could learn to play the outfield, so it seems that if anyone is going to be the super sub it should be him. Since it appears that Jed Lowrie had a lot of success playing one position everyday and has played third in his career, he should be the everyday third baseman. That means Todd Frazier either moves or sits. Ideally Frazier would have a hot spring and the Mets could trade him for something of some value, otherwise they spot start him and hope he shows enough to make him more interesting to another team or a depth piece for the Mets if they are in contention. He still has value, but his age and his downward spiraling batting average will likely scare some teams away. Rosario has star potential, but Guillorme needs to play enough to see if he can hit as it is already clear that he is an excellent defender. Rosario should be the starter but Guillorme, who hits righties better than Rosario (at least last season), should get spot starts against righties, and be a late inning defensive replacement.  Robinson Cano should be the starting second baseman at least until it seems he can’t handle the position. He should probably also bat in the middle of the lineup – probably third – as it appears he is still a three WAR guy or better. That leaves first base to Peter Alonso. The Mets might want to start 2019 with Alonso in the short end of a righty/lefty platoon with Frazier, which would give the rookie time to break in and allow him to hit to his strength. At the same time it would showcase Frazier for a trade. Health will likely have a lot to do with the starting catching decision, although, barring a huge spring from d’Arnaud, Wilson Ramos will likely get the lion’s share of starts. I wonder if d’Arnaud can play second base?

The Mets shouldn’t rule out a couple more deals to either decrease or, God forbid, increase the crowding in the infield. It is never a bad thing to have extra talent sitting around so you can’t feel bad about the depth of the Mets infield, especially when at least three of the infielders are in their 30s. Without getting too deep into the outfield situation, the Mets are pretty set in the corners so it will be tough to find room for one of the infielders to play much out there. Brandon Nimmo, the right fielder, is coming off a 4.5 WAR season and looks like an excellent leadoff hitter. In left, Michael Conforto saw a bit of a drop off from 2017 from a 4.4 War season to a 3.0 WAR season, but is still clearly the starter with some star potential. Yoenis Cespedes is a complete mystery after heel surgery and may or may not even be in the mix this season. If he is healthy then he, Nimmo, and Conforto will split time in the corners with the Nimmo and Conforto spelling Keon Braxton and Juan Lugares who will likely platoon in center. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in the outfield for McNeil or anyone else and I won’t even mention the 4th outfielder contenders. Suffice it to say that Manager Mickey Callaway has his work cut out for him making sure that he maximizes that talent and keeps his roster sharp and rested at the same time. Get ready for an interesting spring training with lots of speculation in the sports pages in New York!