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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rockies Need To Stop Pretending That Four Is Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.