Cash out or play for one final run? The Royals show their hand at the trade deadline.

A Walk is as Good as a Hit, Unless You are a Royal
by Jim Silva

    Conventional wisdom says the Royals, who went to the World Series two years in a row and won in their second attempt – 2015 – are about to be broken up. That comes with the usual belief that if they are close to a playoff spot, they need to go for it before their window closes potentially for at least the near future. The core members of their World Series teams have contracts expiring at the end of this season, and the team is unlikely to extend the contracts of all or even most of them as they are already running a payroll slightly above major league average and higher than they ever have by a decent amount, while still ranking at or near the bottom of all the MLB teams in terms of market size. Complicating matters is the fact that their minor league system ranked 26th out of 30 teams in Baseball America’s 2017 farm system rankings, so it is unlikely that they are going to  be able to extend their run by bringing guys up to step seamlessly into place when their stars depart. That leaves them with three options as the trade deadline approaches. They can stand pat and hope they have enough to run down the Indians who are currently two and a half games ahead of them in first place. They can make a trade to increase their chances of running down the Indians, but that is hard since their farm system is so weak, making it unlikely that could entice another team to part with a major league talent of enough value to help them. Their third option is to start gutting their team now, trading away anyone who won’t be with them next season in an attempt to improve their dismal farm system. I can’t help but wonder if management wishes the team hadn’t surged of late, moving them so close to the top of the division, because now that third option would be met with vitriol from the Kansas City fan base. It appears that the Royals have chosen the “stay and fight” option as they just completed a trade that brought them three big league arms indicating that they are clearly not selling. So it appears to be on! Let’s look at their infield where three of those soon-to-be free agents reside.
    Salvador Perez is NOT one of the three infielders on the bubble and that is a good thing for the future of the Royals. Not many teams are set at catcher, and with their 27 year old star behind the plate, the Royals will at least have that going for them moving forward. Perez is having his best offensive season contributing a wRC+ of 117 so far, driving his career number to 99, with 100 being league average. His batted ball profile has changed quite a bit this year with the percentage of hard hit balls up 10% from his career rate. He has always been a free swinger, but this year Salvy has taken it to new heights swinging at 58.4% of all pitches he sees where league average is 46.5%. Perez is generating misses, but also making a lot of contact when he chases after everything leaving the pitcher’s hand. His contact rate is 80.4% which is almost 3% above league average. So not only is he swinging at way more pitches and making contact more than most players, what he hits, he hits hard. And it isn’t luck as his BABIP is almost exactly league average. The 27 year old catcher has slashed .285/.316/.525 through his first 359 plate appearances, so his offensive success isn’t based solely on a high batting average. With 21 home runs already, Perez is only one away from career high for a full season.
    It is not just his offense that makes Perez a star in Kansas City. 2016 saw the catcher make a big leap forward in his ability to control the running game, nailing almost half of potential base thieves. He has always been a good pitch blocker, but he still costs his staff some strikes with his poor pitch framing. He has won the Gold Glove four years in a row, but has never won a Fielding bible Award due to the aforementioned framing issues. Is he really the best defensive catcher in the AL? Yeah – very possibly. Is he the best hitting catcher in the AL? Again, he might just be – Perez and the Tigers Alex Avila are tied atop the WAR leaderboard – sorry Gary Sanchez. If I were the Royals I would build upon the foundation of Salvador Perez, but I would be tempted to trade him if someone overwhelmed me because I’m not sure his offense is sustainable with walk rates like his. Since they aren’t going to trade him right now, which is probably his peak, then they might as well print lots of t-shirts, paint him a parking spot, and schedule a bobble-head night. Yeah, he is great, but his flaws might mean that his offense disappears sooner than a player with better self control at the plate.
    Moving to the other guy on the infield who isn’t a free agent at the end of the season, second baseman Whit Merrifield is more of an organizational soldier than a future star or top prospect. Merrifield debuted at the age of 27 after spending the better part of three seasons at triple-A. He is a positional flexibility (PF) guy who has become the main starting second baseman. Calling him a PF isn’t meant to belittle his skills. It has become quite chic to have a guy like him on your roster, especially in this age of bigger pitching staffs and shorter benches. Merrifield has earned the starting role with good defense and a wRC+ of 115 so far this season. The defensive metrics have been in agreement for two seasons now that he is quite a good second baseman. He has also shown the ability to not stink up the joint when they put him at 1st or 3rd, or in left field. This season, he has also improved his stolen base efficiency getting caught only twice in 18 attempts. Even if his bat slows down the stretch, his glove and legs will provide value to the Royals – he is currently the team leader in WAR from positional players. Like Perez and other members of the Royals, Whit doesn’t walk enough, although there is some evidence in his minor league past that he can walk. If his walk rate increases and he maintains some of his batting average, then he is a minor star.
    So, now we start on the three guys who are likely to be playing their last season in Kansas City – and why not start at shortstop? Alcides Escobar came to the Royals from the Brewers in a trade before the 2011 season and dude has had at least 598 plate appearances every year since. He is on pace to do it again. Like Perez and Merrifield, Escobar is immune to the free pass, carrying a career on-base percentage of .293. What on-base ability he does manage is based almost entirely on his batting average (a career .259 hitter), but with very little power there isn’t much to say about his game with the stick. Escobar is all about the work with the glove, but with a career wRC+ of 70, his glove has to be otherworldly for the 30 year old shortstop to justify his existence on a roster, much less as a starter. At this point in the 2017 season his glove has been unable to justify his weak bat and he is a WAR hole, costing his team more than he contributes relative to a replacement level player. At 30, and with only two seasons of WAR at 2.0 or above (starter level), the last one being in 2014, it is hard to justify giving Escobar his usual 600 plate appearances if you intend to win. Making predictions about what the Royals will do has proven to be folly, but I will admit to being shocked if Kansas City brings Escobar back as the starting shortstop for 2018.
    Next on the train out of Kansas City is third baseman, Mike Moustakas, who is now 28 and was the second player taken in the 2007 draft. Along with seemingly everyone in the Majors, Moustakas is experiencing a power surge having already mashed 29 balls over the fence – his previous season high was 22 in 2015. The home runs hide some backsliding in plate discipline. 2016 was mostly a loss due to injuries, but in 2015 Moose managed a .348 on-base percentage partly due to a career high 43 walks. He also mustered a career low 12.4% strikeout rate. This year however, the third baseman is back to his free-swinging ways with a career low walk rate of 4.2% and a strikeout rate above his career average. In spite of his .279 average, his on-base percentage is only .309. His career high slugging percentage is mitigating the number of outs he makes, and his wRC+ is at 122, tied for his career high. If he could put the two Moose seasons together and get on at that .340 clip while showing 40 home run power, he would be a star.
    Moustakas doesn’t look like the agile fielder that he actually is. For the last five seasons, Moustakas has shown good range leading to at least average, and sometimes good, defensive numbers. This year, something is impacting his range driving his defensive numbers down to a bit under league average. He is still playing a clean third base with only 5 errors to date. With the glove and the big stick, Moustakas is a force for the Royals and would be hard to replace if the Royals suddenly fell out of the race and tried to get something for him. It is hard to say if he will age gracefully. He appears to be over the injury festival that held him to 27 games last year, so they are getting the real Moose this year. Whether or not that will be enough to help the Royals make a run to the postseason is to be seen, but it appears that they are riding the Moustakas train at least until the end of the season.
    The last member of the Royals core infielders who is also a free agent at season’s end is their first baseman, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer has never been the classic masher that most of us think of when we envision first basemen. That said, Hosmer has a career slugging percentage of .436 due to his modest home run power and ability to hit a decent number of doubles. Last season he reached a career high 25 home runs and appears on pace to break that mark this year as he already has 16. Hosmer does a lot of things pretty well, but doesn’t stand out in any one area. As a third overall pick in the 2008 pick, he is far from a bust, but also far from a star. His glove is not disastrous, but neither is it good and his range has been below average for three seasons now. While he doesn’t muck up balls he should get to, when you hit like Keith Hernandez (minus some walks, but plus a few homers) it would be nice if you fielded like Keith Hernandez (or maybe acted like the former Seinfeld recurring character). One thing Hosmer does a little better than the other five guys I have written about is walk. His career walk rate of 8.0% is acceptable unlike his partners. You can expect him to get on at about a .340 clip and this year he is hitting a somewhat BABIP inflated (.352 BABIP) .319 up from his career mark of .282. There’s a lot to like about Hosmer and he is only 27, so if the Royals are going to keep one of the five, Hosmer, while not an elite first baseman looks like he is continuing to improve offensively, so he might be the best bet to maintain his value for longer than his non-walking, older brethren. Bet on Hoss!
    Yes, the Royals do have a minor league system and it is full of guys who play baseball. At the start of the season, the Royals didn’t have a single top 100 prospect, and when the 2018 rankings come out that isn’t likely to change. Their two best infield prospects are now at triple-A. Ryan O’Hearn is a first baseman with decent power, the ability to draw a walk, and some swing and miss to his game. Since he is mostly limited to first base, his bat and his bat alone will dictate whether or not he sticks in the majors if/when Hoss leaves. He has slashed .282/.359/.494 in almost four seasons in the minors and is handling triple-A in his first try (.265/.336/.471) including 17 homers through his first 378 at-bats. With only one hiccup season in the minors, but not exactly dominant performances since he left rookie ball, O’Hearn isn’t someone to get excited about, but he could probably be a 20 home run .250 hitter with a .320 on-base percentage in the majors. He would at least be a placeholder if Hosmer leaves, with strikeouts being the limiting factor.
    Hunter Dozier was a Royals top three prospect going into the season. It isn’t clear what position he will play as he is listed as a third baseman, but has played only outfield in his major league cup of coffee, and has played more outfield than third base during his injury plagued 2017 in the minors. He makes a decent number of errors at third, so perhaps the Royals are unsure about his ability to stick there, or maybe they are trying to test his positional flexibility. Whatever the case, Dozier’s offensive game doesn’t thrill. He has some power as evidenced by a 23 home run season in 2016 – his most long balls in a season since hitting 12 in an ugly 2015 at double-A. He has a little bit of speed, stealing 7 bases on 8 attempts in 2016. He has hit for average in some of his minor league stops including .296 in the hitter friendly PCL in 2016, and isn’t afraid to walk. Put that all together and you have a 25 year old with a slash line of .262/.344/.429 in the minors for his career. So like Hearn, he could probably stick with the Royals if Moose leaves, but he is unlikely to be more than a placeholder until someone more exciting comes along. This is not exactly an exciting future that is looming for the Royals, at least with the guys near the top of the system.
    The Royals are in the race for the division and for a wild card spot, and their infield core is unlikely to stay intact with guys waiting in the wings who frankly aren’t that exciting. They made some small moves to get a little better for the stretch run, but didn’t do anything to make it much more likely that they could chase down the superior Indians club, while also not trying to cash out their free agents-to-be. They played the middle, which might have been intended to not anger their fans. If they make the playoffs one last time who knows what might happen in a post-season series – probably not much as the Royals really are a .500 team and no longer feature a dominant pen. ESPN has them at 8.5% to win the division and 34.7% to take one of the wild card spots – although if you look at the teams they are chasing for those two spots, the Royals have the worst run differential of the bunch. As Yogi said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it”. The Royals decided instead to stand in the intersection and you can probably guess how that will work out.


The Reds outfield has probably snuck up you.

Those Sneaky Reds –  Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
    The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
    In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton, the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
    With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
    Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has  a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
    Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
    Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
    On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.

Greinke leads a strong rotation in Phoenix keeping the Diamondbacks in the fight for the West.

The Diamondbacks Surprisingly Effective Starting Rotation
by Jim Silva
    Every year there is a team – usually one that makes some big moves in the offseason – that becomes the pick hit to make the playoffs. Sometimes they do and often they don’t. Last year the Diamondbacks were that team. They had just added 9.2 of starting pitcher wins – the WAR kind – by signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. By now I’m sure you know that it didn’t work out according to plan as they lost 93 games. Everyone moved on this offseason and the new “surprise” team was the Rockies. Now an afterthought, the Diamondbacks are doing what people thought they would do in 2016 – they are playing winning baseball currently tangled with the Rockies and Dodgers atop the NL West and all within two games of each other. It isn’t because of Shelby Miller who lasted four starts before blowing out his elbow and undergoing TJ surgery. Greinke on the other hand – well that guy is pitching the way they thought he would when they paid him over $206 million (through the 2021 season) to start wearing all 87 of their funky-cool jerseys. But it isn’t only Greinke making the Diamondback’s rotation hum and that’s what we will be talking about starting with their ace Greinke.
    It isn’t easy leaving a pitcher’s park and moving to a hitter’s park like Greinke did last year, especially when you are carrying the expectations of a franchise on your shoulders because of a monster contract. But Greinke was 32 when he arrived and had played in some big markets with hefty expectations. There is no way I am going to make the argument that performance anxiety, (in spite of his early history of being derailed by anxiety issues) caused the lanky righty to give up a half a homer a game more than his career average or strike out a half a batter fewer per game. You might want to blame it on the half mile per hour he lost off his fastball, but then how would you account for his improvement after he lost another mile an hour off his fastball this season? Greinke is a smart cookie and saw that his approach last season wasn’t working. It makes sense that he would make some changes, right? So far this season he has swapped some four seamers for some two seamers and started throwing way more sliders and fewer changeups (and slower changeups to match his slower fastball). His strikeout rate is up a lot from last year and his walk rate is down, so even though he is still getting taken deep more than once per nine innings, he is succeeding. His ERA is down more than a run from last season although that is likely to correct a bit as his BABIP is .279 about 20 points below his career rate, so there is probably some luck involved. Greinke isn’t dominant anymore but he is a good starting pitcher. He can probably continue to adjust as his fastball continues to become less fast, but at some point his wizardry might come face to face with time. For now that inevitability is in the future and the Diamondbacks can still count on Greinke to continue his winning ways at the front of their rotation.
    As I mentioned already, Shelby Miller was expected to be a good starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks slotting in just behind Greinke. But last season was a train wreck for the then 25 year old Texan. He had escaped the Braves and landed on a team expected to compete in part because he would be taking the ball 32 times and keeping them in the game. Miller got off to a horrible start and never really looked like the beast he had been with the Braves. His ERA when April ended was 8.69. By the time June started he was sitting at 7.09. His ERA at the end of June was 6.79 – you get the idea. He ended up with an ERA of 6.15 – definitely not what the Diamondbacks thought they were getting when they traded the cow AND the magic beans to the Braves to get him. The best stretch of Miller’s season was his last two starts where he strung together 11 innings of shutout ball. So at least he had that to look back on during the offseason – the feeling that he had found how to succeed in Arizona. This spring it had to be on his mind and on manager Torey Lovullo’s mind – what would Miller contribute to his team in 2017? For three starts in April – especially his third start where he lasted into the eighth inning and only yielded a run on four hits and a walk – it looked like maybe Miller had found his old form and that had to thrill the Diamondbacks. Then came start number four against the Dodgers. Miller lasted into the fifth, went walk, walk, double and his season was over. Miller will not throw a baseball in anger for quite some time after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While losing Miller, who was looking at least solid, has to be heartbreaking for the Diamondbacks (and certainly the Miller family), Arizona hasn’t missed a beat. The big question is whether or not they can keep it up.
    Do you remember the last time you had a blister on your hand? I don’t, but it probably involved a rake and a pile of leaves, or a shovel and a mound of dirt. Blisters are pesky little things for the weekend gardener, but for pitchers they are an impediment to doing your job. Dodger’s pitcher Rich Hill has had such a frustrating time with blisters on his pitching hand that there was speculation that he might move to the pen in spite of his status as the number two guy in the Dodgers rotation. The Diamondbacks have their own blister sufferer in Taijuan Walker. Walker has two full seasons under his belt now and in this, his third season, the man projected to be a star finally looks like he might be breaking out. Sorry, I know he is 24, but this is his 4th season up and third as a rotation stalwart hence the “finally”. The Diamondbacks gave up a lot to get him, but their rotation was in dire need of help so losing a starting middle infielder who might perennially challenge for a batting title seemed like a reasonable price to pay. Walker is due to come off the disabled list this week and hopefully his blister woes are a thing of the past. His peripherals looked good last year with a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.70 and strikeouts per nine innings of 7.97. What has killed Walker’s ERA each of the last two seasons has been the long ball. In 2015 he gave up 1.33 home runs per nine and in 2016 it was 1.81. Not many pitchers can survive those kinds of home run rates for very long. This season has been a different story for Walker. He has cut his home run rate dramatically so far allowing only 0.69 per nine leading to a 3.46 ERA. Walker has been a very valuable addition going at least five innings in all but one start and lasting at least six innings in four of his first nine starts. If Walker can get to 30 starts with an ERA under 4.00 then this season would be considered a big step up. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself with a tall, athletic pitcher like Walker who throws a mid-90’s fastball, but if the D-Backs can keep in mind that he is only 24 then they should be able to temper their expectations at least for now.
    Robbie Ray is a year older than Walker and has been pitching in the majors since 2014 when he debuted with the Tigers. Ray has always thrown hard, doubtless starting in the crib tossing high heat at teddy bears, based on how badass he looks with his mean guy beard. Last season Ray struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings, which is crazy good especially for a starting pitcher. He also limited the home run to 0.87 per nine which was under his career rate of just over one. What he didn’t do was go deep into games averaging about 5.33 per start. Something changed for Ray this season and it has pushed him to a new level as a starting pitcher. Even though his fastball hasn’t lost even a tick off last year’s velocity he has thrown it much less often dropping over 11% from 2015 and another 4% from 2016. He has also almost completely ditched his changeup and has started throwing his curveball harder and a lot more often – almost 20% of the time (0.2% in 2015). So far in 2017, he has not only maintained his strikeout rate, but increased it a bit. More importantly Ray is going deeper into his starts. He is averaging 6.33 innings each start meaning the bullpen isn’t working so hard in his starts, and he is getting more decisions. He is already at 7 wins – one shy of his career high for an entire season. Between his changed pitch mix and the effectiveness of his curveball – his most effective pitch based on a little stat called Curveball Runs Above Average – he is looking more like the ace of the staff than the number three guy. It could be argued that Ray’s increased effectiveness has been even more important than Greinke’s return to effectiveness. Either way you look at it, unless both events continue to occur simultaneously – the resurgence of Greinke and the development jump of Ray – then the Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere.
    The four pitchers we have talked about so far are the four the Diamondbacks were counting on to anchor their rotation. But no rotation can make it through a season without someone dropping – just doesn’t happen. So teams need depth if they are going to last 162 games and have a winning record at the end. Patrick Corbin has filled a role in the rotation and in the pen since he made his major league debut for the Diamondbacks in 2012. He has served as the swingman moving back and forth between the rotation and long relief. In his best season so far – 2013 – he made 32 starts and was chosen for the All Star team at 24, looking like he might become an anchor in future Arizona rotations. Unfortunately, Corbin’s elbow went ‘sproing’ and yet another young pitcher had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Based on pitch velocity, Corbin is all the way back from the injury, but he has not had the results he had before the surgery. Is that a reflection of the injury, a change of approach, an indication that 2013 was a fluke, or some combination of some or all of the above? In his excellent 2013 Corbin was getting the best effect from his two-seam fastball and slider. Back then he threw the 2-seamer 51% of the time, the slider about 23% of the time, and the change about 10%. Last season, Corbin gave up a lot of hits, a multi-pass full of walks, and a space taxi’s worth of home runs leading to the auto-eject activating on his rotation spot in August. He was throwing the two-seamer 33% of the time although he was no longer having the same success with it. The slider was his most effective pitch and he was using it about 27% of the time while his changeup usage was back up to 10% in spite of it generating the worst pitch values of his career.
    Corbin started 2017 back in the rotation full time and has hung in there so far in spite of his numbers trending even worse than last season. Now he is throwing his two-seam fastball only 25.5% of the time, his change about 9% of the time, and his slider more than 34% of the time. None of the pitches are receiving positive values from the pitch effectiveness tool, and I wonder if the mix or order of use is making everything, including his once excellent slider, less effective. I can’t imagine Corbin lasting in the rotation past the All Star break if this continues unless the Diamondbacks feel like they have no other choice because of injuries. He has value because he can eat innings and pitch from the pen, but if he continues to give up hits (.304 average against) and home runs (1.75 per nine) at the same alarming rates then a contending team like the Diamondbacks will no longer have time for his shenanigans.
    With Miller’s injury and Corbin’s flame-inducing tendencies, Arizona had to call up Zack Godley from triple-A to make a start or two. Godley put up decent peripherals leading to awful results in 2016 in his second attempt at sticking in the majors. 2015 was a better experience for the right-hander so the Diamondbacks knew he had a chance against big league hitters even if he failed to show it in 2016. Desperation can be a nice motivator, and so far it has worked out well for the Diamondbacks as Godley has forced his way into the rotation with seven starts producing an ERA under 2.5 and a WHIP under 1.00. Godley induces an ungodly number of ground balls.  With a ground ball rate around 61% he is close to the league lead in killing worms and in a hitters park where homers happen with decent if not alarming frequency, that is a trait to crush on if you are in Diamondback management. So even if there is some regression to the mean, if Godley can just be league average, the Diamondbacks will be thrilled and their rotation will continue to be a huge asset.
    One other reason why Godley’s success is so important is because it allows Arizona to keep struggling starter turned dominant reliever, Archie Bradley in the pen. Bradley was the Diamondbacks top prospect not long ago, but struggled with control when exposed to the rigors of starting. Bradley has been nothing short of a revelation since he joined the pen. His walk rate is 2.12 which is about half of his career rate in the majors. Bradley is also striking out about 11 batters per nine innings and inducing ground balls – so keeping the ball in the park reasonably well. His ERA of 1.21 got people excited and there was a clamor to put him back in the rotation when Miller went down. But one reason the Diamondbacks pitching has improved so much is because they have Bradley coming out of the pen to get three outs and kill rallies. There is no guarantee that a return to the rotation would translate for Bradley for a couple of reasons. First of all, his fastball is four MPH faster than it was when he started – up to 96 from 92. Secondly, his slider velocity is also up as is the pace on his change, so everything he throws is coming in four miles an hour or more faster. He is able to rely on his four seam fastball and knuckle curve a lot more, which is great because they are his most effective pitches. He can throw his change or slider every once in awhile, but doesn’t have to show those two less effective pitches as often since he doesn’t face the same batter twice in a game. Bradley is only 24 so maybe he will hone one of his other pitches and find his mojo in the rotation again, but for now if the Diamondbacks can keep his wicked fastball-curveball combo in the pen, their starters won’t have to worry about leaving the game in the 5th or 6th.
    Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks weren’t exactly expected to find success through a revamped rotation, but here they are with a team ERA sitting at third in all of baseball. A lot of things can go wrong in the course of a 162 game baseball season, but with some luck and possibly a trade to add rotation depth, the Diamondbacks look poised to win a playoff spot – quite a step up after losing 93 games just last year. Do they have the horses to go deep into the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but for right now it’s a good time to take your hat with the fan on it to Chase Field – don’t forget your spray bottle or sunscreen either – and drink lots of water as you watch your Diamondbacks starters go deeper into games and your team go deeper into the postseason.

If Bellinger can’t push Gonzalez to the bench do the Dodgers have enough offense to win?

The Dodgers Infield The Key To A Playoff Push
by Jim Silva
    What’s new – the Dodgers are leading the National League in ERA by a lot – .4 runs per game over second place Arizona – wait, what? Arizona? Yes, the Diamondbacks team ERA is 3.62 as of June 6th. The Dodgers leading the league in ERA isn’t shocking or even unusual. After all, they play in a pitcher’s park and have Clayton Kershaw in their rotation. What IS less boring is the fact that the Dodgers are sitting in 4th in the NL in runs scored, and second in on-base percentage. It is usually assumed that the Dodgers will be near the top of the league in raw pitching stats, but to also be near the top of the pack in offensive numbers means they might be the team to beat in the National League. It’s in the infield where the Dodgers have added punch and so that’s where we will look as we try to discover what is making the Dodgers offense tick.
    Where will Cody Bellinger end up? Will it be first base or somewhere in the outfield? Based on his early work in 2017, one thing we know for sure is that Bellinger will play somewhere because his bat has been a tremendous asset to the Dodgers lineup. If you had to guess which Dodger had barreled the most balls this season relative to the number of balls he has put in play that created an outcome (Batted Ball Events – BBE), would you guess Cody Bellinger? It is indeed Bellinger who comes in ahead of Miguel Cabrera and just a bit behind Paul Goldschmidt. A barreled ball is a ball that is hit squarely and has a high probability of turning into something good. Berlinger doesn’t hit the ball softly very often – about 86% of balls hit by Bellinger have either been hit with medium or hard velocity. He also puts the ball in the air about half the time and gets to watch about 27% of those fly balls carry out of the park. The majority of Bellinger’s time in the field has been spent in the outfield because his natural position is currently occupied by Adrian Gonzalez whose contract expires after next season – more on him in a bit. At 21, Bellinger has star potential and has some positional versatility because he is athletic enough  and fast enough to play the outfield. The biggest knock on the Dodgers top prospect is that his swing has a lot of miss in it. He is striking out about 33% of the time so far this season. Pitchers are adjusting to him and his batting average is plummeting, but nobody is counting him out. With Gonzalez back off the DL and Joc Pederson coming back soon, the Dodgers will be able to spot Bellinger better. Make no mistake, Bellinger will be a starter for the Dodgers, most likely on the infield, for years to come and that is a good thing for Angelenos.
    A-Gone is still there manning first base for the Dodgers. After a stint on the DL, the career .290ish hitter is still the starter and most often, the cleanup hitter. So when does age start to matter? Players obviously begin to decline at some point, and to ignore that is a mistake especially when it comes to giving out contracts and playing time. Gonzalez is 35 and has one more year on his contract. While his decline hasn’t been precipitously steep, it is most certainly there and possibly accelerating a bit. Last season was the first year where he didn’t manage a WAR at 2.0 or above (1.3). It seems that Gonzalez is losing his power as he dipped to 18 homes last year in 633 plate appearances and only has one long ball in his first 175 PAs so far this campaign. If that doesn’t change it will be interesting to see if manager Dave Roberts moves Gonzalez down in the order or gives away more of his playing time to Cody Bellinger as the season progresses. The Dodgers are in a dogfight in a tough NL West, battling both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, and they can’t afford to give away runs. Gonzalez has never had a full season with a wRC+ below 100, but he is sitting at 81. He put up a wRC+ of 112 last season and the defensive metrics like him less and less each season mostly based on declining range so at some point the Dodgers will have to see him as he is and not as he was. He hasn’t been under 600 plate appearances since he first became a starter for the Padres during George W. Bush’s second term. The times they are achangin’.
    The other corner man came close to departing after last season, but then signed a four year deal just before Christmas. Justin Turner has become sort of the patron saint for the new fly ball movement in the MLB. After making some changes to his swing path designed to generate more loft, Turner turned into a star at third base. His new approach has turned him into a power hitter who gets on base and doesn’t strike out that much considering his power output. Turner is also a good glove man regularly saving five+ runs a season (DRS) and putting up positive URS/150 numbers as well mostly due to his excellent range. There are two superstar third basemen in MLB right now in Arenado and Machado so it may seem as if we are a golden age of third basemen, but ask the Red Sox and Yankees how they feel about that statement and you will understand how difficult it is to find someone who can both hit and field the position at a high level. So while Turner may not be as flashy as the two superstars who play the hot corner, he has turned himself into a supremely valuable player just a notch below and arguably the Dodgers second most valuable position player. Of course this begs the question, who is the Dodgers most valuable position player?
    If you’re building a franchise and have to choose a position in which to sink resources, most GMs would spend a lot of their gold on a shortstop, and that is indeed where the Dodgers play their WAR leader from 2016. Corey Seager is the younger brother of one of the better third basemen in baseball, the Mariners Kyle Seager. A few years ago, while Seager the younger was still working his way through the minors, older brother Kyle was being interviewed and mentioned that his younger brother was a better player than he was. That’s saying a lot when you are a star in the majors and your little bro is still a kid playing single A ball, but Kyle wasn’t just being a doting big sibling. While Kyle is quite good, Corey at 22 won the Rookie of The Year award, finished third in MVP voting, started at short for the National League in the All Star game, competed in the Home Run Derby,  and won the Silver Slugger Award as the best hitting shortstop in the National League – and that was in his first full season in the majors. Seager hit and fielded his way to a 6.1 WAR season and showed why he might already be the most valuable position player in the National League – I don’t mean that he is already the best player in the NL, although he might be. I mean that he could be the one player that makes the most difference for any team in the NL. He is the one player the Dodgers just flat out can’t afford to lose. They could find someone who can fill in for his good range at shortstop, but there is no shortstop in all of baseball who hits like Seager. 71 extra-base hits from your shortstop combined with a .365 on-base percentage is just not something you see anymore (and not very often in all of MLB history from a real shortstop who can field the position credibly, which Seager does – DRS and UZR/150 disagree, but he is either average or above average defensively. His wRC+, which is park adjusted, was 137 last season which means he was 37% better at creating runs than the average player – not just shortstop, but player. The Dodgers had better hope that health is one of the tools in Seager’s quiver because they would have a hard time contending without him.
    There are some great second basemen in the Majors right now, but this is far from any golden age of second sackers. It seems that teams are playing guys at second who couldn’t hack it at short (or aged out of the position) or maybe don’t have the arm to move to third but can hit some. LA ran a 37 year old out there last season after trading away Dee Gordon although the old guy happened to be former All Star and Silver Slugger Chase Utley. Utley posted a 2.0 WAR season after his worst full season in the majors in 2015 so it was a nice comeback from the former star. But the Dodgers were wary of going to war with a now 38 year old second baseman and traded away one of their best chips in Jose DeLeon to get Logan Forsythe. Forsythe’s Tampa Bay teammates like Chris Archer and Forsythe bestie, Evan Longoria, were upset to lose Forsythe. Comments about the new Dodger second baseman indicated that many thought he was a lot more valuable than his stats indicated. Ok, well everybody likes their guy, but is Forsythe a valuable player? He had only put up 2.3 WAR through his first 4 seasons (through his age 27 year), but then broke out with 8.3 WAR from 2015 (5.0) through 2016 (3.3) and popping 37 home runs over the two seasons, so some of his value is in his power. Right now he is sitting at a wRC+ of 70. He certainly has a modicum of value on offense with a career wRC+ of 101, but that is almost dead average, and without those two big seasons it would be below average. He is 30 now so the odds of him improving are negligible. Hmm.
So he must have a great glove, right? Well, the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no since Logie Bear (Archer called him that) has so many gloves. He is one of the few players in MLB who has played every position at the major league level except pitcher and catcher. So what’s his best position? DRS and UZR/150 agree that he is better at third base than any of the other positions. His career DRS is 8 at third base and 2 at second base where he played a lot more. He just covered for Justin Turner at third, but is back to the full time second base spot. It makes sense that his teammates would value him more than his numbers because he is one of those guys who will play literally anywhere you put him, even if he isn’t really good there per the statistical record. He hits home runs, which of course chicks and teammates dig, and he accepts dumb nicknames like Logie Bear. Oh yeah – and he is cheap(ish) at $7 million this year and $8.5 million next year with a team buyout for $1 million. What’s not to like? Ok, nothing really. In all seriousness Forsythe has value to a contending team with money, although not as much value as Archer and Longoria (or apparently the Dodgers, since they traded for him) think he has.
    It was wise for the Dodgers, who have an old guy at second, to make sure they had a guy who could viably stand at seven positions without peeing his pants – especially when the two players most likely to appear next to the abbreviation “DL” play second and third where Forsythe plays best. Should they have given up a young starting pitcher with potential star ability to get him? In my opinion, no. Possible even, “Hell no”. But I can certainly see why they did it. They knew that Utley and Turner would both miss time and even a significant amount of time – enter Forsythe. But wait – didn’t the Dodgers already have a guy just like that? Why, yes – yes they did, and his name is Chris Taylor. Taylor certainly didn’t have the track record of Logan Forsythe – no 5.0 or even 3.3 WAR seasons under his belt, but since they already had him they could have kept DeLeon. Taylor doesn’t have much of a track record at all, but, like Forsythe, he has played a goodly amount of second and third and some outfield and has displayed an ability to hit for average, get on base, hit for a little power, and steal some bags in the minors. The main knock on him would be his strikeout totals. Of course Taylor only makes major league minimum and Forsythe makes $7 million and the Dodgers have a lot of money so why not spend more to replicate something you already have? That might be a little unfair since Taylor wasn’t “proven” as a major league hitter, but it seemed pretty clear from his minor league career and his most extended try with Seattle that he would likely hit – otherwise why did they pick him up anyway? So why give up something of value for Forsythe when you have a cheaper, younger version already on the roster? Part of the answer is that they can. The Dodgers don’t have to pinch pennies. They probably could have waited to see if Utley and Taylor could make second base work, then traded for Forsythe before the deadline if they needed to, but they could afford a little redundancy. That can be the curse of having money – the tendency to spend it.
    Aside from Bellinger, the Dodgers have three more of their top prospects on the infield in Willie Calhoun, Gavin Lux and Omar Estevez. Lux and Estevez have yet to spend 20 years on Earth and haven’t advanced past single-A yet, and neither looks like they will reach the majors for a few years, but they still give the Dodgers hope for a future mostly homegrown infield. Willie Calhoun at triple-A is playing mostly second base right now, but has also been given some time in the outfield because frankly he fields like an accountant, although, fortunately he hits like a blacksmith! If you are carrying an OPS close to .900 in your first pass at triple-A ball and you are only 22 then it is highly likely that you can actually hit. Calhoun has started to show real power in the high minors – 40 homers in his last 720 or so at bats in double-A and triple-A – and would give the Dodgers a boost in the middle of the order if he can cut down on his errors at second base or somehow magically learn to field somewhere. Odds are they will let him get in a full season at triple-A so I would not count on him coming up to stay before 2018.
The Dodgers, like many well-heeled teams have lots of veteran quad-A types at triple-A ready to hold down the fort if a rash of injuries strike the major league squad, but most of their real position player prospects are lower in the chain. They are built to win now AND later (one of the more boring candies in history) as one would expect from an organization run by stat heads. Their infield illustrates that model perfectly with a mix of youngsters and veterans, but above all depth. It will be interesting how well Dave Roberts plays the hand assembled by upper management. He will certainly have to walk a bit of a tightrope handling playing time for Adrian Gonzalez and Cody Bellinger. So far injuries have made it fairly easy, but that is about to change. Roberts can’t try to make everyone happy as he tries to fight off the Diamondbacks and catch the Rockies while making playing time not just for Gonzalez, Bellinger, but also Pederson, Taylor, Forsythe, Puig, and Utley – and that’s only four positions. Being loyal to veterans like Utley and Gonzalez could hurt the Dodgers when they have so many talented young players, but Roberts will need to keep everyone locked in so he can’t completely sell out to a youth movement. It will be an interesting season for Los Angeles, especially in a year where the other divisions are off to a slow start, and three playoff teams could come out of the West.

Prospecting in Milwaukee has produced some gems, and a shiny future for Brewers fans.

The Baseball Equivalent of Dumpster Diving
by Jim Silva

    It isn’t so much that the Brewers found hidden gold, which they did, in the person of Eric Thames, but that they are rebuilding with an open mind and staying true to the rebuild. They have put together a competitive team without denting their standing as a top minor league system. Don’t get me wrong, they still have work to do and patience to exhibit before they can say the rebuild is done and the process was a success. However, one place where Milwaukee has creatively put together a competitive group on the field without hurting their future has been the infield where none of their regular starters from 2015 still hold their position and only one starter from the 2016 crew is still sporting a giant M on their cap. And so, I bring you the Brewers in transition, as illustrated by their infield.
    When teams attempt to rebuild, if they are not careful they can fall into the trap of change for the sake of change. Author Ellen Glasgow said, “All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward,” and that may best illustrate one of the pitfalls of rebuilding a major league baseball team and most of the history of the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers were a winning team as recently as 2014 when they missed a wild card spot by six games. Their club was reasonably young and they had All-Stars at catcher and center field who were both in their primes. Their rotation was topped by a 25 year old coming off a 17 win season and their top four starters all posted ERA+ over 100 – the fifth starter was one of their best prospects and had just completed a rookie campaign with solid peripherals, if not a good ERA. Unfortunately, the future didn’t materialize as the Brewers hoped it might. The team was in first place as late as August 31st and then stopped scoring runs. Ryan Braun, in his first year back from a suspension for PED use just wasn’t himself and put up a 1.0 WAR season. The pitching actually held on until the end, but it just wasn’t enough to support the sagging offense. The Brewers wisely decided that their best chance was to capitalize on what star power they had to get a jump on rebuilding their team through their farm system. In 2014, the Brewers organization was widely ranked as one of the worst two or three systems in all of baseball, so that meant the core they had on that 82 win team wasn’t going to get any help anytime soon.
    The best trade chips were catcher Jonathan Lucroy, their All Star catcher and pitch framer extraordinaire, Carlos Gomez, the All Star center fielder, and members of their bullpen including Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Francisco Rodriguez. The front office in Milwaukee probably ordered a lot of dinners delivered as they traded all those players plus a few more in an attempt to rebuild their minor league system and acquire cheap, useful pieces for their parent club. Mission accomplished for both goals as the Brewers went from nearly dead last in their system rankings to a top five system in just two seasons, while creating a team on the field in Milwaukee capable of winning enough now to at least be in the wild card conversation.
    Their catcher, Jonathan LuCroy, was one of the most coveted trade chips that any team possessed so they had to make sure they got something pretty sweet in exchange (which they did in Lew Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell). The trade left them without a starting catcher until backup Martin Maldonado stepped up and showed that he could at least hold down the position – that is until he was also traded. The Brewers jettisoned their top two catchers and brought in three young catchers to see who could handle the job. Spring training saw Manny Pina, Jett Bandy, and Andrew Susac competing for the starting spot or a share of some kind of platoon. When you choose to cash in your star catcher, this is a pretty good way to cover the position since catchers take a beating over the course of the season. Three solid catchers to cover 162 games leaves you with the position adequately covered and resources freed up to use elsewhere. When all three catchers hit well in the spring, the Brewers were faced with one of those good problems. Susac, a former top prospect for the Giants who was blocked by some guy named Buster, got hurt first so Bandy and Pina got to start off splitting the job at the major league level with Bandy and his power bat receiving the lion’s share of the job. Susac is back from the DL and playing at triple-A, while Pina is hitting the snot out of the ball and playing good defense in a backup role to Bandy, who is batting around .280 and has four homers. The Brewers might find themselves in the position of having extra catching to trade if Susac can push up from triple-A and challenge Bandy or Pina – nice problem to have. Bandy has a strong arm and hits for power but doesn’t have a history of high batting averages or on-base percentages, while Pina has turned himself into a good defender who gets on base a lot. Susac has had a hard time staying healthy the last couple seasons but profiled as a catcher who could hit and hold his own behind the plate. The Brewers appear set at catcher for now and they did it on the cheap.
    One measure of organizational creativity in baseball is being willing to look in unusual places for talent. First baseman Eric Thames was lighting up the league in Korea after not quite making it in the majors through his age 25 season. While there is not a history of players from the states going to Korea, coming back, and earning starting jobs here, Thames isn’t the only position player to come to the states from Korea and earn a starting job. Jung Ho Kang put together a 4.0 WAR season for the Pirates in his first season in MLB after leaving Korea. That’s the kind of gamble teams take when they don’t have deep pockets and have to shop for bargains and take chances. The Brewers’ signing of Thames for three years for a total of $15 million with a player option for a fourth year is exactly the kind of gamble the Brewers should be taking and so far it looks like a crazy-great bargain. Reading interviews of Milwaukee’s new first baseman, it seems as though he has become a student of hitting and matured into the kind of player you’d want on your team for as long as you can have him. In Korea, Thames was a power hitter, but also hit for a high average while having some swing and miss in his game, but one who learned to take walks. A convert to zone hitting, Thames has become selective, learning that when he hits “his pitch” he will experience success. He practices the approach in some non-traditional ways and more traditionally studies video. His success in the majors is making it look like he has in fact become a different hitter – one without a plethora of holes in his swing. Thames is currently slashing .315/.435/.693 and is tied for the NL lead with 13 home runs. His wRC+ of 183 is making him look like a star, and even if he slows down a bit, the investment the Brewers made is looking like a huge steal.
    Speaking of huge steals, Jonathan Villar piled up huge stolen base numbers last season – 62 swiped bags to lead the league – in his first season with the Brewers after being traded from Houston for Cy Sneed, who is repeating double-A this season (the trade is the real huge steal, so far). It wasn’t clear that Villar would turn out to be a useable, speedy leadoff type when he was fighting for playing time with the Astros, who were and are full up with young prospects. Villar is only 26 and despite his early season struggles, looks like he might be the solution for the Brewers at second base and in the leadoff hole. His 79 walks and a .285 batting average combined to make Villar the leader in on-base percentage for Milwaukee, and 4.0 (ok, 3.9) WAR second basemen don’t grow on trees (or ferment in kegs – you know – the Brewers). Villar came up as a shortstop and was subpar with the glove which might account for why the Astros gave up on him. In addition to his speed Villar has shown surprising power, but at the expense of big strikeout totals – 174 strikeouts in 679 plate appearances last season. This season, the second baseman is leading the league in strikeouts already registering 51 and sporting a .287 BABIP which contrasts to his .373 BABIP of last season. It is unlikely that he will continue to struggle as mightily as he has so far with an on-base percentage under .300 and an OPS of .685. It is also unlikely that he will have the season he had in 2016 which appears to be partly due to some luck (the high BABIP). If he can find his way back to somewhere in the middle, Villar will still have value. To be sure, Villar isn’t a star, but his speed and ability to draw walks, hit for some power and average, and not be a disaster at second should make him the starter as long as his strikeouts don’t destroy his value. If he can repeat what he did last year then the Brewers have a viable starter and good leadoff hitter for the next few years, and that would be an incredibly valuable return on the trade, even if Cy Sneed turns into a major league starter.
    Villar’s double play partner, Orlando Arcia, was signed shortly after his 16th birthday and is the one Brewer who is a starter on the infield who began his career with the Brewers. Their top prospect, Arcia has struggled to hit in his first 300 or so plate appearances in the majors, and it seems that the organization has rushed him because of his excellent defense at short. Offensively, Arcia has yet to show that he can control the strike zone. In fact his walks to strikeout ratio has dropped every year as a professional to 0.32. When you strike out three times for every walk and you strike out 20% of the time, you need to hit .300 to have a viable on-base percentage and Arcia has been hanging around .220 since he arrived in Milwaukee. Arcia has shown speed and some extra-base power in the minors and occasionally will drive one out, but right now he is an offensive black hole with a great glove. He never hit more than eight home runs in a season in the minors but his minor league career average is .282 and he has swiped 104 bags while slugging .404, so there is clearly some talent there. Since the Brewers aren’t going to make the playoffs in the next year or two, perhaps the front office has decided that he finish developing at the major league level. If Arcia’s bat comes around and he turns into Andrelton Simmons light, then the Brewers are secure at shortstop for a long time, but they can only carry a gloveman like Arcia for so long when he is getting on base at only 27% of the time. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Brewers send him down and finally teach him to take the occasional pitch in hopes that he can learn to control the strike zone well enough to take advantage of his power and speed.
    Travis Shaw came to the Brewers in a last season trade for a reliever after disappointing the Red Sox as their third baseman last season. Small market teams like the Brewers have to scout their opposition well and go after players who are disappointments to other teams but still have ability – guys like Shaw and Villar. If they work out it’s a boon to the small market team, and if they fail then the investment isn’t so great that it crushes the team for years to come. For the Red Sox, Shaw was a backup corner infielder until Pablo Sandoval was lost for the season. It is unclear what the Sox were expecting, but Shaw produced similar value from the year before trading some offense for better defense and was a serviceable third baseman. So far this season, the 27 year old third baseman is hitting for power and a higher batting average. His swing profile looks quite a bit different from his usual pattern. Shaw is swinging at about 5% fewer pitches, around 6% fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and making contact with approximately 4% more pitches than his career rate. He is also hitting a lot more ground balls which might mean there is some luck in his .283 average, but his BABIP is mundane and in line with his career rates so it is quite possible that this is what he is, and that ain’t bad. The defensive metrics are conflicted about his work so far this season, but he is at worst average, and probably better than that based on his last two campaigns at third base. With a wRC+ of 119 so far, he has been one of the better third basemen in the NL. Even if he slides back to just average, the Brewers have themselves a starting third baseman with some pop and a good glove. One man’s trash…
    Rebuilds are only as good as the minor leaguers developing in the organization and the Brewers have some good ones. The top two infield prospects are Isan Diaz, whom they received in the Jean Segura trade and Mauricio Dubon, who came over in the Thornburg for Shaw trade. Diaz is 20 and has hit for power at every stop – 43 homers in the equivalent of two full seasons. He’s currently at high-A Carolina and is a top 50 prospect in all of baseball. He might stick at shortstop or he could end up at second base, but the power appears to be real and if he draws walks like he did last season in full season A ball, his strikeouts won’t destroy his ability to get on base. Dubon has already reached double-A and, at age 22, profiles more as a high average hitter with speed, although he crushed 46 extra-base hits last year split between high-A and double-A. Dubon is a solid enough shortstop but has been tried at several positions, increasing his flexibility and the chances that he finds a spot on the roster in the next season or two. Lucas Erceg, the Brewers 2016 2nd round pick, was a top hundred prospect at third base on some lists before the season started but has struggled at high-A as a 22 year old. Gilbert Lara is another shortstop prospect, and like Erceg, he has struggled this season. Lara (19) is younger than Erceg and in his first year of full season ball. He has yet to hit at all anywhere, has shown no control of the strike zone, and has yet to demonstrate his projected power, so he might fall off prospect lists if he doesn’t find a way to produce this season.
    The young Brewers and future Brewers on the infield portend good things for fans in Milwaukee. The team is at a point in their rebuild where they need to see continued development from their youngsters and they must remain patient. Their good start – they currently sit in second place within a game of first – could prove detrimental to their future if management decides they should push some of their chips in to make a run. The team isn’t good enough at this point to make much of a postseason run if they can even get there. If the Brewers can stay the course, catch a few breaks with prospect development – Arcia in particular needs to turn into gold –  and have a few more good drafts, they could legitimately contend soon and for a decent stretch. Any divergence from the course could set their development path back, which for a small market team like the Brewers could prove dangerous to their future fortunes.

Will Houston’s complicated outfield mix mean the Astros will win more?

Incoming Missiles From Houston’s Outfield
by Jim Silva

    When the Astros visited Oakland earlier this month, it was a homecoming for Josh Reddick who came to the A’s in a trade and left the same way. Now playing for his fourth team, Reddick came into his own while with Oakland and because of that and also because of his personality, he was treated with the love reserved for a prodigal son returning home. Serenaded by the PA announcer and fans with his walk up song, all of Oakland made it clear that their love affair with the rifle-armed right fielder was not over. Here is the clip:
But Reddick has moved on to oranger pastures, taking his talents to Minute Maid Park, changing the Astros outfield. An already tough team is now better with the addition of Reddick as we will see as we explore the ‘Stros outfield for 2017.
    Before I get to our boy Josh, let me say that one reason the Astros outfield is so interesting is because they have many parts that they can use in many places. So far this season the Astros have played 8 different players in the outfield and that’s in just the first 28 games. This is in part by design and in part a result of some early injuries. The main players in the mix are the aforementioned Josh Reddick, George Springer, Norichika Aoki, and Jake Marisnick. One of the alignments the Astros went with early, and probably the alignment that manager A.J. Hinch prefers based on comments in interviews, was Reddick in left, Marisnick in center, and Springer in right. That is certainly their best defensive alignment (and it isn’t horrible offensively either!), but it leaves Aoki and Beltran fighting for time on the field (Beltran being the primary DH) and Aoki fighting for at-bats. If The ‘Stros want to ditch Marisnick in favor of some on-base goodness, then they play Aoki in left, Springer in center, and Reddick in right. They sacrifice some outfield defense that way, but it allows them to get Aoki’s on-base ability in the lineup along with Beltran’s offensive mix of on-base ability and power at the DH spot. But “What Happens If Jake Marisnick Hits?”, aside from a band starting up with that exact same name and the Gross Domestic Product of Riverside, California (Marisnick’s hometown) increasing ten-fold?

    The traditional captain of the outfield has been the center fielder and the Astros have two good ones in George Springer and Jake Marisnick. With Marisnick on the DL early in the season, Springer took over in center, but the young outfielder is off to a rough start with the bat. Nobody believes he won’t break out of it and have another excellent season. Speaking of breaking out, 2016 was a breakout season of sorts for Springer, in part because he was healthy all season allowing him to reach 500 plate appearances for the first time in his three seasons in the majors. At 27, Springer is solidly in his prime and his power, speed, on-base ability, and arm make him one of the most exciting players to watch in all of baseball. If only he could bake! But Springer is not without flaws. While he draws plenty of walks to make up for it, Springer has a propensity for striking out. His career rate is 25.9 % while league average is usually around 21%. His strikeout rate has slowly improved and his walk rate has mostly remained stable so the strikeouts aren’t a big concern.
    Springer’s early struggles in 2017 are likely a mirage as his average on balls he puts in play (BABIP) are below league average (which is .288) – a recent 9 for 25 streak has it up to .257 from a low below .200. It is also possible that Springer’s increased defensive responsibilities in centerfield are weighing on him. He has played center before but was primarily a right fielder before this season. There is probably nothing there and the young stud will likely right the ship soon as balls that he puts in play start to fall in or out (of the park). Having a talent like Springer in center or in right makes the Astros the envy of almost every team in baseball.
    And then there’s that Marisnick guy. Jake Marisnick is either an excellent, glove first, fourth/fifth outfielder who makes outs at the plate like Colonel Sanders makes biscuits, or he is a starting centerfielder with speed and a little bit of power. Marisnick, a former top prospect for the Marlins, was the starting center fielder when teams broke training camp, even though he has just over 1000 plate appearances in the majors that say he is a 69 wRC+ offensive black hole. The Astros are at their best defensively with Marisnick in center and Springer and Reddick on the corners – essentially a three centerfield defense. The problem is that Marisnick has yet to deliver anything close to major league average offense over the course of a full season. But hope springs eternal in April and Marisnick got off to a tremendous start, playing his usual excellent defense, hitting a pair of bombs, and getting on base at a .400 clip. That is the Jake Marisnick the Astros have been waiting for since they traded for him in an eight player deal with the Marlins in 2014. He wouldn’t be the first player to break out at age 26 and if it is real then he makes Aoki superfluous. Unfortunately, a concussion put Marisnick on the DL and he is only making his return now in the first week of May.
    Houston has struggled a bit to put someone in left field who they could just leave alone and let play, which is interesting since that is usually the easiest outfield spot to fill. So Houston attempted to address their outfield issues this off-season by signing not only free agent Josh Reddick to play mostly left field or right, allowing Springer to inhabit rightfield or centerfield, but also by claiming Nori Aoki off waivers to share left field duties. While you can’t have stars at every position, Aoki is an interesting choice to play left for a team reasonably hoping to make it to the World Series. At 35, and definitely in the midst of his decline phase, Aoki brings offense (career wRC+ of 106) to left field, but not the kind one normally expects to find in one of the least defensively challenging spots on the field. He has always been more of a get on base with a single or double, maybe steal second, draw some walks, and hit around .285 kind of guy than a smack 30 home runs dude. The diminutive outfielder has never hit more than 10 home runs, and his ability to steal bases has apparently declined to the point where he probably shouldn’t try anymore (caught nine times in 16 tries last season). He got off to a hot start, hitting well over .300 and getting on base at nearly a .400 clip, but is back down around .350 now and his weakness, outfield defense, is showing. Houston is mostly batting him near the bottom of the order making kind of a second leadoff hitter – not a bad use of his strengths. He would make a non-traditional designated hitter if they decide 40 year old Carlos Beltran isn’t cutting it anymore, although Beltran had a revival of sorts last year hitting. At some point they will likely have a decision to make with Aoki and Beltran serving similar purposes on their bench (when one is DHing). Aoki is an excellent find on the cheap if you’re into that kind of thing. It seems that Seattle was more interested in putting together an excellent defensive outfield so chose to part ways with Aoki getting nothing in return – a puzzling move – but it’s the other off-season move for Reddick that improves the Astros chances of extending their post-season run.
    Josh Reddick is not a superstar and although he put together a 5.0 WAR season in 2012 with the A’s, he was never destined to be a superstar. But the Astros don’t need a superstar to play right because they already have a potential outfield superstar in Springer, another budding superstar at shortstop –  Carlos Correa – and a bona fide superstar at second base in Jose Altuve. What they need from Josh Reddick is a solid 3.0 WAR season with some power, a decent batting average, and some of that good ole gold glove outfield play (or at least something close). In the two seasons where Josh has managed 500 plate appearances he has launched a total of 52 home runs – 32 and 20. He has spent the majority of his career playing in pitchers parks so it will be interesting to see if he can up his power game and hit somewhere close to .280 while getting on base at a .330 clip. All of those numbers are in reach, the caveat being that Reddick tends to spend time on the disabled list, hence the small number of seasons with at least 500 plate appearances. When he does play, his combination of defense, power, and strike zone management fit nicely into the Astros tapestry. Reddick’s on base percentage has crept up each of the last two years to .345 (in 2016), so he fits in many places in the batting order keeping in mind that if he is facing a tough lefty then he might be overmatched. Reddick can even play a solid centerfield as he showed when Jake Marisnick went on the DL and George Springer was unavailable. As I mentioned before, Manager A.J. Hinch wants Reddick in left and Springer in right when everyone is healthy (assuming Marisnick can hit enough to warrant starting him in center), and Reddick’s defensive talents will play up in left field.
So where does all that versatility leave us? Jake Marisnick playing well makes Nori Aoki’s life more difficult because Norichika can’t play center. If Aoki starts, then Marisnick is probably his late inning caddy taking over when the Astros have a lead and want an excellent defensive alignment to preserve it. If Marisnick is the starter in center it would be hard for Aoki to get to 400 plate appearances with Houston because he can only play the outfield corners or DH, a spot he would split with Carlos Beltran. It’s possible that the Astros will get him time in the lineup playing all three outfield spots keeping the starters fresh, spelling Reddick against tough lefties and Aoki against balls hit toward him in the air. The Astros are a much better team with Marisnick getting on 33% of the time and playing outfield defense than they are with Aoki getting on 35% of the time and playing outfield defense. If Marisnick picks up where he left off then the Astros outfield is even tougher than tough and Nori Aoki becomes a bench bat, a 4th outfielder, or possibly trade bait. Springer always plays!
    It is worth noting that the Astros excellent farm system is full of young, athletic outfielders with high ceilings, like Daz Cameron, Teoscar Hernandez, Kyle Tucker, Ramon Laureano, and Derek Fisher, just to name a few. Tucker is the most highly touted of the young outfielders and their top outfield prospect, but he is 20 and playing at high-A, so it is unlikely that he will impact the Astros this year or even the next. Hernandez got 100 at bats in Houston last season and showed some exciting power and speed, as he had in the minors, but also a lack of plate discipline. He is only 24, so it’s possible that he still has some development left. Laureano is at double-A and not tearing it up, Cameron still has a long way to climb, but is still young. Fisher is at triple-A and will provide help assuming the deep parent club has some kind of outfield disaster, but he is blocked at this time. He is an intriguing power-hitting bat and drew 83 walks at double-A and triple-A last season. He is 22 and while he isn’t the top outfield prospect in the system, his speedy ascent through the minors and his offensive profile make him the surest bet to make it to Houston as soon as there is an opening.
    Managing all this talent is a burden, and that burden falls on the head of A.J. Hinch, Stanford alum, and former A’s “next best hope” at catcher, making him yet another former catcher managing in the majors. Hinch is only 42 and already in his fifth season managing in the majors. One reason that Hinch is a good fit with the Astros is that he embraces the wealth of information that the sabermetrically inclined Astros mine for him. The Astros manager uses shifts, has quickly embraced a flexible view of bullpen use, and in this recent article by Travis Sawchik ( even talked about the possibility of using, in certain situations, a four man outfield based on data made available to him by the front office. Look for Hinch to use Reddick, Marisnick, Aoki, and Springer (as well as some of the young guys and their DH, Carlos Beltran) in some interesting alignments and lineups to get the most out of their varied talents. Gotta put that Stanford degree to work somehow!

How lack of pitching depth and health could spoil another of Trout’s prime years.

A Ticket  to Purgatory for The Angels
by Jim Silva

    When you have the best baseball player on planet Earth, you’d think that should be enough to propel you to the playoffs every year, but sadly for the Angels from somewhere in southern California, they have only made the playoffs once this decade and actually finished below .500 each of the last two seasons. How is this possible you ask? I mean, don’t they have the best player on planet Earth – that Mike Trout guy? Yes, Mike Trout is both an Angel and the best baseball player alive. They also have Albert Pujols who himself is a former BPOPE (best player on – yeah, you get it), so how on this little blue marble can they ever miss the playoffs, much less finish below .500? As my wife likes to point out, pitching is way too important in baseball and I bet it annoys the Angels too, because their pitching is currently a collection of “Belly itchers”. The 2016 team finished in the bottom third of the American league in most team pitching stats that you might consider important, including ERA (12th of 15), strikeouts (15th of 15), hits and walks allowed (14th and 11th respectively) and home runs allowed (11th). While the entire staff contributed to the Angels pitching woes I am going to focus on their starting rotation which, in spite of the team’s hot start, appears to be in disarray yet again in 2017.
    In spite of the nightmare that their rotation was in 2016 they aren’t without talent. Shoemaker’s rookie season of 2014 was essential to the Angels last playoff appearance and almost earned him a Rookie of The Year award. It was an excellent rookie campaign as Shoemaker contributed 136 innings with an ERA of 3.04. So obviously Shoemaker has talent, but the problem is that he just isn’t a prototypical ace capable of dominating for stretches and going deep into starts three times in a seven game series to shut down whatever playoff team the Angels might face. He is a steady number two or three who will give you five or six solid innings and then yield to the bullpen. While Shoemaker hasn’t matched his 2014 season, he did put together a solid season in 2016 where he pitched the most innings of his career making it to 160 and rebounding from a disappointing 2015. Shoemaker is not the ace if Garrett Richards is healthy and in the rotation, but I will  get to him later. For the Angels to stay out of the Western Division cellar, Shoemaker will have to repeat his numbers from 2016 or do even better as the rotation goes downhill quite steeply after him.
    The current number two is 34 year old Ricky Nolasco which is like saying, “Is it cool if my mom joins us on our date?” There are uses for guys like Nolasco, but he belongs at the back of a rotation, not the front. If he’s healthy Nolasco could be a league average innings eater – last season he hung in there for 197.2 innings contributing just over 1.5 WAR for the Twins and Angels, and that’s  about the best the Angels can hope for as Nolasco hasn’t been above 2.0 WAR since he was 25 (in 2008). As the fifth starter for a team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Cubs, Nolasco could help to keep the pen from being overused assuming his elbow doesn’t bark at him as it has from time to time. But the Angels need more than that from their second starter and no amount of wish casting will turn Nolasco into a number two starter at this point in his career.
    Andrew Heaney is supposed to be here, probably in the three spot, but he made all of one start in 2016 before going on the DL and eventually having Tommy John surgery. That is a bad break for any team, but when you’re the Angels and counting heavily on one guy to hold together an extremely thin rotation, an injury like that is devastating. Based on the trajectory of most TJ participants, Heaney is unlikely to pitch until after the All Star break if he pitches at all this season. If you are a blamer and you need to pin your spleen to one moment in the Angels disappointing season, I highly recommend pinning it on Heaney’s crappy elbow ligament. While you’re at it you might want to hang onto your 2017 pin as well because Heaney’s absence will likely crush the Angels playoff aspirations as well as your fragile halo-encircled heart.
    So you’re trying to believe in the Angels good start and get past the whole Heaney travesty, but then you happen to glance at the starting rotation past Shoemaker (ok – he’s good), Nolasco (well at least he’s solid, gulp) and you look at the third spot barely noticing the choking sound escaping your throat as a fleeting image on the headline about an unexplained dip in Heaney’s velocity after his first start of the season and you see the name, “Jesse Chavez” and your hope dissolves just like that. Again, there is nothing wrong with using Jesse Chavez to start some games for your team and maybe do some work out of the pen, but counting on him to be the third guy in your rotation is a recipe for Mike Trout watching the playoffs on television. Chavez last started in 2015 for the A’s and was useful enough to get himself traded to the Blue Jays for Liam Hendriks and then to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger. He is now 33 and hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2014 with Oakland. Chavez still throws reasonably hard – mid 90’s out of the pen – but gives up a lot of home runs (career rate of 1.3 per nine). He has never pitched more than 157 innings in the majors so even if the Angels can stretch him out, if they are counting on him to make 32 starts and approach 200 innings, then they are as high as the halo outside their stadium. Chavez as a swing man is useful. Chavez as a back end guy in your rotation surrounded by starters who go deep into games is also useful. Chavez as the third guy in your rotation without a bunch of horses surrounding him is a good way to burn up your bullpen from overuse.
    Things don’t get better for the Angels as we move past Chavez to the fourth guy in the rotation, Tyler Skaggs. It isn’t that Skaggs isn’t talented – the talent is there – but he hasn’t been healthy enough to realize his considerable potential. At 25, he is still young enough to blossom and has some peripherals that give fans a reason to hope. Last season saw Skaggs return from Tommy John surgery and although the results weren’t what Angel fans wanted at least his velocity was there. Command seems to come last when pitchers come back from TJ and the control piece of command/control seemed to be an issue for Skaggs as he walked over four men a game. His hits allowed and strikeouts were both up from his career average so watching Skaggs pitch this season will tell the Angels a lot about what they have. If he can leap over Chavez and Nolasco while staying healthy it would hugely improve their chances of doing more than just annoying other teams and their fans. If Skaggs doesn’t find another level then the Angels are in serious trouble because after Skaggs it is hard to find another rotation candidate who is worth buying a ticket to see pitch, unless you really love ballpark dogs and don’t actually care what happens on the field.
    Of course Garrett Richards is the ace of the Angels – of course he is! He throws really hard and has experienced success in each of the last three seasons when he has pitched. Ah, you caught that didn’t you? Richards’ problem isn’t a lack of ability, but an inability to stay healthy. He made only six starts last season, albeit six pretty excellent starts, but sat out most of the year trying to avoid surgery on his elbow. It is unclear whether or not he will be able to participate in baseball activities this season as he is already on the DL with some arm woe. When teams say “forearm tightness”, are they being coy about a pitcher’s elbow or is this completely unrelated to the elbow and something Richards can work through and get in his 28 to 30 starts? He made part of a start this season and looked great until he came out pointing at his arm. Looking great and stabilizing a rotation are two different animals. He is currently not throwing at all, so projecting his return is difficult. Sometimes pitchers with elbow injuries can deal with it through rest and avoid surgery, but many times they end up having the surgery eventually anyway. Throwing 98 miles an hour is not easy on your arm – go ahead, get off the couch and do it right now and see how it feels – but if you can throw hard then you will throw hard. In other words, if Richards pitches he will obviously return to his fireballing, ground ball inducing ways until he can’t because he shreds his elbow – unless he doesn’t shred his elbow. If he can avoid the disabled list, assuming he can get off the disabled list, then he is the undisputed ace and the Angels have a semblance of a pitching staff. That’s a lot of ifs but welcome to Los Angeles Anaheim, wherever THAT is.
    The guy taking the spot vacated by Richards is J.C. Ramirez, who has been a reliever since he pitched in AA ball at Reading in 2011. Is this a desperation move by the Angels? Well, yeah! It isn’t just that Ramirez is a reliever and has been for a long time, it’s more that Ramirez has had limited success no matter what role he has accepted. Last season was really the first time the 28 year old has experienced even moderate success in the majors in spite of the fact that his fast ball tops out around 100 mph. With a career ERA over 5.00 and WHIP over 1.4, the Angels can’t be expecting anything other than Ramirez standing out there until manager Mike Scioscia gets tired of seeing his pitches plastered all over the yard.
    So surely there is help coming from the minors, right? Right? Sadly, if you care about the Angels and plan to still be a fan in the future, your team has one of the worst minor league systems in all of baseball. The Angels traded their top pitching prospect, Victor Alcantara, to the Tigers for Cameron Maybin. The guys close enough to be of use this season barring any huge leaps in development from guys lower in the system are Alex Myer, Greg Mahle, Manny Banuelos, Troy Scribner, and Nate Smith. Smith and Mahle show up on some lists as Angels top prospects but neither of them is likely to be more than a back of the rotation arm. Scribbler has climbed his way through the organization missing bats (and the strike zone) and might be on the verge of figuring it out. Yeah, that’s a lot of dudes, but frankly none of them are particularly exciting. Most of them are organizational depth – guys who will be used to fill spots when one of the big clubs starters has to miss a turn (which for the Angels could be a weekly thing). The point here is that the Angels rotation is in serious trouble and that likely means using their frequent flyer miles to shuttle these five guys from Salt Lake City to Anaheim to get through the season.
    The Angels have some talented guys who are starting pitchers, but they have neither health nor depth and that is a bad combination. If absolutely everything breaks right for them they could have enough to compete for a wild card spot coming out of the tough AL West. If they catch even one bad break, the whole season could unravel and honestly that is what is likely to happen because in baseball you have to assume that you’re going to catch a few bad breaks. The teams who survive these days have depth so that when the bad breaks hit they can roll with it and survive until the starter or the closer or the left fielder comes back. When, like the Angels, you are starting the season having already broken the emergency glass – well, your days near the top of the division are numbered.

The A’s rotation in flux – when promise becomes frustration.

You Need A Scorecard To Keep Track of These Guys
by Jim Silva

    Long gone are Catfish, Vida, Blue Moon, and Kenny Holtzman. Stew is now a failed GM instead of a dominant starting pitcher and community leader. Bob Welch is sadly no longer with us, and Huddy, Zito, and Mulder have all hung up their spikes. The A’s have a long history of great starting pitching going back to Philadelphia and such mound stars as Eddie Plank, Lefty Grove, Rube Waddell, and Chief Bender. But times and teams change, and the A’s no longer are run by Connie Mack or Charlie Finley and the economic realities of being a small market team in a crappy stadium means that the A’s have been unable to hang onto their stars for quite some time. This unfortunate reality has impacted the entire roster of course, but when there is talk of trades involving the A’s, the inevitable target is Sonny Gray, their 27 year old fallen ace. Cynically, many would say that the only reason he is still with the A’s is that he struggled through an awful, injury-filled 2016. I am in that camp (and I would call myself a realist) knowing the reality of the A’s situation. It’s a true dilemma when as a fan you want your ace to fail so he won’t get traded! Gray is only the most recent A’s ace to run into bad luck. The ace before Gray came up was Jarrod Parker. Parker, who is only 28, has had Tommy John surgery twice now, had his elbow in his pitching arm break (last spring) and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013. If Parker makes it back to the majors at all after his medical mishaps it will be a minor miracle. So yeah – bad luck only begins to describe it and now Gray is back on the disabled list with a lat strain. So what will the A’s rotation look like in 2017 even as Gray starts the season watching from the bench? Let’s pull out the crystal ball and see what the spirits have to say.
    The opening day pitcher for the A’s was Kendall Graveman who, just to be clear, is not an ace nor would he be on any major league team. That isn’t meant to be a dig on Graveman’s skill as a pitcher, just a realistic assessment, and a statement about the current state of the A’s. The A’s know he isn’t an ace and he shouldn’t have to face the other team’s best hurler on opening day, but when your ace is down you have to flex.   Graveman isn’t one of those guys who comes in and fans everyone in sight. Even though he throws his fastball in the mid-nineties his strikeout rate dropped last season, and when you are below six k’s a game and fast approaching four per game (5.23 last season), you’d better have the Cubs defense behind you, which he didn’t. The A’s were pretty awful defensively. Graveman generates a decent number of ground balls – 4th in the AL last season – but that number has dropped dramatically since his first season up with the Blue Jays. It isn’t bad to give up fly balls in Oakland because the park plays pretty big, but if you let batters put the ball in play a lot with a bad defense then you are going to give up a lot of hits, which he did – almost 200 of them last year. Also, a little over once a game one of those fair balls left the park off Graveman – another number you don’t like to see when you are pitching in Oakland and giving up lots of hits. In his defense, Graveman’s walk rate dropped to 2.27 per nine innings mitigating the base runner issue a lot. Kendall Graveman is a useful pitcher who can get you innings and keep you in the game if you can field the ball behind him. It really isn’t his fault that the A’s aren’t built that way. Still, he is a fine number three or four starting pitcher. Assuming Gray comes back soon then that pushes Graveman down a slot, but do the A’s have a number two to push Graveman down yet another slot?
    Sean Manaea isn’t a number two yet, but the A’s hope he will develop into an ace sooner rather than later. For now, Manaea needs to hang onto his growth in the second half of last season, his major league debut, and add to that growth if he wants to challenge Gray and Graveman for the top of the heap in Oakland. Manaea’s first half showed him as a young pitcher who wasn’t ready for The Show. The second half was a completely different story and Manaea looked like the top of the rotation pitcher he might someday become. His walk rate shrank and his strikeout rate ballooned causing his ERA to shrivel from 5.24 to 2.67. There is still plenty of room for growth from Manaea. He gave up 20 home runs – 10 in each half and got torched by righties – numbers the A’s want to see correct themselves. It is a good sign that the young pitcher made such effective adjustments from the first half to the second and it portends well for his growth. The A’s are hoping that he can overcome his struggles against righties this year and do a better job keeping the ball in the yard (only one home run allowed in the final month of last season). If he can make those adjustments then the A’s will have the ace they need if Gray doesn’t return to form.
    After Manaea, the A’s start the season with Jharel Cotton, a new face in the organization last year when the A’s got him in their big trade with the Dodgers for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. Not even the A’s expected Cotton to contribute as soon as he did making his major league debut and tossing five starts with an ERA of 2.15. Cotton isn’t projected to be the next Clayton Kershaw as his debut might suggest but he could be a solid mid-rotation starter who throws hard and has excellent control. Jharel strikes batters out, has never walked more than 3.2 batters per nine innings at any stop and predictably for a pitcher who is around the plate so often, gives up a few more homers than you’d like. The low walk rate mitigates the damage from the homers and he is tough to hit too, never giving up more than 8.0 hits per nine in the minors or in his five-start MLB debut. What’s not to like? Well, Major League Baseball has a prejudice against short pitchers and Cotton is only 5’11. If he can stay healthy and pitch the way he has pitched so far in his career he might turn out to be the best of the three young hurlers the A’s acquired from the Dodgers.
    The rest of the A’s rotation is a bit of a mystery, as well as up in the air until Gray returns and the A’s can see if he is the good Sonny Gray or the bad Sonny Gray. Not that the A’s don’t have interesting options for their rotation, but like the Irish curse, “May your life be interesting” in truth you don’t want “interesting” options in your rotation, you want consistent, known quantities. The A’s get to choose from Raul Alcantara, Andrew Triggs, Jesse Hahn, Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, Daniel Gossett, and Paul Blackburn (phew!). Actually, Bassitt is still working to return from Tommy John surgery, and Mengden is hanging out with Sonny Gray on the DL to start the season with a foot injury. Hahn was a disaster in 2016 and again in spring training and the A’s sent him down (and then just called him back up). Last season his strikeout rate plummeted, his walk rate went up a bit, his home run rate doubled, and his ERA exploded to over six. At this point it is unclear whether or not Hahn will return to the promise he showed in 2014 and 2015, but he is only 27 so the A’s are hoping this is a blip on the radar and Hahn can be a mid-rotation groundball-inducing machine.
Blackburn and Gossett are also starting the season in the minors – that leaves Alcantara and Triggs to round out the rotation at the start of the season. Triggs is a sidearmer, which is cool. Even cooler is how he absolutely dominated in a short stint in triple-A before the A’s brought him up and he posted some really nice peripherals like 8.79 strikeouts and 2.08 walks per nine innings. He was a waiver wire claim in 2016 and had mostly been a reliever. Once the A’s brought him up and used him in the rotation out of necessity of the injury variety, he was a revelation. Triggs absolutely deserves a shot to hold a rotation spot even though he isn’t a flame-thrower. Like Graveman, Triggs throws a sinker to induce grounders which will come in really handy once the A’s develop a good infield defense. In the meantime, he doesn’t give up walks, he manages to get strikeouts, and he suppressed home runs in the high minors. With a rotation in flux including a plethora of injuries, that kind of profile will afford Triggs the opportunity to prove that he is worth a rotation spot even after his injured rotation mates return from the DL. So that is four-fifths of the rotation, but what of that last spot?
    Raul Alcantara looks the part of a major league rotation stalwart with his mid-nineties heat and his 6’4 frame, and his numbers made it look like he was ready when he dominated over eight triple-A starts. But the 24 year old completely fell apart once he reached the majors where he gave up nine home runs in 22 innings over five starts. When your ERA starts with a “7” there is no need to look at the other digits (or let you pitch again). But Alcantara is young and the A’s need starters so he gets another shot to show that he belongs. Alcantara has shown that he can rack up strikeouts and limit free passes in the minors so there is a real chance that he could break out this year with his raw stuff and control. With three starting pitchers shelved for now, he will get at least a few starts to show that he is not the guy who put the ball on a tee last year and more the guy who scared the holy hell out of triple-A hitters.
    Finally, let’s take a look at Sonny Gray who is likely to return before we turn the calendar to May. The A’s seem to be cornering the market on short right-handed pitchers and that might come from the success they’ve had with Sonny Gray. At 5’10, he is one of the shortest starting pitchers in the majors, and if he returns to form then perhaps it will convince other organizations that a guy doesn’t have to be 6’4 to pitch effectively for multiple seasons. Starting with the good news, none of the myriad injuries suffered last season by Gray were to his shoulder or elbow. More good news – his fastball still sat around 95. Ok, and that’s about where the good news from last season ends. Gray was a complete disaster, missing a number of starts with visits to the DL and pitching like roster filler when he was healthy. While Gray’s strikeout numbers dropped, they didn’t drop much, and while his walk rate increased, again it wasn’t by much. The two numbers that best tell the story of his craptasticness are his hits allowed and home runs allowed. In his three previous stints on the majors, Gray had never allowed more than 7.7 hits per nine innings. Last season – 10.2. While hits allowed is often an indicator of luck, Gray’s pitch selection was different last season featuring fewer sliders and more changes and cutters. It’s possible that he became more hittable because of his pitch mix and not just because he was unlucky. Likewise, his home runs per nine had never exceeded 0.7 until last season when he allowed a frightening 1.4 per nine. It is possible that having his season interrupted over and over by injuries didn’t allow Gray to find his rhythm so it’s not a good sign that his spring training was also interrupted by an injury. If he can finally get healthy and stay that way, then there is a chance he can return to form and be the ace he was for his first three seasons.
    If Gray can come back early in the season and pitch like Sonny Gray instead of Dorian Gray (after the mishap with the portrait), that would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the rotation. The A’s with Gray, Graveman, Manaea, Triggs, and Alcantara has a chance to be quite good even if they remain mostly unknown. When you start using the word “if” a lot your wish-casting gets a little hopeless, but IF the A’s experience just average luck then their rotation can at least give them a chance to finish around .500, and that would be a good jumping off point for the rest of the franchise rebuild to happen. It all hinges on Gray. No amount of growth from the rest of the crew can make up for losing a true ace. I will sign off now to put a package of Flintstones Chewable Vitamins in the mail for Sonny.

The Reds infield is wisely built around Joey Votto. Are the other pieces of the infield worthy?

It’s Not Easy Being Red
by Jim Silva

    The descriptor “long suffering” has been attached to fans of many teams in varied sports. Cubs fans were certainly worthy of that epithet waiting almost 110 years between World Series victories. Cincinnati Reds fans certainly don’t deserve that label although it seems like they have been bad for a while. They last won a World Series in 1990, but before that their last appearance was in 1976 – 41 years ago. Two appearances in 41 years isn’t the worst, but it means you have to be pretty patient if you wear a hat with red “C” on it. They were arguably a dynasty in the ‘70s when they were the “Big Red Machine” and had Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Dave Concepcion, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and Tony Perez. The club made it to the World Series four times between 1970 and 1976 winning twice, so if you are a Reds fan my age (54), then you were trained to expect deep playoff runs almost every season. I know what that’s like because I am an A’s fan and they had similar success in the ‘70s. Simply put we are spoiled. Any run of more than say, five seasons without a trip to the playoffs at the very least, seems endless. I also grew up rooting for the Lakers and Raiders so you can see where my expectations came from. All three of my childhood teams won multiple championships during my formative years and were seemingly always in the mix. More recently though, all three teams have hit extended dry patches. The world has become a dark and disappointing place.
    What I’m getting at is that I understand why Reds fans would be a little on edge these days. Not only has their club missed the post-season for three seasons in a row, but they are still in the midst of a slow motion rebuild, so the playoffs seem like they might be at best a few seasons away – a virtual lifetime for those of us spoiled by success. But rebuilds are exciting in their own right, aren’t they? You know, watching athletic young players full of potential at the start of their careers – getting to see them bud into the core of your next dynasty. Cubs fans know what I’m talking about although there had to be some angst knowing that they might have been watching a rerun of many failed attempts at putting together a team that would finally redeem all that waiting. So is this a rebuild worthy of patient excitement or this just a tear down that ends with a weird house that you can’t sell because the kitchen has ugly formica countertops? Of the 10 players the Reds got in exchange for stars Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, and Aroldis Chapman, none of the youngsters are in the Reds top 10 prospects list and only three players appear to be major league regulars in 2017 – Brandon Finnegan, Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler – with none of the trio likely to be more than average major leaguers at their peak. That could mean that the Reds botched the trades or alternately that they have drafted so well that their top 10 is stacked with prospects so good that the other guys couldn’t break through the logjam. Let’s look at the infield first since their one remaining star around which the rebuild is happening resides there.
    When you sign a guy to a 10 year contract that pays him $225 million through his age 40 season, you develop expectations. Hopefully your expectations are based on something real instead of just hopes and dreams, otherwise you are going to be even more disappointed than you could be. Note that in almost every case you WILL be disappointed as the player enters the decline phase of his career while you are still paying him to be a superstar. Everyone declines at some point, and nobody is happy paying for a superstar when what you get is a decent player, or a replacement level player (or worse). It’s hard to predict how a player will age. So many factors can contribute to decline including injuries, general fitness, genetics, and probably a bunch of other factors that are impossible to account for. When Joey Votto is your superstar – the guy with the aforementioned contract – then what you want and what you can reasonably expect might just vary. From the outside it seems like madness when I hear all the complaints about Votto from Reds fans. What I hear most often is that he is too passive – he should walk less and drive in more runs. He doesn’t hit enough home runs for someone paid so much. He can’t fly or time travel. I hear you Reds fans. Your dude is not Superman, but is there a team who wouldn’t want him? Nope. He might not be the best first baseman in the majors – certainly not with the glove – but he is the best hitting first baseman in baseball. There are some great hitting first basemen, but nobody produces runs like Votto. Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Adrian Gonzalez, and Freddie Freeman are the other guys at the top of the mountain of guys who play first base and Votto had a higher wRC+ (runs created per plate appearance that is league and park adjusted) last season than any of them. He also has a higher career wRC+ than those guys. How does Votto do it?
    Well, Votto has never won a home run title although he has hit 221 home runs in his career and smacked 310 doubles, so power is certainly part of his game (he led the league in slugging once in 2010 at .600) but not all of his game. He has also never won a batting title although his career average sits at .313 which is third for active players. But the reason Reds fans just don’t give Joey “Votto-matic” the love that he deserves is that the one stat he does lead the league in, and lead it often, is on-base percentage, the least sexy stat in baseball. He is the active leader in career OBP by almost 20 points – 20 POINTS! That is domination. Yes, it would be nice if he hit 50 home runs and drove in 140 every year, but Votto is a great hitter and a smart hitter on a team bereft of guys who get on base. So other than driving in ghosts and brownies, for Votto to drive in 100 runs he would have to lay for a better team – ouch. The Reds finished 12th out of 15 NL teams in on-base percentage and that’s with Votto finishing first in the National League at .434. So yeah – he would have to drive himself in which can only be done by hitting home runs – which he does. Could he score 120 runs? Yes, he could on a better team. Bat Votto third on the Red Sox and he scores a lot more runs. Bat him fourth and he drives in more than 100 runs and likely walks a lot less with more home runs because he would have someone batting behind him who would force the pitcher to throw him strikes. Finding someone to get on base in front of Votto and a couple guys to bat behind him so that pitchers can’t pitch around him as often as they do will make sure the Reds get better value out of the rest of Votto’s contract. Is there anyone in the infield who can be that guy?
    Jose Peraza made his Reds’ debut last season and opened some eyes. Peraza is only 22, but seems like he has been around for quite a while because he was playing professional ball as a 17 year old and has been traded twice already. When a youngster gets traded a lot before he even gets to the bigs you can take the glass half full or the glass half empty view – he is loved by many teams who trade for him or he wears out his welcome and gets traded away. Trying to remain glass-neutral, there are reasons to love Peraza and worry about Peraza at the same time. One of the main reasons to love him is his game-disrupting, pitcher-pants-wetting speed. In his first substantial exposure to the majors last season he stole 21 bases in 31 tries. 68% success is not going to be enough going forward, but Peraza is likely to improve as he learns pitcher pick-off moves. In the minors he has swiped 220 bags at an 80% success rate. Get him on base with Billy Hamilton, the Reds speedy centerfielder, and pitchers will probably just cry because someone’s base is going to get stolen and ain’t nobody’s momma gonna stop it!
Peraza can also hit, carrying a .299 career average in the minors. He has walked some, but not enough to be a top shelf leadoff guy. Ah, so that’s one reason to worry – if he doesn’t hit near .300 then his on-base percentage is unlikely to be good enough to be a starter. His minor league on-base percentage is .341 which is just a couple points under what he managed last year for the Reds big club. One concern is that his average rode on the back of an inflated BABIP (batting average on balls in play) which implies that he got lucky. It is hard to sustain a BABIP of .361 (Peraza’s mark last season), so he will likely have to add some walks to his game to maintain a sustainable on-base percentage. One number in his favor is the percentage of line drives that he hit. 27.5% of the balls off his bat last season were line drives where league average is usually around 20%. Line drives turn into hits a lot more often than any other type of ball, so that high BABIP might reflect his true ability. I won’t go too deeply into his defensive numbers yet because with such a small sample size where different metrics disagree on his ability, it is hard to say anything definitive about his ability. We can safely say that he is not currently a defensive star in the middle infield but he should be an adequate second baseman or even a passable shortstop in 2017. It will certainly be exciting for Reds fans to watch Pedraza get 500+ at-bats.
    Rebuilds are tricky and can be frustrating for fans to watch. One area of possible turmoil for the Reds in 2017 is their shortstop position. It is possible that the Reds will trade the incumbent, Zack Cozart, and move Peraza to shortstop because they have a one time top prospect in Dilson Herrera on the 40 man roster. Herrera was picked up from the Mets where he was blocked by Daniel Murphy and then fell into disfavor. One problem with top prospects is that if they don’t meet the club’s expectations they can be seen as failures instead of useful players who aren’t superstars, but we will come back to Herrera in a bit. Zack Cozart is a good shortstop with some power. Sounds good so far, right? Then you add that he has had multiple knee injuries including surgery, doesn’t walk – keeping his career on-base percentage under .300, and will play this season as a 31 year old, and maybe he doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you want to start for your rebuilding team. When you have young options to play the middle of the infield and you aren’t going to make the playoffs, it seems like you should cash in on Cozart’s good glove and 16 home runs last season, and start the young guys. There are always teams looking for a guy to play good shortstop who can catch up to the odd fastball who are willing to give you something for his services. In Cozart’s case the Reds probably can’t get much more than a flawed prospect or a prospect who has a long way to go to get to the majors. If that’s all they get and it clears the way for Herrera and Peraza to get regular playing time and prove definitively that they are or aren’t major league starters then that advances the Reds rebuild and that is a good thing.
    So about Dilson Herrera, he should get the nod to start at second if and only if Peraza gets moved to short after the Reds trade away Cozart. He profiles a bit like Peraza minus the blazing speed but with a bit more power. Herrera is a solid defender at second, but unlike Peraza can’t play shortstop. Herrera has had an excellent spring combining a high average, good plate discipline and doubles power. Yes, it is spring training with the requisite caveats about spring training stats, but Herrera has done exactly what he needed to do to convince the Reds that they should trade Cozart and hand young Dilson the keys to second base – you know, if second base had keys. That said, I would not be surprised to see Cozart start the season proving that he is healthy, although he seems to have done that in spring training. Whatever the Reds do, they need to provide playing time to their two young middle infielders starting now as neither has anything left to prove in the minors.
    The Reds actually have another shortstop in Eugenio Suarez, but he is their starting third baseman. Let me back up a step – Suarez has played shortstop in the past but he really isn’t a major league shortstop. The shift to third base was the right move, and at 25 Suarez might just turn into a solid defender although he isn’t there yet. Last season showed that he can do some things well, like hit the dang ball over the fence, which he did 21 times. That’s two seasons in a row with 21 long balls, so it appears his power is a real thing. Suarez traded some hits for walks making his first full season in the majors look more like his minor league career. Suarez has a career on-base percentage of .361 in the minors with a good number of walks and not a lot of strikeouts to go with it. So Suarez is a good contact hitter who will draw a decent number of walks and hit the ball hard. His average should fall somewhere between his .280 of 2015 and his .248 of 2016. He is only 25 so there might still be some growth in his game. If he hits 20 home runs, hangs onto his walks, and hits in the middle of his batting average numbers then he will be a contributor on offense. He is the closest thing (aside from Votto) to a sure thing manning an infield spot at Great American Ball Park.
    The youth movement for the Reds is here, although only one of their top minor league prospects is an infielder. Nick Senzel was taken with the second overall pick in last year’s draft and he is already ranked somewhere between the 15th and 30th best prospect in all of baseball. The 21 year old third baseman is a polished hitter with no glaring weakness who is likely to rocket through the minors and arrive in Cincy in two years or so if all goes well. He played most of 2016 at high A where he dominated, showing the ability to hit home runs, steal bases, hit for a high average and get on base. He did all this while managing the strike zone reasonably well. He also fielded his position well so Eugenio Suarez should be taking 100 fly balls a day in anticipation of Senzel ascending to the majors and becoming a star.
Cincinnati’s dearth of infield prospects is why it is important for them to see what they have in Peraza and Herrera. That said, don’t be surprised if the Red Stockings make more moves to add a young infielder before the trade deadline. Their infield picture is getting brighter based on players they have now who are clearly developing. Rebuilds aren’t pretty or neat. Teams can’t know how young players will ultimately develop, and major league players aren’t always easy to trade for their perceived value. The Reds have almost completely turned over their roster with a couple holdouts – the main one being Votto. But the Reds have enough quality youth on their infield to at least make this an interesting season for their fans. That might mean that they have to suck it up and get less than they want for Cozart, who  looked like he might turn into a star but ultimately didn’t. If the baseball Gods point at one of the Reds middle infielders and decide that the Reds should receive the top level performance of his projection then that would make up for the poor luck they’ve had with Cozart and it would do a lot to move the needle towards “success” in this latest rebuild of a franchise that is almost 150 years old.

The Cubs obscenely good infield returns, but can they be even better in 2017?

Infield Envy
by Jim Silva

    The Cubs infield glove men were simply amazing last season and for the most part they are back. When you think about the state of baseball these days, one thing that many old-time fans lament is the lack of stability on most teams – a casualty of free agency. No longer are players “enslaved” by their employers. They are free, after a certain period of control, to reach a mutually satisfying agreement with any team they choose. For the players, this was a development that had to happen, and it is a good thing for them – not so much for the fans, except that over time the average fan might get to cheer for many more players than in the past – and that is the “best sunshine blowing” that I can muster in this discussion.
So for Cubs fans, next season will be warm and cozy with the return of their infielders. If you just look at the WAR (wins above replacement) for the starters from 2016, they all accumulated between 3.4 and 7.7 WAR each (using the Baseball Reference version of WAR). I am using the four guys who are likely to start this year – Bryant, Russell, Baez, and Rizzo. This isn’t cherry picking because the guy I left out was Zobrist who put together a 3.8 WAR season playing more at second than anywhere else in his role as team pocketknife, where he played at least one inning at every non-catcher, non-pitcher position except third base and centerfield. Zobrist is likely to reprise his multitool role playing less at second unless Javier Baez struggles. Now this is one of those bits of info that makes Cubs fans insufferable – those four infield starters are all between 22 and 26 years of age. And that is what makes the Cubs such a frightening team – none of them are likely going anywhere for a while.
    Let’s look at the infield starting with the old guy in the group – 26 year old Anthony Rizzo. If you are a Cubbies fan you have to be happy that not only has Rizzo not peaked, but last season was a lot like the previous two seasons. There was a slight spike in doubles and a corresponding uptick in slugging percentage, but other than that (yawn) Rizzo pretty much did what a Rizzo does. He hits either 31 or 32 home runs, and gets on base between 38 and 39 percent of the time depending on how you feel about rounding. Based on WAR, Rizzo had a 2016 that was in the lower third of the pack for 26 year old first basemen who are in the Hall of Fame. I’m not saying he will make the Hall of Fame, but he is not yet 27 and has accumulated 21.7 WAR. He is certainly an elite first baseman with the glove having already put up 49 DRS (defensive runs saved) and 7.1 UZR/150 (a similar defensive measure) in his career. He is not yet an elite offensive first baseman in the historical sense when you look at guys like Gehrig, McCovey, Foxx, and many of the other first basemen in the Hall of Fame, but he is certainly in range. He has been unbelievably consistent with the bat for three seasons, and if that continues then he will be in the conversation. It will be interesting to see if there is any growth left in his bat. Can he hit 40 home runs instead of 32? Can he hit .310 instead of .285? These are really just questions, as there isn’t much to point to that would portend another jump from his current level, except maybe his increase in the number of hard hit balls off his bat each of the last two seasons from 31.6% to 34.3%. If he only maintains his current level of awesome, the Cubs will be ecstatic.
    At the opposite corner we have supermodel/wonder boy Kris Bryant, who just turned 25. Like Rizzo, Bryant is likely to have people talking about the Hall of Fame before his career is over – I mean, other than what I did just there. Bryant just finished his second season in the majors and already has accumulated 13.6 WAR. If you look at Hall of Fame third basemen – and there are only 16 of them – then Bryant is in Wade Boggs, George Brett, Eddie Mathews territory for age 23/24 seasons or their first two full seasons – whichever was better for the HOF guys. Again, two seasons does not a Hall of Fame career make, but that’s the beauty of projecting. Bryant is already one of the best third basemen in baseball, if not in the history of baseball. Like Rizzo, Bryant isn’t just doing it with the bat as the 6’5” (that’s pretty tall for an infielder not playing first base) just put together a 4 DRS/7.7 UZR/150 season. He makes a lot of plays out of his zone – an indication of his tremendous range and has also looked good in the outfield. It’s hard to know what Bryant’s ceiling is since we only have two major league seasons to look at so far and he improved in so many ways from his first excellent campaign to his second MVP season. He decreased his strikeout rate (by a lot – more than 8 percent), increased his isolated power rate (almost 50 points), and increased his percentage of hard hit balls. It probably isn’t his peak, but even if it is, he is one of the best players in all of baseball right now.
    The middle of the Cubs infield doesn’t quite leave that Hall of Fame taste in your mouth just yet, but Addison Russell and Javier Baez just turned 23 and 24 respectively and almost everyone expects more out of their bats. Baez hasn’t even been a starter for a full season yet, while Russell just completed his second season as a starter, but both men have yet to become average contributors with bats in their hands but are already tremendous defenders. By average contributors I mean neither man has produced a season with a wRC+ of 100 yet (95 for Russell in 2016, and 94 for Baez) – that would be the mark of an average major leaguer after adjusting to the park and the league. That doesn’t mean both guys are doing everything wrong when they step into the batter’s box. Let’s start with Russell.
    Addison Russell came to the Cubs in a trade with the A’s in 2014. He was regarded as the A’s top prospect because of his youth, his glove, and his offensive potential/athleticism. He now has two full seasons in the majors and is already an elite defender at shortstop, as I’ve already mentioned, and an improving hitter. Here are three numbers that indicate growth from Russell and one number that indicates better numbers in 2017 whether he grows or not. Two pretty straightforward numbers indicate that he is gaining control of the strike zone – his walk percentage which increased from 8.0% to 9.2%, and his strikeout percentage which decreased from 28.5% to 22.6% – that’s a huge change. His ISO (isolated power which attempts to isolate how much of his batting average was due to extra base hits) jumped from .147 to .179. So he controlled the strike zone better and hit the ball harder in 2016 than he had in 2015. That’s good, right? And he did it while being moderately unlucky on balls he put in play. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was only .277, the lowest full season mark of his career by more than 25 points. So even if Russell does what he did last season, the Gods of statistical probability are likely to smile on him and give him back 20 or so points of batting average. That would likely get him over the 100 wRC+ mark. Add that to his great defensive and you have a 4.0 WAR shortstop and that is a star-quality asset.
    Baez’s issues were different from those of Russell. His first shot at full time play – the 2014 season – had him overmatched in the field and at the plate. He was only 21 but the Cubs gave him a solid shot with 229 plate appearances and he was a hot mess. When you strike out 41.5% of the time there is no way you can do anything else to compensate for that level of futility at the plate, and Baez didn’t. It wasn’t like the signs saying he wasn’t ready yet weren’t there in the minors, but after giving Baez a real shot to adjust at the major league level, the Cubs sent him back down to learn how not to fan at historic levels, hoping that he would still hit the ball hard. Baez was one of those super hot prospects who failed and was almost forgotten. But the Cubs appear to have a good organizational memory and they worked with Baez who came back up at the tail end of 2015 with a new approach. He cut his strikeout rate substantially during his cup of coffee stay in Chicago, so the Cubs were looking for even more out of him in 2016. Chicago hedged their bets with the acquisition of Ben Zobrist who made them more versatile but also gave them a safety net in case Baez returned to his empty swinging ways. Baez more than rewarded the Cubs faith in his potential becoming one of the best defensive second basemen in the game while hanging onto the strike zone gains from 2015, only fanning 24.0% of the time. The power and speed are still there and when you have a season with a .344 ISO in the minors in your background, people are going to be looking for that breakout 30 homer season. Numbers are useful, and if you’ve read more than one of my posts you will know that I have a bit of a crush on statistics, but to really appreciate Javier Baez you only had to watch all the things he did in the playoffs. He plays the game uniquely and creatively, doing things that few if any other players do in combination. If he doesn’t turn into a star I will cry because there is no player in baseball who is more fun to watch than the Cubs starting second baseman for 2017 (and hopefully for years to come).
    When you have a team this good, it doesn’t seem fair to have young top prospects hovering in the minors, but that’s what the Cubs had before they made some in-season moves to solidify their post-season roster. They ended up trading away their top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, to the Yankees to get Aroldis Chapman. There is still Ian Happ who plays second base and can hit some. Does he hit enough to justify carrying his mediocre glove? Hard to say. If he sticks at second and improves enough to be average there then yes, his bat is good enough to be a major league regular, but probably not a star. If he is forced to move to the outfield – and the Cubs have tried him there in the minors –  then he probably turns into a 4th outfielder, unless his power picks up substantially. Beyond Happ, the system is thin on infield guys who are close, but has some youngsters who are several years away. Really though, if you are a Cubs fan it would be a bit ugly of you to whine about the lack of infield help in the high minors. I mean, come on, 2016 was amazing and flags fly forever – especially the World Champion variety!