Shades Required In San Diego

“Prospects are cool, parades are cooler”, was purportedly coined by MLB’s Casey Stern, and the phrase applies to the Padres perhaps more than any team in baseball. For years now the Padres have been full of potential, but have also been unable to turn that into a playoff appearance since 2005 and 2006 when the NL West was just bad. They won the division with 82 and 88 wins respectively and lost in the LDS both times winning 1 out of 7 games in total. The last time they won 90+ games was in 1998 when they were swept in the World Series by the Yankees. They have a great newish stadium, and a beautiful city, but they also have way more 90 loss seasons than 90 win seasons. What they have right now is a stacked minor league system that has some superstar potential and great depth, so when can we expect the Friars to be relevant again and should they try to accelerate the timeline now?

Right before Christmas of 2014 the new Padres GM, A.J. Preller, signaled clearly that he believed that the Padres should go for it when he traded away Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Jake Bauers, Rene Rivera, and Burch Smith in a 3 team trade that netted them Gerardo Reyes, Ryan Hanigan, Jose Castillo, and Wil Myers – the headliner for the Padres in the trade. It was a bold move and they gave up a lot to get Myers who hasn’t been the star the Padres thought they were getting. For certain the Padres would give up a lot to get Trea Turner back – he was the player to be named later who was shipped to Washington. Turner is already a star in 2018 and had a 4.8 WAR season at age 25, so he is still getting better. Joe Ross also paid dividends quickly for the Nationals, succeeding in the majors at 22 and 23 but struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness each of the last two campaigns. Jake Bauers, also included in the trade, is the kind of guy the Padres normally would be acquiring instead of trading and the Indians just picked him up. He’s put up good walk numbers with some power and speed and not too many strikeouts in the minors. His first taste of the majors in 2018 didn’t go the way anyone wanted, but he is only 23. The trade looks bad for the Padres at this point partly because Turner has quickly turned into a star, while Myers has been disappointing. Myers has been hurt a lot, has been rough on defense and has only produced at just a tick above major league average with the bat. At this point Jose Castillo looks like he might be the real return for the Padres in the trade after his major league debut in 2018 where he put up ridiculous numbers out of San Diego’s pen over 38.33 innings. He is 6’4 with a fastball in the mid-90s and control (12.2 K’s per 9 to 2.8 walks per 9) and he is only 23 – those are closer numbers. Trades can only be fully graded in hindsight, but at this point it looks like Preller really screwed the pooch in this deal.

In addition to the Myers trade, Preller also traded away their young catcher, Yasmani Grandal (11.3 WAR since being traded) for Matt Kemp and his huge contract (8 years and $160 million) that was signed in 2012. That contract has since prompted two salary dump trades. Kemp was about a 106 wRC+ (good for about 1.9 WAR over that time) guy with horrendous outfield defense for the Padres in just short of two years before they traded him to Atlanta, along with a bunch of money, for Hector Olivera. Justin Upton was also acquired via trade that off-season. The Padres sent 4 prospects (Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, and Dustin Peterson) and an International signing slot to the Braves to get the slugging outfielder. Smith broke out last season putting up 3.4 WAR. Fried, who is 25, still hasn’t found control of his excellent stuff but managed an xFIP of 3.24 for the Braves last season and struck out almost 12 batters per 9. Jace Peterson didn’t work out, while Dustin Peterson is at triple-A and still might turn into something. Justin Upton was worth about 3.5 WAR for the Padres and left the next season as a free agent, so in terms of WAR they’ve already lost that trade. Preller also traded for Craig Kimbrel, kept him for a year, and then traded him to the Red Sox for a bunch of prospects, so that one is tough to score. In terms of prospects, they gave up Matt Wisler and a draft pick which the Braves used to take their current number one prospect, a 21 year old third baseman named Austin Riley who has already spent most of a season at triple-A. The subsequent Kimbrel trade did bring them back Manuel Margot, so scoring that sequence of transactions will have to wait. They also signed James Shields, who had one mediocre year and one horrible year, but it worked out in the end because the Padres traded him to the ChiSox for two prospects including Fernando Tatis Jr..

The Padres did a pretty clean strip of their minor league system and spent a lot of money – and it didn’t work. San Diego went 74 and 88 and Preller has since worked hard to undo what he had done to the Padres system, which did work. To his credit, San Diego now has one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball. Now the question is, will Preller hit repeat and try to turn his youngsters into major league talent, or be patient and wait for all that talent to reach the majors? The best way to look at the current Padres roster is to use that thingy that sees the future. Then you don’t have to fret about them losing 90 games this season because the future-seeing-thingy showed you that good times are on the way. Their future is coming. Since MLB 2019 is still in the future let’s start there.

We won’t waste too much time discussing players who aren’t going to be around to contribute to winning Padres’ teams. Let’s start at one of the positions where the Padres have their future in the lineup right now – catcher. Before last year the Padres looked like they were going to have a black hole behind the plate because starter Austin Hedges, who is an excellent defender, hadn’t figured out how to hit even a little bit. His 2017 was an improvement over 2016 and he only put up 69 wRC+. In 2018 Hedges figured something out and managed a wRC+ of 90 which makes him an average hitting catcher. His walk rate and his strikeout rate both moved in the right direction in 2018 and he is still only 26. His power is there with 32 home runs in his last 690 at bats, but his average is awful in part due to his high strikeout rate and subpar walk rate. He managed to hit .231 last season which was a big improvement considering his career batting average is .210 through his first 921 plate appearances. You may have heard this song before, but Hedges swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone and misses a lot when he swings. The good news is that the young catcher is an excellent defender. He has saved 32 runs (DRS) over the last two seasons and that includes  2018 where his throwing numbers, which are usually excellent, were down – the first time Hedges has been below league average. And he isn’t the only young catcher of note in the system.

Last season’s deal with the Indians that sent Brad Hand to Cleveland netted the Padres Francisco Mejia. Mejia is 23 and only has 69 at-bats in the majors but his minor league career shows him to be a high average hitter with developing power. Mejia doesn’t walk much but he also doesn’t strike out that much, so his offense is predicated on his ability to make hard contact. Can he catch? Well, he is no Austin Hedges, but he has mostly caught throughout his minor league career. He has also played some outfield and a bit of third. His defensive numbers behind the plate in the minors are solid – nothing stands out to say that he can’t catch, so his playing time at other spots is likely more about the Indians trying to make him versatile enough to get his bat in the lineup more often. The Padres only played him at catcher so take that as a statement of intent. Mejia is ready to get a real shot at the majors. Barring a trade it will be Hedges and Mejia back there in some kind of job share. Mejia switch hits and kills righties so he might get the lion’s share of a platoon as Hedges is strictly a righty.

Eric Hosmer is the first baseman until 2025 unless the Padres believe they made a mistake  and do something to move his contract. Last year, almost nothing went right for Hosmer when he had a bat in his hand. His OBP was down, his power diminished, his average dropped and he struck out more than he had in any season in the majors. If you think it was all park factor then you should take a look at his wRC+ numbers for the last four seasons. 2018’s 95 wRC+ was his lowest since 2012 (when he was 23) and the first time under 100 since 2014. The Padres probably thought they’d signed the 4.1 WAR Eric Hosmer of 2017, but what they got in the first year of the 8 years/$144 million was the -0.1 Eric Hosmer – ouch indeed! There are some positives to Hosmer like the fact that he plays pretty much every day and that he is reported to be a team leader, but there is no way to swallow that contract if he isn’t putting up at least 120 wRC+ every year at first base. Looking for an indicator that he might bounce back doesn’t show too much hope either. His BABIP was down a bit, but not by that much. His ground ball rate was up, so unless someone convinces him that his career depends on his swing path changing and then he can actually make the adjustment, then Hosmer is likely to hit into a ton of ground outs again. His hard contact rate was up a wee bit, but the rest of his batted ball profile regressed. He also pulled the ball at a rate of about 31% (like in 2017) and hit the ball to center a lot. That may have worked in KC, but in Petco it didn’t, at least for him.

He may rebound to be the guy who was worth 3.1, 3.5, and 4.1 WAR in the last three odd years respectively, or permanently turn into the even year Hosmer (-0.2, 0.2, and -0.1 WAR respectively in his last three even years). As you can see, he is extremely inconsistent so it is hard to predict what he will do from season to season, but there isn’t really anything that indicates a rebound coming. In today’s market, almost nobody is getting 8 year deals – especially not first basemen. The contract was a huge mistake even if Hosmer does rebound. Hoss is 29 and will be 36 when the contract is over. It remains to be seen if Preller can dig himself out from under this one, but in the meantime, the Padres have to hope that Hosmer can get back to at least a 3 WAR level.

The middle infield of the future is almost here for the Padres and if you are a fan then you are probably already excited. Luis Urias got his cup of coffee in the bigs last year and he won’t turn 22 until June. Urias is an on-base machine with decent extra base power. His career slash line in the minors (.306/.397/.405) is indicative of what the Padres are getting, although there is likely to be some adjustment. His number of triples at each level indicate speed, but his base stealing efficiency (35 of 73 in his career) shows that he has some aspects of the game still to master. Developed as a shortstop, Urias has seen more time at second of late and looks to be an excellent defensive second baseman unless the Padres need him to play shortstop where he would most likely be average. Based on his triple-A numbers he is ready, so the Padres should have their second baseman of the future in the lineup from the start of the season. He will eventually move toward the top of the lineup based on his contact skills and plate discipline (244 k’s to 220 walks in 1756 minor league at bats). He has star potential – something the Padres sorely need but haven’t seen in a while from one of their hitting prospects.

Urias’ double play partner of the future is a bit behind him in terms of experience, but Fernando Tatis Jr. is already showing crazy ability even though he won’t turn 21 until next post-season and has already shown that he can handle double-A. Tatis was ranked #2 in almost every prospect list last year and probably enters 2019 in the same spot. He is a big, athletic shortstop who might grow himself out of the position someday. He hits for power (42 home runs over his first 1059 at bats), steals bases (63 of 86), and gets on base (123 walks in that same span). The Padres should probably at least start him at triple-A next year, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that they will hand him the starting job if he has a great spring, service time be damned. A middle infield of Urias and Tatis is the most exciting pairing the Padres have seen since Roberto’s and rolled tacos with guacamole, but they should be patient – these guys are so young.

Christian Villanueva was a decent third baseman for a team not expected to contend – a bit below starter level at 1.2 WAR with a wRC+ of 104. I’m not sure what it says about the Padres intentions that they sold him to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, other than the fact that he won’t be their third baseman in 2019. Until a few days ago, it looked like the Padres would run Wil Myers out there to play third base. 2018 was the first time Myers had started more than 15 games at third in his professional career; he started there 36 times last season. It wasn’t pretty by the numbers with -24.7 UZR/150, but the fact is they just don’t have anyone else to play the position at this point. Since the Padres announced that Myers would move back to the outfield, it seems that they are planning on trading for a third baseman or signing a free agent. They might change their minds again (if they can’t make a move to improve their lot at third) and move Myers back to the hot corner at some point. Myers numbers in left field are actually decent so it would be smart to move him back there, although it will present them with a logjam in left. As noted above, Myers needs to be better than just average with the bat if the Padres are going to get any value from his contract, not to mention competing in the West. There isn’t an exciting prospect near ready at third base so their future is likely to involve a trade or a free agent signing of a third baseman. They might eventually shift one of their young shortstops to third if they don’t find a better solution. Even squinting, it is hard to see Myers as the solution and the Padres apparently agree. That said, they need to have somebody play third!

The outfield is interesting at least. The Padres have some decisions to make especially if they move Myers to left. Their center fielder is 24 year old Manuel Margot who hasn’t put it all together yet. He is already a very good center fielder and his glove and speed will get him a lot of chances to figure it out. To put it simply, his main problem at this point is that he makes way too many outs. With two full seasons under his belt with wRC+ numbers of 90 and 81 in 2017 and 2018 respectively, it will be hard to carry his bat in their lineup unless he can produce at least league average numbers soon. Margot’s inability to get on base via the walk means he has to hit for a high batting average to not be a drain on the offense. 2017 looked like a step in the right direction as he got his OBP up to .313, but he regressed to an unacceptable .281 last year. Margot doesn’t strike out a lot (career rate of 18.5%), and he is only 24, so there is still time to take the next step.

Franmil Reyes is built like a defensive end at 6’5 and 275 pounds and he hits like one too (in the good way). His wRC+ of 129 was the best by far on the Padres last season and had he started from the beginning of the season with San Diego, he might have earned more attention in the Rookie of The Year voting. Reyes looked like a middle of the order beast with huge power in 2018. His batting average may have been inflated by a high BABIP so there could be some regression in that area; he is probably more likely to be a .260 hitter than a .280 hitter. The power is absolutely real. His defense wasn’t good last season and based on his minor league numbers he will probably be a below average right fielder with below average range (otherwise known as a left fielder), solid fielding percentage, and good assist numbers. The Padres will take it if he can continue to post 120+ wRC+ numbers. Heading forward he is likely to be the cleanup or 5 hole hitter and will eventually move to left or first base.

Hunter Renfroe had his second season in a row with 26 home runs, but his first season in the majors with above replacement level offensive production. Two things happened that helped Renfroe get to those better numbers. First, Renfroe’s walk rate increased by 1.2% in tandem with a decreased swing rate at pitches outside of the strike zone (41.1 % in 2016, 35.5% in 2017, and 32.7% in 2018). The outfielder also saw his strikeout rate drop 4.5% from his 2017 number – down to 24.7%. Renfroe’s improved plate discipline had a lot to do with his 28 point increase in batting average, even though his BABIP actually decreased a tiny bit. If he continues to make even modest gains in his plate discipline while holding onto his big time power then he could turn into a legitimate middle of the order hitter occupying the 5 or 6 hole on a good team. He is 26, so it is unclear how much more growth there is moving forward, but until he stops improving it is hard to put a number on him in ink. One more number that portends good things for Hunter Renfroe – his hard hit ball rate exploded from 34.6% to 47.2% in one season. His improvements, and a good BABIP year might make him look like a star in the near future as he is already a valuable offensive player and at least a solid left fielder. That is fine except with Myers in left they might bump into each other a lot! Seriously, one of their trades needs to be sending one of their left fielders somewhere, preferably for a third baseman.

23 year old Franchy Cordero has had barely more than a cup of coffee in the majors and he has shown that he hits the ball very hard (48.2% hard hit rate last season), misses on too many pitches (65% contact rate where 77 percent is league average), and he has serious physical tools. What we don’t know is whether or not he can play defense in the outfield as his stats from 2017 and 2018 are polar opposites (2017 looked good and 2018 looked horrific), but that could definitely be due to small sample size. His speed implies that he should be better in right than anyone else the Padres have assuming Margot is in center, but Renfroe, Myers, and Reyes also need a spot in the field. If not for Hosmer, one of them could move to first base. So the Padres have a lot of sorting to do and the market is flush with left fielder types. Of the left fielder types on their roster, Renfroe and Reyes probably have the most trade value especially if the deal is with an AL team where they could DH and play left sometimes. Margot and Cordero need a chance to prove that they can be more complete players if the Padres are to have a chance of having a decent outfield defense.

Petco Park, where the Padres play their home games, is a pitchers park. It was a pretty extreme pitchers park through 2017, and looking at the three year park factors it is obviously a difficult place for hitters and a good place for pitchers. The Padres have been able to develop relief pitchers, often turning them into prospects via trades – most recently Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. What they haven’t had recently is a stud in the starting rotation or much depth there for that matter, but that is soon to change. Right now the Padres have three starting pitchers who could conceivably be in the rotation in some role – probably the back end of the rotation – when the team becomes competitive again, but boy are they deep in the minors!

Starting with what they already have in their big league rotation, Joey Lucchesi has had the most success. In his major league debut season of 2018, he put together a FIP- of  107. FIP- is a park and league adjusted version of Fielding Independent Pitching where 100 is league average and lower is better. So he wasn’t great at preventing runs, but he wasn’t horrible. His peripherals are what makes his debut season interesting. Lucchesi struck out 10.04 batters per 9 innings and only walked 2.98 batters per 9 for a K/Walk ratio of 3.37. The peripheral stat that likely drove up that FIP- number was his home runs per 9 which was 1.59. That’s pretty horrific unless you are sitting in the seats past the left field fence hoping for souvenirs, in which case you are thrilled by that number. Looking at Lucchesi’s minor league numbers, the long ball wasn’t particularly a problem so it is reasonable to expect better numbers there going forward. Lucchesi doesn’t throw particularly hard, only spent one start in triple-A, but has had success at every level (except for that one very short, very ugly triple-A start). He is probably a 3 or a 4 moving forward.

Robbie Erlin is another soft tosser (by today’s standards), but he has immaculate control as evidenced by his walk rate of 0.99 walks per 9 innings last season. That’s extremely low even for Erlin, but he was recovering from Tommy John surgery (the operation was in May of 2016) so it is hard to say exactly what he is now – maybe that very low walk rate is real as he is finally healthy. He also struck out 7.27 batter per 9 which gave him a K/Walk rate of 7.33 in 2018. That is going to be hard to sustain, but Erlin fashioned a FIP- of 82 in part because he didn’t give free passes to first base or allow the ball to leave the park overly much (0.99 home runs per 9). The 28 year old contributed a career high 109 innings last season, which was almost 50 more than his previous career high, and he made 12 starts. It will be interesting to see if the Padres let him loose to pitch 32 starts or so. If he can hold up, the Padres probably have another 3 or a 4 in Erlin.

Eric Lauer, like Joey Lucchesi, allowed too many baseballs to leave the park (1.2 per 9), but unlike Lucchesi he also allowed a few too many walks (3.7 per 9). Lauer uses a five pitch mix to try to keep hitters off balance. Last year that led to 8.6 strikeouts per 9, but a higher than league average contact rate against him implying that he gets a lot of called third strikes. It will be interesting to see how he develops and if the former first round pick can turn himself into more than a 4. Not that a 4 isn’t valuable, but the Padres are flush with that kind of pitcher at the major league level and they need someone to separate themselves from the pack.

The likely future ace of the team is pitching in the minors right now, but which prospects will be the one to rule them all? Will it be Chris Paddock who reached Double-A last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery? Paddock put up insane peripheral numbers – 120 strikeouts to 8 walks over 90 innings while allowing only 66 hits. There is almost no way he can continue to post numbers like that as he progresses to triple-A and then the majors, but if he maintains that kind of profile he could be a 1 or a 2 in the majors by 2020.  Paddock – a top 50 prospect – might make his MLB debut in 2019, but he has never pitched more than 90 innings in a single season in pro ball. Next year will tell us a lot about what he will eventually become as he throws more innings over more starts. He throws an excellent fastball that touches 97 and a superior changeup but lacks a viable third pitch. His meteoric rise could be slowed if the Padres are insistent on Paddock developing his curveball or some other third pitch. You shouldn’t expect much at the big league level until 2020, but nobody expected him to have the 2017 that he did so…

It probably won’t be Logan Allen, although he is the most likely rotation piece to start the season by debuting in the majors. Allen made 19 starts in Double-A and finished the season by carving up Triple-A over 5 starts with a 1.63 ERA and 26 K’s over 27.2 innings. He looks a lot like a couple of the starters already in the rotation, lacking a huge fastball, but with good control and the ability to pitch deep because of his efficiency. His ceiling is likely a 3.

Honestly, the most likely starter to become the eventual ace won’t arrive next year. Their number 2 prospect and a top 20 overall prospect is starter, Mackenzie Gore. Gore was the #3 overall pick of the 2017 draft and as you would expect from a recent high school graduate he was up and down. He reaches the mid-90s with his fastball and compliments it with a slider, a curveball, and a change, all of which he struggled to command due to blister problems that sent him to the DL multiple times in 2018. Gore spent most of the season in full-season A ball. Since he only got to just over 80 innings it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start there with the hope that he could stay healthy enough to reach Double-A in 2019. If all goes well, expect a debut in 2020 and perhaps he will buy a condo in the Gaslamp District for 2021 when he becomes a mainstay of the rotation and a potential ace.

Cal Quantrill is close in the sense that he finished the season at triple-A, but his results show that he isn’t ready. He has stuff without having consistent command of his fastball/slider/change repertoire and until he can find consistency he won’t even hang onto a rotation spot in San Diego where mid-rotation guys are plentiful. Quantrill was a 2016 first round pick out of Stanford and it was hoped that he would take the ace post in the rotation eventually. So far Quantrill hasn’t dominated like you might expect from a future ace, but he is only 23 and has only pitched two seasons since Tommy John surgery. If he figures it out in 2019 at Triple-A, then he could find himself in San Diego sometime before the season is over. If he could re-establish himself as a future ace, then the Padres would be sitting pretty with multiple young pitchers competing for the top spot in the rotation.

Adrian Morejon and Luis Patino are really young and equally talented. Morejon pitched almost all of 2018 at High-A and won’t turn 20 until the end of February. He struck out more than a batter an inning and showed solid control. Arm issues shortened his season so he will need time to master his breaking pitches and a return to High-A seems likely. If he can stay healthy, then Morejon could see Petco Park by 2021. He has ace upside and will give the other young starters a run for the top spot in the rotation assuming he doesn’t lose more development time due to arm issues. Luis Patino is even younger than Morejon, but just made 17 starts in full-season A ball and dominated on his way to breaking onto some top 100 prospect lists. It is hard to know what is ahead for a 19 year old, but when you can throw almost 100 MPH and exhibit control at such a young age, it is hard not to get excited about future ace potential. He has a long way to go to get to the majors and still needs to develop his off-speed pitches to compliment his fastball and slider.

One more young pitcher in the pipeline is 6’8” Michel Baez. Baez sits mid-90s with his fastball and showed solid control until his four start debut in double-A. He will likely start 2019 in double-A and has work to do on his slider, curveball and change as well as his fastball command before he debuts in San Diego. Pitchers of his size with control and big heat are rare and his ceiling is top of the rotation, but he has a ways to go before he contributes to a pennant race in San Diego.

Bullpens change so quickly that when examining the future of a team like the Padres, there is almost no reason to even talk about the relief pitchers currently on the team. One of the young starters might end up in the pen if they can’t figure out an off-speed pitch, or a young reliever could end up traded as the Padres have done in the past. For example, Kirby Yates, who eventually took on the closer role after Brad Hand was traded, will turn 32 during spring training. He dominated last year with almost 13 K’s per 9 and fewer than two and half walks per 9. He can’t be a free agent until 2021 and after the season he just had, it seems like he would be an obvious trade chip for a team still two years away from contending. Craig Stammen also was a beast in the pen, and he will turn 35 before opening day. He would certainly draw interest from other teams and probably won’t be around when the Padres are ready to contend for the NL West crown. So until the Padres can piece together a rotation and fill out the rest of their lineup convincingly there is really no reason to look at the pen very closely to see what it will look like moving forward as there is no obvious closer waiting in the wings, and the current closer is unlikely to be around when saves start to matter.

The best case scenario based on the development of Urias, Tatis Jr., their young outfield, and their virtual army of young starting pitching rapidly developing down on the farm is that the Padres seriously contend in 2021. It is possible that the Padres spend money to accelerate that estimate or trade some of their young talent to jump the line, but what is really needed now is some measure of patience and continued good drafts to make sure than when that window opens for the Padres they can stay contenders for a long time. The park is gorgeous and so is the farm system. That seems like a hot mix for perennial contenders in the wild, wild, West.

 

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But If You Have Enough Money…

The last time the Phillies had a winning season was 2011 which was also the last time they made the playoffs, so you can excuse fans and the front office if they are eager to jump-start their return to relevance by throwing gobs of money at shiny free agents this off-season. I’m sure they would love to add Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as well as Craig Kimbrel and Madison Bumgarner (in trade) since their wallet would already be open. Having spent 39 days in first place in 2018, likely a bit ahead of their own time table for success, is exciting for the Philly faithful, but just like it is a bad idea to go grocery shopping when you are hungry, it is prudent to be cautious in the off-season trade and free agent market after you have over-performed during the season just past.

It is important to remember that the Phillies are still a very young team and that their window is just starting to open. They have a deep farm system ranked 5th coming into the 2018 season by MLB.com and a #7 mid-season ranking by Bleacherreport.com with some star potential from the mound and in the lineup. They also have some players in place at the major league level who should be part of their next playoff team. There comes a point in every rebuild where a team needs to push their chips in and wedge something into that window to keep it open as long as they can. Is this the year the Phillies are holding suited “big slick”? But enough of the poker references – let’s explore the Phillies chances in 2019 as well as the width of their window.

The Phillies recently made a big trade with Seattle to bring in a new shortstop – Jean Segura – while also moving their first baseman from last year, Carlos Santana to make room for Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins had spent 2018 miscast as a left fielder. In sending Carlos Santana and their perennial shortstop of the future, J.P. Crawford, to the Mariners, they shed Santana’s big contract and received Jean Segura who will move into the starting shortstop spot barring the signing of a free agent shortstop like Manny Machado. They also acquired two bullpen pieces in Juan Nicasio and James Pazos. Was this a future trade or a trade for now? In a way, it was both. J.P. Crawford has not turned into the star the Phillies have been hoping for. Crawford will play as a 24 year old in 2019 so it’s not like he is done cooking. The Mariners are hoping that his growth continues and they have their shortstop for the next 5 years. He looked like a good-fielding shortstop until last year so if nothing else the Mariners likely have a good glove man with great plate discipline. He might be more if his power develops as many thought it would. By acquiring Segura to take his spot, the Phillies have traded some defense and a lot of potential for a solid bat and a decent glove. In his last three seasons Segura has put up at least 111 wRC+ which for a shortstop is excellent. His WAR has been between 3.0 and 5.1 in those three seasons so it is pretty clear that he is conservatively a 3 WAR shortstop. His glove is solid with DRS making him look better than UZR and although he isn’t Ozzie Smith, he also isn’t Hanley Ramirez either. At 28 with a contract that takes him through the 2023 season when he will be 32-33, the Phillies have solidified the position for 2019 and through their current window of contention, so they gave up some higher ceiling future and got a moderately higher floor back.

This off-season has been an interesting reshuffling of the lineup, but let’s finish with the infield before we look at the outfield. Rhys Hoskins was in left last season, which was the equivalent of the Phillies gluing a horn to his head and declaring, “See! He’s a unicorn!”. Hoskins is a valuable young asset but he is no left fielder. One important result from the moves the Phils have made so far is that Hoskins gets to play his natural position – first base. Based on a small sample size at the major league level, Hoskins is an average first baseman and a god-awful left-fielder. He is also a home run hitting, walk generating, offensive machine who according to interviews with the club was also a team leader in his first full season in the majors. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere but it wasn’t until 2016 that he made the Phillies top 10 prospect list. That was after mashing 38 homers at double-A and drawing 77 walks. In Hoskins, the Phils have a cleanup hitter, and now he is a first baseman again, so he doesn’t have the pressure of learning a new position. In just over a season and a half, he has 52 home runs and a career wRC+ of 136. His poor outfield defense offset his great production with the bat and he ended up with only 2.9 WAR in 2017 when as a first baseman he is likely a 4 WAR player – maybe more. 2017 will be his age 26 season so there is likely more in the tank – exciting for Phillies fans.

After Segura and Hoskins, the rest of the infield isn’t quite as certain. As it stands right now, Cesar Hernandez is likely the starting second baseman, with Maikel Franco at third  and Jorge Alfaro carrying the lion’s share of the catching load. Franco just had his first wRC+ above 100 since 2015, but Franco is viewed as a huge disappointment. Part of that is tied to Franco’s limitations, and part of it is caused by unrealistic expectations. Franco, who already has close to 2000 at-bats in the majors, is only 26 and he has three seasons in a row with at least 20 home runs. When you hit 25 homers as a 23 year old, expectations get ratcheted up pretty high, and Franco was thought of as a rising star. What he is, as a 26 year old, is an average to slightly below average starter. That isn’t worthy of the acrimony that follows Franco round as if he had burned your family home. He is not the cornerstone of a team and isn’t likely to be because he isn’t a very good defender or baserunner and he doesn’t walk enough. Unless he changes his profile, he will continue to be a 1.5 WAR guy which is almost good enough to hold down a starting spot on a championship team and good enough to be a placeholder who bats 7th. Cesar Hernandez is a different story. He flies solidly under the radar and generates runs while preventing them at second, short, and third. And he’s a gamer, having played 161 games in 2018 even though he was playing with a broken foot for most of the second half of the season. He is a 3 WAR, positionally versatile, leadoff hitter with a career .357 OBP who showed improved pop last year. At 28 this is probably what he is and that is valuable, especially if you take into account the fact that he is under team control until 2021.

Jorge Alfaro is interesting. That isn’t meant in the Irish Curse sense of the word – “May you lead an interesting life” – but he is hard to pin down. He is still a bit raw and young (for a catcher) so he could still turn into all the cool things baseball people have expected of him since he was 2 (maybe not quite that early). Alfaro has tremendous raw power and turned it into game power in 2018 hitting 10 homers in 377 plate appearances. Power is fun and all, but his approach is very exploitable as his staggering 179 to 22 strikeout to walk ratio in his first 467 plate appearances will attest. A 35% strikeout rate is untenable when you flat out will not walk, even when you have good power. Look – a tiny chart! This wee chart shows rates for Jorge Alfaro in 2018 in comparison to league average. O-swing and O-contact refer to swing and contact rates on pitches out of the strike zone respectively. Swing and contact percentages are for all pitches, both in and out of the strike zone.

O-Swing% O-Contact% Swing% Contact%
Alfaro 46.9% 42.9% 61.1% 61%
League 30.9% 62.8% 46.6% 77%

The chart above illustrates two things. 1 – Jorge Alfaro swings at freakin’ anything and everything. 2 – Jorge Alfaro misses a lot of pitches regardless of where they are thrown. Until he curbs his free-swinging ways, pitchers have no reason to throw him strikes, which, by the way, are much easier to hit than pitches outside of the strike zone. Free swingers sometimes succeed but those free swingers tend to make a lot of contact. Alfaro put together a 96 wRC+ last year which makes him an above average offensive catcher – largely due to his power and an unsustainable BABIP of .406 – see – hard to pin down. In addition, his second half numbers were better than his first half numbers. Behind the plate, Alfaro has a mixed profile too. He led the league with 10 passed balls, managed to throw out runners at close to the league average rate, and his framing runs saved was 5th in the bigs at just over 12 runs saved. The bar is set pretty low on offense for catchers these days, so Alfaro will be on a long leash because of his power and his tools behind the plate. The Phillies are in better shape than a lot of teams with him back there, but that is more an indictment of the state of catching than praise for Alfaro.

Philadelphia is reportedly in the Machado sweepstakes which – if they sign him – would probably mean that Segura would shift to second and Hernandez to third, pushing Franco to a Gulag in Siberia most likely. Even without Machado, the infield is better with Segura at short, Hoskins at first, and Hernandez healthy. Franco could still improve even if it is just luck – he has a very low BABIP for his career of .263. The Phils could also sign a second baseman as there is a glut of good ones in free agency right now. That would allow them to move Hernandez to third. Let’s just say they have a lot of options.

The outfield has improved by a good amount in the last couple of weeks both by subtraction (Hoskins moving to first) and addition (free agent signing of Andrew McCutchen). Cutch has settled in as a 120 wRC+ guy who is no longer a center fielder, although he should be able to handle left. His defense knocks down his WAR a bit, but he is roughly a 3 WAR guy now. He brings great value as a leadoff hitter with some pop. At 31, McCutchen is still fast and has some pop so he is a valuable addition to the offense. The center fielder, Odubel Herrera, had a downright awful year (0.9 WAR). For the second year in a row, his offensive production was about league average. This follows two seasons where he produced runs at about 10% above league average. But what really drove down his value was his defense. Herrera will be 27 this season so this is a make or break year for him. As the Phillies move into contention they are unlikely to allow Herrera to start unless he can bring something like his 2015 and 2016 levels to the party. In right field, Nick Williams is only 24 and has just short of 800 plate appearances in the majors. Even though his more visible numbers dropped (batting average from .288 to .256 and slugging percentage from .473 to .425) some of his peripheral numbers improved. He struck out 3.5% less often than he had in 2017 and he walked 7.1% of the time as opposed to his 2017 rate of 5.8%. His BABIP in 2017 was an unsustainable .375, so of course it dropped (to .312 in 2018). If he can continue to make gains with his control of the strike zone then he could become a solid regular. As it stands, he had a wRC+ of 103 which doesn’t hurt the team (actually 3% above league average). What did hurt the team was Williams’ glove work which left something to be desired last season. With a DRS of -15 (UZR/150 of -16.1) at his primary position (right field), Williams has to produce at a pretty high level at the plate to hold the starting spot. His bat plays if he is an average right fielder but not if he is a bad outfielder, so something needs to improve if the Phils are going to keep running him out there as a starter.

At this moment the outfield will likely be McCutchen in left, Odubel Herrera in center, and probably Nick Williams in right. Roman Quinn was the primary fourth outfielder, and Scott Kingery could play on the grass when he isn’t spotting guys on the dirt. Quinn got some starts in center as Herrera struggled but didn’t exactly light it up and certainly didn’t steal Herrera’s spot. Quinn is fast and has a history of getting on base at a decent rate, but for someone with almost no power he strikes out a lot – over 25% so far in his time in the majors. For Quinn to steal Herrera’s spot he needs to get on base more than he did last year (almost 32% of the time) and play better defense. Even for him to hold the fourth outfielder spot his defense needs to be better as the Phillies try to change last season’s profile as one of the worst defensive teams in baseball. Quinn put up negative defensive numbers at all three outfield spots so it is really his bat that earns him playing time.

Aaron Altherr is a mess and it would be surprising to see him get a starting job barring someone getting hurt. He still has power, but strikes out too much (31.9% last season) and now carries a career .228 average with 1090 career plate appearances under his belt. His career 96 wRC+ isn’t bad, and his glove is solid – career DRS of 6 in the outfield, but his power isn’t enough to carry that strikeout rate or that batting average. Team control through 2022 is one thing in Altherr’s favor. If Quinn keeps striking out and doesn’t get on base more while still flashing subpar leather, Altherr might be a better choice as the fourth outfielder because he puts up better defensive numbers and provides power off the bench. Scott Kingery looked like he might be ready to breakout coming out of spring training but he never hit. Kingery didn’t have a single month of the season with on an on-base percentage above .295. The Phils played him more at shortstop than any other position and his glove was good. His defense looked good all over the place so if he produces with the bat the way he did in the high minors with power and a high batting average then he will be a valuable asset because of his positional flexibility. Philadelphia will give him a chance to show that he learned from his 484 plate appearances. One number that augurs poorly for Kingery are his low walk totals. If he can’t control the strike zone then he won’t start and he will be passed as a bench player at some point.

The Phillies could upgrade at an outfield corner without breaking the bank. They could also decide that Nick Williams has more in the tank than he has shown and stand pat. Aaron Altherr has pretty much shown at this point that he isn’t the guy they thought he was, but he can still battle Roman Quinn for the 4th outfield spot. They can’t afford to continue running out poor fielding outfielders who are only average hitters when it is easy to find better, relatively inexpensive players to fill those spots. This isn’t the hard part of putting together a team so if they intend to contend, they can’t screw this up.

In the field and at the plate, the Phils have a lot of needs if they want to be serious contenders in a division with the Braves, Nationals, and Mets (no need to worry about the Miami Jeters yet.) They need either a 2nd baseman or a 3rd baseman to take the place of Franco. If they decide to keep him and upgrade elsewhere then they need a corner outfielder. Michael Brantley would have been a great addition but the Astros just signed him. A.J. Pollock is still out there as is Marwin Gonzalez – and then there is Bryce Harper.

Before we move on to the pitching staff, let’s look at the big picture. There are some easy ways for teams to screw up when they are starting to come out of  a rebuild. The Phils have a chance to keep their window open for some time because of their minor league system and their big market financial profile. They could take on some pretty hefty contracts without too much fear that a mistake would handcuff them, but they can’t be reckless. The bigger issue is that teams can get ahead of themselves and start shipping out their prospects in an attempt to speed up the exit from rebuilding to competing. This can shorten the length of the window and kill a rebuild before it starts bearing fruit. So they need to tread carefully and not bury themselves in ugly contracts that last a decade while still upgrading enough to contend with the rest of the division. Having said that, what of the pitching?

Aaron Nola is the undisputed ace of the staff after contributing 5.6 WAR in his age 25 season – a breakout season for the 6’2” righty. Nola’s strikeout and walk rates were closely aligned with his career numbers. What separated this season from his previous seasons was his durability and his decreased home run rate. Nola pitched 212.33 innings over 33 starts where his career highs were 168 innings and 27 starts. Nola induces a lot of grounders and also saw his home run rate drop to .72 home runs per 9 innings (and his HR/Fly Ball rate dipped to 10.6%). Nola looks like he is still improving a bit each year so the Phils are in good shape at the top of their rotation assuming Nola remains healthy.

After Nola, the rest of the starters looked like 3s or 4s last year with WAR between 2.0 and 2.8 for each of the next four of Nola’s rotation mates. Not all of them look to follow the same career paths though. If you look at the numbers, the number two guy in the rotation based on xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) would be Nick Pivetta at 3.42. By strikeout percentage the number two spot belongs to, well, Nola – with Pivetta in the one spot. That was some cherry picking of stats, but Pivetta did some things in his second season in the rotation that portend good future performance. He lowered his walk rate (from 3.86 to 2.80) and home run rate (from 1.69 to 1.32 – still too high) while bumping up his strikeout rate (from 9.47 per 9 innings to 10.32). Those are significant changes to his peripheral stats and it shows in his xFIP which went from 4.26 to 3.42. It will be interesting to see if the Phils improve their defense enough to have Pivetta’s ERA and xFIP move closer to each other – one possible reason for the gap. Pivetta flies under the radar a bit because his ERA isn’t pretty. If it moves closer to his xFIP this year it might look like a breakout even if his xFIP stays the same. The point being that Pivetta is already a good starting pitcher even if he gives up too many bombs.

Behind Pivetta is probably Vince Velasquez. He is only 26 and seemed to disappear in 2017 after he excited Phillies’ fans in 2016. Velasquez was back and improved his numbers to the point where he is once again a valuable member of the rotation. His strikeout rate climbed back close to where it was in 2016 and his walk rate dropped close to 2016 levels as well. One area of big improvement was his home run rate which dipped under 1.0 for the first time. In 2016 it sat at 1.44 which is tough to live with. Velasquez had an xFIP of 4.12 in 2018, and the Phils will be looking for him to pick up where he left off.

Jake Arrieta is a sinker/slider pitcher throwing one of those two pitches more than 77% of the time last year. He used to throw a mid-90’s fastball but has lost a couple MPH in the last two seasons and rarely uses the four-seam at all. Arrieta isn’t the ace who was really hard to take deep anymore. During his two incredible years with the Cubs his home run rates per nine innings were 0.29 and 0.39 – both incredible rates. Each of the last two seasons he has been above 1.0 at 1.23 and 1.09 respectively. 1.09 is respectable but nowhere close to his previous level of stinginess. 2017 saw Arrieta get back to his career ground ball rate. If this is what he is now, he is still useful. Expectations are hard to compete with, but as long as the Phillies are happy with their current version of Jake Arrieta then everything should be fine. Fours seasons in a row of 30 plus starts is quite valuable, but he isn’t an ace anymore.

Zack Eflin is another youngster with just 46 starts in the majors, but last season saw some nice improvements from the tall, 24 year old righty. Eflin picked up 2 MPH on his fastball in the off-season and averaged 95.2 in 2018. He also added some giddyup to his slider while keeping his change close to where it was before, adding more separation between it and his heater. The slider and the fastball both earned positive pitch values in 2018 meaning hitters struggled with both pitches more than they had in the past. The changeup was actually less effective which might be because of sequencing or any number of other reasons. The most notable sign of improvement for Eflin was hitters’ contact rates. From 2016 to 2017 to 2018, hitters had contact rates on Eflin pitches of 88.0%, 84.8% and 78.7% respectively. That’s almost 10 points of improvement in two seasons and is highlighted by his increase of two strikeouts per 9 innings in 2018 over his career rate.

The Phillies’ rotation has youth on their side, an emerging ace in Nola, and a solid inning eating veteran in Arietta. With continued improvement from the young staff the Phillies might actually have enough starting pitching. They don’t have the one-two punch of the Nationals or the Mets, but 1 to 5 they are deeper than most teams. Here is an area where the Phillies are already competitive but could take the next step to top of the division status with the addition of a strong two or another ace. The question then is do they go after someone now or wait one more year to see how the rest of the starters and young hitters develop? Now that Patrick Corbin is off the board, it would mean they would have to trade for a starter for it to be a significant upgrade, and that would be costly in terms of prospects. You never know what will happen contractually between now and the start of free agency. Players sign extensions or get injured so you have to be flexible with your planning. That said, names like Verlander, Hamels, Porcello, Sale, Bumgarner and Cole get sprung from contractual bondage before the 2020 season and the current versions of all of those pitchers would fit the bill without the Phillies having to deplete their strong minor league system. It seems clear that the Phillies should stand pat to start the season and make a trade at the deadline if they are in the playoff hunt and need a big arm or just wait until free agency to throw money at someone.

Not that there weren’t good pitchers there, but the bullpen was a mess in 2018. Hector Neris started the season as the closer but gave up a boatload of homers (2.1 per 9 innings) and ended up spending time in the minors before making a late-season return to Philly. Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek also took turns as the closer before Seranthony Dominguez captured the lion’s share of the role. There has been noise that the Phillies are looking for an established closer for 2019, but so far there hasn’t been a move. In spite of the musical chairs action in the closer’s role, there are some nice pieces in the pen. Dominguez was a wild, hard-throwing starter in the minors through the 2017 season and began the conversion in double-A at the start of the 2018 season. After 11 appearances at two levels he got the call to pitch in for the parent club. Dominguez stuck out 11.48 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.41 so there is still some wild in his game to go along with the big strikeout totals. An xFIP of 3.04 is plenty good and he generated a lot of ground balls to go with the whiffs (55.7% GB rate) which makes sense when you look at his excellent home run rate of .62 home runs per 9 innings last season. The 23 year old righty was exceptionally difficult to hit, allowing only 5.0 hits per 9 innings in 2018. He is the closer, but there a lot of relievers on the market so that could change if the Phillies decide they can’t live with the high walk totals.

Edubray Ramos, who is 26, didn’t get a chance to close and he is probably the setup man or the guy they give the ball to in the 7th. Ramos, like Dominguez, keeps the ball in the park and gets his share of strikeouts (8.86 K’s per 9 and 0.84 home runs per 9). He was also a little harder to hit last season as his hits per 9 dropped to 7.2 which was significantly below his career mark of 8.1. Ramos was out with an injury for part of the season but has had three solid seasons in a row and figures to be an important part of the pen. Pay attention to his fastball velocity at the start of the season – he has lost one MPH each of the last two seasons but still averaged 93.8 in 2018.

Tommy Hunter had a solid year in line with his career numbers and he continued his improved ability to prevent home runs which used to be the knock on him. He has four seasons in a row of fewer than one big fly per 9 innings. Hunter is a durable pen arm. Juan Nicasio and James Pazos came over in the trade with Seattle and both men should figure prominently in the pen for 2019. Nicasio is a converted starter who thrived in the pen last year. His strikeout rate was up (11.36 per 9) and his walk rate was down (1.07 per 9). One area of concern was his home run rate which was up to 1.29 last season, but Nicasio is a fly ball pitcher so that will happen – and it might happen more in Philly. If his walk rate stays low it won’t hurt him that much. Pazos improved his numbers in 2018 – his second full season in the bigs. Although his K rate dropped to 8.10, his walk rate also dropped to a very workable 2.70 per 9 and his home run rate fell to 0.72. In Nicasio, Pazos and Hunter, the Phillies have the depth and length to get them to the late inning guys like Ramos, Dominguez and even Neris, if he can recapture his effectiveness.

There are many other moving parts, but the quiet additions the Phils have made to their pen should make them more effective at holding leads. They don’t have a bunch of flashy names like the Mets or the Nats, but they should be better in 2019. With the number of bullpen arms out there, the Phillies could afford to wait out the market and sign one more late inning guy without harming their rebuild. They could also spend money on Adam Ottavino, who has already proven that he can pitch in a hitters park. Ottavino could either close or pitch the 8th giving the Phils a tough 7th, 8th, and 9th pitching combo. Relief pitchers who can succeed year after year are hard to find, so spending talent to acquire top end relievers is a dangerous tactic. Spending money to lock up a reliever for a year or two seems to be the way to go – look at the A’s last year – and the Phillies have plenty of money. They could pick up a few wins by spending money on the pen. As long as they don’t do something stupid like signing a top reliever to a contract longer than three seasons, they should be fine.

The minor league system is flush with pitching, and it is a good mix of guys who are sitting at double-A (Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina) and triple-A (Jojo Romero, Ranger Suarez, and Eynel de los Santos)  and youngsters like Spencer Howard and Franklin Morales who have a ways to go still. Having a lot of pitching is a fantastic problem to have and the Phils should try hard not to give away that depth in their desire to win right now. They also have a couple of position players with very high upside in their top 10 prospects – namely shortstop Luis Garcia and third baseman Alex Bohm. Again, these aren’t pieces to be frittered away as they both have star upside. Not to say that the Phillies should never trade prospects, just that they shouldn’t do it now because while they are close, they still need some youngsters to develop so that they have the depth and the top level talent that other teams like the Nationals and the Braves already have.

There is a lot to juggle when putting together a major league team and the Phillies situation is tricky. If they take their time, they could be on their way to putting together a great run of competitiveness. If they rush and sell their future in a bid to compete right now, then they could be right back where they were before the rebuild. They also have to look at the other teams in the division. The Nationals look to be good again and they have some young talent, although their pitching is mostly dependent on veterans. The Braves are good AND young, and they have depth that might surpass the Phillies’ system. The Mets are improving at the big league level but their minor league system is thin. Yes, the Phillies can compete right now, but they will likely be competing with fewer excellent teams in their division if they are patient and push their chips in next season. The Mets are in win now mode as are the Nationals (who also have a lot of young talent so they aren’t going away anytime soon). The Braves and Phillies are primed to be the power in the NL East for years to come as long as the Phillies don’t get out over their skis and give away their young talent. Breathe, Phillies Faithful, breathe!

 

Bryce Harper Without a Curly ‘W’ On His Chest

What would the Nationals outfield look like without Bryce Harper? Would it look like sadness, or the death of hope and joy? Well, neither actually, which is why the Nats should say goodbye to their fashion model superstar and embrace their exciting new future.

Yes – Bryce Harper is exciting and a great draw as well as a productive offensive force. Losing him from any roster will hurt. But the Washington Nationals are one of the few teams who are in position to move on gracefully from his departure. This may be better suited for a discussion of the Most Valuable Player Award, but if you think about teams absorbing the loss of a single player and what that would mean to their ability to compete, it would seem to be an important part of the MVP discussion. Since the term, “valuable”  is part of the name of the award, context comes into play. If the award was the Best Player award then there would be no need to look at the team at all and one large layer of context would become moot. But value is a context dependent term so there are many pieces that define value from the most obvious – performance – to the more esoteric like positional scarcity and organizational depth (which is tied to scarcity), as well as things like strength of the team around the player. If I am a 7 WAR player surrounded by two 6 WAR players and a 5 WAR player then am I as valuable to a team as a 6 WAR player on a team with no other players with a WAR value above 4? The answer to that question depends on your own personal beliefs – kind of like how you feel about pineapple on pizza and probably equally likely to incite passionate argument. The Nationals have to be thinking about all of these things as the day comes when they have one last chance to sign Bryce Harper after he has received a number of contract offers from other teams – other teams with more money than the Nationals. So let’s start with Harper, using WAR and wRC+ to analyze him as a hitter and as a whole player. Once we are clear about what he is then we can look at what a post-Harperian outfield would look like.

Starting with WAR, Harper has been a regular since he was 19 in the 2012 season so we have 7 seasons to examine.

Season (Age) WAR WAR Ranking
2012 (19) 4.4 45
2013 (20) 4.1 57
2014 (21) 1.6 264
2015 (22) 9.3 1
2016 (23) 3.0 111
2017 (24) 4.8 33
2018 (25) 3.5 78

The outliers are his 2015 season when he produced 9.3 WAR and lead all of baseball, and his 2014 season when he was only good for 1.6 WAR. He is about to play a season as a 26 year old so there may very well be improvement left in him. However if you just look at what he is now then he is a 4 WAR player which is Hall of Fame level production. Let’s say Harper plays for 18 seasons and averages 4 WAR – that puts him around 72 WAR – that’s Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson territory. WAR includes all aspects of his game, and Harper’s WAR is hurt by his mixed defensive metrics, but his offensive profile is a bit mixed too as his batting average has varied quite a bit from a high of .330 in 2015 to a low of .243 in 2016. Harper now has two seasons above .310 and two seasons below .250 – and that’s just in his last four seasons! Remember that Harper just played his age 25 season so he is still somewhat of a work in progress – weird, I know to talk about a player with 184 home runs that way, but that is why Harper’s contract situation is so unusual. We don’t often see players reach free agency with so much more development potential. For a finer look at just his offense, let’s look at Harper’s wRC+ and only take into account his ability to create runs in a neutral environment.

Season (Age) wRC+ wRC+ Rank
2012 (19) 121 56
2013 (20) 137 26
2014 (21) 115 81
2015 (22) 197 1
2016 (23) 111 76
2017 (24) 155 7
2018 (25) 135 17

Harper’s “offense only” profile still has a lot of up and down to it with the outlier happening in 2015 when he created 97% more runs than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, Harper can be counted on to produce somewhere around 140 wRC+ which would make him a top 20 hitter in most seasons, with the possibility to be the best hitter in all of baseball or drop to the top 75.

Let’s quickly address Harper’s defense. It is generally agreed upon that defensive metrics are the least accurate of all the statistics. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful, just that it is important to look a little deeper and take attempts to turn defense into just one number with a grain of salt. So let’s look at two of those grains of salt first. Here is Harper’s defensive career as an outfielder (mostly in right) reduced to three stats.

Season (Age) dWAR (all outfield positions) DRS (In right only) UZR/150 (in right only)
2012 (19) 6.7 -1 6.3
2013 (20) -1.3 2 23.6
2014 (21) -3.5 1 15.0
2015 (22) -10.2 6 -5.1
2016 (23) -1.7 -3 5.9
2017 (24) -2.0 4 4.6
2018 (25) -18.1 -16 -15.4

All three stats above reduce fielding to runs saved so that you can compare. Negative values mean the player cost the team that many runs. Depending on which number you peruse, Harper looks like an average defender in most seasons – maybe a little better at times and sometimes not so great. Last season looks like quite a large outlier on the negative side of the ledger. So here is one more stat to look at to give that ugly 2018 some perspective. Since 2012, Nat’s pitchers have increased their strikeout rate by about one k per nine innings cutting into the number of balls hit to Harper in right field. So Harper’s chances have dropped making any slips in play stand out even more. Looking at one more set of numbers – Inside Edge Fielding which puts every ball hit near a fielder into buckets based on their perceived difficulty. There are six groups ranging from “Routine” to “Impossible”. Over the last two seasons, Harper has made all 295 plays that were categorized as routine. In 2018 there were only 17 balls in total that fell into the next three most difficult categories – “Likely”. “Even”, and “Unlikely”. That means that not making a couple of those plays for whatever reason would have a disproportionately large impact on his defensive numbers. In fact, he had his worst numbers in two of those three categories. Basically, yes, he had a rough year with the glove, but it wasn’t the disaster that his DRS, UZR, and dWAR made it out to be. It is likely that Harper will return to his average numbers next year unless he gets unlucky – it is unlikely that he turned into a horrible fielder as a 25 year old. Basically, he is an average fielder who is a bit volatile as a hitter, but who has a very high floor and a tremendous ceiling. So that’s Harper. But if we are looking at what it would mean for him to leave, then we need to look at the likely starting trio and 4th outfielder if Bryce takes his fabulous hair to Philly, or somewhere else that’s not DC.

If you followed baseball at all last season, then you know about Juan Soto, the rookie left fielder who played the 2018 season as a 19 year old. He destroyed minor league pitching, completely skipping over triple-A, then mashed big league hurlers by accumulating 146 wRC+ in 116 games and 494 plate appearances. His 3.7 WAR placed him 42nd in all of baseball even though he only spent about 2/3 of the season in the bigs. His wRC+ was good for 10th. He gets on base, hits for average, and has tremendous power (not to mention one of the coolest nicknames in recent sports history – Childish Bambino). His defense wasn’t great, but you could chalk that up to small sample size. He is very athletic but will likely be a corner outfielder. Let’s say he is an average defender or slightly below at the moment, but he has a chance to be more. He is already a starter and possibly somewhere between starter and superstar.

Victor Robles has hovered between the 1st and 10th best prospect in baseball for a couple seasons now and only an injury stopped him from making a real debut last year. He was kept to 65 games and 265 plate appearances including 66 in DC for the Nationals. 0.5 WAR and 131 wRC+ in a very small sample has everyone excited because that is what his profile has looked like for a while. You can’t exactly extrapolate to 660 plate appearances and say he is already a 5 WAR player, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Robles could put together a 4 WAR season in 2019. Robles isn’t just a bat and can legitimately hold down center field. He is an old man compared to Soto playing last season as a 20 year old, but if Harper moves on it is almost certain that Robles starts the season in the Nationals outfield.

Then there’s the veteran, Adam Eaton. The old man – he played at 30 in 2019 – is a fantastic leadoff hitter. He has lost a lot of time the last two seasons to injury but when he was on the diamond he was a star. Eaton doesn’t have much power but he gets on base by hit and by walk amassing a .394 on-base percentage last season. In 370 plate appearances in 2018 he put together a wRC+ of 123 and contributed 1.9 WAR. His last two full seasons – 2015 and 2016 – he had wRC+ numbers of 121 and 116 respectively with WAR of 5.8 and 4.5. At 30, and taking into account his injuries, it would be fair to expect a 3 WAR season out of Eaton either at a corner or in center. If Robles takes the center field spot and the Nats send Eaton to left, then the veteran will likely be an above average defender.

Michael Taylor is a free agent as of this writing. At 27 he has already exhausted his prospect status and after a breakout 2017 where he produced 3.1 WAR and his only wRC+ above 100 (104), he disappointed enough in 2018 to make it unlikely that he would be handed a starting job by a contending team. He would, however, make an excellent 4th outfielder for the Nationals based on his speed, his power, and his excellent defense. Taylor is a legit centerfielder and could start for almost any team in center if defense was the only requirement. Taylor’s problem is that he strikes out a lot – 31.4% of the time in his career which now extends to just over 1600 plate appearances. So let’s say Taylor signs somewhere else and the Nationals are forced to sign or trade for some outfield depth as their triple-A club comes up short after Robles. There are a lot of 4th outfielder types available – maybe not as talented as Michael Taylor – but it won’t be hard for them to fill that spot. It is unlikely that the Nationals would flip shortstop Trea Turner back to the outfield after a good defensive season at shortstop considering that his one year in the outfield was ugly, from a statistical standpoint. Carter Kieboom is only 21 and just finished a solid season at double-A, so Turner won’t feel any pressure from below for at least another season, but it depends on how the Nationals view the speedy Turner moving forward and whether or not they see Kieboom as their shortstop of the future.

An outfield of Eaton, Robles, and Soto, relies on two young players to develop into steady producers and a veteran to stay healthy. It looks like a good bet from here. Yes, Robles could take some time to become a start but even if he is just average, the Nationals outfield would still be one of the top 10 outfields in baseball. If Robles puts up a 3 WAR season in centerfield and Soto is even close to what he was last year, then the Nationals could have the best outfield in baseball. Harper is going to be expensive – possibly more expensive than any player in the history of baseball. The Nationals could do a lot with that money if they spend it elsewhere or even spend half of it elsewhere. They just signed Patrick Corbin to bolster their rotation – money that clearly makes it harder to sign Harper to a long term deal widely expected to be the highest in the history of baseball. As hard as it will be for DC to cut ties with Bryce Harper, there is no way they should try to outbid one of the deep pocket teams to sign him. Say goodbye to Bryce Harper, Nationals fans, and embrace your new, exciting outfield.

 

Dark Times By The Bay

In baseball, when a team wins the World Series many sins can be forgiven. When a team wins the World Series three times in the span of five seasons then it would seem all sins should be forgiven for a decade at the very least. How many teams have even done that in the history of the Major Leagues? The Yankees (duh – multiple times), the Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Tigers, and the A’s have pulled off three wins in five seasons. It happens more often than one would think mainly because of the Yankees, but it is rare enough that only five franchises have ever managed the feat. So you would think that the San Francisco Giants fans would be content with whatever the team can manage these days since they were the last club to pull it off with their third win coming in 2014. In baseball years that’s pretty much a week ago, so why does there seem to be so much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the orange and black loyalists? It is easy to understand why Giants’ fans might have become spoiled and also why they find it hard to give up on their hopes of another title considering their payroll – just over $221 million to start the 2018 season – good for first in the bigs. But all the money in the world (in the days of salary caps) can’t guarantee a deep postseason run. This is especially true when one of the reasons your payroll is so high is that your team is old. The Giants as I mentioned, as well as the Nationals, Mets, Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays all missed the playoffs entirely and had team salaries in the top 9.  But age isn’t the only reason the Giants missed the postseason and are likely to miss it for a while.

Ok, so age is part of the Giants’ problem. They had the third oldest roster (29.6 years according to Statista) in the majors in 2018. It makes sense when you think of the message they were sending to the league, which was, “We’re going for it again”. Instead of shipping off veterans to rebuild their minor league system, the Giants went out and signed veterans to shore up their lineup – 33 year old third baseman, Evan Longoria, and 32 year old outfielder Andrew McCutchen were the two biggest acquisitions. To make those signings anything other than basic wish-casting, the Giants had to feel confident that their starting rotation would be healthy and effective again – especially their big three, Madison Bumgarner (29), Johnny Cueto (32), and Jeff Samardzija (33). Well that certainly didn’t go how they’d expected it to go. Bumgarner is the only one of the big three who pitched 100 innings (129.67).  Cueto made 9 starts (53 innings) and went down for the season and possibly some or all of 2019 after his second trip to the DL. The Shark didn’t look much like a predator after losing 2 MPH off his fastball and also going down for the season with a shoulder injury (and a grotesque ERA of 6.25 after 10 starts and 44.67 innings). If not for the development of Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez, and the resurgence of Derek Holland, the Giants would certainly have lost 100 games. How embarrassing would that be to have the highest payroll in all of baseball and still go out and lose 100 games?

One of the brightest lights of the 2018 season was the re-emergence of closer Will Smith who missed all of 2017 due to injury. Smith fanned 71 batters in 53 innings, kept his WHIP to .981 and sported an ERA of 2.55. With Smith in the closer spot, Tony Watson in the setup role, and Sam Dyson contributing 70 quality innings, the pen should be a relative strength as it was in 2017. Hunter Strickland was a hot mess last year with self-inflicted DL stints and issues with wildness. The former closer has seen his strikeouts to walk ratio go down each of his four full season with the Giants, from 5.00 in 2015 to where it was in 2017 – 1.76. If he can get right and quit punching immovable objects, the Giants pen would have a deep core to build from.

With a solid pen and at least three starting pitchers who were decent, you would think the Giants would win more than 73 games, but in baseball run prevention is not enough to succeed. The Giants had the most anemic offense in all of baseball in 2018 based on wRC+. They created fewer runs after adjusting for park and league than even the Marlins, Orioles, Tigers and Padres, and this after signing Longoria and Cutch. While Longoria had a subpar season generating 0.4 WAR (Fangraphs version) with a wRC+ of 85 (15% below league average), McCutcheon actually had a good season before he was traded to the Yankees – wRC+ of 115 during his time in SF to lead the team. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey were the other two Giants who posted wRC+ scores above league average (100) at 107 and 106 respectively, but both players finished the season on the DL. That may sound like bad luck, but with Belt at least, injuries are part of his profile. Only once since 2013 has the man with the name made for a power hitter played in at least 150 games. Belt appeared in only 112 games last year and 104 in 2017 so counting on much more is unwise even though he is only 30. Buster Posey, who moms everywhere want for their son-in-law,  has been quite durable, especially for a catcher, but he had off-season hip surgery, and at 31 it is possible that a decline phase might be starting for him. In fact maybe it already has begun as Posey hasn’t posted a 5 WAR season since 2015. Joe Panik, a relative baby in the lineup at 28, was besieged by injuries last season from a torn ligament in his thumb to a strained groin, and he posted his worst season since becoming the starter at second base. Panik, with a 75 wRC+ picked up most of his value with the glove as his bat sure wasn’t getting it done. The Giants should get a better version of Joe Panik in 2019, but Joe isn’t enough to carry an offense. At his best, Panik is around league average – nothing wrong with that. Brandon Crawford will turn 32 during the off-season and has posted two sub 100 wRC+ season in a row (85 & 93 respectively). This is likely the new normal since most of Crawford’s value comes from his excellent glove work and even at his peak he was only a bit above league average with the stick. This isn’t meant to denigrate B-Craw’s value – three Gold Gloves at short and two All Star Game appearances (including last season) would make any team happy, but we are talking about the Giants’ offense, and while Crawford contributes plenty for his position, it isn’t like he is Manny Machado. For some perspective the Giants had Crawford batting 8th  to start the season, moved him around between the 6, 7, and 8 holes for most of the first half, and then once injury and ineffectiveness turned them almost completely punchless, they moved him around in the middle of the batting order.

So what’s left to look at if we want to see where the Giants can produce some runs? The outfield, often a source of offense for most teams, struggled to get it done. Gorkys Hernandez played in 142 games with a wRC+ of 83, up from 76 in 2017. Hernandez is 31 so he is mostly a known quantity, and if he is starting most of your games in center or left then you are in serious trouble. He is a capable defender but eats outs like Pacman eats dots. Steven Duggar took his job and pushed Gorkys to left. Hernandez is a 4th outfielder at best. He can punch the occasional homer, play all three outfield spots, and pinch run. He should not under any circumstances get 500 plate appearances if your goal is to win, unless he is surrounded by a tremendous offense, which was not the case in San Francisco. There’s Duggar who in his rookie season showed promise with his speed and glove. He wasn’t much of an upgrade over Hernandez, but if he can repeat his walk rate from the minors – around 12% instead of the 6.6% he showed in limited time in the bigs, then he will be an upgrade and an adequate starting center fielder. Shoulder surgery ended his season, but he should have enough time to recover so that he can start on opening day.

Hunter Pence lost the starting job and will play the 2019 season as a 36 year old. He is a free agent and he is still a lot of fun to watch with his twitchy, funky way of doing everything, even as he declines. His power and ability to get on base haven’t been on display since 2016 so if he still wants to play he will likely need to sign a minor league contract. With 248 plate appearances last season, he hurt the team’s offense more than most with his wRC+ of 62. Chris Shaw was another rookie who tried to take an outfield spot. The rookie has good power, but no other established offensive skills. He has shown the ability to take a walk and to hit for average at times, but he has done neither consistently and his swing and miss rate is untenable. When you strike out 34% of the time at triple-A, really the only way for you to get a chance to play in the majors is if the big club has no offense to speak of. Austin Slater also received a decent amount of playing time because of the Giants offensivocalypse. He is a left fielder/first baseman but is really a bench bat, not a starter as he is neither fast enough nor powerful enough to generate enough runs to get a lot of starts. He lives and dies by his batting average and doesn’t walk enough to be a leadoff hitter so again – bench bat.

An outfielder who can easily hit 20 home runs should be a shoe-in to start in San Francisco, but Mac Williamson’s profile comes with a low batting average and low on-base percentage. In 339 plate appearances in the majors over four seasons, the 6’4 power hitter has a slash line of .222/.295/.386 with 13 home runs and 84 wRC+. He has never hit above .269 in triple-A and has a decent amount of swing and miss in his game – a career 28% strikeout rate. That said, this is the kind of hitter who needs a chance to start everyday to see if he can be a regular left-fielder or just an emergency guy who gets stashed in the minors. He would need to hit above .240 to succeed in the majors as something like a 7-hole hitter. At 28 it’s too late to call Williamson a prospect, but he might be a useful part, and the Giants shouldn’t bury him in the minors like they did after in 2018 – he battled some injuries including a concussion and spent the rest of the season after June 22nd as a Rivercat amassing 13 home runs in 182 at bats. One other number in his favor is that in limited playing time, Williamson has put up 5 defensive runs saved playing mostly left field. Giving him at least a half season as the starter would make a lot of sense if the Giants choose not to empty their pockets for free agents.

So the picture at the major league level should be clear by now. There just isn’t much offense there  and what is there is carried by stars in their decline phase. The starting pitching, which should be a strength, is thin if the veterans can’t contribute. The pen is a relative strength. When a team is getting older, like the Giants, they generally reach a point where they have to decide to make a last run or start a painful rebuild, or if the organization has been smart about maintaining their farm system, something in between. Look at what the Yankees are doing right now retooling with Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar, in addition to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Of course, not everyone is in the same position as the seemingly infinitely resourced Yankees, but other teams have put themselves in similar spots – the Astros and the Dodgers for example.

What influences teams to choose one path over another? If an organization doesn’t have money then the choice is forced upon them. If they can’t win now, then they have to start to retool/rebuild in the hopes that everything will align properly this time. But if your club has money, like the Giants, then you have to look at your minor league system. Do you have the parts to trade for that last piece or two that you need? Do you have a top prospect or two who you can just promote to fill a hole? And then there is one other consideration. Is your minor league system even good enough that trading away the pieces of value from your major league roster will put you in a position to make a run soon? If the answer to that last question is no, then does it even make sense to start a rebuild without the even more painful step of tearing it down to the studs and tanking for a few years to get a handful of very high draft picks? That’s a lot of questions, but that’s because teams like the Giants are in a very difficult position with an aging team and a very weak farm system. How weak is it? Depending on the source you pick, the Giants have between 0 and 2 top 100 prospects – Heliot Ramos shows up around 100 on some lists and not at all on others while Joey Bart, who was just drafted appears on some mid-season updates based mostly on his promise. The consensus is that the Giants have one of the five worst farm systems in baseball. The Giants just hired a new President of Baseball Operations – Farhad Zaidi, from the Dodgers – who is tasked with rebuilding the franchise while still keeping butts in their beautiful stadium’s seats. The question he faces is “to tear down or not to tear down?”.

The Cubs and Astros proved that the fans will come back after a teardown if you can provide them with a winning team. But boy are those three to five years painful! Here is the dichotomous off-season situation for Giants fans right now. The two biggest rumors in baseball involve the Giants either going hard to sign top free agent Bryce Harper or trading away their most valuable if not their best player, Madison Bumgarner which one would assume would trigger a fire sale and the beginning of a massive rebuilding effort. Either route is precarious. Signing Harper and calling it a day will not add enough offense although it will put butts in the seats by giving the Giants the star power they need to draw fans. Trading away MadBum would cost them fans for sure and once he is moved, presumably for prospects, then aside from Buster Posey, there would be nobody on the roster that the fans would come to watch while the Giants lose. In fact, if you trade Bumgarner would it even make sense to keep Posey once he proves that his hip is sound? The same question would apply to Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. The team would need to try to trade them for prospects with the understanding that these veterans won’t be around when the Giants are ready to win again. The Giants would be rebuilding their system in the hopes that the one or two players near the top 100 pan out, and that at least a couple of the players they get back from trades eventually make it as regulars in San Francisco. They would also have to count on drafting well with their higher picks once they have scrubbed their team of championship quality players and they would need to develop a star or, if they are lucky, more than one star. And then at some point it would make sense for the Giants to start spending money on proven talent again.

Or, the Giants could try to spend their way through the hard times without the tear down and hope they draft well and get very lucky with their picks, but other teams in the NL West are already better positioned to succeed in the next 3 years. In that atmosphere they would have to be supremely lucky to win anything and would have to succumb to the rebuild at some point anyway. The Padres have a superior farm system with both depth and star quality. The Dodgers have depth at the top levels, plenty of talent to win now, and deep pockets. The Rockies also have a superior major league club, including young quality starting pitching under team control – a rare commodity – plus some talent ready to emerge from the minors, and more depth in their system than the Giants.

Faced with no clear path to victory now or in the future, it is indeed a hard time to be a Giants’ fan. The Giants shouldn’t choose the path to take, instead they should let the path choose them. They should put out feelers for trade partners willing to overpay with prospects for everything on their roster including their mascot Lou Seal, while at the same time going hard after Bryce Harper and either another bat or a starting pitcher. Whichever path works out is the path the Giants should commit to with everything they’ve got. No time to be indecisive which sounds ironic after that last sentence, but in baseball, like in life, forcing it isn’t usually the best strategy. The Giants aren’t obviously in a position to either rebuild or compete, but circumstance might dictate the wisest path and that’s what Farhan Zaidi’s real job is. Find the best path for his well heeled but flawed club in their time of trouble.