Picking Daisies in The Tigers Outfield

Rebuilds aren’t fun for many people – well, maybe for GMs. Rebuilds are particularly un-fun for the fans. If you are a fan of the Tigers, this stage of the rebuild is sickening, as the Tigers dropped 114 games in 2019 – their second worst loss total since the franchise was born in 1901. For such a proud franchise – the city that boasted Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Jack Morris, Alan Trammel, and Lou Whitaker, just to name a few – they have to feel the stench of all 114 losses like a lemon juice-filled paper cut. The Tigers won the last of their four World Series trophies in 1984 and won their division four straight years from 2011 through 2014, but have lost at least 98 games each of the last three seasons.

Looking at the curve of a rebuild like the one the Astros came out of in 2015 may give Tigers fans hope that winning is only two seasons away. Houston lost at least 92 games for four straight seasons before signaling that winning ways were returning to Houston when they won 86 games in 2015 and made the playoffs. While Detroit has made progress in reworking their minor league system to where they are now ranked 11th by Baseball America after dropping as low as 30th in 2015, their system is nowhere near as strong as the Astros system was when they pulled out of their tailspin. The Tigers are unlikely to feel the slingshot effect the Astros felt as their string of number one picks matured, in part because the Tigers top three prospects are pitchers, while the Astros rebuild primarily centered around position players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. Yes, pitching is important of course, but it is also harder  to develop and much more prone to disastrous injury that can turn a top prospect into a bank teller. Did the Tigers build their system pitching heavy because they already have the position player talent to take them to their next championship? How about we start by examining their current outfield and the players who are close to establishing themselves in the majors.

At 26, left fielder, Christin Stewart, had his first real audition in the Majors in 2019 after a 72 plate appearance “cuppa” in 2018. His run through the minors, after being chosen in the first round of the 2015 draft, showed Stewart to possess great raw power, and the ability to get on base via the walk. Stewart also showed that he would strike out a decent amount and maybe not hit for a very high average or play great outfield defense. In the equivalent of three full seasons in the minors, he hit 98 balls over the fence and slashed .264/.366/.501. In 2019, he received 416 plate appearances with Detroit and hit only 10 long balls while slashing .233/.305/.388. It wasn’t impressive, nor was it a complete disaster although his defensive numbers made it even worse than the slash line alone. His glove cost the Tigers between 6 and 15 runs depending on which metric you use. With a wRC+ of 80 and defense numbers suitable for a DH, Stewart will have to step up his offensive game substantially to be worth more than a bench spot with the big club.

Centerfielder, Jacoby Jones has been trying to catch on with the Tigers since 2016, and, after a disastrous full audition in 2018, he rebounded to have his best season yet. Before you get too excited, his best season was a wRC+ of 92 for a centerfielder with poor defensive numbers (-21 UZR/150 and -13 DRS). Jones is 27 (28 in May) and has had one season with a positive WAR. That was in 2018 when his WAR was 1.2, based entirely on his defensive numbers, as his wRC+ was 69 that year. There is some power and some speed, and while projections see him being around average defensively, they also widely agree that he will cost the team runs with his bat. His slash line from 2019  was .235/.310/.430 and for the second year in a row he hit 11 home runs. Since he doesn’t get on base a lot (6.1% career walk rate), you can’t use Jones and his speed at the top of the order. He doesn’t make enough contact to hit for much average as he got his strikeout rate down to 28.2% last year. Expecting him to do more with the bat than match his 2019 slash line is just wishful thinking. Granted, he could surprise, but it is hard to see much growth coming that would make him more than a below average placeholder.

The most accomplished member of the Tigers outfield, heading into 2020, is former top prospect, Cameron Maybin. In part-time play for the Yankees, the now nearly 33 year old Maybin had a productive season with 11 home runs and a slash line of .285/.364/.494 for a wRC+ of 127 in 269 plate appearances. Maybin’s best asset used to be his speed. In 2011, he stole 40 bases for the Padres and played excellent D in center field (10.3 UZR/150 and 14 DRS). Maybin is no longer an efficient base stealer and has been pushed over to right field where he will likely be a good defender. The former 10th overall draft pick has started taking more walks (11.2% in 2019 and 11.3% in 2017) and showing more power, making him a home run threat who can get on base at a respectable rate. Maybin is talented but it is hard to know what you will get out of him as he swings from 0.5 WAR to 2.4 WAR from season to season. He is also getting to that age where it would be hard to project him being around when the Tigers break the 81 win threshold. Still, for now Maybin will start most days as he is the best outfielder on the team.

The Tigers fourth outfielder, Victor Reyes, is poised to take the starting spot of any of the three mentioned above who get off to a slow start. The former Rule 5 pick steal from the Diamondbacks put up better defensive numbers (14.3 UZR/150 and 1 DRS in all three outfield spots combined)  than all three men he is competing against. Reyes also slashed .304/.336/.431 for a wRC+ of 100 – better than all but Maybin. The biggest knock on Reyes is that his ability to get on base is almost entirely reliant on his batting average, as he has only walked 3.7% of the time for his career and 4.8% in 2019. The tall, athletic Venezuelan is a really good fourth outfielder right now but could become more if he would only let the ball thump into the catcher’s mitt a bit more often. At 25, he might get a chance to show that he can be more than a speedy bench guy.

The only Tigers minor league outfielder above single-A listed in their top 10 prospects is Daz Cameron. While the son of former Major Leaguer Mike Cameron has a really cool name, his performance at triple-A was anything but cool as the 23 year old slashed .214/.330/.377 and struck out 28.8% of the time. Cameron showed a little power with 13 home runs in 528 plate appearances and drew some walks (11.7% walk rate), but otherwise had a disappointing year with the bat (84 wRC+). The report on him is that he should be good in a corner outfield spot, so, if he can put it together with the bat this year in triple-A, there isn’t a lot blocking him from above. Is he good enough to be a starter? This season should go a long way towards answering that question for the Tigers.

To find another legit outfield prospect in the Detroit organization, you have to go down to single-A where their number three prospect, Riley Greene, and their number eleven prospect, Parker Meadows, just got their first tastes of full season ball. The former first and second round prospects have some promise, but they are both far, far away from debuting in the majors.

There is some chance that Reyes, Stewart, or Jones will make a late leap of development and turn into a starter worth keeping around for a few more years as the farm system begins to bear fruit, but it is unlikely that any of them will turn into stars. Maybin is a useful player, but in two or three years it is highly unlikely that he will still be with Detroit as they will trade him as soon as they can get something of interest for him (or age will catch up to him). Daz Cameron still has room to develop and turn into a starter although he hasn’t developed like anyone hoped he would when he was taken 37th overall in 2015. If Cameron can’t take and hold a job, then the Tigers will have to make trades or sign free agents to fill all three outfield spots once their pitching is ready if they want to compete. Or they can hope that one of the youngsters – Greene or Meadows – turns into a keeper. Right now, it looks like the Tigers are employing three placeholders to patrol their outfield as they head into another 100 loss season. There is no pretty way to paint it for Detroit fans because there isn’t an obvious superstar developing in the minors who will take over an outfield spot any time soon. They simply need to be patient and hope for better days while they watch their team play out the string. Ack.

Stars All Around the Infield at Wrigley

I tend to write about aspects of teams that experienced major changes, but in a time of instability I am going to write about the Cubs infield, a unit with very few changes. Change is certainly exciting, and if you are a fan of a baseball team that didn’t make the playoffs, change seems mandatory. But the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and a few core members of that club are still members of their infield and still in their primes (or within spitting distance thereof), so do they need to make changes there? Let’s look at how the Chicago Cubs infield stacks up in 2020.

Starting with the hot corner, in 2015 Kris Bryant won the Rookie of The Year Award. In 2016, his team won the World Series while he won the MVP Award. So when Cubs fans heard that Kris Bryant was on the trade block it must have been quite a shock. Bryant has quite a resume for a 28 year old including three All Star team selections to go with the above mentioned hardware. As good as Bryant is, there seems to be some disappointment that he hasn’t hit the 6.0 WAR mark the last two seasons after surpassing it in each of his first three seasons including his 7.9 WAR MVP season. Offensively, 2019 was a typical Kris Bryant year. He had a 135 wRC+ and slashed .282/.382/.521, which is very similar to his career slash line of .284/.385/.516. As Bryant usually does, he played a lot of games and his counting stats (31 home runs and 108 runs scored) were among the league leaders. What knocked Bryant’s WAR down each of the last two years were the defensive metrics. UZR/150 and DRS both agree that in each of the last two seasons Bryant was a bit below average at third base and even worse in the outfield. Take heart Cubs fans – projections like him as a bounce back candidate with the glove and appreciate his consistent offensive numbers. There are very few third basemen in baseball capable of doing what Kris Bryant can do, so the non-trade was the best transaction the Cubs made this off-season.

Moving around the horn in clockwise fashion, when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Javier Baez was playing second base, third base, shortstop, and even some outfield.   The Cubs knew they had something special in Baez, but he was being used more as a utility man since Addison Russell was the starting shortstop, Kris Bryant was the starting third baseman, and Ben Zobrist was the starter at second. Jump ahead to 2019 and the 27 year old Baez has firmly established himself as the starting shortstop and a star with both the bat and the glove. If you have never watched Javy play then you are missing out. He plays with energy and flair and often makes tags that seem wizard-like. At the plate, Baez manifests both power and speed. He first surpassed the 20 home run mark in 2017 when he went deep 23 times. In 2018, he followed up with 34 home runs, and hit another 29 in 2019, giving him 110 in his short career. After slashing .281/.316/.531 last season (114 wRC+), he now has a career slash line of .270/.310/.484 which is just a little under where most projection tools have him for 2020. You might have noticed that Baez’ OBP is quite low. His walk rates have never risen above 5.9% in a full season so Javy’s ability to get on base is largely dependent on his batting average. Low walk rates combined with high strikeout rates (27.8% last years and 28.1% for his career) are definitely keeping Baez from superstardom and making him more volatile, but his excellent defense (26 DRS last season) and his power bat make Baez a fan favorite and one of the most exciting Cubbies on the big league roster.

Continuing our tour around the diamond, let’s skip second base for now and get to the cold corner where Anthony Rizzo is the incumbent. Boy, do the Padres wish they hadn’t traded Rizzo to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner right about now! The affable first baseman will turn 31 in August but his production is still excellent. He posted another excellent wRC+ in 2019 (141) and hasn’t been below 125 since 2013 when he was just  establishing himself as a full-time starter. As exciting as Rizzo’s power is, his plate discipline might be his best offensive attribute. When you have a batter who can consistently pop 25 plus home runs (six straight seasons), who strikes out under 15% of the time (three straight seasons), and walks more than 10.5% of the time (seven straight seasons), then you have a run generating machine. He could bat in any of the top four spots in almost any lineup and help a team win with his ability to get on base and drive in runs. His career slash line sits at .273/.373/.488 but his last five seasons have been better than that. If you add in his three Gold Gloves – DRS and UZR/150 agree that he can pick it – you have one of the best first basemen in the game, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

If you had to pick a catcher to build around, Wilson Contreras, who turns 28 in May, wouldn’t be a bad choice. Aside from his 2018 campaign, he has been a model of consistency with the bat running pretty close to his career slash line  of .267/.350/.470 every year. You don’t find many catchers who can break the 100 wRC+ mark, but he has done it each of his four seasons in the Majors. Contreras is a little prone to chasing but still manages to keep his walk rate close to 10% (career 9.7%) and his strikeout rate around 23%. In a world where most teams are thrilled with a catcher who can manage a wRC+ of 90, Contreras is practically a luxury. So what about his glove? Well that’s more of a mixed bag. His arm is elite and runners have to be careful that they don’t get caught napping at first where he is happy to test them with a back pick – a snap throw from the catcher down to first right after the pitch. He saves his teams runs with his arm and his blocking ability, but gives that back and more with his poor framing. Over the last three seasons, Contreras has cost his team almost 34 runs because of his subpar framing skills. If anyone wanted robotic umps more than Wilson Contreras, I would be stunned. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Contreras gets used because he has started to show some signs of wear, missing a few more games each season due to injury.

Contreras’ understudy, Victor Caratini, had a really good season in 2019, both with the bat and the glove. Caratini had a 108 wRC+, popping 11 home runs in only 279 plate appearances. He also managed a 10.4% walk rate while limiting his strikeouts to 21.1%. A backup catcher who slashes .266/.348/.447 is quite valuable, but Caratini also saved the team 1.6 runs with his framing ability – not star level, but better than Contreras. If he can maintain the framing gains he made last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Caratini get more time behind the plate while Contreras gets some time in the outfield to save some wear on his body while keeping his bat in the lineup.

Ah yes – second base – I haven’t forgotten. The picture here is a little confusing to be honest. Ian Happ, who came up as a second baseman, is likely to be the starting center fielder. The young slugger has played every position but catcher in the majors – yes, he pitched an inning in 2018, but has yet to establish himself as a regular and spent the majority of last season in the minors in spite of having two decent seasons with the big club under his belt. By “decent”, I mean he put together wRC+ seasons of 114 and 106 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. When Happ was up last year he was better, slashing .264/.333/.546 and contributing 127 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances. So Happ could spend time at second base, but will probably get a chance to be the starting center fielder.

Then there is Jason Kipnis who is a 33 (almost) year old non-roster invitee to Spring Training. Kipnis had some star moments earlier in his career but has been maddeningly inconsistent with a 5.1 WAR season followed by a 0.7 WAR  season, and two 4.0 plus WAR seasons followed by a 0.5 WAR season. Lately Kipnis has been consistently below average with his wRC+ sitting between 80 and 89 since 2017. His defensive work has been good each of the last two years so maybe there’s some value there, but a shortened Spring Training will hurt Kipnis as he tries to show the Cubs why they should give him a chance to start.

The pride of Longmont High in Colorado, David Bote, has played every position but catcher, but has spent most of his time at third base and second base. Bote didn’t show much power at all until he reached double-A, but has 17 bombs in 566 plate appearances with the Cubs. He draws a good number of walks (11.1%) but  strikes out too much for a guy without elite power (27% K rate). His ability to get on base and his versatility are his strengths, so the Cubs might want to use him as their Swiss army knife instead of making him the starter. His glove at second is probably fine – the defensive numbers are mixed, but he will likely be a low batting average, decent on base guy with some pop, and those guys tend not to hang onto starting jobs for long if they ever get them. At 27, this might be Bote’s last shot to be a starter.

Another long shot to grab the starting second base job is 33 year old Daniel Descalso. Like Happ and Bote, Descalso has played most everywhere but, unlike the two younger players, Descalso has never shown much with the bat reaching the 100 wRC+ mark only once. With little power and a career .235 batting average, it is hard to see Descalso grabbing a starting job. He had a decent season with the glove at second in 2019, but his defensive numbers aren’t great. His best offensive skill is his ability to draw walks, but we’re not talking John Cangelosi, Ken Phelps, or Eddie Yost here. Descalso has a career walk rate of 10.5% but to be fair, he hasn’t been under 11% since 2015. Still, Descalso’s versatility is where most of his value lies and the Cubs have that in younger players, so it would be surprising to see the veteran utility man make this Cubs team.

There is one more player who deserves consideration, and that is arguably their best prospect, Nico Hoerner. Hoerner will turn 23 this season and hasn’t played triple-A yet, although he did get 82 plate appearances with the Cubs last season due to a rash of injuries at the shortstop position. Hoerner hasn’t shown much power yet but his hit tool has looked good. He even managed to hit .282 in his audition for the Cubs and has a career slash line in the minors of .297/.365/.427. The shortstop should easily be able to make the transition to second base (he isn’t moving Javy) but will probably start the season at triple-A, in part because that would allow the Cubs to control his service time. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Hoerner take the second base job part way through the season as there just isn’t another great option for the Cubs.

The Cubs infield is locked down except for second base. Second base should be easier to figure out and might be either a platoon situation with the lefty Kipnis facing righties, and the righty Bote seeing action against lefties. Keep an eye on Hoerner who will be pushing hard from triple-A. And if Kipnis doesn’t make the team and Descalso is healthy and beats him out, then substitute Descalso for Kipnis in the platoon. The club’s problems lie elsewhere for the most part and the team could have three MVP candidates and an All Star on the dirt this season. There aren’t many (any?) teams that can say that, so look for the Cubs to go as far as their infield can carry them in 2020. That concludes our tour of the Cubs infield. Please exit to the right and stay safe out there!

The Blue Jays Dads Are Better At Baseball Than Your Team’s Dads

When the world is as crazy as it is right now, it’s hard to be hopeful about much, but baseball is inherently a game of eternal hope and not just because of its connection to spring, a season of rebirth. Even if you are a fan of a perennial bottom dweller, your team has another chance to be relevant at the start of every new season. So it is with that spirit of hope that I will continue to write these posts in the hope that the season will happen at some point. And if you wanted to pick a team to be hopeful about, the Blue Jays, with their three young second generation prospects, are as good a team as any to hope on for a bright future. Since the three youngsters are on the infield, let’s take a look at the situation on the dirt heading into 2020, starting with the three players generating all the hype.

The youngest of the trio of Jays whose dads were players is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vlad’s dad, “Vlad the Impaler”, was a power hitting dynamic outfielder who also played in Canada (for the Expos) and set the family bar very high since he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Vlad Jr., unlike his pops, is a third baseman. Both men debuted on the young side with Vlad Jr. starting before his 21st birthday beating his dad by a few months. The younger Guerrero already has most of a full season under his belt after accumulating 514 plate appearances in 2019. He slashed .272/.339/.433 for a wRC+ of 105. He “only” hit 15 home runs, but his raw power is an 80 on the 80 scale, so as he grows into it, the home run numbers will continue to grow with the ceiling being a home run title; you can see why the Jays and their fans are excited. For a young player with the raw power of Vlad Jr., he doesn’t strike out like you’d expect with a K rate last year of 17.7 and a walk rate of a respectable 8.9%. So the bat is there and has a lot more growth potential in it. The glove is not there yet as Guerrero Jr. was disliked by both DRS (-9) and UZR/150 (-14.6). There aren’t many 21 year olds who come up as polished defenders and his scouting rating for both his arm and his glove are good. It is far too early to worry that he might have to move off of third, but even if he does his bat will be good enough to play even low on the defensive end of the spectrum. It isn’t only power that Vlad Jr. brings to the plate as you can see from his minor league career slash line of .331/.414/.531. He is a complete hitter who will become one of the best hitters in baseball probably sooner rather than later.

Moving clockwise around the infield we find 22 year old Bo Bichette, minding his business at the shortstop position. Bo’s dad, Dante “The Beef”  Bichette, was a power-hitting member of the Blake Street Bombers in Colorado after being drafted in the 17th round. Dante had a good career – 274 career homers and a .299 batting average over 14 seasons – but was never in any danger of making The Hall. Son Bo was a second round pick and debuted last year as a 21 year old. The younger Bichette profiles as a bat over glove shortstop with tons of raw power that he is only just starting to get to in games. Bichette also projects to have an excellent hit tool that showed in the minors (career slash line of .321/.380/.515) and flashed in his half season debut in 2019 where he slashed .311/.358/.571. That’s a 142 wRC+ from a 21 year old rookie shortstop in half a season (dude!), and he is just getting started. His strike zone control isn’t quite as good as Guerrero’s at this point – he walked 6.6% of the time in his MLB debut while fanning 23.6% of the time and his BABIP was pretty high at .368, so there is some potential for regression. There might be some up and down with Bichette’s offense if he doesn’t increase the walks and cut the strikeouts, but he is a legitimate hitter already. The defensive numbers were more mixed than Guerrero’s last year with DRS seeing it as a positive season (+4) while UZR/150 seeing Bichette’s play costing 5.2 runs. Again, there just aren’t a lot of shortstops who can come up and play excellent defense at the age of 21 in the Majors, so Bichette will get a lot of chances to show  how good his glove can be if he hits anywhere close to where he did in his debut.

Next on our tour of the Blue Jays 2020 infield is second baseman, Cavan Biggio, son of Hall Of Fame second baseman, Craig Biggio (no cool nickname but he was a member of the “Killer B’s”!). Dad, Craig Biggio, converted from catcher in the majors to earn four Gold Gloves as a second baseman. He led the league in doubles three times, runs twice, and steals once. He was a premier leadoff hitter at his peak and also  managed to slug 291 home runs – an offensive and defensive star. Son Cavan, is substantially bigger than his dad and starts his career showing more power than Craig did initially. Of the three young Jays we have mentioned, Biggio had arguably the best overall season among them generating 2.4 WAR to Guerrero’s 0.4 and Bichette’s 1.7. One of the reasons Biggio bested his young teammates was his already extremely mature ability to take ball four. Biggio’s walk rate was 16.5% – that and his 16 home runs in 430 plate appearances offset his .234 batting average. Biggio’s 114 wRC+ and his excellent base running (14 steals in 18 attempts) along with his essentially neutral defense are what gave him the edge in WAR.  The other two young emerging stars will likely surpass Biggio soon because of their big bats, but the young second baseman is valuable as a leadoff type who will scratch and claw to get on base and take you deep if you mess up. There isn’t one tool that really stands out for Biggio who is more of a “total being more than the sum of his parts” kinda guy. Those kinds of players tend to have long careers as they find different ways to be of value to their team like Biggio undoubtedly will, even without a batting average that is as shiny as Guerrero’s or Bichette’s.

Hey look – a Jay’s infielder who doesn’t have a dad who got MVP votes – weird! Travis Shaw, who is the likely starter at first base for the Jays in 2020, played himself out of a job and eventually out of town with the Brewers last year. After back to back seasons over 3.5 WAR, with 120ish wRC+  and 30+ home runs, Shaw collapsed like a rusty beach chair under your Saint Bernard in Gramma’s backyard. He didn’t quite make it to 3.5 WAR (-0.8), and narrowly missed 35 homers (7) as he finished with a (yikes!) .157 average and a 47 wRC+ in 270 excruciatingly painful plate appearances. Shaw was sent down, but was even worse in the second half of the season once he returned hitting only .128 after hitting .164 before the All Star break. Looking a little deeper, Shaw’s swing rates were about the same as in the last two years but his contact rates fell off the table,  dropping around 10% overall. His strikeout rate also cratered dropping from 18.4% in 2018 to 33% in 2019! He was a complete mess with a bat in his hands, but his defense at third was good. If the Jays think they can fix him and that at 29 – almost 30 – he isn’t done, then they could end up with a good defender at third with pop when Vlad Jr. needs to be spelled or a better option at first base than what they have. If he can’t find his way back with the bat then at least he is a cheap option to play some defense until the Jays find a better option. I would be a little worried that he was 1 for 11 with seven K’s` before spring training shut down.

Completing the infield circle is Danny Jansen who got the majority of starts in the catcher’s spot last year, and will likely repeat that achievement in 2020. Jansen is almost 25 and received his first serious taste of the Major Leagues last season. The former 16th round pick hit 13 homers in 384 plate appearances while managing to hit only .207/.279/.360 for a 68 wRC+, which is subpar even for a catcher. Jansen will likely start because his defense was excellent with a DRS of 12 and great pitch framing numbers. Even if his bat only makes modest gains, his glove will keep him in the lineup – and there is hope for his bat. Jansen slashed .269/.367/.410  in the minors with better plate discipline than he showed last year. Remember that Jansen doesn’t have to hit better than all the other position players to be valuable, just better than half of the catchers!

The other part of the catching corps, Reese McGuire, has just barely had a taste of the majors but has fared well with the bat and the glove. McGuire has that sweet former first round pick shine to him so he will definitely get chances – that is if his recent arrest doesn’t completely derail his career. I won’t get into that incident because you can look it up if you like, but he is still on the roster so stay tuned. McGuire has been a glove first catcher with a strong arm but hit .299 in his short audition (105 plate appearances) last year. With no power to speak of but a modicum of plate discipline, he would make a good backup to Jansen unless his bat has another gear to it, in which case he could steal more starts.

If an injury occurs on the infield or Shaw can’t find where he put his bat (and I hope he does!), Joe Panik has played mostly second and a tiny bit of first. At 29, Panik hasn’t generated even 1.0 WAR since 2017.  He walks a little, strikes out rarely and has almost no power anymore in part because in this age of launch angles, Panik hits a lot of balls into the dirt. He has a career ground ball rate of 45.2% (high) and a 29.1% hard hit rate (low) so at this point most of his value is derived from his defensive play at second base. He is not a great fit at first because his bat can’t come close to carrying the position, but any port in a storm. Rowdy Tellez hit 21 home runs for Toronto last year between first and DH, but makes tons of outs. Still, he is 25 and his wRC+ was 91 last season is his first extensive trial in the majors so he might get a shot, or might start the year in triple-A. Billy McKinney got half a season with the Jays playing the outfield and first base, and hit 12 homers but slashed .215/.274./422 and doesn’t look like the answer either, although at 25 he might have a little something left to show as a former first round pick. If you are thinking there isn’t a lot of depth past the starters in the Jays infield, then you are correct.

The Jays infield is where the team’s future lies. Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette look like they can’t miss but if something goes wrong with the young future stars, the Jays are in trouble. At this point Toronto is still missing some parts before they can start winning, but at least the youngsters make them fun to watch. The hole at first base is at least relatively easy to address if the cast of players they are auditioning there doesn’t pan out. This probably isn’t the year where they would spend money or young talent to fill a roster hole, but once the three young stars establish themselves there will be some pressure on the Jays to spend something to complete an already exciting lineup. The farm system was ranked 6th overall by Baseball America so there is help coming, just not an infielder who is close who can help out where they need it at the moment. In the meantime go out and become attached to the three youngsters who are exciting and here to stay for a while.

Outfield Depth Getting Challenged in New York

Remember last year when  the Yankees had the equivalent of most teams’ payrolls sitting on the injured list? Remember? Guess what? Here we are in Spring Training and already the Yankees are winning the injured list payroll game! Yay! Go, Yankees! Ouch. What a bad way to start the pre-season. You won’t hear this too often about the Yankees, but they are going to start the season with one hand tied behind their collective back. Domingo German, their most successful starting pitcher from 2019, is out for a little more than a third of the season for violating the league’s PED rules. That is a self-inflicted wound unlike the injuries. Adding to their rotation woes, Luis Severino is out for the year with Tommy John surgery as of 2/27/20. Severino had back to back 5 WAR seasons in 2017 and 2018. Adding to that, James Paxton just had back surgery in February so he is out for the early part of the season at least. Yeah, they added Gerrit Cole but then went out and lost 60% of the rotation behind him. If we are talking about injury impact, that isn’t even the part of the team that has been hit the hardest percentage-wise. The outfield, which is what this article will focus on, currently is without 100% of the starting three, and it is possible they will start the regular season that way! So it’s hard to talk about the Yankees outfield without including a lot of talk about injuries and depth, so let’s get to it.

In left, we have that behemoth masher of the leather covered pill – check that – we have Mike Tauchman. Giancarlo Stanton (the aforementioned masher) is on the IL with a strained calf and, after playing only 18 games last season due to a myriad of injuries, the Yankees have to be concerned about the durability of their cleanup hitter moving forward. Back to Tauchman in a moment – a healthy Stanton is usually good for 35 or more home runs with good on-base skills. His career slash line is .268/.358/.547 with a 142 wRC+. That is nigh on impossible to replace but, at 30 years of age, Stanton seems to be having a hard time staying off the IL. His latest injury doesn’t appear to be serious, but where would you put the over/under on games played? 150? 120? 85? The Yankees need him to at least get to his Depth Charts projection of 123. There are a couple small sample size curiosities to watch this year, like the nearly 5% drop in his swing rate in 2019 without a noticeable change in his contact rate. Stanton also experienced a nearly 3% improvement on his contact rate on balls outside the strike zone – a career high of 55%. UZR/150 and DRS have generally liked Stanton as an outfielder, so if his legs are good that gives them good defense in left field even if it is a mix and match situation in the other corner. The Yankees will probably try to wrap Stanton in bubble wrap for the rest of the spring in hopes that this latest booboo is minor.

Oh yeah – Mike Tauchman was a Fan Graphs favorite while he was toiling away in anonymity in the Rockies minor league system. It didn’t make much of a splash when the Rockies traded him to the Yankees for Phillip Diehl, a then 24 year old lefty who was taken in the 27th round of the 2016 draft. Diehl finished his season getting lit up in Colorado Springs (triple-A) while Tauchman finally got a real chance to play in the Majors – the Rockies only gave him 69 plate appearances over two seasons – and he slashed .277/.361/.504 for a wRC+ of 128. In 296 plate appearances Tauchman made it clear that he had talent at the plate. He also put up good defensive numbers in all three outfield spots. How many 4th outfielders can play center well and perform 28% better than average with the bat? Not many, because guys who produce like that are usually called starting outfielders. Assuming Tauchman is for real, he will get 400+ plate appearances – more if Stanton and Judge miss substantial time. For now, he is the primary starting left fielder until Stanton is ready to roll.

Aaron Hicks – uh, Brett Gardner is probably the starter in center as Hicks recovers from elbow surgery. Gardner, who is 36, just had his most productive full season in the majors from an offensive standpoint with a wRC+ of 115. His 28 home runs far surpassed his previous career high of 21 – the only other time he hit more than 17. Even though Gardner reached the other side of the fence a lot last year, he is no longer the big base-stealing threat he used to be. He should no longer be a top of the order hitter as his OBP dropped to .325 in 2019 (.322 in 2018) down from his career mark of .342. It says a lot about Gardner that at 36 the Yankees are ok running him out to center field until Hicks recovers. He is no longer a Gold Glove defender – he won the award once in 2016 – but he still puts up positive DRS and UZR/150 for now. If his power numbers fall back to his previous levels, the Yankees will have a hard time playing him everyday. Gardner has become a 2.0 to 3.0 WAR player, which is great for most teams, but the Yankees expect more from their starters, so a decline below that mark would lead to the Yankees declining his 2021 team option.

Aaron Hicks was coming off a 5.0 WAR season (2018) in his first year as a full-time starter. He was off to a slow start in 2019 then played his last game on August 3rd. Now with his elbow reconstructed, Hicks will have to fight to get his job back when he returns mid-season because the Yankees are so deep. He provides power (27 bombs in 2018), solid-to-good defense in center (7 career DRS in center), and some plate discipline when he is right (OBP of .372 in 2017 and .366 in 2018). But if you look at Hicks’ career slash line, it is hard to see him as a starter on a championship level club – .236/.328/.401. The Yankees must be a little worried that his career slash line is more representative of the real Aaron Hicks than his 5.0 WAR 2018 after he slashed only .235/.325/.443 last year. He will definitely be given an opportunity to win his job back unless the Yankees have an outbreak of good health and Tauchman or Gardner has a spectacular first half.

Right field belongs to Aaron Judge – or is it Clint Frazier, or Miguel Andujar. Judge is a superstar and he owns right field as long as he is healthy, which – of course – he isn’t right now – stress fracture of a rib. Judge is not a one-dimensional masher, although he would still start if that were the case because his power is tremendous. In 1718 career plate appearances – the equivalent of almost three full seasons – Judge has 110 home runs. The main issue with Judge – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – is his health. Judge, who is likely to miss the start of this season, only played in 112 and 102 games in 2018 and 2019 respectively, due to injuries. He will play most of the season as a 28 year old and has amassed 17.8 WAR already. His career slash line is about what he does every year – .273/.394/.558 so he gets on base in spite of his high strikeout rates –  a career mark of 31.6%. He takes a lot of pitches looking for something he can mash and he has been consistent with that approach. His swing rate each of the last three seasons has been between 40.3% and 41.9%. Also, his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is annually about 5% below average for the rest of the league. So he is going to strike out but he is also going to take some walks. And when he swings – well, his hard hit rate for his career is 48.6% which leads to some pretty high BABIPs because he hits the dang ball so hard! Compare his career wRC+ of 152 to Stanton’s 142 and you see why the Yankees have so much invested in the two hitters. Add in Judge’s good outfield defense (20 DRS last season in right) and you can see why Judge is the golden child of the position players.

The mention of a golden child might have been reserved for Clint Frazier a couple seasons ago when he looked like a can’t-miss prospect. Frazier seems to have shed the shininess that comes with being a 5th overall pick now that he is 25 and hasn’t established himself as a regular. Part of that comes with being a Yankee minor leaguer but Frazier also has some warts. The former Indian prospect, has decent power, but doesn’t walk enough, especially when you look at how often he strikes out. His career slash line in 429 plate appearances is .254/.308/.463 with a 6.5% walk rate and a 29.4% K rate. He has always had a pretty high K rate in the minors, but his walk rate used to get over 10% pretty regularly. If he can get back there in the Majors, then Frazier works as a starter IF he can improve on his defense, which has been consistently poor/bad to this point. Last year in about a half a season of work, mostly as a corner outfielder, he cost the team somewhere between 11 and 17 runs (DRS of -11 and UZR/150 of -16.7). The bat hasn’t shown quite enough to be a DH but the glove has profiled very much like a DH. Frazier gets another chance to play some outfield because of injuries and might be playing for a trade to another club. His future doesn’t look good in New York where they have plenty of corner outfield/DH types, but if he shows improvement there will be teams who are interested. At 25, it is time for Frazier to show what he can do or that fading prospect shininess won’t help him much longer.

Another 25 year old is in the mix for some outfield time – Miguel Andujar. Similar to Frazier, Andujar isn’t a big fan of the free pass (4.1% career walk rate), but unlike Frazier, Andujar has a 130 wRC+ season under his belt and doesn’t strike out nearly as often (16.3% K rate). The Yankees have worked Andujar in the outfield this spring and the reports have been good, but he has only played third base in the majors – a position currently filled by Gio Urshela – so he will either work in the outfield or find himself DHing and maybe getting some time at first.  Andujar has already gotten to his raw power in the majors hitting 27 bombs in his first full season in the majors in 2018, but lost almost all of 2019 to injury resulting in surgery this past May for a torn labrum. Andujar’s arm was one of his best tools (a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale) so his recovery will dictate a lot positionally. He is athletic, so a move to the outfield isn’t far fetched.

Obviously it would be best for all concerned in Yankee land for Stanton to recover quickly and have a mostly injury free season. The same goes for Judge. At this point it seems clear that neither of those outcomes are likely and Hicks will definitely miss a lot of time. That means the Yankees will have to rely on their depth right out of the gate. This will force the Yankees to see what they have in Clint Frazier and give them a chance to see if Miguel Andujar can learn to play the outfield at the major league level. Of course it is possible that neither of those experiments works out, Mike Tauchman gets over-exposed starting everyday, and Yankee fans are forced to watch Brett Gardner decline in real time. I don’t know about you, but I think it will be fun to watch the Yankees have to work to put their lineup together like mortals instead of just running superstars out to each position. I am not happy to see Stanton, Hicks, or Judge, who seems like a great guy, felled by injuries, but all teams have to deal with that and the Yankees have the depth to deal with it better than most. If Tauchman repeats and Frazier improves, it will mean they get to have careers as starters probably on some other team once Judge, Stanton, and Hicks get healthy (if that actually happens). Lots of moving parts here, but we are talking about the Yankees, so they will either figure it out or trade from their depth of young players to fix it.

No Miracle Needed For The Mets Rotation

In genealogy, a researcher uses documents and DNA tests to trace a family history back as far as the records and science will take them. Often genealogists will see patterns in families which makes sense. Maybe you are a farmer and your father was a farmer and his father was a farmer, and so on. Starting pitching is part of the DNA of the Mets who can trace their rotation tree back to Doc Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling who can trace their roots back to Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. The Mets family tree is stunted because they only came to life in 1962 but their current top of the rotation is looking like they could carry on the legacy of their forefathers. There were some changes to the rotation during the off-season, but the Mets will live and die with their starting pitching again this year, so before the craziness of playing in New York starts, we should look at how the Mets rotation projects for 2020.

So who is the Met’s “Daddy”? That would be Jacob deGrom. When you’ve just won your first Cy Young, what is left for you to accomplish? How about winning another one like deGrom just did in 2019? Now armed with a Rookie of the Year Award, three All Star game selections, and two Cy Youngs, can deGrom put together career numbers that get him into the Hall of Fame? Weirdly, that is in doubt because he didn’t even debut in the majors until he was 26. His numbers are phenomenal but he doesn’t have the counting stats that one normally would see as gatekeepers for making it into the Hall.  His career ERA is now 2.62 but he only has 65 wins so there is no way he will make it to 300 or 200 and he has to stay healthy to even get to 100, which would normally not be enough to qualify him for a discussion of HOF membership. I doubt deGrom is losing much sleep over his end of career place in history as he heads into spring training. He would win most arguments that at the moment he is the best pitcher in baseball having just struck out 763 batters in the last three seasons while walking only 149 batters in the same stretch. He has three straight seasons of surpassing 200 innings pitched while making at least 31 starts – plus the back-to-back Cy Youngs. Interestingly, as he has aged, deGrom has picked up velocity on his fastball going from an average (according to FanGraphs) of 94.2 MPH in 2016 to 95.8 in 2017 to 96.7 in 2018  – and last year to 97.2. At this rate he will be bringing it at 107 when he is 41! Seriously though, deGrom’s numbers have reached a superior level and with his annual uptick in velocity without a decrease in control, it is hard to see anything changing for the worse in the near future. He is an ace in the prime of his career pitching in a pitcher’s park – yeah, he’s great.

Is your nickname the name of a Norse God? No? Is it something like Stinky or Cue Ball? Well then it is likely that you aren’t as gifted or as talented at throwing a baseball as Thor – Noah Syndergaard. You probably don’t have long flowing blonde hair either! At 6’6, 240, Thor is built like the prototypical lightning bolt throwing God you’d expect to defeat evil- or the Yankees. Even though his ERA was 4.28 (FIP of 3.60), the Mets were probably much happier with Syndergaard’s 2019 campaign than they were with his 2018 campaign when it was 3.03 (FIP of 2.80) because he made 32 starts last year as opposed to only 25 in 2018. If the Mets get deGrom and Syndergaard for 30 plus starts each, then they have an excellent chance of making the postseason. Thor, at 27, has just had two similarly good seasons in a row – ERA differences mostly occurred because a higher percentage of his fly balls left the yard in 2019  (.52 in 2018 versus 1.09 in 2019). Lively ball? The somewhat random nature of home run rates on fly balls? You pick – the point here being that Syndergaard pitched well and figured out how to stay reasonably healthy all year. Having only reached 30 starts one other time in his career (2016), that is a big step toward becoming an ace himself.

Unlike the two beast masters at the top of the rotation, Marcus Stroman doesn’t throw 97 MPH. What he does is make his 32 or so starts (3 years in a row) strike out seven-ish batters per nine, keep walks to around two and a half per nine with an ERA in the mid threes. He is an excellent number three in any rotation and, at almost 29, should be in his prime as he pitches for his next contract. It seems like a recipe for another good year from Stroman who is one of the shortest starting pitchers of the last decade at 5’7. Baseball has a huge bias against short pitchers so it will be interesting to see what kind of contract Stroman gets if he has another good year – which would be three in the last four. Stroman works predominantly with a three pitch mix (fastball, sinker, slider) with the slider consistently having the highest pitch value – a score of the effectiveness of a pitch in games  – of any of his offerings. In an environment where the slider is king (as it is in the Major Leagues right now), Stroman will continue to get chances to throw it in the rotation as long as he continues to succeed, but will probably have a shorter leash because of his size or lack thereof.

In the fourth slot in the rotation, Steven Matz was a top prospect who looked like he would never be healthy enough to contribute to the Mets –  so a disappointment. Then he went and had back to back 30 start seasons in 2018 and 2019. Matz is 28 and is probably a bit maddening to the Mets because he hasn’t become anything more than an innings eater in spite of his ability to occasionally dominate. The former 2nd round pick is unbelievably homer prone with three straight seasons of home per nine rates over 1.4 in spite of his other good peripherals like his Ks per nine of 8.88 and 8.59 the last two seasons and his walks per nine of 2.79 for his career. If you averted your eyes from the ERA column and home run rates, then Matz is a two or a three. Sadly, home runs count and they lead to high ERAs if you give up enough of them. Will Matz turn the corner and help the Mets to the playoffs, or will he continue to frustrate and have the Mets finally cut bait and move on from the lefty? I wish there was a stat that indicated Matz had finally figured it out but, other than halving his home run rate in the second half of 2019 leading to a much lower ERA, you will have to stay tuned.

You have to love a rotation where Rick Porcello is your 5. Not because Porcello is an ace ambushing teams from the 5 spot but because if you are going to stick someone in the 5 spot how nice is it that he has a 22 win season and a Cy Young in his portfolio? Porcello is 31 and not really an ace – more of an innings eater with the possibility of more. Still if your number five guy can throw 180 league average innings, you are in really great shape and it is a decent bet that that is where Porcello’s lives now. In the decade just passed, Porcello never failed to make at least 27 starts and that has value, especially to a team that has seen its share of pitchers go down. His career ERA now sits at 4.36 which is about what the Mets should expect – maybe a bit lower due to their pitcher’s park, but moving from Boston where he had that Cy Young season might take some pressure off Porcello where he was always expected to be that guy again. Now, Porcello can fill the bottom of the rotation with average innings and all will be well.

And if things go south or injuries hit, Michael Wacha, who even though he seemingly has been pitching since Tom Terrific wore a Mets uni but is only 28, is ready to go and apparently healthy. Like Porcello, Wacha is probably not a top of the rotation starter anymore, but his velocity appears to be up this spring, and if he can get even part of the way back to where he was in 2015 after battling numerous injuries over the last few seasons, then the Mets have at least some depth, and pretty talented depth at that. Wacha’s ERA has only been below 4.00 once since 2015 (3.20 in 2018) but his FIP has been below 4.00 multiple times. Last year wasn’t pretty – an ERA of 4.76 and a FIP of 5.61 with an incredible 1.85 home runs per nine that was likely the culprit. On paper the Mets don’t need Wacha to start the season in the rotation but will very likely give him the chance to win a spot in spring training. For him to succeed, his walk rate needs to creep back closer to the 2’s like it was during his salad days instead of the high 3’s like it has been the last three seasons. The home rate will probably be better this year even if it is just because he is pitching in a tougher home run park.

There isn’t an obvious answer at triple-A although top prospect, David Peterson will likely start the season there after a meh season at double-A. After not exactly killing it at high-A either, it seems like the Mets would want him to show that he can, if not dominate, at least hold his own for half a season at triple-A before they call him up. His ground ball percentage which was in the high 60’s in the lower levels, has dropped to the mid-50s, which could signal a change in approach or a decrease in effectiveness. Watch what he does in Binghamton – maybe even go see him pitch and take a side trip to see the former site of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory – you know – if you have extra time.

The Mets have a top-heavy starting rotation with lots of innings eaters with upside at the bottom. Every team would love to have the Mets top two starters, and every team would be thrilled to get 180 league average innings out of each of their bottom three starters; that’s the kind of season the Mets can realistically expect to get out of their rotation. By retooling for reliability in the rotation, the Mets have taken a lot of pressure off the bullpen. If things don’t break that way because this is baseball and plans are for stooges, the Mets probably don’t have the depth in the minors to pivot. They would have to convert Gsellman or Lugo back to starters, go sign someone or make a trade, or hope for their pen to step up and rescue them. With the rosy glasses of pre-injury spring, the Mets rotation looks poised to compete in the NL East. If history repeats itself and the Mets recapture their glorious pitching heritage, look for a deep playoff run for the New York team that wears purple and orange.

 

A Plethora of Star Power in the Astros Outfield

When you almost win the World Series in seven games it has to take a toll on your body and mind. When you get wrapped up in the biggest baseball scandal since 1919 AFTER just losing the World Series in seven games it is hard to imagine what kind of serious hangover you get to wear to start the season. Welcome to the 2020 Houston Astros! There are new articles daily about TrashGate so I am not going to add to the pile. Instead let’s look at the Astros outfield where probably two-thirds of the top of their batting order play the field and they are packed with star power.

George Springer has become the prototype leadoff hitter in this era of launch angles. The Cubs are planning on putting Kris Bryant in the one hole and MLB analysts are comparing the move to what the Astros do with George Springer – and they’re right. There isn’t a Rickey Henderson out there and besides stealing bases is no longer de rigeur even for leadoff hitters, so why not give a guy with a good on base percentage and lots of power more at bats so he can get on base more and hit more home runs? Sounds like a pretty good way to score more runs. In 2019 Springer slashed .292/.383/.591 with 39 home runs, good for a wRC+ of 156. Note that Rickey Henderson’s wRC+ in his age 29 season was 149, so good for George. 2019 was Springer’s best by WAR (6.5 – previous high was 5.0) and in a number of categories such as batting average, on base percentage, and slugging, as well as home runs, and runs batted in. Not surprisingly, the Astros star center-fielder (his primary position) also had his best walk rate at 12.1%. But wait – there’s more! Springer also had his best defensive season ever as measured by dWAR. There is no doubt that George Springer is one of the most dynamic players in all of baseball and, at 30, isn’t likely to begin a speedy decline in 2020. Will he experience the hangover from this off-season with as much intensity as the rest of his club? Hard to say. He has always come across as a really good guy in interviews so being booed regularly for what his team did might cut a little deeper.

To Springer’s left, if you are the batter, will be Michael Brantley. The  former Cleveland Indians star is now two seasons removed from a lost season and a half due to injury and has firmly established that he is back. Brantley had his best season since 2015 slashing .311/.372/.503 for a 133 wRC+ leading to a WAR of 4.2 – second best in his career. Not a big power hitter, the 32 year old lefty still hit 22 home runs. Brantley isn’t a masher – more of a slasher. He hit 40 doubles last year and is a great guy to have near the top of the order because he gets on base a lot – career .354 OBP – and doesn’t strike out much – 10.4% K rate in 2019. As a defender, well, UZR/150 and DRS liked him fine in the corners but not so much in center anymore and that’s fine because the ‘Stros have Springer and some young bucks to man center. Another complete player, Brantley was a big piece of the Astros success in 2019 and should be again in 2020 if he continues to be healthy.

In the other corner, 33 year old Josh Reddick looks to have lost a gear or two and is no longer putting up championship level starter numbers. With consecutive seasons with WAR below 2.0 (1.1 and 1.0 respectively), his days as a starter could come to an end as soon as the second half of 2020. Reddick has a 32 home run season (2012) and a 20 homer season (2015) but has otherwise never reached the 20 mark. He slashed .275/.319/.409 which was an improvement on 2018 at least in batting average. But in spite of the 33 point jump in batting average, Reddick’s on base percentage increased only 1 point due to a dramatic dip in his walk rate from 10.1% to 6.5%. Possessing  a great arm has helped him put up decent defensive numbers in right although he struggled with arm issues last season. What it comes down to is the fact that as a corner outfielder on a team this good with a system this deep, it isn’t enough to generate wRC+ numbers of 99 and 94 – Reddick’s last two seasons. Unless he sees a return to his 2017 numbers, Josh Reddick is going to be chased down.

Probably the front runner to take Reddick’s job is Kyle Tucker who mainly played the two corner outfield spots in his second short taste of Major League living. Tucker has more power than Reddick and at triple-A showed an ability to take a walk. There is some swing and miss to the former #5 overall pick in the 2015 draft, but not what you would expect from a rookie power hitter. His K rate at triple-A last year was 21.6% to go with 34 home runs and a slash line of .266/.354/.555. Tucker is also a base stealing threat, nabbing 30 bags last year in the minors and another 5 in 5 attempts during his 72 plate appearances with Houston. The overall look for Tucker is pretty, with power, a 60 hit tool projection and a good arm, and his second short stint in the bigs was much better than his first. There is some star possibility here. Tucker saw some big at bats in the post- season so the writing is on the wall for someone – cough – Josh Reddick.

Yordan Alvarez played some outfield and, with Yuri Guriel blocking him at first base, the Rookie of The Year from 2019 will probably play at left field from time to time while mostly DHing. How do you win a ROY award as a DH? You hit the snot out of the ball and flat out terrorize pitchers. Alvarez is only 22 and in just over half a season last year slashed .312/.412/.655 – yes, .655. His very first taste of major league pitching resulted in an OPS of 1.067. Gulp. His 178 wRC+, 27 home runs, and 14.1% walk rate speak to a future as one of the best hitters in baseball mostly because he already is. Defense, schmeefense – he can stay at DH, play some first, and hide in the outfield from time to time because he has to be in the lineup everyday.

The Astros are strong everywhere – that’s why they keep going to the World Series – but they are particularly fat in the outfield where they can run out two potential All Stars, a potential Rookie of The Year, and spell them with an actual Rookie of The Year. Even the player most likely to get pushed aside is solid. It will be fun watching Tucker make his way into the lineup this year or watch Reddick fight him off – either way the Astros win. The whole team will be under intense scrutiny and a lot of pressure to prove that they can win without cheating schemes, but the outfield is quality no matter how you configure it.

There’s A Theme to The Angel’s Recent Signings – A Partial Remake On The Infield

What’s it like to be an Angels fan, to have the best player this side of Alpha Centauri, but to miss the playoffs year after year? It is strange to see a team that is innovative in terms of how they deal with a unique player like Shohei Ohtani, seemingly unable to piece together a competitive rotation. To be fair, they seemed to go after the aces available this winter but didn’t get any love from Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. The collective cold shoulder that they received from top free agent pitchers led to them signing the best free agent position player on the market – Anthony Rendon – making their infield a lot more interesting. And he wasn’t their only signing as they upgraded their catching corps too. There’s a theme to their moves so let’s take a look at what the Angels will look like on the dirt part of the field in 2020.

Although catchers are not really thought of as infielders, they do play on the infield so let’s start with the Angels new addition to the catching crew. Jason Castro represents a significant upgrade on both sides of the plate. Up until 2018, when he was injured, he was a 2.0 to 3.0 WAR player, which is hard to find at the catcher position. He is a lefty bat with power who walks enough to make up for his low batting average. His career slash line is .231/.313/.390 and he had a wRC+ of 103 last season. Castro is best known for his glove, which carries most of his value – in particular his pitch framing skills. Castro was a 1st round pick in 2008 and is 32, so while he is talented, decline is inevitable, but if he can stay healthy in 2020 then he is a nice pick up who will improve the pitching staff and hit some bombs.

The other catcher, because few catchers can hold up to 162 games, is Max Stassi, who came to LA at the trade deadline last season. Stassi is another talented pitch framer, but unlike Castro, Stassi swings a bat made of gluten-free linguini – or at least that’s what his limited stats say. Stassi is 29 and only has 486 career plate appearances with a slash line of .204/.285/.326, but his scouting profile and minor league career predict a slightly better outcome with the bat than that. Stassi can flash a little power, but is unlikely to get on base much. What the Angels have done with Stassi and Castro is improve their pitching by improving their catching. Angels pitchers will get more strikes based on how well their catchers frame pitches. So if you aren’t going to sign an ace for your rotation you can at least make the pitchers you have better by improving your defense – and specifically improving your catching in the area of pitch framing. So while you watch Stassi and his .198 with 8 home runs, remember that you are watching your pitching staff improve. It will be interesting to see if the Angels can stand the pressure from fans and the media to get a catcher who can hit to replace Stassi.

Albert Pujols used to be the best player in baseball, but that was a long time ago. The Angels first baseman had eight seasons where he was worth between 7.0 and 9.0 WAR plus another two seasons above 5.0 WAR. All that happened before the Angels signed him to a ten year, $240 million deal as a 32 year old. Of course that was back in the day when teams paid players for their past seasons and it could be argued that Pujols’ deal was one of the straws that broke that particular camel’s back. Since donning an Angels uni, Pujols has produced one season with a WAR above 3.0, one season with a WAR above 2.0, one season with a WAR above 1.0, and five seasons with a WAR below 1.0 including the last three seasons where he has produced negative WAR at an average salary of $24 million per year. Until 2017, Pujols was still a productive producer with the bat but lost WAR because of his base-running and defense. Pujols has struggled mightily with health issues and has undoubtedly suffered by playing through his injuries, but he is what he is and that is an overpriced 40 year old first baseman who is hurting the team because of his big contract and his declining production. Shohei Ohtani is the primary DH until he returns to the mound so Pujols is blocked there and the Angels are paying Pujols for two more seasons, so Angels fans have to hope against hope that Albert Pujols can figure out some way to reverse the trend of negative WAR seasons, but at this point retirement might be the only way that happens.

At 30, Tommy La Stella had a breakout season of sorts slashing .295/.346/.486 and putting up a 2.0 WAR season – the first time he had been above 1.0 WAR in his career. La Stella had never been given an opportunity to play on even a semi-regular basis with the Braves or the Cubs so even after last year where he reached 321 plate appearances, his career total is now only 1268 plate appearances – odd in that he has always been able to hit. Maybe it isn’t odd in this day of everyone and his grandma being able to hit double digit long balls, which La Stella finally did last year. His 16 home runs in 2019 give him a career total of 26 home runs. Will this be the year La Stella, who played better at third than he did at second (and also played a few games at first), reaches 500 plate appearances? New Angels manager, Joe Maddon has historically enjoyed players who were versatile, but now has Anthony Rendon who will block La Stella from playing much third base. If Maddon decides that La Stella is the starter at second, then maybe this is the year that Tommy gets 500 plate appearances and hits 20 bombs. If Maddon uses him as a utility guy, then La Stella probably dips below 300 plate appearances again since he can’t play shortstop or the outfield – more on the utility infielder situation later.

Speaking of shortstops, the Angels have a spectacular one in Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ glove has always been considered one of the best in baseball if not the best, but his bat was, at most, okay for a shortstop. That was until he had back to back seasons with wRC+ over 100 in 2016 and 2017 (102 and 108 respectively). Simmons is 30 and has four Gold Gloves on the shelf in his rec room (if he has a rec room and keeps his cool trophies there), but last year he struggled with injuries and fell back to his old mediocre hitting ways – a wRC+ of 81. 2019 also broke a Gold Glove streak at two seasons although Simmons had another really good year with the glove. Middle infielders don’t have a particularly long shelf life because it is hard to stay healthy with all the diving, twisting, spinning, and jumping they do, but Simmons probably rebounds in 2020. This is a walk year for Andrelton so he will definitely have extrinsic motivation to have a great year. It will be interesting to see what the Angels decide to do when his contract expires, whether they decide to continue to fish in Lake Simmons or cut bait on a generational defensive talent as he begins to show signs of age. Simmons isn’t the kind of player who you can push to other positions to extend his career because his bat probably only works at shortstop. So watch his health during Spring Training and hope that all is well with the best defensive shortstop of the last decade and make a point of watching an Angels game or three.

Which leads us to the new guy – and what a new guy the Angels have acquired in Anthony Rendon! 2019 was Rendon’s best season by WAR (7.0) and wRC+ (154), but it isn’t an outlier as the former Washington Nat has three straight campaigns of at least 6.0 WAR and at least 139 wRC+. He is an excellent defender who hits for average, gets on base a lot, and hits for power. His slash line in 2019 was .319/.412/.598 giving him seven seasons in a row (the length of his major league career) of breaking the .300 average mark. Even if Rendon drops back below 30 bombs, hitting .300 with 60 to 80 walks, around 40 doubles and 25 home runs still makes him one of the best hitters in baseball and he can throw some leather to boot. What’s not to like? Nothing. He does everything well and has become very consistent down to three seasons in a row with K rates between 13.3 and 13.7%. The one knock on him was that he could do a better job staying healthy, but even that has become only a minor issue. He has averaged over 600 plate appearances and 146 games for the last four years so he seems to have figured out how to avoid injuries that would take him out for more than a few games, which is a skill that can be influenced by luck to be sure – but still a skill. The seven year deal that Rendon signed will probably not be an albatross until the very end of the contract when Rendon is 36, but by that time the Pujols contract will be out of site even of the rear view mirror. There are three ways to improve your ability to score more runs than the other team and the Angels took care of two of them by signing Rendon – scoring more runs and preventing runs by playing better defense (not the preventing runs by pitching better part though – Rendon can’t fix everything!). The Angels undoubtedly got better by signing Rendon – a lot better.

There are a few guys to keep an eye on who currently reside on the Angels bench. If/when Pujols misses time, the previously mentioned Tommy La Stella could step in (assuming he isn’t the starting second baseman), or the Angels could give Jared Walsh a chance to show whether or not his 36 homers at triple-A last year were a fluke. Walsh, a 39th round pick in 2015, is 26 and slashed .325/.423/.686 at Salt Lake City (over 4200 feet above sea level so not quite Coors Field, but still pretty thin air) and since he isn’t a top prospect he won’t get many chances to prove himself. Luis Rengifo was a Dodger for a few days until the deal got nixed. Rengifo could be the utility infielder if La Stella starts at second or Joe Maddon could decide to go with the younger, slicker Rengifo (just 23) as the starter. It would make more sense to use Rengifo in the utility role since he can play shortstop and La Stella can’t. Before he stalled out at triple-A, Rengifo’s hit tool looked like it might be enough to propel him to a role as a starter. He has a bunch of extra base hits in his minor league career to go with 130 steals in 182 attempts which is intriguing. If he reverses the trend from triple-A where his walk numbers dropped with his batting average, then he will look less like an out maker and more like the run creator he looked like he might become before he struggled at triple-A. It is hard to classify David Fletcher as a bench player after he cobbled together 653 plate appearances in 2019 with a WAR of 3.4 playing 2nd, 3rd, shortstop, and the outfield. What’s more – he was a defensive stud everywhere he played which should fit nicely with Maddon’s style of lineup construction. Fletcher is 26 and last season was a break out – 99 wRC+ with a slash line of .290/.350/.384 from a flexible, stellar defender. If he does it again, he becomes the new version of Ben Zobrist and that’s a pretty nice career arc.

Looking at the end of 2019 and the moves during the off-season, the Angels made moves to improve their catching defense, their infield defense, and score more runs. Independent of their actual pitching staff, the Angels should allow fewer runs from a defensive standpoint. If they find themselves in contention, they should make a move to improve at first base. As much as I like Albert Pujols as a human and marvel at how great he used to be, he is eating their team alive by taking up a spot where they could be so much more productive. Their infield is squared away except for Pujols and, like the Rockies, it is hard to see a team killing themselves at a position that should be one of the easiest to fix. That said, if Maddon wanted to go all in on infield defense he would move La Stella to first, put Fletcher at second, and make Rengifo the utility guy. Rendon will get much of the credit if the Angels improve a lot this year, but a healthy Castro will provide a stealthy dose of pitching goodness and some pop. Yes, Rendon was the big move, but keep an eye out for small improvements to some of the incumbents on the pitching staff with a season of Castro and Stassi behind the dish. The Angels will be better this year. Good enough to overtake the Astros and A’s? That’s why they actually play the games!