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

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

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

   

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

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

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

The Baseball Equivalent of Dumpster Diving
by Jim Silva

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

Rebuilding in Atlanta and the young players who might be the building blocks.

Placeholders, A Young Star, and The Future in Atlanta
by Jim Silva

    So Braves fans, you got a new stadium, some new starting pitchers, and you are already watching some fun new youngsters run around on your new field showing what they can do. How are you feeling? I hope you aren’t  thinking about the playoffs because you are highly likely to be disappointed. For a team still in the midst of a rebuild, your GM did some weird things, like picking up three guys over 35 to play prominent roles on your club. Moving into a new ballpark probably is the main reason why the Braves acquired some seriously old veterans to put a smiley face on their attempts to be competitive in 2017, but seriously it won’t change the fact that your club is still bad, albeit young and improving. Aside from these moves to put some lipstick on the pig, the Braves made a lot of great moves to build a club that will be ready to compete in a couple of years, and none were bigger than the deal in which they acquired their starting shortstop, so let’s take a look at the infield now, and the infield of the future for the Braves of Atlanta.
    Chipper Jones was the face of the Braves for quite some time and only retired after the 2012 season as the last holdout from the great Braves teams of the ‘90s. Star shortstops aren’t just lying about in the okra fields waiting to be harvested. The Braves drafted Andrelton Simmons who developed into a star with the glove but not with the bat – although he was not a black hole at the plate. But the Braves flipped him for some young arms and a stopgap shortstop – and they were just getting started. The trade was a bit shocking at the time – trading away the best defensive shortstop in baseball – and I wonder if it would have happened now, just a few years later, as defense has become more valued. So why did they do it? Simmons is playing this year as a 27 year old so really he is still on the upward part of the development hill and the Braves traded him in 2015. He had a 17 home run season under his belt and has already contributed 131 defensive runs saved (DRS) in his young career. He is off to a hot start with a wRC+ of 137 – yes it is very much a small sample size, but interestingly he is hitting the ball harder than he ever has as measured by exit velocity and his hot start is not due to luck – his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .316 so far. So why do you trade a guy like that when he is young? Wasn’t he looking like a nice piece to build around? Well, not compared to Chipper Jones. The Braves vision of a star shortstop around whom one builds a team was the power hitting variety in the mold of Chipper Jones, not the slick fielding type like Andrelton Simmons. Is that why they traded him? Who knows really, I mean they got a top 100 pitching prospect in Sean Newcomb in the deal and another arm they flipped in a later deal, but when the trade raises eyebrows like that one did, you have to wonder.
One of last season’s biggest swaps was the Braves deal that netted them a couple young arms and their new star shortstop of the future, Dansby Swanson. Nabbed with the very first pick of the 2015 draft, only 83 at bats into his professional career, and finding himself already traded must have been a head-spinning beginning for Dansby, but then he found himself in the majors in 2016 with only 411 minor league at bats under his belt. That whooshing sound you heard was the speed of Swanson’s ascent and the potential for his undoing if he finally falters, as unlikely as that is to happen. Very few position players rocket so quickly through the minors these days and when they do they are usually supremely talented and in possession of great make-up (or their club is desperate). Position players take, on average, approximately 2000 plate appearances to work their way up to the big club – about five times what it took Swanson. So is he ready? He certainly appeared to be ready with the bat during his debut last season when he slashed .302/.361/.442 in 145 plate appearances as a 22 year old. He also played about league average D at shortstop as evidenced by his warring UZR and DRS which were both around zero – one over and one under. Swanson is already a solid major league player who can handle shortstop and hit some, but the Braves are hoping that he is their new star who will be the face of the franchise as they move into their nifty new digs. While it is unlikely that Dansby or really anyone can be Chipper Jones, when you have a young shortstop who comes up and immediately hits, and hits with some power, the comparisons are inevitable. It is unclear that Swanson will be the kind of hitter that a team can build around, like Chipper Jones was. What Swanson is right now is a solid – not flashy – shortstop with an excellent hit tool but not much speed or over the fence kind of power. It is very early in the season, but so far Swanson is popping up more, his exit velocity is down, and he is hitting more fly balls with fewer of them (by percentage) leaving the park. He is seriously struggling with the bat but looking better in the field. Players can certainly develop power, and if Swanson maintains his ability to rap out base hits and adds five to ten home runs, over the next few years, then he can be that guy. If he is “only” a .270 with 10 homer power who gets on at .320 clip (about where his projections predict), well then the Braves will have a good shortstop who is not a superstar. Will they be tempted to move Swanson for more young moving parts to their rebuilding machine because Dansby isn’t Chipper? We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, they have excellent depth and high value talent, so even if Swanson is only good and not great the Braves will be fine although they might have to find another face of the franchise.
    Last year, Jace Peterson showed possibly once and for all that while he might have some value as bench player, he is not a starting second baseman. Peterson does a few things well, like getting on base at a decent clip and playing multiple positions (albeit not very well). He also does several things that drag down his value. He is not strong defensively at any of the multiple positions he plays. On the offensive side of the ball, he doesn’t hit for power or a high average, and for some reason last season, he didn’t run the bases well, in spite of his speed that was enough to swipe 52 bags for the Padres A league team in 2012. As this was his second season playing full time in the majors and he will be 27 in a few weeks, it appears that Peterson is what he is – a guy who can play second on a second division team or who can provide some positional flexibility and draw a walk on a team with some depth. The Braves apparently agree because they went out and traded for a 35 year old second baseman to take his place seemingly ending the Jace Peterson “era”. The guy they traded for, Brandon Phillips, has been around long enough to have been drafted (in a different millennium) by a team that no longer exists – Les Expos de Montreal – and to rank 25th all time in games played at second base.
    Middle infielders are not usually known for their longevity (yes, yes, Cal Ripken Jr.) so just walking out to that spot between 1st and 2nd as a 35 – soon-to-be 36 year old is an accomplishment all by itself. But Phillips put up a 3.5 WAR season as recently as 2015 and is off to a nice start for the Braves having already bagged four steals without being caught. Obviously, Phillips is not the long term solution for the Braves who are only paying $1 million of his $14 million contract – a contract that ends this year. The Reds were ready to move on from Phillips for a couple years now, but he had veto rights over all trades, so until it became apparent that they were willing to eat his contract and have him become a bench player in 2017, the veteran chose to block all trades. Perhaps the new environment has refreshed his joi de vivre on the baseball field, the impact of an inflated average on balls in play (his BABIP sits at .350) or perhaps we are seeing the effects of a small sample size, but right now he is providing offensive value for the first time since 2012 and he has always been an excellent defender (except last season – cue ominous music). Don’t expect him to get on base much or to hit more than ten homers anymore, although he will steal you a handful of bases. In short, he should do a solid job of keeping second base warm for the first wave of Braves prospects to hit the infield some time this year or next when his contract is up.
    Speaking of guys unlikely to be on the roster when the Braves next make the postseason, their current third baseman, Adonis Garcia is 32 and was signed as a 27 year old once he left Cuba and became eligible. The lure of striking gold with Cuban ballplayers is MLB’s version of playing the lottery, only your ticket costs millions of dollars. Garcia made it to the majors with the Braves in 2015 and became the starting 3rd baseman last season proving to be the type of lottery ticket that gets you a free lottery ticket instead of allowing you to quit your job and move to Hilo to grow coffee on your farm you bought with your winnings. The Braves are starting the season with Garcia at the hot corner because, like Phillips and second base, the youngster who will man 3rd base for the future Braves needs more time to develop (and Garcia is dirt cheap by major league standards). In the meantime Garcia will provide some power, but not cleanup hitter power like the Braves might have hoped. His glove work is mediocre enough that the Braves tried mid-season to send him down to convert him to left field – and then brought him back to play third again. Garcia might turn into a corner outfielder/corner infield bench guy who can hit the odd home run and fill in nearly adequately when injury strikes the starter, but I am getting ahead of myself. Like many baseball players who have some offensive talent but also possess a fatal flaw that keeps them from being a long term starter, much less a star, Garcia eschews the walk and relies on his ability to put the ball in play. The man with the great name just flat out makes too many outs and doesn’t do anything else well enough to make up for it – you know, like belting 40 home runs like Kris Davis or stealing 50 bags and playing elite level defense in center field like Billy Hamilton. Both of those players I mentioned are starters in spite of their flaws because of their elite talent at other aspects of the game that make up for their flaws. If only having a cool name were one of those skills.
    The Braves lone legit position player star is their first baseman, Freddie Freeman and while alliteration in one’s name is cool, it is far from Freeman’s only virtue. Only 27, Freeman has been the starting first baseman for Atlanta since 2011 and he appears to have found 5th gear if last season is the new normal. Freeman has always been an excellent hitter with good power. He draws walks (about 80 a year) which make up for his career 21.5 strikeout %. A few important things changed in his game last season that portend happy days ahead to match the happy days he experienced in 2016 – his best season so far. 83 extra base hits have to be due to something, and that something might just be a spike in both fly balls hit (up almost 5% to just over 40%) and a jump of around 4% in the percentage of fly balls that left the park. Freeman also increased his hard hit ball rate by right around 5% so it wasn’t just home runs that increased but balls that were just plain hard to snag. After starting his career as a doubles hitting, good batting average first baseman with just enough home runs to avoid being labeled the next Mark Grace, Freeman has become the prototypical power hitting first baseman who also gets on base making him either a three hole hitter or a cleanup hitter depending on who else you have on the roster. People who watch Freeman play say that he is an excellent defender at first and happily the defensive metrics agree, making him one of the most complete first basemen in baseball and the best player on the Braves – the cornerstone of the next Braves playoff run assuming they can get there in the next couple seasons.
    To really understand where the Braves infield is going – indeed, where the entire organization is going – one needs to consider their top prospects because with one of the best minor league systems in baseball that’s really what the Braves are all about right now. They are still building for the future and stockpiling youngsters. Three (if we still include Swanson as a prospect) of the Braves top 10 prospects are middle infielders which ultimately means they have three guys coming who could play 2nd, shortstop, and third. Their number one prospect still in the minors is one of the top 25 best prospects in all of baseball. Ozhaino Albies is a shortstop who is playing a lot of second base because of Dansby Swanson. At the tender age of 20 he was pushed to triple A Gwinnett and had his first experience of not hitting over .300. Albies game is about getting on base mostly through his high batting average. He still needs to learn patience if he is to become an elite leadoff hitter, which is his top end projection. He has excellent speed that he still needs to learn to unleash against pitchers and catchers. He has stolen 86 bases in the minors at 77%, but hasn’t been one of those guys who swipes 80 bases yet – his highest total is 30 which he accomplished last season. Braves fans are clamoring for him to arrive already, but at least a half season at triple A would do a lot to insure that once Albies arrives in the majors, he sticks. With an elite speedster who is an excellent defender at shortstop, the Braves would be wise to bring in a great base stealing coach and to push him to control the strike zone better. If Albies can maintain his high average and add 70 walks (he has improved each season and walked 52 times in 2016) he would be a star, creating a ton of runs for the Braves for the next decade. If the young infielder appears ready at mid-season it is highly likely that the Braves will try to trade Brandon Phillips for something young and install Albies at second base. Braves fans will get the vapors and possibly faint watching their exciting pair of middle infielders – the future of their team moving forward.
    The other young shortstop is 17 year old Kevin Maitan –  and yes, at 17 he has a very long way to go before he is anywhere near a known quantity. That said, he has already received a top 100 ranking by Keith Law, a top 5 Braves prospect ranking by Eric Longenhagen, and the undying love of several scouts who compare his offensive potential to Miguel Sano and (gulp) Miguel Cabrera. Of the three shortstop prospects, Maitan is the guy most likely to grow out of his shortstop pants and get pushed to third, thus completing the infield picture for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. He is a switch hitter with power, a good hit tool, and a strong arm so Braves management is understandably excited at the prospect of Maitan developing somewhere close to his potential. The Braves have guys who might develop enough to play third in the bigs while they wait for Maitan, but nobody likely to turn into a star, so they might end up signing a series of stopgaps while they wait to see what they have in Maitan. It’s hard not to get excited about a guy considered one the best international signings in this decade, but the Braves will be patient while rubbing a hole in their worry stone.
    It’s a good time to be young and in love, or a Braves fan with some patience – either works really. But for the patient Braves fans your time is coming soon. Love is unpredictable as are young prospects, so here is my advice to you young lovers. Find as many excellent prospects, be patient with how things develop, then don’t hesitate to commit to the right one when you find them, unless they run afoul of the PED rules or something like that. Pretty sure my wife would agree with me in this even if we disagree about the relative importance of pitching. Oh, you thought I had digressed from baseball.

The Yankees infield is getting younger, but is it getting better?

Oh, To Be Young and in The Bronx!
by Jim Silva

    The words “rebuild” and “Yankees” don’t go together because for the Yankees to give up millions in revenue by tanking it for a few seasons is not realistic. They have an enormous television contract and a brand that means they can’t tear down to the studs and rebuild. That said, the Yankees have parted ways with some of their older players in the last few years and become a younger team with potential. Weird, right? What happened to the days of Yankee GMs raiding rosters like pirates (not from Pittsburgh) with a boatload of money stealing your hometown stars? Don’t worry, that is still going to happen. The Yankees are always in the position of spending money to maintain some level of competitiveness even when they are waiting for young players to develop – like right now. The Yankees have some excellent young players either just beginning their major league careers or still developing in the minors. They also have older players with big contracts who are holding positions for the youngsters. The Yankees, unlike most teams, can afford to sign expensive players even when the team probably can’t make a strong push for the post-season. The biggest reason they are not ready to go deep into the post-season and probably not even make the playoffs is that their rotation is neither strong nor deep. But the Yankees are mid-stream on their own version of a rebuild and it is on their infield where this is most evident, so let’s take a look at rebuilding, Yankee style.
    Gone are the anchors of the Yankee infields of the 2000’s, Jorge Posada, Mark Texeira, Alex Rodriguez,  Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano – likely two Hall of Famers and possibly four. Tex and A-Rod were the last two to hang it up (after the 2016 season) and the Yankees infield, which had been old for several years will now be a lot younger. With an average age of 27, the old man of the crew, assuming everything breaks the way the Yankees hope it will, should be Chase Headley who will play as a 32 year old. First, let’s start with what Headley is not. He is not the guy who hit 31 home runs in 2012. He hadn’t come close to that mark before 2012 and hasn’t approached it since. His second best home run tally is 20, and third best is 14, which he accomplished last season. So what is Chase Headley? Sorry Headley family, but he is an average third baseman who is being paid to be a lot more than that. For $13 million a year you want more than a 1.5 to 3 WAR guy, but unfortunately that is what Headley has become averaging 1.85 WAR in 2015 and 2016. It is highly unlikely, given Headley’s age and recent performance, that the Colorado native will return to his 6.3 WAR peak of 2012. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player, but these are the Yankees and it is unclear as to whether or not Headley will be the starter all the way to the end of his contract in 2018. The Yankees can and will eat contracts if there is a reason to do so. If Headley has another sub-two WAR season or the Yankees find themselves in a position to grab a star to play third, Headley’s future will become a lot more murky, if no less lucrative. Right now he is a good defensive third baseman who just barely gets on base enough, doesn’t hit for much power and is just boring as hell – and we know how much Yankee fans hate boring players. Fortunately, Headley is the only “boring” option in the Yankees infield – at least for the starters. Let’s move on to the guy on the opposite corner, Greg Bird.
    Bird wowed Yankee fans and the rest of baseball in 2015 when he came up as a 22 year old and popped 11 home runs in fewer than 200 plate appearances. But a shoulder injury followed by surgery ate his 2016 season. Now, apparently fully healthy and with no Texeira in his way, Bird is likely to be the primary first baseman and will get the chance to show whether or not that home run pace in 2015 was a fluke. The reality is probably different from the expectation as Bird is less of a one dimensional masher than he is an all-around hitter. He is more likely to get on base at a .350 clip than he is to hit 25 home runs although he might very well slug .450 because he tends to hit a bunch of doubles. That said he is coming off a spring training where he hit seven homers and batted over .400.
    When Bird first started playing professionally he had a tendency to whiff on a lot of pitches. His strikeout rate was never lower than 20% until his second attempt at double-A which was in 2015. He did it again at his next stop – triple-A Scranton. It seems that Bird, who has always hit for a decent average and drawn his share of walks has also learned to lay off bad pitches, although I don’t have minor league swing data to back up that assertion. His glove work has been solid in the minors and his small sample size numbers from the majors were bullish on his ability to pick ‘em at first. In short, he won’t be a disaster at first and the Yankees are paying him to create runs. Whether Bird hits a bunch of bombs or just hits .280 with a  bunch of doubles, he should be a positive force in the Yankees lineup where they have had mixed success from the first base position of late. Bird might very well develop into the kind of hitter Yankee fans want him to be as long as he is given the chance to succeed being the type of hitter he actually is right now. There are other corner options on the bench, but no stars lurking on the big league roster, so let’s move on to the middle of the infield.
    Didi Gregorius was one of many young shortstops playing for the Diamondbacks who the Yankees could have traded for, but they picked Didi and his glove. In his first season with the Yanks – 2015 – Didi brought his good glove saving the Yankees between 5 and 7.4 runs (depending on which defensive metric you prefer) above league average for a shortstop. When he switched to his batting gloves, Didi didn’t. While he showed some improvement as measured by wRC+ from 75 in 2014 to 89 in 2015, he was still costing the Yankees runs with his mediocre ability to get on base (.318) and his lack of power – an ISO of .105 (think batting average but for power) and only 35 extra-base hits in 578 plate appearances. Yes, he improved, but he went from horrific to merely bad. But something positive happened last year to Didi that will likely extend his career while at the same time possibly shortening his stay with the Yankees. 2016 saw Gregorius change his profile somewhat dramatically. He drove 20 balls over the fence adding to his total of 54 extra-base hits in 597 plate appearances. That is quite a difference in the number of extra-base hits in just 19 more plate appearances and it showed in his ISO which jumped to .171. The added power pushed his wRC+ up to 98 which is essentially league average. His decreased plate discipline kept him from reaching the 100 mark as he walked only 19 times all season while reaching base at a .304 clip. By comparison, Brandon Guyer got hit by pitches 31 times last season – much more painful than taking a walk! But Didi’s offensive improvement, while mixed should have been enough to turn the 27 year old shortstop into a very valuable asset what with his nifty glove and all. Unfortunately for Didi and the Yankees, Gregorious slumped in the field costing the club between 2.9 and 9 runs depending on the metric.
    So what is Gregorius and what the heck happened last season? Well, for one thing he started swinging at a lot more pitches including pitches outside the strike zone. He also traded 2% of the softly hit balls he put in play for hard hit balls. The biggest difference in the profile of his batted balls was the number of home runs he hit as a percentage of the fly balls he hit going from somewhere in the 6% range up to 10.4% last season. Is that real? Well, Gregorius is pretty big – 6’3” and weirdly somewhere between 160 and 205 pounds, depending on what site you you look at. That is a huge gap, and it might account somewhat for the changes Gregorius underwent last season. I am guessing that one site uses his weight from when he first came up and the other site might be up to date. If he indeed got bigger in the off-season then that might account for the increased power as well as the decreased range. In a NY Post article about Gregorius the writer noted that the shortstop looked bigger, and when Gregorious stated that he was about the same weight – 210-215 – the writer, Ken Davidoff, attributed it to a different distribution of his weight, the implication being that Gregarious is more muscular now. Whether Didi is bigger and stronger, he hit for more power and his stats show diminished range. We will see what version of Didi we get once he returns from the DL after he injured his shoulder playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. Gregorius pitched in his youth and is known for having a canon of an arm, so if the injury is serious it could hurt his defensive numbers this season too and if that happens the Yankees, not necessarily known for their patience, might move on. They are, after all, the Yankees and they have a deep farm system with prospects pushing up from the minors, but again we will get to that later.
    Second base was once the Yankee’s greatest strength, but that’s when they had Robinson Cano back in 2013. Since then, the Bronx Bombers have trotted out the likes of Brian Roberts (the age 36 version), Stephen Drew (the .652 OPS version), and Rob Refsnyder (the -0.1 WAR version) to name just a few. That was until they made a deal with the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro is only 26 even though he just completed his 7th season as a major league starter. It’s crazy to think that he might have growth left in his game, but last season was certainly at least different if not better for the Yankees second baseman. 2015 saw Castro’s star burn up in the atmosphere as he not only lost his starting job by season’s end, but also struggled to produce enough with the glove or the bat to remain in the lineup. Last year, at least on the surface, was a comeback season for Castro as he pounded a career high 21 home runs while hitting a respectable .270. Delving a little deeper, it is clear that Castro’s season wasn’t a disaster, but was really just a placeholder season for the Yankees. Castro isn’t bad, but he certainly isn’t the star he looked like he might become in 2012 and even as recently as 2014 when he was playing well at shortstop and creating runs at an average to above average rate. Now at 6’3 230, he is bigger and likely stronger, but no longer a shortstop having moved to second, and isn’t really a good defensive second baseman after just costing the Yankees about 8 runs according to both DRS and UZR/150 – two major defensive metrics. If he had produced a wRC+ above 100 after the move to second then you could argue for his value as a starter. If he had stayed at short and played better defense then you could argue for his value with the glove. But while chicks dig the long ball, if that’s pretty much all you do then your days are probably numbered as a starter, unless you do it at an elite level, which he didn’t.
    And it isn’t likely to get better for Starlin, although it is possible that his defense at second will improve as he gets more experience there. Castro’s offense should be the biggest concern because he creates a lot of outs and it doesn’t appear that he is maturing in the ways one would hope for a hitter who already has 4101 major league at bats. 2016 saw Castro’s walk rate stay close to 2015’s career low and his strikeout rate increase to a career high showing that he is getting worse at controlling the strike zone. That could be intentional – selling out to hit more home runs by swinging at more pitches – but again, as he isn’t an elite power hitter so that approach will ultimately hurt his value. Castro has also stopped stealing bases nabbing only four bags last season (his high is 25) and even though he hit more home runs in 2016, his slugging percentage didn’t jump that much – .433 is only 25 points over his career average and isn’t his highest number or out of line with 2011, 2012, or 2014 where he slugged in the .430s. So how long will Castro remain the starting second baseman for the Yankees? Basically until his contract runs out in 2019 or the Yankees find someone who is above average – a pretty low bar for the best baseball franchise in history – or will Castro “break out” in his age 27 season? His declining plate discipline which was already poor at best says no.
    Since this article is about the Yanks youth movement and their catcher is young, I am including Gary Sanchez in this article even though I usually write about catchers separately since they are unusual creatures and deserve a space of their own. Sanchez was signed as a 17 year old free agent and has one of the coolest nicknames in all of sports, “The Kraken”, as in “Release the Kraken!”. If I were to play major league baseball I would want to be named after a sea monster capable of dragging ships under the waves, fating many a seaman to a watery grave. I would also want to be a catcher who threw out 42% of would-be base thieves and hit 20 home runs in my first 201 major league at bats, because that is exactly what the Yanks young catcher did in 2016. Catchers who hit home runs like that, play defense like that, and also end their debut third of a season with an OPS of 1.032 and a wRC+ of 171 are rare as hell, as are any hitters who can do that for any stretch. But don’t get ahead of yourselves Yankees fans. Sanchez had one hell of a breakout party in pinstripes but it is unlikely that he is that guy. He has power, but probably not Babe Ruth kind of power that he showed in his 201 at bats last season. He averaged about 25 homers a season in the minors so if you expect him to hit 60 like his pace last year indicated then you will be horribly disappointed. As for the OPS over 1.000 – yeah, not so much. His career OPS in the minors is .799, which for a catcher who can throw is pretty great. Nobody doesn’t want a youngster like Sanchez in their organization, but his debut could seriously cost him in New York. Yes, some players show huge growth at some point in their career when something clicks for them, but it doesn’t often happen in their major league debut, and it doesn’t happen to the extent that Sanchez jumped. I really hope for his sake that the Yankees, and to a lesser extent their fans, don’t hold that bar up against his first full season in the majors or the rest of his career, because he will likely be quite good, but very few people are that good and I predict that to include Gary Sanchez. He has power, he can hit (although he strikes out a lot – even last season), and he can throw, so take that, be happy, and don’t punish him for not being Jimmie Foxx.
    As with any good youth movement, it doesn’t end with the guys who are up already, like Sanchez and Bird. The Yankees have some serious dudes pushing up from down under. Gleyber Torres, who at 20, finished last season in High-A and will likely start this season at double-A, is the Yanks top prospect and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball. Torres is a shortstop with obscene bat speed leading to solid power numbers for a youngster playing at such a high level, as well as a truckload of hyperbole from people who analyze minor league talent. He projects to be an average shortstop defensively and an offensive beast if you believe the analysts who project more based on his tools. He has succeeded at minor league levels consistently high for his youth, but reading between the lines of what analysts are saying he might not stick at shortstop as he gets bigger and less agile. If he continues to progress the way he has so far, his bat will play at third and if he manages to stick at short he could be one of the better offensive shortstops in baseball. But the distance from high-A to the majors is measured in pitfalls survived and there is a lot that could still go wrong.
    If Torres’ bat and power continue to develop, the Yankees might be happy to move him one spot to the left on the infield as they have two other shortstops in their top 10 (and a third baseman) plus a couple more shortstops in their top 15. Being flush with shortstops is a glorious thing because if they can hit, guys who can play shortstop can be moved to other positions like third base, second base, or the outfield and succeed. Jorge Mateo and Tyler Wade are very different players both moving through the minors at the shortstop position. So far, Mateo is one of the fastest players in the minors but still learning to tap into whatever power he will end up with (probably not much) and trying to get on base enough to make his speed matter. Defensively, he might end up a notch above Torres at shortstop but because of Torres, Mateo has also been tried at second base. That says more about Torres than Mateo, who should be able to stick at shortstop but needs to be flexible because of Torres’s considerable potential.
    Tyler Wade is being groomed as a multi-position guy. He lacks the tools of either Torres or Mateo, but has good speed, gets on base at a decent clip, and spent all of last season at double-A making him the guy most likely to see the majors first if the Yankees are being patient with Torres and the start of his service clock. He had a great spring training and was sent to the minors late. An injury to Didi Gregorius in spring training caused a lot of talk about Gleyber Torres starting the year in the Yankees lineup, but management squashed that nonsense and utility man Ronald Torreyes will play short until Gregorius is back, which shouldn’t take too long. That third baseman I mentioned is Miguel Andujar and he is another prospect with great tools. Andujar finished 2016 at double-A and just turned 22 so the fact that he succeeded in his first attempt at that level speaks to his talent. However, as Andujar didn’t dominate at double-A the Yankees sent him back to take another shot at the level. He looks like he could be a good defender with a canon arm at third and some thunder in his bat. The offense is based on his tools and some serious projection, but he could turn into an exciting player. He is a guy to keep an eye on in double-A this year.
    Yes, of course the Yankees have a lot of options as they should – I mean, they are the Yankees. Their options are starting to get young and exciting now and will get even younger and more exciting in the next year or two. Fear not Yankee fans – all that cheap young talent will allow the Yankees to throw bucketloads of money at a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout before you know it.
   

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

It’s Not Easy Being Red
by Jim Silva

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

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

Infield Envy
by Jim Silva

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