Was signing Ian Desmond the right way for the Rockies to spend their money?

To Whom Should the Rockies Hand Their Money?
by Jim Silva

    70 million dollars is a large sum of money to spend on gum, or tape, or paper cranes, or lima beans, but it is not a large sum of money to spend for five years of service from a bona fide baseball star. The Rockies spent $70 million this offseason to improve their infield and their lineup. They signed Ian Desmond, a shortstop, and more recently a center-fielder to play first base, in theory plugging the only hole in their infield. Yes, that part is a bit confusing. Why did they sign someone to play first base who has never played a professional inning – not in the majors and not in the minors – at first base? Also, why did they pay so much money to improve at first base? I mean, didn’t they already have a first baseman? They short answer is, “Yes” and the long answer is, “kinda”. Mark Reynolds, the guy who got the lion’s share of the time at first, was almost exactly league average – maybe a touch below. Another question you should be asking is, “Why did they sign Ian Desmond when the market was glutted with big, strong first basemen types?” Ah, that’s a good place to start, so let’s!
    Here is a short list of free agent first basemen who were free agents this offseason. I’ve included a few numbers to go with their names and ages. I included Desmond even though he isn’t yet a first baseman. It isn’t an exhaustive list – I cherry-picked a bit – but it is still pretty long. Several of these guys still haven’t signed.

Name/Age
wRC+ 2016/career
First base (DRS/UZR per 150 for 2016) & (DRS/UZR per 150 for career)
(Slash Line for 2016) & (Slash Line for career)
Ian Desmond/31
106/101
Never played
(.285/.335/.446) &
(.267/.316/.427)
Edwin Encarnacion/34
134/126
(0/3.5) & (-17/-6.0)
(.263/.357/.529) &
(.266/.352/.498)
Mark Trumbo/31
123/111
(0/1.3) & (12/6.3)
(.256/.316/.533) &
(.251/.303/.473)
Steve Pearce/33
136/111
(2/5.2) & (12/8.8)
(.288/.374/.492) &
(.254/.333/.441)
Sean Rodriguez/31
129/92
(1/-22.4) & (4/5.1)
(.279/.349/.510) &
(.234/.303/.390)
Brandon Moss/33
105/110
(-3/-10.1) & (-22/-9.3)
(.225/.300/.484) &
(.241/.319/.455)
Jose Bautista/36
122/132
(0/0) almost no data & (-2/-8.3)
(.234/.366/.452) &
(.255/.368/.493)
Mike Napoli/35
113/123
(-4/-6.1) & (15/3.3)
(.239/.335/.465) &
(.252/.352/.480)
Kendrys Morales/33
110/114
(0/10.9) & (11/6.2)
(.263/.327/.468) &
(.273/.331/.465)
Matt Holliday/37
109/137
(1/10.5) & (1/10.5) small sample size
(.246/.322/.461) &
(.303/.382/.515)
Chris Carter/30
112/112
(-5/-5.7) & (-19/-7.1)
(.222/.321/.499) &
(.218/.314/.463)

    Glancing at the numbers above, the weakest producers offensively based on career numbers are Desmond and Sean Rodriguez. I am basing that on wRC+ which is runs created above average where 100 is dead average and each point represents a 1% increase on the field after adjusting for park and league, and OPS combining on-base percentage and slugging percentage. If you look at last season only, then we are probably looking at Moss and Desmond – maybe Holliday too. If you base your judgement on defense then there is really no data on Desmond. If you look at his numbers in left field and shortstop it is a mixed bag, although he is probably not worse than mediocre nor better than average. Moving to a new position if he works hard he could probably reach average, but it would be foolish to count on more than that. Of the guys who have put in real time at first, Moss and Encarnacion are probably the worst of the group.  If you want to factor age into it, then Desmond is one of the youngest and Holliday and Bautista are the old guys. Basically you pick your poison, but what poison did the Rockies pick?
    What to make of all of this? Well, they signed the guy with the third highest batting career average who is probably the most athletic of the group and one of the youngest who is likely to age the best. He is also arguably the most durable – since 2010 when he became a starter he has played fewer than 150 games only once. Perhaps they were signing someone who could play multiple positions in case they made a late signing of one of the other guys on the list above who was pretty limited to first base. Other than that I am unclear as to why they would commit $70 million over five years to a guy who is perceived to be better than league average, but is in reality pretty much league average. I hear he is a great guy and who doesn’t love a player who works hard, but for $70 million one must wonder if they could have locked down one of the other guys on the list like Bautista, who signed for 1 year and $18 million, or Encarnacion, who signed for 3 years and $60 million (plus a 1 year option). They could have also gone the cheaper route and inked Trumbo, who signed for 3 years at $37.5 million, Carter who signed for 1 year and $3 million, or Pearce who signed for 2 years and $12.5 million. All those mentioned above have better offensive numbers and have played first base with varying degrees of success. Some of them are good defenders at first and some are monster power hitters, but again, all of them are better run producers than Desmond over the course of their careers and based just on last season. I guess in summation I have to say, oops. Desmond will be fine, but they could have spent their money better, hoped to solve first base internally in a year or two (Nevin, McMahon, or Welker are solid prospects who have or likely will play first) or just waited instead of jumping so early on Desmond in a market flooded with first base dudes. But the rest of the infield is really interesting.
    Moving to the other corner, third base, we have the legitimate superstar of the Rockies, Nolan Arenado. It is challenging to discuss the 25 year old without resorting to strings of superlatives about his defense and his production at the plate. Last season was his best with the bat as he created 124 wRC+, hit the ball harder more often (37.9% of the time), nearly doubled his walk rate (to 9.8%) while decreasing his strikeout rate from the previous season and still crushing 41 home runs. Jeez! He slashed .294/.362/.570 while staying close to career BABIP numbers indicating that this is just what he is now as opposed to this being  fluke season. With the glove, his 20 DRS/5.3 UZR per 150 innings played is consistent with his career numbers and he won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove. Yes, his fourth and he is only 25. It is easy to think of him as being older than he is because he has been so good since he came up. If you are into WAR (Good God, y’all!) here are his numbers for each of his four seasons in the majors in chronological order: 3.8, 4.1, 5.8, 6.5. Yes, it has gone up each year and may very well continue that trend if he holds onto his growth in plate discipline and stays healthy. He is simply the best at his position at a time when some of the best players in baseball play third base. One of the reasons that the Rockies need to try to win in the next two years is because Arenado can become a free agent in 2020 and he will be courted hard by any team with money. If he leaves it will be a devastating blow to Colorado. But the Rockies have a chance to win now and they need to capitalize on that short window, because Arenado will likely be too expensive by 2020 for all but the teams with the biggest pocket books – the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants, Tigers, and Cubs and maybe a couple of other teams who will build around Nolan.
    Second base is usually the place for failed shortstops who can hit some. The Rockies starting second baseman DJ LeMahieu was in fact a shortstop as a freshman in college before moving to second base and played more shortstop than second base is his first year as a pro before reversing the trend from there on out. DJ is 28 and has been the starter at second for four seasons, since coming over from the Cubs in the Ian Stewart trade. In 2015, LeMahieu showed some growth in his ability to hit for average finishing the season hitting .301 and making the All Star team. In 2014 LeMahieu won a Gold Glove for his play at second posting a DRS of 16 and a UZR per 150 innings of 11.0. It was his second excellent defensive year in a row and he was recognized for his work. Still, DJ had never posted a wRC+ of 100 as a big leaguer so it wouldn’t have taken much to dethrone him and turn him into a utility infielder – after all he has played short, and third, as well as second, so he was well qualified to handle the bench job. Well, 2016 changed all of that possibly for good. The 6’4 second baseman hit .348 to win the batting title, contributed 128 wRC+ and posted his first season with a WAR over 2.0 as his overall game was worth 4.9 WAR.
    A lot changed in LeMahieu’s game in 2016. Since 2013, his walk rate has jumped 1.7%, then 2.0%, and finally last season another 2.3% to put him at a walk rate of 10.4%. That combined with his batting average jump gave him an on-base percentage of .416 making him an elite leadoff man. One caveat – LeMahieu is not a great base stealer although that kind of depends on what season you are viewing. Last season he went 11 for 18 so his career rate is now about 68%. If the decline is real, he is now at the point where he should just stay put. He is at best an average base runner so if you think all leadoff men need to run like Rickey Henderson then you will be sorely disappointed by Mr. LeMahieu. But the rest of DJ’s offensive game is pretty glorious. He sprays the ball all over the field and last year hit the ball hard – really hard – with a hard hit ball percentage of 35.2%. Without looking at launch angles I can’t say why more balls don’t leave the yard, but when he hits the ball that hard to all fields and only hits 11 out of the park, but tags 32 doubles and 8 triples, one can infer that he hits the ball on a line without a ton of loft. It was a huge year for him and obviously analysts wonder if he can do it again at 28. The peripherals – his yearly increase in walk rate, his increase in hard hit balls, his growth toward using all fields – point to this being the new DJ LeMahieu. I would be shocked to see him increase his output, although he could probably trade some batting average for another 10 homers or so if he wanted, but the Rockies would probably prefer to have DJ be DJ. He isn’t flashing the leather like he used to – the last two seasons have seen numbers that make him look like a league average guy instead of a Gold Glover – but his offense, combined with his solid D, make him a low level star nonetheless. He is the slightly less flashy half of the double play combination and that is just fine.
    The other half of the double play combo was Troy Tulowitzki for many years. He was the star of the team even though he was often injured. Last season was the Rockies first full season without Tulo and it was looking like they would be stuck with Jose Reyes and his considerable baggage (and bloated contract) until Reyes impugned the Rockies organizational worth, and then became embroiled in a domestic abuse scandal resulting in a suspension. This opened the door for, well, anybody but Reyes. The Rockies had a handful of interesting young shortstop types in the minors and one was about ready for a major league trial. Trevor Story won the job and put on a power show that cemented him into the starter’s job before the first month of the season was over. The Rockies wisely ate Reyes’ contract and cut him so as not to undermine Story’s confidence. Story was having a (don’t worry – I wasn’t going to say a “Storybook season”) stupendous rookie year and had pretty much locked down the Rookie of The Year Award, when he injured his thumb, requiring surgery and ending his season after 97 games and 415 plate appearances. Story had always shown solid power in the minors, but had shown a pattern of needing two seasons to master each level. Apparently Trevor forgot about that pattern, because he had 10 home runs by the end of March and 21 by the halfway mark in the season. He had slowed down a bit by the end of the second half with his average dropping to .260, but then Story apparently made some kind of change in approach (or just got some rest) during the All Star break and hit .340/.417/.698 in 15 post All Star games before his injury. If he is something between his first half and that second half surge, then he is a perennial All Star at shortstop in the National League. A rookie who puts up 120 wRC+ and plays shortstop is gold. The read on Story’s glove is that he isn’t flashy or particularly wide-ranging, but he makes plays on balls he gets to. His DRS of 4 and UZR/150 innings played of -4.5 support that claim with his range factor hurting his UZR rating. Story only made 10 errors for a fielding percentage of .977. The Rockies are used to having a great fielding shortstop, but having a solid shortstop who can rake, next to a great fielding third baseman is going to have to do until Brendan Rodgers – their top prospect who happens to be a shortstop –  advances, and forces the Rockies to make a decision. The future might have Rodgers at short and Story at third where his glove, arm and lack of range look better.
    Brendan Rodgers isn’t just the Rockies top prospect. Keith Law ranked him as the 19th best prospect in all of baseball for the 2017 season. The 20 year old third overall pick from the 2015 draft will start the season in High A after completing his first full season of professional baseball last year. Rodgers showed that he can hit, although some analysts disagree on what his home/road splits (.973 OPS at home and .682 on the road) say about what his numbers really mean. Rodgers managed 50 extra base hits including 19 home runs in 442 at bats. There was a decent amount of swing and miss to his game as he struck out 98 times, but he walked 35 times to mitigate his fanning ways. As a 19 year old playing full season ball for the first time, it means something when you put together a .281/.342/.480 slash line while playing most of your games at shortstop. He still has work to do, so don’t expect to see him in Coors Field anytime soon – his .923 and .933 fielding percentages at short the last two years mean that his glove is not ready even if you think his bat is close. This will be a big season for him as he moves up a level. If he maintains his power and continues to improve with the glove at shortstop, the Rockies can start to get excited about another potential star on the infield playing in the thin air of Denver.
    Even when you take into account the ballpark, the Rockies had an infield full of run producers and some legit stars. Arenado is one of the best players in baseball, period. Their weak spot if you can call it that is at first where Ian Desmond will likely be at least league average. The rest of the infield is set for as long as they can afford them and they will be fun to watch as they blister the ball all over the field and handle their glove work between spectacularly and adequately. One scary thought, if the Rockies get off to a bad start, look for them to trade their superstar Arenado for maybe the best haul of young talent in the last decade and not miss a beat as their young studs start to mature and push the Rockies toward a future in the postseason. Rockies fans, send Nolan your love while you have him!

New additions to the Blue Jays answer some questions and raise others.

How Many DH’s Does It Take to Fill The Albert Hall (or the Jays infield)
by Jim Silva
    So let’s say you work at Billy’s Cheese ‘N Soup as the soup wrangler. There is only one soup wrangler, and you have been the guy for a few years because you are really good at your job. In fact, you were on the cover of Soup Wrangler’s International last year, and everyone agrees that even though you are about to leave your prime, there is no evidence that you are slowing down.  Billy’s has an opening at the Cheese Ambassador position, but you just don’t have the tools to be a top notch “Cheeserista” so nobody considers you for the opening, and why should they when you are such a diva at wrangling the “hot and steamy”. But your contract is up and Billy knows you’re looking for a big payday, what with your great stats and national reputation. Still, you aren’t worried because Billy would be a fool to lose you, right? But then, just as you were making appearances on Top Ladle and Heads of Chowda, Billy goes and signs one of your rivals from Stu’s Stew! That is essentially what just happened to Edwin Encarnacion when the Jays signed Kendrys Morales to be their designated hitter, the one position where Encarnacion’s glove work (batting glove in his case) won’t hurt the team.  In fact, the two men have a few superficial traits in common. They are both solidly built big men who have no business playing in the field (although once upon a time Morales put up some decent numbers at first base). They both hit lots of home runs, and they are both 33 and like collecting butterflies (not really – but fun image). Upon closer inspection, it is pretty clear that Morales is Encarnacion-light – and I don’t mean just their salaries. Let’s use oWAR (offensive wins above replacement) and RC+ (runs created per plate appearance adjusted to park and league) to compare the two players, since defense isn’t really part of either man’s game these days.
Year
Encarnacion (oWAR/RC+)
Morales (oWAR/RC+)
2016
3.7/134
1.0/110
2015
4.8/150
2.7/130
2014
4.2/151
-1.0/72
2013
4.0/146
2.7/119
2012
5.5/150
2.3/119
Looking at the table above it should be pretty clear that Encarnacion is quite a bit better than Morales. Of course, skill is not the only factor in determining which player teams go after. Morales signed a three year contract for $33 million whereas Encarnacion reportedly already turned down a four year offer from the Blue Jays for $80 million. $9 million dollars a season is a big difference when you are comparing designated hitters. However, as teams drop out of the EE auction, his agent must be wondering if turning down the four for 80 deal may have been a mistake.
    Rogers Center, where the Blue Jays play their home games, is essentially neutral, based on park factor numbers from 2016. A lot goes into how a park influences offense including the temperature, so a one year park factor does not necessarily dictate future performance, but last season Rogers Center was not a band box. That said, if you look at who played the most games there, i.e. teams from the AL East, it makes sense that a lot of home runs would be hit there. With that in mind, the Blue Jays signing of Kendrys Morales shouldn’t inspire fantasy baseball managers to run out and pick up the slugger thinking that his home run production is going to skyrocket because he will get to play half his games in Rogers Center instead of Kaufman Stadium, a consistent pitchers park. The Jays also signed Steve Pearce, for $12.5 million, to play first base for the next two years. Pearce, like Morales, hits balls hard (not quite as many home runs) and (unlike Morales) is not limited to the easy end of the defensive spectrum. Also unlike Morales, Pearce gets on base – last season he had a .374 on-base percentage leading to an oWAR/RC+ of 2.3/136 in only 302 plate appearances. His lefty-righty splits were pretty even although for his career he mashes lefties while carrying a .245/.322/.406 slash line against righties. Many players become more than just platoon mashers when they get more exposure to their weak side, so Pearce might have turned the corner and become an everyday first baseman, or even a jack of all gloves kind of player that seems to be de rigueur these days. Assuming the Jays don’t sign Bautista or bring back Encarnacion, Pearce is likely to get a lot of opportunities to answer that question more definitively.
    The middle infield for the Jays is interesting in that they have a young second baseman who is still establishing himself, and an older shortstop who was looking like a lock for the Hall of Fame earlier in his career, but developed a reputation as an injury waiting to happen. The second baseman, Devon Travis, is one of those well rounded guys who doesn’t get a ton of love because he just isn’t spectacular at anything flashy. His glove is slightly above average – his DRS and UZR numbers were 2 and 1.6 respectively. He hits for average but doesn’t draw enough walks to be a leadoff guy with only 20 walks in 432 plate appearances. He hits the ball hard – a .454 slugging percentage – but only 11 of his hits left the park last  season. He is even a solid baserunner with a UBR (Ultimate Base Running) number of 1.6 runs above average, but he only stole four bases, albeit at an 80% success rate. I know – yawn – but do you want him on your team playing everyday? Heck yeah! A second baseman with a wRC+ of 109, a WAR of 2.5, and a slash line of .300/.332/.454 is a really nice piece to have in the middle of your infield and either near the top or the bottom of your lineup. One caution – his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a lofty .358. Some guys have high BABIPs most of the time, but generally a high BABIP is a sign of possible regression. A lot of Travis’ value is tied up in his high batting average (since he doesn’t walk) so if his BABIP drops to .300, for example, and he continues to eschew the free pass then he will fail to be an above 2.0 WAR guy. If that happens then Travis will cease to be a viable starter. Stay tuned!
    Tulo! Tulo! Tulo! That’s what fans shout when Troy Tulowitzki comes to the plate. He has been one of the more exciting players in baseball since he established himself as a starter for the Rockies during the 2007 season when he was only 22. Tulowitzki has two Gold Gloves, two Silver Slugger awards, finished second for the Rookie of The Year award, has MVP votes in six different seasons and has made the All Star Team five times. He also has failed to get 550 plate appearances since 2011 when he was 26 because he has hit the disabled too many times to count. “But when he plays” – which is likely how the majority of sentences about the 32 year old shortstop begin – he is still one of the best shortstops in the game. He combines a power bat, a decent eye, and a top notch glove to make him a well-rounded star. His career numbers are a bit misleading if you are trying to find out what Tulo is today – in part because he is out of his prime, but also because he has left the launching pad that is Coors Field, one of the best hitters park in the history of Major League baseball. In the course of 11 seasons he has hit 217 home runs with a slash line of .292/.364/.501 in 5142 plate appearances. Those numbers portend a nice retirement for Tulo, but if his goal is The Hall are they on track to be enough?
One way to begin to answer that question is to determine what Tulowitzki is today. Last season is probably more representative of the new normal for Tulo. In 544 plate appearances he hit 24 home runs and slashed .254/.318/.443. His value numbers were a WAR of 3.3 and wRC+ of 106. Diving a little deeper, let’s look at two numbers that might signal a slight decline, and two that say Troy is just fine, thank you.  Pitchers still throw the Blue Jay shortstop the same mix of pitches they have always thrown him and in about the same percentages – about 55 to 58% fastballs, about 25% cutters and sliders, close to 10% curveballs, and the rest a mix of various pitches. What has changed is that Tulo is missing more pitches when he swings the bat. In 2015 and 2016 he hit about 80% of the pitches he offered at which is a drop from 2012 where he made contact with almost 90% of the pitches he swung at. It has declined almost every year since 2012 to 83.7 in 2013 and 82.9 in 2014 – his career rate is now at 83.5%. Also of note over the last two seasons is that when he swings at pitches inside the strike zone he makes contact less often – 85.0% in 2015 and 85.8% in 2016. His career rate is 88.2% and he eclipsed the 91% mark three years in a row from 2010 through 2012. It isn’t the end of the world but you can maybe start to see it from here. Even that is too dramatic, because a shortstop who can hit 24 home runs is a rarity. A shortstop who hits 24 home runs AND carries Tulowitzki’s glove is more than rare – hence all the Hall of Fame talk.
    At 6’3 you’re supposed to be too big to stick at shortstop, but not only has he stuck, Tulo has shone. He has only made double digit errors twice in his career – 11 in 2007 and 10 in 2010 – and currently sports a .985 career fielding percentage. For people who care about records – that’s one right there. He is the all-time leader in shortstop fielding percentage. He is also 6th all-time in Total Zone Runs as a shortstop, showing that he also has range. And he doesn’t seem to be slowing down with the glove as his DRS and UZR were 10 and 4.9 respectively last season. So even with a slightly slowing bat, he is still one of the best all-around shortstops in the game when he is on the field. He already has a case for inclusion in the Hall of Fame, albeit a weak case. For Tulowitzki to nail down a spot for his plaque, he has to have a few more season of 500+ plate appearances at around his current level. At that point it would be difficult to argue against him.
    For A’s fans, the bitterness may never end at the loss of Josh Donaldson, their reclamation project turned superstar third baseman. All he did during his first year in Toronto was win the AL MVP and propel the club into the post-season. Oh, and last season – his second with the club – he had a very similar offensive year with a few fewer home runs, more triples, a lot more walks, fewer strikeouts and fewer doubles all contributing to a one point increase in wRC+ from 154 to 155. So he is basically more than 50% better than the league average hitter at creating runs. Dude! Donaldson’s glove work is solid too. With a DRS of 2 and a UZR of 4.2, his numbers showed a bit of a drop off, but still solid work at the hot corner. Add him to an infield with Tulo and Travis, and your pitchers will be happy campers. Donaldson will be in the mix for the MVP every season for a few more years as he has just turned 30. With 78 home runs in the last two seasons, and a potent lineup in front of him, to go with improving strike zone control, he will put up excellent counting stats – home runs, runs scored, and runs batted in – while maintaining a healthy batting average and on-base percentage as long as he can remain healthy, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for the former catcher.
    Who else will man the infield for the Blue Jays in 2017? This early in the off-season it’s hard to say exactly who will be on their bench, but let’s try. Justin Smoak has been a disappointment since he was taken in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Rangers. Three things are clear about Smoak. He has a lot of power – 106 home runs in 2886 plate appearances in the majors, he can’t get on base – a career OBP of .308, and he has no business wearing a mitt and crossing over the chalk lines onto the field. No business, unless the mitt is an oven mitt and he is delivering his famous double chocolate chip cookies to his teammates during the seventh inning stretch, because nothing says, “I love you” like fresh baked cookies. Slash lines aren’t always the most informative statistics when looking at a player’s offense, but in Smoak’s case his slash line paints a pretty clear picture of what he does – .228/.308/.392. He was pencilled in to be the Jays first baseman before they acquired Steve Pearce, but really he should be a bench bat or a DH when your other DH is injured. Last season was typical for the 6’3, 200 pound masher. He hit 14 home runs in 341 plate appearances, but his slash line was almost perfectly in line with his career numbers. His wRC+ was 90, which is a little low for him and his WAR was -0.1 because his glove was so awful. With 0.3 career WAR you can only hope that he breaks even, costing you about as many runs with his glove as he earns with his long flies – you know – unless you keep him from putting any kind of leather on his hands EVER! Seriously though, looking at DRS and UZR they disagree at times about Smoak’s ability in the field. He has only one positive DRS season and a career total of -16 DRS. With UZR, however, he has only two negative seasons and a career 0.6 UZR total. Last season, both metrics agreed that his kung fu was no good, so the Blue Jays should listen up and minimize his exposure to balls flying at him unless he is toting a bat with which to defend himself.
The Jays are flush with wee lads who play the middle infield including Darwin Barney. Most of Darwin Barney’s value is tied up in his glove. Like Michael Jackson, Barney wears many gloves and wears all of them well. He had positive DRS and UZR numbers at 2nd base, shortstop, 3rd base, and the outfield in 2016 – a lot of his positive numbers stem from his excellent range. Unlike O.J. Simpson – another famous glove-wearer, Barney doesn’t contribute much on offense. His wRC+ of 86 last season was 13 points above his career average but still significantly below average (100). A look at his career slash line is also telling – .249/.297/.343. He doesn’t get on base often, nor does he hit for much power apart from a few doubles. He is not the kind of guy you want to start more than occasionally, but his defense is good enough that he will provide positive value when your starter needs a breather. The fact that he can provide better than league average defense at four different positions allows the Jays to carry an extra bat or an extra pitcher, and there is certainly value in that which doesn’t show up in his statistics.
    Ryan Goins is a slightly younger, slightly weaker hitting, not quite as consistent afield, although quite rangy, version of Darwin Barney. Scintillating, eh? Goins was essentially the starting second baseman for the Jays in 2015, because Devon Travis was hurt quite often, and he wasn’t awful – I know, damning with faint praise. Kind of like Barney last season, he provided value with his glove, but didn’t hit enough to let him do it again – wRC+ of 84 with 1.5 WAR almost all due to his fielding. But 2016 was tough on Goins – he completely fell apart. His fielding dropped off, his bat went downhill and he didn’t get to play much after June. He spent time on the DL because he hurt his forearm pitching the 18th inning of a game. When he was healthy he bounced up and down between triple-A and the majors. It was a lost season. I’m not sure why the Jays would keep both Barney and Goins so we will have to see how everything shakes out.
    Two youngsters to keep an eye on for a future Jays infield spot – probably not 2017 – are Rowdy Tellez and Richard Urena. Tellez is a big man who hits with power and plays first base, hits home runs (23 last season at double-A as a 21 year old), but also walks plenty and doesn’t strike out too much (63 walks to 92 k’s last season in 438 at bats). Scouting stats has its limitations, and Keith Law suggested that he might struggle against more advanced pitching as he struggled to catch up to fastballs during AFL play before last season. If he continues to produce in the minors, Rowdy will get a chance in late 2017 or 2018. Urena is a power hitting shortstop who failed to get on base enough when he moved up to double-A. His walk rates weren’t bad when he was in A ball so perhaps he was just over-eager as a 20 year old facing double-A pitching. He has always hit for average and pounded out a truck load of doubles and triples. Last year he had 44 extra base hits in 518 at bats between high-A and double-A, so his bat is already ahead of most double-A middle infielders. His pattern has been to control the strike zone better in his second turn at a level in the minors, and he is only 20, so keep an eye on his walk numbers in double-A this year. I’m not sure what to make of his glove as he has made a bunch of errors at shortstop everywhere he has played – 30 last year – but again, 20 years old. Blue Jays fans should start to get excited around 2019 or so.
    This won’t happen, but it would be really cool if it did so I WANT it to happen. Encarnacion is in an ugly spot because of the current collective bargaining agreement that forces the team that signs him (if they aren’t the Blue Jays) to surrender a first round pick to the Jays. The Yankees and Astros have both signed DHs in the last couple weeks so the market for him has shriveled considerably. The Jays are really the team best suited to sign him since they only have to give him money, and at this point it would be less money than they would have paid a few weeks ago. The Rangers are still out there if we are talking about teams with money and a need at first and DH, but Encarnacion is competing with Mark Trumbo (who hit 47 home runs for Baltimore last season) who also would cost the signing team a draft pick, and Mike Napoli (34 home runs for Cleveland in 2016) who would not cost a draft pick. Now the Rockies might be interested too since they already gave away their first pick when they signed Ian Desmond. They would likely need to shed an outfielder to make it work and they just gave Desmond a boatload of money, so it would be a bit surprising if Colorado was Encarnacion’s landing spot. All that being said, I want the Blue Jays to set up a deal to trade Morales pending their signing of Encarnacion then go after Edwin, showing him some love, and encouraging him to come home. After the parade for Encarnacion, trade Morales for some useful pieces, even if it means throwing in a little money to sweeten the deal. The Jays are set at third and up the middle, so the only mystery is how they handle first and the DH spot, and they seem to have answered those questions for now, although at what appears to be a downgrade at both spots. The Jays are a confusing team. Are they going for it while giving up on Encarnacion and Bautista or are they switching ponies and becoming a defensively strong group with strong pitching? The rest of the off-season will show what direction the only team left in Canada intends to do going forward.

The A’s part ways with a big hitter – now what?

Shifting Sands In Oakland’s Infield
by Jim Silva
    Well, that didn’t take long. The A’s made a trade, this time moving arguably their best hitter from last season in Danny Valencia to Seattle for a minor league pitcher, Paul Blackburn. This is a move designed to give the A’s more pitching depth, and improve their defense. Valencia didn’t really have a spot anymore as the A’s had promoted his replacements near the end of last season. The move was timed to get something valuable for Valencia before he became expensive – a pretty typical A’s move. Let’s take a look at what it means for the A’s infield.
    Danny Valencia came to the A’s as a waiver claim from the Blue Jays late in the 2015 season. Valencia was crushing the ball at the time he was waived with a slash line of  .296/.331/.506 so it was surprising that Toronto would just let him go like that. Primarily a third baseman before the 2015 season, Valencia has also played both outfield corners, as well as first and second base, albeit none of them particularly well if you believe in defensive metrics. What Valencia has done well is hit baseballs really hard. 81.6% of the balls he hit were classified as hit with medium or hard (as opposed to soft) speed. His exit velocity is quite something. What he doesn’t do is control the strike zone – he doesn’t take kindly to that free base-on-balls claptrap – but his batting average mostly makes up for it. So Valencia is a pretty solid number five hitter and that is nothing to be sneezed at. That said, the Blue Jays sneezed and then so did the A’s in a way, although the A’s got back something of value in return. Why? Why does a guy who can hit and hit for power, and play the corners of the infield and outfield without turning it into a dumpster fire get moved around so much? Up until a couple seasons ago Valencia was pretty strictly a platoon player unable to hit righties, but that changed. The past two seasons Valencia has shown, and pretty clearly, that he can now not only hit righties, but hit them with power. Here is a wee graph showing his hitting against righties each of the last two seasons.
PA
HR
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
2015
214
13
12
56
0.285
0.325
0.556
0.881
2016
373
10
27
88
0.275
0.330
0.412
0.742
Not bad, eh? And that’s his “bad” side!
    Valencia’s glove is not his best tool, but again, he plays a clean corner without a ton of range or flash. So put him at DH or first base or left field and leave him in everyday and you are in pretty good shape. He was certainly better with the bat than anyone else the A’s have played at first base in either of the last two seasons. There were rumors about him as a clubhouse problem – don’t forget his fight with Billy Butler – but the guy can hit (including Billy Butler’s head) and the A’s certainly need bats. That ship has sailed to Seattle, and everyone pretty much knew it would sail sooner rather than later because of the usage patterns Valencia saw at the end of the season. The A’s were auditioning youngsters to take over at the corners. “What youngsters”, you ask?   
    Down on the farm are two men who can hit the ball very, very far when they actually hit the ball – and that “when” is a key qualifier, because Matt Chapman and Renato Nunez struck out a lot last season. Chapman draws more walks than Nunez but strikes out more often, but both men have legit power combining for 59 home runs in 2016. Nunez is only 22 and has a better hit tool than Chapman so with a full season at triple-A there is hope that he could be ready by 2018. Matt Olson also played first base (mostly an outfielder) and could be in the mix. Olson also has power, like Chapman and Nunez, but his plate discipline is much more advanced than the other two young corner men. Even though Olson is only 22 and hasn’t hit for average as he has moved up the organizational ladder, he appears to be more ready to play in the majors than either of the other youngsters. He will draw walks and hit with power even if his average is low, and that would be an improvement over what Bob Melvin wrote in to the A’s lineup last year. It will be interesting to see if they give him another year to grow in the tough hitting environment of Nashville to see if he can improve his average, or just take a shot with him at first or in a corner outfield spot right out of spring training. None of the three minor leaguers is a can’t miss prospect. Chapman is blocked by Ryon Healy (more on him later) at third for the time being, but he is only 23 with only 18 games at triple-A so what’s the rush? Nunez is coming off his first full season at triple-A where he hit .228 and he is only 22(you already said his age, just fyi), and Olson, also 22, hasn’t convinced the A’s yet that he is the answer (and he might be an answer in the outfield). So spring training should be fascinating as Oakland tries to figure out what to do to put a more viable team on the field at the big league level while still trying to develop some really interesting power hitting prospects.
    Another corner man who was down on the farm but came up for about half a season is third baseman, Ryon Healy. At 6’5, 225 Healy is a very large third baseman and hits the ball like one would expect from such a large man. Healy’s home run power just kicked in last season with 14 home runs in the minors and 13 with the big club – that’s 27 for those of you who are too tired to do the addition. The A’s young third baseman has hit at least .285 at every stop since 2014 – the only knock on his hitting is that he doesn’t walk often. His minor league slash line is .293/.332/.452, so until balls started leaving the park the knock on Healy was that a lot of offensive value was tied up in his batting average. Now the profile has changed a bit. He still needs to get on base, but his ability to score himself takes some of the pressure off his walk numbers. If Healy’s batting average drops below .270 then his value starts to fall off quickly. The young corner infielder succeeds, at this point in his short career, by making contact when he swings the bat, whether the pitch is in or out of the strike zone. He actually takes pitches at a slightly above average rate, so all this indicates that Healy’s swing is pretty tight and he can adjust quickly to pitches when he is fooled. Healy’s glove is just ok. It isn’t that he can’t make the plays at third, just that his range is limited. He has a strong arm, but ultimately might be best suited to first base. Healy is already the answer to one question the A’s had moving forward. They have a starting third baseman who will hit in the middle of the order. Looking at how Healy profiles, it looks a bit like how Valencia profiles, the difference being that Healy has room to grow and Valencia is getting more expensive. It would have been easy for the A’s to move Valencia to first or DH with some time in the corner outfield spots, allowing them to keep both players. Alas, the lure of a young pitcher and a smaller payroll appears to have been too much for the A’s to pass up.
    The other infield corner was handled mainly by Yonder Alonso in 2016. Many a fan and a couple GM’s have hoped that Yonder would finally figure it out and at least become a poor man’s Mark Grace pounding out 40 doubles a year while getting on base at a .350 clip. Uh, nope – hasn’t happened, and last season, while he managed 34 doubles, he also made a lot of outs. His wRC+ of 88 in 534 plate appearances means he hurt the A’s offense at a position that needs to be productive. The least he could have done was provide his normal excellent level of defense at first, but it just didn’t happen. According to UZR he was 1.1 runs below average while DRS had him at -3, not horrible marks – close to average in fact, but when you aren’t producing with the bat then you need to produce with the glove and Yonder did neither. At 29, one must wonder if it is too late to hope that Alonso turns into a league average starter someday. The A’s have Mark Canha coming back from a mostly lost season. Canha amassed only 44 at bats due to a hip injury, but in 2015 he showed power, and the ability to get on base while playing clean if unspectacular defense at first. The question is whether the A’s want to see ONE MORE TIME if Alonso can hit his projections, or perhaps play Canha in a corner outfield spot and give first to one of the youngsters.
    The middle of the A’s infield hasn’t been a strength for the A’s for a while. With Franklin Barreto, the man wearing the crown as the best A’s prospect, finishing the 2016 season with a taste of triple-A, the A’s might be close to having their best middle infield since 2005 when Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis manned shortstop and second respectively, contributing a total of 8.4 WAR to a second place A’s team. The A’s are optimistic because Barreto profiles to be the best of the organization’s infielders when he is ready, and Marcus Semien, the incumbent, has turned himself into a valuable, if flawed, shortstop. Currently, the A’s have Marcus Semien blocking Barreto, but could easily move Semien to second if Barreto proves to be superior defensively (and ready). But lest we get ahead of ourselves here, young Franklin is only 20 and it is highly unlikely that the A’s will rush to install him in the majors until they are sure he can experience success. Right now, Marcus Semien is the shortstop and he hit 27 long balls in 2016 so he is unlikely to go anywhere. In his first season with the A’s, it looked like the young shortstop was overmatched in the field. Enter Ron Washington, infield coach spectacular, to work with Semien, and the young shortstop turns it around and has a solid second half greatly reducing his error totals. Much of the credit goes to Washington, but from all accounts Semien worked his butt off to improve. His second year as starting shortstop with Oakland was a mixed bag. His error totals went way down in more innings played so his fielding percentage increased 24 points from .947 to .971. At the same time his range numbers dropped – he didn’t get to quite as many balls, so depending on your defensive metric of choice, Semien either improved a bit or dropped off some. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) had him costing the A’s 3.7 runs with his glove – an improvement over 2015 when he cost them 10.0 runs. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) had Semien costing his team 6 runs this year after saving them 5 runs in 2015. Both metrics are measured in runs saved/cost so they are easy to compare and the bottom line is that he was adequate with the glove, especially in light of his power numbers. Right now the question is at second base where the A’s auditioned two youngsters in the second half of last year.
    Chad Pinder, who can play second or short, and Joey Wendle, who is a second baseman exclusively, both took a shot at showing the big club who should be the starter in 2017. But before we look at the kids, let’s remember who held down the position most of the season, Jed Lowrie. Lowrie, who mainly played second for the A’s, will play the season as a 33 year old, gets hurt a lot, is defensively challenged, and isn’t the hitter he used to be. In the recent past, teams could put up with his subpar defense because Jed would hit a bunch of doubles, pop double-digit home runs and hit for a decent average – not so much anymore. His career slugging percentage is at .400, but he only managed an anemic .322 mark last season, so it is hard to imagine why the A’s would want to use him much when they have multiple options who carry better gloves and are more interesting going forward. It would be surprising if Lowrie started the season on the A’s major league roster.
    Pinder didn’t show much with the bat at triple-A, but Nashville depresses batting average, home runs, and mediocre singers like few parks in existence, so it makes more sense to look at his career numbers to evaluate him. He didn’t cement himself as the starter during his 22 game tryout in Oakland, but he carries a career slash line of .280/.331/.450 in his minor league career. He doesn’t walk much so he has to get on base by way of the hit. He showed some doubles power in his 55 at bats in Oakland with four two-baggers. Pinder settled in during the last two months of the season hitting .276/.344/.517 keeping small sample size caveats in mind. Three errors led to a .914 fielding percentage at second base, but he is actually a decent middle infielder who can hang at second or short so again, beware of small sample sizes.
    Wendle is hard to pin down. He was a 6th round pick by the Indians in 2012 and the A’s traded for him before the 2015 season, sending Brandon Moss straight up for Wendle. He raked until he got to double-A and then his progress appeared to slow down. He has hit for a decent average for the majority of his minor league career although his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased as he progressed through the system – career minor league slash line of .288/.340/.459. He shows some power, thumping 30 to 40 doubles and adding 10 to 15 homers a season. Playing in Nashville half the time likely depressed his stats so .279/.324/.452 looks better in that context. Wendle managed to not look completely overmatched in his first taste of the majors last season ending with a .260/.298/.302 slash line over 104 plate appearances, although he showed absolutely no power with 23 of his 25 hits being of the single variety. It’s difficult to figure out what he is like at this point. Is he a guy who will hit in the .260 to .275 range, who strikes out 100 times a season, and maybe pop a few long balls while getting on base at a .320 clip or will he be a doubles machine who gets on base at a .340 clip and drives 15 balls out of the park? Those are two different profiles with two greatly different values and the A’s hope they can figure out who Wendle is soon because he is 26 and running out of prospect status. If he turns out to be “Joey the Lesser” that’s not a bad placeholder to have, but Wendle isn’t likely to hang on to the starting position if that is his peak, even if you throw in his solid glove. Right now if forced to choose, the A’s should give Wendle a shot to hold onto the job, keep Pinder as the utility guy and give him regular at bats between second and shortstop and see what comes out in the wash. Wendle is two years older at 26 and can only play second, so the A’s need to find out what they have in him. Pinder can play both middle infield positions and did better than Wendle in his audition, so Pinder would give the A’s more flexibility if he doesn’t start the season as the starting second baseman.
    Max Shrock was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Nationals. The A’s gave up Marc Rzepczynski and cash to get the 2015 13th round pick. Shrock is a second baseman only and is 5’8 so why give up a useful bullpen arm and money to get him? The guy has done nothing but hit since his pro debut and is now at double-A. His career minor league stats so far are a slash line of .326/.369/.449. In 2016 spanning single-A and double-A he hit .331/.373/.449 with 43 extra-base hits and 22 steals in 28 attempts over 534 at bats. Shock only plays second base and at 22 has to keep up his current pace to push people out of the way, but so far he looks like he is up to the job and will likely crash the A’s top 10 prospects list this season.
    The A’s organization has a lot of middle infield prospects who look like they might pan out as big-leaguers. Richie Martin is an athletic shortstop who was a first round pick in 2015 and is already at double-A Midland where even I can hit. After a season that was mostly a mixed bag, Martin could move quickly if he can put it together at Midland. Yairo Munoz is another toolsy shortstop already at double-A – they just added him to the 40 man roster. He has shown power and speed, but not a lot of patience. It will be interesting to watch how the A’s handle having both him and Martin at double-A. Munoz and Martin will push Barreto, who will in turn push Semien, possibly to second, which would in turn push Wendle and Pinder to figure it out quickly. And then there is Shrock. The A’s have a lot of good options and tough decisions to come in the middle of the infield – sounds like a nice problem to have. The corner infield spots have options too – if Healy can just repeat what he did in half of 2016 for an entire season, and it looks like he just might, then the A’s are set at the hot corner for a while. First base is more problematic. I recently dismantled my Yonder Alonso shine and have moved on emotionally. I suggest the A’s do the same and try Canha there to start the season while the wait for one of Chapman, Olson, and Nunez to break away from the pack and push Canha to the outfield. The sun will shine again in Oakland Alameda County Coliseum one day soon  – well at least on the infield.

The Astros are on the brink of having an unbelievable young infield, but will it be in time for this season?

Shoot, Luke, or Give Your Dad The Gun.
by Jim Silva

    When the Astros put together an 86 win season in 2015 many people spoke of them having arrived early and being poised to make an even bigger jump in 2016. The leap from winning 70 games to winning 86 games is impressive and surprising, but when teams make leaps like that, they don’t always hang on to all of the gain. There is often some regression to the mean that bites them in the butt. But after making that huge jump – and make no mistake, 16 wins is a huge jump – the Astros were the hit pick to emerge from the American League to face the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. The young and exciting Astros were pre-season darlings in large part due to their fabulous double play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. While those two youngsters are certainly worth the ticket to watch play, does the rest of the Astros infield have enough to support a realistic run at the post-season?
    What does it take to win an MVP these days? Take a look at Jose Altuve’s start to 2016 and you might find the answer. The 26 year old second baseman is leading the league in hits, batting average, on-base percentage, and stolen bases while playing good defense up the middle. He will almost certainly eclipse his previous high in home runs (15) as we are not quite halfway through the schedule and he already has poked 13 long balls. Arguably an equally important improvement in his game is that he is already within one walk of his previous season high. If we want to get into a chicken v. egg argument here, it would be reasonable to point to the walks as the reason he is hitting so many more home runs. It is certainly the reason why he will demolish his previous high in runs scored (86) as he already has scored 60 times. The Astros fans can say, “My second baseman is better than your second baseman” to pretty much any team in baseball with smug certainty.
    Carlos Correa came into 2016 with hugely unfair expectations heaped upon his shoulders. Part of it is his fault because he had such a great three-fifths of a season in 2015 while still unable to go to a bar and order more than a Roy Rogers. People, and by people I mean people who talk and write about sports for money, were picking Correa to win the MVP. It is easy to understand why Correa is expected to carry the entire team on his shoulders at 6’4, but he just turned 21 this season. He looks even taller when standing next to his double play partner Altuve who is only 5’6, but that doesn’t mean he can fly or hit five run homers. He should still face some kind of development arc. You can’t help but feel like people are disappointed by Correa’s start. He is striking out more and not hitting for quite as much power, but his walks are up significantly and so is his on-base percentage (up 20 points at this moment) so he is clearly showing development. If he keeps this pace with no improvement he will end the season with 30 doubles and 25 home runs, 80 runs scored, and 100 runs batted in all, while playing at least league-average defense. Is there a team in baseball who wouldn’t take that from their 21 year old shortstop in his first full season in the majors? No, there is not.
    The middle pair are not the guys anyone will worry about – at least nobody wearing an Astros uniform. It’s the corners that keep the Astros brass up at night. Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena have covered first and third respectively for most of the games in the first half of the season. Valbuena did his Luis Valbuena thing last season, which is hitting a lot of home runs, hitting for a low average and walking some, all while playing average defense at the corners. He had a 2.1 WAR season, his best to date, so he was useful and barely adequate as a starter. His splits were bipolar as he hit 19 home runs in the first half but with only a .285 OBP, then slowed his home run rate in the second half but increased his OBP to .359, which is quite good. This season, our man Luis has picked up where he left off in the second half, hitting nine long balls so far and managing a nifty .359 on-base percentage. Valbuena is mostly playing 3rd base and is on pace to have his best season. He has been on a tear of late, but he is far from a sure thing. If he can hit the same mark he hit last season – a WAR above 2.0 – then the Astros should be content. If they are counting on more than that then they are delusional as Valbuena is 30 years old and is what he is at this point.
    Like Valbuena, Marwin Gonzalez is positionally flexible. In fact, while Valbuena has played first and third plus one appearance at second, Gonzalez has played every infield position except for pitcher and catcher, and has played some outfield as well. Having someone on your team who can do that is what allows teams to keep 13 pitchers and not get into jams where you have to put your pitcher in left field. He is slightly better than average with the glove and can hit enough to play for long stretches without costing the team. Unlike Valbuena, he doesn’t walk enough, but he does hit for some power – a 10 to 15 homer full season is easily in reach – and he hits enough doubles to keep his slugging percentage in the 400s. He also manages to keep his on-base percentage acceptable because he hits for a decent average.
    The two men together cover the corners for the Astros without hurting them, but also without driving them toward the pennant. They are best suited for part-time work and in that role supporting a stronger bat ahead of them, they would definitely be championship caliber ballplayers. The Astros farm system is good and players continue to come up to compete for the corner jobs, but so far Valbuena and Gonzalez have hung on to the lion’s share of the work load. That is unlikely to last forever, especially if the Astros have plans of winning the World Series. I’m not saying that a team can’t win without stars at the corners, but the Astros offense is currently slightly below league average in runs scored and they are playing in a neutral park (no real advantage to hitters or pitchers in terms of runs scored). They will not change out their two stars in the middle, nor do they need to, but corner infielders, especially first basemen, who can produce runs are not particularly difficult to come by.
    The Astros made some trades involving some of their best prospects during the off-season, but still were ranked as having the 17th best farm system by Keith Law in the spring. One of their youngsters who challenged for the first base job is Tyler White. After a solid start, White fell off and was sent back to triple-A. White has hit all through the minors and hit with power as his .308/.416/.489 slash line attests. He also has contributed 38 home runs in 1076 at bats, so he will get another shot to show that he can hit big league pitching.
    Colin Moran plays third base and has hit for average everywhere he has played throughout his minor league career. He is currently at triple-A and looks like he might be good for ten home runs in a full major league season, so he is solid but unexciting. In a brief visit to Houston he struck out six times walking once but without hitting anything for extra bases in 19 plate appearances for a .105/.150/.105 slash line. Yes, it was a very small sample size but the point is the Astros would love someone to wrest a corner job away from Gonzalez and/or Valbuena and Moran didn’t.
    Jon Singleton is only 24 and was a very exciting power-hitting prospect as he made his way through the minors. Boy, can he hit for power! He has 111 minor league home runs in 2493 at-bats. He has also learned to take a walk and currently holds a .379 career minor league on-base percentage. That is even more impressive when you learn that his career minor league batting average is only .268. And therein lies the problem – Jon Singleton can’t hit enough to stick in the majors. He strikes out too much, and while he would likely hit a lot of home runs, he would struggle to hit .200. He already has 347 at bats in the bigs and his slash line is not pretty – .171/.290/.331. While he has hit 14 home runs in that time, he has struck out a daunting 151 times. As a testament to how far he has fallen, he hasn’t been called up to the majors this year even when White and Moran were sent back down.
    The other Matt Duffy is 27 and belongs to the Astros. He is currently struggling at triple-A and in spite of a record of success in the minors it looks like he is destined to toil away in triple-A until he retires or moves on to another club as a minor league free agent. Duffy hits for some power and gets on base enough to be an asset, but for some reason the Astros have only given him 11 at bats in the majors even though they need an upgrade at third base and he might fit that description. This is his third season at triple-A and the Astros might benefit from trying him even if it is only to give him exposure so he can be traded for something they want since they don’t appear to want him.
    And then there is Alex Bregman who just reached triple-A. He was just drafted last year and has had an excellent 2016 after a good 2015 in his first try at professional baseball. Bregman was drafted as a shortstop and has played there almost exclusively. You may have heard of this Correa fellah the Astros have on their team – he’s kinda good. So what do the Astros do? They could certainly get a lot for Bregman in a trade in light of his speedy rise through the minors. Or, you know, they could teach him to play third base, which, it turns out they are doing. He has only played 11 games at third – all at double-A – but don’t be surprised if he gets more time there now that he is in triple-A. Bregman hits for power, doesn’t strike out, and gets on base. In his short professional career he has walked 72 times while only fanning 57 times. He started the season as the 19th best prospect in all of baseball and will likely start next season as a top five prospect after his 2016 campaign.
    The Astros recently called up A.J. Reed from triple-A, and while he has struggled to control the strike zone so far, he is only 23 and in his third season of professional baseball. What young Andrew Joseph Reed has done so far in the minors is hit like nobody’s business. He has hit for power, gotten on base frequently, drawn plenty of walks and hit for average while playing acceptable defense at first base. His career slash line from the minors so far is .311/.399/.566 and if that sounds like a cleanup hitter to you then you are a wise human. However he may not be ready yet, if his start in the majors is to be believed. After all he only had 222 at bats at triple-A and started last season at single-A. He has struck out in almost half of his plate appearances while notching two home runs. Reed is likely the long term answer at first, but maybe not the answer for now. If he can rally, then he makes the lineup more scary and the bench much deeper by pushing Gonzalez or Valbuena out of the starting lineup. An infield of Bregman and Reed at the corners and Correa and Altuve up the middle is a terrifying thought for the rest of the AL – thank goodness that won’t happen for a bit longer (or will it?)
    With so many answers – some good, some exciting, and some neither, what do the Astros do? The answer has a lot to do with how close they are to a playoff spot at the trade deadline. They are currently winning at a furious pace which just makes things harder. Do you stick with what you’ve got and hope it is enough? Do you patiently try some of your youngsters who should, but haven’t yet done the job in the majors? Do you bring up your best prospect and have him switch positions even though he is only 22 and has yet to spend a full season in the minors? Do you put your young beast at first and let him struggle until he figures it out so he is ready for the playoffs? Certainly any time you have a chance to make it to the post-season, you do what it takes to maximize your chances of that happening. The Astros are very young and should have several opportunities to make the playoffs so they don’t have to choose the nuclear option and trade all their young players for veteran sluggers. A measured response would be appropriate and it should be interesting to watch what the Houston Astros do as they try to catch the Rangers and fulfill all the pre-season prognostications made about them.

The Red Sox infield drama of the spring has been resolved, so how is that working out for Sox fans so far?

Pablo’s Belt, Hanley’s Glove
by Jim Silva

    This spring was quite the fun time for Red Sox Nation. They got to watch a battle to the death between Pablo Sandoval and his appetite with the winner being Travis Shaw. They had the pleasure of watching Hanley Ramirez learn his second new position in two years – this time first base. When you are a fan of a team with as much money as the Red Sox it must be surprising to see shenanigans like this going on at the corners of your infield, but the Red Sox are trying to make the best of two big mistakes they made last year. Let’s look at those moves and the rest of the infield picture for 2016.
    The middle of the infield is set for 2016 and at least a couple years after with two stars turning the double play. The Red Sox appear to have taken the aphorism about being strong up the middle to heart. Dustin Pedroia has never had a bad season in the majors since he became a regular, although his 2015 was besieged by injuries (a problem for our hero over the last few seasons) and caused him to put up his worst numbers, from a cumulative standpoint, of his career. Middle infielders don’t generally age well. They get beat up playing around second base and getting taken out by slides. It will be interesting to see what happens to middle infielder longevity with the change to the sliding rule. I imagine the Pedroia family had an extra serving of crab cakes when that rule change was announced.
    In his prime, Laser Show did almost everything well and has been well loved for it with a Rookie of the Year award, four All Star game appearances, a Silver Slugger, four Gold Gloves, and an MVP award in 2008. He is everything you’d want in a son (if you were a baseball manager) and more! Last year he was off to a great start when his hamstring popped and then re-popped effectively ruining his season. If he can stay healthy it is reasonable to expect an excellent year out of him with the bat. Pedroia has accumulated 45.2 WAR in his 11 seasons (nine full seasons) so if he can have an average season of say 4.0 WAR, then he is a huge asset, especially for a middle infielder. His career slash line of .299/.365/.444 is about what you’d expect from him at this point in his career. Not everything is roses for the Muddy Chicken (this guy has more nicknames than you do!).
    Pedroia used to be good for 20+ stolen bags but dropped to six in 2014 and 2 in his injury-marred 2015. And he shouldn’t steal anymore! He is 8 for his last 16 attempts in the last two seasons which means he is costing the team runs. But that is small potatoes compared to what his aggression running the bases has done to the team. In 2015 Pedroia cost the Red Sox 16 runs. The other area where the numbers are causing questions about how Petey (how many nicknames does a brother need?) is going to age is defense. The numbers over the last several seasons have supported his reputation as an elite defender with DRS from 2011 through 2014 of 18, 11, 15, and 17. But last season, perhaps due to the balky hammy, he dropped to -3. If the Crimson Crocodile (sorry – made that one up – couldn’t help it) can stay healthy this season we will be able to see if this is the beginning of decline or just a statistical anomaly (or maybe his game truly was altered by his injury).
    From the batter’s perspective, the man standing to Pedroia’s left is another potential perpetual All Star – Xander Bogaerts. Finally (Bogaerts was only 22 last season but has been on the Red Sox radar for years now) the young shortstop broke out. His slash line was .320/.355/.421 and represented an 80 point jump in batting average, a 58 point jump in OBP and a 59 point leap in slugging. Bogaerts also stole 10 bags while only being caught twice – he was two for five  in his first full season, 2014. His offensive blossoming earned him the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting shortstop in the American League. One caution for the Red Sox faithful – those lofty offensive stats were compiled on the back of a .372 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) which is pretty lucky and could portend a regression. Or not – Bogaerts is killing it this season with over 100 hits before the All Star break.
    The stats say that the shortstop from Aruba is just an average shortstop with the glove, but that is a step up from where he was just a year ago. In 2014 Xander (who shockingly doesn’t have a nickname) cost the Sox 16 runs due to a lack of range and a scattergun arm, while last season he improved to a DRS of -1 – so basically neutral. Bogaerts has become a top of the order hitter and average defender, which from the shortstop position is extremely valuable. Could he be more? His minor league numbers showed a lot more power than he flashed last year. In high-A/AA he hit 37 doubles and 20 homers – that was in 2012. He even hit 28 doubles and 12 homers in 2014, his first season in the minors. So is he a budding power hitter or a batting average machine? Maybe he is both. If he took a different approach last season to become a top of the order guy because that’s what the Red Sox needed, then that shows that he can make adjustments – a tremendous attribute for a young player. It means he might be able to merge those two players into one and ultimately become a solid glove man who hits 20 homers while hitting .280 – in other words a superstar.
    Ah the corners! Last year the Red Sox made a big, weird splash by spending enough money to choke a horse to sign Pablo Sandoval (5 years and $95 million with an option year) and Hanley Ramirez (4 years and $88 million with an option year). There is nothing wrong with a team with deep pockets like the Red Sox throwing some of their money around to improve the club, but it was widely agreed that what they needed to spend their money on was starting pitching. So the 2015 season started with Sandoval at third and Ramirez making the switch from shortstop, where he was a butcher on the order of Sweeney Todd, to left field. It turned into a complete disaster defensively with the pair combining to cost the team 30 runs.
    So this year the plan coming into spring training was for Sandoval (Kung Fu Panda, and not for his martial arts skills) to get into better shape over the winter, and Hanley to work hard making the switch to first base. One of those two things happened and one didn’t. The Round Mound of Pound (why do the Sox have so many nicknames?) came into camp looking like both of his nicknames and was a butcher at third, but Ramirez by all accounts put in a lot of work and embraced the move back to the infield looking at least decent at first. When teams like the Red Sox say that there is open competition at a position between an expensive veteran and a youngster they almost never mean it. This time it appears that they meant it as they gave the starting third base job to Travis Shaw and benched the Panda.
    Truly the plan went wrong when they signed Sandoval in the first place when they had substantial data to tell them that he wasn’t going to be close to worth the money they offered him. Sandoval wasn’t a bad player. In fact he was a good player whose value came from his ability to switch-hit doubles and 10 to 15 homers without striking out all over the place. A career .287/.339/.451 slash line is worth something, but when your third baseman is 5’11” and weighs 255 pounds you have to know that he isn’t going to age well. Moreover, he was already starting to show that his peak was aberrant when he hit 23 homers and batted .315 as a 24 year old. His highest homer total in the four seasons between that 6.1 WAR season and 2014 was 16 in 2014 with his batting average peaking at .283 in 2012. What he had become was a .278 hitting third baseman who would hit 15 or so homers and get on base at a .330ish clip for a WAR of 3.0ish. Not bad, but not worth $19 million or more than a two year contract. Oh no – not even close. What’s more is that his glove work has been all over the place but trending toward mediocre. In 2011 he developed a reputation based on a truly excellent 14 DRS season. Since then he has had only one season with a positive DRS (4 in 2014) while putting up negative numbers during all his other campaigns (-4 in 2012, -5 in 2013). So what were the Red Sox paying for? They were paying for a superstar in the prime of his career, and what they got was a declining sporadic player with weight problems who rewarded them by putting up his worst season ever in the majors. Panda cost the team 11 runs with the glove according to DRS, hit 25 doubles and 10 homers but posted a slash line of .245/.292/.366 for a WAR of -2.6. They would have done better putting a poster of Rico Petrocelli on a traffic cone at third but letting Sandoval bat against righties (.266 average with all 10 of his homers), and then just taking the automatic out when he had to face a lefty (.197 average and a .231 slugging percentage). It was an expensive nightmare Sox fans will not soon forget, and Sandoval made sure of that by reporting to camp with his gut hanging over his baseball pants.
    The situation with Ramirez wasn’t great either but there is hope. Hanley Ramirez was a legitimate superstar when he was a young shortstop. He averaged 5.8 WAR for his first four years as the starting shortstop for the Marlins (after a trade from the Red Sox) and he combined high batting averages with 25 home run power, but he was just average with the glove at best. But you know, that was a few years ago, and since then he has proven over and over again that he doesn’t have a solid glove at short and would cost his team runs to keep his bat in the lineup. The bat though – wow – it was always good to great. With the Dodgers in 2013 and 2014 Ramirez put up 5.1 and 4.6 offensive WAR respectively. So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that a guy athletic enough to play shortstop could move to the next to the last stop on the defensive spectrum and at least manage not to stink up the joint. But stink it up he did to the tune of -19 DRS with some memorable blunders that made the lowlight reels of Sports Center. Again, this shouldn’t have been a total surprise to the Red Sox brain trust because Han-Ram had an average DRS of -10.4 for the last five seasons at a position he had played for years and he wasn’t exactly lauded for his work ethic.
    But what of his stick? Here is where everyone was surprised. Aside from the 19 home runs, Hanley failed to hit, posting an offensive WAR of 0.8 – more than a point below what you would expect from an average starter in the bigs. His batting average dropped to .249 – well below his career mark of .296, which dragged his on-base percentage below .300 for the first time in his career. Ramirez also mostly stopped running, dropping from 14 successful steals in 2014 to 6 in 2015. This wouldn’t be the first time the dreadie-wearing batsman had an off year and came back, but he is now 32 with many seasons of getting beaten up around the bag. Could it be that he is in decline, or does he have a few more seasons of hitting mastery in him? Unlike Sandoval, Ramirez isn’t carrying around a lot of extra weight and he reported to camp in shape and worked hard to become a decent first baseman. All indications are that he is in for a rebound year at first base. He blistered the ball in spring and it looks like his dip last season might have been due to a banged up shoulder that is now healed. If Hanley can handle first and hit like Hanley then the Red Sox ship might turn in the right direction. So far his first half numbers have been mostly “meh”, especially for a first-baseman. Han-Ram is going to have to step it up to be more than average this season.
    So with Sandoval collecting large sums of money to not play, what do the Red Sox have in Travis Shaw, their new third baseman? Last year Shaw made his major league debut and acquitted himself nicely banging 13 homers in less than half a season (248 plate appearances). He hit .270 with an OBP of .327 not drawing many walks (18) while striking out 57 times. Based on his minor league numbers it is clear that his power is legit as he has banged 69 home runs in the equivalent of just over three seasons. He also showed on-base skills with a minor league career OBP of .359 so perhaps the security of a starting job will allow him to relax and take a few more walks.
    Shaw played first base primarily although he saw five starts at third and played left once. In the minors he played about four times as much at first as he did at third, but still managed almost 900 innings at third. It’s not clear why the Red Sox didn’t try to turn him into a full-time third baseman since that is much more valuable than a first baseman. If he is good enough to play there, then you would think they would put him there and leave him there. So it is reasonable to worry that his glove isn’t good enough to stick at the hot corner. It is clear however that his glove is better than Sandoval’s at this point as Panda’s glove work in spring was described as “unplayable” by people who actually saw him “play”. If Shaw takes to third and is decent then it’s a win for the Red Sox, especially if they can figure out a way to salvage the Panda Predicament. He is lost for the season after a mysterious shoulder injury led to season-ending shoulder surgery. If this disaster of a career turn is enough to light a fire under Sandoval and he can get into shape and play, then the Sox would have a really nice problem on their hands, but not until 2017. One thing to ponder is that in 2017 David Ortiz will have retired and they will need a new fixture at DH. If Panda can resurrect his bat it could be his job.
    Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge made up the infield part of the bench at the start of the season. Holt plays everywhere except catcher, pitcher, and batboy (slacker!) and is a reasonable answer at all of them. He did best at second and in the outfield and worst at third and short, but the fact that he can play everywhere without killing your team makes him truly valuable. His bat isn’t exciting but it is solid which is what makes him such a super sub. He now has 1175 major league plate appearances with a slash line of .277/.338/.376 so he hits like a middle infielder. He also has 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts so while he doesn’t run often, he does it well. The lack of pop with only six home runs in his first 1145 plate appearances is supported by 2070 minor league plate appearances with only 15 “long” balls so don’t expect him to go all Jose Canseco on you just because he has started the season with two homers. One nice development last season was an increase in walks that pushed his OBP from .331 to .349. There isn’t a team that wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a versatile player on their bench and one who can hit a little at that. But as soon as the Red Sox get fancy (trading Pedroia for an arm) and try to make him a starter he just becomes a starter who can hit a little and is ok with the glove.
    Rutledge is confusing. When he played for the Rockies he had moments where it looked like he might be a power-hitting starting middle infielder. Rutledge’s raw offensive stats look kind of like Holt’s with a career slash line of .261/.310/.398. Translated to 162 games they look like this:

Plate Appearances
2b
3b
Home Runs
SB/CS
Holt
652
31
7
4
12/2
Rutledge
548
23
7
11
11/2
Holt has a few more doubles but Rutledge has more home run power. Their stat lines above also show that Holt has better strike zone command than Rutledge does but slugs less. So it wouldn’t be hard to argue for one over the other if you are only talking about their bats. Until last season, Rutledge had only played 2nd and short but the Sox tried him at 3rd a few times. He has played mostly shortstop during his major league and minor league career with a decent amount of time spent manning 2nd and 132 innings at 3rd over the last two seasons in the minors. Unlike Holt, he generally hurts you with the glove. He has never had a positive dWAR in any of his four tours of the bigs so you really don’t want him out there too long. Both his range and fielding percentage are mostly below league average with range being the worse of the two devils. If Holt can hold down the middle while Rutledge can take over at third from time to time where his limited range wouldn’t be as noticeable, the Red Sox might have something. Rutledge and his decent power would be a nice bat to pinch hit for you when you have guys on base you want to drive in, while Holt could pinch hit to start an inning. Not a bad combination to have on the bench.
    Marco Hernandez and Mike Miller are filling in for Holt and Rutledge while they recover from injuries. Both players are place-holders as neither of them can hit a lick. Well, actually Hernandez has shown a decent hit tool, little power but a bit of speed, so it is possible that he could displace Rutledge. Miller and Hernandez both sport legit gloves so in the short term they will hold down the infield fort.
    Down on the farm the Bosox are growing themselves a fine crop of infielders led by third baseman Rafael Devers and second baseman Yoan Moncada. Moncada is getting the most press and looks like his bat and speed (49 steals in 52 attempts) could be devastating. He is at high-A so he could end up in the majors next year if everything breaks right for the 20 year old. Devers is more of a power hitter and so far has delivered on his promise although his 24 walks in 469 at bats is a small concern. That said, the guy can’t legally drink yet (he can barely see R-Rated movies!) and he is already raking at high-A. Ready and waiting at triple-A is glove man Deven Marrero. He is a rangy shortstop who won’t hit for much power or for a high average but will steal a base or 20 when he gets on. He would immediately be the best glove man at short if he joined the parent club but will have to wait for his chance. At 25, he is done cooking and would probably be a better fit for the bench than Rutledge who duplicates many of Holt’s abilities.
    The Red Sox made two bold moves that show they aren’t trying to make friends – their goal is to win and win now. It says a lot that they didn’t hesitate to admit their mistakes benching Sandoval and moving Ramirez to first. If it works, they are geniuses, if it backfires and they don’t win with these moves then angry Red Sox fans will gripe about the stupid signings of last seasons for years to come.

The 2016 San Francisco Giants – a team with an offense and defense driven by their sneaky-great infield.

Scrapping In The Red Dirt
by Jim Silva

    Most teams have a question at some position on the infield, some battle to be resolved during spring training. But looking at the Giants team that finished 2nd in the NL West you’d need a crowbar to get yourself in as a regular on the infield.  Here is a list of awards garnered by the Giants infield last season: runner up for Rookie of the Year, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, All-Star Game starter (times two). It’s no wonder the Giants infield did so well in the post-season awards bonanza. The four regulars who played at an average age of 25.75 years old last season, average 4.25 WAR and most incredibly saved 42 runs according to DRS – that’s an average of 10.5 runs per position. That’s the kind of infield you marry after the first date! And that’s without including their God-like catcher, Buster Posey – add him in and it just gets even more stupid! It was a really boring spring training for Giants’ fans who like good positional battles, unless you get excited about a nice little utility infielder battle. The infield is certainly a good reason for Giants fans to get a little wiggle in their walk for 2016.
    Brandon Crawford has been a favorite with the ladies for a few years now, but became a favorite with the Giants and baseball fans in general in 2015, his breakout season. The 2008 4th round pick has been an established glove man at short for four full seasons now and there were flashes of goodness from his bat like 10 triples and 59 walks in 2014. Last year Crawford took a big step toward stardom. BCraw’s best home run total had been the 10 he hit in 2014, but last season he cranked 21 long balls, nearly matching his total output from the previous three seasons. His doubles total also jumped from a high of 26 in 2012 to 33 last season, which combined with his added ten points above his career batting average and the spike in jacks contributed to his career best .462 slugging percentage – that’s 79 points over his career number. Not only did he have his best season with the stick, he flashed some pretty absurd leather winning the Gold Glove in the process. According to DRS (defensive runs saved) he saved the Giants 20 runs while putting up a dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) of 2.9. Add it all up and Crawford led all shortstops in 2015 with a 5.6 WAR season.   Although regression to the mean is a real thing, Crawford is a legitimate stud to build an infield around – the Giants recognized this by handing him $75 million to play for them through the 2021 season.
    Crawford’s double play partner was Joe Panik – has Chris Berman bestowed a nickname upon young Joe yet? Are there Panik buttons for Giants’ fans to hit when he steps into the box? Panik is not a full fledged star just yet, but he is a useful piece to have in your infield and in your lineup. He is likely to have a decent career as a starter for a few years before someone far more interesting comes along. That is not a knock on Panik. Not everyone can be Buster Posey or Hunter Pence – two interesting fellows and teammates of Joe’s. Panik is likely to smack 20+ doubles and come close to 10 home runs while playing league-average defense. That’s what he did last season, and that was an improvement on his rookie season – no falling to the sophomore jinx for the pride of Hopewell Junction, NY! Panik never incited excitement during his climb through the minors after being selected in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. The best things about his game are his hit tool – .312 batting average – his ability to make contact – only 42 strikeouts in 2015, and his clean glove work – only 2 errors for a .996 fielding percentage last year. His slash line of .312/.378/.455 fits nicely as the prototypical two hitter, which is where the Giants used him from May 2nd on. That kind of production isn’t sexy in the Barry Bonds sense of the word – he only hit eight homers and stole three bases – but make no mistake, Panik deserved his spot on the All-Star team for his excellent, consistent, extremely valuable table-setting work. There aren’t many teams on the planet that would turn his kind of production down – sexy or not.
    The Giants corners started last season as areas of concern, but both gelled by season’s end into true assets. At first base, Brandon Belt had a 2014 he probably would like to forget after forging a slash line of .243/.306/.449 and ending the season early after thumb surgery followed by a concussion with lingering symptoms. Last season couldn’t have been more different as Belt turned into a middle of the order stalwart. His 2015 season actually looked almost identical to his breakout season of 2013. He isn’t a classic masher but still managed a .478 slugging percentage due to the 33 doubles he added to his 18 home runs. He gets on base – last year his .280 average and 56 walks combined for a .356 on-base percentage. He even managed to steal a career high nine bags while only being nabbed three times. His glove work was also a significant contribution as he finished 5th among all first basemen with 8 runs saved according to DRS. Like almost everyone who plays infield for the Giants, he isn’t a guy who makes you want to buy a fathead for your living room, but he contributes in enough ways to make you think about voting for him for the All-Star squad without totally feeling like a homer.
    The guy throwing bullets to Belt from the opposite corner is Matt Duffy – no not the one who plays for the Astros. This Matt Duffy was a scrawny 18th round pick in 2012 – a slick-fielding shortstop who hit like your grandma AFTER the hip replacement. Well, whatever Kool-aid homeboy drank, send some our way because he broke out last season like nobody’s business and had a legit All-Star season. Nobody was surprised (except everybody) that he would take to third base so well, saving the Giants 12 runs for 4th best in the majors behind some dudes you’ve probably heard of: Nolan Arenado (18), Adrian Beltre (18), and Manny Machado (14). To get himself to that level in one season at the position makes you wonder what he might do when he actually gets comfortable over there! His bat made him look like a young up and coming third baseman too. Duffy drilled 28 doubles and 12 home runs while maintaining a high batting average to finish with a nifty .295/.334/.428 slash line. Looking at his .336 BABIP (batting average on balls he puts into play) shows it to be in line with his career numbers, so it is reasonable to expect some growth, as opposed to regression. Duffy’s home run numbers might be the only aberration as his total of 12 long balls last year fell just one short of his minor league career total (from three seasons) of 13. While it is possible that he developed real power, it is hard to see his 170 pound frame as that of a legit slugger. His 12 steals in 12 attempts does look real as Duffy has always been a high percentage base stealer. Getting a WAR of 4.9 out of the blue is quite the gift so Matt Duffy is kind of like the Giants’ Santa who took over for the Kung Fu Panda.
    Oh yeah, that exciting battle for the utility spot? It is likely to boil down to a choice between Kelby Tomlinson (the favorite coming into camp), Hak-Ju Lee, and Ehire Adrianza. Tomlinson has played more second than shortstop in the majors, but put up a 1.0 WAR season last year for the Giants in only 193 plate appearances. Most of Tomlinson’s value was in his bat last year – he profiles a lot like Panik or a powerless version of Duffy, with his batting average and speed being his best skills. A .303/.358/.404 slash line from your utility infielder is nothing to sneeze at. Adrianza has been the nifty glove man who has played all the infield spots except catcher in his time with the Giants. Only 25 last year, his only offensive value came from the 15 walks he drew in 134 plate appearances. His career slash line of .211/.290/.294 in 260 plate appearances over three seasons is pretty much what the Giants can expect. His minor league numbers are better, but not that much better. He has been a decent base stealer in the minors, but that skill hasn’t translated to the majors. To make him worth keeping, his defense has to be special, and while it is good, he is likely to get bumped by almost anyone with a good glove because his bat is so atrocious.
    The last guy in this most exciting of races is Hak-Ju Lee. Lee is fast and a good fielder, but his bat has looked pretty weak and full of holes the last couple of seasons at AAA. He is only in the conversation because of a decent spring where he posted a .286/.375/.286 slash line. He is a high percentage base-stealer and is an actual shortstop. He has barely played second base so that could hurt him, but not if the Giants believe that he can get on base and use his mad base-stealing skills.
    Tomlinson and Adrianza made the big club out of spring training, but Lee is tearing it up at triple-A, so if either of the two major leaguers slip, Lee is making a strong case to take the middle infield backup job. It’s a nice problem to have and only underscores the Giants depth.
    San Francisco’s infield is loaded for bear this year. Even with a little regression, they are going to be tough because they can field and hit with the best of them. If they are not the best infield in all of baseball then they are certainly one of the best. Look for the black and orange pitching staff to benefit from the slick glove work on the infield as well as the run scoring ability.

The Diamondbacks infield – does Segura make them better in 2016?

Can Anyone Just Get on Base?
by Jim Silva

    Any discussion of the Diamondbacks infield must start with their superstar, Paul Goldschmidt. Much of the off-season banter about the big moves the D-backs made was attributed to the team wanting to capitalize on Goldschmidt’s prime years. The first-baseman will play most of this season as a 28 year old, and has put up WARs of 3.4, 7.1, 4.5, and 8.8 in his four full seasons in the majors. Goldy has finished second in MVP voting twice, including last season, and has made the All Star team in each of the last three seasons. All that makes him great, but what makes him unique is that he is so well-rounded. He is a solid glove man at first, hits for power and average, gets on base at a good clip, and steals bases – finishing just out of the National League top ten in this last stat, but finishing first for NL first basemen. The scary thing is, he is just getting better having just posted his best stolen base totals with 21, his most walks with 118, his best on-base percentage at .435, his best batting average at .321, and his highest slugging percentage at .570. There’s more, but talking about Goldschmidt is boring. Suffice it to say that he is great and the best player on the Diamondbacks, and move on. (He finished in the top five in seven offensive categories last season – sorry, couldn’t resist.)
    This off-season, General Manager Dave Stewart made a controversial move by trading for Brewers shortstop, Jean Segura. Segura is 25, so there should be room for growth. He suffers from familiarity, as people who follow baseball think of him as older since he has been in the majors since 2012. The problem with looking at Segura and seeing growth potential is that he has been in decline since his 5.6 WAR season of 2013. The other issue with a 25 year old, like Segura, who has declined for two years in a row is that he is being compared to himself – no longer a budding star, but a failed prospect. That said, there are some real issues with Segura’s game.
    Coming up through the minors, his on-base percentage was tied to his high batting average. When you hit .294 as Segura did in AA, you don’t have to draw many walks to have a solid on-base percentage. Segura hit .294 again in his breakout 2013 season, but only managed a .329 on-base percentage due to his 25 walk effort. A .329 on-base percentage is decent for someone who hits in the 8 hole in the batting order, but it is insufficient for a leadoff hitter, which is what the Brewers, and now the Diamondbacks expected Segura to be. In 2014, Segura got on base at a .289 rate and in 2015 it dropped again to .281. One reason Segura is making more outs could be that pitchers are throwing him fewer strikes – he sees more than the average number of pitches out of the strike zone – and he is swinging at more pitches – his swing rate jumped from just over 34% to almost 39% last year. He also swung and missed more last year on balls and strikes than in 2014. Why give someone so many at bats by batting them first every game when they make so many outs?
    Segura is fast – he looks like a leadoff hitter. In 2013, Segura stole 44 bases at a 77% success rate but scored only 74 runs in 623 plate appearances. In 2014, he stole only 20 bases at a 69% success rate, and last season he swiped 25 bases at an 81% success rate. What is more valuable? A guy who gets on base a lot, or a guy who steals bases at a 77% clip (Segura’s career rate in the majors thus far)? Not surprisingly, there is research behind this. If you aren’t stealing at above a 72 – 75% clip, then you’re costing your team runs (see Joe Sheehan’s article http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=2607 ). So Segura’s base stealing helps his team, but in terms of how many more runs he creates than what someone with a higher on-base percentage would create, it would be hard to make the case that Segura should bat leadoff.
    Segura’s glove is an asset. His range numbers are good, saving the Brewers four runs last season. On the other hand, he made more mistakes last season than he made good plays, which dropped his defensive runs saved number slightly into the negative. So if the Diamondbacks got Segura for his glove then…wait…they already have Nick Ahmed! Ahmed is even more rangy than Segura putting up the highest range factor in the NL at 4.82 to Segura’s 4.40. In terms of runs saved, that’s 15 for Ahmed to 4 for Segura. Ahmed also played the position more cleanly, in terms of good plays versus bad plays, ending up with a DRS 22 runs better than Segura. Ahmed is slick with the glove, but at 26 probably doesn’t have a lot more development left in the bat. And he hits a lot like Segura. Here is a quick comparison of the 2015 contributions of the two young shortstops.
Slash Line (average/on base/slugging)
oWAR (Offensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute)
WAR (Wins – including defense – above what a replacement level player would contribute)
Segura
.257/.281/.336
0.3
0.0
Ahmed
.226/.275/.359
0.3
2.5

   
While it is hard to know what both players would do given the same playing time in the field and the same number of plate appearances next season, Ahmed clearly outplayed Segura beating him at his strength (the glove) and matching him offensively largely because he had more extra base hits. If both players are likely to show some improvement, but show very similar skill sets, then why give up anything to get another guy that looks a lot like the guy you already have? Dave? Mr. Stewart, sir?
    The Diamondbacks seem to have cornered the market on shortstop types with on-base percentages south of .300. Chris Owings had a really awful season with the bat but still was given 552 plate appearances. Take a look at his slash line: .227/.264/.322. If it looks worse than the two shortstops in the table above, that’s because it was. What’s worse is he struck out like a power hitter whiffing 144 times. To his credit, he stole 16 bases in 20 attempts, so there’s that. His offensive WAR was…offensive, at -0.9. Owings was previously a shortstop and reasonably slick with the glove, so he did contribute some defensively but not enough to drag his WAR out of the negatives. He finished the season with a -0.7 WAR. He showed decent range and played a very clean second base so there is some value there, but on what planet is it ok to run a guy out there 147 times when he is killing your offense like that when you are actually trying to win the division?
    Owings has been better than he was in 2015, and again, the guy is only 24 and was coming off shoulder surgery. In 2014 he put up 1.9 WAR with better power, a higher batting average, but comparably crappy plate discipline. If the Diamondbacks don’t plan to run him out there another 147 times in 2016, then who will play second? It could be the loser of the Ahmed-Segura battle to the death, or it could be Brandon Drury or Phil Gosselin.
    Drury looks like he might actually hit, although he is 23 and only has 59 at bats in the bigs. Speed is not his game and he isn’t the gloveman that Ahmed, Segura, or Owings is, but he is solid defensively and has a couple seasons showing good home run power. He also has walked more than any of the aforementioned middle infielders, although his walks dropped off at the higher levels. His career minor league batting average is at .285 and he has slugged .440. Drury came up through the minors playing more third than any other position, while keeping his dance card flexible getting time at 2nd, short, and 1st. Drury has already succeeded at AAA so it makes sense to give him an extended try at second, since third is currently occupied.
    Gosselin is another solid glove guy who has hit for average in the past, but doesn’t walk much at all. He also lacks home run power. In his one experience of substantial playing time he put up solid defensive numbers at 2nd base. He is not highly valued because he is frankly too boring to get excited about. Over the course of four seasons he has accumulated 264 plate appearances with a slash line of .288/.338/.400. That’s half a season of decent hitting that would contribute to the offense from lower in the order. Drury is “prettier”, but Gosselin won’t steal your house key when you pass out drunk on the bus. The Diamondbacks are clearly trying to win this year so they will have to make some hard choices. Giving Gosselin the job and keeping Drury for his potential and versatility, and Owings, since he is young and skilled at second and short, might be the safe way to go. If Gosselin just bores everyone to death and fails to hit, then Drury and Owings are there to smear potential all over the place. You can’t keep both Ahmed and Segura. There is likely a trade that can be worked for Ahmed and his glove to break the logjam, although it might make more sense to keep Ahmed. It would likely be difficult to get anything much for Segura at this point.
    Jake Lamb has the lion’s share of the third base job. There is no drama over competing with Yasmany Tomas at third this year because Tomas couldn’t hang at the hot corner. While Lamb has struggled against lefties – a .200/.275/.267 slash line against them in 2015 –  Drury is actually a fan of pitchers who chuck it from the left-hand side. Drury getting the short end of the platoon at third makes some sense since he can also get some time at second. Lamb saved nine runs with his glove at third last season according to DRS, and he has shown double digit home run power in the minors, although he only cracked six long balls last season in 390 major league plate appearances. He is 25, so there is still room for growth, although not likely superstar potential.    
    One thing the Diamondbacks have on the infield is young, good gloves, and Lamb is no exception. There are a lot of questions, except at first, and a lot of room for growth. The D-Backs infield will pick it, that is certain. If they can maintain the gloves and hit a little better, which is likely, then the infielders will help their cause instead of being an anchor (the kind that drags your ship to a halt like the 2015 infielders not nicknamed “Goldy” were) in 2016.