Picking Daisies in The Tigers Outfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield Depth Getting Challenged in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Whole Lot of Flaming Batons in the Outfield for St. Louis to Keep in The Air

Things are up in the air and moving around in St. Louis – not in a Hindenberg kind of way, but it is unclear who will cover two outfield spots right now and that’s without considering the Nolan Arenado trade rumors. Most of their infield is stable – it’s a strength of the team – with Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Paul Goldschmidt covering three of the infield spots and three of the top four WAR spots for the St. Louis team in 2019. Tommy Edman mostly took over the third base spot and is the other guy in the top four for WAR from 2019, but could play the outfield if Matt Carpenter takes back third base in Spring Training. Since chaos can be fun, let’s explore the outfield possibilities for 2020 with the caveat that free agent moves (I’m looking at you Marcell Ozuna!) or a big trade could change everything.

Speaking of Marcell Ozuna, he is the 500 pound gorilla in the room, uh, outfield. The 29 year old slugging left fielder is still unsigned, but the noise in the media is that the Cardinals are still the most likely landing spot. Ozuna had what most would consider a down year with a wRC+ of 110, a WAR of 2.6, and a slash line of .243/.330/.474. Some interesting trends to consider – Ozuna swung at fewer pitches in 2019, hit the ball harder than ever, pulled the ball a lot more than in recent years, but had his lowest BABIP ever at .259 (career BABIP of .315). The low BABIP indicates that his batting average should rebound to around his career average of .273 with around 25 to 30 home runs (projections have him hitting 33 next year). Ozuna is a bit volatile with full season WAR numbers ranging from 1.5 to 5.0. That’s a median of around 2.7, which is about what you could expect unless he has one of those outlier years. He is a middle of the order bat and can feel like a superstar at times, but is probably just a really good regular if we are being realistic – possibly for another team. We will have to wait and see.

Center field is a glamorous spot in history where you get to watch Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Trout. The Cardinals have not historically had their best player in center field, although Curt Flood and Jim Edmonds were great players. Flood ranks ninth in WAR and Edmonds 17th for the Cards historically. Stan Musial and Enos “Country” Slaughter were primarily corner outfielders (ranked first and seventh respectively). Harrison Bader is the best bet to be the Cardinals guy in center in 2020 and, while he is fun to watch throw his body around and zip to and fro chasing down everything that flies through the air, 925 plate appearances say that dude might not hit enough to play everyday. Bader turns 26 early in the season and has one good offensive campaign (2018) and one sour one (2019). He strikes out too much (28.8% for his career) and although his walk rate climbed last year, there doesn’t seem to be enough power in his game to keep pitchers honest in spite of decent home run totals in the minors. He has been good for 12 homers in each of his two mostly full seasons but has averaged only 17 doubles in that same span for an ISO (isolated power) of .158 which is slightly below average. With his glove skills, the Cards would be happy if Bader could simply make fewer outs, get on base, and use his speed to turn some of those walks and singles into doubles by swiping a bag. He is 28 for 35 stealing bases in the majors (80% success rate) and his BABIP regressed quite a lot from 2018 where it was high (.358) to 2019 where it was quite low (.268) and one could reasonably expect it to fall somewhere in the middle. He slashed .205/.314/.366 last year “good” for a wRC+ of 81. His wRC+ in 2018 was 107 which is 7% above average so just a return to that would give the Cardinals a good starter in center field. If he can do something with the bat – really anything – that makes him even close to average, the Cardinals would be happy to leave him there for years to come. Bader was a Gold Glove finalist in 2019 and that is worth waiting another year for the bat to come around before turning him into a defensive replacement/fourth outfielder/Miami Marlin.

What is there that would buoy the spirits of St. Louis fans when they hear that Dexter Fowler might be the starting right fielder in 2020? Well, Fowler is still at least average with the bat as evidenced by his 103 wRC+ that was driven by his usual high walk rate (12.9% last year) and a bit of power (19 home runs). His defense drags him down to a WAR of 1.5 which is almost good enough to start in the majors on a good team, but not quite. The move from center to right should help defensively as the bar isn’t quite as high, although it is considerably higher for the bat. Fowler will turn 34 before the season, but should still be able to get close to his career slash line of .260/.359/.419 and be good for around 2.0 WAR if he experiences a positive regression in BABIP (2019: .290/Career: .327). It is clear that he isn’t worth his average annual salary of $16.5 million any more (that runs through 2021), but he can still be useful if used correctly. The Cards won’t be able to move Fowler’s contract so he will be with the team in some capacity and he will probably help more than he will hurt and maybe justify starting.

Keeping in mind that teams need to play three outfielders at a time, that Marcell Ozuna isn’t signed yet, and that Fowler and Bader aren’t locks to start, we still have potentially three starting spots to fill. Lane Thomas is an outfielder! Thomas received his first taste of major league pitching in 2019 and rather liked it. His numbers, while good, don’t represent his career minor league numbers so it would be wise to be cautious. Thomas boasts a career slash line of .252/.329/.421 in the minors, but has shown signs of coming into his power with 27 homers in 2018 and four long balls in 38 at bats in the majors last year. He is a center fielder and the scouts like his fielding just fine, so even if he doesn’t take someone’s starting spot, he would make a good fourth outfielder. Nothing really stands out with Thomas – good defense, speed, and arm with some raw power, but his hit tool is just ok. So if he can’t get to most of that raw power he seems like a fourth outfielder, albeit a pretty good one. He is 24 so some of that recent growth could be enough to turn him into a starter as soon as 2020.

If Tyler O’Neill gets to all of his raw power he will be one of those scary, yet frustrating, Randal Grichuk type hitters – a former Cardinal – with 30 plus homers and an average around .240. Projections have O’Neill hitting 22-24 homers with an average around .237 next season. He already has four seasons worth of minor league at bats and 140 homers, so around 35 a season – the power is quite real. His slash line of .271/.343/.529 doesn’t quite show his struggles to control the strike zone. In 293 major league plate appearances, the 24 year old has a walk rate of only 5.8% to go with a strikeout rate of 37.5%, which just doesn’t work. What that might mean is that O’Neill will have an OBP under .300, which in spite of his power makes him a fringe starter at best even if he is hitting 30 plus home runs a year – wait – you mean like Randal Grichuk?! For O’Neill to stick he has to get the K rate under 30% and the walk rate closer to 10% while keeping the power. If I had a dollar for every guy who needed to walk more and strike out less to make it… That said, if Ozuna leaves then it opens up left field for O’Neill to at least get a real shot to stick. With power like his, someone will give O’Neill a chance (like Randal Grichuk).

Tommy Edman opened some eyes last year. A sixth round pick and mainly a shortstop in the minors, Edman took the third base job away from the struggling Matt Carpenter. He did it gradually throughout the season because he hit and showed power and speed, with 11 homers and 15 steals in 349 plate appearances. Edman also played some outfield, which is why I am talking about him here – also because if the Cardinals trade for or sign a third baseman then Edman has nowhere to play on the infield. The speed isn’t a surprise, but the power is. Between two levels, Edman took the ball over the fence 18 times in 2019 – the first time he has reached double digits in his professional career. Edman is one of those players who seems to have pretty high BABIPs every season, so while there should be a little regression from his .346 BABIP of 2019, it isn’t likely to dip to .280 or anything. As much as I enjoy players like Edman, I don’t expect him to repeat his 123 wRC+ in spite of how hard he plays or how much he hustles. I hope I’m wrong because the world needs more players like Thomas Hyunsu Edman. I expect him to settle in as a 400 plate appearance utility guy in the mold of a Ben Zobrist, or a starter if the Cards don’t pull the trigger on a trade for a star third baseman (and Carpenter doesn’t experience a revival). If Edman starts, I would imagine he gets to 2.0 WAR based mostly on his glove and base running ability, but he could surprise and best his 3.2 WAR of 2019 if he continues to improve with the bat, drawing more walks so can get on base and use his above average speed. His minor league career slash line is .286/.353/.415 so it isn’t like he can’t hit. I could also imagine Edman taking over in right field and giving the Cardinals an improved outfield defense, but a few things have to happen for him to start in a corner outfield spot, like Ozuna signing elsewhere, a trade for a third baseman, and Dexter Fowler showing even more decline in Spring Training.

Probably the most exciting outfield prospect in the organization is also the youngest mentioned in this article. Dylan Carlson is only 21 but made it to triple-A last season after breaking out at double-A Springfield. While it is possible that Carlson could make the parent club out of Spring Training, it is more likely that the Cardinals would at least start his season at triple-A so Carlson could solidify his gains from his breakout season. They have plenty of options and are looking to compete in 2020, so they don’t need to push him after only 72 at bats in triple-A. Carlson will probably make it a tough decision for the team – his slash line at two stops last year was .292/.372/.542 with 26 homers and 20 steals thrown in. Carlson is probably a corner outfielder (who can play center) when he arrives, but he will be a good defender who has power, can run a bit, and controls the strike zone better than some of the other youngsters in this article. In the long term, Carlson is the pony upon which to lay your wagers.

Making a prediction about the starting outfield for the Cardinals at this point is just pulling stuff out of a hat, but here is a hat right here. I have Ozuna signing with the Cards and starting in left. I would imagine St. Louis wants to see if Bader can hit enough for them to run him out there in center every game and help out their pitching staff. I’d love to see one of the young guys start in right, but I expect Fowler to get the nod with Edman at third or getting starts at almost everywhere except catcher, first base, or pitcher. Lane Thomas would then be the 4th outfielder or take over for Bader if he hits his way back to the minors. I don’t think O’Neill will take the job away (and he has one minor league option left) from anyone so Fowler has to bomb and Ozuna has to sign elsewhere for him to make the opening day roster. Carlson is a dark horse for this season, but he opened some eyes in 2019 with his breakout and is the shiniest of shiny things moving forward. St. Louis cleared some of the logjam in the outfield this offseason but there are still a lot of moving parts that need a chance to show if they have value moving forward. Get your tickets to Spring Training so you can watch it all unfold before the season starts.

The Reds outfield has probably snuck up you.

Those Sneaky Reds –  Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
    The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
    In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml), the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
    With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
    Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has  a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
    Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
    Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
    On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.

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

Incoming Missiles From Houston’s Outfield
by Jim Silva

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

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

The Rays Outfield Gets Rangier!

Adventures In Exploiting Market Inefficiencies In Tampa’s Outfield
by Jim Silva

    The Tampa Bay Rays have been the definition of a small market team since they got their start in 1998 as the Devil Rays. They have a reputation similar to the A’s as being clever in how they use their resources and have managed to win the rich and powerful AL East twice (2008 and 2010), and caught a wild card spot twice (2011 and 2013). They made it all the way to the World Series in 2008 but lost in five games to the Phillies. The 2008 team did it with speed, a healthy young starting rotation, an excellent and fairly deep pen, solid defense, and some pop – the team finished 4th in the league in home runs. They were young and still cheap. Evan Longoria was only 22. It would obviously be a window that would close quickly, but for a while they looked like a surprising team to beat.
Lately though, they have struggled. In 2016 they finished last in the AL East losing 94 games and they didn’t appear to be moving in a particularly positive direction. They are still on the young side, but they no longer do a good job of getting on base, and although they finished fourth in the AL in home runs, they finished next to last in runs scored. Their pitching is still desired by other teams, but last season saw some of their young staff struggle for portions of the campaign, although they were still a good starting staff if not a great one. Then the Rays traded Drew Smyly, one of their starters, for Mallex Smith, adding a speedy outfielder to the crowded outfield scene. And now they have traded their starting second baseman to the Dodgers for a great young arm in Jose DeLeon. So what are the Rays doing exactly? I think I have a clue about their outfield so let’s take a look at the fairly large crew of players projected to start the season in Florida.
    Any discussion of the Rays outfield has to start with their centerfielder – glove man supreme – Kevin Kiermaier. Few in baseball have gotten more love for their glove work than the speedy Kiermaier. Even though he spent time on the disabled list, the 31st round draft pick from 2010 still managed a 25 DRS (defensive runs saved) and 24.2 UZR per 150 innings (a similar defensive metric to DRS, but prorated per 150 innings) season. Both defensive metrics measure a player’s ability to save runs beyond the average player at his position, and Kiermaier has lived near the top of the leader board in both categories since he became a starter. He has the range, the arm, and the fearlessness that define a superior centerfielder. What he hasn’t had that would make him a star, is the bat. Last season saw some moves in the right direction, but at 26 he is approaching the point where we will have to accept that he is what he is. And what he was last season was an elite level centerfielder who doesn’t hit for high enough average (or walk quite enough to make up for it) to be a leadoff hitter even though he is a high percentage base-stealer (87.5% last season). His on-base percentage was .331 in spite of his .246 batting average because his walk rate increased to almost 10% – his career rate is 6.6%. He is also an excellent baserunner, both as a high percentage base thief (23 of 26 last season) and just running the bases where he was 2.9 runs better than average. It could be argued that a lot of his offensive value comes from his base runnings skills. If you are a WAR guy (wins above what would be created by a replacement level player), Kiermaier is almost a 3.0 Offensive WAR guy with back to back seasons of 2.7 and 2.8. His overall WAR for the last three seasons – his first three as at least a semi-regular – has been 3.6, 7.3, and 5.5 – over 7.0 is near MVP level and over 5.0 is All Star level. Granted a lot of his value is in his defense and as he ages, that will likely decline. Still, right now, there are few players you would rather have playing centerfield for your club.
    The right fielder for right now is Steven Souza Jr., who if he makes it should be the poster boy for Portuguese ballplayers, and should get a nickname like “The Portuguese Man of War” because dude is a physical specimen at 6’4 and 225 pounds. Souza is fast and powerful and that’s what the Rays wanted when they got him in a crazy three team trade from the Nationals (the trade where the Nats ended up with Trea Turner AND Joe Ross – wow!). If Souza turns out to be as good as he looks then the Rays won’t fret what they gave up in the trade (four players, including Ryan Hannigan and Wil Myers), but so far Souza has two similar seasons of “meh” in a Rays uni. His last two seasons, he has put up wRC+ scores of 102 and 94 respectively where 100 is average runs created after park and league adjustments. In other words he was 2% above average and 6% below average in his first two campaigns with the Rays. Factor in his defensive metrics – a DRS/UZR per 150 of -4/-2.4 in 2015 and an improved 2 and 6.3 in 2016 – and you get an athlete with unfulfilled potential who is 27. He has yet to do better than a 1.0 WAR so he hasn’t shown himself as even an average starter, much less the star the Rays thought they were getting when they traded for him. At 27, projecting a breakout would probably fall into the category of wishful thinking. He certainly improved afield last season, but looking at his swing patterns, it doesn’t look like he did anything that would portend an imminent breakout with the bat. Souza actually swung at more pitches last year – 49.8% driving his career rate to 47.9% – than he had in the past including more pitches outside the strike zone – 68.7% last year pulling his career rate up to 67.5% and missing more often, making contact with 68.6% of the pitches he offered at, dragging his contact rate down to 69.3%. So he is swinging more and making less contact. His walk rate also dropped to 6.6%, with a career rate of 8.7%. This is not meant to pile on Mr. Souza – in fact Souza tried to play through a hip injury before going under the knife for a tear in his labrum. So here is hoping for Souza to have a healthy year and to break out, because teams like the Rays can’t afford to miss too often.
    Left field might go to Colby Rasmus, unless it doesn’t. The Rays signed Rasmus on the cheap after he had a poor season that was probably at least partly due to a slew of injuries – he had surgery for one of them this off-season. Rasmus is, at his best, a power-hitting rangy centerfielder type who walks some, but strikes out enough to suppress his batting average. Last season Rasmus played incredible defense in left and center (career high DRS/UZR per 150 of 20 and 31.0 respectively), but his slugging was well below his career average and it looks like there was some bad luck too as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) dipped to a career low .257. After three seasons in a row with wRC+ numbers above 100, the 30 year old outfielder only created runs at a 75 level – well below average. Teams like the Rays and the A’s have to gamble on guys like Rasmus because they don’t have the money to spend on sure bets. As gambles go this might be a good one. Rasmus is the kind of guy – assuming he turns it around –  they could easily flip at the trade deadline for a solid if not spectacular prospect. In the meantime he will get playing time in left and possibly center spelling Kiermaier.
    If Souza and Rasmus don’t win the starting jobs, the Rays have two more players who could steal playing time and even the starting jobs in Mallex Smith and last year’s trade acquisition, Corey Dickerson. Dickerson mostly played left in 2016 and did an ok job in the field posting a DRS of 2 and a UZR/150 innings of 14.6. Those are by far Dickerson’s best defensive numbers, so it is unclear whether or not they represent actual growth or a one off. Dickerson is a hitter first and foremost, and last year was less than what the Rays were hoping for with the bat possibly costing Dickerson the starting outfield job he held last season. Dickerson hit the ball hard – 24 home runs, 36 doubles, and an ISO (slugging – average intended to show how much of his hits are for extra bases) of .224 in line with his career numbers – but hit only .245 which was 34 points below his career average. Since Dickerson doesn’t walk much (6.5 % walk rate) his on-base percentage is reliant on his batting average which means in 2016 he made a lot of outs. His on-base percentage of .293 was more than 30 points below his career rate, but it might be the new normal because he went from the best hitting park in baseball to one of the worst. It remains to be seen if Dickerson can be more than a league average run producer (101 wRC+ in 2016) and more than an overall slightly below starter level outfielder 1.5 WAR. Right now Dickerson looks like last week’s news because Mallex Smith could be in one of the corner spots. It could mean that Dickerson is the primary designated hitter. If that happens, his seemingly improved glove would matter less and his subpar baserunning would matter more, so his average and walk rates would have to improve for him to be worth keeping around as more than a pinch hitter.
    Unlike Corey Dickerson, who stole zero bases in 2016, Mallex Smith has elite speed and almost no power with an ISO of around .100 every season in the minors. So far in the majors, he uses his speed better in the field than on the bases, but if he can adjust and look like he did in the minors he has the potential to lead the league in steals. In the minors, Mr. Smith got on base a touch over 38% of the time, and hit safely close to 30% of the time making him an ideal leadoff hitter – especially when combined with his blazing speed. He stole 230 bases at a 79% clip in the minors, but went only 16 for 24 in his debut in the majors last season. The Rays would hugely benefit from a guy who could get on base at the top of the lineup, and he would fit with Kiermaier, Rasmus, and Souza to cover a ton of ground in the field. An outfield of Smith, Kiermaier, and Souza, with Rasmus as the 4th outfielder giving guys breathers, would rival the Mariners new crew for best defensive outfield in the league.
    Elite speed and defense in the outfield is apparently the new way to build an outfield on the cheap. All the cool kids are doing it – ok, so the Mariners are doing it, but if the M’s and the Rays experience success with this strategy don’t be surprised if others try to capitalize on this apparent inefficiency in the market. For a team in a pitchers park that relies on deep starting pitching, it is a strategy that makes a lot of sense. Unless Mallex Smith comes into spring training and underwhelms everyone, they should go all in on the strategy and keep Dickerson in the DH spot right from the start. Rasmus makes an excellent fourth outfielder who can also come off the bench to hit and stay in any of the outfield spots. He would make it hard on opposing managers to get too cute with their pitching changes when facing the Rays starting outfielders in close games. When Rasmus gets starts, Dickerson can pinch-hit unless he is the DH, and the Rays wouldn’t lose much bringing one of their glove men in to catch flying things for Dickerson. When you can put together an elite defensive outfield and you aren’t looking to contend, it seems like you should. If it works and you are better than expected, you can bring in offense at other positions or go get more pitching. The Rays need to do something different after an awful 2016 and they have the pieces, so go bold Rays!

Mashers or glove men? How would you populate your outfield if you were the Mariners?

You won’t hear a pin drop in the M’s outfield because no pins WILL drop!
by Jim Silva

    Are you one of those people who gets excited about outfield defense? While it doesn’t sound particularly romantic when your outfield doesn’t combine for 90 home runs but instead accumulates 40 DRS (defensive runs saved), the Mariners might just pull off that kind of defense in 2017 after remaking their outfield to more of a RomCom outfield than an Action/Adventure type outfield. Their general manager, Jerry DiPoto made two moves this season designed to give a facelift to the outfield, trading away some offense in the process.
    Why did DiPoto decide he needed to change the makeup of his outfield for 2017? Well, for one reason, run prevention, particularly in the outfield, is still cheaper than run production with Jason Heyward being the notable exception. Ok, so let’s say you assemble a great defensive outfield, then what else should you consider to maximize their impact? It seems to me that picking up flyball pitchers would be a good move, especially after you trade your 23 year old potentially slick-fielding shortstop for a shortstop who had an excellent offensive year, but at best is a neutral defensive year and at worst a below average defensive year. What were the last couple moves the Mariners made? They traded a good hitting outfielder who is at best a marginal outfielder – last season he was a poor outfielder – for  Yovani Gallardo, a flyball pitcher, to add to their rotation depth. Then they made a multi-team deal to get Drew Smiley – another flyball pitcher, from the Rays. So if you want to change more than one aspect of your club you can improve your pitching without moving a single pitcher by improving your outfield defense. But this article is about the Mariners’ outfield, not their pitching staff, so back to the fly-catchers!
    The lone outfield starter who is coming back for 2017 is Leonys Martin. From 2013 through 2015, he averaged 15 DRS and never fell below 14 while putting up a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating – similar to DRS with runs saved above average by defensive play) between 8.5 and 11.3 in the same time frame, all while playing mostly centerfield. Last season the numbers disagreed with a -2 DRS and a UZR of 3.6 although both numbers show that Martin didn’t have as amazing a year with the glove as he was used to having. Obviously one year does not a trend make, and Martin is widely considered an excellent defender. Last season he showed a bit more pop, blasting 15 home runs – the most of his short major league career – but still ended up with a wRC+ of 88 where 100 runs created is average. He doesn’t get on base enough for the homers to matter that much. Martin has yet to have a wRC+ of 100 or more in the majors and he really isn’t trending that way. He strikes out about a quarter of the time and only walks about 7% of the time so unless he hits 30 home runs, he won’t help the offense. However, if his defensive numbers come back to where they have been the three previous seasons then he will be a positive asset for the Mariners.
    Most likely to Martin’s left, will be newly acquired Jarrod Dyson late of the Kansas City Royals. Dyson mainly played centerfield for the Royals and the Mariners might decide to play him there and push Martin to left because Dyson has put up double figure DRS numbers each of the last three seasons and averaged just over 14 UZR in the same time span. Last season was his best according to DRS (19) and second best according to UZR (16.7) but both numbers have consistently agreed that he can flat out pick it no matter where you put him in the outfield. Dyson is all about speed on defense and on offense stealing 30 bases in 37 attempts last season, so he covers a lot of ground and makes things interesting for opposing pitchers and catchers when he gets on base. About that getting on base thing – like Martin, so far Dyson has been a slight offensive liability at bat with wRC+ numbers consistently in the 80s and 90s. Dyson doesn’t strike out like Martin but fails to draw walks just like Martin. Unlike Martin, Dyson has no power with seven home runs in 1539 career major league at-bats. Both men are there for their elite level gloves, but Dyson needs to get on base and play elite defense if the Mariners are going to benefit from his presence. But there is one other guy who is different from his two outfield brethren.
    The Mariners acquired Mitch Haniger in the Segura trade, and analysts are pretty excited at what he might become given regular playing time. Haniger is a late bloomer who pretty much destroyed double-A and triple-A pitching in 2015 and 2016. He hit for average, drew walks, didn’t strike out excessively, and hit for power – 36 doubles, 30 home runs, 81 walks, and 126 strikeouts in 671 plate appearances through three levels last season. He struggled with the bat, but still managed a .713 OPS in his final stop with the big club. He suffered from a poor BABIP (average on balls in play) which often indicates poor luck. He hit the ball hard 37.3% of the time and managed medium contact 45.8% when he hit the ball which means he made weak contact only 16.9% of the time. Also of note was that Haniger maintained good plate discipline in the majors with a swing rate slightly below league average, a contact rate that was almost exactly league average, and a contact rate on balls in the strike zone that was above league average. In summary, Haniger should hit enough in the majors to be a starter in a corner outfield spot. In fact he could hit enough to bat in the middle of the order as soon as next year, which would mean the Mariners offense just got a serious upgrade by adding Haniger and Segura (over Marte) in one move.
    But wait, there’s more! Haniger torched the highest two levels of the minors while playing good centerfield defense, and then continued to play well in center once he reached the majors. Next season he will be tasked with playing a corner outfield spot, where his defensive abilities should actually play up. Last season, in his brief time in Arizona, the former first round pick accumulated 1 DRS and 5.5 UZR while playing all three outfield spots (but mostly centerfield). It would be folly to try to extrapolate those numbers to a full season, but don’t be surprised if Haniger posts 10 DRS and UZR next season when he has less ground to cover. If he can do that while posting wRC+ above 100, which he has done every season of his professional career, then he will be the best of the three flycatchers on the Mariners and a regular, if not a potential star. Get your “Haniger’s Heros” t-shirts soon before they sell out!
    Whether or not you are drinking the Mitch Haniger Kool-Aid, the Mariners outfield will be really fun to watch. Seattle will miss the bats of Nori Aoki and Seth Smith, but most definitely not their gloves. The M’s rotation is now made up predominantly of fly-ball pitchers who should all benefit greatly from the outfield makeover. Don’t be surprised if the Mariners pitching coach gets a lot of love this season as his staff puts up improved numbers from 2016. It will be interesting if the Mariners manager Scott Servais stays the course as his offense slows a bit, but his defense shines. If Haniger gets off to a slow start, that would truly test the manager’s patience and the power of GM Jerry DiPoto to direct his manager’s lineup decisions. The Seattle club believe they can get to the playoffs this season and they are putting their chips on defense. As one of those guys who loves to see the D, I hope it works.

What’s new for the Washington Nationals outfield in 2017?

Shoot, Luke, Or Give Your Dad The Gun (trade Harper now or watch him walk in exchange for a draft pick)
by Jim Silva

    Washington D.C. has a lot of attractions that all Americans should take time to see; it’s a patriotic bucket list kind of place. For baseball fans trying to see games at every major league park – they’ve got one of those too. In fact, the capitol city has had a major league club off and on since 1901 when the American League Senators began playing in what was known as American League Park 1 – I know, really creative name, eh? This team is the only D.C. team to win a World Series (1924), but they moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season. The next Senators started in 1961 immediately after the original Senators left, and lasted through the 1971 season when they moved again – this time to Texas – to become the Rangers. That team never came close to winning anything meaningful while they were in D.C.. The latest iteration of teams in our capitol is the Washington Nationals who are the reincarnated Montreal Expos, who themselves were an expansion team brought to life for the 1969 season, starring Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub. The Nationals/Expos franchise has often been known for their outfielders, like Monsieur Staub. Other notable outfielders who have sported the barber pole hat of Les Expos are Ken Singleton, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Marquis Grissom, and others. Today’s Washington Nationals are still largely known for their outfield – one man in particular – and as they go, so will the Nationals go. This brings me to the reason for this article – a trade. The Nationals just made a controversial trade to acquire a starting center-fielder. Let’s look at how the Nationals plan to cover the outfield in 2017.
    Let’s start with the trade before we take a look at Mr. National, Bryce Harper. There was one especially coveted arm in the Nats farm system – a tall drink of water from SoCal named Lucas Giolito. The 6’6” starter made his major league debut last season and mostly flopped. Giolito was only 21 and wasn’t exactly dominating triple-A. He is a huge physical specimen and throws hard, but after some mechanical tweaks he lost a couple MPHs off his heater. His career minor league numbers are pretty great, including a strikeouts per nine rate of 9.7. There isn’t a lot for him to prove in the minors, although he only made seven starts in triple-A (with an ERA of 2.17). As a top five prospect in all of baseball, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t want him on their team. Along with Giolito, the Nats sent Reynaldo Lopez, another hard throwing pitcher, and Dane Dunning, yet another pitcher – their 2015 first round pick – to acquire Adam Eaton (who we will get to soon).
    First Lopez – the 22 year old isn’t a giant like Giolito, but he throws like one with a fastball that topped out at 99 last season. His strikeout rates indicate that he is in fact quite difficult to hit. At double-A last year (he pitched at three levels in 2016) he fanned 11.79 hitters per nine while only walking 2.95 per nine and allowing .83 long balls per game. His numbers in the majors showed streaks of dominance but his overall numbers were what you’d expect from a 22 year old in his first look at big league hitters. Lopez was much more effective as a reliever shaving 100 points off opponents batting average, 130 points off opponents slugging, and almost two runs off his ERA when he pitched from the pen instead of starting. His numbers make a point some analysts have made about him – that he is probably destined to be a high leverage reliever, but the fact that he has had success as a starter in the minors means the White Sox will likely try him in their rotation a few more times before they concede the point.
    What’s with teams trading their first round picks these days? Do you think the Diamondbacks wish they had Dansby Swanson back? Dane Dunning has a classic pitcher’s body and in his debut season in Rookie ball and at short season A ball in the New York-Penn league he pitched like a first round pick. In eight starts he held opponents to an ERA of 2.08, a WHIP of 0.93, and generated three times as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs, likely due to his sinking fastball that he throws as hard as 95. He pitched out of the pen a lot at Florida but his pitch mix means that he will be stretched out to start. Dunning completes the haul for Eaton, and it is likely that one day he will end up in the major league rotation for the White Sox keeping pitching prospect aphorisms in mind.
    That’s a lot of background to get to one guy – Adam Eaton – but it’s important to know what it cost the Nationals to bring him into the fold because it speaks to how much they needed a center-fielder, and how highly they valued him, while at the same time possibly pointing at their plans for the future of their outfield – more on that later. Eaton was a 19th round pick by Arizona in 2010 and was traded to the White Sox in 2013 in a three-way trade that netted the Diamondbacks Mark Trumbo. Eaton is “undersized” at 5’8, gets on base, hit 14 home runs each of the last two year, and steals a few bases. He is a good leadoff hitter – not exactly the prototype as he doesn’t walk quite enough – but should score 100 plus runs for the Nationals. He has three seasons in a row (2014, 2015, 2016) of wRC+ above 110 (118, 119, 115) so his offense is 15 to 20% better than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, his offense is not in question, but his defense is the topic of much debate and that is what makes the trade even more interesting to talk about.
    In 2014 Eaton received votes for the Gold Glove as a center-fielder, although the leading defensive metrics (a DRS of 11 and a UZR of -3.3) disagreed as to his ability with the glove. In 2016 he played mostly right field and the metrics agreed that he did a really good job (a DRS of 22 and a UZR of 23.1). So is he an excellent right fielder, but a mediocre center fielder or is he an excellent outfielder who had a tough season that happened to be the year he played center field? To determine which set of numbers is more likely to be the aberration let’s look at Eaton’s history. He has garnered outfield playing time in the majors since 2012; His first experience came with Arizona and was almost exclusively in center. In just a bit more than 185 innings, DRS and UZR mostly agree that he was value-neutral (DRS of 1, UZR of 0.0). 2013 was split amongst all three outfield spot with 266 innings in left, 232.1 in center, and an additional 28.1 in right. All together his outfield DRS was -2 and his UZR was -10.0, and if you break it down by outfield spots his best numbers were in right where he posted a DRS of 2 and a UZR of 1.7 in limited time. His numbers in the other two outfield spots were decidedly negative with both measures agreeing on his abilities. As I mentioned earlier, 2014 was split with a positive DRS and a negative UZR and all of his innings coming in center – so nothing about his play in left or right. 2015 was unanimous in condemning Eaton’s glove work as he put up a DRS of -14 and a UZR of -10.2, again, all in center field. And we are back to 2016. If you believe in history, Eaton is not a good center-fielder, but is a better right fielder. If you believe that people can change – that your college roommate can actually start doing his dishes instead of leaving them in the sink – then you are likely to believe Eaton has become a good right-fielder who is probably not a good center-fielder. Most importantly Adam Eaton and the Washington Nationals both believe that he can play center well enough at least for now. At least for now? But the guy is signed for up to another 5 seasons? Yeah, well that’s where the Nationals might be showing their cards or at least covering their “aces”.
    The Nationals have a huge decision coming – well, perhaps not a decision because they might not have a say – as their superstar right-fielder, Bryce Harper can become a free agent after the 2018 season. He debuted as a 19 year old and looked like a sure-fire five tool superstar in the making. It seemed like it took him forever to fulfill his promise since he started so young, finally winning the National League MVP Award as a 22 year-old in 2015 with a monstrous breakout season (.330/.460/.649 slash line with 42 home runs and 81 extra-base hits). Harper’s glove is neutral to marginally positive with DRS and UZR disagreeing every year, but on average placing him at neutral or slightly above in right (career totals for DRS of 5 and UZR of 6.2). Of course the fans don’t care much about his glove or arm – they want him to mash the ball and hit for average. I also think it is safe to say that most fans expected more of 2015 in 2016, but injuries likely contributed to diminished output in some of Harper’s counting stats and rate stats. Notably, he only hit 24 home runs with 50 extra-base hits and his slash dipped to .243/.373/.441. It was widely discussed that his increased plate discipline was responsible for his breakout 2015, but then the narrative shifted to blaming his “passive” approach for the drop-off in his numbers in 2016.
    Harper’s 2015 walk rate, as well as his walks per strikeout remained consistent in 2016 and was radically different from what he achieved in his first two seasons in the majors, so just glancing at those peripherals make it seems like he must have been battling injuries, even though he managed 627 plate appearances and 147 games. If that is the narrative you choose to believe, then all should be right in the world for Nats fans in 2017 with Harper having an off-season to recover. But if you think his approach has become too passive and pitchers have learned to take advantage of him, then 2015 Harper might be the new normal. So is he a 9-10 WAR guy or a 3-4 WAR guy? You know – Mike Trout or Yoenis Cespedes.
    A couple of things to remember before we look at some revealing stats about Harper’s 2015. First, the guy is only 22 and has one Hall of Fame type season under his belt. Second, Harper hasn’t experienced the type of injury that is likely to diminish his abilities, like a torn rotator cuff, a major eye injury, or catastrophic ankle or knee injury. At 22 he should be able to recover and be his healthy self to start 2017. Also, even last year in an off year for him, his walk numbers were excellent showing that he held onto some of that 2015 maturity. That said, when looking through stats that show what happened to balls hit by Harper, three stats stand out that make 2016 a little scary for Nats’ fans. First of all, he just didn’t hit the ball that hard – certainly not as hard as he had in previous seasons. To be more accurate, Harper hit the ball softly more often than in any of his previous Major League campaigns. His career rate of softly hit balls is 15.2 and in 2016 it was 19.8 after a 2015 where only 11.9% of his batted balls were hit softly. Could that have been caused by a nagging injury? Sure, it’s possible. Along with that stat, Harper’s line drive rate dropped to a career low 17.2 % down 22.2% in 2015 and dropping his career rate to 20.7%. One more stat to keep in mind before you decide whether or not you should mail the Nats a crisp twenty to help them sign Bryce to a mega-contract. Your star right-fielder popped up to infielders 8.9% of the time – a career high that dragged his career rate up to 7.5%.
    Again, all three of these negative indicators could have resulted from a nagging injury that Harper played through, but it is also possible that 2015 and 2016 were both aberrant and the real Harper lies somewhere in between the two levels. Since he is represented by Scott Boras it is highly unlikely that the Nationals will be able to sign him to a long-term contract before he becomes a free agent so they get two more chances to decide what he really is before they have to push all their chips in or figure out what life will be like without him. And here is where Adam Eaton comes in. Eaton, and his club friendly long-term contract, could move to right to take Harper’s place if the Nationals fall out of contention and they decide to trade him for a cruise ship full of prospects. They would still need to find a center fielder of course, but at least they would have Eaton in a position where he has shown more ability than centerfield. So if you had to put your chips down on a particular outcome, you might watch the standings closely. If the Nationals are not clearly in the race as the trade deadline approaches, look for them to move on from their superstar into the post-Harper years starting as soon as this July. After all, if they are not going to sign him to a longterm contract, then they should get as much as they can for him, and the sooner they move him, the better the haul will be. Keep in mind that if they are in a pennant race they would be foolish to move him unless they got multiple parts that would be controllable and would help them now, as well as some prospects that would make their fans’ socks roll up and down. It would be a different scenario if the Mets jump out to a 12 game lead or something crazy like that.
    The Nationals, like all teams in baseball, need a left fielder too, of course. 37 year old Jayson Werth will return for what is likely his last season with the Nationals (he is signed through 2017). Worth can still hit for some power although he is no longer good for a .500 slugging percentage. The last two seasons have seen his batting average and on-base percentages drop dramatically as well, so that now his batting average/on-base percentage is in the .240/.330 range instead of his previous .280/.370 level. Worth has been an obvious defensive liability for a couple of seasons, even though he shifted from right field to left. His DRS/UZR numbers for 2015 and 2016 were -10/-7.3 and -8/-6.1 respectively mainly due to diminished range numbers. Last year was a bit of an improvement from his awful 2015, but he still only contributed about league average production. There isn’t a lot to say about Werth that would surprise anyone since he is 37 and following a somewhat predictable career arc at this point, and the Nationals will move on from him after 2017. He definitely put up star level numbers through 2014 and he will likely remain a fan favorite after he leaves. Keeping him healthy by resting him would make him more productive so that his last year in D.C. won’t be ugly. It is unclear at this point in the off-season who the Nats will use to spell Werth, but I would be shocked if they didn’t make some kind of minor move to get someone.
    After Werth leaves, the Nats will face some difficult questions, the foremost of which is who will play the outfield. Their one top prospect who plays the outfield is Victor Robles who at age 19 was ranked as the 49th best prospect in baseball. He is now the Nats’ top prospect since the Eaton trade and he looks like he could eventually be a star. But the fact that he is 19 should make the point that he is not ready for the majors having finished last season at high-A. Most of the Nationals other hitting prospects are a couple years away so the organization will have to find answers to their outfield depth issues through trades or free agency. Andrew Stevenson and Juan Soto are coming. Stevenson is 22 and finished 2016 at double-A while Soto is only 18 and just finished his first season in pro ball by dominating rookie ball and short season class A. So while they wait for the wave of young outfielders to arrive, the Nationals have other questions to answer that could impact the outfield picture, such as, is Trea Turner the answer at shortstop? If he isn’t and the Nats can find another answer (like Wilmer Difo) at short, then Turner might end up back in the outfield. Turner is an offensive star already so he will play. The only question is where – the Nats say that Turner will be shortstop in 2017 after having let Danny Espinosa leave this off-season.
    It is a scary time for the Nationals. They have a lot of stars on their roster and the expectation has been that they should be winning now – and by winning, I mean going deep into the playoffs and possibly the World Series. Their post-season work hasn’t been up to snuff so far – they’ve won the NL East three out of the last five seasons only to fall in the first round of the playoffs. Since they aren’t the Cubs, the Dodgers, or the Yankees, their window to compete might be close to closing. They may be able to extend it by trading Harper, or that kind of move might be the start of a rebuild. The stars are once again aligned for them to win this season and they have a set outfield, so perhaps Harper will play in a World Series in the Nationals uniform before the seemingly inevitable move to a big market team. The franchise’s future hangs on how the team handles Harper as the building block of their future (with a hugely increased payroll) or as a chip to build for their next great five year run.

Two-thirds of an outfield has become whole. The travails of Hanley Ramirez.

Two Star Defenders and a Box of Rocks
by Jim Silva

    The 2015 version of the Red Sox outfield was pretty similar to what the 2016 Red Sox are running out there on a daily basis – one change really. But that one change should prove to be significant in moving the Sox back into contending in the AL East. Left field has historically been the spot to stash your big basher who maybe wasn’t the niftiest with the glove. Last year, Boston ran out arguably one of their worst defenders ever to play left field in Hanley Ramirez.
    How bad was Hanley? The converted shortstop failed the eye test and the stat test. It was more or less assumed that anyone athletic enough to play shortstop should have had an easy time making the shift to the easier part of the defensive spectrum. But last year’s experiment with the former Marlin, former Dodger, former Red Sox infielder was anything but easy. To be clear, Ramirez has always been a “bat first” shortstop so it wasn’t like they were moving a Gold Glove winner out there to ply his gilded glove. When he was in LA, it was widely understood that the Dodgers were conceding runs defensively at shortstop to get Hanley’s bat in the lineup. When his bat was special, the calculus was defensible. And it was special in 2013 and 2014 when he posted 5.1 and 4.6 oWAR (offensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) respectively. With numbers like that even when your dWAR (defensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) is negative you come out ahead. As a bonus, 2013 was actually a solid defensive season for Ramirez with a DRS of 3. The three seasons before that had Ramirez costing his team 17, 11, and 18 runs with his weak defense, so being neutral or even a little above neutral is a great thing by comparison. In Ramirez’ last campaign as the Dodgers shortstop he regressed toward his former defensive crapaliciousness costing the Dodgers nine runs. If Kobe Bryant had been a Dodgers starting pitcher there would have been an article in the LA Times talking about how Kobe had forced the Dodgers to let Ramirez sign with the Red Sox.
    So jump ahead to last season and that early spring optimism about how Hanley would certainly be able to make the move to left. Optimism soon turned to face palming as Ramirez put on a display of fecklessness that inspired this highlight film by Joon Lee on Twitter.

In limited time, due to injury, Hanley cost the Red Sox 19 runs with his “glove work”. What of his special bat work? Well, in the first half he hit .274/.320/.497 – nice power numbers at least. And the second half? Ramirez hit all 19 of his home runs before the break. It seems pretty clear that his second half was marred by various injuries as he batted .164/.190/.255 in August and then his season was done, as was his god-awful career as an outfielder. But enough of 2015! The other two gents who graced Fenway in 2015, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are back and they both bring with them special gloves.
        Jackie Bradley Jr. is now patrolling center field as the starter instead of splitting time in all three outfield spots as the Phillips (in honor of the late Oakland A’s player, not the strange-headed screwdriver). 2015 saw Bradley save his team eight runs in the equivalent of half a season. He has always had the good glove rep ever since he was taken in the first round in 2011 out of college. Until last season, his bat had always been too costly to run him out there on a regular basis. With regular playing time Bradley’s hitting became an asset with a second half slash line of .267/.352/.539.
    Bradley Jr. only had 1376 plate appearances in the minors, the equivalent of under three full seasons, and he generally dominated with the slash line of a premier leadoff hitter with doubles power (.294/.391/.460). But starting with 107 plate appearances in 2013, Bradley looked like he was unable to make the offensive transition to the majors. In his first 822 plate appearances his slash line was a disappointing .215/.289/.348. Last year’s apparent breakout second half was probably just in time to give Bradley one more chance at the starting job. His elite glove will always earn him chances at a spot on the bench, but unless he can hit the Red Sox will move off of him and give one of their youngsters a chance.
    One of the most exciting young baseball players in the majors is Mookie Betts. Playing as a 22 year old last year he put up a 4.9 WAR season, garnered MVP votes, and improved on a really good half season from the year before. He saved his team 10 runs with his glove after saving 4 runs the year before. Betts hits for power, gets on base, hits for average and steals bases at a high rate nabbing 21 in 27 attempts last year. He hits righties and lefties well, both for power and average. Probably most terrifyingly to opponents, he was even better in the second half than in the first half.
Plate Appearances
On Base
First Half
Second Half
The Red Sox had the luxury of moving Betts from center to right this season to take advantage of his strong, accurate arm (he saved 4 runs in 2015 with his throwing alone). Remember that Betts is a converted second baseman so he is still (unbelievably) learning to play the outfield. He is already good enough to annually compete for a Gold Glove in right and his bat will put him in the conversation for MVP every year, especially if the Sox contend.
    An outfield with Bradley in center and Betts in right with not-Hanley in left will be better than what the Red Sox rolled out last year, and will help them contend in the AL East. So who will not-Hanley be in 2016? The other outfield spot was filled by many different people last season. Super expensive right-fielder Rusney Castillo – a 2014 signee from Cuba – made a lot of outs from the batter’s box in 2015. The Red Sox ran him out there 80 times (289 plate appearances) to see him post a slash line of .253/.288/.359. While his second half splits are better than his first half, they are still not good enough to warrant giving him regular playing time in spite of his excellent defense. At 28 he might be what you see now although often international signees take time to adjust to the differences in the American game, not to mention living in a new country and speaking a different language. There are of course $70+ million (the contract the Red Sox gave him to sign) reasons to give Castillo every chance to succeed. He is a talented athlete but the list of failed athletic baseball prospects is long and covered with broken glass – or maybe strikeouts.
    The Red Sox started the season with a platoon of Brock Holt and Chris Young. The right-handed Young was supposed to mostly face lefties as his career splits are pretty clear. His slash line against righties is .224/.292/.410 in 3287 plate appearances while his slash line against southpaws is a robust .263/.362/.475. Young used to be a stellar glove man but has declined noticeably in the last three to four seasons to the point where he is at best, neutral in the field. At 32, Young has to crush lefties to take up a roster spot for much longer, and it is unlikely the Red Sox will keep him around past this season since they have the money and resources to go get someone who can play everyday.
    Holt’s best skill is his ability to play everywhere. As a left-fielder he is good enough to start but not good enough to star. He carries an average glove out to left, which will be a huge asset when compared to poor, besieged Hanley, but his bat is fairly mundane. His 162 game average in the majors is not what you’d expect from a left-fielder – especially the four home runs part. He will hit for a respectable average and get on base at a decent clip. His slugging comes primarily from the 30 or so doubles he will hit, but he strikes out too much for a guy with Kuiperian (Duane) home run power.
    To date, Mookie and Jackie are off to excellent starts. Betts has traded some walks for home runs so his slugging is up while his on-base percentage is down. He is playing excellent defense as is the guy to his right, Jackie Bradley Jr.. JBJ has had an excellent first half, far eclipsing his best numbers and is beginning to see people talk about him as a superstar. A half a season does not a superstar make, but combined with his solid half last year this looks like real progress. If it is, then the Red Sox are being rewarded mightily for their patience.
Andrew Benintendi is moving quickly through the minors. He’s a center-fielder with good speed, extra base pop and a fancy minor league slash line of .315/.413/.573 in his first 241 at-bats. He is off to a good start at high-A and if he is moved aggressively could be ready next year. With Benintendi still a good bit away, the Sox have employed a number of players in left. Holt, Young, and Blake Swihart who the Sox have given the most playing time, have all spent time on the DL, so they have been running Bryce Brent and Ryan LaMarre out there. Both outfielders are 27, but profile differently. LaMarre is known more for his glove and his speed, but has put together a solid start to the season at triple-A with the bat as well. LaMarre hasn’t put it together in very short auditions in the minors and won’t be given much of a chance in Boston. Brent has some pop, but hasn’t shown enough to get much of a chance to stick either. He would probably be a 10 to 15 home run guy with a low batting average if given 600 plate appearances. These are the Red Sox, and they are competing for a championship, so there is little chance either man sticks with the big club once Holt, Swihart, and Young make their way back off the DL. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Sox make a move for an upgrade in left if their other three more palatable options are slow to come back. As for Rusney Castillo, he is 28 and stinking it up at Pawtucket, showing no power and no ability to get on base, so at this point he is looking like a big mistake as opposed to a possible solution to left field. It got so bad this year that the Sox took Castillo off the 40 man roster, exposing him to the waiver wire and nobody claimed him. He probably needs to go to another team where he might find a coach interested in straightening out his swing, but his giant contract makes that unlikely.
    If Rusney Castillo can fight his way back to Fenway (by improving his ability to get on base), the Red Sox would have a stellar defensive outfield and would be more versatile with Brock Holt moving around all the time. At this point that is Ben Cherrington wish-casting, but the Red Sox have the money and the only acceptable outcome to the season is a deep playoff run. The Red Sox are not likely to sit still and see what happens for too long if they think they can nab a left-fielder, keep Young on the bench as a pinch-hitter against lefties, and use Holt as a swiss army knife kinda player. If they end up sticking with Holt in left, it will at least be a huge improvement over last season, and less time spent face-palming is always a good thing, right?

The Astros outfielders can beat you and your family in a race, but can they help guide the Astros to a Pennant?

Talented Athletes & A Frustrating Puzzle
by Jim Silva

    Do you need a reason to hate the Houston Astros? Well, here are three: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, AND George Springer are both on their major league roster. When a team has one young (under 27) potential superstar on their roster you should envy them. When they have two it’s ok to hate them a little. But three? That is just too much to endure! Since this article is about the outfield we will focus on Springer and his outfield mates.
    George Springer was signed with the 11th pick of the first round in the 2011 draft. He will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season, but under team control (not a free agent) until 2021 even if the Astros don’t buy out some of those free agent years before then. Springer was Carlos Correa before Carlos Correa was Carlos Correa – he was one of those prospects that Astros fans knew about and drooled about before he even reached triple-A. The 6’3” right-fielder has very few holes in his game and has been the starter since he came up midway through the 2014 season. Since he first came up the one knock on George has been his high strikeout totals – 114 in his first season in 345 plate appearances, then improvement to 109 in 451 appearances. So far this season he has fanned 84 times in his first 386 plate appearances again showing improvement. Another good sign of Springer’s improving plate discipline has been his increasing walk totals – he is only two short of last season’s total in 50 fewer at bats. As with many young ball players, his power numbers are getting better as he makes pitchers throw him more strikes. Springer’s calling card is his terrific power. He already has 55 home runs through his first 1182 plate appearances – really fewer than two full seasons and is looking at a 30 plus home run season this year if he continues his pace from the first half.
    Springer is also fast with 27 career stolen bases to date. In fact the Astros have batted him exclusively in the one or two hole so far this year – a testament to both his speed and his ability to get on base. Springer’s speed has not equated to big range numbers in the field, in fact he has posted slightly below league average range numbers for his career so far. He still managed to put up positive DRS numbers last year, saving the Astros 6 runs with his glove. He is already a 3.5 to 4.0 WAR player and he is only in his second full season having just turned 26. With his athletic ability and his apparent ability to learn at the major league level, there is still room for growth – a scary thought for other American League teams.
    8.5 WAR. That’s what Carlos Gomez produced as a 27 year old Gold Glove centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. Those are numbers to build your franchise around especially when they come from a 27 year old five tool player in center field. It seems that the Astros traded for the 2013 Carlos Gomez when they shipped a boatload of prospects to get Gomez along with Mike Fiers at the deadline last year. The big question all Astros fans want answered is which Carlos Gomez is patrolling centerfield in 2016. So far the answer appears to be that the guy who managed those two magical seasons in Milwaukee is gone. The frustrating athlete the Brewers had before his breakout is the one who the Astros received. Gomez no longer looks like a Gold Glove centerfielder and his power seems to have disappeared altogether. The former Brewer All Star is striking out often and walking only in moderation. The results so far are a centerfielder who is playing slightly below average defense and making a ton of outs with no power to show for it. His slash line as of this writing is .221/.291/.333 which would be bad for a backup shortstop, much less a starting outfielder who once appeared capable of carrying an offense. Remember that 8.5 WAR? Gomez is currently porting a WAR of negative 0.4. Why has he fallen so far? That is the question the Astros would pay a million dollars to answer. ‘Nuff said, eh?
    Having a left fielder who can also play right, and more importantly, center is quite a luxury. Colby Rasmus, another athletic Astros outfielder, was the first player ever to take the qualifying offer. Yes, ever in the history of the universe! So maybe the rule has only been around for a few years, but still – first ever. Qualifying offers are made to players who can become free agents. The amount of the qualifying offer is the average major league salary for the top 125 players from the past season. Teams make these offers so that if/when the player declines the offer and signs with another team, the original team gets a high pick in the draft as compensation for losing the player. I think teams were getting cocky knowing that nobody had taken the offer so they were gambling by making qualifying offers to players they didn’t really want back at that price. The qualifying offer this off-season was $15.8 million, a hefty price even it was just for one year. Surprise – a few players actually took the offers this time, including Colby.
    Rasmus is not a bad player, in fact he is quite useful and has posted WAR of 2.6 and 4.8 in two of the last three seasons sandwiched around a down year where he only accumulated 1.0 WAR. He is currently on track for another WAR in the twos but is slumping mightily with the bat. Defense runs hot and cold with Rasmus. He saved only two runs last season and actually cost the team six runs in his down year, but in 2012 and 2013 he saved his team seven and 12 runs respectively. His bat is capable of producing serious power. In 2015 he had his best power year banging 25 homers and a total of 50 extra base hits. But Rasmus tends to be an all or nothing hitter and last year was no exception as he struck out 154 times, walked 47 times and only managed a .314 on-base percentage. His career slash line is about what teams should expect from him now with a bit more power possible: .245/.315/.440. The glove/bat combo and the versatility makes him a good guy to have on your roster, although not for $15.8 million. The Astros are using his as their starting left fielder and can count on him to hang around two WAR. If they could make him their 4th outfielder, still get him the at bats, and upgrade in left, that would be a great development for their playoff chances.
    While Colby Rasmus would be a special 4th outfielder, Jake Marisnick is the actual 4th outfielder, a job that he has held onto because of his glove and his speed and the belief, based on his status as a one-time top prospect with the Marlins, that his tools would turn into something. He also has bit of pop to go with his speed and his glove, but his hit tool is weak and his plate discipline is in the horrid range. Marisnick is only 25, and built like an NFL wide receiver (6’4”, 220), so it’s possible that he will develop a bit more given playing time. Last season, it looked like Jake might be establishing himself, but he still couldn’t get his OBP to .300 and his strikeouts to walks were a frightening 105/18 in 372 plate appearances. His minor league numbers portend a bit more for Marisnick, but after about 850 plate appearances in the majors, you have to think that you are seeing the true Jake. If he can cobble together more 2.0 WAR seasons then he helps the Astros win. If he does what he is doing this season with a slash line so far of .173/.233/.255, then he will have to move on to find more opportunities for playing time as the Astros push for a playoff spot.
    Of the young outfielders toiling away in the high minors, only Teoscar Hernandez is doing much to be excited about. At 23, Hernandez is just getting his first taste of triple-A. 2015 was ugly for the speedy and powerful outfielder. He got mugged by double-A, but started 2016 back in the same spot and got his revenge. Upon his promotion to triple-A, Hernandez has kept up the good work with a batting average over .300, albeit in a very small sample size. If he can keep his on-base percentage up then he might be worth auditioning in Houston this season. He has some power and excellent speed plus enough glove to not be a disaster manning all three outfield spots – he has played center and right. As long as triple-A pitchers don’t run him over in the next month, Jake Marisnick should fear for his roster spot.
    The Astros have a good, but unpredictable outfield with one budding star (Springer), one fading star (Gomez), and one expensive, athletic, flawed, versatile player they didn’t expect to have back (Rasmus). It’s an interesting group with Springer likely to be the only one who will still be on the team next year as Gomez and Rasmus are both going to be free agents. It is unclear what they will do down the stretch or next year as their best options might still be a year or more away. If the Astros think their time is now, then they might make a move outside the organization. If they still think they are a year or two away then they will likely go with internal solutions or just stand pat with their outfield. No matter what they do, their outfield will be athletic and fun to watch in 2016.