The D-backs Leave the Goldy-locks Zone

After shipping their best player to the Cardinals, do the Diamondbacks, who were in the NL West race for most of 2018, have a defining strength like great starting pitching or a terrifying offense? And moving forward, should the team work to shore up their weaknesses this season when they aren’t expected to seriously contend or should they double down on their area of greatest strength in an attempt to get the most out of what they have?  Let’s examine what the Diamondbacks were actually good at last year and whether we can expect that to change.

4th in the league in Defensive Efficiency – what does that even mean? The simple version is that the Diamondbacks were really good at turning batted balls into outs. “DE” is a nice measure of team defense although like most defensive stats, it isn’t perfect. Still, it is good to see a measure that matches the widely held perception that the Diamondbacks were good at defense for the last few seasons and for the purpose of our discussion, in 2018. Understanding how the Diamondbacks became one of the best defensive teams in baseball matters when you are trying to decide if they are likely to be that again in 2019.

Nick Ahmed was a big piece of the defensive puzzle as the Diamondbacks primary shortstop in 2018 and has been considered somewhat of a defensive whiz in his time in the majors. Ahmed hit 16 homers last year which was a bit of a surprise considering he had never reached double figures in long balls in his professional career. Run production isn’t really what Ahmed does. Even last year when his wRC+ was 84 (a career high), he was well below league average as a hitter. The main problem is that he doesn’t get on base enough (.290 OBP playing his home games in one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball), so while the homers are cool and everything, even in his best season by far he hurt the team with his bat. To be clear, Ahmed is there for his excellent glove work. 5.5 UZR/150 and 21 DRS are both really good defensive numbers that support his 11 dWAR – Defensive Wins above Replacement. On balance, Ahmed ended up producing 1.7 WAR which is a bit below what you want from your starter, but fine for a placeholder. He will be back in the same spot unless he gets off to a really rough start with the bat and the Diamondbacks get tired of all the outs and give up on Ahmed.

Paul Goldschmidt is obviously a great hitter averaging 144 wRC+ for his career. But Goldschmidt is not a one trick pony – he is a great baserunner and a really good first baseman with three Gold Glove awards in his last six seasons. dWAR for first basemen is tough because the positional adjustment is extremely steep costing them around 12 runs. You can go look at how dWAR is calculated on Fangraphs.com, but let’s use DRS and UZR/150 to look at Goldy’s glove work. So far, Goldschmidt has saved 50 runs (DRS) and 1.5 runs (UZR/150) as the two measures disagree about how good he is at first base. It is safe to say that Goldschmidt is at worst a good defensive first baseman and possibly more. Losing him is devastating to the offense and at least bad for the team defense. We will circle back to his replacement and what he will bring to the team.

The Diamondbacks second baseman for most of 2018 was Ketel Marte, a converted shortstop who contributed 104 wRC+ with the bat in 2018 as a 24 year old and had a 7 DRS season (1 UZR/150) at second with additional contributions at shortstop. He was a good middle infielder and a particularly good second baseman if not quite at Gold Glove quality. Interestingly, the Diamondbacks have announced that Marte will be their center fielder next year because they couldn’t find anyone else good enough to play the position in their organization and they thought he would be able to make the conversion. Marte is an excellent athlete so he may very well be able to make the conversion and turn into an above average center fielder, but there is certainly a risk. You are essentially letting go of a quality second baseman in exchange for a center fielder who will be learning on the job. It comes down to who the replacement will be at second, as well as how quickly Marte can learn the intricacies of his new position. There is likely to be a drop off in production at both spots at least for part of the season and that will hurt the defense.

The reason Arizona needs a center fielder is because A.J. Pollock, their primary center fielder for the last seven seasons, left via free agency this off-season. Pollock has averaged 113 wRC+ for his career and contributed 50 DRS and 5.9 UZR/150 as a center fielder. The new LA Dodger leaves the D-Backs with “only” one Gold Glove to his credit, in part because of his injury history that has placed him on the DL, costing him a lot of playing time in his career. Still, Pollock’s loss will be felt on offense and defense.

The replacement for Ketel Marte at second base is almost certain to be newly acquired Wilmer Flores. Flores is 27 and has been with the Mets his whole career. He was primarily a shortstop for the Metropolitans, but has played first, second, and third as well. Defensive metrics are a bit conflicted about Flores as a second baseman with DRS seeing him costing the Mets 9 runs over his career and UZR/150 at a more optimistic positive contribution of 1.5 runs. Flores is more loved for his bat than his glove with a career wRC+ of 99 and a career dWAR of -0.3. He will probably benefit from playing everyday, and from playing the same position everyday, so if he can at least be a push defensively at second and a 100 or so wRC+ guy, then that’s not a disaster for the Diamondbacks even if it degrades their defense slightly (which is likely).

Third base was the domain of Jake Lamb since his debut in 2014. Lamb is only 27 and was an All Star in 2017 and has two seasons of 29 and 30 home runs (2016 and 2017 respectively), but lost his job to Eduardo Escobar as Lamb struggled through a horrible season at the plate. His wRC+ of 78 was only slightly offset by his DRS of 5 and his UZR/150 of 3.6. Lamb has never put up good numbers with the glove so if this improvement on defense is real, it might help him resurrect his career as a starting third baseman although maybe not with Arizona as the Diamondbacks have extended late season acquisition Eduardo Escobar through the 2021 season. It is an interesting move in that Escobar is 30 and has only breached 100 wRC+ once in the last three season (2018 where he put up 117 wRC+). Escobar has played literally everywhere including pitching and catching, but has primarily been a shortstop and third baseman. He is solid defensively on the infield and should be a touch better at third than Lamb, unless you see Lamb’s defensive development last season as real improvement. The Diamondbacks might choose to make Lamb the regular at third and use Escobar everywhere in an attempt to rehabilitate Lamb’s profile so they could trade him. They could also keep Lamb as the starter at third and capitalize on Escobar’s versatility, unless there is something we don’t know about Lamb and they don’t think he can return to his previously level or ever get to where they thought he would before last season’s debacle. Either way, it doesn’t appear that there will be much of a change defensively at third base over what they saw in 2018.

If the Diamondbacks make Lamb the regular first baseman then there will almost certainly be a drop off at the position from Goldschmidt. Lamb has played a total of 9 games at first base as a professional and while he will likely be able to make the conversion, even the best case scenario doesn’t have him turning into an elite defender like Goldy in 2019. Arizona has a few other internal options to play first if Lamb struggles or they move him back to third. Christian Walker had a huge 2017 at triple-A and a pretty good 2018 back in the same spot, but has been largely blocked at the major league level and is now 27 with 99 career plate appearances in the Bigs. Walker isn’t a hidden star, but based on his ability to hit home runs and take walks, he could contribute to the lineup given regular playing time. In his limited time in the majors he has put up ugly defensive numbers but the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions about his defensive ability at first base. His minor league numbers show him to be able to play first base cleanly at least. Kevin Cron’s offensive profile looks similar to Walker’s, but he is two years younger and has more power but walks less often. Cron hasn’t tasted major league food yet so the same caveats about minor league defensive numbers apply. Cron is a better prospect than Walker and deserves a chance to show what he can do with major league pitching. He probably won’t be a star but he could be a decent late middle of the order bat, but won’t get a chance if Escobar is at third and Lamb at first. The bottom line at first base is that there will almost certainly be a defensive decline no matter who they use there and there will definitely be a huge decline in offensive production.

One of the returns for Goldschmidt was catcher, Carson Kelly. Kelly has been the understudy to Yadier Molina for a couple seasons now and has put up good pitch framing numbers in his limited playing time. Jeff Mathis is gone after putting up 87 DRS at catcher for his career including 17 last year. Unfortunately, Mathis hit like a wet piece of paper with a career wRC+ of 50 – ack! Alex Avila, who split time with Mathis last year, is a bat first catcher with poor framing numbers but good power. Avila will probably see the light end of a platoon and some time at first base. The defense won’t be as good at the catcher’s spot but the offense should improve significantly with Kelly taking Mathis’ spot.

We have already looked at center field, which will likely see a drop off from Pollock’s defense to Marte’s at least at first, but what about the corner outfield spots? David Peralta will return in left after a huge comeback season here – he put up 3.8 WAR driven mostly by his 130 wRC+ and a career high 30 home runs (his previous high was 17). His defensive numbers show him to be a solid defender with career DRS of 4 in left field and 0.3 UZR/150. His defensive reputation is better than his numbers so he is probably somewhere between excellent and solid. He is 31 so even a slow decline will probably take a little shine off his glove. Still, left field should remain stable from a defensive standpoint.

In the other corner (wearing the snakeskin trunks) is Steven Souza Jr. who is coming off an unmitigated disaster of a 2018 season. Souza Jr. is 29 and was coming off a breakout campaigns with the Rays in 2017 where he hit 30 home runs, contributed 120 wRC+, and saved 7 runs via DRS or 5.4 if you like UZR/150 better. Either way, it looked like he had finally turned into a low batting average/high walk total home run hitter who could play excellent defense in right and probably win all your bar fights for you as he is 6’4/225 and looks like a fast linebacker. Last year he battled multiple arm and back injuries that started in spring training, and struggled to a wRC+ of 84 and saw his defensive numbers drop below zero. If he comes back healthy, then the Diamondbacks should expect a big bump on offense and a slight bump on defense from Souza Jr..

For a team to have one of the best defenses in baseball for multiple seasons takes some intention and a commitment to a philosophy. They have to make a statement with their actions that they will put people in the best positions to succeed defensively and potentially sacrifice some offense to make that happen. With the trade of Goldschmidt, the departure of Pollock and Mathis via free agency, and moving Marte off second base, they are still making a statement – that they no longer believe in fielding the best defense they can. While there are many different ways to win, losing Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Patrick Corbin  (their best starting pitcher last season) makes it look like they are rebuilding. So far this isn’t a typical rebuild where they trade everyone of value for youngsters as they still have Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Peralta, and valuable bullpen arm, Archie Bradley. If they aren’t rebuilding but just resetting somehow then this current state of diminished defense could be temporary as they prepare for their next state whatever that may be. Looking at the lineup as it stands today, less than a week before pitchers and catchers report, it seems that there is almost no way the Diamondbacks are a top five defense in 2019. It isn’t as though they have just shifted ponies and will now be a great offensive team because Pollock and Goldschmidt haven’t been replaced with elite hitters (or really replaced at all). If the Diamondbacks trade some of the aforementioned veterans, then their intentions to rebuild will be clear. If they hold onto them and make some acquisitions to improve at first base or center field then that would seem to indicate that they are just changing direction. Take note during spring training and the first half of the season to see what the Diamondbacks are to become next.

 

The Mets Have All The Second Basemen!

Welcome to an interesting Mets’ off-season where they hired a new GM who was an agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, acquired not one, but two starting second basemen, a starting catcher, a center fielder, and two closers, not to mention some other bullpen parts. That’s the kind of off-season that gets a fan base worked up because the team is doing something instead of standing in place and hoping things will work out. Just because your team does something doesn’t necessarily mean they did the right things to turn them into a playoff team, but the Mets, under Van Wagenen, have definitely done something to change their fortunes for better or worse, especially on the infield. So let’s take a look at the impact of the guys who surround the pitchers on the dirt part of the field.

The catching position once appeared to be a strength for the Mets because they had Travis d’Arnaud back there and homeboy could hit home runs, and maybe more importantly, he could catch and throw. What d’Arnaud appears unable to do is stay healthy.  Only once has he reached 400 plate appearances and that was in 2014 when he stepped into the batter’s box 421 times. in 2018 d’Arnaud made 16 plate appearances in what was a lost season. Now 29, it will be interesting to see what he can do to contribute to the team as the backup catcher to Wilson Ramos, one of the new acquisitions that Van Wagenen signed as a free agent. Ramos is a better version of what d’Arnaud looked like he might be. Ramos is a good hitter – excellent for a catcher – and a decent defensive catcher who posts solid pitch framing numbers and slightly less solid numbers for throwing and pitch blocking. Ramos is possibly the best hitting catcher in the majors not named J.T. Realmuto, and last year bested all the catchers with his wRC+ of 131 – to 126 for Realmuto who did it over 531 plate appearances to Ramos’ 416 PA’s. Ramos has had more surgeries than even d’Arnaud who had TJ surgery last season, so expecting 500 plate appearances out of either of them is foolishness. The hope is that the two of them together can form one relatively healthy catcher. Adding Ramos is a definite upgrade over the other catchers the Mets ran out there in d’Arnaud’s absence. If one of the tandem falters, then Mets’ fans can expect to see a fair amount of someone like Tomas Nido, who has shown some pretty great framing skills and won a batting title in the minors. That said, it is unclear that he will hit enough in the majors to be more than the short defensive end of a catching platoon. For the season to go well for the Mets, they have to hope Ramos and d’Arnaud combine for 600+ plate appearances.

Spring training should determine the starter for the Mets at first. Peter Alonso is 24 and Baseball America just ranked him as the #48 prospect in all the land. He is a big man with huge power who also takes walks, hits for a decent average, and plays poor defense according to reports. Alonso hit 36 homers to go with 76 walks across two levels last season. He struck out 128 times too, but that is a manageable rate if he can continue to draw walks. He seems to be limited to first base and the Mets will deal with his defensive limitations if he hits a bunch of bombs and manages to carry an OBP over .320. His projections expect him to hit 20-25 home runs, bat around .240 with an OBP of .320 or so. That would be a fine rookie season. Anything more than that from Alonso and the Mets are in a good place. Less than that and he likely won’t play if his glove and arm are truly as bad as the scouts say.

J.D. Davis is Peter Alonso-light with the bat. He hits lots of home runs, but not quite as many as Alonso. He gets on base, but doesn’t walk as much as Alonso, and he strikes out more than Alonso. Defensively, Davis is more versatile than Alonso with a huge arm – enough for third base or right field, but without great range or a great glove so you probably don’t want to start him in either spot. Davis has crushed lefties in the minors – OPS north of 1220 in each of his last three stops – so a platoon with Alonso at first might work, although Alonso hits lefties just fine. It is hard to see the Mets carrying both players due to their defensive limitations so again – spring training will tell us a lot about the plan for 2019.

Todd Frazier is a good defensive third baseman but appears to have lost the ability to hit. He can still drive the ball over the fence from time to time – 18 homers in 2018 – but has back-to-back seasons hitting .213. To his credit, Frazier walks a lot so his OBP nudges past .300 every season – but just barely in three of the last four seasons – so he makes a lot of outs. Still, Frazier has been a three to four WAR player in all but two of the last six campaigns. His power does appear to be on the decline accounting for his first sub-two WAR season and his first wRC+ season below 100 since his rookie cup of coffee call up. 2018 was a 1.5 WAR season for Frazier. He is turning 33 before the start of spring training and it looks like his decline might be steep. If he starts, it will likely be at third, although he played a little first base in the majors. If the Mets carry him but don’t start him, then he is likely to see time at third, first, and maybe in the outfield where he hasn’t played since 2013. If he comes out of the gate hitting then the Mets will have a hard time finding spots for all their infielders to play because they have three guys who are second basemen and who will need to play almost everyday because of their bats. One of those three guys could move to first, but realistically the other two need to play either second or third based on their experience. More on that later, but the point is that Frazier could get squeezed out or flat out become a bench bat in 2019, the last year of his contract.

Shortstop is the most settled of the positions, with rookie and former top prospect Amed Rosario set to play everyday. Rosario is well thought of as a defender but didn’t put up good numbers according to DRS or UZR although those same metrics were good in 2017. So we will have to see what Rosario does with the glove in 2019. At this point in his development, his best tool is his speed and in the second half of last season he ran more often and more effectively stealing 18 bags in 24 attempts. He also hit 22 points better in the second half than in the first half, but he just doesn’t walk (4.9%) and he strikes out too much (20.1%) so his speed doesn’t get showcased enough since he isn’t on base often – a .295 OBP. Rosario just turned 23 so there is still likely some growth there and a 1.5 WAR season from a rookie shortstop with tools isn’t a disaster. The anti-Rosario came up last season – Luis Guillorme could step in if Rosario starts off frigid at the plate. Guillorme walks a ton, doesn’t strike out much, has no power to speak of, and is a wizard with the glove. His minor league slash line is .287/.363/.338 so in spite of the on base skills, he will likely transition to versatile glove man in the majors as his projections pessimistically agree on an OPS in the .500s. It will be interesting to see how he develops as he performed well with the bat at Double-A and Triple-A basically rising to the level of the competition. His glove will definitely push Rosario to perform.

Second base is where the logjam resides. Let’s start with the incumbent, Jeff McNeil. McNeil came up about midway through last season and flat out raked – a .329/.381/.471 slap line. He put up 2.7 WAR in half a season based in part on his wRC+ of 137, but also because of his solid work at second base – his primary position with the Mets, and his excellent work on the bases (7 of 8 stealing bases). In the minors, McNeil has been almost exclusively an infielder getting most of his time at second, followed closely by third base, then shortstop a distant third. He has played a total of 8 games in his professional career in the outfield. So it seems logical that he would get more time at second base or maybe third if you found a second baseman you just couldn’t pass up. Reports are that the Mets will try him in the outfield, but we will see what spring training brings. McNeil can hit for average, and found his power stroke in 2018 with 22 homers between double-A, triple-A, and the majors. If his bat is for real, then McNeil needs to be in the lineup everyday. His BABIP was on the high side at .359 but some players have high BABIPs regularly and it isn’t a sign of impending regression. McNeil has carried high BABIPs through most of his career so it will be interesting to see if he is one of those guys, or last season was lucky and he is really a .270 hitter with 10 home run power.

Robinson Cano was acquired this off-season in one of those deals where giant, lumbering contracts are exchanged. The difference with this deal was that the Mets also got a great closer in Edwin Diaz when they took on Cano’s gargantuan contract. This deal is interesting because Cano is coming off a suspension for PEDs in 2018, is 36, and before the suspension was still hitting like a 3-hole hitter. There is a small amount of data now on players’ performance after PED suspension and it doesn’t appear that most of them go in the tank when they are forced to play clean. Is that because the impact of the steroids lingers even after they stop taking them? Do they get better at hiding their transgressions? Were the steroids really helping them that much? Hard to know really, but 36 is 36 and Cano is due for some decline, although decline from perennial All-Star and potential Hall of Fame candidate at least starts out pretty high. His numbers show that he is still a good second baseman even if he isn’t a Gold Glove second baseman anymore. He had his knee scoped in the off-season so he should be at full health in spring training. Not surprisingly, considering that whole multiple Gold Glove thing at second base, Cano has played second base almost exclusively throughout his career getting his first innings at third and first last season. He contributed 4 DRS at second in 2018 despite missing half the season. Moving him to another position in spite of his continued ability to play the position well seems like a mistake and I would imagine he might bristle at the idea although that is hard to know from the outside.

In case you were thinking that two second basemen wasn’t quite enough, the Mets also signed Jed Lowrie from the A’s. Lowrie is coming off his best season in the majors (with 4.9 WAR and a wRC+ of 122) and his best back-to-back seasons in the majors in part because he stayed healthy. Injuries have cost Jed a lot of time in the past and he turns 35 the first month of the season. Last year he looked like an excellent defensive second baseman as he contributed 5.6 wins according to UZR/150. It seems possible that putting him in one position and leaving him there for two seasons has had a positive impact on his defense which intuitively makes sense. So the Mets have signed him and claim that their intention is to move him around the infield like a Ben Zobrist or a Marwyn Gonzalez. That type of player has value, and Lowrie can definitely do it, but is that the best way to get the most out of Jed? He has certainly done that in the past, but his recent experience, coming off the best two season stretch of his career, implies that he does best when he gets to play everyday and play second base, or at least the same position everyday. His numbers certainly don’t paint him as a good third baseman or shortstop and he is no longer in his prime. That is not a knock on Lowrie at all. He was the A’s MVP last year and received some AL MVP votes, but he is a human and as such it makes sense to look at the context in which he has succeeded the most and try to capitalize on that. But the Mets have made their roster bed so let’s see what they can do to maximize the situation that they have created.

McNeil is the youngster in the “I’m a second baseman but we can’t ALL play here” mix and he has a decent amount of experience at third and wheels enough that it seems he could learn to play the outfield, so it seems that if anyone is going to be the super sub it should be him. Since it appears that Jed Lowrie had a lot of success playing one position everyday and has played third in his career, he should be the everyday third baseman. That means Todd Frazier either moves or sits. Ideally Frazier would have a hot spring and the Mets could trade him for something of some value, otherwise they spot start him and hope he shows enough to make him more interesting to another team or a depth piece for the Mets if they are in contention. He still has value, but his age and his downward spiraling batting average will likely scare some teams away. Rosario has star potential, but Guillorme needs to play enough to see if he can hit as it is already clear that he is an excellent defender. Rosario should be the starter but Guillorme, who hits righties better than Rosario (at least last season), should get spot starts against righties, and be a late inning defensive replacement.  Robinson Cano should be the starting second baseman at least until it seems he can’t handle the position. He should probably also bat in the middle of the lineup – probably third – as it appears he is still a three WAR guy or better. That leaves first base to Peter Alonso. The Mets might want to start 2019 with Alonso in the short end of a righty/lefty platoon with Frazier, which would give the rookie time to break in and allow him to hit to his strength. At the same time it would showcase Frazier for a trade. Health will likely have a lot to do with the starting catching decision, although, barring a huge spring from d’Arnaud, Wilson Ramos will likely get the lion’s share of starts. I wonder if d’Arnaud can play second base?

The Mets shouldn’t rule out a couple more deals to either decrease or, God forbid, increase the crowding in the infield. It is never a bad thing to have extra talent sitting around so you can’t feel bad about the depth of the Mets infield, especially when at least three of the infielders are in their 30s. Without getting too deep into the outfield situation, the Mets are pretty set in the corners so it will be tough to find room for one of the infielders to play much out there. Brandon Nimmo, the right fielder, is coming off a 4.5 WAR season and looks like an excellent leadoff hitter. In left, Michael Conforto saw a bit of a drop off from 2017 from a 4.4 War season to a 3.0 WAR season, but is still clearly the starter with some star potential. Yoenis Cespedes is a complete mystery after heel surgery and may or may not even be in the mix this season. If he is healthy then he, Nimmo, and Conforto will split time in the corners with the Nimmo and Conforto spelling Keon Braxton and Juan Lugares who will likely platoon in center. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in the outfield for McNeil or anyone else and I won’t even mention the 4th outfielder contenders. Suffice it to say that Manager Mickey Callaway has his work cut out for him making sure that he maximizes that talent and keeps his roster sharp and rested at the same time. Get ready for an interesting spring training with lots of speculation in the sports pages in New York!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trading From Strength to Improve a Strength in Chavez Ravine

An embarrassment of wealth is nothing to be embarrassed about when you are a major league club. In the case of the LA Dodgers, they have an embarrassing amount of money and an embarrassing number of major league or major league ready outfielders. Obviously the Dodgers are a supremely talented organization with lots of resources, a deep minor league system, and very deep pockets – they have reached the World Series two years in a row now. Their pitching staff led the league in xFIP- which is a park adjusted, league adjusted, defense independent version of ERA where 100 is average and lower is better. The Dodgers pitching staff had an xFIP- of 86, so they were 14% better than league average. Their hitters led the majors in wRC+ (111 that’s 11 percent better than league average) which is a league and park adjusted measure of their ability to put runs on the board. And that’s without their star shortstop, Corey Seager. So it would be an easy argument to make that the Dodgers had the best pitching and the best offense in the National League and possibly in all of baseball. When you are already the best or one of the best teams in baseball how do you get better?

One way to improve upon greatness is to look at the margins; look at the areas where you might be inefficient so you can tighten some of the screws and get rid of a little of the shimmy to get the most out of that big engine. In baseball some of that inefficiency is beneficial because depth protects a team from injuries and slumps. However, if prospects are repeatedly blocked for long enough then the system becomes inefficient and something needs to be done either through a trade, by someone moving positions, or by allowing players to leave via free agency. The Dodgers are in the enviable position of having too many good outfielders. It is an interesting predicament to have too many outfielders at a time when a much-anticipated free agent hits the market and he happens to be an outfielder – yes, Bryce Harper. The Dodgers have met with Harper and even brought Magic Johnson to the meeting showing that they are really serious. But Harper would add to the logjam in the outfield unless LA decided it was time to push some of their outfield logs downstream. So let’s look at this in two ways. The Dodgers need to consolidate some of their outfield talent and they might also benefit from signing a superstar like Bryce Harper.

In spring training before the 2018 season, the Dodgers made a financial move to help avoid luxury tax by trading Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, and some cash for Matt Kemp. Most people paying attention to transactions assumed Kemp would be waived before the season started considering how much outfield depth the Dodgers already possessed, and how done Kemp had looked in 2017. I’m not sure if it surprised the Dodgers to see Kemp in great shape in spring training and to see him displaying skills many thought he’d lost, but Kemp ended up making the All Star team and getting 506 plate appearances playing mostly left and some right field. Kemp then entered into a pretty hefty regression as illustrated in this Dan Syzmborski article from Fangraphs. https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-redisappearance-of-matt-kemp/

He seemed to right the ship for the last 20 games of the season, but with one year left on his contract and at age 34, Kemp should be a DH somewhere because of his defensive numbers which might be generously described as suboptimal.

Aside from Kemp, who would be hard to move, unless the Dodgers managed another contract swap move with an AL team who could use him as a DH or bench bat, LA has another seven outfielders who would start in the outfield for other teams. Starting with Andrew Toles who is coming off injuries – Toles put together a nice season at triple-A but the crowded outfield in LA meant that he only saw action in 17 games and logged 30 at-bats – not even enough to bother looking at his numbers there. Toles deserves a chance to see what he can do in an extended tryout as a regular. The speedy outfielder has a .792 OPS in about half a season’s worth of plate appearances in the majors and defensive metrics show that he can play all three outfield spots and save the team runs. He isn’t arbitration eligible until 2021 and can’t be a free agent until 2024 at which time your kids will be starting college or enlisting in the marines – pretty far off, eh? He seems like a great fit for a small market team and might bring back a moderate prospect in a trade.

Enrique (Kike) Hernandez has become a fan favorite in LA and the only position he hasn’t played in the majors is catcher. Yep, he threw a third of an inning last year. He has over 1700 innings of work with 16 career DRS and a small sampling at each infield spot showing that he can at least not stink up the joint while sporting various infielder’s gloves – that includes some excellent work at shortstop. Add to that Hernandez’ 118 wRC+ in his most plate appearances ever (462) and Kike looks like the team’s resident Zobrist. A lot of his increased offensive value came from a huge power spike to 21 home runs, so in order for Hernandez to hold all of his newfound value he has to hold on to the increased power. Regardless, he has value as a player who can increase your depth bench by being a gloveman everywhere and a right-handed bat with speed a pop. His contract situation is still favorable as he is arbitration eligible but can’t test free agency until 2021. Could he start elsewhere? Probably, but keeping him as a reserve allows the Dodgers to keep more relievers with a multitool available who replaces multiple position players on the bench.

Chris Taylor is a similar player to Kike Hernandez in that he can play the outfield and infield and can hit. He does his best work in the outfield and at third base but can be used to cover shortstop and second base also. He put up a wRC+ of 113 which looked like a disappointment after his revelatory 2017 (126 wRC+), but like Hernandez he can hit home runs, is speedy on the basepaths, and can play everywhere. Also a righty, he can’t be a free agent until 2022 but is a year older than Kike – so who to trade? They seem redundant, right? All teams are looking for players like Hernandez and Taylor so it should be easy to move one of them for something of value. Keeping both of them allows the Dodgers supreme flexibility but again, we are talking about consolidating resources. Ship one of them if you can get back something you need or want.

Cody Bellinger isn’t going anywhere. At 23, the youngster has already amassed 7.6 WAR (Fangraphs style) and put up seasons of 138 and 120 wRC+. Bellinger is fast and athletic so while he can play first base well (4 DRS in two seasons), his raw ability points toward moving him to the outfield if he can swing it. So far he looks exciting out there at times – https://www.mlb.com/cut4/cody-bellinger-slides-along-the-grass-after-big-game-4-catch/c-297998112

and a look at his numbers in limited work look promising, if mixed. His outfield UZR numbers aren’t consistently strong in opposition to his DRS. He has 11 DRS spread across the three spots in two seasons and just short of 900 innings played across all three spots.  It seems clear that he is or could be at least an average if not an excellent outfielder and why rush him to the weak end of the defensive spectrum (first base) if he can handle a tougher position when he is so young? Bellinger is a star with the potential to be a superstar and he can’t leave the Dodgers of his own volition until 2024.

Yasiel Puig is one of the more divisive players in the majors from his bat licking and mugging that some people (surprisingly?) don’t like, to his canon-like arm in right, his tremendous power and his thrilling, if sometimes overly aggressive, base running. His Puigness has been mentioned as trade fodder possibly more than anyone else in baseball but this off-season might be the year he actually moves somewhere. After six seasons in the majors, it is hard to remember that he is only 27. At 22 and 23 he had seasons of 4 WAR and 5.5 WAR and it looked like he was on his way to becoming a superstar, but then consecutive seasons of 2.5 total WAR put his value in question. 2017 was a bounce back year for him as he posted 2.9 WAR but then 2018 saw him platooned most of the season and he ended up with 444 plate appearances and 1.8 WAR. His defensive numbers seem to bounce around from season to season, but he is regarded as a talented, if sometimes inconsistent, defender. His wRC+ shows his offensive value better than his WAR – 117 and 123 in his last two seasons shows where he is right now. If he gets platooned again then you can count on around 120 wRC+, but if he plays full time it would be hard to project what he will do. He isn’t a complete disaster against lefties, (career .250/.340/.417 slash line) but he does give away about 80 points of slugging, 40 points of batting average, and 15 points of on-base percentage. He could play every day and be fine. The Dodgers have the luxury, but not the necessity, of platooning him. If they played him every day he might even learn to hit lefties better. He makes good money due to arbitration and will be a free agent in 2020 so this might be the best time to trade him. Many teams would take on his temperament – seemingly less of an issue as he matures – to get his talent on the field.

Joc Pederson looked like he would be the next great Dodger outfielder when he made the All Star team at age 23, but his low average, high intensity, swing and miss game has limited his plate appearances since then. 2015 was the only season where he was given 500 plate appearances (585). In 2017 it was looking like Joc might play his way out of LA or at best become a bench player, until he went off in the post-season belting three homers against Houston in the Series and putting up an OPS of 1.334. Peterson played regularly in 2018 taking the big end of a platoon, slugged .522, put up 126 wRC+, and contributed 2.7 WAR. And he is 26. Is there more in Joc’s game still to come? He did cut down dramatically on his strikeouts getting punched out 19.2% of the time – more than 5 points below his career average of 24.9%. He has speed, can play all three spots in the outfield although his numbers look best in left. His power was still there even with the diminished fan rate so what could he do with another 550 plate appearances somewhere? Unlike Puig, Joc has appeared to be helpless against lefties so unless he does something to disprove his slash line in 325 career PA’s against lefties (.181/.266/.317) he will continue to be a platoon outfielder and because of that have somewhat limited trade value. He is still in the arbitration years of his contracts and he won’t be eligible for free agency until 2021.

Speaking of blocked players, Alex Verdugo has been ready for an extended shot at a starting job in the majors since his 2017 triple-A season. In 2018, he repeated the level and improved, showing a bit more power while maintaining his high average ways. Verdugo is only 22 which means he mastered triple-A just as he was allowed to order a beer at The Flea in OKC. Sitting on the bench in LA probably isn’t doing his development a lot of good so the Dodgers need to work him into the outfield rotation, send him back to triple-A again to show off, or trade him. Verdugo has a lot of trade value as the Dodgers top offensive prospect (#25 on the 2018 Baseball America prospect list) who could move right into a starting outfield spot and be under team control for 6 or so years.

There is one more player to consider, and he is sitting at triple-A waiting for a chance to play in LA. Edwin Rios is 24, so not quite as precocious as some of the other Dodgers hitters. Rios just finished his first full year in OKC after looking good in a partial season there in 2017. He has played almost everywhere – mostly third and first, but also a decent amount of left field the last two seasons. He has tremendous power unlike Verdugo, hits for average although not quite as much as Verdugo, and strikes out more than Verdugo. So depending on your flavor of hitter and what position you need to fill, Rios, who is not particularly slick with the glove, is still a nice piece to have in spite of his defensive limitations. The Dodgers could try him at first with Bellinger in the outfield. They could also trade him as he has value as a power hitter with many years of team control. He would be a perfect fit on an AL team.

Phew! That’s a lot of options! The Dodgers should keep either Taylor or Hernandez, keep Bellinger obviously, then decide if Puig is their guy moving forward or go all-in on Harper and offset the spending by installing Verdugo in center with Joc spelling everyone. Free Andrew Toles! That’s still five outfielders – six if they try Rios at first – but one of them would double as the utility infielder. That would open up their bench, get them some nice returns in trades, bring in some star power if they sign Harper, and still leave them with enough versatility to handle an injury or a slump by one of the starters. Man it must be good to be a Dodger fan!

 

The Appearance of Offense in a Scoring Desert

Whether you are a “the season is over” kinda guy, or one of those “the offseason has just started” folks, your ears have to perk up when your team makes a move. The Rockies recently made one by declining the option on Gerardo Parra, and whether that indicates real change coming or just walking in place (they could resign him as a free agent at a lower cost), it presents an opportunity to look at the Rockies of 2018 and to project what they will be in 2019. Because of the environment in which they play, Coors Field, sitting at a mile above sea level (see the row of purple seats in the upper deck for the mile high line), just looking at standard unadjusted stats can give you the wrong impression.

Because their offensive numbers are grossly inflated by their park, they often are spoken of as having one of the best hitting teams in baseball even when they are sporting a below average offense – like in 2018. Here’s just one example of raw stats versus park-adjusted stats: The Rockies finished 2nd in the NL in team runs scored, but when you adjust for their home park and instead use a park adjusted stat like wRC+ (park adjusted runs created where 100 is league average) then the Rockies fall to 12th in the league and 21st in baseball tied with the 115 loss Orioles and just ahead of the Padres, Marlins, and Giants in the NL. Gulp. The Rockies offense was awful. They had 3 full-time regulars who had wRC+ numbers at or above 100 and I am pretty sure casual Rockies fans can name them – in descending order we have Nolan Arenado (132), Trevor Story (127), and Charlie Blackmon (116). By comparison, the Braves who finished 6th in team wRC+ had 6 guys with more than 350 plate appearances who were above 100. The Dodgers who finished first as a team, had 9. Now that we have established that the Rockies have an anemic offense, is it possible to pinpoint the causes and some solutions?

The Rockies started 2018 with some clear weaknesses in their lineup at 1st base and left field partly due to a bad free agent signing tying their hands – see Ian Desmond – and partly because of injury – see David Dahl (see David Dahl on the DL often!). Desmond seems like a great guy and definitely has a positive impact on the community with his work raising awareness and money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation to fight NF (https://www.ctf.org/ if you want to donate), but he plays primarily offense oriented positions and has posted wRC+ scores of 81 (19% below league average) last year and 69 (31% below league average) in 2017 – the first two years of his 5 year, $70 million contract. Three more years to go with a team option for 2022 for the 33 year old, who is the primary first baseman and sometimes left fielder, looks bleak at the moment. It isn’t clear that he will ever be a valuable offensive player again as his ground ball rate the last two seasons has skyrocketed – 10 points above his career average in each of his two seasons with the Rockies (62.7% and 62.0% respectively) and his rate of soft hit balls is also above his career average. One number that could point to a better 2019 is his 2018 BABIP of .236 which often points to bad luck, but could also be tied to that very high ground ball rate, as grounders more often turn into outs. And his glove isn’t special either as indicated by DRS at first base of -6. In a limited number of appearances his work in left field was positive, but that spot belongs to David Dahl when he is healthy. How could the Rockies make lemonade out of Desmond? Sadly, if they can’t trade him then they need to forget how much they are paying him, make him a bench bat, pinch runner, and utility guy – he has played short before – and spot him against lefties.

If Dahl is the starter in left, and Desmond moves to the bench then how can the club improve their offense without buying another bat? For starters, there is Ryan McMahon. As a former top prospect, the expectations have been high for McMahon, and until Desmond signed it appeared that the rookie would be given a shot to take the starting first base spot. In the minors McMahon has hit, and hit with power. He has averaged around .290 with 20+ homers and 50-60 walks throughout his minor league career. It is unclear why the Rockies haven’t given him a serious shot at the first base spot, although they have a reputation for being miserly with the chances they give to rookie position players. He has mostly pinch-hit in his long stretches on the big league squad with short stretches of regular playing time interspersed with the occasional start. He began his career as a third baseman but started playing first base and some second because Nolan Arenado is blocking his natural position. It doesn’t look like the team has thought of trying him in the outfield as he has never played a single inning there as a professional. The Rockies are pretty flush at second even if they let three time Gold Glover, DJ LeMahieu walk in free agency – more on LeMahieu later. With Trevor Story firmly entrenched at short blocking the team’s top prospect, shortstop Brendan Rodgers – and Rodgers now playing short, second, and third in the minors – Rodgers and rookie shortstop Garrett Hampson are the two most likely youngsters to take over for LeMahieu should he move to browner dirt. So where does that leave McMahon? The Rockies need to take a big swallow and push Desmond to the side to give McMahon a real chance to be a starter in the majors, and first base is his best bet and the cheapest option for the Rockies to add offense to their lineup.

Another potential lineup change that could improve the offense might be in the outfield. The reason an outfield spot might be open is that Colorado declined the option on Gerardo Parra, and Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Holliday are both free agents (again). The Rockies might re-sign one or all three of their veteran outfielders, but that is unlikely (maybe unwise is a better term) even though Gonzalez finished 5th among Rockie regulars with a wRC+ of 96 – still 4% below league average, and Holliday, in just 53 at bats, had a wRC+ of 122. Parra has been eating outs for most of his career. His last wRC+ above 95 was in 2015. Holliday is not a good defender, while Cargo is slightly below league average on both sides of the plate, and Parra is the emptiest .280 hitter on Earth – possibly on Venus as well. If the goal is to improve your offense without totally giving up on defense then spend your money by not signing those three and let someone else take over in one of the corner spots not filled by Dahl, who can play left or right.

But let’s say the Rockies are just not in love with McMahon. There are possibilities sitting at triple-A Albuquerque, including some prospects, and some guys who are a little too old to qualify as prospects, but are still quality ballplayers. Mike Tauchman is one of the latter at 27. He is a speedy outfielder who also can park the ball in the stands and slashed .323/.408/.571 for the Isotopes last season. He has 59 AB’s in the bigs and has fanned a lot, which is not a big part of his game in the minors. Raimel Tapia is more of a prospect who hasn’t broken out yet, but at 24 needs a chance to see what he can do when he plays regularly. If you are only interested in outfielders who can hit bombs then Tapia is not your dude. At 6’2 and 180 (according to MILB.com – no way he weighs that much – more like the 160 he lists at in Baseball Prospectus), he is speedy and rangy. His game is all about slashing the ball around the field, getting lots of hits with his tremendous hit tool, not walking much at all, and using his speed to be a terror on the base paths and in the outfield. In part time work (239 plate appearances), he has posted a wRC+ of 72 but his numbers in the minors suggest that he will be an asset with the bat. The Rockies outfielders would cover a lot more of their enormous outfield with Tapia out there than with Cargo, Holliday, or Desmond. His ability to get hits and run also makes him a good 4th outfielder if the Rockies aren’t sold on him as a starter. It would be good to know once and for all, and that would take some at bats. So let Tapia start in right and install Tauchmann as your 4th outfielder, with McMahon as your everyday first baseman if you want to take the inexpensive homegrown route. There is also the more expensive option.

Even though the Rockies might feel burned by the market after signing Ian Desmond, one option would be to dip a toe in the free agent pool and make a “smaller” signing of a veteran like Michael Brantley to play a corner outfield spot, or Steve Pearce to play first. Neither player is likely to get more than a two year offer, so it wouldn’t be a long-term commitment, but either veteran would bolster the Rockies anemic offense in the short term. Brantley has a career wRC+ of 114 and posted 124 wRC+ in 2018 – his first full season back from injury. He is 31 and is a decent outfielder. Pearce has a career wRC+ of 113 with last season’s number coming in at 140 in time split with the Jays and the Sox. He is 35 and is a good defensive first baseman and a poor outfielder, but has experience there. The Rockies would likely be able to afford both men which would solve two problems while also improving their bench. Bryce Harper would be a lot of fun hitting in Coors Field but who has that kind of money?

Ah, DJ – Rockies fans love you and for good reason – three Gold Gloves and a batting title to go with a career .298 batting average. He is the kind of player who grows on you with his opposite field line drives and his flashy glove work at second. But remember, the Rockies need more offense and DJ is in the way of that – and a free agent. On that front, Colorado declined to make him a qualifying offer. One reason for not offering that one year contract safety net is the fear that the player will take you up on it. That says a lot about the Rockies plans for second base in 2019 and they don’t likely involve LeMahieu, who has posted wRC+ values of 94 and 86 in each of the last two seasons with a career mark of 90. Colorado has two good options and one of them proved last season that he could handle major league pitching.

As mentioned earlier, the Rockies best prospect is minor league shortstop, Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers has played short and second in the minors because the Rockies have a young shortstop who got some MVP chatter this year, so Rodgers needs to be flexible. The 22 year old got his first taste of triple-A and probably needs at least half a season to make himself ready for the majors, although it is clear that he will hit and hit for some power while possessing the ability to stick at shortstop or move over to second to accommodate Trevor Story. No problem. The Rockies have Garrett Hampson. Hampson wasn’t a high profile prospect even though he was taken in the 3rd round of the draft. Hampson has hit everywhere he has played, including Denver when the Rockies called him up to fill in for an injured LeMahieu at second. The young infielder’s minor league slash line is .315/.389/.457 and he has stolen 123 bases in 146 attempts. He is a top of the order hitter which would allow the Rockies to move Charlie Blackmon to the two or three spot and provide many RBI opportunities for Nolan Arenado. In only 40 at bats in the bigs last year, Hampson slashed .275/.396/.400 showing that he will likely continue to hit if given the time to play for the big club. Letting LeMahieu go, and installing Hampson at second could very well help the Rockies score more runs right now. If Hampson struggles, they have Rodgers waiting at triple-A.

The catcher’s position has turned into mostly a batless prairie in this time of launch angles and  big home run totals. The wRC+ positional average for catchers is around 84 – so 16% below league average for hitters in general. The Rockies mainly used Tony Wolters and Chris Iannetta behind the dish in 2018, with their top catching prospect, Tom Murphy, only getting 96 PAs with the big club in spite of a season at triple-A where he managed a wRC+ of 129. At the end of 2018 the Rockies gave Murphy’s spot to Drew Butera who only picked up a handful of at bats but also got Murphy’s spot in the playoffs. There are a lot of questions here, but the Rockies are likely to stick with Iannetta as the starter and Wolters and Murphy as the backups. Iannetta is very much a known quantity. His wRC+ last year was exactly league average for catchers at 84 – under his career mark of 96, so there is some room for bounce back with the age 35 caveat in place. He gets good marks for his pitch framing and is decent at slowing the running game if he gets help from the pitching staff – true of most catchers. He has good power and an excellent eye. If he weren’t already 35 he would get a lot more love for his skill set. The Rockies have him signed for one more year with an option for a second. Tony Wolters is a lot of fun to watch behind the plate because the converted middle infielder looks like a shortstop back there. He covers a lot of ground, has a good arm, and calls a good game – heck – he even plays the occasional inning at shortstop, second and third. How many catchers can say that? His 2018 numbers supported the view that he is an excellent receiver with 12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in just 74 games. If only he could hit even a little Wolters could start, but back to back wRC+ numbers below 50 is hard to take when you have very limited room on the bench. The only thing Wolters has going for him when he has a bat in his hands is his selectivity. His walk rate has been around 12% for two seasons now.

So in a spot where hardly anyone hits anymore, having a catcher like Iannetta who is at least average with a chance to be slightly more seems like a good thing. The Rockies need to give Murphy – who in spite of his other issues has serious raw power – a legitimate chance to play at the major league level, and stash Wolters at triple-A and give him a ton of reps at all the infield positions so that if Murphy doesn’t ultimately pan out they can bring Wolters back up to be an all glove – no bat bench piece who can wield leather at every position surrounding the pitchers mound.

It seems harder for the Rockies to let go of hitters because to their fans the hitters appear better than they actually are due to their home hitting environment. But that’s exactly what the Rockies need to do if they are going to support their excellent young starting pitchers who have shown they are ready right now. Cargo, Parra, Desmond, and even DJ LeMahieu should move on, as much as the fans might squawk, so that the Rockies can win now. When the fans see what a real offense looks like they will get over their ill-advised jersey purchases and embrace the new, winning Rockies. You will of course need to rip their LeMahieu jerseys from their screaming, writhing bodies, but such is the hard business of baseball. Sign me up for that Hampson jersey right now!

 

What to do when 120% of your starting rotation goes down for the season.

If you are an A’s fan and you are wondering what the heck the A’s plan on doing for their starting rotation next season – well – you are not alone. If you thought 2018 was a clown car of starters – “Wait, who is that guy?” – then you are in for more circus music in 2019. Here is who you won’t see for all of 2019: Jharel Cotton (Tommy John surgery), Kendall Graveman (Tommy John surgery), A.J. Puk (Tommy John surgery), and Daniel Gossett (Tommy John surgery). Sean Manaea is also most likely out for all of 2019 after shoulder surgery and it is unknown what the prognosis will be for the A’s ace after that. Paul Blackburn (elbow) and Andrew Triggs (shoulder) missed a lot of time in 2018 and ended the season on the shelf, so their health status for 2019 seems unresolved at best.

The A’s rotation survived to the end of the season by signing pitchers who were unsigned as of the end of spring training or stashed away in the minors in case of emergency (Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill) or acquired in a mid-season trade (Mike Fiers), and all four of those pitchers are now free agents. A’s pitchers who made at least 10 starts in 2018 who are not free agents and are not likely to be on the disabled list at the start (or the end) of 2019 are Daniel Mengden and Frankie Montas. Uh – that is well beyond a decimated pitching rotation since “decimated” just means one out of ten are down. Chris Bassitt made 7 starts in the majors in 2018 and did reasonably well – ERA in the low 3’s and almost 8 K’s per 9. Bassitt is 29 and coming off an arm injury so while it is a welcome sight to see him pitching well, it is hard to write him into the 2019 rotation even though that might be exactly how the A’s start next season. His fastball/slider/curveball mix is pretty standard fare – he looks like a back of the rotation starter at his peak with his low 90’s fastball generating almost 8 K’s per 9 and his control in the majors not helping his cause – 3.6 walks per 9 in 2018. Yeah, teams need guys like this and the A’s especially need anyone who can mostly keep the ball in the park (career 0.7 homers per 9) and get them into the 6th inning where their pen can take over. Bassitt was mostly that guy in June but when he came back up to the majors the A’s were using the opener strategy and pitching a lot of bullpen games so they weren’t asking him to do that. Which approach will they take next year and how will that impact their use of Bassitt? But this is not the apocalypse – at least the A’s know now that they will need to piece together a rotation for 2019 unless they are planning something wild like going with 13 relievers. Hmm.

A number of things could happen between now and opening day 2019. Let’s say the A’s start with Frankie Montas and Daniel Mengden as 40% of their rotation and build from there. Will Jackson, Fiers, Cahill, and Anderson sign with the A’s after testing the market? Hard to say. Fiers will definitely get some love from multiple teams after his 3.7 WAR 2018 (Baseball Reference version). Trevor Cahill will also get attention after his excellent bounce back season. Even Edwin Jackson might get calls from a couple of teams when they look at his hits to innings pitch rate of 7.3 per 9 with the A’s. It seems that teams are just more comfortable with familiar names than spinning the wheel with a new guy, so maybe the A’s have the inside track with their free agents. But if there is competition for the services of their retread starters, I can’t imagine the A’s getting into a bidding war. Based on 2018 there will likely be next-to-free talent available to a patient GM. So let’s say that Fiers, Cahill, and Jackson get signed by other teams, the A’s will still have options. The A’s still need a rotation so they will have to bring up arms from triple-A, trade for starters, or sign free agents. Let’s look at some of their options, but before that let’s look at the pen, which could have an impact on what the offseason looks like for the A’s.

Thank you baby Jesus – Blake Treinen can’t become a free agent until 2021! The 30 year old with the insane sinker just put up the best season of his career by far and one of the best seasons for a reliever ever. If you think that is hyperbole, spend some time looking for pitchers who went 80 innings or more and kept their ERA under 0.8 while striking out at least 100 batters. Waiting. Still waiting. Treinen was the major league guy the A’s got back for two closers when they traded with the Nationals. The Nats had experimented with Treinen in the closer spot but gave up quickly when he struggled. When he didn’t turn it around immediately after he lost the closer job they traded him away. Is it a thing that Washington is really impatient with relievers? Should other teams hang out behind their clubhouse to dumpster dive for relievers? The A’s seem to have done just that with Treinen and Shawn Kelley – another reliever jettisoned by the Nats when he angered team management by throwing his glove in frustration. There were likely other precipitating factors, but that was the story at the time. Kelley was fantastic in his short stint with the A’s pitching 16.67 innings and giving up 7 hits while striking out 18 for an ERA of 2.16. Kelley is now a free agent. Who else in the A’s pen is a free agent you ask? Well, there’s Jeurys Familia, the former Mets closer, who struck out 11.5 per 9 for the A’s in just over 31 innings. Familia wasn’t lights out, but definitely contributed to the A’s excellent bullpen. Fernando Rodney is a free agent unless the team picks up his option – which is unlikely. He pitched 22 innings with the A’s and was pretty wild, but not bad. He is 41 though, and $4.5 million is a lot for a guy who is that old and didn’t exactly dazzle in green and gold. Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit, J. B. Wendelken, Liam Hendricks, Ryan Buchter, and Emilio Pagan are all under team control for 2019, which is a good thing especially when you contrast the pen with the rotation. The A’s pen is still in excellent shape looking ahead to 2019 which might dictate their off-season moves. I’d love to see a team try to make it through the season with 13 relievers rotating through bullpen games and using the triple-A arms to spell some of the guys, but I don’t think you can get 1500 innings out of that equation without having guys break down or pitching a lot of guys you don’t really want to send to the mound.  Let’s go back to the rotation with the knowledge that the A’s pen is pretty much set.

One option to fill out their rotation, which the A’s have exercised to mixed, but often positive, results has been to sign a high risk, high reward starting pitcher to a short term deal. Usually this means signing a starter with a good track record who is coming off an injury or is coming off a bad season but appears healthy, or who has been a disappointing prospect in the past but showed signs of figuring it out in the second half of the previous season. Scott Kazmir in 2014 was coming off his first decent season in quite some time when the A’s got him. He made the All Star team for the first time since 2008 and they flipped him mid-2015 for Daniel Mengden and Jacob Nottingham. Then they flipped Nottingham for Kris Davis who has hit 133 homers for them in three seasons. Pretty solid shuffle there. Rich Hill was signed by Oakland after reinventing himself in Indy ball and then making four dominant starts for the Red Sox right at the end of the 2015 season. He made 14 starts for the A’s, with a 2.25 ERA and then they swapped him along with Josh Reddick to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects – Frankie Montas, Jharel Cotton, and Grant Holmes. It is hard to get that much young pitching in any trade and the results are still to be determined, but two of those pitchers – Cotton and Montas – have been in the A’s rotation already. If they end up with even one of them as a starter for multiple years then that’s a good return.

You already know what happened with their signings last season – Andersen, Cahill, and Jackson, plus Fiers, whom they acquired in a trade. They held onto those four because they were in a playoff fight and needed every inning they could get, but if they had fallen out of the race it is likely they could have gotten something back for at least two of those starters, Cahill and Fiers – maybe Jackson too. The beauty of a strategy like that is that the team is not on the hook for any contracts beyond that season, or at most the next, and you have options – stick with the pitcher if you have a shot at the playoffs or dump them for prospects if it looks bad for the postseason. Here is why the A’s need to do something like that for 2019 maybe more than in most seasons. The A’s have an excellent lineup with great infield defense, and a lot of power in their lineup. Their stars are still young and under team control for the most part. They have a potentially great bullpen again. They can obviously compete right now – they won 97 games in 2018. What they don’t have is a starting rotation – yet. There is a decent chance that they will have a solid to good starting rotation in 2020 so signing or trading for starters with a commitment past 2019 or 2020 now doesn’t make much sense. They need a patch while they wait for Manaea, Cotton, Puk, (Kaprielian?) and the others to make it back.

Fine – so who should the A’s pursue given that they don’t want to make a long term commitment, and aren’t going to throw down 25 mil for a Kershaw. While it is impossible to read the market in the first week of free agency, there are some likely targets for the A’s to pursue. Marco Estrada is 35 and coming off an ugly season. In spite of some injury issues, Estrada made 28 starts, and his fastball velocity, which was never special, was right about where it has been the last few seasons. I can’t see him getting more than a one or two year deal and he might be a late signing if he looks for more years than that. Patience might be the key to signing him.

Clay Buchholz is a finalist for comeback player of the year after throwing 16 starts with a 2.01 ERA. But Buchholz finished the season on the DL with a strained elbow so the 33 year old with a history of injury issues will probably be an affordable signing as teams who would have been likely to compete for his services and have some money to throw around, will probably take a pass on the high risk Buchholz. This might be a case where the A’s throw a two year offer at him early with the caveat that he has to let them know in some short time frame, and see if anybody steps up to beat it. After posting a low ERA in Arizona, the A’s could sell him on pitching in a pitchers park with a great infield defense behind him with lots of run support and a chance at a playoff run. If Buchholz can establish himself as a sturdy enough quality starter he might have one more good multi year deal ahead of him, which would motivate him to pitch at someplace like Oakland on a short deal.

The A’s took Tyson Ross in the second round of the 2008 draft and then traded him to the Padres in 2012 when he couldn’t quite put it all together in the majors. Of course, as soon as he was traded it all seemed to click for Ross who made an All Star game appearance in 2014. The Padres traded the 6-6 righty to the Cardinals during the 2018 stretch run after Ross had made a comeback from a lost 2016 and a disastrous 2017. Tyson all but ditched his sinker and became a fastball/slider pitcher. That may be a big part of his revival. He definitely fits the description of a high risk pitcher, but he went to high school and college in the Bay Area and he knows he would get a shot at 32 starts with the A’s, so Oakland might have a leg up on signing him.

I’m not sure if Lance Lynn is a great fit as the A’s seem to prefer strike throwers and Lynn walks a few too many (same with Francisco Liriano who I left off this list), but Lynn’s fastball picked up a couple ticks this season as was his K rate, and he threw 29 starts. He also suffered some bad luck which negatively impacted his ERA – a .364 BABIP against him. Lynn is 31, and didn’t draw a lot of attention in the free agent market last season. The A’s could probably get him for 2 years at under $10 million a year if they are patient.

Gio Gonzalez is another pitcher who walks a few too many for the A’s liking, but he is durable, made 5 excellent starts down the stretch for Milwaukee, and at 33 without much zip on his fastball is unlikely to get much more than a one or two year deal. For the A’s in 2019, he would slot into the one spot if they got him, and his numbers would benefit from pitching in Oakland if they needed to trade him.

It is a challenge to go into a season so unsure of your starting rotation, but the A’s showed they are capable of winning even without the standard mix of starters. The win projections for the A’s before their rotation started to fall by the roadside were mostly in the 70’s, so to win 97 games after losing so much of their rotation was some kind of baseball magic. As long as Oakland avoids the temptation to throw money at long term starting pitching this year – and then goes for it in 2020 once they know how their starters have fared in their recoveries – then their long term prospects should still point upward. They have a good, young core that should carry them for the next few years and if they can finally figure out a stadium solution with the expected revenue bump that goes with new digs the future could be quite rosy. Of course, like my wife says, it all depends on their pitching.

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Small Sample Sizes in the NL West

How fun is the start of the baseball season? Your guy might win 30 games or hit 162 home runs and your team might vault from last to first, because small sample sizes are ever so enticing and often misleading. Here is something new from Red Seam Dreams – a glance at the joy of small sample size starts in one division. Here is a quick look at one player from each team in the NL West for your perusing pleasure.

The season has just started and we are still waiting to see which Yasiel Puig the Dodgers get this season. Will they get 2017 Yasiel who hit 28 bombs and had an OPS+ of 118 or the 2015 and 2016 Yasiel who only managed 11 home runs in each of those partial seasons? So far he has struggled with the bat and doesn’t have a home run yet through 60 at bats. He is popping up more often and his exit velocity is down. A quick look at how pitchers have worked him so far – it’s interesting to note that they are throwing him a lot more changeups, around 14% of the time up from just over 7% last season. He has never faced the change even 10% of the time in his career. Pitchers are likely to continue throwing them too because he is having a hard time with the pitch – more so than with any pitch aside from the cut fastball which not everyone throws. So, there might be a new early season book on Puig that says mix in the changeup often. Until he starts crushing or laying off changeups it seems that pitchers can succeed with the slow ball.

Chad Bettis made an emotional return to Denver last season after beating cancer. His first start, adrenaline field or not, was possibly the best of his 2017 season, but the season as a whole was not good. Thus far, Bettis is off to an excellent start – or is he? He is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.44 through his first four starts, but if you look under the hood it seems that Chad has been quite lucky so far. The BABIP against him is .217, which means when hitters put the ball in play, they have tended to hit it right at defenders. That number will not hold up over the course of a season – his career BABIP is .311. Bettis was previously counted on to provide solid innings and keep his team in the ball game without taxing the pen too much. The Rockies rotation has improved which makes it tougher on guys like Bettis to hold their rotation spot. Two other stats that could ultimately work against our guy Chad. His fastball velocity hasn’t made a comeback since his health issues. He has lost a bit over 2 MPH off his fastball. That combined with a slight uptick in the velocity of his change means the separation between the two has diminished which could make both pitches less effective. So far his change has been quite effective while his fastball has not. So root for Chad, pray for Chad, but keep an eye on Chad because he might be the Rockies starter most likely to regress as the season progresses.

Zack Greinke had a rough spring and probably scared the crap out the Diamondbacks with his calf injury and his annual fears about how his velocity just isn’t coming back and maybe this is when he finally loses it and should I have invested in Facebook stock?! Yes, Greinke’s velocity is down. His average fastball has dropped each of the last three seasons and so far this year has dipped below 90 MPH. His changeup has also dropped in velocity so the separation between the two pitches has remained relatively constant, which is probably why his change has been a consistently effective pitch for the last six seasons. An interesting note about the start of his season so far that seems to fly in the face of his declining velocity is that his strikeout rate is up over 11% while his walk rate is down at about 0.5 walks per nine innings. So he is spending more time in the strike zone with an increasingly below average fastball velocity, but getting more swinging strikes and more strikeouts – weird. He is also giving up home runs at the highest rate of his career but that’s the beauty of small sample sizes – it creates weird numbers that look like they might portend something. His WHIP is 1.00 and his ERA is 4.13 so even with the home run spike he is ok. It is possible that Greinke has changed his approach based on the strike zone numbers, but the drop in velocity is probably the most telling number for the 34 year old. He will have to adjust his approach and that might be what we are seeing.

Walk up to any serious baseball fan and say, “Did you hear about Tyson Ross?”, and you would probably get a response like, “Oh – is he on the DL again?” When he signed with the Padres, expectations weren’t high. He came back from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last year and was not worthy of a roster spot. But today Tyson Ross is your small sample size bit of joy from the Padres. Through three starts, Tyson Ross has thrown 18 innings with an ERA of 3.50, a WHIP of 1.22 and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.50. Even more encouragingly, Ross’ batted ball numbers – percentage of hard hit balls, ground ball percentage – are right in line with when he was good, and his walk numbers are even better. His velocity is down from 2016 but still respectable at a touch over 92 MPH. He seems to have ditched his change – not that he threw it often – and is now throwing the slider quite a bit more. His BABIP is a tiny bit low which means he might come back to the pack a bit, but right now it is all sunshine and cake for the Padres and in the Ross household – at least the Tyson Ross household.

The Giants are holding off from that rebuild just like a guy who was told he is diabetic going on a pastry binge before he starts his diet in earnest. They went the other direction this summer and picked up some veterans at third and in two outfield spots. Their eights starting position players are all between 27 and 32, except for Hunter Pence, who is 35. Not sayin’ it’s good or bad – just pointing it out so keep your AARP missives to yourself. Pair that older lineup with a starting rotation that is top heavy, and you had better hope your training staff is the best in baseball. Uh, well, to start the season the Giants lost the heavy part of the top heavy rotation with Bumgarner, Samardzija, and Cueto all spending time on the DL already. Cueto is back and pitched great against the Diamondbacks, but the other two are still on the shelf, although Shark is coming back this week. Obviously in the face of all that disabled list badness someone had to step up to keep from destroying the arms of the bullpen pitchers at the start of the season. The shining beacon of light has been 27 year old Chris Stratton. Baseball Prospectus pegged him as a possible breakout for 2018 because his curveball had the highest spin rate of any pitcher in baseball in 2017. They posited that if he threw his curveball more often he could turn from average arm into something of a find. So do the Giants read Baseball Prospectus? Apparently not because Stratton has actually thrown his curveball a bit less often than he did in 2017. The most significant change in pitch frequency has been a decrease in the use of his changeup, a return of his sinker, and a slight increase in the use of his slider. So why is Stratton off to such a good start through four starts (2.22 ERA and a WHIP of 0.90? Take a look at these three numbers – 0 home runs surrendered through 24.33 innings, 2.59 walks per nine down a walk and a half from his career average, and a BABIP of .231. One of those appears to be real while the other two are most likely the output of Stratton’s dirty Superman underwear he refuses to wash – luck. One can only hope that Stratton actually has Superman underwear that he wears every time he toes the rubber, but that is only speculation. Zero home runs allowed and a BABIP of .231 are both unsustainable and both numbers will increase. But, if Stratton can keep the walk numbers down and maintain his strikeout rate at just above 7 per nine, he might keep his ERA under 4.00 for the season. If he can pitch in 30 or so starts with those kinds of numbers then the Giants have a find and a prayer.