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!

 

Bryce Harper Without a Curly ‘W’ On His Chest

What would the Nationals outfield look like without Bryce Harper? Would it look like sadness, or the death of hope and joy? Well, neither actually, which is why the Nats should say goodbye to their fashion model superstar and embrace their exciting new future.

Yes – Bryce Harper is exciting and a great draw as well as a productive offensive force. Losing him from any roster will hurt. But the Washington Nationals are one of the few teams who are in position to move on gracefully from his departure. This may be better suited for a discussion of the Most Valuable Player Award, but if you think about teams absorbing the loss of a single player and what that would mean to their ability to compete, it would seem to be an important part of the MVP discussion. Since the term, “valuable”  is part of the name of the award, context comes into play. If the award was the Best Player award then there would be no need to look at the team at all and one large layer of context would become moot. But value is a context dependent term so there are many pieces that define value from the most obvious – performance – to the more esoteric like positional scarcity and organizational depth (which is tied to scarcity), as well as things like strength of the team around the player. If I am a 7 WAR player surrounded by two 6 WAR players and a 5 WAR player then am I as valuable to a team as a 6 WAR player on a team with no other players with a WAR value above 4? The answer to that question depends on your own personal beliefs – kind of like how you feel about pineapple on pizza and probably equally likely to incite passionate argument. The Nationals have to be thinking about all of these things as the day comes when they have one last chance to sign Bryce Harper after he has received a number of contract offers from other teams – other teams with more money than the Nationals. So let’s start with Harper, using WAR and wRC+ to analyze him as a hitter and as a whole player. Once we are clear about what he is then we can look at what a post-Harperian outfield would look like.

Starting with WAR, Harper has been a regular since he was 19 in the 2012 season so we have 7 seasons to examine.

Season (Age) WAR WAR Ranking
2012 (19) 4.4 45
2013 (20) 4.1 57
2014 (21) 1.6 264
2015 (22) 9.3 1
2016 (23) 3.0 111
2017 (24) 4.8 33
2018 (25) 3.5 78

The outliers are his 2015 season when he produced 9.3 WAR and lead all of baseball, and his 2014 season when he was only good for 1.6 WAR. He is about to play a season as a 26 year old so there may very well be improvement left in him. However if you just look at what he is now then he is a 4 WAR player which is Hall of Fame level production. Let’s say Harper plays for 18 seasons and averages 4 WAR – that puts him around 72 WAR – that’s Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson territory. WAR includes all aspects of his game, and Harper’s WAR is hurt by his mixed defensive metrics, but his offensive profile is a bit mixed too as his batting average has varied quite a bit from a high of .330 in 2015 to a low of .243 in 2016. Harper now has two seasons above .310 and two seasons below .250 – and that’s just in his last four seasons! Remember that Harper just played his age 25 season so he is still somewhat of a work in progress – weird, I know to talk about a player with 184 home runs that way, but that is why Harper’s contract situation is so unusual. We don’t often see players reach free agency with so much more development potential. For a finer look at just his offense, let’s look at Harper’s wRC+ and only take into account his ability to create runs in a neutral environment.

Season (Age) wRC+ wRC+ Rank
2012 (19) 121 56
2013 (20) 137 26
2014 (21) 115 81
2015 (22) 197 1
2016 (23) 111 76
2017 (24) 155 7
2018 (25) 135 17

Harper’s “offense only” profile still has a lot of up and down to it with the outlier happening in 2015 when he created 97% more runs than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, Harper can be counted on to produce somewhere around 140 wRC+ which would make him a top 20 hitter in most seasons, with the possibility to be the best hitter in all of baseball or drop to the top 75.

Let’s quickly address Harper’s defense. It is generally agreed upon that defensive metrics are the least accurate of all the statistics. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful, just that it is important to look a little deeper and take attempts to turn defense into just one number with a grain of salt. So let’s look at two of those grains of salt first. Here is Harper’s defensive career as an outfielder (mostly in right) reduced to three stats.

Season (Age) dWAR (all outfield positions) DRS (In right only) UZR/150 (in right only)
2012 (19) 6.7 -1 6.3
2013 (20) -1.3 2 23.6
2014 (21) -3.5 1 15.0
2015 (22) -10.2 6 -5.1
2016 (23) -1.7 -3 5.9
2017 (24) -2.0 4 4.6
2018 (25) -18.1 -16 -15.4

All three stats above reduce fielding to runs saved so that you can compare. Negative values mean the player cost the team that many runs. Depending on which number you peruse, Harper looks like an average defender in most seasons – maybe a little better at times and sometimes not so great. Last season looks like quite a large outlier on the negative side of the ledger. So here is one more stat to look at to give that ugly 2018 some perspective. Since 2012, Nat’s pitchers have increased their strikeout rate by about one k per nine innings cutting into the number of balls hit to Harper in right field. So Harper’s chances have dropped making any slips in play stand out even more. Looking at one more set of numbers – Inside Edge Fielding which puts every ball hit near a fielder into buckets based on their perceived difficulty. There are six groups ranging from “Routine” to “Impossible”. Over the last two seasons, Harper has made all 295 plays that were categorized as routine. In 2018 there were only 17 balls in total that fell into the next three most difficult categories – “Likely”. “Even”, and “Unlikely”. That means that not making a couple of those plays for whatever reason would have a disproportionately large impact on his defensive numbers. In fact, he had his worst numbers in two of those three categories. Basically, yes, he had a rough year with the glove, but it wasn’t the disaster that his DRS, UZR, and dWAR made it out to be. It is likely that Harper will return to his average numbers next year unless he gets unlucky – it is unlikely that he turned into a horrible fielder as a 25 year old. Basically, he is an average fielder who is a bit volatile as a hitter, but who has a very high floor and a tremendous ceiling. So that’s Harper. But if we are looking at what it would mean for him to leave, then we need to look at the likely starting trio and 4th outfielder if Bryce takes his fabulous hair to Philly, or somewhere else that’s not DC.

If you followed baseball at all last season, then you know about Juan Soto, the rookie left fielder who played the 2018 season as a 19 year old. He destroyed minor league pitching, completely skipping over triple-A, then mashed big league hurlers by accumulating 146 wRC+ in 116 games and 494 plate appearances. His 3.7 WAR placed him 42nd in all of baseball even though he only spent about 2/3 of the season in the bigs. His wRC+ was good for 10th. He gets on base, hits for average, and has tremendous power (not to mention one of the coolest nicknames in recent sports history – Childish Bambino). His defense wasn’t great, but you could chalk that up to small sample size. He is very athletic but will likely be a corner outfielder. Let’s say he is an average defender or slightly below at the moment, but he has a chance to be more. He is already a starter and possibly somewhere between starter and superstar.

Victor Robles has hovered between the 1st and 10th best prospect in baseball for a couple seasons now and only an injury stopped him from making a real debut last year. He was kept to 65 games and 265 plate appearances including 66 in DC for the Nationals. 0.5 WAR and 131 wRC+ in a very small sample has everyone excited because that is what his profile has looked like for a while. You can’t exactly extrapolate to 660 plate appearances and say he is already a 5 WAR player, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Robles could put together a 4 WAR season in 2019. Robles isn’t just a bat and can legitimately hold down center field. He is an old man compared to Soto playing last season as a 20 year old, but if Harper moves on it is almost certain that Robles starts the season in the Nationals outfield.

Then there’s the veteran, Adam Eaton. The old man – he played at 30 in 2019 – is a fantastic leadoff hitter. He has lost a lot of time the last two seasons to injury but when he was on the diamond he was a star. Eaton doesn’t have much power but he gets on base by hit and by walk amassing a .394 on-base percentage last season. In 370 plate appearances in 2018 he put together a wRC+ of 123 and contributed 1.9 WAR. His last two full seasons – 2015 and 2016 – he had wRC+ numbers of 121 and 116 respectively with WAR of 5.8 and 4.5. At 30, and taking into account his injuries, it would be fair to expect a 3 WAR season out of Eaton either at a corner or in center. If Robles takes the center field spot and the Nats send Eaton to left, then the veteran will likely be an above average defender.

Michael Taylor is a free agent as of this writing. At 27 he has already exhausted his prospect status and after a breakout 2017 where he produced 3.1 WAR and his only wRC+ above 100 (104), he disappointed enough in 2018 to make it unlikely that he would be handed a starting job by a contending team. He would, however, make an excellent 4th outfielder for the Nationals based on his speed, his power, and his excellent defense. Taylor is a legit centerfielder and could start for almost any team in center if defense was the only requirement. Taylor’s problem is that he strikes out a lot – 31.4% of the time in his career which now extends to just over 1600 plate appearances. So let’s say Taylor signs somewhere else and the Nationals are forced to sign or trade for some outfield depth as their triple-A club comes up short after Robles. There are a lot of 4th outfielder types available – maybe not as talented as Michael Taylor – but it won’t be hard for them to fill that spot. It is unlikely that the Nationals would flip shortstop Trea Turner back to the outfield after a good defensive season at shortstop considering that his one year in the outfield was ugly, from a statistical standpoint. Carter Kieboom is only 21 and just finished a solid season at double-A, so Turner won’t feel any pressure from below for at least another season, but it depends on how the Nationals view the speedy Turner moving forward and whether or not they see Kieboom as their shortstop of the future.

An outfield of Eaton, Robles, and Soto, relies on two young players to develop into steady producers and a veteran to stay healthy. It looks like a good bet from here. Yes, Robles could take some time to become a start but even if he is just average, the Nationals outfield would still be one of the top 10 outfields in baseball. If Robles puts up a 3 WAR season in centerfield and Soto is even close to what he was last year, then the Nationals could have the best outfield in baseball. Harper is going to be expensive – possibly more expensive than any player in the history of baseball. The Nationals could do a lot with that money if they spend it elsewhere or even spend half of it elsewhere. They just signed Patrick Corbin to bolster their rotation – money that clearly makes it harder to sign Harper to a long term deal widely expected to be the highest in the history of baseball. As hard as it will be for DC to cut ties with Bryce Harper, there is no way they should try to outbid one of the deep pocket teams to sign him. Say goodbye to Bryce Harper, Nationals fans, and embrace your new, exciting outfield.

 

Dark Times By The Bay

In baseball, when a team wins the World Series many sins can be forgiven. When a team wins the World Series three times in the span of five seasons then it would seem all sins should be forgiven for a decade at the very least. How many teams have even done that in the history of the Major Leagues? The Yankees (duh – multiple times), the Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Tigers, and the A’s have pulled off three wins in five seasons. It happens more often than one would think mainly because of the Yankees, but it is rare enough that only five franchises have ever managed the feat. So you would think that the San Francisco Giants fans would be content with whatever the team can manage these days since they were the last club to pull it off with their third win coming in 2014. In baseball years that’s pretty much a week ago, so why does there seem to be so much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the orange and black loyalists? It is easy to understand why Giants’ fans might have become spoiled and also why they find it hard to give up on their hopes of another title considering their payroll – just over $221 million to start the 2018 season – good for first in the bigs. But all the money in the world (in the days of salary caps) can’t guarantee a deep postseason run. This is especially true when one of the reasons your payroll is so high is that your team is old. The Giants as I mentioned, as well as the Nationals, Mets, Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays all missed the playoffs entirely and had team salaries in the top 9.  But age isn’t the only reason the Giants missed the postseason and are likely to miss it for a while.

Ok, so age is part of the Giants’ problem. They had the third oldest roster (29.6 years according to Statista) in the majors in 2018. It makes sense when you think of the message they were sending to the league, which was, “We’re going for it again”. Instead of shipping off veterans to rebuild their minor league system, the Giants went out and signed veterans to shore up their lineup – 33 year old third baseman, Evan Longoria, and 32 year old outfielder Andrew McCutchen were the two biggest acquisitions. To make those signings anything other than basic wish-casting, the Giants had to feel confident that their starting rotation would be healthy and effective again – especially their big three, Madison Bumgarner (29), Johnny Cueto (32), and Jeff Samardzija (33). Well that certainly didn’t go how they’d expected it to go. Bumgarner is the only one of the big three who pitched 100 innings (129.67).  Cueto made 9 starts (53 innings) and went down for the season and possibly some or all of 2019 after his second trip to the DL. The Shark didn’t look much like a predator after losing 2 MPH off his fastball and also going down for the season with a shoulder injury (and a grotesque ERA of 6.25 after 10 starts and 44.67 innings). If not for the development of Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez, and the resurgence of Derek Holland, the Giants would certainly have lost 100 games. How embarrassing would that be to have the highest payroll in all of baseball and still go out and lose 100 games?

One of the brightest lights of the 2018 season was the re-emergence of closer Will Smith who missed all of 2017 due to injury. Smith fanned 71 batters in 53 innings, kept his WHIP to .981 and sported an ERA of 2.55. With Smith in the closer spot, Tony Watson in the setup role, and Sam Dyson contributing 70 quality innings, the pen should be a relative strength as it was in 2017. Hunter Strickland was a hot mess last year with self-inflicted DL stints and issues with wildness. The former closer has seen his strikeouts to walk ratio go down each of his four full season with the Giants, from 5.00 in 2015 to where it was in 2017 – 1.76. If he can get right and quit punching immovable objects, the Giants pen would have a deep core to build from.

With a solid pen and at least three starting pitchers who were decent, you would think the Giants would win more than 73 games, but in baseball run prevention is not enough to succeed. The Giants had the most anemic offense in all of baseball in 2018 based on wRC+. They created fewer runs after adjusting for park and league than even the Marlins, Orioles, Tigers and Padres, and this after signing Longoria and Cutch. While Longoria had a subpar season generating 0.4 WAR (Fangraphs version) with a wRC+ of 85 (15% below league average), McCutcheon actually had a good season before he was traded to the Yankees – wRC+ of 115 during his time in SF to lead the team. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey were the other two Giants who posted wRC+ scores above league average (100) at 107 and 106 respectively, but both players finished the season on the DL. That may sound like bad luck, but with Belt at least, injuries are part of his profile. Only once since 2013 has the man with the name made for a power hitter played in at least 150 games. Belt appeared in only 112 games last year and 104 in 2017 so counting on much more is unwise even though he is only 30. Buster Posey, who moms everywhere want for their son-in-law,  has been quite durable, especially for a catcher, but he had off-season hip surgery, and at 31 it is possible that a decline phase might be starting for him. In fact maybe it already has begun as Posey hasn’t posted a 5 WAR season since 2015. Joe Panik, a relative baby in the lineup at 28, was besieged by injuries last season from a torn ligament in his thumb to a strained groin, and he posted his worst season since becoming the starter at second base. Panik, with a 75 wRC+ picked up most of his value with the glove as his bat sure wasn’t getting it done. The Giants should get a better version of Joe Panik in 2019, but Joe isn’t enough to carry an offense. At his best, Panik is around league average – nothing wrong with that. Brandon Crawford will turn 32 during the off-season and has posted two sub 100 wRC+ season in a row (85 & 93 respectively). This is likely the new normal since most of Crawford’s value comes from his excellent glove work and even at his peak he was only a bit above league average with the stick. This isn’t meant to denigrate B-Craw’s value – three Gold Gloves at short and two All Star Game appearances (including last season) would make any team happy, but we are talking about the Giants’ offense, and while Crawford contributes plenty for his position, it isn’t like he is Manny Machado. For some perspective the Giants had Crawford batting 8th  to start the season, moved him around between the 6, 7, and 8 holes for most of the first half, and then once injury and ineffectiveness turned them almost completely punchless, they moved him around in the middle of the batting order.

So what’s left to look at if we want to see where the Giants can produce some runs? The outfield, often a source of offense for most teams, struggled to get it done. Gorkys Hernandez played in 142 games with a wRC+ of 83, up from 76 in 2017. Hernandez is 31 so he is mostly a known quantity, and if he is starting most of your games in center or left then you are in serious trouble. He is a capable defender but eats outs like Pacman eats dots. Steven Duggar took his job and pushed Gorkys to left. Hernandez is a 4th outfielder at best. He can punch the occasional homer, play all three outfield spots, and pinch run. He should not under any circumstances get 500 plate appearances if your goal is to win, unless he is surrounded by a tremendous offense, which was not the case in San Francisco. There’s Duggar who in his rookie season showed promise with his speed and glove. He wasn’t much of an upgrade over Hernandez, but if he can repeat his walk rate from the minors – around 12% instead of the 6.6% he showed in limited time in the bigs, then he will be an upgrade and an adequate starting center fielder. Shoulder surgery ended his season, but he should have enough time to recover so that he can start on opening day.

Hunter Pence lost the starting job and will play the 2019 season as a 36 year old. He is a free agent and he is still a lot of fun to watch with his twitchy, funky way of doing everything, even as he declines. His power and ability to get on base haven’t been on display since 2016 so if he still wants to play he will likely need to sign a minor league contract. With 248 plate appearances last season, he hurt the team’s offense more than most with his wRC+ of 62. Chris Shaw was another rookie who tried to take an outfield spot. The rookie has good power, but no other established offensive skills. He has shown the ability to take a walk and to hit for average at times, but he has done neither consistently and his swing and miss rate is untenable. When you strike out 34% of the time at triple-A, really the only way for you to get a chance to play in the majors is if the big club has no offense to speak of. Austin Slater also received a decent amount of playing time because of the Giants offensivocalypse. He is a left fielder/first baseman but is really a bench bat, not a starter as he is neither fast enough nor powerful enough to generate enough runs to get a lot of starts. He lives and dies by his batting average and doesn’t walk enough to be a leadoff hitter so again – bench bat.

An outfielder who can easily hit 20 home runs should be a shoe-in to start in San Francisco, but Mac Williamson’s profile comes with a low batting average and low on-base percentage. In 339 plate appearances in the majors over four seasons, the 6’4 power hitter has a slash line of .222/.295/.386 with 13 home runs and 84 wRC+. He has never hit above .269 in triple-A and has a decent amount of swing and miss in his game – a career 28% strikeout rate. That said, this is the kind of hitter who needs a chance to start everyday to see if he can be a regular left-fielder or just an emergency guy who gets stashed in the minors. He would need to hit above .240 to succeed in the majors as something like a 7-hole hitter. At 28 it’s too late to call Williamson a prospect, but he might be a useful part, and the Giants shouldn’t bury him in the minors like they did after in 2018 – he battled some injuries including a concussion and spent the rest of the season after June 22nd as a Rivercat amassing 13 home runs in 182 at bats. One other number in his favor is that in limited playing time, Williamson has put up 5 defensive runs saved playing mostly left field. Giving him at least a half season as the starter would make a lot of sense if the Giants choose not to empty their pockets for free agents.

So the picture at the major league level should be clear by now. There just isn’t much offense there  and what is there is carried by stars in their decline phase. The starting pitching, which should be a strength, is thin if the veterans can’t contribute. The pen is a relative strength. When a team is getting older, like the Giants, they generally reach a point where they have to decide to make a last run or start a painful rebuild, or if the organization has been smart about maintaining their farm system, something in between. Look at what the Yankees are doing right now retooling with Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar, in addition to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Of course, not everyone is in the same position as the seemingly infinitely resourced Yankees, but other teams have put themselves in similar spots – the Astros and the Dodgers for example.

What influences teams to choose one path over another? If an organization doesn’t have money then the choice is forced upon them. If they can’t win now, then they have to start to retool/rebuild in the hopes that everything will align properly this time. But if your club has money, like the Giants, then you have to look at your minor league system. Do you have the parts to trade for that last piece or two that you need? Do you have a top prospect or two who you can just promote to fill a hole? And then there is one other consideration. Is your minor league system even good enough that trading away the pieces of value from your major league roster will put you in a position to make a run soon? If the answer to that last question is no, then does it even make sense to start a rebuild without the even more painful step of tearing it down to the studs and tanking for a few years to get a handful of very high draft picks? That’s a lot of questions, but that’s because teams like the Giants are in a very difficult position with an aging team and a very weak farm system. How weak is it? Depending on the source you pick, the Giants have between 0 and 2 top 100 prospects – Heliot Ramos shows up around 100 on some lists and not at all on others while Joey Bart, who was just drafted appears on some mid-season updates based mostly on his promise. The consensus is that the Giants have one of the five worst farm systems in baseball. The Giants just hired a new President of Baseball Operations – Farhad Zaidi, from the Dodgers – who is tasked with rebuilding the franchise while still keeping butts in their beautiful stadium’s seats. The question he faces is “to tear down or not to tear down?”.

The Cubs and Astros proved that the fans will come back after a teardown if you can provide them with a winning team. But boy are those three to five years painful! Here is the dichotomous off-season situation for Giants fans right now. The two biggest rumors in baseball involve the Giants either going hard to sign top free agent Bryce Harper or trading away their most valuable if not their best player, Madison Bumgarner which one would assume would trigger a fire sale and the beginning of a massive rebuilding effort. Either route is precarious. Signing Harper and calling it a day will not add enough offense although it will put butts in the seats by giving the Giants the star power they need to draw fans. Trading away MadBum would cost them fans for sure and once he is moved, presumably for prospects, then aside from Buster Posey, there would be nobody on the roster that the fans would come to watch while the Giants lose. In fact, if you trade Bumgarner would it even make sense to keep Posey once he proves that his hip is sound? The same question would apply to Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. The team would need to try to trade them for prospects with the understanding that these veterans won’t be around when the Giants are ready to win again. The Giants would be rebuilding their system in the hopes that the one or two players near the top 100 pan out, and that at least a couple of the players they get back from trades eventually make it as regulars in San Francisco. They would also have to count on drafting well with their higher picks once they have scrubbed their team of championship quality players and they would need to develop a star or, if they are lucky, more than one star. And then at some point it would make sense for the Giants to start spending money on proven talent again.

Or, the Giants could try to spend their way through the hard times without the tear down and hope they draft well and get very lucky with their picks, but other teams in the NL West are already better positioned to succeed in the next 3 years. In that atmosphere they would have to be supremely lucky to win anything and would have to succumb to the rebuild at some point anyway. The Padres have a superior farm system with both depth and star quality. The Dodgers have depth at the top levels, plenty of talent to win now, and deep pockets. The Rockies also have a superior major league club, including young quality starting pitching under team control – a rare commodity – plus some talent ready to emerge from the minors, and more depth in their system than the Giants.

Faced with no clear path to victory now or in the future, it is indeed a hard time to be a Giants’ fan. The Giants shouldn’t choose the path to take, instead they should let the path choose them. They should put out feelers for trade partners willing to overpay with prospects for everything on their roster including their mascot Lou Seal, while at the same time going hard after Bryce Harper and either another bat or a starting pitcher. Whichever path works out is the path the Giants should commit to with everything they’ve got. No time to be indecisive which sounds ironic after that last sentence, but in baseball, like in life, forcing it isn’t usually the best strategy. The Giants aren’t obviously in a position to either rebuild or compete, but circumstance might dictate the wisest path and that’s what Farhan Zaidi’s real job is. Find the best path for his well heeled but flawed club in their time of trouble.

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.

A Window In The Rockies And How To Exploit It

by Jim Silva

 

The Rockies made the playoffs last year, but unless you live in Colorado you may not have noticed. It was a big deal in Colorado because the Rockies hadn’t seen the post-season since 2009. The NL West was the toughest division to climb out of last season with the Rockies finishing third, winning 87 games, and grabbing the second Wild Card spot after Arizona, their division mate. In what most would think of as a twist, the Rockies thrived on the backs of a young pitching staff. It looked like their hitting succeeded if you didn’t pay attention to park adjusted stats. Only three full-time position players who wore the Purple and Black garnered at least 100 wRC+ (where 100 is average) which looks at runs created by a player and adjusts for park and league. The team wRC+ ranked 12th out of 15 National League teams. So as strange as it is to hear this uttered about a team that finished first in the NL in runs scored, the Rockies need more dudes who can hit.

You probably already know this, but Coors field is the most hospitable hitting environment in the MLB. The 2017 Park Factor, which calculates how easy it is to score runs in a given stadium, scores Coors Field at 116 where 100 is neutral, with scores above 100 favoring hitters over pitchers. For reference, Arizona’s home park comes in second at 105 and at the other end are the Padres and Mets home parks at 95. What this means is hitters get a tremendous statistical boost (about 16 percent above league average) when playing in Coors Field while pitchers stats take a pretty substantial hit. This is a simplification, as individuals get different benefits and penalties based on what kind of players they are. What this means is that park adjusted stats are even more important when looking at players who spend half their time in Coors Field as opposed to guys who play their home games at a neutral park. Nolan Arenado (129 wRC+), Charlie Blackmon (141 wRC+), and Mark Reynolds (104 wRC+, but below average WAR because his defense and base running numbers dragged it down) were the only above average offensive contributors among Rockies position players who were with the team most of the season. So ignoring Arenado and Blackmon who produced above average wRC+ (again, which is park adjusted) and had WAR above 2.0, let’s look at the rest of the position players to find places where change seems particularly necessary.

Generally speaking, the easiest places to add offense are at first base and left field as they are the least defensively challenging spots on the field, assuming you are a National League team – so no designated hitter. The Rockies planned on playing Ian Desmond at first base after spending $70 million to ink him to a deal before the season. Never mind that Desmond had never played first base. When Desmond broke his left hand during spring training, the Rockies brought back Mark Reynolds, who had signed a minor league deal after being their primary first baseman in 2016 when he played replacement level ball. In 2017, he did the one thing he does well just like he’d done in his prime. He hit home runs in bunches – 30 of them. Normally that would be enough to call it a great season and assume that the position was filled well. Reynolds produced 104 wRC+ which means he was a slightly better than average run producer after the ballpark and the league are taken into account. But remember, Reynolds was playing at the premium offensive position on the field. 104 is fine, but nothing to get too excited about, especially when you look at the rest of his game. His base running was below average and his fielding was actually poor, which is odd when you take into account that Reynolds is a former shortstop. His dWAR was -1.2, which means he cost the team runs with his glove. If you look at the totality of Mark Reynolds, he added runs with his bat and gave back some of that contribution with his glove and his base-running. So he ends up being a 0.9 WAR guy which is somewhere between a triple-A replacement and a low level major league starter. This is not intended to knock Reynolds – he filled in admirably for Desmond, but he was filling in, and should not have received almost 600 plate appearances for a playoff team. So first base is one spot where the Rockies will have to improve if they are going to beat their 87 wins from 2017.

Left field was mostly a hot mess for the Rockies in 2017. Gerardo Parra played good defense and contributed 90 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. He spent most of his time in the field playing left (a little under 80%), but also put in some time in right with a few more innings in center and at first. Raimel Tapia spent a little less than half his time in left and most of the rest in right. His wRC+ of 81 was achieved in 171 plate appearances – he is just 24 and this was his first significant exposure to big league pitching. About 75% of Ian Desmond’s time with the glove was spent in left. His spring training injury that put him on the DL to start the season meant that he only reached 373 plate appearances. He put up a wRC+ of 69, which was definitely not what the Rockies expected when they signed him. A couple other guys saw limited time in left, but Parra, Desmond, and Tapia got the lion’s share of time in left as well as most of the plate appearances. Since 100 is average wRC+ you can see how they did in left field – a premium offensive position. The position did not yield the offensive production one would expect in 2017.

Second base is the realm of DJ LeMahieu, who made the All Star team (his second) in 2017 and also won a Gold Glove (also his second). DJ contributed 1.8 WAR in 2017, and looking at only his offensive contribution, LeMahieu generated 94 wRC+ – slightly below average – with a line drive/ground ball swing (55.6 ground-ball percentage). He will be the starter and get almost all of the playing time at second because of his glove and probably his perceived offensive value, but objectively, he is an average to slightly above average starter and not a star, so it wouldn’t destroy the team if the Rockies chose to add more offense at the position. That is blasphemous talk in Denver where LeMahieu is well-loved, but the Rockies best prospect is a middle infielder who might be just a year away. Brendan Rodgers could push Trevor Story off short to second where Story’s defense would likely play up, and Rodgers’ overall game would likely surpass both Story and LeMahieu. This is an unlikely scenario for the start of 2018 as Rodgers just finished a full season of high-A ball, but the Rockies also have Ryan McMahon who has played some second base and appears ready for a full time spot in the Majors – more on him later.

Trevor Story was somewhat of a revelation in 2016 with a wRC+ of 122 as a true rookie. Power is Story’s game and even in a down year like 2017, he managed 24 home runs and 60 extra base hits. He is only 24, so his strikeout rate of almost 35% last season could still improve. If it doesn’t, he won’t be a regular for much longer. His wRC+ dropped to 81 – the lowest total of his pro career. His first half was just plain awful, but he rebounded to have a solid second half, and the Rockies won’t be quick to give up on a 24 year old infielder with 51 home runs in his first 875 at bats. Story is an average defender so his glove won’t push him to the bench. If Story starts out strong, the job is still his to lose, but if the Rockies drift out of contention and Rodgers looks like he is ready, Story might become a trade chip. They are not likely to get more offense at the position if Story is even halfway between his first two seasons in the majors so there isn’t really an upgrade ready for the start of the season. Colorado will stand pat for now.

Right field was formerly the realm of Cargo – Carlos Gonzalez – but he became a free agent and although it looked unlikely that he would return, that is exactly what just happened. The Rockies re-signed Gonzalez to a one year deal with a base salary of $5 million. It is unclear what his role will be – he probably will be splitting time at the corners. Gonzalez has always been streaky, but his good streaks were so good that they would carry the team for weeks. His best streak of 2017 came at the end of the season but wasn’t nearly enough to salvage an awful campaign. 84 wRC+ is unacceptable from a corner outfielder – especially one who doesn’t put up good defensive numbers anymore. David Dahl is likely to get the starting job in right. Dahl (who based on his injury history could easily be nicknamed China Dahl) missed all of last season with multiple injuries. Dahl, a former first round pick chosen 10th overall in 2012, is 23. He won the starting job with a nice half season audition in 2016 where he hit .315 and slugged enough to post a wRC+ of 113. If he can actually stay healthy, the Rockies will get the chance to see if he is the answer or a disappointment occupying another spot where they need an upgrade. He looks like he should be a solid starter but probably not a star. If he can stay healthy and come anywhere near what he posted in his half season of 2016 then that will be a tremendous upgrade from Cargo in 2017. if he is injured or doesn’t produce, the Rockies offense will be in trouble.

Catching has long been regarded as a defense first position and that may still be true, but the Rockies catching position was death to offense until they acquired Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy was a free agent and signed with the A’s. The Rockies signed prodigal son Chris Iannetta who is coming off a rebirth of sorts. Iannetta put up his first wRC+ above average since 2014 with a power and walk driven 120 wRC+. Could he do it again? Maybe. But Iannetta is 35 so it’s less likely that he is entering into a new productive phase of his career and more likely that 2017 was a blip. Iannetta should still be an improvement over the pre-Lucroy catching crew. It helps that Iannetta’s framing numbers were improved too. The Rockies have already made their catching move for the season, and it is also possible that Tom Murphy could regain some of his former prospect gloss now that he has had a normal off-season to recover from the injury that cost him the likely starting job during spring training last year. A catching tandem of Murphy and Iannetta will definitely provide more offense than the Tony-Wolters-Dustin-Garneau-whoever-else-happened-to-be-in-town-that-day group that the Rockies started with last season.

A few things could happen with the positions in 2018 that would add production to the Rockies lineup that would not involve a trade or a free agent signing. Raimel Tapia will likely improve. He is athletic, fast, and has excellent bat to ball abilities. Most of his offensive value is tied up in his speed and his ability to hit for a high batting average. He is 24, and reportedly worked hard during the off-season to add muscle. Since Tapia mostly doesn’t walk, he will need to hit over .300 and boost his slugging percentage a bit to become worth the at-bats. He has the defensive chops to easily hold down the starting job in left if his bat improves. Ian Desmond can’t and won’t be as bad as he was in 2017. If he even comes halfway back and is a 2.0 WAR player at either first base or in left, then the Rockies will have improved there as well. Ryan McMahon will be in the mix for first base and the most likely outcome is that he will end up at first with Desmond in left. If McMahon only meets his modest projections then he will be around a league average hitter. If he hits like his minor league career says he should, then the Rockies will score a lot more runs as McMahon gets on base, hits a ton of doubles, and carries a high batting average – kind of the anti-Mark Reynolds.

If the Rockies choose to spend more money, there are certainly hitters out there to be had. Logan Morrison is still out there and is coming off his best season of his career. He will be 30 this year and does two things quite well – he walks and he smashes baseballs into the stands. He put those two skills together last season to record 130 wRC+ with 38 home runs and a .353 on-base percentage due to 81 walks. Morrison is a gamble due to his age, his career .245 batting average, and his inconsistency. Still, LoMo is likely to be had for less than one would normally pay for a hitter coming off a 38 homer season. Mike Moustakas would not sniff 3rd base for the Rockies because Nolan Arenado plays all the time and is an historically great defender, but let’s say the Rockies already know they aren’t planning on signing Arenado when he becomes a free agent after this season. They could have signed Moustakas, who was certainly getting antsy to sign after his best season with the bat (116 wRC+), played him at first, and move him to third when Arenado departs for better free agent waters. Yeah, it’s a stretch and there is no comparison between the 27 year old Arenado and the 29 year old Moustakas, who just had his breakout season. But if you are the Rockies you have to look at contingency plans when you’re about to be stuck trying to sign your two best players to mega-contracts. The Moose ship has sailed as he finally yelled uncle and re-signed with the Royals for one year. Based on what the Rockies did last year when they stood pat with their rotation and were proved right, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them count on McMahon, Desmond, Dahl, and Tapia to make gains (or hope that Cargo rebounds) and fill the holes in the Rockies lineup that glared so brightly last season when they over-performed their way to the Wild Card game.