Braves Big Signing Puts Their Outfield In The Spotlight

When one door closes another one opens or so Braves fans will now believe after they saw Josh Donaldson sign with The Twins this offseason, only to have the Braves wrest Marcel Ozuna away from the Cardinals. Donaldson was the Braves big free agent signing before the 2019 season and he stepped in front of Johan Camargo to take the third base job after Camargo broke out in 2018. Now Camargo has a shot at his old job if he can stave off a charge by another youngster, Austin Riley; the Braves have some nice options to fill the spot vacated by Donaldson. Meanwhile, Atlanta now has a new outfielder to work into the lineup. They also have a glut of outfielders so this will take some sorting. Let’s do just that!

It might seem that Ronald Acuña Jr. has it all figured out at age 22 – and maybe he does – but there might still be room for growth there. A 5.6 WAR season as a 21 year old clearly establishes Acuña Jr. as a budding superstar, but comparing his minor league numbers to his big league numbers shows that he might still improve his command of the strike zone. Acuña Jr. slashed .280/.365/.518 last season and each of those numbers was down a bit from his debut – still he hit 41 bombs, scored 127 runs, and drove in 101 for a wRC+ of 126. That is a hell of a season, and he accomplished that while fanning 26.3% of the time and walking 10.6% of the time, numbers that he bested at several minor league stops. Yeah, I know – he probably won’t hit the same way in the bigs that he did in the minors, but remember that he just turned 22. Acuña Jr. is just coming into his power game so there will be some adjustments as he reacts to pitchers adjusting to him. His average dropped in the second half and he whiffed a bit more, but his power numbers increased – 21 homers in the first half in 412 plate appearances and 20 long balls in the second half in only 303 plate appearances. Defensively, Acuña Jr. improved from his debut season and saved runs afield according to both DRS (9 runs saved) and UZR/150 (2.9 runs saved). Add that to his 37 stolen bases and you have a guy who can do everything – and that is Ronald Acuña Jr..

With Acuña Jr. mostly playing center, Ender Inciarte is listed as a 4th outfielder. Having a three-time Gold Glove winner on your bench is quite a luxury and the Braves are hoping that Inciarte’s leg injuries that cost him half of the 2019 season are behind him. 2019 broke Inciarte’s consecutive Gold Glove streak at three seasons, but Ender’s game is not just defense. He was starting to show signs of more patience, at least according to his walk rate which climbed to 11.3% – his career rate is 6.9%. The 29 year old Inciarte has become a more aggressive hitter over the years, but pitchers have a hard time sneaking pitches past him – his contact is always more than 10% above league average as it was again last season. After three consecutive campaigns contributing between 2.9 and 3.1 WAR he has to be disappointed to be a fourth outfielder, but he will get his chances both as a defensive replacement and spelling all three starters, if he is healthy. His best chance to take someone’s starting job might be in right field.

Inciarte’s main competition for a starting job, right-fielder Nick Markakis, is 36 and the Braves just re-signed him to a one year deal for $4 million. Defense is not Markakis’ game, and after putting together a string of negative dWAR seasons stretching back to 2009, it will be interesting to see what the Braves prioritize in 2020. With the bat, Markakis has remained pretty steady contributing between 94 and 115 wRC+. His career slash line is pretty much what he does every year – .288/.358/.424 and while most teams have a use for that, it is hard to defend running him out there everyday to watch him give back a good chunk of what he contributes offensively with his frankly shoddy defense. Markakis only has one season as a Brave at or above 2.0 WAR – 2018 where he put up 2.6 WAR. The batting average and solid OBP are nice, but would you rather have a Gold Glover who contributes a bit less with the bat and is no slouch (Inciarte), or Markakis who is universally hated by the defensive metrics and is 7 years older than three time Gold Glove winner Inciarte?

Marcel Ozuna now owns left field in Atlanta and the signing should pay off mightily. It was a surprise that Ozuna took a one year deal, but it makes sense for him because he is coming off a bit of a down year and is most definitely betting on himself to bounce back in 2020. If I were a Braves fan I’d be drooling at the prospect of a highly motivated Ozuna looking to improve upon his disappointing 2019 where he still hit 29 home runs, put up 2.6 WAR, and slashed .243/.330/.474 for a wRC+ of 110. He accomplished that with a .259 BABIP, well below his .315 career average. With a move from a pitchers park to a good hitters park and a positive BABIP regression, Ozuna could put up a really big year. His career metrics in left field have been quite good so the Braves should get help on both sides of the ball. Projections have Ozuna hitting 30-31 homers and slashing around .272/.341/.490 – and that is projecting a positive BABIP regression still below his career mark. Don’t be surprised if Ozuna surpasses those numbers and gets some MVP love if the Braves find their way into the postseason.

Adam Duvall is probably a bench bat for the Braves, assuming health for the starters, and more time baking for the top outfield prospects. In spite of his serious pop, Duvall has some offensive limitations because of his lack of plate discipline and the strong swing and miss flavor to his game. Duvall’s career slash line is .233/.292/.461 to go with a career K rate of 27.3% and walk rate of 6.8%. At 31, Duvall is pretty much what he is – a decent bat to come off the bench when you need a home run. He also has a solid rep as a defender in the outfield in spite of metrics that disagree with that assessment – he looks average or a tick below. His time with the Braves will probably be short because of the talent already on the big club and the youngsters pushing up from triple-A.

And quite a pair of youngsters they are – Cristian Pache and Drew Waters both reached triple-A in 2019 and both are only 21. They are the Braves #1 and #2 prospects respectively and are both talented center fielders. Pache – ranked 12th overall among baseball prospects – could push Acuna to a corner right now but needs more time in the minors as his bat catches up to his elite defense. Waters – ranked 36th overall –  has plus raw power, but like Pache, needs more time to get his bat closer to his projections before the Braves will commit to him at the Big League level. If both prospects get close to their projections, the Braves will have an incredible outfield for years to come with the potential for three Gold Gloves every year. Pache started to come into his power last year so keep an eye on him. If his bat develops quickly it will be hard to keep him down on the farm.

When the Braves make me GM any second now, I will strongly encourage manager Brian Snitker to put Inciarte in right and move Markakis to the bench. Ozuna will start in left with Acuña in center until Pache is ready. I can see why they started Markakis in the past – mainly because he doesn’t work as a 4th outfielder because he can’t hang in center. Duvall doesn’t cut it in center either, but you can always push Inciarte over to center when Acuña is out and leave the corner spots to Duvall and Markakis when Ozuna sits or when a matchup dictates that Inciarte sits. The amount of talent the Braves have in the organization is amazing and that goes in spades for their outfielders (pitchers too). Obviously the Braves aren’t shy about aggressively promoting young hitters – see Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies – and Pache is such a special talent with the glove that it will be hard to avoid the temptation to bring him up if they are in the hunt. The Ozuna signing was smart and makes it so the Braves don’t have to push Pache or Waters, but that won’t stop them from bringing up one of their young studs if a need arises. Watch out for the Braves outfield as they have the potential to become one of the best units in baseball as soon as this season.

Depth and Power Added to the Rays Outfield

The Tampa Bay Rays are famously a small market team that makes the most out of every bit player, every small advantage, and probably every coffee stir stick as they make a race out of the AL East. They haven’t been shy about moving some parts around this offseason, trading away a starting outfielder – Tommy Pham – and bringing two outfielders on board in Hunter Renfroe and Jose Martinez (who is only called an outfielder because it says “OF” on his baseball card). Did the Rays outfield get better or did they just shuffle deck chairs? Let’s take a look at the two trades and the prospects for the 2020 Rays outfield.

Tommy Pham is a really good hitter and will continue to hit moving forward as he creeps slowly into the decline phase of his career. One aspect of the Rays trade of Pham was that it made the Rays younger. Pham will turn 32 just before the season starts. While he appears to be the type of player who will age slowly and gracefully, everyone ages and declines, even Rickey Henderson, and so too will Pham. Hunter Renfroe, who came to the Rays in the Pham trade, turns 28 a couple months before Pham turns 32. While Pham is clearly a better hitter than Renfroe at this point, Pham is a free agent in 2021 while Renfroe is under team control until 2023. Pham was a 121 wRC+ hitter who contributed 3.3 WAR in 2019 and slashed .273/.369/.450 in line with his career numbers, but put up subpar defensive numbers. Renfroe put up good defensive numbers to get to 1.9 WAR in spite of his 98 wRC+. He has tremendous power (33 bombs in 2019) but struggles to control the strike zone – something Pham is quite good at. That said, what the Rays are probably dreaming on is Renfroe’s improved walk rate each of the last two seasons from 5.6% in 2017 to 6.8% in 2018, and 9.3% in 2019. The K rates are still frightening (31.2% in 2019) and the hit tool isn’t great, but Renfroe will be fine in the 6 or 7 hole hitting 35 homers if he walks 9% of the time like last year. Pham is settling in as a 3.5 WAR player while Renfroe is probably a 2.0 WAR player, unless there is some growth left. Either way, Renfroe will play a corner outfield spot in Tampa Bay and hit a lot of home runs while Pham does his Pham thing in San Diego.

Don’t look into Kevin Kiermaier’s piercing blue eyes or he will steal your soul. It’s good to have a superpower when you don’t hit enough to carry your position which describes Kiermaier. His baseball talent lies in his ability to track down anything hit near him in center field. After winning his second Gold Glove last season, Kiermaier will get another chance to show that he can hit enough to warrant starting. Last season was his second sub-80 wRC+ season in a row (79 in 2018 and 78 in 2018) so it is starting to look that the 29 year old Keirmaier’s bat is lost somewhere. It wasn’t always like this – he was a 104 wRC+ guy in 2016 and a 113 wRC+ guy in 2017, which is plenty good for a Gold Glove centerfielder. Multiple injuries may have sapped his offensive abilities, but the Rays can probably afford to carry Keirmaier’s bat for another season as their team wRC+ was 9th in all of baseball last season even with KK starting the majority of Rays games in center.

Boy, did Austin Meadows have a coming out party last year! Playing most of the season as a 24 year old, Meadows took a giant step forward in his first full season in the majors. A 142 wRC+, 4.0 WAR season in your first full look with the big club is the mark of a superstar, so expectations will be high for the Rays corner outfielder. Meadows looked like he might develop into a hitter who was entirely dependent on his batting average to get on base, but in 2019 he walked 54 times for a 9.1% walk rate. While that isn’t particularly sexy, 33 home runs is. Power hasn’t been Meadow’s highest rated tool and 2019 was only the 3rd season in which he had reached double digits in his entire career dating back to 2013. There were hints that this was coming as he had reached a career high in 2018 with 18 homers. Still, don’t expect Austin Meadows to turn into a 45 homer guy anytime soon, in fact don’t be surprised if his home run total slides back to around 20. His highest ranked tool has always been his hit tool, so while it is possible that a swing change was responsible for the power surge, you can count on the batting average to stick around and the power to fluctuate until he does it again. Meadows’ hard hit rate (over 45%) was high – that is certainly one way to make sure you get on base a lot – just hit the ball really hard. Whatever Meadows turns into, his slash line of .291/.364/.558 was a thing of beauty and can take a little bit of regression and still be worthy of a starting spot.

Jose Martinez came from the Cardinals where, in spite of his bat, he was stuck without a position and that is the problem with Jose – his glove really doesn’t play anywhere. I mean you can always hide a guy in the outfield or at first from time to time if he can rake, which Martinez can. But when Paul Goldschmidt is your first baseman and scouts and analysts describe you as a butcher in the outfield, AND your team has a truckload of outfielders who can actually play the position, you won’t get to show off your bat as often as you’d like. Fortunately the Rays play in that other league where they have that DH rule. At 31, Martinez is more or less a known quantity even though, because of his aforementioned defensive limitations, he only has 1288 plate appearances, or about two full seasons in the majors. The Cards got Martinez’ bat in the lineup by splitting his time mostly between first base and right field. He was bad at both, but more awful in right. Just turn away when he plays in the field and look back at his career slash line of .298/.363/.458 and his career wRC+ of 122. The Rays already have a bat-first guy playing first base in Ji-Man Choi and a new signing from Japan to play DH – Yoshi Tsutsugo, so Martinez will have to work to get at bats, hopefully first base occasionally, the outfield when they have to, and a lot of DH with Tsutsugo who is a lefty (Martinez is a righty).

While “Yoshi” is probably a cool enough nickname, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is one of the best home run hitters from the Nippon Professional Baseball League so he deserves a cooler nickname like “The Wakayama Hammer” or “Blast Master Yoshi”. Regardless of what we call him, Tsutsugo is a masher from Japan, who will be experiencing stateside baseball for the first time this year as a 29 year old. His game was definitely the long ball in Japan (205 career home runs), but he also drew a slew of walks. Tsutsugo is listed as a DH on the depth charts so perhaps the Rays are skeptical about his defensive game. Still, listing him here seems reasonable because Jose Martinez is listed as an outfielder and Tsutsugo was an outfielder in Japan. Until you see him hit in Spring Training and regular season games, it will be hard to say what he can do as there aren’t even projections for him yet. That said, plate discipline is plate discipline. We will have to wait and see about how the power translates.

Last season, depth was a concern for the Rays, and they seem to have taken care of that with moves to bring in Martinez, Renfroe, and Tsutsugo. Another outfielder who came over in the Martinez trade from the Cardinals was Randy Arozarena, who appears ready for the majors after slashing .358/.435./593 at triple-A Memphis last year. Arozarena turns 25 just before the season starts and just had his first taste of the majors at the end of last season where he raked and got on base in 20 at bats which is barely a sip of coffee. Arozarena is probably not a star as his tools are solid across the boards, while nothing stands out at this point. Maybe his best tool is his ability to get on base and that has value. His career OBP in the minors stands at .373 and was above .420 at each stop last year. He has spent some time in center in the minors so he would be a great fourth outfielder and insurance if Kiermaier suffers another injury or gets off to a slow start with the bat. With three minor league options left, Arozarena might just be racking up serious frequent flier miles shuttling back and forth between triple-A and Tampa Bay.

There are obviously other guys sitting at triple-A who might get a chance (like Brian O’Grady), but the Rays finally have enough depth that they don’t need to bring those guys up yet. Unlike last season, they have enough pieces in the majors to withstand an injury or two. It is likely that the starting outfield will be Kiermaier in center with Renfroe and Meadows in the corners – probably Renfroe in right. Martinez and Tsutsugo will find their way out there from time to time, but hopefully grow dust on their outfielder’s gloves. Arozarena is a better bet to take a 4th outfielder spot if there is room. He is a more complete player than Martinez and Tsutsugo (or so it seems now), but they are both capable of generating a lot of offense, where Arozarena isn’t a proven commodity with the bat yet. The Rays bench bats and newly added outfield depth should make the team more slump/injury proof and make the Yankees, if not fearful, at least attentive to what the Rays are doing in 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Guns in LA – The Dodgers Youth Aims to Take Over The Rotation

Here’s a headline that could be written about the Dodgers preseason dealings – “Dodgers watch as two-fifths of their rotation signs with other clubs”. Or someone might have written, “Crickets chirp as Dodgers watch top three free agent starting pitchers sign elsewhere”. Both headlines would be accurate, but also misleading as the Dodgers retool their rotation. As things stand, they will be younger, but will they be better? That is the question that is probably keeping Dodger fans fingernails short and ragged this winter.

The LA Dodgers have a long history of great starting pitchers and deep rotations going back to teams with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Don Sutton, or more recently Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, and Fernando Valenzuela. So when you see the rotation member (Ryu) who had the best season on the team depart in free agency, you could react a couple different ways. One reaction might be to wonder if the Dodgers were in some kind of trouble – maybe pushing up against the salary cap. One might also show some faith and think that the Dodgers have a plan. Let’s go with that second approach, that the Dodgers have a plan. With the resources available to the team and the talent they already have assembled, there is no way the Dodgers would prematurely close a competitive window. Let’s see what that plan might be.

Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best, if not the best starting pitcher in all the baseball land for most of the 2010s and still managed to finish third among Dodger pitchers in WAR in 2019 (3.4 WAR) after missing the start of the season because of his increasingly balky back. A couple of trends overlapped in 2019 for Kershaw. One, his walk rate decreased below his career rate as he only offered free passes to 2.07 batters per nine innings (career rate of 2.28 per nine). Two, his home run rate spiked to 1.41 per nine (career rate of .68 per nine). It appears he used his fastball a bit more this year, reversing a recent trend for Kershaw where he went to the slider instead of the fastball. This trend occurred as his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 MPH in 2015 to last season’s 90.5 MPH. At this point, Kershaw is throwing both the “heater” and the slider around 40% of the time. His slider and fastball are still his best pitches according to pitch values with the changeup (he threw it less than 1% of the time in 2019), which is becoming closer and closer in velocity to his fastball, being a break-even pitch at best in terms of pitch value. His big, slow curve has become less and less effective, and while it was still a positive pitch in terms of pitch value, it isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be. That could be an effect of the slower fastball or possibly a side effect of Kershaw missing time during the spring last year and being unable to get a feel for the pitch during the season. Kershaw is increasingly fighting health issues – mainly his back – while at the same time transitioning to a different stage in his career where he no longer is dominant most nights. There is a lot working against him, but he is a hard worker and very smart so betting against him figuring it out and continuing to be excellent would be foolish.

The resident ace of the Dodgers is Walker Buehler, who at 24 just keeps getting better and better – a scary thought for the rest of the NL West. In 2019, Buehler had a 5.0 WAR, increased his strikeouts per nine from 9.90 to 10.61 while decreasing his walk rate from 2.42 per nine to 1.83 per nine, and decreased his FIP from 3.04 to 3.01 in spite of an increase in BABIP against him (from .248 to .290) implying that he was much less lucky in his first full season than in his debut. Buehler is an ace on a great team pitching in a pitcher’s park. If you had to pick a nit because that’s just who you are, you might point to the increased home run rate last season from .79 per nine to .99 per nine. Beuhler threw 182.33 innings in 2019 and the 200 inning mark might be his next target after a supreme 2019 – that’s what an ace might do. With Ryu gone and no big moves to bring in a top starter on the horizon, this is Buehler’s team now.

On most teams, Kenta Maeda would be entrenched in the rotation. He produced 2.5 WAR in 2019 – his second season in a row above 2.0 WAR, and posted a FIP of 3.95. But on the Dodgers, Maeda is a swingman moving from the rotation to the pen to fill whatever hole needs filling. That might be Maeda’s role again in 2019 depending on what the Dodgers do with all their young arms. He has averaged about 24 starts a season for the last three campaigns to go with 35 appearances. In his first season in the states, 2016, Maeda was used exclusively as a starter but has nimbly bounced back and forth between the pen and rotation ever since. He has averaged at least 9 K’s per 9 innings for his career fanning 9.9 per 9 last season. It seems odd to talk about someone who has been a swingman for three seasons now as being consistent, but that’s Maeda. His FIP changes some from year to year as his home run totals vary, but he is always good for about 10 strikeouts per 9 and around three walks per 9. You’d be hard pressed to find another pitcher who is a better swingman because they either make their way into the rotation full time or are only there because they are fringy, and they fairly quickly show that they aren’t good enough to hold a rotation spot. The Dodgers would be wise to avoid fixing what ain’t broke.

Julio Urias is only 23 but we have been hearing about him for so long that it is surprising that he wasn’t Koufax’ locker mate. He had already tasted high-A (with success) at the age of 18 and was a top prospect in a deep Dodgers system for multiple seasons. Last year, Urias threw 79.66 innings in the majors, including 6 starts for the big club. He did a nice job of keeping the ball in the yard (.79 home runs per 9), and got a little lucky – low BABIP and high strand rates – with an ERA of 2.49 and a FIP of 3.43. Urias made his MLB debut in 2016 but still only has 184 innings in the majors. Is this the year he finally is handed a rotation spot and makes 30 starts? On most teams the answer would be yes, but on the Dodgers you have to keep moving not to get caught from behind. There are two guys who have caught Urias and had successful major league debuts so even though he is only 23, this is an important year for him if he wants to remain a starter. The Dodgers might also decide that the best way to keep Urias healthy is to permanently install him in the pen or make him a swingman like Maeda. Ah – the curse of having a wealth of options!

At 30, Ross Stripling, a former 5th round pick, would be a two or a three on most teams, but on the Dodgers he has mostly been the guy who fills in when someone else can’t go. He has 52 career starts and holds a career ERA of 3.51 with 8.77 strikeouts per 9 to go with 2.12 walks per 9. Those are some excellent career numbers, and he has been even better the last two seasons with K rates over nine and walk rates under two. Last year, Stripling pitched in 32 games, 15 of which he started. He induces a fair number of grounders but, in part because he throws so many strikes, Stripling is prone to the long ball with a career rate of 1.14 home runs per nine. If you are keeping track, that’s three excellent pitchers who the Dodgers move back and forth between the rotation and the pen – seems like a strategy rather than an accident. Stripling’s splits as a starter and reliever look pretty similar and a small sample size shows that he can retain effectiveness the third time through the order. He might be the guy the Dodgers try to turn into a full time starter, unless their usage pattern is how they keep him healthy. I would say watch how they open the season with him, but on the Dodgers that would be meaningless because flux seems to be their middle name.

Dustin May – Gingergaard – is a beast. The former third round pick is only 22, but made his big league debut last year making four starts and working another ten games from the pen. With a fastball that touches triple digits from the pen and averages 96 MPH, he induces a goodly number of grounders and has never allowed more than .82 home runs per nine innings at any stop in his professional career. He is stingy with the walk and in spite of his wicked heat, doesn’t get as many K’s as one might imagine. He still managed 8.31 K’s per nine with LA last year and kept his walk rate to 1.3. May has been a starter his whole career and it would be surprising for the Dodgers to do anything else with him, although it has to be tantalizing to imagine him as the heir to Kenley Jansen in the closer role. He just passed 140 innings pitched in a season for the first time in 2019 and he is young, so the Dodgers are likely to baby him a bit because they can and because he could be great. He is also fun to watch with his wild red hair flying all over the place so he is likely to become a fan favorite.

Yet another young stud, but the old man of this crop of youngsters at 25, Tony Gonsolin, made his debut for the Dodgers in 2019 and threw 40 innings for LA including six starts. Although Gonsolin throws hard like May, his best pitch is a change and he gets a lot of swings and misses with his pitch mix. Before last season, Gonsolin had shown good control and that shouldn’t be a concern going forward even after his walk rate spiked in triple-A. He seemed to mostly find his control again once he reached LA. His biggest issue might be the incredible starting pitching depth of the Dodgers and the fact that Gonsolin could provide more bullpen depth where his fastball plays up – near 100 MPH. He looked equally good in his starts so he will be in the mix to stick in the rotation with a strong spring. He has a legit four pitch mix and the Dodgers might be willing to use him for more innings than May or Urias because he is older.

In 2017, when his arm went boom, Jimmy Nelson was looking a lot like the ace the Brewers had been hoping for since they drafted him in the second round. In 29 starts he was 12-6 with a FIP of 3.05 and 10.21 K’s per nine to go with only 2.46 walks per nine. It was a huge leap for the then 27 year old, and it is hard to quantify how much losing him cost the Brewers. He finally made it back to the majors in 2019 for 22 somewhat ugly innings over three starts and seven appearances out of the pen. Nelson had neither the control nor the velocity from before his injury, but the Dodgers picked him up after Milwaukee non-tendered him. Taking a one year flyer on a veteran like Nelson is something you usually see small market teams try, and Nelson will have his work cut out for him to best some of the Dodgers young arms. If an offseason without pain, where he can train like he normally would, brings him close to where he was before the injury, then the Dodgers will have given themselves even more depth in their rotation. Watch him in the spring to see if his control is back and his velocity is back up around 94.

Oh, the depth of the Dodgers rotation! One hears so many complaints that the Dodgers didn’t make any big moves this offseason when they could have chased a top starter, but if you look at the young arms who have already shown the ability to succeed against major league hitting, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Dodgers are built to last AND built to win now in spite of what you hear from their critics. While they could probably have overpaid to attract one of the hot arms that were on the market, they would do so at the cost of slowing the development of one of their three top 100 prospect arms. (I didn’t even mention Josiah Gray who is just reaching triple-A.) Yes, it is important to win when your window opens, but imagine a team where Kershaw is your 3 or 4 which could happen as early as 2020, and you understand why the Dodgers are bearish on signing free agent starting pitchers. As of this moment, Buehler is clearly the 1 and Kershaw the 2, but it gets cloudier after that – not because there aren’t good options, but because there are so many. The safe play would be to go with Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling as the 3 and 4 (in either order) and one of the youngsters as the 5 – probably Urias to start. Gonsolin and May could be great additions to the pen right now and when a starter inevitably goes down work one or both of them into the rotation, so keeping them stretched out in the swing spot would be the way to go. The Dodgers almost can’t screw up and as the season unfolds Dodger fans will be happy that this offseason – as least as starting pitching is concerned – played out the way it did.

Nats or Phillies Outfield – Who Ya Got In 2020?

So you just opened the best present ever – that thing you wanted that does that thing you want it to do better than the other things – and you are over the moon. Nobody you know actually got that thing you got and you know your friends will be jealous, but most of them are already saying how the thing isn’t as good as everyone said it was, and you find a little bit of doubt creeping into your mind about your gift. You ask yourself if your friends are correct or maybe just jealous that you got the thing instead of them, because you know they asked for the thing too. Then you start using the thing and people REALLY start ripping your present saying how getting it was a huge mistake. So you find yourself defending the thing but feeling a bit sick until the talk quiets down because your friends have moved on to complaining about something else. Last off-season the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to be their cool new thing and that’s pretty much what they went through. In 2020, they have to hope that the noise about their outfield takes on a different quality after a disappointing 2019. Harper is theirs for quite some time and the Nationals just won the World Series with a revamped outfield after Harper left so, the question is, which team will have the better outfield in 2020 – the Phillies outfield or the Nationals outfield?

Bryce Harper wasn’t the only outfielder the Phillies signed in 2019. They also signed Andrew McCutchen to a three year deal with a team option for a fourth year. In his age 24 season through his age 28 season, Cutch finished in the top five in MVP voting each season, including winning the award in 2013. McCutchen has aged gracefully enough and maintained some of his power and all of his on-base ability. In fact his walk rate has gone up quite a bit over the last two seasons peaking in 2019 at 16.4% – 3.2% above his career rate of 12.2%. Durability has also been a big part of McCutchen’s game until last season when he hurt his knee and missed more than half the season, managing only 262 plate appearances for the year. When healthy, 33 year old McCutchen is a solid 3.0 WAR player and anyone expecting the 7.0 WAR Cutch is being strongly affected by the off-gassing from the plastic seats in Citizens Bank Park. In his prime, you could count on McCutchen to post a slash line around .310/.405/.500 with 24 homers and 20ish steals from the centerfield spot. While that ship has sailed, a health Andrew McCutchen should be counted on for .260/.370/.450 with a wRC+ of 120, so about 20% better than the average player in the majors. The biggest knock on him has been his defense in centerfield, but now that he is mostly in left field he is putting up good defensive numbers. Cutch will be back in the Phillies outfield and hopefully fully recovered for 2020.

The Nationals have a youngster in left field by the name of Juan Soto. In his first full season in the majors as a 20 year old, he slashed .282/.401/.548 and now owns a career slash line of .287/.403/.535. His 2019 was a 4.8 WAR season driven largely by his 142 wRC+ which was 12th in the majors and 6th in the NL. There are a lot of things to love in Soto’s game but what separates him from most players his age is his incredible strike zone judgement. His 16.4% walk rate placed him 6th in the majors in 2019 and when matched with his power (34 home runs in 2019), it makes him a terror to pitchers. Not surprisingly, Soto’s overall swing rate as well as his swing rate on balls out of the zone are both well below league average – 6.2% below and 8.2% below respectively. If you watched the 2019 postseason, you saw that it was really difficult for pitchers to get him to chase pitches out of the strike zone. That kind of plate discipline means pitchers are forced to throw him pitches over the plate or risk walking him, which they did (walked him that is) 108 times last season. The point of all this is that Soto is already one of the best hitters in baseball and he is about to play only his second full season at the age of 21. That is flat out terrifying. If there is a knock on Soto, it would be his defense which the numbers say was pretty close to average or a bit below. His DRS was at 1 but his UZR/150 was -1.3 so pick your poison. The eye test says he is going to be fine and his tremendous bat can cover a lot of sins. As good as McCutchen is, Soto is establishing himself as one of the three best left fielders in baseball, if not the best, so the Nationals get the nod in left field over the Phillies.

Finding a top notch center fielder is not an easy thing to do. Many teams face the choice of running a defense-first guy out there who they have to hide at the bottom of the batting order, or using a bat-first guy who they hope doesn’t stink up the joint too badly with his glove. The Phillies came into 2019 with former Rule 5 golden ticket, Odubel Herrera as their starter, but lost him to an 85 game suspension for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy. Herrera’s first two seasons showed him to be an excellent defender with speed and a bit of pop and a good bat. His wRC+/WAR numbers in 2015 and 2016 were 111/3.8 and 110/3.7 respectively so Herrera looked like one of those rare players who could defend and hit. He was basically free talent and a minor star – quite a find, especially in the Rule 5 Draft – and entering the 2017 season he was still only 26 with bright skies ahead. While Herrera’s boat didn’t sink in 2017, there was a decline as his on base percentage fell from .344 and .361 in 2015 and 2016 to .325 in part due to his return to his suboptimal walk rate. The low walk totals exposed his reliance on a high batting average to get on base. So in 2018 when his average fell to .255, it dragged his wRC+ down to 96 – just below average – and his WAR down to 0.9. His decline in  WAR wouldn’t have been as precipitous had the defensive metrics not fallen out of love with him. He went from 9.6 defensive dWAR to -9.0 dWAR between 2017 and 2018. Still, Herrera played almost every day, so there was hope that he could right the ship in 2019 in his age 27 season, but the opposite happened. Herrera slashed .222/.288/.341 in 139 plate appearances before his season ended in suspension. A -0.4 WAR (wRC+ of 64) season is hard to come back from, but a suspension for domestic abuse added to the mix might make it hard for Herrera to get another chance to reclaim his starting job. Up steps Adam Haseley.

Haseley was a first round pick in 2017 and debuted in the majors after only 78 plate appearances in triple-A after the loss of Herrera and his backup, Roman Quinn (lost to injury). Haseley will play the season as a 24 year old and did a decent job in his almost half a season audition. All five of Haseley’s homers in the bigs came against righties against whom he hit .282. He only received 52 plate appearances against lefties so his .212 average shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see him carrying the bigger part of a platoon situation until he shows he isn’t a pushover against lefties. Haseley is a good defender with some speed who hasn’t shown the power one would expect from a starting outfielder – 10 homers in 2018 split between double-A and triple-A are his season high. If he finds the power everyone expects him to develop, then he can remain a starter. If he doesn’t, then Haseley is only a stopgap as a starter, or an excellent fourth outfielder. He only has 1136 professional at bats so there is still plenty of room for growth. Haseley has shown the ability to hit for average and take walks. If he only turns into a good glove, leadoff-type hitter, then the Phillies have a starting center fielder for the future. If he adds power to his game then there is some star potential there.

Having two starting outfielders under the age of 23 who have established themselves as valuable starters is a magical situation for a major league team. That one of them is a superstar and the other is a potential perennial Gold Glove center fielder with speed and developing power is enough to make a GM’s head explode with joy. Victor Robles was a top 10 prospect for a couple of years before earning a full-time job in center field in 2019. Robles is already an excellent defender in center (24 DRS in the outfield in 2019) but his offensive game is still a bit raw. He swings at a lot of pitches but also makes contact with pitches in and out of the strike zone. He has always had a thrilling combination of power and speed which was on display last season as he hit 17 home runs and stole 28 bags in 37 tries. His slash line has room for improvement as his .255/.326/.419 shows some impatience. He walked 5.7% of the time and struck out in 22.7% of his plate appearances so his strike zone judgment could definitely improve. His 91 wRC+ isn’t bad for a defender of his caliber, but his hit tool is excellent so the .255 average was a disappointment. He will likely never walk as much as Soto so at his peak he will probably be a high average/low walk totals hitter with great speed and good power. Hitters who are dependent on a high average to carry their on base percentage can be frustrating and volatile, but Robles has so many tools that he should be valuable even in years where his average is low. The Nationals expect him to improve on his rookie 2.5 WAR campaign and be a fixture in center for years to come. At this point, the Washington club has a big edge in center field but that is all reliant on how close Adam Haseley can get to his full potential.

Bryce Harper used his bat and glove to give the middle finger to his detractors and they didn’t even know it. The narrative that Harper was a disappointment was ludicrous. The right fielder for the Phillies had his third best season in terms of WAR (4.6), with his second highest home run total (35) while putting up good defensive numbers (9 DRS and 11.0 UZR/150) after hearing all offseason that he was a liability in the outfield. He even had 13 assists! It wasn’t an MVP year but it was excellent by any standard. His walk rate was high, but so was his strikeout rate as Harper swings at  and misses a lot of pitches. Harper had a much better second half than first half, so that bodes well for an even better age 27 season from Harper. When you slash .260/.372/.510 and there are signs that it will get even better, someone has to get excited for you!

Adam Eaton plays right field for the Nationals now that Victor Robles is the starter in center. 2019 was the first season since 2016 in which Eaton managed to get through the year without sustaining a major injury that cut his season short. The former Diamondback and White Sox player just turned 31, and in 656 plate appearances last season slashed .279/.365/.428. Those numbers are clearly in line with his career numbers, but his wRC+ of 107 was his lowest since 2013. Eaton’s defensive numbers were down too with both DRS and UZR showing him to be slightly below average. So while it was great for the Nationals to be able to run Eaton out there to right field most every day, one has to wonder if all of his injuries have sapped some of his skills. Don’t get me wrong – Eaton was still good, but instead of being a minor star like he was in 2016 and the first half of 2017, he was only a solid starter. He still hits around 15 home runs a season and steals bases efficiently if not that frequently, and his BABIP was almost 20 points below his career average, so don’t be surprised if he hits .290 in 2020 and puts up a 3.0 WAR season. There is a lot to like about Eaton, but he isn’t a game changing force like Bryce Harper, so the edge goes to the Phillies here.

If I had to choose an outfield for the 2020 season I would pick the Nationals. It isn’t because the Phillies have a bad outfield – they are quite talented even though there are some questions to be answered in center field. But moving forward, the Nationals could have a great outfield as Soto – gulp – gets better and Robles continues to develop. The Phillies will get some growth from Haseley, but Cutch is in the decline phase (even if it is slow) of his career, and Harper is already great and probably about done growing, although who knows with that kind of talent. Obviously teams don’t win with just their outfield, but these two teams won’t go anywhere without good seasons from their talented outfield core. It is worth noting that each club has at least one legitimate MVP candidate in their outfield, so while it is exciting to look at that part of the roster, the Phillies and Nationals both have the depth in their lineups to get to the post-season which would be the best present ever for the fans of either team.

Cincy’s Infield Looks To Carry Their Weight in 2020

After hitting the eject button on Jose Peraza and with the signing of Mike Moustakas, the Reds have continued the reshaping of their infield that started last season when they grabbed Freddie Galvis off waivers. Don’t buy any jerseys yet kids, but the Reds seem to be moving in the right direction after a string of losing seasons dating back to 2014 – they lost the 2013 NL Wild Card game to the Pirates. They finally have a competitive starting rotation with Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Trevor Bauer at the top as well as some depth after the top three, so while it is weird to talk about a Reds team that needs their hitting to catch up with their pitching, that’s where they are in Cincy right now. So yeah, back to that infield situation.

Jose Peraza had his doubters after his productive 2018 season where he slashed .288/.326/.416 popping 14 home runs and stealing 23 bags in 29 attempts, good for a 96 wRC+ – not bad for your starting shortstop who also happened to be only 24 years old. Coming into 2019 it looked like shortstop was more or less locked down for the Reds. Turns out the doubters were right as Peraza had a horrible first half hitting only .222. The divisive infielder has never been one to let a pitch go by without hacking at it (swing rate 7% over league average), as evidenced by his OBP for the season which ended up at .285 even after a recovery of sorts in the second half where he hit .265. Peraza was unlucky with a BABIP of .265, but he didn’t set himself up for success either with a walk ratio of 4.2% when major league average is 8.5%. The Reds clearly had their doubts as they signed Jose Iglesias before the season started and then didn’t wait around to see if Pereza could regain the magic and grabbed Freddie Galvis off the waiver wire when Peraza struggled out of the gate. Pereza spent more time at second base and in the outfield in the second half. Interestingly, Galvis profiles a heck of a lot like Peraza with low walk rates but better defensive numbers. Galvis is older – 31 by the time the season starts – with more pop but doesn’t steal much anymore. He doesn’t have Peraza’s upside with the bat but he is more predictable at this point. Galvis slashed .260/.296/.438 in 2019 with 23 homers and while his defensive numbers were similar to Peraza’s at short in 2019, he is widely regarded as the superior defender.

Jose Iglesias is yet another slick fielding shortstop who refuses to walk but can hit a little (.288/.318/.407 slash line in 2019) if you can stomach all the outs he makes if he hits under .280. Iglesias is a free agent after a 1.6 WAR/84 wRC+ season so the Reds will have competition to resign him if they even want to. Iglesias will be 30 this season and Galvis, who is a very similar player, is under contract. It isn’t likely that Iglesias will wear the big red C on his chest in 2020. The Reds reportedly are looking at Francisco Lindor after missing out on Didi Gregorious, but back to Freddie Galvis – he is probably the starter for 2020 and a stopgap now that they’ve cut bait on Peraza who signed with Boston. Galvis will provide good to excellent defense at shortstop and home runs from the bottom of the lineup and a wRC+ around 80. They could do worse.

The Reds only big off-season acquisition so far, Mike Moustakas, became the poster boy for the new market for non-superstar hitters. In 2018, Moose could only get a late, one year deal with the Brewers for $7 million after hitting 38 homers in 2017 which in the past would have netted him a multi-year deal for good money. The Reds signed the infielder to a four year, $64 million deal this off-season taking him through his age 35 season. Moustakas has undeniable power with another 35 home runs in 2019 as a third baseman who also played about a third of his games at second. He put up solid defensive numbers at third and was a tiny bit below average at second, but he has more than enough bat to carry either spot even with only average defense at either spot. It seems that he will be the starting second baseman since the Reds already have third covered. He will be a significant upgrade even though he is another guy who doesn’t quite walk enough – only 7.0% for his career although last season he worked the free pass 9.1% of the time. If that improvement is real, Moose should maintain his near 3.0 WAR production and 110+ wRC+ offensive profile.

The guy standing in Moustakas’ way at third is Eugenio Suarez. Suarez keeps getting better and better with more and more power. His 49 home runs in 2019 was second in all of Major League Baseball behind only Pete Alonso. His power is even more remarkable when you consider that he only hit as many as 10 home runs once in his minor league career that spanned six seasons. Suarez is the complete package who gets on base, hits for power and plays good defense at third as you would expect from a former shortstop. 2019 was his second season in a row of wRC+ in the 130s (133) and his WAR was a career high 4.5 based in part on his defensive contributions. Suarez is only 28 in spite of his long professional career and should continue to put up star numbers for a few more years. He now drives the Reds offense and anchors the left side of the infield and with a team friendly 7 year deal for $66 million that takes him through his age 34 season, he will be a bargain for a few more years at least.

Joey Votto used to be the center-piece of the Reds offense but no longer. Last season was a mess for the guy who was once arguably the best pure hitter in baseball. Even with dropping power numbers, Votto had put up wRC+ numbers above 130 in every full season of this decade. His career wRC+ of 151 and his career WAR of 56.2 makes him a near lock for the Hall of Fame, but last season saw an alarming jump in his strikeout rate – up to 20.2% – and a dip in his batting average to .261 for a career .307 hitter. Is Votto done? It is hard to count out such a great hitter after just one average (for guys who AREN’T Joey Votto) season – he still had a wRC+ of 101, but it is such a precipitous drop from his standard that it sets off alarms. There is some good news for Reds fans in that Votto still hit the ball really hard each of the last two seasons with hard hit rates above 41% both seasons when his career rate is only 37.6%. His line drive rate was in line with his career rate, so Votto can still sting the ball. Pitchers attacked Votto with the slider more often last season and he struggled with that pitch more than he had in the past so an adjustment might bring back some of his Votto-ness. If Votto can take back some of his regression from last year either with the power numbers or the on base percentage, then the Reds will once again have an above average first baseman even if Votto is no longer a superstar. His defensive numbers have never been good so if he doesn’t do it with the bat there is no reason to keep running him out there (except for the remaining $80 million dollars left on his 10 year contract).

Even if the Reds don’t trade for a stud shortstop, their infield offense will still be greatly improved. Moustakas should provide value with his bat for a few more seasons and Galvis will provide pop and an excellent glove as a change and possibly a small upgrade from Peraza. There is probably something left in Votto’s tank so look for the Reds to improve upon their bottom half wRC+ in the NL (12th of 15 teams) to go with their improved pitching. There is a real chance that the Reds win more games than they lose in 2020 and that would be an accomplishment for Cincy given their struggles post 2013. I understand that excitement is usually generated by playoff runs, but small market teams like the Reds need to make improvements where they can and hope to catch some breaks. Winning is infinitely better than losing and could generate some buzz in Cincinnati. And in a division without a clear behemoth, the Reds could surprise if things break right. In a division with the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals, none of whom are at the top of their competitive cycles, the Reds need to take advantage of even small windows.

MadBum a Snake? What Is The World Coming To?

It’s hard not to feel bad for Giants fans after losing the one player fans most associate with post-season success – Madison Bumgarner. To make matters worse, Bumgarner signed with divisional rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the fans get to see him in a not-Giants uniform trying to make the Giants lose, and all San Francisco got for him was a draft pick. That has to sting. I know for Giants fans it will be hard to look at their roster for a few weeks, but eventually they will be ready to face reality and when they have grieved, this article will be sitting there like a hug from your best friend after a bad breakup. Who in the name of God will start games for the Giants in 2020, you ask? I’m here for you, man.

There are reasons to despair if you are a Giant’s fan, but there are reasons to hope as well and things are legitimately not as dark as they seem when it comes to the starting rotation. Try to keep in mind that the Giants are in the middle of a “soft rebuild”. They are trying to build a team that will stay out of the cellar and be worth watching, that is building for the long run without tearing it down to the studs. That means looking for bargains and taking short term risks on guys for reasonable costs who could completely flame out, but since they are on short deals, they don’t burden the team moving forward – enter Kevin Gausman. The former “Ace in Waiting” of the Orioles was available in part because of his 5.72 ERA in 2019. There are a couple of things that indicate that this might be a smart signing for the Giants. First of all, even though Gausman has been around a while he will only turn 29 in January. His fastball still sits around 94 and his control is good as indicated by his career walk rate of 2.72 per nine. Two more indicators of a possible brighter future for Gausman is the disparity between his ERA and his FIP – 5.72 versus 3.98 – portending a return to a reasonable ERA. Also, his BABIP was .344 which was 30 points above his career average – another indicator of possible bad luck contributing to his craptastic 2019. Where Gausman gets in trouble – and it has always been this way – is the long ball. His career rate of 1.26 homers per nine is up there, but he is leaving a hitters park in Atlanta and moving to an extreme pitcher’s park where the park and the weather both help to suppress offense. Even if he doesn’t pitch significantly better (which he probably will), his numbers should improve quite a bit. He is not an ace, but as the A’s have shown over the last couple of seasons you can get by without an ace if you can get average pitching and lots of depth. Gausman is a good signing on a one year deal – $9 million, and if he likes pitching in SF he might be a good candidate for an extension at mid-season.

That Johnny Cueto pitched at all last season after missing most of 2018 with a blown out elbow, which finally required Tommy John surgery, was a positive for the Giants. Cueto could not hit water from a boat with his pitches in his short stint at the end of 2019, but with a normal off-season and spring training he should be fine in 2020 – fine for an old guy. He will be 34 in 2020 so Giants’ fans shouldn’t expect prime Cueto, but he has always used deception and variation in his delivery to keep hitters perpetually annoyed, and that skill ages well. I also would not anticipate Cueto to break 200 innings like he did every season from 2012 through 2016. Still, it would be reasonable to expect Cueto to get 30 or so starts and be league average or maybe better because of his sneaky goodness – a mid-rotation starter. Welcome back, Johnny Cueto!

Tyler Beede finally made it up to the bigs and stuck in the rotation in 2019 making 22 starts and striking out 8.69 per nine. But to be more than an innings eater, Beede needs to find the strike zone more often (3.54 walks per 9 in 2019) and keep the ball in the yard as his 1.69 home run per nine rate is untenable. Beede’s ERA and FIP were so close – 5.08/5.03 – and his BABIP was .312 indicating that he got what he deserved. It wasn’t pretty, but even small improvement and continued health would make him valuable as a guy who can get them 30 starts with an ERA under 5.00. Projections see his home run rate stabilizing, but his walk rate being pretty poor and still managing a FIP in the mid-fours. The Giants would gladly take that. Beede works with a four pitch mix including a fastball that averages around 94 MPH. Maybe some work with his pitching coaches will help him maximize his stuff through changing his pitch mix or sequencing. Whatever happens, the Giants need Beede to turn into something useful, and he is already close.

After Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PEDs, Logan Webb is one the Giants couldn’t have been clear on, and to be fair, they probably are still a bit unsure after watching only eight starts in the majors. But Webb’s peripherals show promise that in spite of the 5.22 ERA there might be something of value there. Webb struck out just over eight batters per nine and walked just over three showing fringy control and good strikeout ability. His ground ball rate wasn’t quite as high (48.8%) as what the Giants might have expected from his time in the minors. He had multiple stops with ground ball rates of better than 60%. Webb allowed a few too many homers – 1.13 per nine – but it wasn’t as bad as some of his rotation mates. If he could induce a few more grounders like he did in double-A and triple-A, then the homer rate should come down. If he can manage that while keeping his other rates about the same as last season, then his ERA might even beat his 2019 FIP of 4.12. With a fastball that averages around 93 (even higher from the pen) and a four pitch mix, Webb, who is only 23, could turn into a solid 4 or maybe even a 3 with some growth. There could still be some growing pains, but the Giants have something to build upon with Webb.

It is difficult to be too optimistic about what the Giants have in Jeff Samardzija. He is 34 so any talk of potential is silly at this point. He is not an ace or even a number 2. His ERA last season was 3.52 but his FIP was 4.59. He is no longer a strikeout pitcher (6.95 per nine last season) with a fastball that averages a tick under 92 MPH, but he has good control (2.43 walks over nine) so there’s that. If he induced a lot of ground balls then that might be a sustainable approach, but at just over 36% in 2019 in the launch angle era, that seems like a tough profile to predict anything but decline and volatility. He gave up 1.39 home runs per nine last season which seems appropriate since he gives up so many fly balls. He gave the Giants 181.33 innings last season and that has value, but he is more a back of the rotation guy now who will cost the Giants just north of $18 million. Oh Shark – what could have been!

If any of those five starters falter, there are other guys – pitchers with some serious question marks and a bit of potential to provide value – waiting for a chance. Conner Menez is 24 and gets batters to strike out quite a bit – over 10 batters per nine at each of three stops last season including San Francisco. What Menez also did last year as he climbed through the system was walk more batters as he moved to a higher level starting with 3.02 per nine at double-A, then 4.40 at triple-A, and finally 6.35 in 17 innings in the majors. That dog don’t hunt. The fastball isn’t particularly hard, but the lanky lefty generates well above average spin with it. Unless Menez can get his walk rate down to the mid to low threes, he will probably be a quad-A pitcher or move to the pen. Guys with high spin rates get lots of looks in this age of data so look for him to get a few shots as openings appear.

Dereck Rodriguez had a rough first half and a rougher second half, but at 27 and with two good seasons in a row under his belt before 2019, he should be an early option if the Giants need a starter. His home run rate exploded last year to 1.91 per nine and moving to the bullpen didn’t fix him or even turn him into something useful. His walk rate didn’t increase as much as his homer rate, but he doesn’t dominate, so another half a walk per nine might be enough to turn him from effective back of the rotation option to a quad-A, break glass only in case of emergency kind of guy.

Andrew Suarez, like Dereck Rodriguez, took a big step in the wrong direction in 2019 after showing promise in 2018. He also saw his home run rate explode (1.93) and his walk rate jump (by more than a walk per nine). Suarez is also 27 and doesn’t have a pitch that really separates him from the pack. What he did have before last season was good to excellent control. The Giants didn’t give him much of a chance after he started the season on the IL – he only started two games with the big club – and he wasn’t particularly effective at triple-A in 2019 (probably why they didn’t hand him a rotation spot). Still, a lefty who can throw strikes should get some chances, so watch for reports of health and effectiveness in Spring Training because Suarez could sneak back into the rotation if he reverts to his form from 2018.

It would be worth watching Tyler Anderson’s progress in Spring Training too. The former rotation survivor for the Rockies made five starts in 2019 and was shut down for the rest of the season with something called chondral defect which is short for “his knee was screwed up”. It includes cartilage and possibly bone damage of the knee, which as you can imagine makes it hard to pitch. Anyone who can fashion an ERA in the mid fours over 32 starts in Coors Field (which he did in 2018) deserves lots of chances to see if he can get healthy and recapture that. Mr. Anderson is a tall lefty with excellent control – a career strikeout to walk ratio of 8.32 to 2.81 per nine. There’s a lot to like about this signing assuming he can get past his knee injury, which sounds like a pretty big if for a starting pitcher. This is a very low risk and potentially very high reward move for the Giants since they signed him for $1.78 million on a one year deal. Anderson still has a minor league option left, so if he needs more time to make adjustments once he is healthy, the Giants can give him some time in the minors. Here’s hoping health to Tyler Anderson and a return to form which could turn his signing into an enormous coup for the Giants rotation, where he could slot in as a two or three.

The 2020 Giants seem to be following a similar path to the 2018/2019 A’s in their rotation construction – get a bunch of arms, chuck them at the nearest wall, and see what sticks. In spite of their brief run last season, the Giants aren’t ready to compete, so this strategy makes a lot of sense. I would expect them to do something on the free agent market that will excite Giants fans in 2021 once the Shark’s contract and Johnny Cueto’s even bigger contract is off the books. They are improving their minor league system, and with some luck their ship will begin to turn around in a couple of years. They don’t have an ace anymore now that Madison Bumgarner is gone – he hasn’t really pitched like an ace since 2016 anyway. Their rotation looks to be a collection of threes, fours, fives, and some sixes (which really isn’t a thing). With some luck one or two of the young arms will turn into something more than a rotation filler as they build to their next competitive window. They might also hit on a reclamation project like Tyler Anderson. It is hard to say goodbye to links to your glory days like Mad Bum, but it is the right thing to do when it is obvious that you don’t have enough to chase down the Dodgers and Diamondbacks or even the Padres in 2020. They will find another window to compete with their combination of money and the draw of their beautiful stadium. Don’t despair Giants fans; your day will come!


The Forecast For San Diego’s Outfield in 2020 – Is There a Chance of Rain?

It is an exciting time to be a Padres fan. They have possibly the most thrilling position player in baseball in Fernando Tatis Jr., and a potential ace in Chris Paddack. They also have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball including a slew of great young arms. So yeah – if you are lucky enough to live in San Diego and you like baseball, your life is good and it’s about to get better. Of course not everything is rose-colored as the Padres haven’t tasted the playoffs since 2006 and they have never won the World Series. So as the Padres try to massage their roster into a team that can contend, we should look at the impact of their latest trades on their outfield. Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, and Franmil Reyes (before he was traded) received most of the playing time in 2019, but Reyes and Renfroe are gone now and Trent Grisham and Tommy Pham are the newest Friar outfielders. What does all this reshuffling mean for the Padres in 2020?

Wil Myers is neither dead, nor the worst baseball player in the league. In fact he is only slightly below average. But don’t tell that to Padres fans who see him as a train wreck. And to be fair, he is kind of a train wreck when you consider that at 28 and with three years left on his six year, $83 million contract, he might have a hard time earning a starting outfield job, and has virually chance of winning a corner infield spot on a team that lost 92 games last season. That’s the thing about money though – when you pay a guy a lot of cash you are more likely to give him too many chances to prove that you didn’t screw up when you handed him that contract. So will Wil get another chance to start somewhere for the Padres in 2020? It is unlikely that he will see more than the odd start on the infield corners, but much more likely that if he is still on the roster in 2020 (and there is no way anyone will take on his contract unless he is packaged with some great prospects), he will get starts in the outfield. If he gets roughly 500 plate appearances then he should deliver something in line with his career slash line of .257/.327/.436. That comes with 20 or so homers and 15 or so steals. It also comes with decent defense if he is in an outfield corner and poor defense if he is anywhere else like centerfield, first base, or third base. Can the Padres live with that for now? Sure! Can they win championships with that kind of output from a position that usually provides superior offensive output? Probably not.

Manuel Margot was an exciting prospect at one point. The Padres got him in the 2015 trade with the Red Sox for Craig Kimbrel.  Margot is 25 and has basically three full seasons in the majors and a career wRC+ of 84 after a 2019 wRC+ of 82. Margot is still all kinds of toolsy, but after 1526 plate appearances he looks like he just won’t hit enough to hold down a starting spot. He will still have value off the bench as a pinch runner, defensive replacement in all three outfield spots, and spot starter, but if the Padres were to continue on with him as the starter in center, their offense would have to carry him. What Margot looks like now is an excellent use of a bench spot and I don’t mean that as a knock on him. He would be a valuable 4th outfielder because of his glove and his speed, and it would allow the Padres to take one last look at him in case there is something left in his development.

Hunter Renfroe can hit the ball pretty far and has started to walk more, but his hit tool is not good, so he ends up with on base percentages a notch below .300 (career .294). He has a cannon arm and put together a good defensive season based on UZR/150 and DRS last season. In fact his numbers put him right near the top of all right-fielders in baseball, but this is the first season of positive defensive numbers, so we will have to see if he can repeat that in Tampa Bay where he was just traded. At 27, and with 1450 plate appearances Renfroe doesn’t look like a starter in an outfield corner on a contending team. He has yet to break the 2.0 WAR mark (career high WAR of 1.9 set last season with a big bump from his defense), but a little more improvement at the plate might push him over the edge assuming his walk rate continues to improve and he repeats his stellar defensive season. It was clear that the Padres needed a different answer in right field and now Renfroe is a question to be pondered by the Rays.

It is unclear what the Padres have in Franchy Cordero aside from a dude with a cool name. He could make a push for the center field job based on his speed and good work at the position in two small auditions, but it isn’t clear that he is ready to hit major league pitching. He is a 70 raw power guy who looked like he was starting to get to some of that projection in his last full season – 2017. But at 25, Franchy looks fringy and raw and with more talented outfielders in the fold, he is going to have to step up now or be pushed aside. His minor league career slash line of .270/.335/.434 shows a hitter who needs a high average to have a healthy enough on base percentage to deserve a lineup spot. If he enjoys a power spike and can walk even 10% of the time, then he might be someone. If not, then the Padres would be better off handing his spot to someone like Manuel Margot who is better with the glove and has gotten to more of his power than Cordero at this point, if not to one of their new acquisitions.

Josh Naylor is only 22 but put in a half season in the majors in 2019. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. His wRC+ of 89 combined with his poor defensive numbers in the two corner outfield spots equalled a -0.2 WAR. Ok, maybe he was pretty bad. But 22 is young, and there were positives about his season that probably make the Padres think they might be onto something. Naylor drew enough walks in the minors and in his half season in San Diego to show that he will probably walk enough to turn him into a positive offensive contributor. His raw power is evident just by looking at him and he has begun to reach some of it – 18 homers in 2019 between triple-A and the majors. It is reasonable to project him to something like a slash line of .260/.330/.450 or maybe even more slugging once he accesses more of his power. That’s enough to start if his defense doesn’t erase all of his offensive production. Naylor was a first baseman until 2018 when the Padres started his conversion to the outfield. San Diego already has an expensive first baseman in Eric Hosmer, so the conversion makes sense if Naylor handles the outfield. He is quite slow – a 20 runner on the 20 to 80 scouting scale – so he won’t be running balls down in the corners. If he can get good jumps and run smart routes he might get to the point where he doesn’t hurt the team with his glove. From here that seems like a big if, but there is no DH in the NL so for him to start that will have to be the calculus. Naylor has some tough competition after the two trades the Padres made so let’s look at who else the Padres are likely to try in the outfield.

San Diego will enter Spring Training with a handful of younger outfielders who will push for a chance soon, if not in Spring Training, and some young outfielders who have yet to fulfill their promise. The recent trade that netted them Trent Grisham will more than likely reshape their outfield in 2020. Grisham was a first round pick for the Brewers and had been viewed as a disappointment until last season when he finally found the power stroke the Brewers had believed was possible. Grisham has always had the ability to get on base because his walk rates were quite high ( in spite of his marginal batting average – a minor league career slash line of .255/.376/.415). He also has shown some speed in the minors to go with his developing power. In his brief major league debut last season he posted good defensive numbers in right field and center showing that he could probably start in either spot. If Grisham wins the starting spot in center for the 2020 Padres, his bat will play there if his defense is enough for him to stick. He will probably be a low batting average, high walks hitter with some speed and power. Grisham is only 23 so it is possible the former first round pick could turn into at least a solid starter.

After getting Grisham, the Padres went and traded for Tommy Pham. With speed, power, and the ability to get on base, Pham will likely be the starter in left even though he has played center and right as there are younger options to play the other outfield spots. His numbers have declined each of the last two seasons, but he is still a 3 to 4 WAR player. Pham’s defensive numbers have bounced up and down with last season being a low point in terms of WAR but with some disagreement from other defensive metrics. Soon to be 32, Pham probably isn’t the long term answer, but he won’t be a free agent until 2021 so the Padres will get two good seasons out of the athletic Pham before they have to make any tough decisions.

The Padres have two potential star outfielders toiling away in the minors in Edward Olivares and Taylor Trammell. When Olivares arrives he will bring with him excellent speed and burgeoning pop in a well-rounded package. Olivares will start the season as a 24 year old, has played center and right field, and has mastered double-A. If the Padres need him he could be ready by mid-season if he shows he can handle triple-A. Taylor Trammell was rocketing toward the majors until an injury marred mess of a 2019 slowed him down. He finished strong after a trade to the Padres and his tools still make him look like a potential superstar. If he gets off to a strong start at triple-A, it could mean a fast track to San Diego where he will show off both speed and power. There are more outfield prospects lower in the minors like Tirso Ornellas and Jeisson Rosario, but the Padres have a lot of young players already at or near the majors to sort through and Ornellas and Rosario are still pretty raw in spite of their tantalizing tools.

The Padres will have decisions to make about guys like Manuel Margot, Franchy Cordero, and Josh Naylor, as well as veterans like Wil Myers, but with newcomers Trent Grisham and Tommy Pham they have already made improvements on defense and in the lineup. Pham will take one of the outfield spots – probably left field. Grisham showed platoon splits last season that would indicate they should at least initially give him days off against lefties. That would give Myers starts in right field against lefties to show if he should get more time, assuming he is still on the roster when the season starts (pretty likely). That means Cordero might get a chance to show that he can hit enough to start in center and allow Margot to hit his way into more playing time spelling Cordero in center – at least until Trammell or Olivares start pushing on them from the minors. Naylor will hit, but he hurts them enough on defense in the outfield that I would send him back to the minors to work on left field defense, where he is insurance in case of injury. If he sticks in San Diego, then he takes time from Pham in left or Eric Hosmer at first – both unlikely scenarios. They could also trade him as some team will be better situated to use his bat. That would allow the Padres to play the far superior defender Margot in all three outfield spots thereby improving their overall outfield defense. The Padres have a lot of moving parts in the outfield and depth is a good thing to insure them against injury and disappointing performances. It is 72 and sunny in San Diego, and yes – I mean that literally AND metaphorically.

The Middle of the Brewers (Infield)

The Brewers just made a pretty interesting trade so it seems like a good time to talk about the implications for their lineup, and some of the questions they will need to answer in 2020. Milwaukee sent Trent Grisham and pitcher Zach Davies to the Padres for middle infielder Luis Urias and pitcher Eric Lauer. We won’t talk about the pitchers in this post – what is interesting is how this impacts the Brewers lineup and middle infield next year. Before the 2019 season began it looked like Orlando Arcia and Keston Hiura were the keystone combo for Brewers teams of the foreseeable future. This trade puts that combo into question so let’s take a look, eh?

Keston Hiura was the Brewers first round pick in 2017 – 9th overall – based on his tremendous bat. His elbow in his throwing arm was a mess and there were questions as to whether he would be able to do anything but DH, otherwise he would have been a top 3 pick instead of going 9th to Milwaukee. But Hiura avoided surgery, zipped through the minors, and made his major league debut in 2019 and hit a lot while not really disproving the doubters who said he should only DH. A natural outfielder, Hiura is fairly new to second base and it shows. Still, Hiura made it clear that he was ready to hit major league pitching and should be starting somewhere. After slashing .329/.407/.681 at triple-A San Antonio (155 wRC+), he slashed .303/.368/.570 in Milwaukee (139 wRC+). Hiura crushed 38 homers split evenly between triple-A and the majors, so his power has clearly arrived. Looking back at his half season in the majors, there were two areas of concern in regard to his hitting. First, he struck out 30.7% of the time, almost 8% above league average, so big-league pitchers were able to find some holes in his swing. Hiura walks enough that he should still get on base if his K rate stays that high, but it is something to keep an eye on. Second, the 23 year old former UC Irvine Anteater had an unsustainably high BABIP (.402) indicating a likely drop in his batting average in seasons to come. He has carried a high BABIP most of his career (but not THIS high) and he hits the ball really hard so that accounts for part of the high BABIP – still he was at least a bit lucky. Even if his average comes down some, he will be an excellent hitter with power who hits for a good average and walks enough.

Hiura has only played second base as a professional even though he was an outfielder in college. There are those who doubt that Hiura can handle the position defensively. Neither DRS (-4) nor UZR/150 (-18.9) – two commonly used defensive metrics – liked him at second. Inside Edge Fielding breaks chances into six categories of difficulty with the three easiest being “routine”, “likely”, and “even” respectively. Granted, the numbers are based on a very small sample size, but on balls rated as “likely” to be turned into outs, he managed to succeed only 50% of the time and on balls rated as “even”, he succeeded 66.7% of the time. His arm isn’t a big concern at second base but if it is as bad as advertised what it might do is limit him to three positions: second base, first base – a position he has never played, and DH, which brings us back to the Brewers last move.

Luis Urias is a 22 year old above average defensive second baseman who has hit everywhere he has played – except the Majors (in 302 plate appearances). In the minors he has looked liked a prototypical leadoff hitter with his .308/.397/.433 career slash line who would help defensively at second and not hurt the team at short. He even added some pop at triple-A in 2019 banging 19 homers in half a season, but the questions still remain about his ability to hit major league pitching as indicated by his career slash line of .221/.318/.331. The Brewers think they know the answer to that question, and Urias is only 22, so it isn’t like he is finished baking. I have written this about Urias before and I will write it again – Urias has starter potential. But, where to play him on the Brewers?

If Hiura is locked into the second base spot it would seem that the Brewers plan on playing Urias at shortstop, which would mean the their defensively gifted but offensively disappointing starter from the last three and a half seasons, Orlando Arcia, becomes a bench glove with some pop. At 25, Arcia might be the victim of a high bar he set for himself as a 23 year old in 2017 when he hit .273 with 15 home runs to go with his excellent glove work. The glove work hasn’t gone away, but his bat has not developed as expected. His 86 wRC+ in 2017 was his peak with last year’s 61 being more the rule than the exception. Arcia still exhibits power and gets hot on occasion but his offense really drags down his WAR which has only seen the positive side of the line once in 2017 when it was 1.4. With 1676 plate appearances in the majors it isn’t like the Brewers haven’t given him a chance, but it is hard to give up on someone with Arcia’s tools. The Urias trade indicates that the Brewers are about to do just that – at least as their starting shortstop.

To review, the Urias deal leaves the Brewers with two starting second basemen and two shortstops (in 3 players), one of whom can’t hit enough to carry his excellent glove (Arcia), one who is a fringy shortstop and a good second baseman who hasn’t hit enough in the bigs to start anywhere (Urias), and one player who is probably best suited to DH where he’d be great at it (Hiura). If the deal works out and Urias breaks out with the bat, then the Brewers have an offense-first middle infield that will probably only hurt them a little with the gloves. Additionally, if the universal DH hits the National League in the next year or two then they are set at DH and second with a glove first shortstop if all breaks well. It’s a lot to juggle for the Brewers but Urias is definitely worth the gamble and Hiura’s bat looks elite already so it isn’t a horrible problem to have.

The A’s Have Options At Second But Their Most Intriguing Prospects At The Position Don’t. What To Do?

What a problem to have – stars at all the infield positions, except one. That’s where the A’s are with Chapman, Olson, and Semien locking down the two corners and shortstop to the tune of 17.6 WAR in 2019 even with Olson only playing part of the season due to an injury in Spring Training. It seemed that Oakland had solved second base too when they acquired Jurickson Profar in a three team trade with the Rangers and Rays. He was coming off his best season to date with a 107 wRC+, 2.8 WAR, and was only 25 at the time. It was an exciting move but it just didn’t work out last year. Profar played good defense and still hit 20 homers but his wRC+ dropped to 89 and he finished with a  slash line of .218/.301/.410. The 2019 version of Jurickson Profar disappointed from start to finish.

Heading into 2020 the A’s look to break through the Astros choke hold on the West and earn a postseason series – none of this one and done stuff! So this off-season the A’s will have some tough decisions to make with one of the toughest being who gets the starting spot at second. Profar was very unlucky with a BABIP of .218 where league average was .298. He also retained his improved hard hit rate from 2018 while slightly improving his walk and strikeout rates. And while he mostly played second base for the A’s, he retained his positional flexibility as he has now spent time (at least 38 games) in the outfield and at every infield position but catcher and pitcher. Profar is an excellent candidate for a bounce back season in 2020 if he stays healthy. There is no way he will be as bad as he was in 2019, but that won’t necessarily win him the job because the A’s have other options – two of whom are super talented and out of options, putting their GM in an interesting spot.

One of the other options to play second base, Franklin Barreto, was the top prize in the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. He has appeared on A’s top 10 prospect lists but has yet to take a major league job from anyone yet, and he is now out of options. The A’s must keep him on the big league roster, expose him to waivers where he will almost certainly be claimed by another team, or trade him to someone willing to keep him on their big league club. He turns 24 shortly before the season starts and has had over 200 plate appearances in the majors, but in spite of his tools and his minor league resume, he hasn’t hit a lick in Oakland. Barreto can play second, shortstop, and was tried in left and center at triple-A last season so, like Profar, he also has positional flexibility in his tool kit.

The other prospect who is out of options, Jorge Mateo, is a tool kit all by himself with freakish speed – 80 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale – and some pop. The A’s have to fish or cut bait with the young Dominican middle infielder because, at 24, he has no options left. 2019 was Mateo’s second try at triple-A and he showed off his speed and power hitting 14 triples (he has averaged 16 for 3 seasons in a row now), and slashing .289/.330/.504 while playing mostly shortstop, and some second base. Mateo had been tried in center field in 2017 but not since. So the A’s would most likely have to play him at second base or use him as a reserve middle infielder and pinch runner unless they choose to revive the center field experiment at the major league level. Is there more left in the tank? Maybe – he is only 24, and if there is more growth, then the A’s might have a star on their hands. Mateo has yet to sip even a cup of coffee in the majors so, unless he dominates Spring Training, it would be quite a leap of faith to commit to him sticking on the roster – much less starting him at second base for a contending team.

I have mentioned Profar’s positional flexibility and using him basically everywhere as a multi-tool while starting someone else at second might be a possible solution for the A’s logjam at second. There is however already someone in that spot – Chad Pinder. Pinder, who is much cheaper and can’t become a free agent until 2022 also has power but doesn’t walk as often as Profar. Pinder’s career average is about 10 points higher than Profar’s, but projections have them about even there.

And there is still more! Sheldon Neuse only played second base after he was called up to the A’s in 2019 but has played shortstop, 3rd, first, and the outfield in the minors. In 61 plate appearances in Oakland Sheldon slashed .250/.295/.304 after slashing .317/.389/.550 with 27 homers at triple-A. Neuse probably has the most power of all the second base options but realistically would be limited to the corners and second base where he has put up solid numbers in the minors. That still makes him a good multi-tool kind of guy although the A’s would probably only give Neuse the roster spot if they planned on making him the starter at second.

So now that you know the actors how should the story play out? The A’s will likely only have room to keep either Mateo or Barreto. One of them probably gets traded to a non-contending team for less than their value because of their lack of options. Neuse has options left so, unless he fights the starting spot at second away from the other candidates, he will likely return to triple-A. Pinder was in the outfield rotation in 2019 and probably returns as the designated multi-tool, while Profar gets another shot to be the starter where he should be at least an average hitter and better than average second baseman. Pinder is a year older than Profar and probably is done growing whereas Profar still has a bit of star potential left so there’s that to consider along with the roughly $6 million in price difference between the two men.

There is another way this could go with the A’s deciding to trade Profar if someone is banking on Profar’s remaining star potential. He will play as a 27 year old in 2020 and is in his last year of arbitration eligibility after which he will be an unrestricted free agent. He has played all the infield positions plus left field and the metrics have at times looked favorably upon him at every position, so another team might decide that he should be their starting shortstop where a return to league average as a hitter would make him quite valuable. If the A’s traded him away to open up a roster spot for Mateo and Barreto, or Neuse steals the job away, then Oakland’s second base position would be an interesting and potentially tumultuous situation to watch at the start of the 2020 season.