The Appearance of Offense in a Scoring Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small Sample Sizes in the NL West

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Window In The Rockies And How To Exploit It

by Jim Silva

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did the A’s delay their return to prominence by failing to go all-in on a rebuild?

To Burn it Down or Water It
by Jim Silva
   
    In this modern age of baseball based on cold analysis, not relationships with players or loyalty to stars or fan favorites, is it irresponsible for a team without a clear window into the playoffs NOT to tank and engage in a complete rebuild? The question is pertinent because the A’s have now missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, their last appearance in a playoff game – a wild card game they lost. They haven’t won more than 75 games since then, finishing 5th three seasons in a row. Can teams really rebuild while remaining in contention for at least a wild card spot, in a way that makes them competitive for the long haul? Is there a clear reason why the A’s haven’t started a complete teardown and rebuild? Let’s try to answer those questions by looking at the A’s and their competition in the West.
    The A’s won the AL West in 2012 and 2013 winning 94 and 96 games respectively before sliding to 88 wins and a wild card spot in 2014. They failed to move on in each of their three playoff chances losing the ALDS 3-2 twice and the wild card game quite painfully as the Royals literally stole them blind. So at that point it seemed like the A’s were poised to either spend money on free agents to try to extend their run, or start a complete teardown and rebuild. The A’s have generally acted like a team in a small market, so it seemed to most people that this was going to be the time when they would rip off the bandaid and trade everything that wasn’t nailed down. They would begin the inevitable sell-off of their valuable players for two purposes – attempting to rebuild a depleted minor league system while ensuring that they lost as many games as possible to put themselves near the top of the draft – another way of acquiring top young talent.
    What goes into a team decision to tear it down to the studs, commit to losing 100 games a season for three to five years, and really wallowing around in the cellar? Not being a general manager or owner, you’d have to assume that context would have to come into play. If the team is in a lousy division with a bunch of teams losing more than they are winning, one would think that they might decide to try to go for it – extend the run – for a couple more seasons. Conversely, if your team is sitting in a division full of clubs loaded for bear, then losing might be happening anyway so why not embrace it and look for your next window? So what was the context for the A’s before the start of the 2015 season? The Rangers looked pretty tough. The A’s had been battling mostly good Texas clubs since 2008. Texas had an ace in Cole Hamels, a lineup with a lot of power, and a mix of veterans (Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo) and interesting young players (Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus), but as it usually goes with the Rangers, probably not enough pitching to go around. Still, it turned out they were good enough to win the West in 2015 and 2016 as they won 88 and 95 games respectively, before sliding to 78 wins last season.
    So what about the Angels? They have lots of money and a large market. Did they have enough to convince the A’s that they had no chance after the 2014 season? First of all, that 2014 team won 98 games and the AL West. The Angels, aside from resources, had the best player in baseball in 22 year old Mike Trout, the still valuable (at the time) Albert Pujols, and a supporting cast that allowed the team to finish first in runs scored – pretty daunting. In addition to their powerful offense they had two good young starting pitchers in Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker and a solid pen. The Angels would be derailed in 2015 by regression by most of their pitching staff, and decline by the veteran position players not named Mike Trout. In 2016 and 2017 it was injuries to their pitching staff and mediocrity in most of their lineup – again, not Mike Trout – that lead them to win only 80 and 81 games. So did the Angels look like world beaters? Hard to say what the A’s thought at the end of 2014, but it is clear in hindsight that the Halo’s team was flawed and beatable.
    The Mariners won 87 games in 2014 with a strong pitching staff led by King Felix, and included some potential future star power in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. They also had an excellent, young third baseman in Kyle Seager, and a star at second base in Robinson Cano, but were otherwise limited in their ability to produce runs. They weren’t built to dominate but looked like they could have just enough offense to support a starting staff that looked to be strong heading forward. Winning just 76, 86, and 78 games the next three seasons in part due to the slow development of the young pitchers and the speedy decline of the staff anchor, Felix Hernandez, showed that the Mariners were probably not scary enough to push the A’s into a full on rebuild phase.
    Now the Astros – well, we all know they won the World Series last season, but in 2014 they were coming off a 92-loss season which was a 19 games improvement on their 2013 season. They were clearly packed with young talent such as Jose Altuve and George Springer. Two of their starting pitchers were coming off seasons with ERAs under 3.00 – Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh – but it was clear that the parent club still had a lot of work to do – especially with the pitching staff, before they could legitimately be considered contenders. 2015 featured the debuts of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers and a big step forward from Dallas Keuchel, who won the Cy Young Award. Colin McHugh won 19 games and contributed 3.1 WAR. The Astros clearly had some speedy development going on and one of the best farm systems in baseball, but even though they won 86 games, they still had holes in their rotation, and many parts missing. 2016 was a step backwards for the rotation, although more new pieces of the puzzle in Alex Bregman and Yuli Guriel debuted, and their pen of the future was improved with the addition of Chris Devinski and Joe Musgrave who was projected to eventually join the rotation. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the Astros were on their way to becoming one of the best teams in the AL, and their youth led most to believe that they would be excellent for multiple years. They were definitely the organization to be feared by the A’s in the AL West and that would have likely been clear to insiders in 2014. But development of young players is tricky and the youthful Astros could have fallen off the tracks through injury, bad trades, or just plain failure of a couple of their future stars to develop like they did. The fact that the Astros had that many young players develop so quickly and spectacularly was startling. Now they look like they will be very hard to beat, but so did the Cubs after the 2016 World Series victory and now we are seeing holes in their armor even though they are still quite a good team. The Cubs are meaningful to the discussion because they followed a similar path to the Astros trading away anyone of value, losing a lot of games, and reaping the benefits of high draft picks for multiple seasons. They are a good comp for the Astros although they would likely have had no impact on the A’s decision making process since they are an NL team and the A’s would have to reach the World Series to face them in any meaningful way.
    Ok, but what about the A’s roster and minor league system at the end of the 2014 season? The A’s had finished 3rd in the league in runs scored and 2nd in the league in ERA. 24 year old Sonny Gray looked like he might be turning into an ace. The A’s small gamble on Scott Kazmir had paid off – Kazmir pitched in the All Star game and managed 32 starts, fashioning a 3.35 FIP. Jon Lester was dominant after the A’s got him from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes. He made 11 starts and righted the faltering rotation, helping the A’s get to the post-season where they counted on him to anchor their rotation. He was a disappointment in the play-in game getting touched up for six earned runs in 7.33 innings, but the A’s got exactly what they traded for, fully knowing that he would be a free agent at the end of the season. The A’s actually acquired three starting pitchers around the trade deadline – they picked up Jeff Samarzdija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs for their shortstop of the future, Addison Russell, and outfield prospect Billy McKinney. Three established starting pitchers is a big addition to a team already in first place but Billy Beane watched the A’s lead dissolve as the young starters other than Gray withered. He was also seeking to shore up the rotation to win in the post-season with a one-two-three punch of Lester, Gray, and Samardzija. It wasn’t a gamble as long as the A’s made it to the post-season – it was considered by most at the time an absolute necessity for a team that had succeeded in the regular season only to crumble in the post-season. Yes, Russell was a steep price to pay for what might turn out to be half-season rentals, but flags do indeed fly forever. Samardzija pitched reasonably well but got unlucky and went 5-6 for Oakland. Hammel got shelled ending with a FIP of 5.10 after posting a FIP of 3.19 for the Cubs. It didn’t matter in the end because the A’s lost in the wild card game so they didn’t have to worry about Hammel’s rotation spot in the playoffs.
    The A’s lineup featured Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes (at least until the mid-season Cespedes trade that got Lester from the Sox), Brandon Moss who mashed and got on base, young catcher Derek Norris, rifle-armed right fielder Josh Reddick, and a crew of solid veterans who mainly got on base and hit home runs while playing solid defense. Their pen was good and the core was reasonably young, led by closer Sean Doolittle. It was all for naught as the Royals took advantage of a hand injury to Geovany Soto (the A’s only catcher who they believe could compensate for Lester’s inability to hold the Royals speedsters in check) to run wild, stealing 7 bases on their way to a 9-8 12-inning win.
    Going into 2015 off-season Oakland’s minor league system was ranked 27th by John Sickels. They had mined their thin ranks for trade fodder to make a failed run in 2014 and it showed. Jon Lester was a free agent, as was Jason Hammel. Cespedes was gone. So Billy Beane started what looked like a complete tear down; the beginning of a rebuild. He let Lester, Hammel, and Jed Lowrie go into free agency, traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, for prospects and a flawed, but interesting, third baseman in Brett Lawrie. He traded Derek Norris to the Padres for Jesse Hahn, traded John Jaso in a package to get Ben Zobrist and Yuniel Escobar, traded Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley and Chris Bassit, and signed free agent Billy Butler, while making a few other moves before the 2015 season started. Since then, the A’s have turned over a good portion of the rest of their roster in an attempt to rebuild their farm system, but also to mitigate cost and remain competitive. Josh Reddick and Rich Hill were traded to the Dodgers for three young pitchers. Sonny Gray was sent to the Yankees for three youngsters, and Ben Zobrist went to the Royals for a pair of pitchers including Sean Manaea. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen went to the Nationals for two minor leaguers and their closer, Blake Treinen. So the A’s got a bit younger at the major league level and bolstered their minor league system which now ranks somewhere around 10th best, depending on whom you choose to believe.
    The minor league system provided the A’s with their third baseman of the future (and present) in Matt Chapman, a first baseman with tremendous power (who put up nearly 3 WAR in just over a third of a season) in Matt Olson, and promises to send along another infielder in Franklin Barreto probably this season. Trades have brought them Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie (again). Lowrie just had his best season, producing 4.0 WAR, where his previous high was 2.2, and 119 wRC+ which matches his career high. Lowrie has always had a good bat but injuries have kept him off the field. Last season, he showed up for 645 plate appearances – second highest in his career. Davis has back to back 40+ home run seasons and is clearly one of the best power hitters in all of baseball – only his bat to ball issues and defense (yeah, that’s a lot) keep him from being a star. The trade of Sonny Gray got them minor leaguers James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, and Dustin Fowler from the Yankees – Fowler and Mateo are close to the majors and Kaprielian is coming off TJ surgery and Fowler had a catastrophic knee injury – the A’s knew that when they traded for them – their new market inefficiency. Mateo is a year or so away. Jesus Lazardo and Sheldon Neuse also came in a trade (with the Nationals). Neuse is also a year or more away while Lazardo just experienced pro ball for the first time last season, so he is years away. Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas came to the A’s in a trade with the Dodgers along with Jharel Cotton. Cotton came up in 2016 and looked like a solid addition, but took a step back in 2017. Montas was up and down last year, still throws really hard, and still struggles to throw his fastball where he wants it. Holmes had a solid, healthy season at double-A Midland – a hitter’s paradise, so he is not far off, but likely will be a number four or five starter in the majors if he continues this trajectory.
    The point here is that the A’s have some strengths among their core of youngsters – mostly on the infield – and a ways to go with their rotation. What used to be a strength, starting pitching depth, is now a glaring weakness. They will likely start the season with Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman as their top two rotation dudes. Both pitchers are young and talented, but neither has developed, or likely will develop, into a one or a two. A.J. Puk is their top prospect, and he pitched last season at High-A and Double-A, so he will likely not see the big league rotation this year. They have some talent, but not a group of can’t miss prospects, so can you say they are almost done with their “rebuild” and are poised to storm the West? Even though they have a lineup with a lot of power and offensive potential, they just don’t have the arms yet and don’t have their rotation of the future pushing up from the upper levels of the minors. Shrewd trades and free agent signings might fill in the holes, but when you’re trying to compete with the Astros (Verlander, Cole, Keuchel, and Lance McCullers at the top) or the Angels (Otani, Richards) you need to do more than get lucky with a couple of nifty, cheap overproducers.
In 2016, after they did a half-way attempt at a rebuild in 2015, they picked sixth and got A.J. Puk – Nick Senzel went 2nd to the Reds, just to name one guy they missed out on. Picking 6th again in 2017, the A’s chose Austin Beck – Hunter Greene went 2nd to the Reds and Mackenzie Gore went 3rd to the Padres. 6th isn’t bad, but remember that the Astros and Cubs, for that matter, tanked so hard that they chose 1st a couple of times – the Cubs took Kris Bryant 2nd in 2013 and the Astros took Carlos Correa 1st in 2012 (the Twins followed that pick with Byron Buxton). There is often a big drop off between the first pick and the 6th pick, and because the A’s hung onto some quality veterans like Josh Reddick, Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt, and Scott Kazmir going into 2015, they couldn’t crack the top three picks but were still nowhere near good enough to make the playoffs. Because of the way MLB incentivizes tanking, the A’s, by being bad, but not the worst team, slowed the progress of their rebuild and all but ensured that they won’t make the playoffs in 2018, 2019, and 2020 without spending a lot of money to buy a rotation, or by being the recipients of a lot of luck. Should they have tanked? We will see what happens to the Oakland team in the next two years, but it looks like had they gone all in on a rebuild after they missed in 2014, they might have “earned” the picks to be ready to compete in a  serious way as soon as next season. Instead, they have a cloudy future ahead of them as they hope Billy and Forst can work some magic to turn their remaining cows into fruitful magic beans.

Change can be fun, or financial sucide. Here are some changes for MLB to consider.

    Fixin’ What Ain’t Broke
by Jim Silva
    So you know how sometimes people freak out because not every moment in a game, nor every game in a season, is like hanging by your fingernails from a cliff above a cove full of great white sharks sporting uzis? It appears that baseball is looking at how they can add some sharks and some uzis to the game to attract millennials. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that it’s a real thing – that maybe the stakes in baseball need to be raised so that the tension in every moment of every game of the entire season could be raised. Here are some areas that could be changed, and some fixes to play with that could make the game even more intense than it already is.
    One problem that people point to is the very long regular season, which one might refer to as the “regular season that disappointingly doesn’t go on for 365 days a year”. The reason many games are meaningless (in terms of the post-season) for some teams is that if you are out of the race for a playoff spot then all you have to play for is a shot at a better draft pick, and currently you earn that by losing. Trying to lose doesn’t make for good baseball. Right now the standings are based on the won-loss record of each team in the division to which you are uttering a collective, “duh”. For example, let’s say the Nationals are currently 19 games ahead of second place Miami in the National League East. With just over 20 games left in the season there is no suspense to any Nationals game, unless perhaps you care whether or not they catch the Dodgers for best record in the NL. Furthermore, aside from a slim chance to play a single wild card game, the Marlins aren’t really playing any meaningful games from here on out, so what does that say about the Braves, Mets, and Phillies who are behind the Marlins? That’s a lot of meaningless baseball and that’s only one of the six divisions!
    It’s great that the wild card race has added suspense for so many teams. Watching the Rockies chase down the Padres then beat them in a play-in game was one of the more exciting baseball fan experiences in recent memory. So that is one way in which baseball has made it worth it for teams to remain competitive if they aren’t in a position to win their division. But for teams who aren’t in a position to chase down a wild card spot there is no reason for them to compete in the second half, and in fact they are incentivized to tank because it rewards them with better draft picks if they finish lower. MLB rewards teams for being awful. I understand the reason for giving the worst teams the best position in each round of the draft, but it means dump trades will happen near the deadline and stars will leave teams that aren’t competitive and the transient nature of rosters hurts baseball. At a recent Rockies game you could see jerseys of many players who no longer play for the Rockies and their roster has been relatively stable. If you are A’s fan then you might have a Josh Reddick, Rich Hill, Sonny Gray, or Stephen Vogt jersey hanging in your closet – all players who have been sent packing in the last two years. For a good portion of baseball’s history, players stuck with one team for a decent chunk of their careers and that just doesn’t happen so much anymore. When you try to promote a player for fans to get behind and then the guy gets traded to the Dodgers, then signs as a free agent with the Yankees, then gets traded at the deadline to the Indians, fans aren’t gonna grow attached. It’s like when you were in your dating heyday and your married friends didn’t want to get too close to your new girlfriend because in three months – well you get the idea, but apparently MLB doesn’t get it because they haven’t done anything to address the problem, and in fact they have made it worse. So it’s a two-part problem – meaningless games and roster instability – with both parts needing to be addressed.
    Without trying to pile on poor (ridiculously rich) Major League Baseball, the idea that teams can have such disparate payrolls is just crazy. There are five teams with payrolls under $100 million, three teams with payrolls above $220 million and the other twenty-two teams sit in between – above $100 million, but below $200 million. Nobody would expect two businesses putting out the same product to try to compete playing by the same rules but with less than half the resources. That disparity contributes to the roster instability and makes it hard for casual fans to stick with their team through the hard times. So to summarize, Major League Baseball needs to address dump trades, payroll disparity, and making individual games matter more in order to increase the level of competition so that casual fans will be more invested in the regular season and willing to wed themselves to a team other than the freakin’ Yankees, Dodgers, or Cubs. Let’s start with tanking.
    Who doesn’t hate freakin’ dump trades! Grr! It’s hard not to feel bad for the fans of the dumping team, and bitter with the team that is the recipient of the dump for getting major league talent without giving up major league talent – a cow for some magic beans. Not that cows are necessarily better than magic beans, but the best case scenario has the cow pushing his new team to the playoffs while the magic beans take time to grow, or just flat out wilt in the heat of the Southern League. As a fan why should you go watch your team after they give away all their talented major leaguers when the stars of the future are playing in the minors? Why should you spend $175 for an authentic jersey with your favorite dude’s name and number on the back and then watch him play in the playoffs for some other team while your team fields a quad-A guy in his place? There are many implications to dump trades, but in the current atmosphere of MLB, they make total sense if you are a team clearly destined to finish out of the playoffs for the next handful of seasons. There is currently no reason for a team to finish in third place in their division when they can finish in last, pay much less in salary, and get a top draft pick. In fact it could be argued that Billy Beane and David Forst have done the A’s a disservice for failing to tank for the last several seasons. What are they doing trading away two of their top 20 prospects for Steven Piscotty when they could sign 53 year old Rafael Palmeiro for the minimum? So how to fix this abomination?
    The draft – that’s where it has to start. The primary reason teams tank is to allow them to build back up with the top prospects from the draft. Look at what the Astros did by ditching all their players with any value. Losing over 100 games in each of three straight seasons (2011 through 2013) and then losing another 92 games in 2014 allowing them to choose first in 2012, 2013, 2014, and second in 2015. If MLB wants to create more competitive races and create stability on rosters they need to stop rewarding teams for failing to compete, while also ceasing the practice of incentivizing dump trades. Sounds obvious, no? MLB should make it so that the regular season isn’t just a competition for pennants – teams will also play for their draft picks, making it just plain stupid to fail to finish as close to the top as possible. If a team traded away stars for really young players then they had better be planning to sign some free agents because otherwise they will be spiraling downward for a long time. Let’s assume there are 32 teams after expansion happens. The top group could consist of 10 teams since those will be clubs who are in the playoffs (if you include the wild card teams) and you don’t need to worry about them intentionally giving up a playoff spot to game the draft system. Playoff revenue is too much to give up as is the chance of making it to the World Series – even for a Wild Card team. Teams should be rewarded for sinking resources into chasing down the teams ahead of them.
So the 10 playoff teams would likely, but not necessarily,  pick at the bottom of each round because they would have so few ping pong balls. They would get a number of ping pong balls inversely correlated to their final position in the standings – so the playoff team with the fewest wins gets 10 while the team with the most wins in MLB gets 1 – simple. The picks after that would ordered by win totals, and the gap between the number of ping pong balls would increase by their position in the win total standings. So the worst team by wins starts the non-playoff group with 13 balls, the team with the second lowest win total 17, the team with the third lowest gets 22, etc.. Obviously, after a team has a pick in a round, the rest of their ping pong balls are voided from the system until the next round. The ping pong seeding method could be repeated for every round of the draft. Imagine how fun it would be to watch on TV if the draws for each round were live. MLB could market the live and televised draft and it would excite fans on draft day. They could even hold the draft during the All Star game week. And while they are at it why not make draft picks or ping pong balls tradeable commodities? “Hey, Brian, throw in three ping pong balls in the first round and you have yourself a deal.” “No way, other Brian. Ping pong balls are way too valuable to throw in, but I really want Chapman so how about two?” There are other shiny things in MLB’s pouch to incentivize competition, including international bonus pool money and revenue sharing money, so if that draft pick is just too tempting MLB could always sweeten the pot.
Here are a couple wee tables, based on last season’s standings, in case you are a visual learner…
This first table is for the teams who made the playoffs.
Team
Wins
Ping Pong Balls
Dodgers
104
1
Indians
102
2
Astros
101
3
Nationals
97
4
Red Sox
93
5
Diamondbacks
93
5
Cubs
92
7
Yankees
91
8
Rockies
87
9
Twins
85
10

This next table includes the teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Giants
64
13
Tigers
64
13
Phillies
66
17
White Sox
67
22
Reds
68
28
Mets
70
35
Padres
71
43
Braves
72
52
Orioles
75
62
A’s
75
62
Pirates
75
62
Blue Jays
76
73
Marlins
77
85
Rangers
78
98
Mariners
78
98
Angels
80
112
Royals
80
112
Rays
80
112
Cardinals
83
127
Brewers
86
143

    This next solution is complicated, but not quite as messy as fixing the payroll problems (hint: that one involves socialism). In order to add meaning to literally every game of the season, the games and each series needs to be weighted. So instead of just purely ranking teams according to their won-loss record MLB would go to a point system, kind of like hockey. Yeah, sorry about mentioning hockey in a baseball article. Undoubtedly people are now wrapping themselves in the American Flag and singing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs while rocking themselves anxiously, and plotting an invasion of Canada. Unlike Hockey (feel better?), this system would take into account not only wins – while ignoring single losses – and reward sweeps and series wins. So a team that gets hot in the second half could put on a serious charge and maybe even catch a team with a better won-loss record. A single point would be awarded for a win, with zero points going to the losing team. A series victory would gain the winning team an additional point, while a sweep would be worth three points instead of one, while also costing the team on the other side of the broom two points. So let’s say the Dodgers were to go into AT&T Park for a three game series against the Giants in the final week of the season with a seven point lead. If the Giants sweep, they pick up one point for each win, plus the three point sweep bonus, while the Dodgers pick up zero points and lose two points for getting swept, and the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! Right now a series is meaningless in the sense of it existing as a mini series – it’s just three games in a row against the same team. How much more exciting would game three of each series be if the series was an entity unto itself? Teams would have to think about setting up their rotation to throw their stud in game three of a series in order to either pick up the sweep bonus or avoid the sweep penalty. Even a late season series against a last place team might draw a big crowd if there was potential for a sweep that could cost a contending team two points or earn them six points in the standings. Paired with the draft system above, it would have meaning even for the team out of contention. Through the games of September 10th, 2017, here are the standings for the AL East using the current method and the points method I am proposing. Since MLB currently has things like a four game or a two game series, there are times when no points went to either team for a series victory and when teams earned three “sweep points” for sweeping a two game series or a four game series. Since 162 divides evenly by 3, baseball could make every series a three game series, or the bonus could be adjusted to one bonus point for sweeping a two game series and five points for sweeping a four game series, although I like how clean dividing the season into a series of three game battles would be.  Anyway, those standings…

Standings under current system
Standings under point system
Boston —
Boston 117 points
New York – 3.5 games
New York 111 points
Baltimore – 10 games
Baltimore 91 points
Tampa Bay – 10.5
Tampa Bay 87 points
Toronto – 15 games
Toronto 78 points

The positions in the division aren’t different under the points system, but some of the separations between clubs are changed somewhat. If the Yanks went into Boston and swept three games they would be up by two points instead of a half game back. How exciting would that make game three of the series knowing that a six point swing was on the line? Toronto would have a tough time making up 4.5 games, but a sweep of Tampa Bay would put them just one point back for a better draft pick.
    This next one is tough – solving the payroll disparity between the haves and the have-nots. How do you tell billionaires that they have to share their money? You were warned that there was some socialism is this last change, so don your Bernie Backer t-shirt and get comfy on your hemp sofa as you read this last part.
For starters, there is no way the teams go for this, but depending on how the details are presented, the players could be really excited by this proposal – still, not gonna happen. I am proposing that all the teams put all of their money into one pot and split it exactly evenly. Uh huh – all their money including television revenues, gate, sales of team paraphernalia – everything. They would be operating as one entity. All teams pulling for the good of the league because they would become the league. Players would share revenue based on a formula instead of fighting against the owners for whatever the owners are willing to part with. It would make the league and all the teams in the league healthy and put them on the same financial level. If a team didn’t perform, nobody could blame it on a lack of money. They could blame their team-building strategies, the manager, and the players, but you couldn’t point to the disparity in revenue as the cause for one team dominating or one team flailing. Additionally, each team would have a hard salary cap and a hard salary floor in a narrow band so that, even with fluctuations in salary from season to season all teams would be in the same ballpark every year. Now I am fairly confident that there is no way teams with huge revenues would go for complete revenue sharing. A more realistic solution would be to just employ a hard cap and floor system with a band that narrows from year to year until a sweet spot is achieved. Competition is good for baseball, or so the owners would have you believe otherwise why increase the number of playoff spots with the Wild Card? By removing the financial chasm that currently exists fans would get to see exactly how good their organization really is. For years, A’s fans have wondered what Billy Beane could do with the Red Sox payroll and my plan would help baseball answer that question.
    There is no question that baseball has some issues to deal with even at this time when owners are making money hand over fist. I have only tackled a few of the issues in this article while avoiding the issues that baseball is already tackling, like pace of play and cheating (performance enhancing drugs). Some of the more radical in-game changes, like going to seven innings, or decreasing the length of the regular season would risk alienating the rabid fan base in an attempt to engage casual fans. So one warning to the commissioner – If baseball changes the game itself in an attempt to draw millennials or casual fans, you might permanently damage your strong base. Don’t rob Peter (Angelos) to pay Paul (Blair).