Saturday, December 17, 2016

2017 Player Preview: Stephen Strasburg

It's been an interesting career so far for Stephen Strasburg. He came into the league with so much hype that the expectation was basically that he would have multiple Cy Young awards by now. This was an unfair expectation but so far you could argue the results have simply been good not great. The problem with Strasburg has been staying on the field. Since returning from Tommy John surgery his games started by year have gone 28, 30, 34, 23, and 24. Not terrible. But again, not great. His best season came in 2014 when he went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA and a league leading 242 strikeouts. He finished ninth in the Cy Young voting that year, which is surprisingly the highest he has ever finished.

In 2016 he got off to a terrific start and by mid July was 13-0 with 138 strikeouts in 114.2 innings and a career low 2.51 ERA. However, in his final seven games he went 2-4 with a 7.36 ERA and the highest walk rate of his career. He missed time due to an elbow injury and ultimately did not appear in the playoffs with Washington. He will enter 2017 fully recovered and in the first year of a seven year, $175 million contract he shockingly (as a Scott Boras client) signed this past summer. Early on it looks like that was the right move by him if he isn't going to consistently start 30 games per season. The Nationals, meanwhile, will be hoping for a lot more performances like the one from the video above. 

Bryce Harper Reportedly Wants $400 Millon When He's A Free Agent

When Alex Rodriguez signed a 10 year, $252 million deal as a free agent heading into 2001 it easily became the most lucrative contract in baseball history. In the 16 years since the total value of that deal has been surpassed three times. Currently the largest contract ever belongs to Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a 13 year, $325 million deal back in 2014. As the value of baseball contracts continue to grow this record probably won't stand for long. Since Mike Trout signed a six year, $150 million extension with the Angels before 2014 the next record breaking contract will likely come from the stacked 2018 free agent class where Bryce Harper is starting negotiations at $400 million.

One of the biggest factors to look at when teams shell out these gigantic, long term deals is age. While the $400 million asking price is high, one thing Harper will have going for him in 2018 will be his youth. Since he came into the majors as a 19-year-old he will be just 25 when he reaches free agency, which is the same age A-Rod was at for his first record breaking contract. Age is important to consider mostly for the back half of these contracts. For example, when Albert Pujols signed a 10 year contract as a 32-year-old in 2012 it meant he would be getting paid until age 41. A-Rod was also 32 when he signed his second record setting contract in 2008 (10 years, $275 million). It's easy to see how these deals can start to look ugly after just a few seasons. Harper, meanwhile, would be just 35 when a theoretical 10 year deal expires. Perhaps you don't think he's worth $400 million but it makes a heck of a lot more sense to give that deal to a 25-year-old as opposed to a 30-year-old.

Now let's get into how good Harper actually is. We know he had a down season last year but instead of just saying "he sucks" let's take a closer look at his situation and try to figure out why he struggled. The first thing I notice when looking at his stats from 2015 to 2016 is the massive drop in batting average, which fell from .330 to .243. This can partially be explained by luck. Harper has a career batting average on balls in play of .317. His 2015 BABIP was .369, which means he was rather lucky that season. In 2016 that number fell to .264. So basically as lucky as Harper got in his MVP season he was equally unlucky this past year. 

As for the loss of power (42 homers in 2015, 24 in 2016) a shoulder injury could be to blame. Although he didn't require a stint on the disabled list it was reported a couple times throughout the season that he was playing hurt and a shoulder injury certainly affects power. The timeline of the injury, which likely occurred around May or June, makes sense since his numbers fell off after a scorching hot start. In 23 games in April Harper hit .286/.406/.714 with nine homers. He had a slugging percentage of .491 in the first half compared to just .373 in the second half. He's certainly better than what he showed during this second half. 2015 is proof of that.

A $400 million deal probably isn't going to happen. Harper likely knows this and is simply using the huge number as an early negotiating tactic. Even though we have seen record setting contracts before and even though the overall value of baseball contracts continue to grow it's hard to imagine a player receiving $40 million per year. However, it's worth noting that joining Harper in the 2018 free agent class will be Manny Machado, who some baseball people think could get even more than Bryce. A bidding war could develop, which would increase the value of both their contracts. It's also worth noting that the Yankees are expected to be major players in this class just as their young guys should be contributing on team friendly contracts. Ultimately it shouldn't come as a huge surprise if Harper gets north of $300 million, or even breaks Stanton's $325 million record.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Breaking Down What The Chris Sale Trade Means For The Red Sox

This isn't the first super rotation Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has built. In 2014, while with the Tigers, he entered the season with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello before trading for David Price at the trade deadline. Ultimately that team got swept in the ALDS by Baltimore. Another example of a super rotation coming up short is the 2011 Phillies. That rotation featured Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt yet the team lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS. This means that building a dominant pitching staff doesn't guarantee a championship. It doesn't even guarantee a trip to the World Series. But if you're the Red Sox now and you just added Chris Sale to Price and Porcello, and your number three starter just won the AL Cy Young, that's a good place to start. 

Let's start with what Boston gave up to acquire Sale. The headliner is obviously Yoan Moncada, Baseball America's 2016 minor league player of the year. The 21-year-old infielder is considered one of, if not the best, prospects in all of baseball. Red Sox fans will remember his dissapointing MLB debut, where in 20 plate appearances he struck out 12 times. However, it's worth noting that this was a small sample size, and that many baseball executives thought he may have been rushed from AA to the majors. In 106 games between A and AA this year Moncada hit .294/.407/.511 to go along with 15 homers and 45 steals. He's got an incredibly bright future and can now slide back into his natural position at second base since he is no longer being blocked by Dustin Pedroia. The three remaining prospects Boston sent are too far off to be worth discussing right now, but they are good. The Red Sox gave up a kings ransom in this trade. There's no denying that. But in return they got one of the five best starting pitchers in baseball.

Chris Sale has been a full time starter for five years now. He has never finished lower than sixth in the American League Cy Young voting. In the past four years he has led the AL in strikeouts once, K/9 twice, complete games twice, and ERA+ once. What makes Sale so good is his ability to strike batters out without issuing free passes. If he were to retire today he would finish with the second best strikeout to walk ratio of all time. He is an ace in every sense of the word, including his mentality, his leadership, and his ability to pitch deep into games.

Now that's not to say Sale doesn't come without risk. He has a funky, violent delivery, which early on in his career scouts thought would lead to elbow trouble. It hasn't yet but it's something to monitor. Perhaps more concerning, though, is the fact that his fastball velocity dipped from 95.6 mph in 2015 to 93.6 mph last year. He also saw his K/9 fall from 11.8 to 9.3. Some of this may have been due to pitching to contact to go deeper into games, but it's noteworthy. Additionally a lot is being made of the fact that he fixes the Red Sox postseason pitching woes but he has never thrown an inning in the playoffs. He certainly looks to have the mentality for it, but until we actually see him perform we can't expect him to do what Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester have done for past championship teams in Boston.

Many of these worries can be mitigated when looking at Sale's contract. Currently he has three years and $39.5 million left on his deal, for an average of roughly a little over $13 million. Compare this to aces around league and it's an absolute bargain. Price is making $30 million in 2017. Zack Greinke $31 million. Clayton keeshaw $33 million. Hell Sale is the fourth most expensive starter on his own staff when you realize Clay Buchholz is making $13.5 million this upcoming season. Ultimately Sale's contract, age, and production make him one of baseball's most valuable assets.

The Red Sox have the trio of Sale, Price, and Porcello locked in for at least the next two years (Price can opt out of his six remaining years after 2018). When you add that to the young core of bats they have this move isn't as "win now" as it initially appears. Yes Dombrowski has absolutely gutted the farm system since coming on board. He has sent hauls of prospects for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and now Sale. Perhaps they will be hurting a bit four to five years from now if Moncada turns into a perennial all star for the White Sox. But right now they have a two to three year window where a championship must be expected. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Wake Up With Jose Bautista's Epic 2015 Playoffs Bat Flip

So far this offseason has been dominated by rumors of Edwin Encarnacian, Chris Sale, and Andrew McCutchen. There has been surprisingly little talk about Jose Bautista, whose go ahead three run homer in the above video was one of the coolest moments of the 2015 MLB playoffs. You can feel the electricity coming from the stadium. At this point the Blue Jays' window was wide open. However, fourteen months later and all they have to show for it is two ALCS appearances. In terms of where the team was for most of the 2000s that isn't bad, but you can't help but think they may have missed out on their chance.

Not only has Toronto failed to re-sign Edwin or Bautista, they have already basically waved the white flag and signed their replacements in Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. They are also rumored to be pursuing Dexter Fowler. That doesn't leave any place for their two former sluggers to play so the 2017 Jays will have to rely on their underrated starting pitching to take another step forward if they want to contend for the playoffs.

Back to Bautista who isn't being talked about much this winter. Why is that? Sure he isn't as young as Encarnacian or as talented as Sale, but surely there must be a market for a power hitting corner outfielder who is one year removed from a 40 homer season where he led the American League in walks. 2016 was a down year for the 36-year-old but if the demand isn't as high as Edwin's he could be had for a potential discount. This is especially the case for an AL team where he could transition into a full time DH role.

Bautista has never been one to hit for average (career .255) but last season he posted the second best walk rate of his career. That's a good sign for an aging player because it means that even if there's a dip in power and batting average he still has the ability to get on base. Ultimately it's going to come down to how many years he wants, and whether front offices think he can rebound after posting his lowest home run rate since before his 2010 breakout season. Bautista went into the year wanting a five year deal but if he settles for three could be a surprisingly underrated addition for whoever ends up with him.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Wake Up With Albert Pujols' First MLB Home Run

Albert Pujols has been around for so long now that it's easy to forget how dominant his prime was. In every single season from his rookie season in 2001 through 2010 he hit at least .310 with 30 homers and 100 RBI. In NINE of those ten seasons he finished in the top four of the NL MVP voting, which included three first place finishes and four second place finishes. In separate seasons he led the National League in categories that include runs, doubles, homers, RBIs, batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, and total bases. 

However, as dominant as his prime was it is becoming more clear every year that he is wearing down. This past week it came out that Pujols underwent successful surgery on his right foot. This is now the third surgery we know of that he has had on it. Pujols is as tough of a baseball player as there is so he absolutely tried to wait as long as possible before being forced to undergo surgery. The recovery time is estimated to be four months, which would knock him out of spring training and may delay his start to the season.

Since signing his 10 year contract with the Angels his strikeout rate has increased, his walk rate has decreased, and he has made just one all star team. The lone bright spot has been the power department. In his five year Angels career he has played a full season in four of them and finished with home run totals of 30, 28, 40, and 31. If he can keep hitting for power the contract won't turn into a total bust. But he is still on the books for an additional five years and $141 million, which makes it tough to believe he will end up being worth the signing.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Should The Yankees Be Pursuing A Big Name Free Agent?

When the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in 14 years ownership decided to make a splash. That off-season the team committed a total of $423.5 million to Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett to an already existing group of star players. The plan worked perfectly. New York won the World Series that very next year and made the playoffs in every season trough 2012. When the team missed the postseason again in 2013 the front office doubled down on the big spending strategy. 

This time they committed $438 million to Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran to an already aging roster. Unfortunately for Yankee fans the plan didn't work this time. New York missed the playoffs again in 2014, lost the wild card game in 2015, and missed postseason play again this past season. For those of you counting at home that's three of the past four seasons the Yankees haven't participated in the MLB playoffs. 

At the 2016 trade deadline the front office was able to, for the first time in years, make progress at building the next great Yankee team.  More than anything else the roster was finally able to get younger. Alex Rodriguez and Teixeira retired. General Manager Brian Chasman traded Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller for a haul of top prospects. The moves not only shed payroll but the now baby Yankees surprisingly played better than they had all season. From August 1st through the end of the season they played their best baseball of the season, finishing seven games above .500 during this time. 

The biggest development for the franchise during this time was the play of rookie catcher Gary Sanchez. The 23-year-old came in hot and became the first player ever with at least 11 homers and 31 hits in his first 23 MLB games. Overall in just 53 games Sanchez hit 20 homers with a .299/.367/.657 triple slash line. Although it was a small sample size his .657 slugging percentage would have been the highest in all of baseball had he played a full season. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting but would have run away with the award had he played even half of a full season.

Now the franchise has a big decision to make. Early this off-season the team has been tied to several big name free agents such as Chapman, Beltran, and Yoenis Cespedes. Of the three Cespedes would be the biggest mistake New York could make. Realistically the Yankees aren't ready to compete for a championship in 2017, and signing Yo to a five year deal would limit payroll flexibility when the team is actually ready to make a splash.

It's tougher to argue against signing Chapman and Beltran, but for different reasons. Chapman has said he wants $100 million, which would double Jonathan Papelbon's record $50 million deal as the highest ever for a reliever. $100 million is insane but if the asking price comes down it's tough to argue against building a dominant bullpen led by Chapman and Dellin Betances after we saw how relievers were used during these past playoffs. Beltran, meanwhile, could be a fine short term signing. He could provide power, leadership, and be used as trade bait once again should New York be out of contention come July. 

Last winter the Yankees were surprisingly the only team to not sign a single free agent. The plan for the past couple of years has been to wait out these giant contracts, shed payroll, get younger, and wait for the insane 2018 free agent class to make a splash. Now the front office has a lot of money to play with but it would be wise for them to stay patient. The spending spree after 2008 made sense because there was already a championship team in place. The current edition of the Yankees is much like the roster that missed out on the playoffs in 2013 in the sense that it isn't ready to compete. Yankee fans got a taste of the future this past season. It would be in their best interest to wait to add reinforcements until 2018 when Sanchez and company are ready.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Yoenis Cespedes Expects To Land A Five Year Deal This Off-Season

Depending on who you ask Yoenis Cespedes is the top free agent bat this winter. Personally I would argue for the more consistent Edwin Encarnacian, but I understand why some National League teams may prefer Cespedes due to the likelihood he remains an outfielder for the entirety of his contract. Edwin, meanwhile, is likely to have to move to DH in the next few years if not sooner.

This extra demand for Cespedes puts the Mets in a tough spot. They made the playoffs last year despite suffering an insane amount of injuries. Next season they're getting back Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler. Yet even with that potentially elite starting rotation it's tough to envision the Mets in the playoffs with their current lineup. Neil Walker accepting his qualifying offer is a plus but this offense struggled mightily down the stretch last year. Outside of Walker New York is currently relying on Michael Conforto, Jay Bruce, and Asdrubal Cabrera as top of the order bats. The Mets finished 26th in the league in runs per game last season.

A recent report from the New York Post suggests Cespedes could land a five year contract north of $130 million. This would seemingly take the Mets out of the running for him as they would prefer to give him a four year deal in the $100-$110 million range. What should worry Mets fans is that there are no shortage of teams interested in him. He has already been linked to the Giants, Dodgers, Nationals, and Yankees. It seems likely one of these teams will give Cespedes the fifth year he wants.

If the Mets remain unable, or unwilling, to match that sort of contract than it will ultimately be a test at how badly Yo wants to stay in New York. Anyone who watches baseball can tell you the trade to the Mets has re-ignited his career, and that he has brought a certain swagger and identity to the team that was previously lacking. Although his .530 slugging percentage in 2016 did not match the .604 number he posted with New York in 2015, he still belted 31 homers with 86 RBI. The most encouraging development for the 31-year-old, however, was his career best 9.4% walk rate that easily blows past his previous career high of 8.0%. If the Mets are unable to re-sign him they will reportedly turn their efforts to Jose Bautista and Dexter Fowler. 

Should The Pirates Really Be Trying To Trade Andrew McCutchen?

Earlier this off season it was reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be "quietly shopping" Andrew McCutchen this winter. At the time this seemed like nothing more than a click bait headline. Then this past week it comes out that the Mariners reached out to Pittsburgh with serious interest in the former MVP. Now this doesn't mean Cutch is getting traded soon. But it's definitely more likely than it was a month ago, which begs the question of whether or not the Pirates should be willing to deal their 30-year-old superstar coming off the worst season of his career?

The initial reason Pittsburgh would even consider trading McCutchen is his contract. Currently he has just one guaranteed year left on his deal, for next season at $14 million. He then has a club option for 2018 at $14.5 million. Even at his 2016 performance level that's a no brainer for the team to pick up. So basically he has two years left at an affordable rate. The Pirates have been competitive for the past half decade, but aren't exactly in position to give him a long term deal once this one expires. Even though he would be 32 it's unlikely the Pirates re sign him after this contract, barring his willingness to take a home town discount. 

So that gives the Pirates a few options. They can trade him now coming off a down season but with a full two years left on his deal, keep him for the entirety of the remaining contract, or trade him down the road if the team falls out of contention by the trade deadline. The problem with trading a superstar like McCutchen, especially with two full years left at a reasonable rate, is that the team with the star is always going to overvalue them because of past performance. 

That past performance saw McCutchen be regarded as a top five player in baseball as recently at this time a year ago. In a four year stretch from 2012-2015 McCutchen batted a wildly impressive .313/.404/.523 with an average of 25 homers and 19 stolen bases. He finished in the top five in MVP voting in each of those seasons, including a first place finish in 2013. He also won four silver sluggers and a gold glove during the span.

This made his 2016 come seemingly out of nowhere. His triple slash line fell to .256/.336/.430, which isn't terrible for an up the middle defender but it fell way short of the standard he had set for himself. The 24 homers were nice but Cutch saw his strikeout rate increase, walk rate decrease, and for the first time in his career was caught stealing more often than he succeeded. Despite the down year there remains some reason for optimism. From 2012-15 McCutchen had a .355 batting average on balls in play. That number fell to .297 in 2016. It makes sense for a BABIP to fall as a player ages but it's reasonable to expect he got a little unlucky this year in that department, though it doesn't explain the downward trending walk and strikeout rates.

Given the fact that it was just one "bad" season it seems likely the Pirates hold on to their star unless they are completely blown away. If they struggle in 2017 they could likely get a similar package of prospects come the trade deadline that they would have gotten this winter, especially if they find a desperate enough trading partner. More concerning perhaps even than the offensive woes McCutchen experienced this past season are the defensive ones. The advanced metrics suggest he lost a step this year and the Pirates have discussed moving him to right field. He has said he doesn't need to leave center field. That kind of discord is why a trade, though unlikely this off-season, remains possible.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Did Rick Porcello Really Deserve To Win The AL Cy Young Award?

Entering last night I thought the AL Cy Young race could be the closest of all the awards handed out this week. There was a real case to be made for all three finalists in Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber. As tight as I thought the voting would be I was still surprised to hear Porcello won. The reason being I thought it meant voters gave too much importance to the 22 wins Porcello earned this year. However, after taking a closer look at the numbers the race was even tighter than I originally thought.

Let's start with the wins. 22 wins is good. But as we have learned wins are a flawed stat. Yes one can argue the starting pitcher's job is to win the game. But too often wins and losses are determined by things out of his control, such as his team's offense, defense, and bullpen. Many smart people think wins are entirely useless. If you want to tell me they have value I won't fight you to the death on that, but there is no way they have close to the value that ERA, WHIP, FIP, K/9, and BB/9 do.

I thought Verlander would win the award. As you can see in the table below he won most categories head to head against Porcello:

However, many of the categories Verlander "won" can be considered virtual ties because of how close the numbers were. For example, Verlander won ERA but only 3.04 to 3.15. He won innings pitched 227 to 223. He won WHIP 1.00 to 1.01. Porcello has slight edges in FIP (3.40 to 3.48) and complete games (3 to 2). 

If we exclude wins there were three categories where there was a significant difference: home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Oddly enough these are the three stats that pitchers truly control. For example, many people think hits are out of a pitchers control since your defense can have an affect on it. ERA, therefore, can be a little fluky since it involves hits given up. In my opinion there is still some skill involved in giving up hits, but it is more random than homers, walks, and strikeouts.

Getting back to the numbers Porcello had the edge in homers allowed (23 to 30) and BB/9 (1.3 to 2.3). He ranked second in the AL in BB/9 and first in strikeout to walk ratio. Verlander, meanwhile, had a huge edge in strikeouts (254 to 189). He led the American League. With the rest of the numbers being so close the decision could come down to what you value more in a pitcher: striking batters out or limiting walks and homers. Porcello won two of the three categories, which combined with the 22 wins could be the tie breaker.

Lastly let's take a look at the ballot. This is where the argument Verlander got robbed comes in. 

He received more first place than Porcello and was left off of two ballots entirely. That's insane. Whether or not you think Verlander should have finished first is one thing but there is no argument that he wasn't one of the five best pitchers in the American League this year. If we count those votes where he was left off as third place votes Verlander wins the Cy. That, of course, did not happen though and Porcello's numbers were actually much better than I originally thought. I would be fascinated to know if Porcello would have won the Cy with the same 16 wins Verlander had as opposed to the 22 he finished with, but ultimately am fine with him winning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Breaking Down Corey Seager's Historic Rookie Season

First things first let's talk about what the Rookie of the Year award really means. Baseball is very different from basketball and football in the sense that it has a minor league system that everyone goes through before reaching the majors. That means guys from the same draft class become rookies in different years. It also means that some guys get called up midseason while others are starters on opening day. So when we look back at ROY results it should be with a grain of salt. A prime example is this year in the American League. Michael Fulmer won mostly because he was around longer than Gary Sanchez, who only played half a season.  

Regardless, the National League Rookie of the Year voting is going to wind up as easily the least controversial award handed out this week. On Monday it was announced Seager won it unanimously, edging out his teammate Kenta Maeda and second half sensation Trea Turner:

Seager is the latest in a long line of Dodgers players to win the the award. He is the 17th Dodger to do so, which means on average they have someone win it every four years. However, he is the first to do it since the 1996, which was the last of a five year stretch where a Dodger won NL ROY every season. 

Now let's talk about how good Seager is. Not only did he win ROY but he's listed as a finalist for NL MVP. He probably won't win that but in my opinion he should finish second to Kris Bryant. In 2016 Seager hit .308/.365/.512 with 26 homers and 40 doubles as the best hitter on a team that made it to the NLCS. That type of power for a young, up the middle defender is rare. In the NL this season he ranked second in offensive WAR, fourth in total WAR, seventh in batting average, 10th in slugging, fifth in runs, second in hits, fourth in total bases, and seventh in doubles. He turned 22 in April.

So where does Seager's season rank all time for rookie shortstops? His 26 homers fell four short of Nomar Garciaparra's record and his 137 OPS+ is the best for a rookie shortstop since 1901. For comparison Nomar's 1997 OPS+ was 123. He may have hit more homers but Seager was the better all around hitter. 

We are currently living in a golden era of young shortstops that includes Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor but right now Seager is the best of them all thanks to his power potential. When projecting power for young hitters one stat to look at are doubles. Seager finished seventh in the NL in doubles as a rookie. As has been the case with many other players before him it's reasonable to project that those doubles in the gap eventually start leaving the park as he reaches his prime.

Seager's historic rookie season and age have put him in a rare group of baseball players. If you were to start a team today from scratch the first pick would be Mike Trout. There's no real debating that at this point. But who would go second? In my opinion there's about six or seven guys you could make an argument for. The position players on that list would be Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, and now Seager. Add in the fact that he has been a top prospect since being the 18th overall pick in 2012 and it looks like we are witnessing the rise of baseball's next superstar.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Adam Jones, Chris Archer, And Nolan Arenado Will Be Representing Team USA In The WBC

Here we go. Last week Max Scherzer became the first player to commit to representing Team USA in the upcoming World Baseball Classic this March. We knew at the time that Mike Trout and Bryce Harper wouldn't be playing, but the hope was that enough stars would help fill out the roster. So far we are off to a good start. The 2006 Classic probably featured the best roster we've ever had. That year had Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Chase Utley, and Jake Peavy all in their primes. If guys with rumored interest, such as Kris Bryant and Buster Posey, commit to playing then the 2017 team could end up being our best.

The biggest get from this trio is Nolan Arenado. Not only is he the best player of the three but he was also being recruited to play for Puerto Rico, which he would have been eligible for since his mother is from there. So not only does USA get one of the best third baseman in the world but they block a rival from getting him. The biggest knock on Arenado's game is that he isn't as good of a hitter away from Coors Field. However, this is unfair for two reasons. First because anybody would be a better hitter in Coors than they would be elsewhere.

Secondly he actually improved a lot on the road in 2016. His career triple slash line away from Coors is .261/.305/.457 but in 2016 he improved those numbers to .277/.340/.492. He has now led the National League in homers, RBI, and total bases each of the past two seasons. Additionally Arenado has won a gold glove every year he has been in the league. He's a top three third basemen in baseball and his addition to the roster will move Kris Bryant to left field should he join as well.

That doesn't mean Archer and Jones should be overlooked. Hopefully another ace is on the way and Archer can be the number three, but it isn't the end of the world if he ends up being our two. In the 2013 Classic USA had Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation so it can't get much worse than that. A quick look at Archer's 2016 season shows he wasn't very good. And he wasn't. He went 9-19 with a 4.02 ERA. But a deeper look shows he was a little unlucky. The wins and losses are mostly a result of playing for a 68 win Rays team and his strikeout and walk rates were in line with his career norms. 

What stands out is his 4.02 ERA. Before this season his previous career high was 3.33. The jump can be attributed to the insane 30 home runs he gave up this season. The reason this can be considered unlucky is because he had a home run to fly ball ratio of 12.2%, which is much higher than his career average of 8.2%. Home runs can be fluky year to year and ratios like this tend to even out over time. Expect Archer to bounce back next year. He finished fifth in the 2015 AL Cy Young voting and is a great addition to the USA rotation.

Lastly there isn't much to say about Jones. He's a great addition to the roster in large part because he was on the 2013 team so hopefully can use that experience to help himself and his teammates. Jones should be locked into center field duties thanks to the four gold gloves on his resume. He's as consistent of a hitter as they come with at least 25 homers and 80 RBI in every season since 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Astros Are One Of The Most Aggressive Teams So Far This Off-Season Following A Disappointing Year

It's easy to forget now but the Houston Astros were one of the most trendy picks to advance to the World Series back in Spring Training. The thought process made sense. Houston is a young team that was coming off an 86 win season in 2015, which resulted in a division series loss to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. However, instead of taking that leap to the World Series Houston saw it's pitching staff fall apart. Reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel saw his ERA rise from 2.48 a season ago to 4.55 this year. The team ERA as a whole rose from 3.59 in 2015 to 4.07 in 2016. Ultimately the Astros regressed by two wins and fell short of postseason play. 

Now just a week into the offseason they have been one of the most aggressive teams in talking to agents and general managers for star players. Houston, with just two players signed after 2017, has the payroll flexibility to make a big free agent splash. They also have the farm system to pull off a blockbuster trade. So far they have already been linked to Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. Any of these guys would add a lot to the impressive core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. 

Cabrera would obviously be the crown jewel here, but in order to acquire him Houston would have to trade Bregman plus a handful of upper level prospects. The Tigers have mentioned a desire to shed contracts and get younger this offseason, and Miggy has seven years and $220 million left on his current deal. Still it seems likely Detroit holds off and keeps their future Hall of Fame first baseman. Rarely are teams able to figure out the right compensation in both prospects and salary in these sorts of mega deals. Plus the Tigers don't have to trade him unless they're absolutely blown away by an offer.

Encarnacion could be a good fit since his services wouldn't require giving up any prospects. He fills a hole at first base and has averaged 38 homers per season over the last five years. In 2016 he hit 42 to go along with 127 RBI and a .263/.357/.529 triple slash line. The problem is, as the top free agent bat on the market, Edwin is going to command a lot of money. The Blue Jays and Red Sox figure to be heavily involved, which could cause the contract to get out of Houston's price range. Even with a ton of flexibility the Astros are unlikely to shell out a giant contract. Their win now roster could be a factor in ownership deciding to go for it, but it's unlikely.

That brings us to McCann and Beltran. Of these four guys McCann is the one I see most likely ending up in Houston. Thanks to Gary Sanchez the Yankees no longer have a need for the 32-year-old McCann. With a reasonable two years and $34 million (plus a vesting 2019 option) left on his deal it's the sort of contract the Astros could easily take on. McCann could split catcher and DH duties with Evan Gattis and would provide a lefty power bat to a mostly right handed lineup. Surprisingly McCann has hit at least 20 homers in nine straight seasons, and in ten of his last 11. 

Beltran would be an interesting fit as a veteran switch hitter. It's incredible how much interest there is in the 39-year-old DH as he's also been linked to the Rangers and Red Sox. Beltran hit 29 homers last year and is a proven postseason hitter, which is a big factor for contending teams. The one worry with Beltran is that he cooled off significantly in the second half following his trade to Texas. His slugging percentage fell nearly 100 points from .546 in New York to .451 with the Rangers. While most teams would prefer to give him a one year deal the demand may require a team to give him two. Although it was 12 years ago Beltran has a good history playing for the Astros. In just 90 games for them back in 2004 he hit 23 homers and stole 28 bases following a mid season trade from the Royals. 

While any of these guys would be a big get for the Astros it won't make them a championship contender unless they also upgrade the pitching. Keuchel isn't as bad as he showed in 2016, but he's also not as good as he was in his award winning 2015. The free agent market for starting pitching is one of the worst in recent memory so Houston will have to get creative either in a trade or by signing some high upside reclamation projects. The good news is so far management is being aggressive in trying to upgrade the roster. Their young core of position players is too good to not do everything possible to get back to the playoffs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Max Scherzer Commits To Team USA In The Upcoming World Baseball Classic

This is a huge get for fans of the World Baseball Classic, as well as fans of Team USA. The biggest problem for the past three WBCs has been a lack of star power in the tournament. This has especially been the case with Team USA, who's roster has never reflected the talent it could put on the field if the best players played. 

Off the top of my head USA could field an outfield of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts. It could feature Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Corey Seager, and many other stud hitters in the infield. The rotation could be comprised of aces such as Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, etc. The possibilities are endless. 

USA won't ever get ALL those guys to commit but they need several of them if they want fans to take this thing seriously. In three tournaments our country has a combined 10-10 record and has finished no higher than fourth. That's not good for a sport we consider to be our national pastime.

The WBC is coming back in March of 2017 and with this Scherzer news there is beginning to be a bit of a buzz about it. It was reported recently that neither Trout nor Harper are on the 50 man preliminary roster for USA. While that's disappointing to hear there are names on the list that are worth getting excited about. They include Bryant, Arenado, Kluber, Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, David Price, Giancarlo Stanton, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Buster Posey, and more. 

It's exciting to think about the potential American roster if even half of those guys commit. It's a tough spot for a lot of players. The WBC will run from March 7th to March 22nd, which is right in the middle of Spring Training and could affect their season preparation. At the same time it's not too often you get a chance to represent your country. Hopefully more players will be following Scherzer's lead, who is the first to commit to playing despite leading the National League in innings pitched this year.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What Teams That Have Never Won The World Series Are In The Best Position To Do So?

This week has been all about how tortured the fan bases of the Cubs and Indians have been. We all know the numbers by now. The Cubs haven't won since 1908 and the Indians since 1948. However, there are eight MLB franchises that have never won a World Series. A couple have never even been. That doesn't mean they're any more tortured than Chicago and Cleveland, though. In fact they're definitely less tortured - at least most of them. It obviously won't happen this year, but let's take a look at which organization is best positioned to capture their first World Series.

8. Padres

The Padres are a mess. Two years ago they went all in and acquired Matt Kemp, James Shields, Justin upton, Will Myers and Craig Kimbrel. Then they back tracked and traded them all for prospects. Then everyone found out they lied about the medical histories of same of the players they traded. Now teams are going to have to think twice about trading with them again. Throw in an unimpressive big league roster combined with zero top prospects and that's not a recipe for success.

So where does that leave San Diego? During that crazy 2015 offseason they shipped off seven of their top 11 prospects according to Baseball America. Myers has turned into their lone bright spot as he hit 28 homers this past season. However, they finished 68-94 and tied with the Reds for the worst record in the National League.

7. Brewers

2011 feels like a very, very long time ago. That year the Brewers rode Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in their primes to the NLCS against the Cardinals. Unfortunately for them they ran into a buzz saw named David Freese and just like that their window had closed. Few teams in baseball are positioned worse moving forward than Milwaukee. Braun is still good. He hit .305 with 30 homers in only 135 games in 2016. With the way baseball contracts have been going lately he's probably actually worth the four years and $70 million remaining on his deal. However, Milwaukee will have to eat a good portion of that money to receive desirable prospects in return.

Making matters worse is the fact that they have to play in the same division as the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates. Those teams are set up so well in the coming years that Milwaukee's best move will be completely hit the reset button the way the Cubs and Astros have done recently. Collect some high draft choices, trade for prospects, and see what happens. They'll also have to take what they can get for Braun since by the time they are ready to compete he will be past his prime.

6. Rockies

I get that Coors Field is one of the most unique home fields in all of sports. I get that balls fly out of there more than any other ballpark. But my goodness you would think a franchise that has been around since 1993 would figure out how to develop pitchers there. Can't they target ground ball pitchers in free agency or allocate all their draft capital to selecting arms? I'm sure they've tried but it's hard for me to believe they haven't been able to figure it out. 

The Rockies made the World Series in 2007 but have done little since with just one playoff berth in that time. They have one of the best players in baseball in Nolan Arenado but are currently not set up well to surround him with a strong supporting cast. In 2016 their offense ranked second in MLB in runs per game but their team ERA ranked 28th. Until they figure out how to improve the pitching we won't see them in October or beyond.

5. Rays

Once upon a time there was a Cinderella story called the Tampa Bay Rays. They were the first small market team since the earl 2000s Oakland A's to crack the code of winning the unfair game of baseball. It all began in 2008 when they were the first team to truly emphasize defense and they defeated the reigning champion Boston Red Sox in the ALCS to win the pennant. Unfortunately they lost the World Series in five games to the Phillies and have yet to get past the first round of the playoffs since.

In the six year stretch from 2008-2013 Tampa Bay made the playoffs four times. Their win totals by year went 97, 84, 96, 91, 90, and 92. During this time the franchise had an uncanny act for replacing star veterans with undervalued contributors. But a team can only lose so much before the run is over. In the last few years they have lost manager Joe Maddon, GM Andrew Freidman, ace David Price, James Shields, and many more. They have been under .500 each of the past three seasons and are in the middle of a rebuilding process. It will be at least a few years before we see them playing in October again.

4. Mariners

The Mariners have underrated been one of the worst franchises in sports over the past fifty years. They have never been to the World Series and have not even made the playoffs since 2001. Sure, they won an insane 116 games that year but as we learned recently from the Warriors it don't mean a thing without the ring. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a Mariners fan the past decade has to be how they have wasted Felix Hernandez's prime. Since 2009 he has finished in the top eight in Cy Young voting six times but has yet to make a postseason start. He is signed through 2019 but in 2016 had his worst ERA since 2007.

It feels like every year Seattle is a trendy pick to win the World Series. In recent seasons they have added star free agents like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. They have young pitching with Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. But for some reason they just haven't been able to put it all together. They have some holes to fill this offseason but it shouldn't be a huge surprise to see them capture one of the American League's two wild card spots in 2017.

3. Rangers

The Texas Rangers entered the 2016 playoffs as the number one seed in the American League. Many thought this team was a fluke, due to a miniscule run differential, and they got exposed in a three game sweep at the hands of Toronto. The loss hurt because of how hard the team tried to make a deep playoff run at the trade deadline. Over the past two summer they have acquired Cole Hamels, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Beltran. They have two first round exits to show for it.   

Moving forward the club will build around co-aces Hamels and Yu Darvish, rookie sensation Nomar Mazara, and veterans Lucroy and Adrian Beltre. Re-signing shortstop turned outfielder Ian Desmond should be the team's top priority, in addition to getting back end of the bullpen help. 

2. Astros

Everyone and their mother was picking Houston to make it to the World Series back in Spring Training. The thought process made sense. The team had tanked for a few years, collected a group of good, young players, and broke through last year with 86 wins and a playoff appearance. That wins total dropped just two in 2016 to 84 but wasn't enough to make the playoffs. A lot of positives happened this year, though. Jose Altuve became a MVP candidate, Carlos Correa had a good sophomore season, and George Springer continued to hit.

The problem for the Astros was the pitching. Reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel regressed badly. His ERA rose form 2.48 in 2015 to 4.55 in 2016. The team's ERA also rose from 3.59 in 2015 to 4.07 in 2016. A part of that was Keuchel but they need to improve in this area to truly contend. While this roster may not be complete yet, it is young and talented enough to a bright future. Houston fans should be excited.

1. Nationals

The Nationals are not only positioned well of the teams that have never won, they are one of the most well put together teams in all of baseball. In a weak division with the Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Phillies they figure to be the odds on favorite to repeat as NL East champs. They have an ace in Max Scherzer. Trea Turner looks like the real deal. But the championship hopes of Washington rest on their two former number one picks.

Let's start with Bryce Harper. First of all, what the fuck happened? As a 22-year-old in 2015 Harper became the youngest unanimous MVP of all time. Let that sink in for a minute. He belted 42 homers with a .330/.460/.649 triple slash line. This year those numbers fell to 24 homers and a .243/.373/.441 triple slash. Harper was due for regression in the batting average department due to an unsustainable BABIP, but what happened to the power? There were rumors all season of Bryce playing through a shoulder injury. It makes sense since his stats dropped off after a white hot April when he supposedly suffered the injury. We may find out more this offseason but regardless it would be foolish not to expect a bounce back from Harper.

Now there's the case of Stephen Strasburg. It's tough to think Washington wouldn't have won their Division Series against the Dodgers if they had him. Since Strasburg made his debut in 2010 the Nationals have made three postseason appearances but Strasburg has just one playoff start on his resume. Whether it's an innings limit a six man rotation the Nationals need to find a way to keep this guy healthy for October. A Scherzer-Strasburg led playoff rotation could be deadly. Hopefully we get the chance to see it come 2017.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ranking The Former Red Sox Still Playing In The 2016 Playoffs

In an 11 year stretch from 2003-2013 the Boston Red Sox were the envy of the baseball world. During parts of this time frame they would employ several hall of famers, big game playoff pitchers, one of the best managers in baseball, and maybe the best General Manager of all time. It should come as no surprise that the last place finishes of 2014 and 2015 occurred without most the names on this list. The franchise redeemed themselves this past season by winning the AL East. However, the core of the team was built by the former GM. Let's take a look at who else Boston has let slip through their fingers over the past decade, and which losses have hurt the most:

*Honorable mention to Mike Napoli, Dave Roberts, Coco Crisp, Jed Hoyer

6. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers

Gonzalez is probably the easiest of the bunch for Boston fans to grasp with. All we heard when he first came over was  how perfect his swing was for Fenway and how he would use the short right field to hit 50 homers. He didn't meet those ridiculous expectations but that's not to say A-Gon was a disappointment in Boston, at least production wise. In his only full season with the Sox, 2011, he hit .338 with 27 homers and a MLB leading 213 hits. He was an all star, won a gold glove, a silver slugger, and finished seventh in the MVP voting. But 2011 was the season the Sox went 7-20 in September to choke away a playoff spot. 

Additionally Gonzalez complained about the Boston media and didn't seem to care whether the team won or loss, which is a big no no in this market. Finally, he was lumped in a trade with Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to shed salary and give the Red Sox a reset. It worked out perfectly as the team won the World Series the very next year, which has led Sox fans to think we were better off without Gonzalez. While he was never a winner in Boston it's still somewhat bittersweet to see him still contributing as a 34-year-old in LA, especially when you consider what we had to give up to get him...

5. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

We had him. We had him and gave him away. It's not even as if the Sox didn't realize what they had in Rizzo. They did. Jed Hoyer has proven that by trading for him when he was GM of the Padres and then again when he reunited with Theo in Chicago. Rizzo was the centerpiece of the Gonzalez deal. The thought process at the time was he was a great prospect but Gonzalez is a sure thing and we are signing him to a long term deal. Two years later trading Gonzalez away created the blueprint for the 2013 championship team. So in a weird way trading Rizzo gave the Sox a World Series. But man it's tough to not day dream about adding Rizzo to the current roster with Betts, Bradley, and Bogaerts.

Squarely in his prime at 27 years old Rizzo has become one of the best players in baseball. In 2016 he ranked fifth among NL position players with 5.7 WAR according to baseball-reference. Over the past three season he has hit at least 30 homers and ranked inside the top 10 in OBP in the National League. He has been an all star each of those seasons, finished 4th in the MVP voting last year, and should finish top three in 2016. Furthermore, unlike Gonzalez, Rizzo is a gamer who gets along with the fans and his teammates and loves playing for an iconic franchise. Sox fans didn't really get to know him but can only wonder what could have been.

4. Terry Francona, Indians

Wherever Tito goes he wins. Since becoming manager of the Red Sox in 2004 he has not had a losing season either in Boston or Cleveland. His wins by year since '04 go 98, 95, 86, 96, 95, 95, 89, 90, 92, 85, 81, and 94. Sure you could make the argument that he had great talent in Boston. But so did Bobby Valentine. So has John Farrell. And what about Cleveland? Not many were predicting them to win the World Series back in spring training. Francona has to be considered a major reason for their success.

Francona took over the Indians in 2013 and improved them by 24 games in his first year. Nobody has ever not loved playing for Tito. He incredibly handled the egos of Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and many more during his Sox years. He is an old school players manager that isn't afraid to try new school ideas. His usage of Andrew Miller this postseason is changing the game and could bring Cleveland their first World Series title since 1948.

3. Andrew Miller, Indians

It's tough to rank Miller this high on the list because when the Red Sox dealt him away at the trade deadline of 2014 it was perceived as a genius move. Miller was having a second straight dominant season, but he did not have the track record to warrant the idea of having to re-sign him. The prospect they traded him for, Eduardo Rodriguez, looked great in his rookie season last year by going 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA, furthering the belief that dealing Miller was the right move. 

But since the trade Miller has only gotten better. Already an elite strikeout artist with the Red Sox, Miller has greatly improved his command in New York and Cleveland. With the Sox in 2014 Miller had a 5.31 strikeout to walk ratio. In two months with Cleveland this year that number rose to 23. Lastly, Miller is changing how relievers are used before our very eyes. Not only is he able to come into the game in the fifth inning, he is willing to. So far in the playoffs he has thrown 11.2 shutout inning with 21 strikeouts. He was named ALCS MVP. 

2. Jon Lester, Cubs

Jon Lester could start his next playoff game, give up 40 runs without recording an out, and still have a better playoff ERA than David Price. The Sox offered Lester four years and $70 million. They offered Price seven years and $217 million. Now the circumstances were different. This past off-season we desperately needed an ace and did the right thing by getting Price no matter the cost. He was a big part of winning the AL East. But it may not have had to come to that had the front office not low balled Lester in the spring of 2014. 

The most infuriating part for Sox fans watching Lester in Chicago is that he wanted to stay here. If we had given him the money he deserved he never would've left. He's a smart guy though and saw what Epstein was building with the Cubs. He's a big game playoff pitcher and wanted to be a part of what's happening right now. The Cubs got him for six years and $155 million, which is a contract the Sox would happily give him now. Unless Price figures out his playoff woes we could be hearing about losing Lester for a long time in Boston. In 119 postseason innings he has a 2.50 ERA.

1. Theo Epstein, Cubs

Epstein is already one of the best front office executives of all time. He was a local kid who ended the most daunting sports curse of all time. He followed it up with another championship three years later. He drafted Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley. He signed Bogaerts. When the Red Sox stupidly let him go after 2011 he rebuilt the Cubs and has turned them into baseball's version of the Patriots and Warriors - a team built so insanely well to win both this year and for the next five seasons to come. 

Losing Epstein should hurt Boston fans so much more than losing Francona does. It was time for Tito to go. The players had tuned out. That happens with managers. Eventually you have to move on. He should've been treated better throughout his entire tenure here but at the end of the day it had to be done. It's much tougher for a GM to get burnt out. Now Epstein has said he think it was the right time to leave, but it's hard to believe he would have if the Sox had given him the keys to the franchise the way the Cubs did. 

Epstein and Larry Lucchino were basically in a power struggle that Lucchino won. That's fine except Lucchino is now gone. So Boston pretty much chose a few years of Larry over an eternity of Theo. He has already done his job with the Cubs and turned them into a perennial contender. If he ends their World Series drought, to go along with breaking the curse of the Bambino, he's the best baseball executive of all time and it's not close.