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.