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Let’s Dole Out Some Twists of Fate, National League Edition

Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.

Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.

But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your club in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like. Read the rest of this entry »


Rob Manfred Speaks to the Media

On Sunday afternoon, commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference at Atlanta’s spring training facility in Florida. Per the typical protocol, the league tried to keep the news relatively muted. The conference was not broadcast on MLB Network — Bull Durham aired instead — nor did it stream on MLB.com. Whether this reflects a continuation of the league’s misguided damage control policy or a misunderstanding of the scandal’s resonance to fans, it was a strange way to downplay the commissioner’s remarks on such a topical issue.

Manfred’s comments themselves will likely not please any of those already skeptical about his ability to manage the biggest scandal the sport has seen in a generation. He again defended the league’s response while offering few fresh details. Listening to his remarks, one gets the impression that the league will remain in reactive mode perpetually as new details emerge, and that Manfred himself wants nothing more than to reach the other side of this. At one point he clumsily exclaimed “we’ll have baseball in 2020!” We’re all excited too, Rob.

Here are some takeaways from his press conference: Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Dole Out Some Twists of Fate, American League Edition

Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game and its season elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.

Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win, but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.

But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your team in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today, we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like.

Below, I’ve recounted the most unexpected thing that happened to each team from last year — with a twist. Instead of simply reflecting on what happened, I’ve assigned that very same outcome to a different, random team in 2020. For example, the Cleveland Indians saw one of their cornerstones play like Triple-A flotsam for three months, for no apparent reason. What would that look like if it happened to the Rays?

This is the longest article I’ve ever written for FanGraphs, so Meg (sensibly) made me break it into two pieces. Today, you get the American League teams; the NL will follow early next week. Read the rest of this entry »


Taijuan Walker and the Mariners Connect Again

The Mariners are bringing former top prospect Taijuan Walker back to the Northwest. Yesterday afternoon, the right-hander signed a one-year contract worth a base salary of $2 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to $3 million. As with Kendall Graveman earlier this winter, the Mariners have done well to round out their thin rotation with a low-cost option that could plausibly produce a significant return on their investment.

Unlike with Graveman, there’s plenty of sentimental value here, too. For most of the early part of the decade, Walker was the player Mariners fans salivated to see. Prior to Seattle’s current crop of farmhands, Walker led the vanguard of exciting Mariners prospects, the jewel in a class that also included Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, and James Paxton. Stories of Walker’s athleticism and skill spread quickly as he blitzed through Seattle’s system — my personal favorite is the time he wrote “Tai was here” on a piece of athletic tape and then showed off his NBA-esque vertical by jumping and sticking the tape too high for anybody else to reach — and many pinned their hopes of a Mariners resurgence on his powerful shoulders.

But just when Walker looked ready to make his mark in Seattle, he suffered a few incremental setbacks. He needed the better part of two years of seasoning at the upper minors before reaching the big leagues for good in 2015, and then ran into plenty of bumps that first season. His secondaries backed up between Double-A and the show, and big league hitters routed his pin-straight fastball and sloppy secondaries over the first two months of the year — a period during which a promising Mariners club imploded in part because of Walker’s 7.33 ERA in his first nine starts. Read the rest of this entry »


Mookie Betts Trade Underscores NL West Imbalance

On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price. Assuming the parties involved can hammer out the details, the deal obviously makes the Dodgers a better baseball team, both in the here and now and, to a lesser extent, in the future. For Los Angeles fans tired of October flameouts and agonizing World Series defeats, this is fantastic news: Betts alone is something like a five-win upgrade and he’ll make a long lineup that much more daunting come the playoffs.

As far as simply reaching the playoffs goes though, Betts barely moves the needle. Of all the teams in baseball, it’s not like this one “needed” to get better, at least when it comes to maximizing its playoff chances. Dan Szymborski took great pains to express that the ZiPS projections he’s cooking up are still under-baked and not yet fit for public consumption; that caveat aside, he has the Dodgers projected to win the NL West by 12 games without Betts. With him in the fold, that jumps to 16. Los Angeles has already won the division seven times in a row; with a loaded roster, and a deep farm system, their streak wasn’t in any jeopardy this year and won’t be for some time yet.

Whether or not the trade looks redundant in a competitive sense for the Dodgers, it must feel like just another body blow in Phoenix, Denver, and San Diego. Through the realities of geography, vagaries of expansion, and a league-wide desire to limit travel costs, four other franchises are stuck perpetually competing with the West Coast’s foremost superpower. The Giants have the resources to remain competitive in spite of their southern rival, but the other three teams have looked comparatively hapless. The Giants and Dodgers have captured all but one division title since 2007. In that period, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have only reached the playoffs five times combined, never escaping the NLDS. For the little three, the Dodgers are an immovable barrier blocking any real chance of sustained success. That’s a problem in a league that emphasizes postseason glory first and foremost, particularly in a sport that is primarily consumed locally. Read the rest of this entry »


Reliever Roundup: Strop to the Reds, Phelps to the Brewers

We’re not scraping the bottom of the free agent barrel quite yet. Yasiel Puig remains available, as do a number of lesser but still valuable big league types, like Collin McHugh, Brian Dozier, and Kevin Pillar. We are at the point in the winter, however, when we can start filing a few of the lesser signings in a joint roundup. The special on this particular menu is middle relievers fleeing the Cubs for big league deals with NL Central rivals — come for the Pedro Strop news, stay for the briefing on David Phelps. Or vice versa; do as you please.

Pedro Strop — Cincinnati, one year, $1.825 million, up to $3.5 million with incentives

Many moons ago, when Strop was toiling away in the Rockies farm system, he led the Northwest League in strikeouts. That’s not normally the kind of achievement that merits acknowledgement all these years later, except for the fact that he did so as a hitter (and to be fair, he was in good company; future All-Star Michael Saunders finished second in that category). Nonetheless, 86 strikeouts in 247 plate appearances marked the end of his time as an infielder. Colorado tried him on the bump the following spring, and after striking out 35 hitters in his first 26 minor league innings, he was on his way to bigger and better things.

Now 34, and with a ring and almost $30 million in the bank, Strop is coming off of his worst season in nearly a decade. Over 50 games and 41 innings, he posted a pedestrian 4.97 ERA with a 4.53 FIP, snapping a string of six consecutive sub-3.00 ERA campaigns. Never a control specialist, his 11.2% walk rate was the highest mark he’d permitted since 2012. The bigger problem, though, was the homers. He surrendered six of them, a career high, and more than double his career HR/9 rate. Alongside, Strop’s average fastball dropped a tick and a half relative to career norms and he enticed fewer whiffs with both his fastball and the slider that he’s long relied on as an out pitch. Read the rest of this entry »


The Cardinals May Have Missed an Opportunity

It’s probably unfair to say that the St. Louis Cardinals snuck into the postseason last year. After all, they were expected to contend at the outset of the season and subsequently led the division race over each of their final 35 games. With 91 wins, they were a worthy playoff team, and their triumph in the NLDS only reinforced that perception.

But if the Cardinals were more than a smoke and mirrors act, they weren’t always the most convincing contender either. It took them 90 games to finally clear the .500 bar for good and despite playing in the National League’s least talented division, they never separated themselves from their competition. Had Milwaukee swept the 90-loss Rockies in the season’s final weekend, they’d have pipped St. Louis for the Central.

It’s also not clear how well-positioned this team is to compete going forward. There are big holes in the outfield, aging veterans in key positions, and plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. Frustratingly for Cardinals fans, management made few moves to address those problems this winter. With spring training just a few weeks away, it appears that the Cardinals missed a golden opportunity to solidify their position at the top of a winnable division.

Perhaps the biggest source of trouble going forward is that the club’s best position players are at or nearing the end of their peaks. That became clear early on in 2019: For a team that was supposed to hit its way to the playoffs, the Cardinals wound up with a mediocre offense. The Redbirds posted a 95 wRC+, good for 15th in the circuit, and without a big season from Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, or Matt Carpenter. The big producers actually regressed, and it took breakouts from unexpected sources like Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman to buoy the lineup. Read the rest of this entry »


Cubs Actually Make Transaction, Sign Steven Souza

Sometimes, transaction news comes in a torrent. Check Twitter at the right time, and you’ll see four or five reporters confirming that X signed a new contract or Y traded Z to the Dodgers; generally Ken Rosenthal or Jeff Passan will have the news first, or tip their caps to the reporter who did.

In other instances, the news comes as a trickle, as is the case with Steven Souza Jr. Last Friday, Rosenthal reported that the Cubs had agreed to a contract with Souza, and followed that with another tweet indicating that the parties had agreed to a big league deal. As of press time, the details of the contract are still unknown and it appears that Souza needs to complete a physical before anything becomes official. We’ll update this post when we can confirm the particulars.

But this is one of those deals where the financials are secondary, and you just feel good for the player. Souza, you’ll recall, was badly injured in a freak accident during the penultimate game of Arizona’s Cactus League campaign last year. As he came around to score a run in the fourth inning, his foot slipped on home plate. He hyperextended his knee and in the ensuing tumble, tore his ACL, LCL, and posterior lateral capsule, and also suffered a partial tear in his posterior cruciate ligament. Needless to say, his season was over.

It was a blow for the Diamondbacks, who were thin in the outfield at the time, but even worse for Souza, who has constantly battled injuries throughout his career. In just the last five years, he’s suffered a broken hand, a labrum tear in his hip that required surgery, and a nagging pectoral injury that limited his production even when healthy enough to suit up.

It was the pectoral that dogged him throughout 2018, a disappointing follow-up campaign to what had looked like a breakout season. In 2017, finally healthy after hip surgery, Souza put up the best numbers of his career. He hit .239/.351/.459 with 30 homers in Tampa, good for a 121 wRC+ and nearly 4 WAR. The pectoral injury limited him to just 72 games in 2018 though, and his production cratered. He hit just five homers and his wRC+ fell to the mid-80s.

Between the knee injury last spring and Souza’s sub-replacement level production in 2018, a big league deal this winter was no foregone conclusion. As a power hitter with good (but not great) on-base skills and limited defensive value, he has the kind of profile that has struggled to find traction on the free agent market in recent years. He’s also three years and a serious knee surgery removed from his last productive campaign. Now on the wrong side of 30, he seemed like the kind of player more likely to get a minor league offer with an invitation to spring training than a major league contract.

Instead, he’s found the perfect fit with the Cubs, a team that has otherwise almost gone out of its way to avoid the free agent market. Souza’s contract is only the second major league deal they’ve offered this winter (provided that you can’t Ryan Tepera’s split contract as a big league deal), a period in which they’ve neither tried to boost their squad nor traded the kind of impact talent that would help kickstart a rebuild. As Chicago prepares to take one more shot with the remaining core from their 2016 championship team, Souza’s arrival could help paper over some of the cracks in the club’s outfield.

While nothing about Souza’s signing inherently prevents the Cubs from landing a bigger fish, Chicago’s behavior this winter suggests they’re not interested in that kind of deal (and with the news today that Nicholas Castellanos is taking his talents to Cincinnati, there aren’t a lot of big fish left). If this concludes their offseason investment in the outfield, Souza will slot in as one of the club’s two reserves. The Cubs don’t necessarily have an automatic starter at any one outfield position: Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Kyle Schwarber saw quite a bit of time in various spots, and Kris Bryant played some in right and left field as well. Souza has primarily played right field throughout his career, and he figures to spell Schwarber and perhaps Heyward in the corners on days the Cubs face a lefty.

Should that prove the case, Souza’s signing ought to make the Cubs lineup a bit better. He actually doesn’t have particularly large platoon splits: He’s notched a 101 wRC+ against righties in his career and has been only modestly better against lefties (108 wRC+), mostly thanks to a slightly higher batting average and a better walk rate when he has the platoon advantage. But while Souza can hit against everyone, Heyward and Schwarber have really struggled against southpaws:

The case for splitting time in the OF
2019 wRC+ vs. LHP Career wRC+ vs. LHP 2019 wRC+ vs. RHP Career wRC+ vs. RHP
Jason Heyward 45 79 115 118
Kyle Schwarber 93 77 127 125

Provided that Souza’s knee is healthy enough to play the outfield regularly and in some approximation of his previous form, he should be an upgrade on days the Cubs face a lefty and a useful bat off the bench when he’s not starting. In an era of three-man benches, this kind of player feels like a long lost luxury, though the bat-first extra outfielder will likely become more common with 26-man rosters and a new rule that requires teams to field at least 13 position players. If healthy, he should fill the role capably.

A strong offseason could have made Chicago the favorites in a tight but mediocre NL Central; instead, the club’s self-imposed austerity has helped keep the race wide open. For a relatively small transaction, the Souza deal says quite a bit about how the Cubs view themselves. Signing Souza at all demonstrates that the organization is willing to make improvements around the edges of a team that should win 80+ games and compete for a spot in the playoffs again. But the lack of bigger moves indicates that management is ready to pivot if the Cubs stumble out of the gate; Souza’s signing only corroborates that course.


The Cleveland Indians and the Burden of Financial Proof

Next week, the Dolan family, owners of the Cleveland Indians, are being honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards. The criteria for determining the winner of that particular prize is vague; it usually goes to a retired player. The Dolans are the only ownership group to have won it.

***

The Cincinnati Reds are a proud franchise in the midst of a tough run. A small market team in one of the league’s smallest cities, they’ve posted a losing record in each of the past six years. They haven’t won a playoff series in 30. TV ratings are solid — nothing attracts more eyeballs on a summer night in Cincinnati than Reds baseball — but fans haven’t had much to cheer lately. Franchise icon Joey Votto appears to be playing out the string. The Reds, even in a mediocre division, were buried in fourth place last season.

The Cleveland Indians are also a proud franchise, and they’re on a splendid run. They too are a small market team in one of the league’s smallest cities. But they’ve been plucky. The Tribe have notched seven consecutive winning seasons, and were a game away from a championship back in 2016. TV ratings are robust, the second-highest in all of baseball. Promising young players line the roster and shortstop Francisco Lindor is one of the game’s precious few superstars. The Indians missed the playoffs last season, but were relevant into the season’s final week and entered the winter with plenty of talent on hand.

So far this winter, Cincinnati has spent $100 million on Mike Moustakas, Wade Miley, and Shogo Akiyama. Cleveland has spent less than $10 million and dealt Corey Kluber for a reliever and an extra outfielder. Read the rest of this entry »


Rangers Add Chirinos, Make Massive Positional Upgrade

Last night, the Texas Rangers made another nifty signing in their humble but effective winter. Robinson Chirinos, coming off a career season in his Houston sojourn, will return to his roots this spring. He inked a one-year deal worth $5.75 million, with a $6.5 million team option for 2021; the contract also includes a $1 million buyout if the Rangers choose not to exercise the option.

Chirinos is one of those players who’s both older and better than you think. A career part-timer until 2018, the 35-year-old has quietly emerged as one of baseball’s best hitting catchers at an age most players fade into retirement. He has a very modern offensive game: He’s content to work the count, draw a few walks, take a few more strikeouts, post the occasional Insta, and smack a dinger every 10 days or so. He’s finished with a wRC+ above 100 in each of the last five campaigns, and among catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years, only seven have been better with the stick:

Best Hitting Catchers 2017-19
PA wRC+
Yasmani Grandal 1632 117
Omar Narváez 1099 115
Willson Contreras 1381 115
Gary Sánchez 1345 115
J.T. Realmuto 1703 113
Kurt Suzuki 1006 113
Wilson Ramos 1164 112
Robinson Chirinos 1172 111
Buster Posey 1461 109

If all of that sounds like a way to avoid talking about his glove, guilty as charged. Per our framing metrics, Chirinos is one of the worst receivers in the league. This is not a minority view either, as Baseball Prospectus’s framing numbers track very similarly. He’s given away nearly 50 runs over his career from his framing alone, and while he improved a bit last season, he’s very much a bat-first option behind the plate. Read the rest of this entry »