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Cleveland and Baltimore Solidify Their Up-the-Middle Defense

It was a busy day for free agent infielders yesterday. A flurry of moves saw Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, and Tommy La Stella find new homes in Toronto, Minnesota, and San Francisco, respectively. Those big names overshadowed a couple of smaller signings that occurred earlier in the day. Cleveland re-signed Cesar Hernandez to a one-year, $5 million deal with a club option for 2022, while Baltimore signed Hernandez’s former double-play partner, Freddy Galvis, to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

Both switch-hitting infielders came up through the Phillies farm system and established themselves at the major league level around the same time. Galvis left the Phillies in 2018 and bounced from San Diego to Toronto to Cincinnati over the last two years. Hernandez lasted in Philadelphia a little longer; 2020 was his first season on a new team. Both are defensively-minded infielders who have holes in their offense that have held them back from bringing in a bigger payday.

Hernandez is clearly the better of the two. He’s the reigning AL Gold Glove winner at second base and has quietly been one of the better second basemen in the league since claiming a full-time role in 2015. During that window, he’s sixth in the majors in WAR among qualified second basemen, accumulating 14.3 wins. Last year, Cleveland signed him to a one-year, $6.25 million deal to be their primary second baseman. That deal worked out nicely and they’ve returned to the same well, albeit with a new shortstop installed to his right — either Amed Rosario or Andrés Giménez.

His keen eye at the plate has always been the strongest part of his offensive profile, but he saw his walk rate dip to 6.7% in 2019 after posting a 11.1% rate over the previous four years. The most confusing aspect of his 2019 was his swing rate. He was much more aggressive at the plate, upping his swing rate to 45.5%. That would explain why his walk rate fell but he made enough contact with all those additional swings that his strikeout rate actually fell, though it didn’t offset the lack of free passes. Last Fall, Tony Wolfe wrote about Hernandez’s slipping plate discipline in his final year in Philadelphia:

“There is some real head-scratching to be done over Hernández’s 2019 season, but the numbers we’ve seen seem to indicate this year saw him employ a completely different approach from the one he’d used throughout his career. That provides an easy excuse for his struggles, but it also makes him more difficult to project. His changes resulted in a few positives, but overall, they didn’t make him a better hitter.”

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Marlins Reel In Anthony Bass

It’s become a common narrative in baseball recently: the veteran player, struggling to secure a job in America, heads overseas to play in Japan or Korea. They spend some time there, rediscover or reinvent part of their game, and return to America to find much greater success in the majors than before. Anthony Bass made his way to Japan in 2016 after toiling away for five years on three different teams. In his one season in Nippon Professional Baseball, he played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters during their championship season. He ended up pitching in five of the six games in the Japan Series that year and was the winning pitcher in the championship clinching Game 6.

After getting a taste of winning in Asia’s highest league, he returned to the States in 2017 but continued to struggle to earn a regular job in the majors until latching on with the Mariners in May of 2019. By the end of the season, he had worked his way into high-leverage innings for Seattle. He was claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays after the season and continued to work as a late-inning reliever in 2020. On Friday, he signed the first multi-year contract of his career, a two-year deal with the Marlins worth a guaranteed $5 million with a club option for 2023. The 33-year-old has taken the journeyman moniker to it’s extreme but finally found a school to call home in Miami.

The success he found in Japan gave Bass a huge boost of confidence. Getting over that mental hurdle was a significant step toward realizing his talent on the field. In an interview from February of last year, he recounted that mental process to Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic:

“Cause I was having success there and I was like, ‘I can do it. I can come back to the States and do exactly what I’m doing here in the States and have success. When I really started telling myself I’m a really good pitcher, and just attack the strike zone with everything I have, a switch turned on in my head and it just completely changed my career from pitching almost passively and a little timid, trying to stay in the major leagues versus, ‘No, I can do this and I want to dominate at this level.”

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The Blue Jays Take a Chance on Kirby Yates

A day after signing Tyler Chatwood to solidify their options out of the bullpen, the Toronto Blue Jays made a much bigger splash by signing Kirby Yates to a one-year contract worth $5.5 million and an additional $4.5 million in potential performance bonuses. Yates’ addition may have been overshadowed just a few hours later by the massive contract Toronto signed with George Springer, but adding Yates to the bullpen has the potential to make a significant upgrade to a team weakness. Between 2018 and 2019, Yates was the best reliever in baseball. He posted a 1.67 ERA backed by a 1.93 FIP. He was the only qualified reliever during that two-year span to have a FIP below two, he accumulated a league-leading 5.2 wins, and racked up 53 saves as the Padres’ closer.

Unfortunately, bone chips in his right elbow limited him to six appearances and just 4 1/3 innings in 2020. The uncertainty surrounding his health paired with his advanced age — he’ll turn 34 in March — explains why his deal seems like a bargain for a pitcher who was just recently one of the game’s premiere relievers. His $5.5 million guarantee falls short of the $8 million average annual value our readers estimated as part of our top 50 free agent exercise, but it’s right around what Craig Edwards thought, though with one less year on the deal. Still, after his outstanding 2019, this one-year pact has to be seen as a bit of a let down for Yates.

Yates was positive after undergoing his arthroscopic surgery. “Everything went really smooth. Everything was very positive,” he told the media in August. It’s likely that Yates’ elbow issues are behind him now that he’s recovered from his surgery. Regaining the level of success he enjoyed during that magnificent two-year span may prove more difficult, but he still has the pitches to be an outstanding reliever for the Jays. Read the rest of this entry »

The Phillies Continue to Add Firepower to Their Bullpen

Last year, the Phillies’ disastrous bullpen was a major reason why they missed out on the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. If you go back to 1969 — the year MLB lowered the mound — the 2020 Phillies bullpen posted the absolute worst league-adjusted ERA in a single season. By FIP, they were only a little better, landing 16th worst among 1,438 team seasons. Upgrading the bullpen had to be a significant focus of their new front office tandem, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld.

Their problems were numerous, but the Phillies’ relief corps suffered from a significant lack of gas in 2020. Their relievers threw the second lowest rate of fastballs thrown over 95 miles per hour in 2020. Indeed, just 10.5% of them reached that threshold. To address this dearth of heat, the Phillies have added a bunch of relievers who throw extremely hard fastballs. Just before the calendar flipped to 2021, they added José Alvarado in a three-way trade with the Rays and Dodgers — Alvarado’s fastball averages 97.7 miles per hour. Then a week ago, they acquired Sam Coonrod from the Giants — his heater comes in even faster at 98.7 mph. And yesterday, they added a third hard-throwing reliever to their bullpen, signing Archie Bradley to a one-year, $6 million contract. Adding elite fastball velocity won’t be a panacea for all their woes, but it should help.

Bradley’s fastball is the slowest of the bunch, averaging 94.4 mph in 2020. That’s actually a point of concern. It was the lowest average velocity for his four-seamer since he transitioned to the bullpen full-time in 2017.

Despite the drop in velocity, Bradley posted the best FIP of his career last season. His strikeout rate dipped a bit, from 27.4% to 24.7%, but he also slashed his walk rate to just 4.1%. In 2019, he had survived as the Diamondbacks closer with a 11.4% walk rate. During that season, his rate of pitches thrown in the zone dipped below league average for the first time as a reliever. He reversed that trend in 2020, getting his zone rate just above league average.

That dip in strikeout rate is just as concerning as his lower velocity. His fastball’s whiff rate was right in line with where it had been in years past. The biggest change for him in 2020 was the number of swinging strikes he was getting on his curveball. The whiff rate on his bender dropped from 30.5% to just 16.7%. Like his fastball, his curveball lost velocity last year, dropping down to 80 mph on average. It’s possible that lost velocity affected the effectiveness of the pitch enough to cause batters to spit on it more often. Now, he did record the highest rate of called and swinging strikes of his career in 2020, so it’s also possible that his falling strikeout rate was simply poor sample size luck.

The only reason why his overall swinging strike rate didn’t budge all that much in 2020 was because of his changeup. That third pitch had been a part of his repertoire back when he was a starter but it was inconsistent and he often lost his feel for it. He brought it back in 2019 with some success and increased his usage of it to 11.6% last year. He threw just 32 changeups in 2020, but its 38.9% whiff rate would have ranked 18th among all changeups thrown at least 100 times during the season.

Beyond his downward sloped strikeout and walk rates, Bradley worked through some odd results when opposing batters put his pitches in play. He induced the lowest hard hit rate of his career while also allowing the highest barrel rate of his career. His expected wOBA on contact of .370 was just a hair below league average so those additional barreled balls didn’t do much damage — he allowed just a single home run in 2020. His groundball rate had consistently been above league average throughout his career but it dipped below average for the first time in 2020. He threaded a very narrow needle by allowing more contact in the air, even though it was a little weaker contact overall, all while pitching in the zone more often with a fastball that was thrown a little less hard.

It was a bit of a surprise that Bradley was available as a free agent at all. He was entering his final year of arbitration and had pitched decently enough for the Reds after they acquired him at the trade deadline. But with all these red flags and concerning trends, you can see why they decided to non-tender him. He ended up getting a contract around his estimated arbitration salary anyway. If he can find that lost velocity on his fastball and curveball and continue to refine his changeup, he should be a stabilizing presence for the Phillies bullpen.

Simply based on his track record, Bradley will likely enter the season with at least a job-share in the ninth inning with Héctor Neris. Like every other Phillies reliever last year, Neris had his own problems and lost his handle on the closing duties when Brandon Workman was brought in. Between Bradley, Neris, and Alvarado, they’ll have plenty of options should any of them falter during the season. But there are enough question marks between the three of them that the Phillies should probably be in the market for another reliever, just in case.

The Twins Try to Hit the Bullpen Lottery Again

With the White Sox signing Liam Hendriks, the top option for teams looking to upgrade their bullpen is now off the market. Perhaps that will open up the floodgates for the other free-agent relievers, as nearly every would-be playoff squad is in the market for relief help. But whether it’s financially motivated or a matter of roster construction philosophy, there are a few contending teams who simply won’t be making a splashy addition to their bullpen. The Twins fall into that category.

In 2020, Minnesota’s bullpen was the unheralded strength of a division-winning team. The Twins’ relief corps was fifth in the majors by park- and league-adjusted FIP and ERA, and their relievers posted the majors’ third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio. But two of their best relievers from last year — Trevor May and Matt Wisler — have left via free agency. With their starting lineup and rotation mostly carrying over from last year, replacing them both should be a high priority.

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Robbie Grossman Pulls a Two-Year Deal From Detroit

After playing some pretty terrible baseball in 2019, the Detroit Tigers brought in a couple of veteran free agents to bolster their offense, taking it from very bad to only kind of bad. C.J. Cron only got to play 13 games in a Tigers uniform before he sprained his knee and was lost for the season. Jonathan Schoop worked out much better, producing a 114 wRC+ while playing excellent defense at the keystone, good for 1.4 wins in 44 games. Overall, the team wasn’t much better than their 2019 record, improving from an ugly 114 loss season to a pro-rated 98 loss season in 2020.

Just like last offseason, the Tigers turned to a veteran free agent to aid their beleaguered offense. Yesterday, they signed Robbie Grossman to a two-year deal with a $10 million guarantee and an additional $1 million in incentives, per Cody Stavenhagen and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Craig Edwards had Grossman towards the bottom of our Top 50 free agents ranking, estimating he’d get a one-year deal worth around $6 million, while the crowd had him pegged for an average of just over a year and a half and $9 million.

The switch-hitting outfielder had a career renaissance in 2020, accumulating 1.3 wins for the Oakland Athletics, easily a career high that becomes even more impressive when you consider that he accumulated that much WAR in just 51 games. Grossman posted a 126 wRC+ in 2020, the second highest mark of his career, and that offensive outburst was fueled by a massive power breakout. During the first seven seasons of his career, he compiled a .119 ISO, a mark you’d expect a light-hitting infielder to produce. Most of his offensive value stemmed from his keen eye at the plate and an above average ability to make solid, if weak, contact. In 2020, Grossman upped his ISO from .107 to .241, launching eight home runs in the abbreviated season. That was more home runs than he had hit during the previous two seasons despite accumulating less than half the number of plate appearances than in ‘19 or ‘18. Among all qualified batters in 2020, Grossman’s 134 point ISO increase over 2019 was the second highest, behind only Wil Myers. Read the rest of this entry »

Mariners Begin to Address Their Historically Bad Bullpen

After going all in on their rebuild in 2019, the Mariners have cycled through what seems like a million different pitchers in just two years. (The real figure is 61, the highest number of pitchers used by any team over the last two seasons.) That shouldn’t be surprising considering general manager Jerry Dipoto’s reputation for roster churn and the team’s goal of building a contender in just a few years time; scouring the waiver wire and the Mariners’ minor league system for pitchers who might show enough promise to stick around for a while requires a constant flow of transactions.

Finding plenty of lumps of coal in their quest to uncover those hidden gems, Seattle’s bullpen has been particularly bad as the team prepares to contend again. Over the last three decades, no relief corps has posted a league- and park-adjusted FIP worse than the 2020 Mariners, 33% below league average. They would have had the worst league- and park-adjusted ERA too if it weren’t for the 2020 Phillies’ atrocious bullpen and their 7.06 ERA. When we adjust their collective strikeout-to-walk ratio for their historical context, the 2020 Mariners had the fourth worst K/BB+ in that period, 37% worse than league average.

With their eyes set on coming out of their rebuild as early as next year — but more realistically in 2022 — Dipoto has made addressing that historically bad bullpen a primary goal of this offseason. The Mariners already re-signed Kendall Graveman, one of the few bright spots in the bullpen this year, and selected Will Vest in the Rule-5 draft last week. Yesterday, they took another next step in bolstering their bullpen by acquiring Rafael Montero from the Rangers. In return, 17-year-old prospect Jose Corniell and a Player To Be Named Later are headed to Texas. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Add Hunter Renfroe to Their Outfield

During the abbreviated 2020 season, the Red Sox saw their right fielders post an offensive line 30% above league average. It was a valiant effort on the part of Alex Verdugo and Kevin Pillar to replace the lost production of Mookie Betts. But with Pillar out of the picture and Verdugo seemingly shifted over to center to replace the departed Jackie Bradley Jr., that Betts sized hole in right field loomed large for the second straight offseason. On Monday, Boston addressed that need by signing Hunter Renfroe to a one-year, $3.1 million contract, with additional incentives that could bring the total amount to $3.7 million.

Earlier this offseason, Renfroe was cut loose by the Tampa Bay Rays after they balked at the raise he was scheduled to receive in his first year of arbitration. (MLB Trade Rumors projected his arbitration salary to fall between $3.6 million and $4.3 million.) His escalating salary combined with a significant step back in performance on the field made the decision easy for the penny-pinching Rays.

After establishing himself as a legitimate power threat in San Diego, Renfroe was shipped off to the Rays in the Tommy Pham deal prior to the 2020 season. During his first four seasons in Southern California, he launched 89 home runs for the Padres, backed by a .259 ISO, an 11.0% barrel rate, and a 39.2% hard hit rate. Despite a propensity to strikeout a little too often, he was five percent better than league average at the plate as a Padre. In his lone season in Tampa, his wRC+ fell to a career-low 76, though his power seemed mostly intact. His barrel rate dipped a couple points to 9.3% leading to a corresponding dip in his ISO to .238, but his hard hit rate stayed stable.

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Isiah Kiner-Falefa Disrupts the Rangers’ Status Quo at Shortstop

When the 2021 season begins, the Rangers’ starting shortstop will not be Elvis Andrus. He has been Texas’ everyday starter there since his debut in 2009 — a remarkable run of longevity — but earlier this week, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and manager Chris Woodward announced that Andrus would enter spring training as a utility infielder. Replacing him as the everyday shortstop? A former backup catcher.

Describing Isiah Kiner-Falefa as a backup catcher is a little misleading; after all, he won a Gold Glove for his excellent fielding at third base this year. But he reached the majors as a catcher after spending much of his minor league career as an infielder. That was a sacrifice he was willing to make to reach the highest levels with other, more heralded infield prospects ahead of him in the Rangers’ organization. It’s a credit to his determination and dedication that he outlasted those other prospects to earn this opportunity.

As Andrew Simon of pointed out, a player moving from behind the plate to the most difficult infield position is almost unheard of in baseball history: Kiner-Falefa could become the first modern player to play at least 50 games at catcher, shortstop, and third base. He was drafted as a shortstop out of high school and gained plenty of experience on the dirt as a minor leaguer, so this isn’t unfamiliar territory for him. Still, simply due to the way he had to make compromises to work his way up to the majors, he’s in rare company.

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Kim Ng Broke Through Two Ceilings

On Friday, when the Marlins announced they had hired Kim Ng as their new general manager, they set off a tidal wave of celebratory reactions from people both inside and outside baseball. That’s to be expected when a glass ceiling is broken. Her success was a triumph for women who have always had to fight for their place in the sport.

As soon as the news of Ng’s hiring went public, a question quickly gained prominence: How do you pronounce Ng? Media outlets reporting her hiring revealed a checkered understanding of the answer. The worst offender went with the extremely phonetic interpretation of “N-G.” Most got close, and those familiar with her work in baseball got it right. (To be clear, she pronounces it “ang,” which differs from the pronunciation of some Chinese Americans, who might pronounce it “ing.”

The widespread confusion about something as basic as Ng’s name is an extension of a few all too common questions most Asian Americans are familiar with: What are you? Where are you from? These reductive questions flow from the perpetual perception of foreignness that colors the experience of many Asian people in America. And it shows why Ng’s ascent to the top position in the Marlins organization is so important for Asian Americans, too.

Ng is the second Asian person to hold the position of general manager in major league baseball, and the first Asian American as well as the first Chinese American to rise to the top. Farhan Zaidi, who is of Pakistani descent, is Canadian-born and became the first Asian person to hold the title of general manager when he reached that position with the Dodgers in 2014. Ng also became just the second Asian American to become the GM in any of the major men’s North American professional sports — Rich Cho was the first when he was named GM of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2010. This dearth of Asian people in leadership positions extends to the field as well. There have been just two field managers of Asian descent in baseball, and there are just a handful of others across the other major men’s sports. Read the rest of this entry »