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Chris Sale Finally Cashes In

Chris Sale has long been one of the top pitchers in baseball — not only for pure performance but for bang for the buck, as he’s been working under one of the game’s most team-friendly contracts since 2013, which runs through this season. After an uneven season in which he reprised his 2017 dominance until shoulder inflammation limited his availability down the stretch, before capping a rocky October by closing out the World Series-clinching Game 5 against the Dodgers, the wiry southpaw has become the latest star to lock in big money early instead of testing the free agent market next winter or the one after that, following in the footsteps of Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt, all of whom have agreed to nine-figure extensions over the past four weeks. On Friday, Sale and the Red Sox agreed to a five-year, $145 million extension that will take him through 2024, his age-35 season. The deal, which will reportedly include some deferred money, won’t be finalized until he takes a physical next week.

Sale’s new deal succeeds the five-year, $32.5 million extension he signed in March 2013, his first year of arbitration eligibility. Via the two club options tacked onto that contract, he made $12.5 million in 2018 and will make $15 million in 2019, for a total of $59 million. That’s not exactly chump change, but it’s far below what the White Sox and Red Sox would have paid on the open market for the 34.7 WAR he’s delivered so far under that deal, the third-highest total among all pitchers. The two pitchers ahead of him, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, signed seven-year contracts worth $215 million and $210 million in 2014 and 2015, respectively. A similar payday for Sale has been long overdue, something the Red Sox had to know when they acquired him from the White Sox in a December 2016 blockbuster that cost the team infielder Yoan Moncada (who topped our prospect list the following spring and ranked second on that of Baseball America), pitcher Michael Kopech (21st on our list), outfielder Luis Basabe (now sixth on the White Sox list), and pitcher Victor Diaz.

Taking that initial extension, which Sale signed on the heels of a 192-inning age-23 season, wasn’t “the wrong” decision, necessarily. It was a move that guaranteed security for a pitcher whose mechanics and injury risk had already become the subject of much debate throughout the industry, and those concerns didn’t abate even after he signed his deal. Nonetheless, he’s avoided any disaster scenarios, throwing the fifth-highest total of innings in that 2013-18 span (1,196) while never dipping below 4.9 WAR even in the seasons in which he fell short of 200 frames.

In 2017, Sale’s first season with the Red Sox, he became the first AL pitcher to notch 300 strikeouts in a season since the turn of the millennium (308, all told) while leading the majors in innings (214.1), FIP (2.45), and WAR (7.5), though he faded somewhat down the stretch and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting behind Corey Kluber, whose 2.25 ERA (and 8.2 bWAR) carried the day. It was the sixth consecutive season in which Sale had earned All-Star honors and received Cy Young consideration.

Through the first four months of last season, Sale appeared to be on track to finally win the award, starting the All-Star Game for the AL and carrying a 2.04 ERA and 2.08 FIP into late July before missing two starts with shoulder inflammation. Upon returning, Sale threw five innings of one-hit shutout ball against the hapless Orioles, striking out 12 — his 11th double-digit game of the year — on just 68 pitches. But he went back on the DL before he could start again, and the Red Sox, who were running away with the AL East at the time, chose to play it safe. Sale pitched just 12 innings in four September appearances, and finished with 158 innings, four short of qualifying for the ERA title; his 2.11 mark would have ranked second in the league and his 1.98 FIP first, and even with the limited work, his 6.2 WAR ranked second. The shortfall of innings cost him the Cy Young, as Blake Snell and his 21 wins and 1.89 ERA in 180.2 innings brought home the hardware.

The Red Sox’s cautious handling of Sale extended into the postseason, as he totaled just 13.1 innings in three starts, with only his Division Series Game 1 turn against the Yankees lasting longer than four innings. He made two one-inning relief appearances, one in Game 4 of that series and the other in the ninth inning of Game 5, where he struck out the side to seal the Red Sox’s fourth championship in the past 15 seasons.

Repeatedly, Sale and the Red Sox have expressed confidence in the pitcher’s condition. In late August, Sale said that his shoulder felt “like Paul Bunyan’s ox” and in September he said he had no plans to fuss over his mechanics because his shoulder was structurally sound. “There was never any major issue with my shoulder,” he said. “This wasn’t something that happened on a single pitch or a mechanical issue or anything.” As of January, he felt “normal again. Being able to throw free and easy and feel loose … obviously is a nice feeling.”

Apparently the Red Sox are still confident enough in the condition of Sale’s shoulder to commit to him for five years beyond this one, at a salary near the top of the scale for pitchers. At this writing, there’s no word about opt-outs, options, or escalators, but Sale’s $29 million average annual value trails only those of Zack Greinke ($34.4 million), Kershaw and teammate David Price (both $31 million), and Scherzer ($30 million), though according to Craig Edwards’ recent inflation-adjusted look at the largest contracts in history, it would actually rank eighth behind the deals of Kevin Brown, Kershaw and CC Sabathia (both pre-opt out), Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Mike Hampton, and Felix Hernandez.

As with Arenado and Goldschmidt, running Sale’s numbers through our contract estimation tool using even conservative parameters ($8.0 million per WAR and just 3% average annual inflation, as opposed to $9 million or more, and 5%) yields an eye-opening valuation:

Chris Sale’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $203.3 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2020 31 5.7 $8.2 M $47.0 M
2021 32 5.2 $8.5 M $44.1 M
2022 33 4.7 $8.7 M $41.1 M
2023 34 4.2 $9.0 M $37.8 M
2024 35 3.7 $9.0 M $33.3 M
Totals 23.5 $203.3 M


Value: $8M/WAR with 3.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-24), 0 WAR/yr (25-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Where Goldschmidt’s estimate using the same parameters came in 20% higher than his actual deal, the estimate for Sale is around 40% higher. But unlike in the case of Goldschmidt, where applying estimates of $9 million per win and 5% inflation to a ZiPS projection — which is generally more conservative than this model — provided by Dan Szymborski produced a figure that more closely resembled his actual contract, sticking with $8 million per win and 3% inflation for Sale in this model overshoots the mark by even more:

Chris Sale’s 2020-24 via ZiPS
Year Age IP ERA ERA+ FIP WAR $/WAR Value
2020 31 171 2.58 171 2.40 5.6 $8.24M $46.1 M
2021 32 166.7 2.70 163 2.48 5.2 $8.49M $44.1 M
2022 33 153 2.71 163 2.50 4.8 $8.74 M $42.0 M
2023 34 143.3 2.76 160 2.59 4.4 $9.00 M $39.6 M
2024 35 132.7 2.85 155 2.60 4.0 $9.27 M $37.1 M
Totals 24 $209.0 M

Even while projecting relatively low innings totals, ZiPS sees Sale as half a win more valuable over that timespan than our contract estimation tool does. Indeed, Szymborski says that only Luis Severino and German Marquez (!) project to produce more WAR over the remainder of their careers. Dan’s computer is so sweet on the southpaw that it’s probably sending heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to his locker as I type. Remember, for both of Sale’s estimates I’ve lopped off his 2019 performance, in which he projects to deliver something around $47-$49 million of value while being paid just $15 million.

Based upon that $145 million figure, either the Red Sox are significantly underpaying Sale or expecting a lot less, performance-wise, than the projection systems (for what it’s worth, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects Sale for 22.1 WARP over the 2020-24 period). Which doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, as they’re the ones with access to his medical file, and the risk of a career-altering injury for a pitcher is ever-present. Working backwards with the ZiPS projection and our conservative $8 million and 3% parameters, a five-year forecast of 17.0 WAR produces a valuation of $147.7 million. At $9 million per win and 5% inflation, 14.0 WAR produces a valuation of $144.2 million.

Regardless of the projections, the contract adds one more hefty salary to the Red Sox payroll, which for tax purposes already has $105.5 million worth of commitments for 2020 and $106.0 million for 2021, primarily via the deals of Price (an AAV of $31 million), J.D. Martinez ($22 million), Nathan Eovaldi ($17 million), Dustin Pedroia ($13.75 million), and Christian Vazquez ($4.517 million). That’s before any extension or arbitration raise for Mookie Betts (who has just one more year of club control), and without counting the pending free agencies of Rick Porcello or Xander Bogaerts, though it’s worth noting that Martinez can opt out after this season. If the Red Sox, who already project to be about $31.6 million over this year’s Competitive Balance Tax threshold — so far over that they incur a surtax — are going to avoid progressively larger tax bills, they’ll have to make some tough choices in the near future, and find some lower-cost players to fill out their roster. Keeping Sale, alongside Price and Eovaldi, almost certainly means letting Porcello walk, and Bogaerts, too, because as a Scott Boras client, the likelihood of his agreeing to a team-friendly extension appears to be slim.

As for Sale, he doesn’t have to remain in perennial Cy Young contention to make this deal worthwhile, but the fact that he’s been able to do so is what’s made him so attractive a player in the first place. He’s earned his big payday, and while he might have received an even bigger one by going on the market, the inherent risks of pitching make this a sensible move for him as well.

Cardinals and Goldschmidt Catch Extension Fever

Extension fever is gripping major league baseball. In the wake of deals that short-circuited the highly anticipated free agencies of veterans Nolan Arenado and Mike Trout, and delayed the onset of those of Alex Bregman, Aaron Hicks, Eloy Jimenez, Miles Mikolas, Luis Severino, Blake Snell, and others, the latest player to take himself off the market is Paul Goldschmidt. The 31-year-old Cardinals first baseman has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $130 million extension for the 2020-24 seasons, a generous-looking deal in light of the past two winters’ frosty free agent proceedings.

Three and a half months after he was traded by the Diamondbacks in exchange for Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young, and a Competitive Balance B pick, it still feels weird to type “Cardinals first baseman” in connection to Goldschmidt, who over the course of his eight-year major league career had become the face of the Diamondbacks’ franchise. An eighth-round pick out of Texas State University who barely grazed prospect lists — Baseball Prospectus ranked him 10th in 2011 (a “Two-Star Prospect”), while Baseball America ranked him 11th, good enough to make their annual Prospect Handbook but not even the team top 10 published over the winter — he nonetheless made six All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, finished in the top three of the MVP voting three times, and helped the team to two playoff berths during his run in Arizona. However, the Diamondbacks couldn’t get past the Division Series either in 2011 or ’17 despite Goldschmidt homering four times and slugging .688 in eight postseason games.

Even given Arizona’s lack of postseason success, that’s the type of player most teams would try to lock up long-term. The Diamondbacks did ink Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million extension circa March 2013, and in February 2017, team CEO Derrick Hall spoke of hoping that “he’s here for the long haul,” but by January 2018, it appeared that they were gearing up for life without their star slugger. Read the rest of this entry »

2019 Positional Power Rankings: Shortstop

After taking a look at center fielders and designated hitters yesterday, our positional power rankings continue with shortstop.

We’re in a golden era for shortstops. The late-1990s/early 2000s heyday of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada was not only pretty cool — at least before injuries and position changes broke up the band, and PED revelations retroactively dimmed our appreciation — but it ushered in an era of bigger, more powerful players at the position, and that trend has raised the bar for offensive production. Last year, shortstops hit a collective .259/.317/.416 for a 97 wRC+, five points higher than it had been in any other season since 2002 (as far back as our splits go), and trust me, it was worse than that previously, despite occasional concentrations of thumpers. In 2018, shortstops even outhit second basemen (93 wRC+) by a handy margin, something unseen within the narrow timeframe of our splits and constituting roughly a 10-point swing relative to the 2002-2017 period, in which second basemen outhit shortstops by a 95-89 margin according to wRC+.

It’s true that last year’s surge was helped by the inclusion of Manny Machado — who led all shortstops with a 141 wRC+, but has returned to third base as a Padre — and Javier Baez. But the top two hitters for the position from 2017, Zack Cozart (!) and Corey Seager, missed most of the season, with the former playing more third base than second base as well, and even Carlos Correa wasn’t really himself.

No, this is about the likes of Baez, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, Didi Gregroius, and even Jose Peraza — all of them 28 or younger, all but Gregorius 25 or younger — breaking out while offsetting the declines of Elvis Andrus and Brandon Crawford, the position’s geezers. More than ever, shortstop is a young man’s position. In 2018, nobody older than 31 (Crawford, Alcides Escobar, Jordy Mercer) made even 150 plate appearances as a shortstop. That trio all played at least 100 games at short, the lowest total of over-30 shortstops to do so since the majors expanded to 30 teams in 1998. As recently as 2016, there were six such players, and in 2014, 10; for the 1998-2017 period, the average was 7.4. Read the rest of this entry »

Ichiro Bows Out (Again)

Even if you didn’t wake up at an ungodly early hour to watch Thursday’s Mariners-A’s game at the Tokyo Dome, by now you may have seen the stirring footage of Ichiro Suzuki exiting the game in the eighth inning en route to his official retirement. If not, beware the coming dust storm:

That the 45-year-old Suzuki — who was nudged off the Mariners’ roster and into an unofficial retirement and special assistant role last May 3, at a point when he was hitting .205/.255/.205 through 47 plate appearances — went 0-for-5 with a walk and a strikeout in his two-game cameo matters not a whit as far as his legacy is concerned. His awe-inspiring total of 4,367 career hits (1,278 in Nippon Professional Baseball, 3,089 in Major League Baseball) still stands as the signature accomplishment for a player who has spent more than a quarter-century serving as a wonderful ambassador for the sport on two continents. His stateside resumé, which includes not only his membership in the 3,000 Hit Club (despite not debuting in the majors until he was about half past his 27th birthday) but also his 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and so on, is ample enough to guarantee him first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. In the wake of Mariano Rivera’s groundbreaking unanimous election to the Hall in January, it’s even possible that Ichiro could replicate the feat.

The question is when. Hall of Fame election rules require a player to be retired for five seasons before appearing on the BBWAA ballot, which means that had he been content to hang up his spikes last May, he would have been eligible for the 2024 ballot (the date refers to the year of induction, not the year of the ballot’s release, which is typically in late November or early December of the previous year). Barring what would be an unprecedented ruling by the Hall, his two-game cameo resets his eligibility clock, pushing him to the 2025 ballot, a small price to pay for his being able to check off the bucket-list item of retiring on his own terms, in his native country. Not only will he become the first Japanese player to be elected to the Hall, but according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he will be the owner of the shortest final season of any elected position player. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 3/21/19

Jay Jaffe: Hi folks, welcome to today’s chat! I’m in a brief not-rain delay as I finish up a quickie Instagraph on Ichiro. Will join the party soon.

Jay Jaffe: OK, I’m back. Had a quick brainstorm for something to say about Ichiro that I found interesting. Thanks for waiting that out, happy 2019 MLB season to those celebrating, and on with the show!

Russell: Do you think MLB/HoF will make Ichiro wait a full five years or make a special exception for him?

Jay Jaffe: I briefly address this in the forthcoming post but at this point, I don’t see the Hall making an exception. He’ll be eligible for the 2025 ballot instead of 2024, but I think the tradeoff — the chance to retire on his own terms, in his native country — was well worth the delay.

Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe: Jesus Luzardo is out for a month. What a bummer!

Jay Jaffe: Fuuuuuuuuuuuudge.

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of his work but I’ve been a Luzardo fan since I first heard his name, on the basis of its similarity to The Jesus Lizard, a kick-ass 1990s band that is either number 1 or 1A when it comes to live acts (the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Waco Brothers are the other two vying for that title). They blew the doors off every venue I saw them at from about 1990 to 2017, when they came out of retirement for a final tour. Oh, and their best album is called GOAT.

Get well soon, Jesus Luzardo.

Read the rest of this entry »

2019 Positional Power Rankings: First Base

Earlier today, Meg Rowley introduced this year’s positional power rankings. As a quick refresher, all 30 teams are ranked based on the projected WAR from our Depth Charts. Our staff then endeavors to provide you with some illuminating commentary to put those rankings in context. We begin this year’s series with first base.

A year ago, first base looked to be a deep position, with a familiar set of stars occupying the top tier of the rankings, impressive debutantes such as Cody Bellinger and Matt Olson entering their first full major league seasons, and some long-toiling veterans such as Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak, and Eric Hosmer appearing to have finally figured out how to mash at the level expected for the position. As a group, first basemen had combined for a 117 wRC+ in 2017 (their highest mark since 2011) and 70.2 WAR (their highest mark since 2009).

Things didn’t go as planned for the position’s denizens in 2018. Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, and Joey Votto all got off to slow starts. Bellinger and Olson weren’t quite as impressive as they had been as rookies, with the former spending a lot of time in the outfield to boot. Hosmer, the recipient of the offseason’s biggest free agent contract, was a replacement level dud, and Alonso and Smoak both regressed. Joe Mauer faded after his best season since moving from catcher, Miguel Cabrera got hurt before he could rebound from a subpar 2017, and Chris Davis, who had been mediocre in 2017, turned in a season for the ages — but in the wrong way. And so on and so on. All told, first basemen’s production sank to a collective 108 wRC+ and 46.9 WAR in 2018, their lowest marks by either measure in our splits, which only go back to 2002 for such things. Collectively, their slugging percentage dropped from .487 to .438, and their on-base percentage from .347 to .333. Read the rest of this entry »

Sorting Out the Mets’ First Base Logjam

Who’s on first? This spring, it’s a question that both New York teams are figuring out through compelling job battles. While the Yankees attempt to decide between homegrown Greg Bird and mid-2018 trade acquisition Luke Voit — the latter of whom was the AL’s hottest hitter from August 1 onward, with a 194 wRC+ — the Mets are sorting out whether Dominic Smith or Peter Alonso will be their starter. I wrote enough about the Yankees’ pair late last season, when Voit seized the job from the struggling, oft-injured Bird, so today, it’s worth considering the Mets’ dilemma.

Of the two combatants, the 24-year-old Alonso, who currently lists at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, is fresher in mind because he bopped 36 homers for the Mets’ Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas affiliates last year but didn’t receive a September call-up, a move that looked far more like a garden-variety attempt to manipulate his service time than it did a sound baseball decision. Taking a page from the playbook used by the Cubs for Kris Bryant and by the Blue Jays for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Mets even cited Alonso’s defense as one reason they were holding off. “His bat is his calling card and his defense is something he’s going to have to work at,” said director of player development Ian Levin last August, shortly after Alonso was named the Las Vegas 51s’ defensive player of the month for July.

To be fair, scouts did and do have concerns about Alonso’s defense, as well as his conditioning. Our own Eric Longenhagen noted concerns about his glove last April while ranking him seventh overall among the Mets’ prospects and grading his defense for both present and future at 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale; for what it’s worth, while Baseball America and MLB Pipeline don’t distinguish between present and future in their grades, both concur with the 40. BA’s Prospect Handbook 2019 calling him “an American League player in a National League organization.” But after the 2016 second-round pick out of the University of Florida slashed .285/.395/.579 between the two upper levels last year, his overall Future Value grade improved from 45 to 50 thanks to massive jumps in both his raw power (from 60/60 to a maximum 80/80) and game power (from 40/55 to 55/70) and modest advancement in his hit tool (from 40/50 to 45/50).

“Right/right college first basemen don’t typically work out (this century’s list of guys who have done nothing but play first since day one on campus and done well in MLB is Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Karros, and that’s it),” wrote Longenhagen for last year’s Mets list. Compare that to this year’s model from our Top 100 Prospects list, where Alonso landed at number 48: “This is what top-of-the-scale, strength-driven raw power looks like, and it drives an excellent version of a profile we’re typically quite bearish on: the heavy-bodied, right/right first baseman.” Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel referenced some of Alonso’s greatest hits including a single Arizona Fall League game where his exit velocities reached 116.3 mph on a double and 113.6 on a homer, as well as this Futures Game homer which, holy smokes:

Spring stats don’t count for doodly squat, but with four doubles and three homers so far in Grapefruit League play, as well as a .406/.457/.813 line, Alonso is turning heads. After he hit one over the Green Monster-like wall at the Red Sox’s Jet Blue Park last week, Boston manager Alex Cora called him “Probably the best hitter in Florida right now.” Catching peoples’ attention in a much different way was Monday’s unintentional leveling of the Astros’ Josh Reddick at first base:

Then there’s the lefty-swinging Smith, who was chosen as the 11th overall pick out of a Gardena, California high school in 2013, cracked BA’s Top 100 list three times (in 2014, ’16 and ’17, peaking at number 71 in the last of those years) and is currently listed at 6 feet and 239 pounds, 54 pounds more than when he placed 73rd on our Top 100 Prospects list two years ago. He actually tipped the scales at as high as 260 pounds before cutting out wet burritos, a factoid no consumer of 21st century New York baseball coverage will ever forget. Though he’s receded into the background somewhat as Alonso’s star has risen, he’s actually six months younger (he doesn’t turn 24 until June 15), and has 332 plate appearances of major league experience under his belt from 2017-18, though his .210/.259/.406 line (79 wRC+) is abysmal outside of the 14 home runs.

Smith does not have Alonso’s natural power. It took him four years of pro ball to reach a double-digit home run total in a single season (16 at Binghamton in 2016), though he did hit 25 between Las Vegas and the majors in 2017. For that year’s lists, Longenhagen graded his raw power at 55/55, and his game power at 40/55, with his hit tool and glove both at 50/60. That profile has led to comparisons to James Loney — the young version that former Mets manager Terry Collins oversaw from 2002-06 as the Dodgers’ minor league field coordinator and then director of player development, not the end-stage version that Collins managed in 2016. “I thought he’d at minimum replicate James Loney’s best years,” said Longenhagen when I asked about the post-prospect version of Smith. “Never huge home run power but 40 doubles, tons of contact, plus glove at first base.”

Nothing has really come together for Smith at the major league level, perhaps in part because the Mets have convinced him to try to pull the ball and hit for more power. Promoted from Triple-A on August 11, 2017, he played first base regularly over the final two months of the season following Lucas Duda’s trade to Tampa Bay but hit just .198/.262/.395 with nine homers in 183 PA, striking out 26.8% of the time. Last year, after showing up late for his first Grapefruit League game and getting scratched from the lineup, he suffered a right quad strain in his spring debut, an injury that sidelined him until mid-April. He slipped behind what was left of Adrian Gonzalez on the depth chart, then bounced between Las Vegas and New York all season, serving four stints with the big club.

Between the shuttling, an experiment in left field — the results of which were brutally Duda-esque (-3.1 UZR and -5 DRS in 90 innings) — and semi-regular play in September while Alonso went home, Smith didn’t hit, either in the majors (.224/.255/.420) or at hitter-friendly Vegas (.258/.328/.380). In the bigs, he walked in just 2.7% of his plate appearances while striking out in 31.5%. When he did make contact, his average launch angle rose from 9.7 degrees to 17.2, with his groundball rate dropping from 50.4% to 34.4%, but the approach didn’t pay off. What’s more, within the small sample of playing time across both seasons, his defensive metrics at first base have been unfavorable (-2.4 UZR, -8 DRS in 74 games).

Like Alonso, Smith has hit well this spring (.433/.500/.600, for what it’s worth). As bad as he was last year in the outfield, he’s expressed a willingness to continue the experiment. But with Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo slated for the outfield corners (manager Mickey Callaway recently said that Conforto would exclusively play right, but we’ll see), and infielder Jeff McNeil somehow squeezed into the picture, it’s difficult to see where outfield playing time for Smith would come from even if Conforto or Nimmo does log time in center instead of Juan Lagares. The pair combined for 81 starts there last year, with dreadful defensive metrics (-6.8 UZR, -10 DRS). Mets pitchers have to shudder at the thought of such an alignment that includes Smith.

Lately, McNeil — who made 52 of his 53 big league starts last at second base — has been seeing playing time at third base because both Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier have been slowed by injuries (a capsule sprain in the left knee for the former, an oblique strain for the latter). Even that situation has spillover into the first base picture, as Lowrie’s arrival in free agency displaced Frazier, who, after struggling (.213/.303/.390, 90 wRC+) in his first season with the Mets, was slated to get more playing time at first base, where he’s started 82 major league games (but just eight since 2014). With a crowd that includes newly acquired second baseman Robinson Cano, the Mets were supposed to have enough bodies on hand to push at least one of the two first basemen (likely Alonso) back to the minors to open the season, conveniently obscuring the service time issues that have loomed since last year.

In contrast to Guerrero’s situation in Toronto and the way Alonso was handled by the Mets last fall, Callaway and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen are saying the right things. Last December, the new GM said that his intent was for Alonso to be the Opening Day first baseman, and the continued refrain in Florida has been “We’re taking the best 25 guys up north with us,” which would be a refreshing departure from the industry-wide trend towards service time manipulation. Until Opening Day, however, it’s all talk.

At some point, the Mets will have to choose a first baseman. For what it’s worth, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections gives a clear preference for Alonso, mainly because of Smith’s struggles in recent years. The numbers don’t jump off the page, however:

Peter Alonso via ZiPS
2019 .239 .324 .450 24 110 2.2
2020 .239 .329 .452 23 111 2.2
2021 .238 .330 .448 23 111 2.2
2022 .236 .331 .456 24 113 2.3
2023 .235 .332 .453 23 113 2.2
2024 .236 .333 .451 22 112 2.1
Total 13.1

Lest you think that ZiPS is particularly low on Alonso, note that his Steamer projection for 2019 is nearly the same (.241/.319/.458). Last year, he tore up the Eastern League (.314/.440/.573, 180 wRC+) but relative to his league, saw a substantial drop-off at Las Vegas (.260/.355/.585, 139 wRC+). It’s worth noting that his slash numbers within that projection are held down by a low BABIP (.281 for 2019) that owes something to his 30-grade speed. It’s still a much more playable profile than the projections for Smith:

Dominic Smith via ZiPS
2019 .244 .296 .380 14 84 0.7
2020 .245 .300 .395 15 89 1.0
2021 .243 .299 .393 15 88 1.0
2022 .241 .299 .392 15 88 0.9
2023 .242 .301 .396 10 89 0.7
2024 .240 .302 .386 9 87 0.5
Total 4.9

Woof. Again, it’s worth remembering that these are the result of heavy weighting of the player’s recent performances, which in Smith’s case have largely been struggle after struggle, though he did hit well at Vegas in 2017 (.330/.386/.519, 134 wRC+). Note that the gap between Alonso and Smith may be larger than shown above, as the former was projected for just 524 PA this year, the latter 587.

Ultimately, even with potential season-opening stints on the Injury List for Lowrie and/or Frazier, and so many other job battles among the team’s position players, it seems quite possible that the Mets will trade Smith, who has youth on his side and may be best served by a change of scenery anyway. One way or another, it should be very interesting to see how this all unfolds.

Dallas Keuchel Needs a Home

Like Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel remains a free agent — the highest-ranked one left from our Top 50 Free Agents list, in fact — his market stalled by a quest for a longer-term deal than any team appears willing to give, at least in this frozen winter market. With Opening Day fast approaching, his current situation is worth a closer look.

Keuchel, who turned 31 on New Year’s Day, is coming off his best season since his 2015 AL Cy Young-winning campaign in terms of both volume (204 innings, after averaging 157 in 2016-17), and quality (3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 3.6 WAR, compared to a 3.79 ERA, 3.83 FIP and an average of 2.5 WAR over the previous two years). Part of that is likely due to health, as a season-ending bout of shoulder soreness limited him to 26 starts in 2016, none of which came after August 27, while a pinched nerve in his neck, and further discomfort related to that issue, held him to 23 starts in 2017.

He’s not a pitcher who misses a ton of bats, instead relying on soft contact and a ton of groundballs. Last year’s 17.5% K rate was the majors’ fourth-lowest among 57 qualifiers, and even with a fairly stingy walk rate (6.6%), his 10.9% K-BB% was still the ninth-lowest among that set. Meanwhile, he was first among that group in groundball rate (53.7%) and 15th out of 47 qualifiers (500 batted ball events) in average exit velocity (87.0 mph). Over the past five seasons, he’s second in groundball rate among pitchers with at least 500 innings (60.0%) and, for the four years of the Statcast era, 22nd out of 149 (1000 PA minimum) in average exit velo (86.2 mph). Read the rest of this entry »

The Separate Paths of Craig Kimbrel and the Red Sox

With just over three weeks before Opening Day, Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent, and the Red Sox, whom he helped win the World Series last fall, don’t have a bona fide closer. For as sensible as a reunion might seem, it’s unlikely to happen, as the Red Sox appear more willing to experiment with late-inning roles among relatively untested pitchers than to invest heavily in a dominant pitcher who nonetheless showed signs of decline last year, or to increase their considerable tax bill. It’s a set of choices that’s very 2019, to say the least, though the bullpen will need a breakout performance or two for their plan to succeed.

Kimbrel, who turns 31 on May 28, is coming off a season in which he saved 42 games, his highest total since 2014, and made his seventh All-Star team. But he struggled after the All-Star break (4.57 ERA and 3.58 FIP in 21.2 innings), and finished with the highest FIP (3.13) and home run rate (1.01 per nine) of his career and the second-highest ERA (2.74) and walk rate (12.6%). While his knuckle-curve remained unhittable (20.9% swinging strike rate, with batters “hitting” .082/.176/.098 on 68 PA ending with the pitch), the average velocity of his four-seam fastball slipped to 97.5 mph, his lowest mark since 2011, and the pitch was hit comparatively hard (.171/.292/.388) while accounting for all seven of the homers he yielded. In the postseason, he surrendered runs in his first four appearances before discovering that he was tipping his pitches; he corrected the problem by setting up with his glove at his waist, and was scored upon in just one of his final five October outings.

Fixed though he may be, Kimbrel has produced just one season out of the past four (2017, when he posted a 1.43 ERA and 1.42 FIP) that’s in the ballpark of his 2011-14 stretch, when he was the game’s top reliever (1.51 ERA, 1.52 FIP, 11.1 WAR). He entered the winter reportedly seeking a six-year deal worth over $100 million, a price tag that might have been a pipe dream even without his relatively shaky platform season given the frosty turn of the free agent market.

Not helping matters is that three of the majors’ highest-spending teams are already rather spent in the closer market, namely the Yankees (who signed Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal in December 2016), Dodgers (who re-signed Kenley Jansen to a five-year, $80 million deal in January 2017), and Giants (who signed Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal in December 2016). According to Forbes’ end-of-year figures, those teams are respectively ranked sixth, fourth, and third in payroll, with the two teams ahead of them, the Nationals and Red Sox, the only ones who actually exceeded the $197 million Competitive Balance Tax Threshold. More on both of those teams momentarily.

While a recent rumor that Kimbrel was willing to sit out the season if no team met his price was quickly debunked, he remains unsigned, and interest from teams like the Phillies and Braves has hinged on short-term deals. The latter, the team that drafted and developed Kimbrel, hasn’t done anything substantial to fix a bullpen that was below average last year, beyond hoping that midseason acquisition Darren O’Day, acquired as a poison pill in the Kevin Gausman trade, has recovered from season-ending right hamstring surgery. The unit’s current projection of 2.6 WAR ranks 16th out of 30 teams. The Phillies’ bullpen, which most notably added free agent David Robertson as well as former Mariners Juan Nicasio and James Pazos, are projected for 4.2 WAR.

The Nationals, who according to Cot’s Contracts are projected to be $10.5 million below this year’s $206 million CBT threshold, have maintained interest in Kimbrel, and given their recent bullpen debacles and their current reliance on oft-injured Sean Doolittle and Tommy John surgery returnee Trevor Rosenthal, they appear to have need for the fireballer. They would likely need to make a salary-cutting move or two to give themselves some breathing room under the tax threshold, particularly given that as three-time offenders, they will pay a 50% marginal tax rate on the overages.

And then there’s the Red Sox, who according to Cots are already [puts on special payroll-viewing goggles] nearly $31.6 million over the threshold, facing not only a 30% marginal tax rate as second-time offenders but also a 12% surtax for being between $20 million and $40 million over. Re-signing Kimbrel to even a one-year, $9 million deal would not only push them out of that range and into one that, if I’m reading this correctly, boosts their surtax to 42.5%; it would also mean that they would also have their top pick in the upcoming June amateur draft moved back 10 places. All of which seems rather draconian. MLB Trade Rumors, which uses slightly different payroll figures via Roster Resource, estimated that to pay Kimbrel a one-year, $17.5 million salary (thus exceeding Wade Davis‘ $17.33 million to set an AAV record for relievers) would cost an additional $11.564 million in taxes. Woof.

So that’s not happening, and while we wait for some other team to meet Kimbrel’s price — my money is still on Atlanta — Boston’s bullpen is worth a closer look. Last year, with Kimbrel in tow, the unit ranked a modest sixth in the AL in WAR (4.9), but third in FIP- (92), fourth in ERA- (83), and fifth in K-BB% (15.3%). In losing Kimbrel and the often erratic Joe Kelly, who after leading the team with 65.2 relief innings signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers, the team has shed a pair that accounted for 21.8% of their bullpen’s innings and 44.9% of their WAR (1.5 for Kimbrel, 0.7 for Kelly).

Nobody new of any note has come into the fold besides Jenrry Mejia, who signed a minor league deal in January after being reinstated from a PED-related, lifetime ban that cost him the past 3 1/2 seasons. Via our depth charts, the primary pool of relievers appears to consist of lefties Brian Johnson and Bobby Poyner, and righties Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg, Hector Velazquez, Marcus Walden, and Brandon Workman, with knuckleballer Steven Wright coming along slowly after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee [update: and also suspended for 80 games due to a PED violation] and Carson Smith not available until sometime in midseason as he works his way back from last June’s shoulder surgery.

None of those pitchers besides Mejia, who saved 28 games in 2014 but did not even get a non-roster invitation to Boston’s big league camp, has much major league closing experience. Thornburg owns 13 career saves, all from 2016 with the Brewers, before he was traded (for Travis Shaw) and missed all of 2017 and half of ’18 due to surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Barnes owns two saves, Waldman and Wright one apiece, and that’s it, though some of the aforementioned pitchers did close in the minors. This apparently does not faze the Red Sox, who may not anoint a single pitcher for ninth-inning duties. From the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier:

As the Red Sox contemplate how they’ll handle ninth-inning responsibilities in a post-Kimbrel world, the team seems increasingly open to the possibility of taking a flexible approach to the later stages of the game rather than making an unwavering commitment to one person for the last three outs.

Manager Alex Cora reiterated on Sunday morning that he has “a pretty good idea of what I want to do” with the ninth inning, but that the topic is one that is currently subject to organizational debate — a conversation driven less by how individual pitchers perform in spring training than by what the organization is willing to do with them. He opened the door to the possibility of using matchups to dictate the back end of the bullpen structure.

“We know who [the relievers] are. We know the stuff. It’s just about the plan. The plan will be out there on March 28th,” Cora said, referring to the Opening Day date against the Mariners. “It’s just a matter of, see what we’re going to do as an organization, what plan we’re going to do, how comfortable are we with a closer or mixing it up, or getting people out in certain situations? We still have a lot of days to see how we feel about it.”

Those well-versed in Red Sox history may recall the team’s ill-fated 2003 “closer by committee” plan, which fared poorly and ultimately led to the late May acquisition of Byung-Hyun Kim from the Diamondbacks. As Speier points out, current pitching coach Dana LeVangie was that team’s bullpen coach. But those were different times, and the past few years have seen teams show more open-mindedness about late-inning reliever usage, with roles — including who finishes the ninth — less rigidly defined. Ninth-inning-wise, think the 2016-18 Indians, with Andrew Miller (or, when Miller was hurt in 2018, Brad Hand) occasionally taking save chances instead of Cody Allen; or last year’s Cubs, with Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, and Jesse Chavez all used to cover for the second-half absence of Brandon Morrow; or last year’s Brewers, who had three pitchers (Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader) save at least 10 games without manager Craig Counsell relying upon any one of them as his main guy.

There’s no reason why the Red Sox, an organization as analytically inclined as those teams, couldn’t get away with a similar approach, given a manager who’s comfortable with such an arrangement and talented pitchers who can boil the job down to “go in and get outs,” as Hader described his role last year. Cora, who as a rookie manager piloted the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins and a World Series victory over the Dodgers, appears quite qualified and game for the challenge. Barnes and Brasier, the two pitchers most likely to figure into a late-game plan, both sound receptive and upbeat via Speier’s reporting. We’re a far cry from 2015, when Angels closer Huston Street declared that he’d rather retire than be used in high-leverage situations outside of the ninth.

Of course, the success of such a plan isn’t just dependent upon player buy-in but also execution, and it’s there that the Red Sox may have more to worry about. With the personnel on hand, the team’s bullpen projects to rank 23rd in the majors in WAR. Here’s how the key individuals that I mentioned stack up with regards to 2018 performance and 2019 projections:

Red Sox Bullpen, 2018-19
Name IP K% BB% ERA FIP WAR Proj IP Proj ERA Proj FIP Proj WAR
Matt Barnes 61.2 36.2% 11.7% 3.65 2.71 1.3 65 3.42 3.32 1.1
Ryan Brasier 33.2 23.4% 5.7% 1.60 2.83 0.7 65 3.87 3.92 0.6
Heath Hembree 60.0 29.2% 10.4% 4.20 4.19 0.2 60 3.95 3.93 0.4
Bobby Poyner 22.1 25.8% 3.2% 3.22 4.01 0.2 50 4.43 4.53 0.0
Hector Velazquez 54.2 12.8% 5.6% 2.63 3.53 0.5 50 4.48 4.57 -0.1
Marcus Walden 14.2 23.7% 5.1% 3.68 2.07 0.3 50 4.31 4.25 0.0
Steven Wright 29.2 20.5% 13.1% 1.52 4.07 0.1 50 4.44 4.62 -0.1
Tyler Thornburg 24.0 19.6% 9.4% 5.63 6.04 -0.3 50 4.84 4.90 -0.2
Brandon Workman 41.1 22.2% 9.6% 3.27 4.42 0.0 30 4.35 4.35 0.0
Brian Johnson* 38.2 20.5% 9.0% 4.19 3.91 0.2 19 4.99 5.01 0.1
2018 statistics are for relief usage only. * = projection based upon usage as a starter.

Much depends upon the continued success of Barnes and Brasier, however they’re deployed. Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick who has spent virtually all of the past four seasons in Boston’s bullpen, more or less ditched his slider in favor of further emphasizing his curve, which generated a career-best 18.0% swing-and-miss rate (up from 12.5% to 13.5% from 2015-17); his 36.2% K rate ranked ninth among the 151 relievers with at least 50 innings last year, while his 2.71 FIP ranked 22nd.

Brasier didn’t join the Red Sox bullpen until July 9 last year, his first major league appearance since September 27, 2013, with the Angels, for whom he made seven appearances that season. In the interim, he lost a year and a half to Tommy John surgery, spent a year and a half in the A’s chain and then a season in Japan, and finally spent half a season closing in Pawtucket, where he pitched his way to the Triple-A All-Star Game on the back of a 1.34 ERA and a 40/8 K/BB ratio in 40.1 innings before getting called up and carrying over a similarly effective performance to the majors. Both pitchers came up big in October, which should lessen fears about whether they can handle the pressure of the ninth inning during the regular season, even if the usage pattern is less regular than your average ninth-inning guy.

It’s the rest of the cast that carries the bigger question marks; most of them project to be more or less replacement level, and they’ll need a few somebodies to step up — perhaps Thornburg rediscovering his pre-surgical form, Hembree avoiding the gopher balls (1.5 per nine over the past two seasons), Smith giving the team a midseason shot in the arm, and so on. Maybe Mejia shakes off the rust and pitches his way to an unlikely comeback. Maybe rookies like Poyner and Travis Lakins (10th on the team’s prospect list) break through. Perhaps president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski can augment this core with an inexpensive signing or a judicious trade, if not in March then by midseason. There’s little doubt that the Sox, even without Kimbrel, have the talent and firepower to repeat as division winners. But particularly if they hope to do so as champions, somewhere within this group, they’re going to have to get a little lucky.

Salvador Perez Faces Down Tommy John Surgery

On the heels of a 104-loss 2018 season, the Royals’ 2019 campaign was already heading nowhere in particular; projected for a mere 69 wins by our Depth Chart projections, only the Tigers (68 wins), Orioles (63), and Marlins (62) are expected to be worse. But on Friday, things went from bad to worse with the announcement that catcher Salvador Perez has damage to the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing (right) arm. The 28-year-old backstop could miss the season due to Tommy John surgery, a procedure that’s relatively rare among catchers, without any resounding success stories on the level of other position players. Gulp.

A six-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who was the MVP of the 2015 World Series, Perez is a big (6-foot-4, 240 pound) free-swinging slugger with a powerful arm and a strong reputation for handling pitching staffs. He’s not without shortcomings — he hasn’t posted an on-base percentage of .300 or better since 2013, and has been about 10 runs below average as a pitch framer in each of the past three seasons according to Baseball Prospectus — but he’s immensely popular, a fan favorite who’s been elected to start the All-Star Game in each of the past five seasons. Last year, after missing the first 20 games of the season due to an MCL sprain in his left knee (a freak injury suffered while carrying a suitcase upstairs), he hit .235/.274/.439 with 27 homers, an 89 wRC+, and 1.7 WAR in 544 PA; by BP’s framing-inclusive stats, he was worth 1.3 WARP. For his career, he owns a 92 wRC+ and a total of 17.7 WAR.

Manager Ned Yost said that Perez began experiencing elbow soreness in January, at which time an MRI revealed that he had suffered a flexor strain, which resulted in the team shutting down his throwing program for four weeks. He was cleared to start throwing once he reached the Royals’ camp in Tempe, Arizona in mid-February, but soreness after live batting practice led to another MRI that revealed ligament damage. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that surgery has been recommended for Perez, who will get a second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAtrache on Tuesday before a final decision is made. If he’s out, the team will likely turn to Cam Gallagher, a 26-year-old former second-round pick who has just 35 games of major league experience and figured to back up Perez.

As is the case with all position players, Tommy John surgery for catchers is much more rare than it is for pitchers, though because of the volume and intensity of throwing involved with the job, it’s more common for them than it is for any non-pitching position besides outfielders. Still, the limited number of such surgeries is striking. According to the Tommy John Surgery List kept by Jon Roegele, which now includes 1,669 surgeries, just 44 have been done on professional catchers, six of which occurred while they were still amateurs. As best I can tell, a total of 20 catchers who have had the surgery have played in the majors, eight of whom are still active:

Catchers Who Have Undergone Tommy John Surgery
Player Team Lvl Date Age Pre G wRC+ WAR Post G wRC+ WAR
Jamie Nelson MIL AAA 1/1/85 25 40 65 -0.1
Steve Christmas CHC MLB 1/1/86 28 24 19 -0.1
Todd Hundley NYM MLB 9/26/97 28 776 103 12.3 449 92 2.1
Tom Lampkin SEA MLB 6/30/00 36 594 86 5 183 81 1.7
J.R. House PIT AA 9/1/02 22 32 46 -0.4
Craig Tatum CIN A 1/1/05 22 100 50 -0.1
Ben Davis CHW AAA 6/28/05 28 486 78 3.7
Taylor Teagarden TEX A- 11/29/05 21 180 64 0.4
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/13/07 34 403 78 2.3
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/25/08 35 403 78 2.3
Curt Casali* DET Coll 1/1/09 20 213 92 2.0
Chris Coste PHI MLB 5/25/10 37 299 93 2.7
John Baker MIA MLB 9/3/10 29 196 101 2.6 163 52 -0.9
A.J. Jimenez* TOR AA 5/1/12 22 7 -78 -0.2
Spencer Kieboom* WAS Rk 1/1/13 22 53 79 0.6
Kyle Higashioka* NYY AA 5/1/13 23 38 26 -0.5
Andrew Knapp* PHI A- 10/4/13 21 140 81 0.8
Matt Wieters* BAL MLB 6/17/14 28 683 98 15.0 398 83 3.4
Christian Vazquez* BOS MLB 4/2/15 24 55 70 0.7 236 66 0.6
Travis d’Arnaud* NYM MLB 4/17/18 29 397 96 4.3
SOURCE: Tommy John Surgery List
* = Active. Dates listed as 1/1/XX are used when only the year of surgery is known.
Pre G denotes the number of games played prior to surgery; Post G indicates the number of games played after surgery.

So far, the returns haven’t been great, to say the least. We don’t have any information on the relative severity of these players’ injuries (Perez included) and, the further back we go, less information about players’ defense. But while it’s not hard to find examples of TJS recipients at other positions besides pitcher who have recovered to enjoy productive multi-year stretches or careers afterwards — Jose Canseco, Matt Carpenter, Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Greenwell, Kelly Johnson, Paul Molitor, Luke Scott, and Randy Velarde come to mind, and hopefully we’ll count Didi Gregorius and Corey Seager among them some day (Gleyber Torres too, though his surgery was on his non-throwing arm) — the best that can be said about the catchers is that some of them were able to slog onward with their careers.

Perhaps Knapp or Casali will eventually prove me wrong, but none of the eight catchers who underwent TJS in college or the minors have gone on to have substantial major league careers; Casali is the only one of that group who even reached 1.0 WAR post-surgery. It’s not like those guys were supposed to be stiffs, either. Teagarden was a third-round pick who made two Baseball America Top 100 Prospects Lists post-surgery, and the rest were all drafted in the first 10 rounds, too: Knapp (second, 2013), Tatum (third, 2004), House (fifth, 1999, and a two-time Top 100 prospect pre-surgery), Kieboom (fifth, 2012), Higashioka (seventh, 2008), Jimenez (ninth, 2008), and Casali (10th, 2011). Sure, many picks from the first 10 rounds don’t even reach the majors even without undergoing TJS, or fail to produce in their limited opportunities. Nonetheless, the extent to which the catchers in this subset failed to blossom in the aftermath of surgery is not encouraging.

Leaving those players aside, of the 10 who had major league experience prior to TJS, four (Christmas, Coste, Davis, and Wilson) never played in the majors again. That count doesn’t include d’Arnaud, who is in camp with the Mets and, his ongoing penchant for injury notwithstanding, seems likely to stumble into a game at some point. Of the other five, none has equaled his pre-surgical offensive potency or made a particularly large impact post-surgery. To be fair, the jury is still out on d’Arnaud and Vazquez, though the latter has never even come close to the solid offensive contributions he made at Single-A and Double-A levels.

The biggest name among this group besides Hundley — a two-time All-Star whose pre-surgical performance is clouded by his later appearance in the Mitchell Report, and whose post-surgery peformance featured back and hand woes — is Wieters, a player whose post-surgical plight had been on my mind even before the news about Perez was announced. When I began writing about the Nationals’ post-Bryce Harper era last week, Wieters — Washington’s regular catcher for the past two seasons, at least during the two-plus months of 2018 that he wasn’t sidelined by injuries — was still jobless. By the time that piece was published, the 32-year-old switch-hitting catcher had agreed to a minor-league deal with the Cardinals, still a rather humbling outcome for a player who made nearly $37 million over the past three seasons, and whose career was supposed to be so much more.

A former top-five pick (2007) and number one overall prospect (2009, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus), Wieters made a pair of All-Star teams in 2011-12, winning a pair of Gold Gloves and helping the Orioles emerge from a decade and a half of playoff-free futility along the way. Circa 2013, he was a candidate for a major contract extension, though at the time, agent Scott Boras reportedly countered with a request for something in the range of Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins, despite the fact that Wieters hadn’t racked up anything close to the accolades that Mauer, an MVP and three-time batting champion, had at the time he signed. Needless to say, Wieters didn’t get that kind of money; the Orioles explored trading him in the winter of 2013-14, and then the following season, he tore his UCL after playing just 26 games. While there was initial optimism he would avoid TJS, he ultimately went under the knife in June 2014, at which time I noted the dearth of positive outcomes from among the group above.

Since then, Wieters’ career has been spotty at best. He returned to major league action on June 5, 2015, 12 days shy of a year after surgery, made a solid half-season showing (.267/.319/.422, 102 wRC+, 1.1 WAR in 282 PA), and then, after making a combined $16 million in 2014-15, became just the second player to accept a qualifying offer, after the Astros’ Colby Rasmus. Playing for a $15.8 million salary, he made the AL All-Star team — to this date, he’s the only post-TJS catcher to garner such status — and finished 2016 with a modest 90 wRC+ (.243/.302/.409) and 1.8 WAR.

He’s been considerably less productive since. In February 2017, he signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Nationals, which included a same-sized player option for 2018 (not to mention $5 million worth of deferred money), then stumbled to a 62 wRC+ with -0.3 WAR in the first year and, after exercising that option, something closer to his post-surgical level last year (.238/.330/.374 ,89 wRC+, 0.9 WAR) while making just 271 PA; he missed nearly 10 weeks due to an oblique strain and a left hamstring strain, the latter of which required in-season surgery. Unable to secure a major league deal this winter, he settled for a minor league one, with a base salary of $1.5 million assuming he’s in the majors, another half-million dollars worth of performance incentives ($100,000 apiece for reaching 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 games), and a March 22 opt-out.

Admittedly, once the above catchers are broken into subgroups, we have rather small sample sizes, and as far as the performance outcomes are concerned, we see correlation with surgery but not necessarily causation. Wieters hasn’t made any trips to the DL for elbow problems since returning from surgery, and has continued to throw out would-be base stealers at a more-or-less league-average clip. His decline as a defender — using BP’s FRAA, from 47.9 from 2009-14 to -10.2 from 2015-18 — really began in 2013 and has been driven by subpar pitch framing (-15.8 runs from 2015-18), which depends primarily on his non-throwing arm anyway. Vazquez is still a well above average defender in all facets of the game, averaging nearly 11 FRAA in the past three seasons despite receiving only 798 PA in that span. From among the other active catchers who aren’t on the fringes of jobs, Casali has been solid on both sides of the ball but has only once topped 156 PA in a season, while Knapp has been a rather woeful defender (-15.6 FRAA while making just 419 PA), struggling both with throwing (19% caught stealing) and framing (-9.6 runs).

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while I don’t think we can draw strong conclusions from the group of catchers who have preceded Perez in TJS, their history doesn’t offer him and the Royals a particularly great roadmap for success. He’s relatively young, and under contract for a total of $36 million through 2021, so it’s unlikely he’ll fade into oblivion like some of the aforementioned recipients, but if his post-surgical success approaches his pre-surgical performance, he’ll be breaking new ground.