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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.

Clay Buchholz is Now a Blue Jay

And the winner for the hallowed title of the second-most impactful free agent signing of February 28, 2019 goes to … the Toronto Blue Jays, who inked Clay Buchholz to a one-year, $3 million deal that could include another $3 million in incentives. Yes, the move — which won’t become official until he passes a physical, no small matter given his injury history — is a fair bit behind that of the Phillies’ record-setting agreement with Bryce Harper in terms of both money and impact, but it could easily pay off, as the 34-year-old righty showed flashes of brilliance during his stint with the Diamondbacks last season.

Buchholz, who was limited to just two starts in 2017 — with the Phillies, before they were a twinkle in Harper’s eye — due to a partially torn flexor pronator mass that required surgery, began last year working on a minor league deal in the Royals’ camp. He made three starts for the team’s top two affiliates at the outset of the season, then exercised a May 1 opt-out clause and landed with the Diamondbacks, whom he helped to keep in contention for a playoff spot. In 16 starts spanning from May 20 to September 8, he threw 98.1 innings with a 20.6% strikeout rate, 5.6% walk rate, 2.01 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 1.9 WAR — calling to mind similarly tantalizing partial-season performances with the Red Sox in 2013 and ’15. Alas, his performance was interrupted for a month (from late June to late July) by an oblique strain; he then suffered another flexor strain in mid-September, and was shut down for the year after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection. Read the rest of this entry »

The Post-Bryce Harper Era Begins in Washington

The Nationals are now officially in the post-Bryce Harper era. With the news of his completion of a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington will no longer employ the brash prodigy whose presence has more or less defined the franchise since his arrival as a 19-year-old on April 28, 2012. It’s clear that the Nationals have been bracing for this moment since the six-time All-Star slugger spurned a 10-year, $300 million offer that — as we’ve only learned recently — reportedly included roughly $100 million in deferred money. Save for a little less star power, and perhaps a little less swagger, the team does not appear to be that worse for wear.

In fact, the Nationals are currently projected to win the NL East, though Harper’s signing has shrunk the gap between them and the Phillies, who we now project for 86 wins to the Nationals’ 90. That a similar forecast last spring went awry was of a piece with Harper’s D.C. tenure, a period defined as much by what they did not accomplish as what they did. They were also the preseason favorites going into the two other seasons in which they missed the playoffs with Harper in tow, and while they did win four division titles in Harper’s seven seasons — including the first for the franchise since relocating from Montreal prior to the 2005 season — the Nationals failed to win a single playoff series. They went an excruciating 0-for-4 in the NL Division Series, losing to lower-seeded teams each time. Three of the four series went the distance; the Nationals squandered early leads and lost those decisive games on their home field by a total of four runs.

Lest you think that I’m attempting to hang the Nationals’ failures upon Harper himself, I’m not. While his overall playoff numbers are pretty unremarkable (.211/.315/.487), he went 7-for-15 with 17 total bases in those four elimination games. He won his MVP award in 2015, when the team missed the playoffs, and by WAR, he was more valuable in the other two seasons in which they fizzled (2013 and ’18), than in ’14 or ’16, when they won the NL East. Regardless, that era is history, and perhaps not the happiest one if you’re a Nationals fan, though it had its moments. Read the rest of this entry »

Ian Desmond’s Failure to Launch

The Rockies have made the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in the 26-year history of the franchise. They’ve done so despite regularly playing Ian Desmond, a two-time All-Star whose decline at the plate and shift away from shortstop has rendered him one of the majors’ least valuable players over the past couple of years, both in terms of WAR and on a dollar-for-dollar basis. If the Rockies are to continue their run of success, they need better results from the 33-year-old outfielder.

Once upon a time, Desmond was a very solid everyday shortstop. A former third-round pick by the Expos (!) out of Sarasota High School in 2004, he spent 2010-15 as the Nationals’ regular shortstop, maturing into a potent hitter with a solid glove. From 2012-2014, he averaged 4.2 WAR, hitting .275/.326/.462 (116 wRC+) with an average of 23 homers and 22 steals, and playing more or less average defense (1.9 UZR) while helping the Nationals win two NL East titles. But after spurning a reported seven-year, $107 million extension following the 2013 season in favor of a two-year, $17.5 million deal to cover the remainder of his arbitration years, he flopped miserably in 2015 (83 wRC+, 1.4 WAR), his final year before free agency. Like so many other free agents, he was adversely affected by the qualifying offer system, and settled for a one-year, $8 million deal from the Rangers that required him to learn the outfield, where he had just 7.1 innings of previous major league experience.

That move actually paid off, as Desmond spent most of 2016 in center field, made the American League All-Star team on the strength of a 15-homer first half, and despite a second-half slump, finished with 3.4 WAR and a 103 wRC+. He parlayed that into a five-year, $70 million free agent deal with the Rockies, who misunderstood his skill set and decided, despite three years of evidence that his bat was more or less league average (98 wRC+), that he would be their new first baseman. After a fractured metacarpal in his left hand cost him the first month of the 2017 season and Mark Reynolds started strongly in his stead, the team reversed course and sent Desmond to left field. He made two further trips to the IL for a right calf strain, and hit just .274/.326/.375 with seven homers, a 69 wRC+, and -0.8 WAR in 95 games. Even so, the Rockies apparently decided he was a much better option at first base than 23-year-old prospect Ryan McMahon, and while Desmond ultimately dabbled at both outfield corners, his overall performance (.236/.307/.422, 81 wRC+, -0.7 WAR) was quite dreadful, his 22 homers and 88 RBI notwithstanding. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 2/28/19

Jay Jaffe: Howdy, folks! Welcome to another edition of my Thursday chat. I’ve almost survived a work week as the solo parent of a 2 1/2 year old monster (Emma’s at a Poynter Inst thing in Florida ’til Friday), but lemme tell ya, it’s nearly killed me. The PT has started for my shoulder, so that’s not killing me, and I’ve got a fresh piece on the not-so-fresh start Ian Desmond’s had in Colorado.

Anyway, on with the show…

Jon: Jay thoughts on a couple unheralded prospects?

Jay Jaffe: My thought is this: I’m not very qualified to herald the unheralded ones. You know what I’d like to see, though? Top 100 lists from the past, updated and re-ranked to account for what’s transpired since. I’m thinking of a 4x BA top 100 guy like the Rockies’ Ryan McMahon, who has like 200 MLB PA under his belt now and is technically not a prospect but is still young enough to become something other than what that small-sample line looks like.

Sam Miller: Are you the next podcast co-host?

Jay Jaffe: Hah, nobody has asked me to co-host a podcast. Unfortunately, i don’t even get much chance to consume ours (or any of the well-regarded ones), since I have no commute and can’t listen to people talk while I write, nor can Ben Lindbergh or Meg Rowley speak rhythmically enough for me to use their podcasts as gym listening.

Hakuna Machado: If Tatis Jr has a great ST, does he get a quick callup mid/late April or is he destined for a 2nd half callup?

Read the rest of this entry »

Rockies’ Arenado Gets His Mountain of Money

Earlier this month, I made the case for the Rockies to sign Nolan Arenado to an extension that could rival Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year, $248 million deal for the largest average annual value of any position player contract. My suggestion wasn’t coming out of left field, as the going-on-28-year-old third baseman had just set a record for an arbitration-eligible player by agreeing to a $26 million salary for 2019, and had reportedly indicated a willingness to work out a long-term deal. That willingness has resulted in the completion of an eight-year contract reportedly worth $260 million, the fourth-largest guaranteed salary in MLB history.

The exact breakdown of Arenado’s contract has not been reported at this writing, but the deal replaces or incorporates the aforementioned $26 million salary for this year and runs through 2026, for a $32.5 million AAV, the highest of any player besides Zack Greinke ($34.17 million). The dollar value currently trails only those of Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million), Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million), and Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $275 million) in terms of overall value, though according to Craig Edwards’ inflation-adjusted conversions of MLB’s biggest deals into 2019 dollars, the amount would place just 19th. Taking account of Rockies history, that’s three spots behind the current $277 million valuation of Todd Helton‘s nine-year, $141.5 million extension, which covered 2003-11, and six spots ahead of the current $248 million valuation of Troy Tulowitzki’s 10-year, $157.75 million extension covering 2011-20. Arenado’s contract includes an opt-out after 2021, which would allow him to become a free agent after his age-30 season, and also gets him full no-trade protection now instead of waiting until the point in early 2023 when his 10-and-5 rights would kick in. Read the rest of this entry »