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The Weakest Spots Among Better-Positioned Contenders

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I took a projection-driven two-part look at the trouble spots on National League and American League contenders. The exercise — a sibling of my annual pre-trade deadline Replacement Level Killers series — primarily highlighted clubs in the middle of the table, based on our Playoff Odds, with many of the best teams, such as the Braves and Dodgers, going completely unmentioned.

In that regard, the exercise worked as I had intended, focusing on the teams and spots where a marginal addition from outside the organization or even a modest breakout from within it could have a sizable impact on their chances of making the postseason. To be considered contenders, teams needed Playoff Odds of at least 25%, and roughly speaking, all but one of those mentioned fell in the range of 80-85 wins. Under the 12-team playoff format, that certainly counts as contention once you consider that two of last year’s NL Wild Card teams, the Diamondbacks and Marlins, qualified with just 84 wins, nosing out the 83-win Cubs and the 82-win Padres and Reds. At each position, I highlighted the two lowest-ranked teams from within that subset, so long as they projected to produce less than 2.0 WAR, after an adjustment: I applied a 20% reduction to counter the general tendency to overestimate playing time at this point in the season. In other words instead of having a total of 1,000 WAR projected across the 30 teams, and 57% of that (570 WAR) allocated to position players, our Depth Chart values currently add up to about 682 WAR, an inflation of about 20%.

Because the mid-table teams almost invariably had some glaring weakness, seven teams escaped scrutiny. The Braves (98.5% odds), Dodgers (94.6%), and Cardinals (53.5%) — three of the NL’s top four teams by those odds, each favored to win their respective divisions — were absent from the Senior Circuit roundup, while the Yankees (75.6%), Rays (62.5%), Orioles (50.6%) and Rangers (36.3%) missed out on the fun in the Junior Circuit piece. Only one of the top four NL teams showed up with trouble spots (the Phillies at 58.5%), but the AL distribution was more haphazard, in that the Astros (86.8%), Twins (64.9%), Mariners (58.6%), and Blue Jays (47.4%) each had at least one representative within my roundup.

In response to the feedback I received, I thought it would be worthwhile to do one more roundup in this format, this time limiting it to those otherwise unexamined teams and going only one layer deep at each position. I couldn’t quite call this “The Weakest Spots Among the Powerhouses” or “… Among the Top Contenders,” hence the title. Note that not every position had a team fall below the threshold, though I do mention the lowest-ranked ones in passing for those spots. It’s worth keeping in mind the tendency for even the game’s top prospects to have fairly tepid projections based upon limited minor league data and a higher risk of being farmed out if they start slowly; those players don’t always hit the ground running. For team totals, I’ve cited the adjusted WARs, but where I reference individual player projections I’ve stuck to the published figures.

Catcher

Rays (21st, 1.9 adjusted WAR)

My AL roundup contained only the Red Sox catchers, and while I’m not sure what happened since I composed the list to move the Rays from right at the 2.0 minimum to below it, here we are. Since landing on last summer’s Replacement Level Killers list, they’ve basically turned over their tandem, with René Pinto and Alex Jackson replacing Christian Bethancourt and Francisco Mejía. The 27-year-old Pinto did the bulk of the catching in the second half, hitting .252/.267/.456 (98 wRC+) in 105 PA, with an eye-watering 34-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s true that he hits the ball hard, but the Rays seem to like him more for his defense than his offense — or, more specifically, his framing, which was 1.7 runs above average by our framing metric and two above by that of Statcast. Meanwhile, the latter system rated him at seven runs below average in blocking and one below in caught stealing.

The 28-year-old Jackson didn’t play in the majors last year, and he owns a .141/.243/.227 line and 48.1% strikeout rate in 185 PA in the majors, mostly from 2021. Nonetheless, he tore up Triple-A (.284/.347/.556 with 16 homers in 248 PA) with the Brewers and Rays’ affiliates before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. Defensively, he’s been a bit below average in framing but is otherwise average-ish. The 28-year-old Mejía, back in the organization on a minor league deal after a brief odyssey with the Angels, probably has his work cut out to regain a share of his old job. He hit just .227/.258/.400 (80 wRC+) last year and hasn’t come close to fulfilling the promise he showed at the plate in the minors.

First Base

Yankees (17th, 1.4 WAR)

Anthony Rizzo got off to a hot start in 2023, hitting for a 146 wRC+ through May 28, when he collided with Fernando Tatis Jr. and missed his next three games due to what the Yankees called a neck injury. Upon returning, he hit for just a 43 wRC+ over the next two months before the team shut him down with post-concussion symptoms; he didn’t play again, and finished at .244/.328/.378 (100 wRC+). The 34-year-old Rizzo is said to be healthy now, but he projects for just a .238/.332/.426 line, a 111 wRC+ — right at the major league average for first basemen last year — and 1.3 WAR, which won’t be a huge help to the Yankees lineup. The most likely backup is DJ LeMahieu, who’s slated to be the starting third baseman and who’s coming off his second 101 wRC+ in three years, though he did post a 129 wRC+ after the All-Star break compared to a 77 before, when he was still dealing with the effects of a right big toe injury. Oswaldo Cabrera, a switch-hitting utilityman who was very good in a late-2022 stint and terrible last year, is another alternative for first.

Second Base

Oddly enough — or perhaps fittingly, as we are talking about good clubs — none of these teams has a second base situation that falls below the threshold. Orioles second basemen project to rank 14th in the majors with an adjusted 2.4 WAR, the lowest mark from among this group, but that’s with 20-year-old Jackson Holliday, the no. 1 prospect on our Top 100 list, 25-year-old Jordan Westburg, and 29-year-old Ramón Urías projected to account for most of the playing time, with all projecting to be average or better — which particularly for Holliday would be no small achievement, even with his pedigree. Note that this is Baltimore’s only appearance within this exercise, even though the team has a lower projected value at the first base and DH slots than it does at second base; the O’s just don’t stand out relative to their competition’s weaknesses.

Shortstop

Braves (24th, 1.6 WAR)

The Braves project to be the majors’ top team, but they do have their weaknesses, and this is one. After letting Dansby Swanson depart as a free agent, they turned shortstop duties over to Orlando Arcia, who had spent five and a half seasons with diminishing returns in Milwaukee, plus another season and a half as a utilityman for Atlanta, playing a grand total of 24 innings at shortstop. The team nonetheless signed him to a three-year, $7.3 million extension — practically peanuts — and he handled the position reasonably well, hitting .264/.321/.420 (99 wRC+) with a career-high 2.3 WAR despite a mixed bag of defensive metrics. Given that he netted just 0.2 WAR from 2018–22, the projection systems are understandably skeptical he can sustain such production; if he can’t, who knows what kind of magic pixie dust the Braves can sprinkle on backups Luis Guillorme and David Fletcher to try and turn them into league-average regulars.

Third Base

Here’s another spot where none of these teams falls below the threshold, with the Dodgers (15th at 2.1 WAR) the lowest ranked. Neither Max Muncy’s fielding at third base nor his low batting averages are pretty, but he’s a disciplined hitter who can absolutely crush the ball and justify his spot in the lineup; last year, he matched his career high of 36 homers while netting 2.9 WAR. Chris Taylor and the freshly re-signed Enrique Hernández are around for those times when Muncy’s banged up or the team could use more defensive support.

Left Field

Dodgers (21st, 1.4 WAR)

This is the NL West juggernaut’s weakest spot, even after taking steps to address it. Newcomer Teoscar Hernández, who joined the fold on a one-year, $23.5 million deal, hits the ball very hard… when he makes contact. In 2023 he posted an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph (80th percentile), a 13.8% barrel rate (88th percentile), and a 49.4% hard-hit rate (90th percentile). The problem was that he struck out 31.1% of the time opposite a 5.6% walk rate, so he hit an uninspiring .258/.305/.435 (105 wRC+). To be fair, he did say he had trouble seeing the ball at the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park, where he slugged just .380, so it’s hardly out of the question that a change of scenery could drive a rebound for the 31-year-old slugger. The aforementioned Taylor and Enrique Hernández will see time here as well, but both are a few years removed from their best work. Taylor rebounded from a bad season and a slow first half to hit .237/.326/.420 (104 wRC+) but struck out 32.6% of the time himself, while Hernández perked up after returning to Los Angeles, posting a 59 wRC+ with the Red Sox and a 96 wRC+ with the Dodgers.

Center Field

One more where everybody is above the threshold, with the Rays (19th at 2.1 adjusted WAR) the lowest ranked among those here, based primarily on the projections’ skepticism that Jose Siri can repeat last year’s extreme performance. (See Davy Andrews’ piece on Tromps Per Womp.)

Right Field

Cardinals (14th, 1.8 WAR)

Given his plus-plus raw power, few people doubted Jordan Walker’s offensive ability, hence his no. 12 ranking on last year’s Top 100 Prospects list. At age 21, with no Triple-A experience, he made the Cardinals out of spring training and immediately reeled off a 12-game hitting streak. But when the league quickly adjusted, he struggled briefly and was sent to Memphis to work on his approach, particularly so he could elevate the ball with greater consistency. Even with a 46.9% groundball rate, he finished at a respectable .276/.342/.445 (116 wRC+), but his defense was another matter. Blocked by Nolan Arenado at third base, he moved to the outfield and was absolutely brutal according to the metrics (-16 DRS, -12 RAA, -11.8 UZR), and the visuals weren’t much better, even with the occasional impressive play. Thus he netted just 0.2 WAR. He does project to improve to 1.6 WAR, with Dylan Carlson getting time in right field as well — presumably when the Cardinals mercifully slot Walker at DH — and I’d bet that Walker far outhits the 116 wRC+ for which he’s projected.

Designated Hitter

Rangers (13th, 1.2 WAR)

With all but the Dodgers and Yankees projected to produce less than 2.0 WAR out of the DH spot (that’s after adjustment), this category is shooting fish in a barrel, and with the Cardinals and Rangers virtually tied, I’m focusing on the defending champions. This is hardly a bad situation, not only because Texas ranks among the upper half of the 30 teams, but also because about half the playing time projects to go to 22-year-old Wyatt Langford, who was chosen fourth in last year’s draft and rocketed through four levels to reach Triple-A, hitting .360/.480/.677 (190 wRC+) with 10 homers in 200 PA along the way. He just placed second only to Holliday on our Top 100 list as “perhaps the most complete hitter in the minors.” The problem is that he’s a 30-grade defender, with the speed for center field but a fringe-average arm and a poor feel for outfield play in general, at least at this stage; meanwhile, the outfield of Evan Carter, Leody Taveras, and Adolis García features strong defenders at all three spots. Langford could make the roster out of spring training, but it’s not a guarantee. With the possible exception of Corey Seager, who’s working his way back from January hernia surgery, no other Ranger projects to have much impact at this spot, hence the middling ranking.


The Weakest Positions on American League Contenders, 2024 Edition

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Even with an extra day in February this year, Matt Chapman remains unsigned, his free agency having lingered past the start of exhibition season. Admittedly, the soon-to-be-31-year-old third baseman is coming off of an uneven season marked by a late slump related to a finger injury, but he’s been reliably productive throughout his seven-year career, with good-to-great defense bolstering his value at the plate. Meanwhile, his former (?) team, the Blue Jays — who reportedly offered him a nine-figure extension before he hit free agency — have cobbled together an uninspiring solution at third base.

Chapman isn’t the only remaining free agent who could provide a significant upgrade, but he’s by far the best position player remaining on the shelves, and the combination of his absence and the Blue Jays’ needs stands out as I turn to the American League edition of my roundup of the most glaring holes on contending teams (the National League edition is here). For this exercise, I’ve highlighted the spots that per our projections — which combine ZiPS and Steamer as well as playing time estimates from RosterResource — fall below a combined 2.0 WAR on teams whose Playoff Odds sit at or above 25%.

Why 2.0 WAR? That’s the rough equivalent of average play across a full season, but because of the general tendency to overproject playing time and keep even the weakest teams with positive WARs at each position (in reality over 10% of them will finish in the red), our position player Depth Chart values at the team level are inflated by about 20%. That is, instead of having a total of 1,000 WAR projected across the 30 teams, and 57% of that (570 WAR) allocated to position players, our Depth Chart values currently add up to about 682 WAR. Thus, I am discounting the team values that you see on the Depth Chart pages by 20%, and focusing on the lowest-ranked contenders among those whose adjusted values fall below that 2.0 WAR threshold. The individual WAR values cited will remain as they are on the Depth Chart pages, however, and it’s worth noting that many of the players here — particularly youngsters with shorter track records, including some from our Top 100 Prospects list — don’t project particularly well but still have considerable upside. Read the rest of this entry »


Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 2/27/24

2:01
Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks! Welcome to another edition of my Tuesday chats. I have a piece up today illustrating the weakest positions on NL contenders — sort of a preseason Replacement Level Killers list — with a companion AL piece to follow soon. https://blogs.fangraphs.com/the-weakest-positions-on-national-league-c…

2:02
Avatar Jay Jaffe: On Sunday I covered the Cody Bellinger signing https://blogs.fangraphs.com/options-options-cody-bellinger-returns-to-…

2:02
Avatar Jay Jaffe: and last Friday i took a look at the Mets’ rotation in light of the Kodai Senga injury https://blogs.fangraphs.com/with-kodai-senga-injury-mets-rotation-alre…

2:04
Avatar Jay Jaffe: With the caveat that I may have to duck out for a few minutes soon when our painter arrives, let’s get on with it.

2:04
Avatar Jay Jaffe: (We had our living room, dining room, and kitchen painted yesterday! Facelift for the whole first floor!)

2:05
Idiotic Failson: Regarding the Yankees still being potentially interested in Snell – I want owners to spend money as much as the average fan and feel that owners too often hoard their team revenue. That said, let’s say that the Yankees spend $25mm/year on Snell. That brings their commitment this year to him to close to $60mm and their payroll to close to $400mm. Can they really afford to run $400mm payrolls (necessary or not) regularly? Am I wrong in thinking that signing Snell might actually be unreasonable?

Read the rest of this entry »


The Weakest Positions on National League Contenders, 2024 Edition

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is in full swing, and while there’s still a trickle of higher-profile free agents such as Cody Bellinger and Tim Anderson finding homes — not to mention a handful of unsigned ones, from NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and postseason stud Jordan Montgomery on down — most teams are taking shape, albeit with plenty to sort out while in camp. Still, all but the powerhouses have some lineup holes remaining, and while they may not be likely to open their checkbooks to land the likes of Matt Chapman, it’s worth keeping their vulnerabilities in mind.

To that end, I wanted to revisit an exercise I performed last year, one that bears more than a passing resemblance to the annual Replacement Level Killers series I roll out prior to the trade deadline. This one is a little different, as it comes prior to the season and relies entirely on our projections, which combine ZiPS and Steamer as well as playing time estimates from RosterResource. Those projections also drive our Playoff Odds.

There are a couple of wrinkles to note here. Where last year and for the in-season series I have generally used a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs as a cutoff for what we might loosely define as a contender, this year’s odds are distributed such that only four teams (the A’s, Nationals, Rockies, and White Sox) fall below that threshold. Thus I’ve raised the cutoff to 25%, leaving the Angels, Pirates, and Royals below the bar but including the Red Sox (25.6% at this writing) and Reds (25.7%), both of which forecast for 80 wins. Gotta love this expanded playoff system, right? Ugh. Read the rest of this entry »


Options, Options: Cody Bellinger Returns to the Cubs

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

For as strong as his 2023 campaign had been, and for as well positioned as he was in this winter’s market, Cody Bellinger‘s free agency was always hampered by questions of sustainability. His debut season with the Cubs followed two unsettlingly bad years with the Dodgers, and the metrics underlying last season’s resurgence were comparatively modest relative to his production, raising the possibility if not the likelihood of regression. In light of those issues, even as he placed third on our Top 50 Free Agents list heading into the offseason and reportedly sought a contract as high as $250 million, it seemed quite likely he’d come away with considerably less. He did, agreeing to return to the Cubs on a three-year, $80 million deal, one that contains opt-outs after the first two seasons, and one that was still pending a physical as of this writing.

Effectively, this is a pillow contract, negotiated by the agent who created the term, Scott Boras. The 28-year-old Bellinger will get the opportunity to show that his 2023 performance was no fluke, with two chances before his age-30 season to secure a much bigger payday. He’s guaranteed $30 million in 2024, with salaries of $30 million in ’25 and $20 million in ’26 if he hasn’t exercised his opt-outs, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Bellinger came to the Cubs after an eventful 10-year run in the Dodgers’ organization, one that began when the son of former utilityman Clay Bellinger was drafted in the fourth round out of an Arizona high school in 2013. He hit 39 home runs while winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2017, and smacked 47 homers two years later while taking home the NL MVP award. His timely hitting and spectacular fielding during the 2020 postseason helped the Dodgers to their first championship since 1988, but one of those timely hits precipitated his fall. Celebrating what proved to be the decisive home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS against the Braves, the exuberant Bellinger dislocated his right (non-throwing) shoulder after bashing forearms with teammate Enrique Hernández. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery after the World Series, started slowly in spring training, and then in the fourth game of the season suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula, knocking him out for eight weeks. Unable to find his rhythm as he recovered from both shoulder and leg issues, he hit a gruesome .165/.240/.302 (47 wRC+) with -1.0 WAR in 350 plate appearances, though he showed signs of life during the playoffs when he adopted a shortened swing with lower hand placement; he hit .353/.436/.471 (146 wRC+) across 39 plate appearances in 12 postseason games. While he got off to a solid start in 2022, he couldn’t maintain it despite endlessly tinkering with his swing. Exceptional defense in center field kept him in the lineup, but he hit just .210/.265/.389 (83 wRC+) with 1.8 WAR, and was nontendered following the season.

Less than three weeks later, Bellinger agreed to a one-year deal with the Cubs, one that paid him $12.5 million for 2023 with a $1 million bonus for winning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors (which he did) and a $5 million buyout on a $25 million mutual option for ’24. He declined his end of the option as well as the $20.325 million qualifying offer he received, and entered the market as the top free agent position player, behind only pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto on our list.

For Bellinger, last year’s change of scenery proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Reuniting with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant Johnny Washington, both of whom he had worked with in the Dodgers’ system, Bellinger focused on adjusting his mechanics, particularly with regards to his hand placement and back hip, allowing him to use his lower body better. He further adapted his approach by pulling the ball with less frequency than at any time since his rookie season, and shortening his swing with two strikes to focus on contact. The result was his best season since 2019, as he hit .307/.356/.525 (134 wRC+) with 26 homers and 20 steals in 130 games — he missed nearly four weeks with a left knee contusion — while cutting his strikeout rate from 27.3% to 15.6%. Coupled with solid defense in center field, his 4.1 WAR tied for 20th in the NL and was the second-best showing of his career.

Bellinger’s intent is worth noting when digging into his underlying metrics, as he sacrificed some power in exchange for contact en route to the lowest exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate of his career:

Cody Bellinger Statcast Profile
Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 337 90.8 11.6% 45.7% .267 .254 .581 .540 .380 .365
2018 409 89.8 8.6% 38.1% .260 .237 .470 .432 .345 .327
2019 454 91.1 12.6% 45.6% .305 .319 .629 .635 .415 .430
2020 171 89.3 9.4% 41.5% .239 .284 .455 .494 .337 .374
2021 224 89.3 7.1% 34.4% .165 .209 .302 .358 .237 .281
2022 360 89.4 8.3% 38.1% .210 .213 .389 .354 .284 .278
2023 424 87.9 6.1% 31.4% .307 .270 .525 .434 .370 .327

Bellinger’s barrel rate placed in just the 27th percentile, his exit velo in the 22nd percentile, and his hard-hit rate in the 10th percentile. He outdid his expected slugging percentage by 91 points, and his expected wOBA by 43 points; both gaps ranked third in the majors among batting title qualifiers (502 PA). On the other hand, his .279 AVG and .312 wOBA with two strikes ranked second and seventh in the majors, thanks in large part to his consistency in collecting hits despite soft contact, a topic that MLB.com’s Mike Petriello and our own Esteban Rivera both investigated.

All of that created something of a puzzle for Bellinger’s suitors — most prominently the Blue Jays (considered the favorites to sign him as of mid-December) and Giants, with the Mariners and Yankees also connected to him via rumors. Bellinger’s deal always seemed unlikely to approach the hot air of the $200 million-plus Borasphere, but in our Top 50 exercise, Ben Clemens projected him to get a six-year, $150 million contract, and our crowdsource expected a six-year, $144 million one. Other outlets went even higher.

As the Blue Jays dragged their feet this winter, the Giants turned to Jung Hoo Lee, and the Cubs refused to act like a large-market team, Bellinger’s anticipated market never fully materialized, with the aforementioned issues undoubtedly playing a part, as well. By ZiPS, he did well to get as much as he did:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2024 .267 .327 .441 487 80 130 24 2 19 73 44 92 14 108 3 2.7
2025 .262 .323 .427 485 78 127 24 1 18 72 44 91 13 103 3 2.3
2026 .263 .325 .425 475 76 125 24 1 17 69 44 89 11 103 3 2.3

ZiPS projects just a three-year, $70 million contract for that forecast, per Dan Szymborski, though perhaps that’s not surprising given that Bellinger has had just one good season out of the last three. Based on the percentile breakdowns, it appears the system gives him only about a 10% to 20% chance of matching or exceeding last year’s performance:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Cody Bellinger
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 34 29 .317 .380 .544 146 5.2
90% 31 27 .304 .367 .520 137 4.6
80% 28 24 .291 .353 .498 127 4.0
70% 27 22 .282 .345 .478 122 3.5
60% 25 21 .274 .336 .465 115 3.1
50% 24 19 .267 .327 .441 108 2.7
40% 23 17 .257 .320 .429 102 2.2
30% 22 16 .250 .313 .415 97 1.9
20% 20 14 .241 .303 .400 90 1.4
10% 18 13 .228 .289 .374 82 0.8
5% 16 11 .221 .283 .357 74 0.3

Bellinger probably doesn’t have to match his 2023 numbers to justify opting out, and he does have two chances to decide when to enter the market again. Still, a mediocre 2024 followed by a strong ’25 would probably leave teams with similar questions to the ones they confronted this winter.

As for how he fits into the Cubs, the key word is flexibility. The team already had Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, both entering their age-29 seasons and on multi-year deals, set for the outfield corners. Prior to Bellinger’s re-signing, Pete Crow-Armstrong, the 20th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 list, appeared likely to take over as the Chicago’s regular center fielder. A 2020 first-round pick acquired from the Mets in the Javier Báez trade at the ’21 deadline, Crow-Armstrong hit a combined .283/.365/.511 (127 wRC+) in 73 games at Double-A Tennessee and 34 games at Triple-A Iowa. He went just 0-for-14 with three walks and two sacrifice hits in a cup of coffee with the Cubs, though to be fair, he started just three of the 13 games in which he appeared. He’s considered an elite center fielder who’s fearless on the basepaths and should produce at least average power. “If he can plug that hole over time, he’ll be a five-tool superstar,” wrote our prospect team of Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin. “More likely, he’ll have some 20-25 homer seasons amid a ton of strikeouts and a low OBP, with peak years resembling Mike Cameron’s (though almost certainly not to that level of annual consistency).”

Given Crow-Armstrong’s age (he turns 22 on March 25) and modest amount of upper-level experience, it always seemed possible that he would start the season in the minors before rejoining the Cubs. Now it would appear even more likely. If he hits his way back to the majors in a hurry, the Cubs could use him in center field and play Bellinger at first base, where lefty-swinging rookie Michael Busch was slated to be the starter or at least the long half of a platoon with righty Patrick Wisdom. The 26-year-old Busch, no. 84 on our prospect list, is considered a bat-only prospect who last played first base regularly at North Carolina, and who may be better suited to DH duty. Alternately, Bellinger has experience in both left field (315.1 innings, though none since 2018) and right (989 innings, the bulk of them in 2019), and Happ has experience at every defensive position except shortstop and catcher, though he hasn’t played the infield since 2021, when he totaled 36 innings, mostly at second base. Also in the category of moving parts is Christopher Morel, who last year saw time at all three outfield positions plus second base, shortstop, and third base; he was projected to get the bulk of the work at DH but also to be in the third base mix along with Nick Madrigal. Suffice to say that new manager Craig Counsell will have options for how to piece his lineup together, and that a clearer picture may emerge during spring training.

Via our Depth Charts projections, here’s a comparison of how the situation looked before the signing and immediately after, in terms of estimated plate appearances:

Cody Bellinger and the Cubs’ Moving Parts
Player Pre/Post-Signing 1B 3B LF CF RF DH Total PA*
Bellinger Post 280 245 98 623
Busch Pre 308 91 49 469
Busch Post 252 63 84 420
Crow-Armstrong Pre 420 420
Crow-Armstrong Post 350 350
Happ Pre 623 42 665
Happ Post 651 14 665
Madrigal Pre 357 371
Madrigal Post 294 301
Morel Pre 35 49 35 14 21 378 553
Morel Post 126 21 14 14 329 518
Suzuki Pre 441 161 602
Suzuki Post 406 182 588
Tauchman Pre 21 203 147 371
Tauchman Post 14 70 168 252
Wisdom Pre 245 126 14 35 420
Wisdom Post 133 182 357
* = includes plate appearances positions that may not be shown

In terms of overall playing time, the real loser of the Bellinger deal is Mike Tauchman, a capable center fielder who hit .252/.363/.377 (107 wRC+) last year, with Crow-Armstrong, Madrigal, and Wisdom also losing substantial time. Keep in mind that all of this is based on best guesses just as exhibition season has opened, and before the Cubs have even confirmed the deal. A lot could still change.

Particularly with the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, and Reds each projected to win between 79 and 85 games, the NL Central is expected to be a dogfight. Any impactful addition could be the difference between reaching the postseason — something the Cubs haven’t done since 2020 — and staying home. By bringing back Bellinger, the team has given itself a better shot at playing in October without assuming a huge long-term risk. Bellinger, for his part, gets to return to a comfortable situation with a contending team, while also knowing that he can play his way into a bigger contract. It will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds.


With Kodai Senga Injury, Mets Rotation Already Takes a Hit

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After the trades of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander last summer, Kodai Senga assumed the role of the Mets’ staff ace, and figured to be the team’s Opening Day starter this year. Already, however, the Mets are in the position of having to adjust. A day after Senga missed a team workout due to what was initially described as arm fatigue, president of baseball operations David Stearns revealed that the 31-year-old righty will start the year on the injured list with a shoulder strain. For as tantalizing as the possibility of a free agent addition may be, the team plans to stay in-house to absorb his absence.

In Wednesday’s media session, manager Carlos Mendoza said that after Tuesday’s side session, Senga told Mets trainers he was experiencing arm fatigue, which is hardly uncommon at this time of year as pitchers build up their workloads. This wasn’t the first time this spring that he had reported fatigue, however, and so the Mets sent him for an MRI, which revealed a moderate posterior capsule strain. He’ll be shut down from throwing, but this isn’t an injury that suggests he’ll need surgery. Even so, Stearns would not offer a timeline for his return. “What I can say at this point, comfortably, is we don’t expect Opening Day,” he told reporters on Thursday. “But I do expect him to make a bunch of starts for us this year… Hopefully we caught it early enough that this is just a speedbump.”

While not presented as a worst-case scenario, that’s still pretty vague as far as what Senga might contribute in 2024, and when. If there’s good news, it’s that this isn’t the type of shoulder injury that Kyle Wright and Brandon Woodruff suffered. As Under the Knife’s Will Carroll pointed out, they had anterior capsule tears that required surgical repair, costing them most of 2023 and likely all of this season. Nonetheless, however long Senga is out, the Mets will have a tough time replacing him.

After 11 seasons with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japan Pacific League, Senga joined the Mets on a five-year, $75 million contract. Given his history of pitching only every sixth or seventh day in Japan, the team did its best to provide him a bit of extra rest between starts; only three times did he take a turn on four days of rest, with 17 starts coming on five days, six on six days, and three on more than that. All told, he acquitted himself in impressive fashion, posting a 2.98 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 166.1 innings, making the NL All-Star team, and placing second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Corbin Carroll and seventh in the Cy Young voting. That ERA ranked second in the league behind Blake Snell’s 2.20, while his 202 strikeouts placed eighth and his 3.4 WAR tied for ninth. Among Japanese-born pitchers who have come stateside, only Hideo Nomo and Yu Darvish had stronger debuts in terms of WAR or strikeouts, with the former totaling 5.2 WAR and 236 K’s for the Dodgers in 1995, while the latter had 4.7 WAR and 221 K’s for the Rangers in 2012.

When Senga joined the Mets, he figured to be the third starter on a contending team behind a pair of three-time Cy Young award winners, but that changed when they traded Scherzer and Verlander. With the Mets’ decision to rein in their payroll — still the majors’ largest in terms of annual salaries ($315 million) and Competitive Balance Tax ($328 million) — this winter, he now fronts a rotation with a much lower ceiling on a team projected to finish around .500. Currently ranked 23rd in projected starting pitcher WAR by our Depth Charts, this group is full of pitchers aspiring to stay healthy, available, and productive for a full season.

The most experienced of the group is 35-year-old lefty José Quintana, who after making at least 31 starts annually from 2013–19 has done so just once in the past three seasons. Last year, his first of a two-year, $26 million deal with the Mets, he was limited to 13 starts by a stress fracture in his rib, one that was revealed to be caused by a benign lesion that required bone graft surgery. He was solid upon his return just after the All-Star break, posting a 3.57 ERA and 3.52 FIP in 75.2 innings. He did a great job of avoiding hard contact, and his sinker was particularly effective, holding hitters to a .198 AVG and .253 SLG in 105 PA. Even if he’s just a five-and-fly guy — he’s averaged less than 5 1/3 innings in each of his last three full seasons (2018, ’19, ’22) — he should provide some welcome stability for the rotation while fulfilling the role of the sage veteran.

The most accomplished of the group is 30-year-old righty Luis Severino, a two-time All-Star who has finished as high as third in the Cy Young voting. But due to shoulder inflammation (2019), Tommy John surgery (2020-21), and a pair of lat strains (2022 and ’23), he’s managed just 40 starts and 209.1 innings over the past five seasons. When he was available last year between a season-opening lat strain and a season-ending oblique strain, he generally struggled, posting a 6.65 ERA and 6.14 FIP in 89.1 innings while serving up a gruesome 2.32 home runs per nine. His four-seam fastball still averaged 96.5 mph, but hitters slugged .680 against it, a problem that may be attributable to his tipping pitches with men on base. Even so, he did have the occasional start that offered hope he could find his way out of such a mess. The Mets signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal on the belief that it’s possible, particularly if he can avoid tipping.

Also tantalizing in terms of velocity is 32-year-old lefty Sean Manaea, who split last season between the bullpen (27 appearances, many of them following an opener) and rotation (10 starts) for the Giants, putting up a 4.40 ERA and 3.90 FIP in 117.2 innings. After spending time at Driveline after the 2022 season, Manaea increased his average four-seam velocity from 91.3 mph to 93.6, and was able to maintain that gain even during his longer outings. He also added a sweeper that held hitters to a .158 AVG and .184 SLG in 42 PA while generating a 36.3% whiff rate. This year, after more work at Driveline, he’s planning to introduce an improved changeup. His existing one held hitters to a .208 AV and .333 SLG in 2023, but generated just an 18.7% whiff rate; with an adjusted grip, he’s hoping to get batters to chase more. He’s also adding a new cutter to serve as a weapon against righties, who hit for a .333 wOBA against him in 2023, compared to the .256 wOBA he allowed to lefties.

The other newcomer from outside the organization is 31-year-old righty Adrian Houser. Acquired from the Brewers on December 20 along with outfielder Tyrone Taylor in a trade that sent righty prospect Coleman Crow to Milwaukee, Houser posted a 4.12 ERA and 3.99 FIP in 111.1 innings last year, making 21 starts and two relief appearances. He didn’t make his season debut until May 7 due to a groin strain, and missed a couple of weeks in late August and early September with elbow inflammation. Houser throws a heavy sinker, generates lots of groundballs, and does a decent job of keeping the ball in the park, though last year’s 1.05 HR/9 was his highest full-season rate since 2019.

Stearns said the battle to replace Senga features Tylor Megill, Joey Lucchesi, and José Butto, all of whom have at least one minor league option remaining. By now the 28-year-old Megill is a familiar face, as he’s pitched for the Mets on and off since debuting in June 2021. In fact, he was pressed into duty as the Opening Day starter in 2022, and three weeks later, he threw the first five innings of a combined no-hitter. His 25 starts last year ranked second on the team, but unfortunately, he was erratic to the point of getting sent down to Triple-A Syracuse for about six weeks. He finished with a 4.70 ERA and 4.96 FIP as he struggled to throw strikes and avoid hard contact. He walked 10.2% of hitters while striking out just 18.5%; between that and the 9% of his batted balls that were barreled, he ended up with a 5.89 xERA. He can bring it with a mid-90s fastball and great extension thanks to his 6-foot-7 frame, but maintaining his velocity has been a challenge. In his final outing of last season, he broke out a split-fingered fastball that he learned from Senga, and he spent the winter working to hone it; he calls it “The American Spork,” referencing Senga’s “Ghost Fork.” “Got a lot of reps with it and it’s working well,” he told reporters this week. “It’s definitely part of the arsenal now.”

Lucchesi, a 30-year-old lefty, has spent parts of five seasons in the majors. He made nine starts totaling 46.2 innings for the Mets last year, turning in a tidy 2.89 ERA that was hardly supported by his peripherals; he struck out just 16.4% of hitters and served up a 10.4% barrel rate en route to a 4.22 FIP and a 5.48 xERA. Butto, a 25-year-old righty, is the least experienced of the three, still a rookie actually. He throws a 93-95 mph fastball with a plus changeup and a good slider; the secondaries both miss bats at an above-average rate. Used as a spot starter last year, he made seven starts and two relief appearances totaling 42 innings, turning in a 3.64 ERA and 4.02 FIP, walking a gaudy 12.8% of hitters (against a modest 21.2% strikeout rate) but holding them to a 2.5% barrel rate and 0.64 HR/9.

Unlikely to figure into the Mets’ season-opening plans but perhaps in play later this year are righties Christian Scott, Mike Vasil, and Dominic Hamel, all of whom Eric Longenhagen covered in the team’s Imminent Big Leaguers piece earlier this month (along with Butto). None of those three are on the 40-man roster; Scott and Hamel are entering their age-25 seasons but haven’t pitched above Double-A, while Vasil is entering his age-24 season and took 16 turns at Syracuse last year, as well as 10 at Binghamton. Via Longenhagen, Scott grades out as the best of them, a 50 FV prospect who projects as a mid-rotation starter thanks to his combination of a 94-95 mph fastball, a plus slider, and a splitter. He’s 6-foot-4, weighs 215 pounds and gets great extension. Hamel, a 45 FV prospect, throws a 92-96 mph fastball and two good breaking balls but has iffy command. Vasil, a 45 FV prospect, projects as “a rock steady no. 4/5 starter on a good team,” per Longehagen; he throws a 92-95 mph fastball, a plus slider, an average curveball and a changeup.

While the free agent market still has no shortage of pitchers who could help the Mets, from expensive options, such as Snell and Jordan Montgomery, to more affordable ones, such as righties Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen, and Zack Greinke, the team’s tax situation makes a signing highly unlikely. Given that they’re already above the fourth-tier threshold of $297 million, the Mets will pay a 110% tax on the salaries of anybody they add. “We’re asking people to step up,” said Stearns, speaking of his internal options.

If enough of those pitchers do step up, the Mets could have an interesting summer, because even with Senga down, they currently project to have a 30.6% chance of making the playoffs. But those odds still depend upon him making a substantial contribution to the team, and right now, that’s anything but guaranteed.


Giancarlo Stanton Tries to Change Things Up After a Dreadful 2023

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Following a career-worst season and some stinging public criticism from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Giancarlo Stanton is making some changes. Earlier this week, the oft-injured 34-year-old slugger reported to spring training looking significantly leaner than in the past, and on Wednesday provided the public with the first glimpse of his reworked swing. Sure, this all fits into the realm of spring training clichés, and batting practice cuts won’t tell us whether the changes can reverse his decline or improve his chances of staying healthy, but a rebound would certainly be welcome as the Yankees attempt to recover from their worst record in 31 years.

Amid a season in which so many key Yankees wound up sidelined by injuries for significant spells, Stanton played in just 101 games, his lowest full-season total since 2019, when he was limited to 19 games by left biceps and right knee injuries. This time around, he missed 46 days due to a left hamstring strain, the latest in a litany of lower body injuries he’s incurred since the start of 2019:

Giancarlo Stanton’s Injuries as a Yankee
Start End Days on IL Injury
4/1/19 6/18/19 78 Left biceps strain
6/26/19 9/18/19 84 Right knee sprain (PCL)
10/13/19 10/18/19 5* Right quadriceps strain
8/9/20 9/15/20 37 Left hamstring strain
5/14/21 5/28/21 14 Left quad strain
5/25/22 6/4/22 10 Right ankle inflammation
7/24/22 8/25/22 32 Left Achilles tendonitis
4/16/23 6/1/23 46 Left hamstring strain
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus
* = no injured list; missed time during American League Championship Series.

That’s 301 days on the injured list, not including his missing three games in the 2019 ALCS against the Astros. Meanwhile, Stanton has played 391 regular season games, which prorates to an average of 89 over a 162-game season.

It was with that frustrating series of absences in mind that Cashman vented during a media session at the GM meetings in Arizona last November, “I’m not going to tell you he’s gonna play every game next year because he’s not. He’s gonna wind up getting hurt again, more likely than not, because it seems to be part of his game.” To be fair, Cashman immediately added, “But I know that when he’s right and healthy – other than this past year – the guy’s a great hitter and has been for a long time.”

Stanton refrained from public comment at the time, letting agent Joel Wolfe trade volleys with the GM, who went into damage control mode. “I value Giancarlo Stanton as a player,” he told reporters. “Without a doubt, he’s one of the big drivers when we do win. He’s one of the few players you bring to New York that hasn’t backed down, that has handled himself in a professional manner through thick and thin.” The GM additionally spoke with both player and agent to clear the air, and since then, both Cashman and Stanton have kept the substance of their discussion private. “He knows my reaction to that,” said the latter at the Yankees’ spring training complex on Monday.

Until 2023, Stanton’s absences were mitigated at least somewhat by his productivity. He hit .248/.338/.493 for a 130 wRC+ from 2019–22, including .273/.354/.516 (138 wRC+) in his 139-game ’21 campaign, his healthiest one of that stretch. He made the AL All-Star team in 2022, but his ugly final line (.211/.297/.462, 116 wRC+) concealed a drastic split: He hit .285/.339/.523 (142 wRC+) through May 24, his last day before landing on the IL due to right ankle inflammation, but just .166/.272/.425 thereafter, and to get to an even 100 wRC+ for that stretch required hitting home runs in his final three games. That sorry batting line looks a lot like last year’s one (.191/.275/.420), though with rising scoring levels, the latter was good for just an 89 wRC+ and -0.8 WAR. Since that ankle-related IL stint, he owns a 93 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR in 699 PA. It ain’t great.

As ever, Stanton struck out a lot, but that wasn’t his primary problem. In terms of overall strikeout rate, his 29.9% was down 0.4 points from 2022, and dead even with ’18. His 34.1% whiff rate was right at his Statcast-era average, down 2.4 points from 2022, and down 0.3 points from ’18. His 13.7% swinging strike rate and his 29.4% chase rate were both similarly below 2018, ’22, and his career marks.

Likewise, Stanton continued to put a charge in the ball when he connected, if not quite as hard as in recent years (I’ve omitted 2019 and ’20 due to their small samples):

Giancarlo Stanton Statcast Profile
Season EV Percentile Barrel% Percentile Hard-Hit% Percentile
2018 93.7 99 8.9% 97 50.8% 97
2021 95.1 99 9.7% 91 56.3% 100
2022 95.0 99 11.3% 98 52.3% 98
2023 93.3 96 9.4% 94 48.4% 86

Not all contact is created equal, of course. Stanton pulled the ball 41.1% of the time in 2023, up from 36.5% in ’22 and his highest full-season rate since ’17, when he was still a Marlin. In general, pulled fly balls tend to be the most productive, while opposite field groundballs tend to be more productive than pulled ones even after the banning of infield shifts. What we see with Stanton is that his results on pulled groundballs — which used to be quite good, because he hit them so hard — have deteriorated drastically, as have his results on pulled fly balls:

Giancarlo Stanton Groundballs and Fly Balls to Pull Side
Season Pull GB% EV LA Hard-Hit% AVG Lg AVG SLG Lg SLG wOBA Lg wOBA
2018 20.0% 93.8 -12.4 49.4 .337 .243 .398 .286 .319 .230
2021 20.2% 94.4 -13.1 58.3 .236 .218 .278 .259 .223 .206
2022 18.6% 96.8 -11.8 57.1 .184 .220 .184 .259 .162 .209
2023 21.4% 91.3 -19.8 49.1 .113 .220 .113 .260 .100 .209
Season Pull FB% EV LA Hard-Hit% AVG Lg AVG SLG Lg SLG wOBA Lg wOBA
2018 5.5% 100.4 35.0 39.1 .478 .490 1.826 1.743 .937 .885
2021 4.8% 100.7 36.9 47.1 .438 .485 1.750 1.716 .826 .896
2022 6.1% 99.6 31.8 68.8 .667 .495 2.467 1.775 1.221 .899
2023 7.7% 99.9 37.2 36.8 .316 .493 1.263 1.797 .633 .912
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Because xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA don’t account for spray angle, I’ve instead used the annual league-wide averages for right-handed hitters where I’d usually put those figures. You can see that Stanton was way below those averages last year despite exit velos about 5 mph above the league-wide averages. His launch angles were particularly extreme, given that righties averaged -12.0 degrees on pulled grounders and 34.7 degrees on pulled fly balls. His 37.2-degree average on the latter was so high as to be unproductive; he was over 500 points short of the league average slugging percentage on fly balls. I couldn’t fit it into the table, but the estimated average distance on his pulled fly balls in 2023 was 344 feet, a full 20 feet shorter than his average from the year before; he averaged 356 feet in 2018 and 348 in ’21.

Some of the missing production probably owes to Stanton’s speed, or lack of it. His sprint speed fell from the 69th percentile in 2018 to the 13th percentile by ’21, and was down to the fourth percentile last year. It’s likely that some of this is intentional — his not running hard at times is a way to prevent injuries or to avoid turning minor aches into major problems — but it’s no doubt costing him hits here and there, contributing to his shortfalls in batting average relative to xBA. In fact, a quick look at his player page shows that his rate of infield hits per groundball (IFH% on his player page) has fallen from 12.8% in 2018 to 4.4% in ’21, 4.1% in ’22 and 2.8% last year.

Meanwhile, Stanton got under a lot more balls than usual, regardless of direction, leading to a higher percentage of harmless popups and flies. His 26.6% Under rate was his highest of the Statcast era, well above his 19.7% in 2022; he hadn’t been above 22% since ’16. He went 6-for-66 on those balls in 2023, which was actually better than his 2-for-52 in ’22 or his 4-for-70 in ’21; the problem was that those balls occupied a larger share of his contact.

Though he still slugged .533 against four-seamers and .516 against sinkers, Stanton was much less productive against fastballs of both types than in the past. He struggled with sliders, as he usually does, and was utterly helpless against curveballs, which was comparatively new. In 2018, he hit .233 and slugged .517 against curves, and even in ’22, he was at .222 AVG/.389 SLG; last year, he plummeted to .115 AVG/.269 SLG. His heat maps show that he has serious holes in his swing. Here’s a comparison between his heat maps for barreled balls against fastballs (the top pair) and breaking balls (the bottom pair); 2018 is on the left and ’23 on the right. Note how much smaller the coverage of the latter is — he didn’t barrel a single ball against pitches outside those areas — and how there is much less red.

Here’s a look at the progression of Stanton’s overall xwOBAs by Gameday zone:

Check out the sequence in the lower right corner of the strike zone. Within this timespan, Stanton’s xwOBAs in that cell have dropped from .287 to .252 to .207 to .129 (see here to zoom in on the numbers). Meanwhile, all of the red has disappeared from the upper and outer thirds of the zone. As Alex Chamberlain wrote last week, that upper third is particularly important when it comes to producing pulled fly balls, so it doesn’t help that Stanton’s whiff rate in that part of the zone has climbed from 23.1% in 2018 to a decimal or two on either side of 30% in the last two seasons — more than double the league-wide rate.

Particularly in light of the data, I’m hardly the first to wonder if Stanton’s series of lower body injuries has compromised his flexibility, contributing to those open holes in his swing. Indeed, in September at Pinstripe Alley, Malachi Hayes built on FanGraphs contributor Esteban Rivera’s visual breakdown of some mechanical issues Stanton was having, pointing out the slugger’s increased difficulty with low breaking balls and the way pitchers were going even lower against him:

Sliders and changeups, making up about a third of the pitches he sees, are crossing the plate a little less than two inches lower and a little bit farther away than they have over the last few years. It sounds like a small change, but the difference shows up in heat maps — especially against right-handed pitchers — and it seems increasingly clear that he just can’t go down and get those pitches like he used to.

Stanton, whose work ethic and conditioning have never been in doubt within the organization, told reporters he spent the offseason focusing on mobility and on changing his swing. Improved mobility should help him find time in an outfield mix that will include Alex Verdugo in left, Aaron Judge in center, and Juan Soto in right. Light-hitting Trent Grisham can help in center, and while that could mean Judge spending time in left field, as manager Aaron Boone suggested last month, it’s probably going to mean a lot of DH duty for No. 99 as well, given his own injury history. The situation will only become more crowded once Jasson Domínguez returns from the Tommy John surgery he had in September. Unless Stanton can play the outfield — more likely right field, with Soto slotting in left — he stands to lose playing time. He played just 33 games in the outfield last year, and 38 the year before, and the results were quite poor (a combined -7 DRS, -4 RAA, and -0.8 UZR in 567 innings for the two seasons). More mobility certainly couldn’t hurt.

As for the promised changes, here’s a glimpse of the 6-foot-4 Stanton (listed at 245 pounds but looking lighter) appearing kind of skinny next to the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge, via Newsday’s Erik Boland:

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Stanton’s stance, from last season to this year, courtesy of The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner:

And here he is taking a BP cut:

Stanton is more upright, with his back leg closer to the plate than before, but at this level of intensity and the limited number of angles, it’s tough to say more than that. Given that it’s February, his changes — and those of everybody else who reported to camp talking about swing tweaks, new pitches, and improved training regimens — should be considered a work in progress. With the addition of Soto, there’s a bit less pressure on Stanton to be one of the lineup’s primary producers, but the Yankees can’t justify playing him if he remans below replacement level. We’ll see soon enough whether he can return to being close to the dangerous hitter he used to be.


Daniel Vogelbach Deal Continues Toronto’s Tepid Offseason

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays signed a lefty-swinging first baseman/designated hitter whose name begins with a V and an O, but it wasn’t Joey Votto. As position players report to camps, the longtime Red and all-time leader in games played by a Canadian-born major leaguer remains a free agent. Instead, the Blue Jays added Daniel Vogelbach on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. At his best, the well-traveled 31-year-old can help the Blue Jays, but in context, his limitations provide yet another reminder of the team’s underwhelming offseason.

Vogelbach’s deal calls for him to make $2 million if he’s in the majors, according to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman. This is actually his second go-round with the Blue Jays, but you’re forgiven if you need your memory jogged. He spent 10 days with the team during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, between being purchased from the Mariners and lost on waivers to the Brewers; within that span, he played two games, going 0-for-4 with a walk and two strikeouts. After spending all of 2021 with the Brewers, he split ’22 between the Pirates and Mets, with an effective stretch-run stint for the latter, and then spent last year in Queens as well.

Despite a productive opening month to his 2023 season, Vogelbach hit just .213/.326/.348 (92 wRC+) through the end of June, a span that included an eight-day benching for the purposes of a mental break. He was much better from July onward, batting .258/.355/.475 (131 wRC+) with eight homers in 138 plate appearances, but even so, he was an afterthought in September. He made just five starts that month, none in the Mets’ final 16 games, with just three of his 24 plate appearances for September coming in that span. Unsurprisingly, he was nontendered in November.

Even in a down season, Vogelbach again showed an excellent batting eye, chasing just 24.1% of pitches outside the strike zone and walking 13.2% of the time; that said, his strikeout rate crept to 25.4%, his highest since 2019. He didn’t get enough playing time to qualify for Statcast’s percentile cutoffs, but his 91.7 mph average exit velo and 50% hard-hit rate would have landed at the 86th and 93rd percentiles, respectively.

Vogelbach is a player with obvious limitations. He didn’t play a single game in the field during his Mets tenure, had just five for the Pirates before being dealt in July 2022, and owns DH-caliber metrics at first base for his seven-year career (1,059.2 innings, -8 RAA, -15 DRS). He went 0-for-15 with a walk and eight strikeouts against lefties in 2023, and has been utterly helpless against them for his career (.129/.248/.215, 35 wRC+ in 323 PA). He’s never even attempted a stolen base in the majors, a wise choice given his 2nd-percentile sprint speed. That’s not the easiest player to fit onto a roster, and if Vogelbach does stick with the Blue Jays, he’s not likely to get a ton of playing time unless things go wrong elsewhere. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the incumbent first baseman, and Toronto signed the righty-swinging Justin Turner to a one-year, $13 million deal to serve as its primary DH while spotting all around the infield, as he did last year with the Red Sox. Turner hit for just a 105 wRC+ against righties (.273/.335/.430 in 462 PA) in 2023, but that may have been an aberration given his 132 wRC+ against them over the previous three seasons. He doesn’t need a platoon partner.

Given the size of the role in question, it’s not tremendously hard to understand why the Blue Jays signed Vogelbach instead of the 40-year-old Votto, who became a free agent after 17 seasons with the Reds and who scuffled in 2023. Coming off of August 2022 surgery to repair tears in his left rotator cuff and biceps, Votto didn’t make his season debut until June 19, and while he homered off Austin Gomber in his second plate appearance, he hit just .202/.314/.433 (98 wRC+) with 14 homers in 208 PA. Save for his slugging percentage and barrel rate, neither that slash line nor his underlying Statcast numbers were as good as those of Vogelbach.

Joey Votto vs. Daniel Vogelbach, 2023
Player Events EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Joey Votto 146 89.3 11.0% 39.7% .202 .190 .433 .376 .326 .304
Daniel Vogelbach 194 91.7 9.3% 49.5% .233 .225 .404 .397 .327 .323

The Blue Jays showed interest in Votto early in the offseason, with general manager Ross Atkins saying, “Incredible reputation, really dynamic personality, really bright (person) that I know our team would embrace… But I think that’s the case for probably 15 teams.” Based on Votto’s background, he added a potential for “massive impact in the community if he were to be a Toronto Blue Jay.”

Despite the obvious appeal, nothing ever materialized, and in the wake of the Turner signing, we can infer that the Blue Jays may not have been willing to offer Votto — whose 2022 production was underwhelming amid his shoulder woes — enough playing time. To date, it doesn’t appear that any team has offered the right mix of opportunity and money. On January 11, USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported that three teams were interested in Votto, and in his Sunday notebook a few days later mentioned the Blue Jays and Brewers as potential fits. The last report of a team’s interest in him came on January 24, when Heyman connected Votto to the Angels. That same day, Reds GM Nick Krall told season ticket holders he had no plans to bring back the franchise icon. Since those flickers of interest, the Blue Jays added Turner and the Brewers signed Rhys Hoskins. Meanwhile, the future Hall of Fame first baseman has popped up at the NHL All-Star Game in the company of Gritty and other mascots and quoted Dylan Thomas on Instagram, but otherwise, he’s been quiet on social media.

The Blue Jays/Votto connection has always been more speculative than substantial, but, like the Vogelbach signing, it’s at least interesting enough to underscore just how unremarkable Toronto’s offseason has been. Coming off an 89-win season in which it claimed the third AL Wild Card spot but made a quick two-and-through exit, the team hasn’t made anything that could be characterized as an impact move, even after showing signs of grand ambitions.

For a brief time, it appeared that the Blue Jays had won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, but alas that rumor proved untrue. With the possible exception of signing Yoshinobu Yamamoto, with whom they met before he chose the Dodgers as well, nothing else they could have done would have been as impactful. But they at least seemed to be thinking big by showing enough interest in Cody Bellinger to be considered co-favorites (along with the Cubs) to sign him as Christmas approached, and he remains a free agent as of this writing. Instead, in late December, the Blue Jays re-signed Kevin Kiermaier — a spectacular fielder but a league-average hitter who turns 34 in April — to a one-year, $10.5 million deal, presumably to be their regular center fielder between Daulton Varsho in left and George Springer in right.

And then there’s Toronto’s approach to its third base situation. Matt Chapman hit free agency after an uneven season that included a .255/.346/.449 (121 wRC+) line through August 12, when he sprained his right middle finger in a weight room mishap, and a .163/.250/.302 (54 wRC+) line the rest of the way; he initially missed three games after suffering the injury, then 15 more after trying to play through it. The Blue Jays, who reportedly offered Chapman an extension north of $100 million over four or five years before he reached free agency, extended him a $20.325 million qualifying offer, which he declined. Like Bellinger, he remains a free agent while the Blue Jays have moved on. Just after inking Kiermaier, they signed light-hitting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to a two-year, $15 million deal, then added Turner. Though he makes more sense fitting into the utility slot vacated by Whit Merrifield, who recently signed with the Phillies, Kiner-Falefa is currently projected to receive the most plate appearances of any Toronto player at third base (231), with Turner, Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio, and Eduardo Escobar also in the mix. The 35-year-old Escobar, who began last season as Vogelbach’s teammate on the Mets before being traded to the Angels, signed a minor league deal with a nonroster invitation last week; he’s looking to rebound from a dismal .226/.269/.344 (66 wRC+) performance in 309 PA.

Between Kiermaier, Kiner-Falefa, and Turner, that’s a not-so-grand total of $38.5 million committed to free agent position players this winter, short of enough money to cover the present-day value of one season of Ohtani. Their other major league deal was for Cuban righthander Yariel Rodriguez — who spent 2020–22 with NPB’s Chunichi Dragons, mainly as a reliever — whom they signed to a five-year, $32 million contract. After pitching for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic last year, Rodriguez sat out the regular season while establishing residency in the Dominican Republic so he could become a major league free agent. The Blue Jays intend to build him up as a starter, but he might wind up in Triple-A or in a multi-inning bullpen role as he begins his major league career. Meanwhile, the team will roll with a starting five of Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt, Yusei Kikuchi, and Alek Manoah, the last of those coming off a dreadful season after a top-three finish in the AL Cy Young voting in 2022. Lefty Ricky Tiedemann, no. 28 on our new Top 100 Prospects List, could help later in the year, but has just 36 innings above A-ball to his name, while righty Bowden Francis is being stretched out to provide more immediate depth. While they’ve been “quietly monitoring” the ongoing Blake Snell market, per Nightengale, the Blue Jays have never appeared likely to spend big on starting pitching this winter; instead, they have focused on improving their lineup.

Last week, Atkins said, “At this point, additions that would be of significance would mean some level of subtraction,” which didn’t sound like he was leaving the light on for either Bellinger or Chapman. If this is more or less the Blue Jays’ roster, according to Roster Resource, their payroll sits at $235.7 million in terms of actual salaries, up from $214.5 million last year, and $248.7 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, a hair ahead of last year’s $246.1 million and somewhere between the first and second tax thresholds ($237 million and $257 million, respectively). That’s the game’s sixth- or seventh-highest payroll, depending on which figure you’re using to rank them, so it’s not as though the Blue Jays are going cheap.

Nor do they project to be bad. We have them forecast for 83.5 wins, fourth in the AL East but part of a tight group with the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles; only 4.6 projected wins separates Toronto from New York, the projected first-place finisher. The thing is, the Blue Jays are right at the point where adding extra wins could increase their odds above their 14.2% chance at winning the division title and 47.7% chance to make the playoffs. While their AL East competition has added marquee players like Juan Soto and Corbin Burnes, the end result of the Blue Jays’ grand offseason just feels like a series of half measures.


Elbow Injuries to Bradish and Means Deal Blow to Orioles

Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

It happens every spring. Pitchers and catchers report to camp and begin working out… and getting hurt. Sometimes they find out they’re already seriously injured, and sometimes the injury is just one that becomes public knowledge as spring training gets underway. The last scenario appears to be the case for the Orioles’ Kyle Bradish, who will start the season on the injured list due to a sprain of his right ulnar collateral ligament that he suffered in January. He’s not Baltimore’s only starter who’s down, either; John Means is behind schedule because his offseason throwing program was delayed in the wake of the elbow soreness that knocked him off the postseason roster.

On the strength of an effective sinker and a couple of nasty breaking pitches, Bradish broke out in 2023, emerging as the staff ace in his second major league season and helping the Orioles surprise the baseball world by winning an AL-best 101 games, their highest total since 1979. Batters slugged just .165 against his curve and .272 against his slider. Both pitches generated whiff rates above 35% and graded among the best pitches of their kind in the majors; the curve was worth 15 runs above average, which ranked third, while his slider (14 runs) ranked 11th. The 26-year-old righty finished third in the AL with a 2.83 ERA in 168.2 innings, accompanying that with a 3.27 FIP (fifth in the league) and 3.8 WAR (eighth, as well as third with 4.9 bWAR). Bradish finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting behind Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, and Kevin Gausman.

Bradish earned the start in the Division Series opener against the Rangers, and acquitted himself well by striking out nine while allowing just two runs. Even so, he departed with two outs in the fifth inning, down 2-1. The Orioles lost that game, 3-2, and were swept by the eventual World Series winners.

Just as Bradish began his throwing program in January, he experienced irritation in his elbow. According to general manager Mike Elias, after being diagnosed with a UCL sprain, Bradish received an injection of platelet-rich plasma in an effort to stimulate enough healing to avoid Tommy John surgery. One can understand why the Orioles kept a lid on this development during the winter, as it could have affected their leverage in trade and free agent discussions. The timeline does suggest they were aware of Bradish’s issue by the time they acquired Corbin Burnes from the Brewers in exchange for DL Hall, Joey Ortiz and a Competitive Balance Round A pick at the beginning of February.

Unfortunately, the Orioles are well acquainted with the UCL sprain/PRP sequence, having gone through it late last season with closer Félix Bautista, who was sidelined in late August and wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. There’s no indication yet that Bradish’s sprain is as severe as that of Bautista, though even The Mountain’s injury offered hope of rehabbing without surgery. According to Elias, Bradish is scheduled to begin a throwing program on Friday, and he’s still hopeful that the pitcher will avoid surgery and be part of this year’s team. Per MLB.com’s Jake Reel:

“Everything is pointed in the right direction and going well right now at this time. But I’m not at a point where I want to start putting a timeline on when we’re going to see him in Major League action,” Elias said. “Right now, we’re prepping him for a lot of action in 2024, and we’re getting him ready for that as expeditiously and responsibly as possible, but there’s going to be some time involved.”

More via the Baltimore Sun’s Jacob Calvin Meyer:

“Pitching is a dangerous business nowadays,” Elias said. “You never like to hear anybody have elbow or shoulder or wrist injuries or what have you. There are a lot of people who have [PRP injections] and never get surgery, and rest and other treatments do the trick. So, hopefully, that’s where we’re at with this one.”

As for Means, the former All-Star and rotation stalwart underwent Tommy John surgery on April 27, 2022, and returned to the majors last September, making four starts totaling 23.2 innings, with a 2.66 ERA but just an 11.4% strikeout rate and a 5.24 FIP. Just when it looked he might be fit to make a postseason start, the Orioles shut him down due to elbow soreness. He began his offseason throwing routine a month later than usual, hence Elias’ statement that he’s a month behind the team’s healthy starters. Elias acknowledged that a spot on the Opening Day roster for Means would be unlikely.

With those two pitchers out, Baltimore’s rotation to start the season will most likely include righties Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, and Tyler Wells, and lefty Cole Irvin. The 29-year-old Burnes is coming off an underwhelming season by his standards, with a 3.39 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 3.4 WAR — all of it respectable but far removed from his dominant 2021 campaign, for which he won the NL Cy Young. The most concerning thing is that his strikeout rate has dropped by about five percentage points in each of his past two seasons, falling from 35.6% in 2021 to 30.5% and then 25.5%; meanwhile, his walk rate has climbed. He still projects to be one of the game’s 10 most valuable starters, and instead of being nickeled and dimed by the Brewers, he’s got a massive free agent contract on the other side of this season if he pitches well.

The 24-year-old Rodriguez is coming off an impressive turnaround in the middle of his rookie season. Cuffed for a 7.35 ERA and 5.91 FIP in 10 starts totaling 45.2 innings in April and May, he did Cy Young-caliber work upon returning from Triple-A Norfolk, abandoning his cutter and posting a 2.58 ERA and 2.76 FIP with a 24% strikeout rate in 13 starts (76.2 innings). The 28-year-old Kremer improved in-season as well, following a 4.78 ERA and 4.92 FIP first half with a 3.25 ERA and 3.98 FIP the rest of the way, while also shaving his home run rate from 1.84 per nine to 0.84. Like Bradish, both pitchers logged their highest innings totals in their professional careers (163.1 for Rodriguez, 172.2 for Kremer).

The same is true for the 29-year-old Wells, who spent the first four months of the 2023 season in the rotation, putting up a 3.80 ERA, albeit with 1.98 homers per nine and a 5.14 FIP. He had already set a career high in innings when the Orioles optioned him, first to Double-A Bowie and then Norfolk. He returned to the O’s in late September as a reliever, and he trimmed those numbers a bit, finishing with a 3.64 ERA and 4.98 FIP in 118.2 innings; in fact, in 13.1 relief innings between the regular season and postseason, he didn’t allow a run and yielded just one hit and one walk while striking out 11. He was expected to compete with the 30-year-old Irvin for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring, but for the moment it appears there’s room for both. Irvin split last year between the rotation and bullpen, making 12 appearances in each capacity and totaling 77.1 innings, with a 4.42 ERA and 4.43 FIP.

Should the Orioles need to dip any further into their depth, 29-year-old lefty Bruce Zimmerman and prospects Cade Povich, a lefty, and Chayce McDermott, a righty, appear to be next in line in some order or another. Zimmerman made a combined 26 starts for the Orioles in 2021 and ’22 but was rocked for a 5.54 ERA and 5.74 FIP in the process. He spent most of last year at Norfolk, where he put up a 4.42 ERA and 3.25 FIP; amid being optioned the maximum of five times, he made seven appearances for the Orioles, all in relief, for a total of 13.1 innings.

Povich and McDermott both split last season between Bowie and Norfolk. Povich, a 2021 third-round pick who rated as a 45 FV prospect as of last year’s midseason update, is a pitchability type with a low-90s fastball and a cutter that’s become a swing-and-miss weapon. He struck out an impressive 31.1% of hitters last year but put up a 5.04 ERA and 4.21 FIP in 126.2 innings. McDermott, a 2021 fourth-round pick acquired from the Astros in the Trey Mancini trade, rated as a 40 FV prospect in the aforementioned update. Wiry and long-levered at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, McDermott throws a 93-95 mph fastball with two breaking pitches that are at least above average and a cutter, which he added last year. Command issues, though, may limit him to a bullpen role; he walked 13.8% last year while striking out 30.9%, accompanied by a 3.10 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 119 innings.

The Orioles could dip into the trade or free agent market for reinforcements, but at this juncture, it seems unlikely that they’d sign either Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell, or revisit trade talks for Dylan Cease. According to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman, the prospects dealt to the Brewers for Burnes were the ones Baltimore offered the White Sox. Lefty Hyun Jin Ryu and righties Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen, and Zack Greinke are the top unsigned free agents in terms of their 2024 projections, though they are hardly the only options.

So long as the O’s retain the hope of a Bradish return this season, odds are they won’t go overboard with an immediate impact move. The most likely scenario is that they’ll push through with their in-house options with an eye toward a midseason addition if they’re in contention again — which is expected to be the case given their 53.2% playoff odds at this writing. Still, this injury is a downer for taking one of the game’s recent breakouts out of circulation. We can only hope it’s not for the whole season.


The Retiring Corey Kluber and the Rolling WAR Revue

Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports

Corey Kluber announced his retirement on Friday, bringing the curtain down on an exceptional career whose later years were so often curtailed by injuries. Kluber pitched in the majors for parts of 13 seasons, but topped 100 innings just seven times, six in a row from 2013–18 and again in ’22. Within that limited timeframe, he made three All-Star teams and won two Cy Youngs, with a pair of top-three finishes and a ninth-place finish as well. His 2016 postseason run came up just short of ending Cleveland’s long championship drought. His is a career worth celebrating and putting into context, as his best work stands alongside that of a handful of Hall of Fame contemporaries.

Because he spent half a decade at the front of Cleveland’s rotation, it’s easy to forget that Kluber was actually drafted by the Padres, who chose him in the fourth round out of Stetson University in 2007. He climbed to Double-A San Antonio by 2010; on July 31 of that year, he was part of a three-team trade, heading to Cleveland while Jake Westbrook was sent from Cleveland to St. Louis, Ryan Ludwick from St. Louis to San Diego, and Nick Greenwood from San Diego to St. Louis. After a cup of coffee in late 2011, Kluber spent the first two-thirds of the next season at Triple-A Columbus, then joined the big club’s rotation in August. Read the rest of this entry »