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The Rays Extended Two More Good Players

Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays are infamous for running a tight ship payroll-wise, and because arbitration salaries are usually higher than rookie ones, they tend to trade arbitration-eligible players for younger, more cost-controlled talent. Then those new contributors develop into solid major leaguers, who become arbitration-eligible and therefore trade-eligible… and the cycle continues.

Yet the Rays have been good despite this. A major flaw in the described rinse-and-repeat style of roster management is that it depends on a regular influx of talent; without legitimate prospects in the farm system, you’d simply be making the big league squad worse, one trade at a time. Of course, the Rays are also known for their scouting and player development acumen, churning out viable big leaguers at a rate that, compared to other organizations, seems supersonic. But this too isn’t foolproof: Even if you run a supposedly smart front office, there’s a good chance that you’ll be wrong about a prospect or a trade acquisition more often than you’re right. That’s just how baseball works; you find yourself fighting to minimize risk, not to maximize return.

So really, the best option might be to avoid this conundrum in the first place. A good way to do that is to lock up your fresh-faced stars to contract extensions, à la the Braves of recent years. I don’t know if the Rays are following in Alex Anthopoulous’ footsteps, but they do seem to have become more open to the idea of making multiple multi-year commitments. As our Chris Gilligan covered, they recently signed Jeffrey Springs to a four-year contract extension with a club option for a fifth year. But the Rays weren’t done, as Jeff Passan reported last Friday:

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Brandon Belt Has One Job For the Blue Jays

Brandon Belt
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

While the Carlos Correa negotiations remain in a deadlock, the Blue Jays made (some) headlines yesterday by inking Brandon Belt to a one-year deal worth $9.6 million, per multiple sources. Belt, a longtime fixture of the Giants’ offense, is expected to play first base and serve as Toronto’s designated hitter. That means he’ll be sharing time with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as well as Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, who’ll likely take turns DH’ing to minimize their grueling workload as catchers.

At first, that arrangement doesn’t make immediate sense. What Guerrero, Jansen, and Kirk share in common besides their hatred of incoming baseballs is right-handedness, and righty batters are usually worse against righty pitchers. You might have reasoned that the Jays recruited the lefty-hitting Belt to shore up this particular weakness. But so far in their careers, the aforementioned trio hasn’t shown much of a vulnerability against same-handed pitching. Check out these splits:

Career Platoon Splits (wRC+)
Player vs. RHP vs. LHP
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 140 115
Danny Jansen 105 83
Alejandro Kirk 124 126

So why did the Jays go out of their way to sign Belt? Some potential answers: It’s good to have diversity in a lineup; the Jays needed hitting depth; and Belt, regardless of handedness, is an intriguing rebound candidate. But I have another theory! The main reason why same-handed pitcher-batter matchups tend to end in embarrassment for the batter is because breaking balls are good — almost too good, as the league-wide imbalance between pitchers and batters demonstrates. Or just ask Max Scherzer, who throws his slider exclusively against right-handed hitters and eats them alive. It’s getting more and more important that teams are able to weather such breaking ball barrages. Read the rest of this entry »

The Phillies Get to Spin the Craig Kimbrel Wheel

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Our story begins in June of 2019, when the Cubs took a chance on a still-unsigned Craig Kimbrel. What happened next can only be described as a disaster. Kimbrel gave up a preposterous number of home runs, almost single-handedly causing the Cubs to miss the playoffs. He didn’t show any signs of improvement the following season, and his once lustrous career looked just about over, seemingly bringing the Cubs’ three-year, $43 million investment down with him.

Then, a miracle: In the first half of 2021, Kimbrel returned to form. He trimmed the walks and home runs, and co-authored a no-hitter in the process. The Cubs traded him to the White Sox at the deadline, after which he became one of the worst relief pitchers in baseball. Kimbrel ended the year with a respectable 2.26 ERA, but consider how that’s split: a 0.49 ERA with the Cubs, a 5.09 ERA with the White Sox. That offseason, the Dodgers traded for Kimbrel, hunting for upside as they usually do. And despite the controversy surrounding his usage, Kimbrel finished the year with pedestrian numbers. He wasn’t a complete mess, but he wasn’t great, either.

All this brings us to the Phillies, who’ve signed the now 34-year-old closer to a one-year deal worth $10 million. I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as a “safe” reliever. What I do know is that Kimbrel is decidedly not one. His whole career post-Boston has been a series of ups and downs, the latter more frequent than the former. But given how shallow the market for relief pitching is this offseason, it seemed inevitable that someone would take a flier on him. Kimbrel, for better or worse, has become the Phillies’ problem to solve. Read the rest of this entry »

The A’s Signed the KBO’s Best Starting Pitcher

Drew Rucinski
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a lot of transactions this past week. There’s been a lot of drama, too, involving a top free agent, a medical issue, and boatloads of cash. The long weekend is just around the corner. It’s been an exhausting year, and we’d all like to get on with our lives. Between relaxing on the sofa and reading up on Drew Rucinski, deciding on which is the more appealing option doesn’t seem like a difficult task.

Which, fine, I understand. My livelihood isn’t affected by page views, so we’re cool here. But Rucinski isn’t just some random starter the Athletics chose as their annual innings-eater. When he last appeared in a major league game, he was a lackluster middle reliever for the Marlins. Since then, he’s undergone quite the transformation. Four years later, there’s an argument to be made that he was the best starting pitcher during his time in Korea. That’s a testament to how much he’s improved, in terms of stuff, command, and durability. Read the rest of this entry »

Justin Turner Is a Return to Normalcy in Boston’s Turbulent Offseason

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

During the offseason, teams largely split into three groups. The first are the big spenders, teams that are aware of the holes on their roster and make aggressive efforts to patch them. Next are the more thrifty clubs, ones who dedicate themselves to marginal upgrades – signing a reliever here, a fourth outfielder there, often single-handedly dictating the market for the middle tier of free agents and below. Last are the window shoppers, who for some reason whiff on every single free agent despite having “tried their best.” That’s generally ownership-speak for “I don’t really wanna spend,” but I digress. The point is, teams are somewhat predictable, and the moves they make are indicative of their internal situation.

This offseason, the Red Sox have defied such categorization. As a big market team, it seemed they would focus on retaining their star shortstop (or at least replacing him with a similarly talented infielder) and bolstering their rotation. One month later, Xander Bogaerts is a San Diego Padre, and Boston has yet to add a starting pitcher; Nathan Eovaldi, who rejected a qualifying offer, remains in free agency limbo. These aren’t omissions typical of a team of their stature, which calls into question the Red Sox’s goals for next season and beyond.

Are they planning on tearing it down? That doesn’t seem likely, given that they signed Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen to two-year contracts. So are they a thrifty spender, intent on being neither a contender nor an intentionally terrible mess? Probably not, because they signed Masataka Yoshida to a deal that blew even the most optimistic projections out of the water. It’s confusing indeed. If I had to place the Red Sox into an offseason bucket, it’d be the throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks group. Population: one. Read the rest of this entry »

Nick Lodolo Had a Potentially Defining Moment

Nick Lodolo
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Rarely can we point to an exact moment in time that turned us into who we are today. Our current selves are a culmination of all the experiences we’ve had since birth, good or bad, and their immediate and enduring effects. Motivational speakers claim to recall pivotal, life-altering instances with vivid detail, but not everyone has a story dramatic enough to earn themselves a personal soapbox.

The same goes for baseball players. There is no single game, inning, or plate appearance that molded Mike Trout into the comically talented slugger he is now. One day he was a modest teenager from New Jersey, and seemingly the next a generational hitter. In reality, thousands upon thousands of moments are scattered in between, but you can’t just walk up to one of them, isolate it, and declare it “the game Mike Trout became Mike Trout.”

Which is sort of what I’m going to do with Nick Lodolo.

Don’t get me wrong; I won’t spend the entire article trying to prove that, yes, this is when Lodolo took the next step. In fact, I have no idea if it’s something he’ll even hold onto. Young pitchers tinker with their approaches and repertoires all the time, and what I’m about to describe might be one of many fleeting changes. But there’s a good chance it’s significant. Lodolo, after this vaguely worded moment, became a noticeably better version of himself. And I don’t think the ways in which he improved came together on a whim; they make too much sense. Read the rest of this entry »

A Contact Wizard Is Here to Help the Red Sox and Their Outfield

© Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Gather ‘round the fireplace, dear FanGraphs readers, because today I want to tell you a story. Ye be warned: It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s probably more appropriate for Halloween night. But a little bit of spookiness never hurt the Christmas spirit — just ask Tim Burton. Here is the outfield depth chart for the Red Sox before they signed Masataka Yoshida:

Scary, huh? Enrique Hernández and Alex Verdugo are good — it’s the individuals behind them that create the horror. Jarren Duran here is like butter scraped over too much bread (which, from the butter’s perspective, has to be a pretty gruesome experience). Then there’s Hoy Park and Wilyer Abreu, who shouldn’t be getting big slices of the outfield pie on a supposedly contending team. Rob Refsnyder did put up a 146 wRC+ out of nowhere this season (in 57 games), but, c’mon. Yoshida’s arrival doesn’t alleviate the Red Sox’s shallow depth. But he is something they desperately needed: a fixture in left field. Read the rest of this entry »

In Committing to Chicago, Jameson Taillon Provides Cubs (and Himself) an Upgrade

Jameson Taillon
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now in the thick of the annual Winter Meetings, and we saw a handful of free-agent starters fly off the board on Tuesday. First, Andrew Heaney signed with the Rangers. Then the insatiable Phillies gobbled up Taijuan Walker. And before an eventful day came to a close, the Cubs finally opened their wallet by inking Jameson Taillon to a four-year deal worth $68 million.

This has been a player-friendly market, and one that’s been particularly rewarding to starting pitchers. All three listed above tore through their crowdsourced contract estimates and Ben Clemens’ own: Heaney got not one but two years with an opt-out; Walker beat his projected contract total by $30 million; and Taillon also exceeded expectations by a similar margin. It’s clear teams have been willing to spend, but it’s also evidence of just how scarce starting pitching is nowadays. There’s nary a pitcher who can carry the burden of 200-plus innings, so the 170–180 mark seems like the new gold standard. Heaney’s appeal lies in his upside, not durability, but you could count on Walker and Taillon to provide a full season’s worth of starts.

The Cubs needed a rotation stalwart. That their most reliable starter last season was Marcus Stroman, who recorded a 3.50 ERA across 138.2 frames, isn’t great news. Late-bloomer Justin Steele had the best rate statistics, but he’ll probably only see a minor increase to his workload. Kyle Hendricks is on the last year of his contract and well past his prime, and counting on Adrian Sampson for a second season would be most unwise. Chicago has a couple of pitching prospects on their way, and Hayden Wesneski looked promising in his first big league forays. But as always, the issue is innings, innings, innings. The Cubs would most definitely prefer to protect their young starters and test their potential in abbreviated outings. Taillon is the big brother who can absorb the second and third times through an order. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Sign Chris Martin, Strike Zone Artist

Chris Martin
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Move over, Jacob deGrom; this was the best free-agent deal of last week:

I kid, but only sort of! Obviously, deGrom is a phenomenal pitcher. The Rangers did well to court him. And this isn’t me advocating for the importance of “surplus value” or whatever vague finance jargon gets thrown around these days. I just really like Chris Martin, and I also think the Red Sox got a ton of bang for their buck for signing him.

There are also things not to like about Martin, at least on the surface. If people objected to a 35-year-old first baseman getting three years, imagine their discomfort at the sight of a 36-year-old reliever getting two years. His fastball velocity is pedestrian by modern standards, his pitch movement data isn’t eye-popping, and he doesn’t throw from an unorthodox angle to compensate. In 2021, Martin’s strikeout rate plummeted to 18%, and it’s worrisome to think he could return to such a dramatic low. When the risks are lined up like this, a two-year pact comes off as unappealing. Read the rest of this entry »

Alek Manoah’s Steamer Projection Is a Feature, Not a Bug

© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, projection systems fall in line with public perceptions of players. Yordan Alvarez is going to be very good next season, but Raimel Tapia won’t be. Shohei Ohtani is the eighth wonder of the world, and so on. But once in a while, they produce a head-scratcher that becomes the subject of debate. This leads to a lot of takes, some of them good but many of them bad. The worst are variations of “Projection X thinks poorly of Player Y, whom I like, and therefore it must be illegitimate.” They’re sometimes funny to read, though they’re mostly annoying because they stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what projection systems are trying to achieve.

Let’s cut to the chase. The reason I’m writing about this is because Steamer projects Alek Manoah, who placed third in Cy Young voting and served as the Blue Jays’ ace, to put up a 4.09 ERA next season. That seems outlandish, even with the knowledge that projection systems are conservative by design. Manoah isn’t just a one-season wonder. His excellence extends back to his rookie campaign in 2021, and his sophomore effort seemed like a natural progression. The narrative is there: A great starter blossoms into a phenomenal one. Asserting that Manoah will go from an ERA in the low 2.00s to one in the low 4.00s is more or less a rebuke of it.

Of course, Steamer doesn’t think Manoah will land precisely on a 4.09 ERA – more on that later – but considering it’s the expected middle outcome, the shock is understandable. And while I’m not here to endorse it, I do want to point out that it’s not an indication the system is broken, or holds a grudge against your favorite player. You have your reasons, and so does Steamer. Read the rest of this entry »