But of course that 2017 performance isn’t what the Astros are paying for. They’re paying for what he did in Houston last August and September (which is strike out 32 men and walk just three in 23.1 innings pitched) and what they think he can do for them going forward (which is presumably more of the same). Héctor Rondón, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, and Will Harris are all expected to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2019 season, and locking Pressly up now means the Astros will have one less thing to worry about next winter. For Pressly, this deal gives him the job security that has absolutely never been a guarantee in the years since he signed with the Red Sox as an 11th-round pick back in 2007.
The conventional wisdom is that relievers are inherently volatile — with a few, Mariano Rivera-shaped exceptions — and so giving them multi-year contracts is the kind of thing you only do when you’re competing for their services on the open market. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a forward-thinking team like the Astros locking up a reliever with such a short track record of success — during his time in Minnesota at the beginning of 2018, Pressly had a 3.40 ERA and a 2.95 FIP — for two additional years when they’re competing against nobody but themselves. Read the rest of this entry »
You’ve read the intro. You’ve read about first basemen and second basemen. You know how to count. You know what time it is. As our positional power rankings continue, let’s talk about third base.
This, friends, is a very good time to like watching baseball men play a good third base. Fully half of the top 10 players by WAR last year were third basemen, and only three of those five men make the top five of our rankings. The 8th-ranked player on this list, Nolan Arenado, is projected for nearly five wins this year, and the 10th-ranked player is the consensus top prospect in the game. Your mileage may vary, but I see roughly four tiers here: An elite No. 1-8, any one of whom can at times threaten to be among the best players in the game; a very strong second tier No. 9-13, the top of which contains players who have been in the past or could be in the future very good; a perfectly solid and mostly indistinguishable third tier running from No. 14 to No. 29, containing every possible diversity of age, experience, upside, and talent; and then the Royals. Let’s dive in. This will be fun. Read the rest of this entry »
Update: Following Seager’s surgery, it appears that he will now miss 10-12 weeks, rather than the six weeks or so estimated at the time this article was written. Please update your misery accordingly.
Last Friday, Kyle Seager dove for a ball that was smacked down the third-base line by the Cubs’ Javy Báez and hurt his hand in the process. Scott Servais removed Seager from the game during a subsequent pitching change, and the Mariners announced Monday that the third baseman would undergo immediate surgery to repair an extensor tendon in his left hand. I am not intimately familiar with extensor tendons as a matter of course, but I understand they’re what allow you to straighten your fingers and thumbs. Since you need to be able to do those things in order to play baseball, Seager will be out six weeks.
Because the Mariners aren’t expected to be very good this year — their 75-87 projection is better only than the Rangers’ in their division — this isn’t the kind of injury that you’d expect to materially affect the way the season plays out for Seattle, but it is kind of a bummer for Seager, who had a pretty bad year last year and could use a bounceback. Here are Seager’s numbers for 2011-2017 and 2018, respectively:
Kyle Seager’s Bad Year
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that some of Seager’s under-performance last year was due to an unusually low BABIP (.251, compared to a career mark of .281), and that .178 ISO isn’t too far off his career mark of .183, but it’s hard to write off the sudden spike in strikeout rate — Seager posted a 14.3% full-season mark as recently as 2015 — especially when it comes, as it does, alongside a three-year slide in contact rate, from 83.4% in that 2015 season to 78.8% last year. Last year, for the first time in his career, Seager had a negative run value on fastballs (-0.69 per hundred seen). Something, clearly, was a little off. Read the rest of this entry »
The Padres announced Friday that they have signed 31-year-old Adam Warren, lately of Seattle, originally of North Carolina, and most notably of New York, to a one-year, $2 million deal, with a $2.5 million club option (and $500,000 buy-out) for 2020. In San Diego, Warren will join Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen, and Matt Strahm at the head of what should be a reasonably effective relief corps; the Padres’ 3.2 WAR projection is sixth-best in the NL and matches precisely that of division rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco. Warren might also, in the event the somewhat-less-impressive San Diego rotation does not perform at its best, throw a few innings at the beginning of games, either as a traditional starter or as an “opener.”
It is this mostly-theoretical capacity — to pitch relatively effectively both as a spot starter/long reliever and in more traditional relief roles — that has long tantalized the various clubs that have sought Warren out since his debut for the Yankees in 2012, though this appeal has dulled somewhat since a poor turn as a swing-man for the Cubs in the early part of 2016 (his 5.83 FIP during that half-season was his worst mark since 2.1 poor innings in his debut season by more than half a run). The Mariners, for whom Warren pitched from late July of last year to the season’s close, were unique among his three clubs in only using Warren out of the ‘pen, and he rewarded them somewhat poorly by posting his worst performance (4.82 FIP, 1.88 K/BB ratio) since that half-season in Chicago in 21.2 innings of work. He has not started a game since 2016, or more than one game a season since 2015. Read the rest of this entry »
Santana has spent much of the last decade and a half being a perfectly acceptable starting pitcher for four big-league teams (his mean annual WAR is 2.0 on the dot), and much of the last twelve months being a hurt and bad for the Twins. Last year, an injury to his throwing hand kept him out of the rotation until late July; he would head back to the injured list in mid August and finish his season there. In between, he pitched poorly. He posted a 7.94 FIP. His 8.03 ERA was third-worst among starters with as many innings (24.2), behind only the Orioles’ Chris Tillman (who checked in with a 10.46 ERA) and new rotation-mate Carson Fulmer (8.07). Unfortunately for the White Sox, their rotation doesn’t get much better after Fulmer. Our depth charts have the White Sox dead last in projected rotation WAR for 2019: Read the rest of this entry »
Hunter Pence was born in Fort Worth, Texas, played high school ball for Arlington (manning shortstop his senior year), and then played college ball for Texarkana College in Texarkana and UT Arlington back home. Two years later, he hit .283/.357/.533 with 28 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Double-A Hooks in Corpus Christi in 2006, then .326/.387/.558 in a brief stop in Triple-A Round Rock to start off the 2007 campaign before finally making his debut for the Astros on April 28th. Friday, his decades-long quest to play at least one game for every amateur and professional team in the great state of Texas reached a new and likely final phase, as he signed a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers worth $2 million if he makes the club.
There was a time not too long ago when Pence couldn’t be had for a sum as small as $2 million, not even for a few months of play, but those days are well behind us now. Pence’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, isolated power, BABIP, walk rate, and wOBA have each dropped in each of the last three seasons. Last year, he was worth -0.9 WAR for the Giants in his sixth full season for the team. That team, mired in fourth place and under new management, had no place in its outfield for Pence (the old guard did give him a custom scooter), and when it became obvious that the end of this five-year deal was the end of the road in San Francisco, it wasn’t clear whether the 35-year-old would play at all in 2019.
He will, at least in springtime in Arizona, and that’s a small blessing to us all. Pence has always seemed like one of those guys who might have invented baseball accidentally had he been born into a world in which it did not exist. Ever-so-slightly bow-legged, tall, and lanky, he doesn’t look like someone who should be among the very best at what he chose to do, but he was for a time and maybe still can be in Texas. At the plate, he often coils backwards, hands hidden behind his torso, then unspools violently like a length of chain pulled suddenly taut. Eyes wide and utterly fixated on wherever the ball has gone, he is prone to regain his balance and, arms and legs flying, careen into first and beyond, if he can make it. Pence at his best is a joy to watch play the game.
And he has been, at points in his career, a player to rally around. Pence’s first seasons with the Astros, as the team eased out of the Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman-Beltrán era that peaked with a 2005 NL Championship, and began their slow descent into the sordid Yakety Sax years, did not do much to burnish Pence’s national star even though he quietly put up four-and-a-half extremely solid years in Houston. When he was traded to Philadelphia, mid-way through 2011, Pence had accumulated 14.4 WAR at just 28 years of age. That’s not a Hall of Famer, but it’s a player well worth having. An NLDS run with the Phillies in 2011, on the tail-end of their dynasty, put Pence on the map, until he finally caught on with a team at the right time with the Giants in 2012. That run produced three titles (two for Pence) and also this hilarious video which I hope he recreates with the Rangers this year:
“Hunter helped lead the charge to our World Series in 2012,” former Giants’ GM Bobby Evans told me this week, “and his bat and leadership drove us to another World Series in 2014. He plays each game like it’s his last, and will forever be a fan favorite in San Francisco.” Well, he hasn’t played his last game yet: Pence says he’s changed his swing significantly this year, so maybe there’s a few more miles left in the tank. Texas doesn’t really need outfielders, what with Joey Gallo, Delino DeShields, Jr., and Nomar Mazara all already in the fold (and Willie Calhoun available in reserve besides), but they could use a strong bench bat or two and there’s no clubhouse in baseball that couldn’t use Hunter Pence.
I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him. He’s home in Texas now, ready for one more try.
Last week brought with it a flurry of relatively minor pitching deals — the sort that weren’t enough to divert the industry from the apparently never-ending saga of bigger stars left unsigned, and which are fairly typical of this time of year. Here they are:
The Orioles signed 31-year-old Nate Karns to a one-year deal worth $800,000, with an additional $200,000 possible in incentives.
Cleveland signed 32-year-old Alex Wilson to a minor league deal that could be worth $1.25 million in guaranteed money and an additional $750,000 in incentives should Wilson make the squad out of spring training.
The Diamondbacks signed 36-year-old Ricky Nolasco and 33-year-old Marc Rzepczynski to minor league deals and invited both to join big league spring training. Rzepczynski’s deal could be worth $1.5 million guaranteed if he makes the team, with $500,000 in incentives besides. The terms of Nolasco’s deal have not yet been reported.
Lastly, the Royals inked 33-year-old Homer Bailey to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training; they did not disclose the terms of the deal.
Bailey’s probably the best-known of the names on that list, but I also think he’s among the least likely to accomplish much in 2019. You may recall that, earlier this winter, Bailey played the part of “salary offset” in the deal that sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood to Cincinnati. So underwhelming was his 2018 — in which he allowed 23 home runs in just over 106 innings pitched — that even the Dodgers’ brass, who stash spare pitchers in their overcoats when they’re just going around the corner for a gallon of milk, released Bailey immediately upon his arrival in Los Angeles. He was in blue and white for less than 20 minutes. In Kansas City, he’ll join Brad Keller and Jakob Junis in the Royals’ rotation and work to find a second wind.
Nate Karns — another 30-something with success in his past and a terrible team in his present — has always been a little bit interesting for his ability to keep the ball on the ground with a four-pitch mix that features a two-seamer, a curveball, a change-up, and a heavy sinking fastball. The big question at the moment is how he’ll recover from the thoracic outlet surgery that ended his 2017 season near the end of May of that year, and kept him off the field for the entirety of 2018. Before the injury, Karns was carrying a terrific 50% groundball rate and 27% strikeout rate for the Royals — both improvements on his already-solid 2016 for the Mariners and in line with his 27 and 23% strikeout rates during his heyday with the Rays in 2014-15.
Karns going to Baltimore, which is under new management, is probably good news for everybody involved. Karns, obviously, would like the opportunity to prove that he is healthy and can return to being the quality big-league starter he has already been at various points throughout his career. The Orioles would like that too — Karns has one year of arbitration left, and the Orioles will still need rotation help in 2020. Alternatively, depending on the state of the trade market next summer or the summer thereafter, Karns could be traded to a contender in exchange for some area of need for Baltimore. That, too, would presumably be welcome news for Karns.
I already wrote a little bit about Cleveland’s bullpen situation in my writeup of the Óliver Pérez deal last month, so I won’t say much more about the Wilson deal except what I said then:
Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway.
Alex Wilson, apparently, is one of the arms destined to take the strain off of Óliver Pérez and Brad Hand. He was remarkably consistent for the Tigers during his last four years in Detroit, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 2.77 K/BB ratio over 264.2 innings pitched. Importantly, too, he’s demonstrated an ability to throw in different roles: over the course of his career, he’s pitched 50.1 innings in the sixth, 84.1 in the seventh, 97 in the 8th, and 54.1 in the ninth or later. The question, then, is whether the Tigers’ decision to non-tender him this winter was due to some concern about his future not visible to external observers or simply a consequence of the cost-cutting ethos that seems to have overtaken Detroit. I suspect it’s the latter, and like this pickup for Cleveland.
As for Rzepczynski and Nolasco, it’s hard to get too worked up about those deals either way. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen wasn’t outright terrible last year, though it certainly had room for improvement with a 4.08 collective FIP, and Rzepczynski is second bit of the two-part bullpen improvement plan that started with Arizona signing Greg Holland. He got beat up pretty badly between Seattle, Cleveland, and Triple-A last year (an 8.25 ERA in 12 minor-league innings!), so I’m not sure how well that’ll work out, but given his past success against lefties (he’s held them to a .227/.296/.305 career line), it’s worth a shot. Nolasco, too, had some good years for the Twins once upon a dream, but didn’t pitch in the majors last year and will struggle to win a rotation spot this year. These are the kinds of deals you make at the end of the winter, when spring seems close at hand and the snow just days away from melting.
Late Wednesday afternoon, word broke that the Royals were “closing in” on a one-year contract with 30-year-old reliever Brad Boxberger. Jon Heyman reported the deal will be for $2.2 million guaranteed, plus $1 million in incentives. Boxberger wasn’t one of our Top 50 Free Agents here at FanGraphs, so we don’t have a crowdsourced contract prediction on record, but his deal strikes me as right around what you’d expect given recentreliever deals (a rejuvenated Óliver Pérez, for example, just signed for $2.5 million, albeit with an option for 2020) and the fact that the Diamondbacks chose to non-tender Boxberger last fall rather than pay the $4.9 million he was expected to get in arbitration.
Boxberger was an All-Star as recently as 2015, when he saved 41 games and posted a 27% strikeout rate for the Rays. But he struggled badly in 2016 and ended the year with a 17% walk rate and an ugly 4.81 ERA. 2017 was a bit of an improvement on both fronts (the walk rate was back down to 9%, and the ERA to 3.38), but Boxberberg’s 2018 campaign in Arizona saw the seesaw dip back yet again, with a 4.39 ERA and 14% free pass rate. The difference between those two bad 2018 numbers, and his two good ones — a 30 percent strikeout rate and 32 saves — is probably what led Arizona to cut ties with their closer last fall. Arbitrators like save totals perhaps more than they should, and with Boxberger’s season having trended in the wrong direction (compare a first-half ERA of 3.06 to a second-half mark of 7.00), Arizona was clearly ready to move on.
How you feel about Boxberger’s ability to return to form in 2019 depends a great deal on whether you believe he can recover some fastball velocity, or offset the loss with an adjustment to his off-speed offerings. With the exception of a slider that he throws fairly infrequently (just 3% of the time in 2018), Boxberger is basically a two-pitch guy: he’s got a four-seam fastball that he throws up and away to lefties and down and away to righties, and a changeup, which he throws down and away from lefties and just plain down to righties. Unfortunately for the reliever, a slight decrease in fastball velocity (from 94 mph just three years ago to 92 mph last year) without an attendant decrease in changeup velocity has left the pitches too easy for batters to distinguish from each other, and last year saw Boxberger generate fewer swings on pitches outside the zone (28%) than ever before. When he was humming in 2015, that figure was 34%.
Still, if Boxberger is able to get some mustard back on his fastball or otherwise distinguish it more meaningfully from his changeup, there’s little reason to think he can’t put up strikeout numbers that more closely resemble last year’s impressive mark while simultaneously reducing his walk rate to a more reasonable level. If he can, it’ll be a boon for a Kansas City bullpen that was, to put it mildly, atrocious last year. Their collective FIP of 4.85 was, by a fair margin, the worst in the game (the runner-up Mets posted a 4.61 FIP; the 24-point gap between the two teams is the same as the difference between the Mets and the seventh-worst Reds). Their 5.04 ERA was second-worst. They struck out a league-low 7.31 batters per nine innings, and walked 4.15 (sixth-worst). Kelvin Herrera was pretty good for a little while there, but then he got traded. Brad Keller was ok, too. The rest of the Kansas City ‘pen was pretty awful. By WAR, only six teams in the last twenty years have been worse:
Worst Bullpens by WAR, 1999-2018
Team Relief WAR
2007 Devil Rays
2002 Devil Rays
In signing Boxberger, the Royals have taken a positive step toward correcting their biggest weakness. According to Baseball-Reference, Kansas City has acquired nine players since November 1, excluding Boxberger. Five are position players. The other four are relievers. Of those four, just one — Jason Adam, signed as a free agent in mid-December — threw any major league relief innings at all in 2018. Another, Michael Ynoa, had some modest success for the White Sox in 2016 and 2017 but was released in March of 2018 and did not pitch in affiliated ball last season. Andrés Machado was last seen posting a 22.09 ERA for the 2017 Royals, and barely counts as an acquisition; he was non-tendered on November 30th and re-signed to a minor-league deal on December 3. Winston Abreu is 41 and last pitched in the majors in 2009, when he threw 3.2 innings for Tampa Bay and 2.1 Cleveland. I wish them all well, but All-Star arms they are not. Boxberger was, and at least could be again.
Even if the Royals had signed Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson, and Craig Kimbrel this offseason, they likely wouldn’t have a winning team in 2019. As things stand, our depth charts have them besting only the Orioles in total roster WAR. There is, clearly, a lot of room to grow their win total without threatening Cleveland or even the Twins for the AL Central crown. But what we can say at this point is this: the 2018 Royals had one of the very worst bullpens of the last 20 years, and yesterday they went out and did something about it, despite having no real expectation of winning anything at all in 2019. I still think they could stand to bring on a few more relief pitchers, but in this era in which 30 teams seem to be in competition for the 2022 World Series but only ten or so are in competition for the one this October, there’s at least some consolation in what they did yesterday.
Tuesday afternoon, Freddy Galvis, 29, signed a one-year contract to play baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal guarantees Galvis $5 million next year and either $1 or $5.5 million in 2020, depending on whether or not the Blue Jays exercise their team option on the contract. Even though contract expectations for Galvis were maybe a little bit higher than that coming into the offseason (you guessed he’d get two years and about $15 million), the deal he ended up accepting still seems like a pretty good get for a guy who posted a .294 wOBA last year and hasn’t ever posted a wRC+ above 85 (last year’s mark).
In Toronto, Galvis will join, at least to begin with, 25-year-old Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as a candidate for the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop job out of spring training, but he will likely thereafter end up spelling the younger man as a defensive replacement late in games and perhaps also against tough righties. Gurriel, the younger brother of Houston’s Yuli and son of Cuban baseball legend Lourdes Sr., had a reasonably strong debut season at the plate in 2018 (his .446 slugging percentage was particularly promising, paired as it was with a modest-for-today 22% strikeout rate) but injured his knee in August and his hamstring in September and worried observers with occasionally puzzling footwork at short.
In Galvis, the Blue Jays have an insurance policy against a scenario in which the bottom falls out of Gurriel’s offense (because he doesn’t walk very much, almost all of his value at the plate comes from his power stroke) and his defensive lapses therefore become intolerable. Galvis isn’t better as a hitter — in 2018, in fact, he was about 20% worse, at least as measured by wRC+ — but he’s always had a solid defensive reputation and, as a seven-year veteran, his approach at the plate is enough of a known quantity that it is unlikely to fall entirely off a cliff. If Gurriel’s offensive performance ever gets to the point that it begins to look like Galvis’, the deciding factor will be the defense, and Galvis is likely to win that battle. Read the rest of this entry »
On Thursday, word broke that the Mariners had signed 30-year-old righty Hunter Strickland to a one-year , $1.3 million deal with incentives totaling about the same for games pitched and finished. On Friday afternoon, the Mariners’ division-mates in Oakland announced a deal of their own, for one year and for $4 million, with 35-year-old Marco Estrada. Both pitchers are 2019 bounce-back candidates, and both will spend at least a portion of 2019 in the AL West. Let’s discuss.
Given the terms of his deal, it seems reasonable to assume that the Mariners hope Strickland will be able to step into the ninth-inning role recently vacated by Edwin Díaz, perhaps in concert with Cory Gearren or Anthony Swarzak, or perhaps all by his lonesome, depending on how things shake out in spring training. That kind of uncertainty is the natural consequence of entering 2019 with a bullpen that’s lost Díaz, James Pazos, Juan Nicaso, and Alex Colomé to trade this winter and seems unlikely to welcome free agents Nick Vincent, Zach Duke, and Adam Warren back to Seattle. Seattle had an excellent bullpen in 2018 but doesn’t, in any meaningful sense, have that bullpen any more. Strickland is one of the new guard, here to carry the M’s over the water into the next phase of their rebuild.
Which makes the question of whether Strickland will be any good in 2019 something of an irrelevance to the Mariners’ long-term plans — if he’s good, he can be traded midseason; if he’s bad, it’s “just” $1.3 million — although it presumably remains of considerable importance to Strickland himself. For my money, I’d bet against renewed success in 2019. After routinely sitting in the low triple-digits with his four-fastball during his first three years in the majors (2014-2016), Strickland’s mean velocity on the pitch has dropped to 95.7 miles per hour, and his whiff percentage on the pitch has dropped from its high of 18% in 2015 to 8% last year. Those fundamentals have generated poor results across the board:
Hunter Strickland Had a Bad Year
It’s hard to know what precisely brought on Strickland’s decline, but given that fastballs don’t usually get faster with age and that Strickland’s particular fastball is already getting beaten up at 95-96 miles per hour, it’s hard to be too sanguine about his future. Then again, given the contract he signed and the Mariners’ current insistence on trading away all their best players, there really is very little downside to this deal for Seattle. Just maybe reinforce the clubhouse doors.
There’s far more reason to be optimistic about the A’s bounce-back candidate, Estrada, despite the fact that his 2018 was if anything even worse than Strickland’s (the 5.64 ERA and 1.82 HR/9 are the figures that jump out at you most immediately). For one thing, Estrada has never really relied on his velocity to generate outs and so last year’s mile-per-hour slide from 90.1 to 89.0 on the fastball isn’t really something to worry about — in fact, it puts him right around where he was in 2016, when he put up a 3.48 ERA over 176 innings for the Blue Jays. For another, Estrada’s game has always been up in the zone and so (a) bad years like 2018 were always going to happen from time to time and (b) you don’t have to wish for too much positive regression on the HR/9 to get him back into a range (say, 2016’s 1.18, or his career 1.41 mark) where you know he can have success.
In Oakland, Estrada will join Mike Fiers, who re-signed with the club in December, and holdovers/questionable starting pitchers Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, and Frankie Montas in an A’s rotation that will be held together by hope and duct tape until Jharel Cotton (Tommy John), A.J. Puk (also Tommy John), and Sean Manaea (shoulder surgery) return to the field at some point mid-season (and maybe Jesús Luzardo comes up at some point). Given the circumstances, and the budget to which the club has decided to hew, Estrada is exactly the kind of guy you’d want to see the A’s sign: healthy (he’s never had an arm injury we know about), inexpensive, and a plausible candidate for solid numbers in 2019. If he’s good in the early going next year, he can slot in at the back end of a rotation that has a reasonable shot at the Wild Card if everything goes right. If he’s terrible, chances are the A’s are too, and — again — it’s just $4 million. Even for the A’s, that’s manageable — their 2018 payroll was $66 million and their commitments for 2019 total just $69 million so far. What could go wrong?