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Are Defensive Concerns Holding Up the Outfield Market?

Last winter, a 26-year-old Bryce Harper — a former No. 1 overall pick, MVP winner, and the 13th-most valuable player in baseball since his debut — hit the free agent market for the first time in his career. Because of his combination of age, pedigree, and the peak he’d shown in 2015, the bidding war for his services was expected to be as feverish and exciting as any in baseball history. The reality, however, was much different. Only a few teams ever emerged as serious contenders, and a deal didn’t get done until February 28, six days after the first spring training games began. He got his record contract, with the Phillies signing him for 13 years and $330 million, but it took the whole winter for him to secure it.

The forces that conspired to delay Harper’s signing were numerous. As a whole, the free agent market developed more slowly than any in recent memory, sparking rumors of collusion and swelling existing suspicions of how committed teams were to prioritizing wins over maximizing profits. But there was also the pressure placed upon Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, to negotiate the record-breaking monster contract people had been forecasting for them for years, as well as genuine concerns about whether Harper’s actual on-field play lived up to his fame and financial desires. There was little question about the bat, of course — his career 140 wRC+, 14.8% walk rate, and 184 homers made him one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. But his defense was a real issue after a horrific 2018 that saw him finish with the second-worst DRS total (-26) and the worst UZR (-14.4) of any outfielder in baseball. There are fickle defensive ratings painting an unclear portrait of how much a fielder is really contributing, and then there is a near-unanimous statistical case for a player’s glove being a dangerous liability. In 2018, Harper seemed to fit into the latter.

One year later, it seems those awful defensive numbers for Harper weren’t terribly predictive of his actual abilities. In his first season with the Phillies, he went from -26 DRS to +10 and -14.4 UZR to +10.0. In some respects, it was the best defensive season of his career. But while the numbers Harper displayed in the field in 2018 haven’t turned out to be prescient, the way his market played out as a result of them might have been. Read the rest of this entry »


Orioles Sign José Iglesias, Who Is Both Safe And Fun

Once blessed with the greatest run of consistency ever achieved at shortstop, it’s now been a few years since the Baltimore Orioles have seen solid all-around play at that position. That probably won’t shock you, given how badly the Orioles have performed all over the diamond in recent seasons, but it has affected the shortstop spot as badly as it has anywhere else. J.J. Hardy still had big league defensive skills in 2017, but his 49 wRC+ that year dragged him down nearly a full win below replacement level. Manny Machado was the reverse of that in 2018 — an MVP-caliber hitter, but bad in the field, though a rebound in his defensive numbers after a trade to Los Angeles suggested he was better than a half season’s worth of defensive metrics made it appear. And Richie Martin might be a productive big league player someday, but bumping him from Double-A to the majors in 2019 after making him the first selection of the 2018 Rule 5 draft resulted in an ugly 50 wRC+ and -1.0 WAR.

With Martin likely better served to start next season in the minors and no one else on the roster with substantial major league experience at shortstop, the Orioles were left with little choice but to go get someone who could field that position. The Orioles opted for competence, signing José Iglesias to a one-year contract, as first reported by MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand. Read the rest of this entry »


The Angels Have a New Starting Catcher

A few days after the Minnesota Twins further emptied what was already a depleted bin of free agent starting pitcher options, one of the most pitching-starved teams in baseball opted to improve themselves behind the plate. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported late Thursday that the Los Angeles Angels had reached an agreement with former Twins and Astros catcher Jason Castro, signing him to a one-year deal.

Castro will slot in as the starting catcher in Los Angeles, delivering a boon to a team that had the fourth-worst group of catchers in the majors last season in terms of WAR. Five backstops combined for -0.6 WAR, and the only one to finish the season above replacement level — Dustin Garneau — signed a minor league deal with the Astros this winter. Max Stassi, the presumptive starter behind the plate before the Castro signing, offers some of the best framing skills in baseball, but his wRC+ of 5 — not a typo — was the third-worst in the majors out of all players with at least 100 PAs last season. Stassi was league-average with the stick in 2018, so there is some hope he can bounce back in that area as a backup, but asking him to catch 100 games was never going to be a wise strategy for the Angels. Read the rest of this entry »


Dallas Keuchel’s Wait Is Over, and the White Sox Are Going for It

After the last couple of winters in which seemingly fine candidates for substantial multi-year deals were forced to settle for one-year contracts, this offseason has seen those same players finally land the kind of commitments they always seemed deserving of. Mike Moustakas signed a four-year, $64-million deal with the Reds after signing back-to-back one-year deals in Kansas City and Milwaukee. Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year, $73-million contract with the White Sox after taking just a one-year deal with the Brewers the previous season. And after health concerns limited Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal a year ago, he seems poised to collect a hefty payday as the best remaining bat available on the market this winter.

On Saturday, another player previously abandoned by the market finally landed his own multi-year deal. The White Sox signed former Braves and Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, as first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman was first to report the terms of the deal:

Keuchel, 31, was one of the longest hold-outs in free agency last year, as he and formidable closer Craig Kimbrel each waited until June 7 — two days after the conclusion of the amateur draft, when draft pick compensation was no longer attached to them — to sign a contract. While Kimbrel received three years and $43 million in his deal with the Cubs, Keuchel signed just a one-year, $13-million deal with the Braves. In Atlanta, he was part of a starting rotation that finished sixth in the National League in WAR while guiding the team to a second-straight NL East title before bowing out to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. Read the rest of this entry »


Astros Begin Bullpen Rebuild, Give Joe Smith Two Years Again

If one organization is repeatedly making headlines during the months of October, November, and December, it’s generally a safe assumption that there is a positive reason for that. Those are the months in which teams are either winning titles, adding major talent, or both. The reasons the Houston Astros have stayed in the news, however, have been consistently terrible. Their assistant GM belittled female reporters. The players cheated. Their world-beating ace left to join the their ALCS opponent. And they’ve considered trading their franchise shortstop in an effort to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — gain payroll flexibility. Since the offseason began, there’s been a lot to talk about when it comes to the Astros, but most of it had nothing to do with actual roster moves that usually get a team attention in the winter.

On Monday, Houston finally changed that. The Astros signed 35-year-old right-hander Joe Smith to a two-year, $8-million contract, giving him a little more than half of the deal they gave him this time two years ago. It’s just the second contract handed out by the team this winter, the other being a six-figure commitment to backup catcher Dustin Garneau. Smith, a 13-year veteran, has pitched for Houston since signing that two-year, $15-million contract with them before the 2018 season. He’s one of four relievers to reach free agency after finishing 2019 with the Astros, along with Will Harris, Collin McHugh, and Hector Rondon. Read the rest of this entry »


Rendon Signing Shouldn’t Distract from the Angels’ Pitching Needs

Entering the 2019-20 offseason, Gerrit Cole and the Los Angeles Angels seemed as natural a fit as any potential pairing in the free agent market. Cole just finished a historically great season and was free agency at 29 years old in search of a record-setting contract. The Angels, meanwhile, had the least valuable rotation in baseball by WAR and are a large-market team that plays in the same area where Cole was born and raised (and where he played his college ball). In terms of need, in terms of finances, and in terms of mutual interest, matching the two up made perfect sense.

But it wasn’t to be. It was the New York Yankees who inked Cole to his gargantuan new contract late Tuesday night, with the two parties agreeing to a nine-year, $324 million deal. The Angels then made a hard pivot to the best remaining free agent, signing third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245-million contract. The benefits of adding Rendon are abundant — at perhaps the deepest position in the sport, Rendon might be the best, and adding a second superstar to a lineup that already includes Mike Trout will at the very least make this an exciting offense for years to come. Throw in top prospect Jo Adell, two-way stud Shohei Ohtani, and maybe even a bounce-back year for Justin Upton, and this offense could be quite scary. The signing of Rendon unambiguously makes the Angels oodles better, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t address the biggest hole on the team. And if Los Angeles is going to get Trout back to the postseason in the near future, that hole is going to need filled quickly.

Read the rest of this entry »


Will Starlin Castro Have a Chance to Continue His Unlikely Pursuit of History?

This may be unwise to admit in this setting, but I often forget that Starlin Castro still plays baseball in the major leagues. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that his most recent club, the Miami Marlins, is not a team one is likely to seek out when scrolling through MLB.TV options on their favorite team’s off day. The other is that the team he broke into the majors with, the Chicago Cubs, were another woeful franchise for most of his time there. Castro joined the Cubs in 2010, and virtually all of the most recognizable actors from those early-decade Cubs teams have since left the game. The careers of Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, Darwin Barney, Geovany Soto and many others are long gone. It has been so long since I have watched any of them, and it is so rare that I watch Castro, so my subconscious brain often assumes he’s gone too.

Castro, of course, is very much an active player, and the ironic twist here is that he is quietly inching toward a coveted milestone that could immortalize him next to some of the greatest players in history. In 2019, his age-29 season, Castro collected 172 hits, the third-highest single-season total he’s ever put together. That gives him a career hit total of 1,617, making him one of just 35 players to ever reach 1,600 hits before turning 30. That’s nearly as exclusive a group as the famous 3,000-hit club, which includes just 32 players. Among all active players, Castro is 27th in career hits. He’s younger than every player ahead of him.

Now, Castro isn’t necessarily the most likely active player to reach 3,000 hits — more on that later — but it at least seems possible, and I’m not the first to point this out. Late in the 2018 season, Matt Provenzano wrote about his improbable chase of the milestone over at Beyond The Box Score, and pertinently, a couple of reasons why we probably shouldn’t root for him to actually reach it. Castro was alleged to have sexually assaulted a woman in 2012, though no charges were ever filed, and his attorneys denied the accusations. Little has been mentioned about the incident in the years since, but it could be a topic of conversation if serious thought is given to Castro’s Hall of Fame case, which, if he reaches 3,000 hits, would likely be one of the most hotly contested ones in history. Read the rest of this entry »


Braves Turn Attention to Rotation, Add Cole Hamels for 2020

Before Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves’ winter had been centered around fortifying their bullpen. That strategy made sense — Atlanta’s reliever WAR was just inside the bottom third of baseball last year, so keeping the most important pieces of that bullpen around and adding extra talent around them had to be a priority. The Braves wasted little time in signing Will Smith, arguably the best reliever on the market, to a three-year, $40-million deal, and retained midseason acquisition Chris Martin and 37-year-old Darren O’Day on short-term deals as well. Their focus on keeping the band together applied to other areas of the roster too, as they quickly re-signed catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis before bringing in another catcher in free agency by adding Travis d’Arnaud via a two-year, $16-million deal.

An area that had gone untouched was the starting rotation, but as of Wednesday afternoon, that is no longer the case. The Braves signed 35-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18-million contract, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Right away, the addition of Hamels brings to mind the upgrade the Braves made to their rotation via free agency last offseason — er, sorry, last June. That’s when Atlanta finally became the team to sign Dallas Keuchel after his extended free agency period, bringing him in on a one-year deal worth $13 million. Keuchel, like Hamels, was a low-velocity veteran southpaw, and after a somewhat rocky first couple of starts, settled in quite nicely down the stretch, earning the chance to start Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS. Read the rest of this entry »


César Hernández Could Be a Worthwhile Project

Not long ago, César Hernández felt like one of the safer bets in baseball. He was a speedy, slick-gloved second baseman who posted strong walk rates, working a 109 wRC+ from 2016-17 and posting 7.1 WAR, which made him the seventh-most valuable second baseman in baseball over that time span. But with his value declining, Hernández was non-tendered on Monday by the Phillies, for whom he has played seven major league seasons and 13 total years as a professional, all before turning 30.

With his final year of arbitration on the horizon, Hernández was projected to make around $11 million if the Phillies tendered him a contract for the 2020 season. But as Philadelphia reached a decision point with both him and third baseman Maikel Franco, the organization concluded that the money due to each player didn’t match up with what it believed they’d contribute in the coming year.

This decision point arrived at an inopportune time for Hernández, who is coming off his worse season since 2015. He was worth just 1.7 WAR in 161 games in 2019, hitting .279/.333/.408 for a 92 wRC+ and registering as just slightly above average in the field and on the basepaths. His durability, glove, and past production should still make him an attractive candidate for any team with a hole at second base. Those interested in his services, however, are no doubt working on answering an important question: What happened to Hernández’s walk rate? Read the rest of this entry »


The Reds Have Been Busy

In the first few weeks of the offseason, just a few teams have been making the headlines by means of improving their roster. The Chicago White Sox, of course, just spent money to acquire the best catcher on the market in Yasmani Grandal while also retaining first baseman Jose Abreu for the next three years. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves have held onto two important relievers while acquiring a third in Will Smith via free agency and bringing in catcher Travis d’Arnaud on a two-year deal. Most teams, however, haven’t budged much. There’s no reason to get squeamish about that — we’re still a couple of days away from Thanksgiving, and the Winter Meetings are a few weeks away. Many teams are still likely in the process of mapping out just what the free agent and trade markets could look like in the coming months, and thus are treading lightly during November.

The Cincinnati Reds are not one of those teams. They are rumored to have big plans for spending money and getting back to contention this winter, but that hasn’t stopped them from making a string of more minor transactions before much of the league has made any at all. Since the end of the winter, they’ve added four players from outside the organization to their 40-man roster, more than any team in the majors. It began with the organization claiming outfielder Travis Jankowski from San Diego on Oct. 31, and it continued with a trade for Rays right-hander José De León last week. On Monday, Cincinnati added two more players, trading for Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Justin Shafer and claiming another Padres outfielder in Nick Martini. Shafer was acquired for just cash, while the Rays trade will involve either cash or a player to be named later.

Each of these players comes to the organization with varying levels of intrigue. Perhaps the most interesting is Shafer, 27, who pitched 39.2 innings with Toronto in 2019 and held a 3.86 ERA and a 5.18 FIP. An eighth-round pick in 2014, this was just his second season seeing big league competition, and as is evident in the ERA and FIP split, results were mixed. He’s walked far too many batters as a major leaguer, with 6.0 BB/9 over 48 total innings, especially when combined with the seven homers he’s allowed (1.3/9) and his lack of gaudy strikeout numbers (8.8 K/9 in 2019). Read the rest of this entry »