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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.

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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 »


Has Jonathan Villar Played Himself Out of Baltimore?

The Camden Yards did not constitute what I would call a particularly inspiring work environment. The Orioles lost 108 games one season after it lost 115, with a pitching staff that set records for futility and an offense that was near the bottom of the majors as well. When the team initiated its rebuild in 2018, it did so by trading away its most sought-after talent — starting with Manny Machado, and later including Zack Britton, Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Jonathan Schoop. Baltimore was finished pretending it could compete with the rest of the AL East and was going all-in on a scorched-earth plan in hopes to build the next 100-loss-team-turned-dynasty, giving away all the talent it could in the process. If you still found yourself on the Orioles’ roster at the start of the 2019 season, it’s probably because no contending team believed you could meaningfully improve their squad.

In many cases, those teams were right. They were right about Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, and they were right about Dan Straily and Alex Cobb. There was good evidence to suggest those players, all of whom were once considered assets to teams trying to win, were not going to be of any value in 2019. Jonathan Villar, however, posed a more puzzling question. Contending teams might have seen his abysmal 2017 and continued struggles early in 2018 and concluded his skills were deteriorating. Instead, Villar then had the best season of his career.

Playing all 162 games for Baltimore, Villar finished with a .274/.339/.453 batting line with a career-high 24 homers, good for a 107 wRC+. He led the majors in baserunning runs with 10.5, and he stole 40 bases, good for third in baseball. All told, he finished the season with a career-best 4.0 WAR, ranking him fifth among all second basemen behind only Ketel Marte, DJ LeMahieu, Max Muncy, and Ozzie Albies. Read the rest of this entry »


Mike Trout’s Third MVP Is His Latest Step Into Elite Company

When I was a little kid, I used to love reading Guinness World Records books. My childhood bookshelf at my parents’ house reflects this admittedly odd curiosity: There are several of the, I don’t know, adult(?) versions of the book from the mid-2000s — the ones that are text-heavy and include bummer-ish topics like war and crime. But then there are the “kids” versions, the ones whose pages are filled with large portraits of record-breakers, with little bar graphs in the corner to show what their performance looks like against the competition.

One of those kids’ books I had included a page dedicated to “Most MVP Awards” won in baseball. I remember seeing Barry Bonds‘ big smile, resting vibrant next to one of those graphs that showed just how transcendent he was. He’d won seven by the time this book published; the other names listed had won just three each. I knew Bonds, because I’d watched him often. The other names, I knew only from history books — names like Mantle, DiMaggio and Foxx. Pujols and Rodriguez hadn’t yet joined this class of three-time winners, hadn’t gotten the privilege of being immortalized as one of those short, stubby bars next to the tall structure looming above Bonds’ name on the tiny illustration intended to tell me who was the best ever at playing my favorite sport.

At the time I picked up this particular 2005 edition of my beloved book series, Mike Trout was just 13 years old. On Thursday, at the age of 28, Trout received the honor of joining this very silly-looking bar graph:

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The Reds Transformed Their Pitching Staff. Now How About Their Lineup?

From 2015-18, the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff was an unmitigated disaster. Their rotation posted the lowest WAR in baseball over that span, and so did their bullpen. Following the 2018 season, there were signs that relievers were coming along, but the rotation was still a tire fire. Luis Castillo, far and away the best arm on the team, was suddenly having trouble keeping the ball in the yard. The second-most valuable pitcher on the staff was Matt Harvey, who was about to leave in free agency with seemingly little fight from the front office. The organization entered yet another winter with the rotation seemingly a gaping hole and with no quick fix in sight.

And yet quickly fix it they did. The team traded for three starting pitchers in the offseason, and even more importantly, they hired Derek Johnson away from Milwaukee to take over as pitching coach. In one season, they went from 27th in the majors in pitching WAR to ninth, and they did so without the benefit of a prospect bursting onto the scene and excelling. It was nothing short of a stunning turnaround, one that should have launched the team into contention. If only the lineup had hit. Unfortunately for the Reds, an offense that had hovered around the middle of the pack the previous two years dropped to 25th in baseball in wRC+ in 2019. Like the pitching staff a year ago, the lineup is riddled with holes. Is the organization capable of another quick turnaround?

In 2019, the Reds ranked in the bottom third of baseball in walk rate, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in 2019. Statcast paints an even worse picture — no team in the majors had a lower average exit velocity, and only the Mariners had a worse hard-hit rate. Cincinnati was fifth-worst in baseball in expected slugging and seventh-worst in expected wOBA. The Reds’ offense was largely punchless throughout the season, and without a couple of hitters going on power tears late in the year, it could have looked much worse. Read the rest of this entry »


Talk Thirty to Me: Why Veteran Talent Means More Than You Think

MLB front offices often spend a lot of energy trying to make their rosters younger. There are a number of obvious benefits to this — young players are cheap, especially before they reach arbitration status, and as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer detailed back in August, they are also historically good. Trying to get younger is a strategy that’s easy to sell a fan base on, and yet during last month’s World Series, older players were the ones who often found themselves at the center of the attention. Sure, Washington’s preternaturally gifted Juan Soto took October by storm while turning just 21 years old during the World Series, but mostly it was guys like Howie Kendrick (36), Kurt Suzuki (36), and Ryan Zimmerman (35) catching headlines throughout the postseason. Veteran pitchers like Fernando Rodney (42), Anibal Sanchez (35) and Max Scherzer (35) were playing big roles for the championship-winning Nationals, while Justin Verlander (36) and Zack Greinke (36) each made two World Series starts for the runner-up Astros.

The idea of older players being the driving force behind these title contenders didn’t simply arise from a few random flashes of brilliance in October. According to ESPN, Washington reached the postseason with MLB’s oldest active roster. In fact, each of the five oldest teams in baseball reached the postseason, along with seven of the top eight. Some places show slightly different figures for average team age, but regardless of where you look, the top of the list always features a long list of teams who won a lot of games in 2019.

The easy headline here is that baseball’s best teams were also its oldest. But teams like the Nationals and Astros didn’t just have a bunch of old guys on their team — they had a bunch of very good old guys. The Yankees did too, and so did the Dodgers. After a long offseason that saw the majority of teams seemingly turn their noses up at veteran talent, older players produced as much value this season as they have for years. The difference was, in 2019, it was only a few teams reaping the benefits. Read the rest of this entry »


Braves Ask Markakis to Step Back, Flowers to Step Forward

After breaking a four-year mini-drought of division titles by winning the National League East in 2018, the Atlanta Braves have been hesitant to make any long-term commitments to improve their roster. Their biggest signing of last winter, Josh Donaldson, was brought in on a one-year deal. They replaced starting catcher Kurt Suzuki with Brian McCann, who also signed on a one-year deal. By the time they brought in Dallas Keuchel, the contract covered less than four months of baseball, and when they made upgrades at the 2019 trade deadline, they did so by adding a pair of relievers with a year and a half of team control left. So far, it’s hard to say the plan hasn’t worked — they added seven wins in 2019 — but there’s little doubt Braves fans will be looking for more serious investments this winter. The free agency period is less than 24 hours old, so there’s plenty of time for Atlanta to make those bigger moves in the coming weeks and months. On Day 1, however, the team stuck with the same plan of short-term roster maintenance.

The Braves signed both outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers to one-year, $4 million contracts on Monday. Each move carried with it some payroll trickery; Markakis and Flowers each had $6 million options for 2020, but Atlanta declined them in favor of paying $2 million buyouts to each. Both players still make $6 million in 2020, but the Braves can direct the $4 million in buyouts onto their 2019 payroll, according to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman. Atlanta also declined a $12 million club option to Julio Teheran — who hasn’t reached an agreement to remain with the team — and issued a $17.8 million qualifying offer to Donaldson.

The two signings are identical in length and value, but could come with different expectations for each player. Markakis turns 36 in a couple of weeks. This is the third-straight contract he’s signed with Atlanta. The first came before 2015, a four-year commitment worth $44 million. That deal was something of a dud for the first three years, but in 2018, he turned in his best season in years. He hit .297/.366/.440, with a 115 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR that made him a pleasant surprise for the resurgent Braves. It was his most valuable season since 2008 and his best offensive season since 2012, and was enticing enough for Atlanta to bet $4 million that he would continue to hit well enough to merit a starting corner outfield spot on a contending team.

Instead, Markakis looked like, well, a 35-year-old version of Markakis. His wRC+ dipped to 102, his already-mediocre defense took an extra step back, and he missed six weeks with a wrist injury, culminating in a career-low 0.4 WAR in 116 games. His walk and strikeout rates remained excellent, but his power slid backwards, as did his batted ball luck. The biggest decline came in his performance against lefties. An up-and-down performer in the split throughout his career, he went from a 104 wRC+ against southpaws in 2018 to a 71 this year. His success against righties dropped as well, but only from a 120 wRC+ to 112. There’s some good news in Markarkis’ underlying data — his average exit velocity (91.2 mph) and xwOBA (.349) were both his best marks posted in the Statcast era — but his low launch angle and expected slugging marks put a limit on just how dangerous he can be with his bat, which is clearly the only thing keeping him employed at this age. Read the rest of this entry »