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How This Winter Could Impact the NL Central Logjam

In the final 2019 standings, fourth-place teams in their respective divisions finished an average of 30 games behind the first-place team. In 2018, that number was about 22, and in 2017, it was about 25. The distance between your average fourth-place team and their division’s first-place team fluctuates a bit year-to-year depending upon how super that season’s super-teams are, but it’s never close. The worse team will sneak in a few victories against the superior team over the course of 18 or so matchups throughout the season, but the two really aren’t supposed to be on the same level. One of these teams has a good chance of hosting a playoff series, and the other is having trouble selling tickets in September.

Our preseason playoff projections tend to reflect that space. Before the season was postponed and the schedule still ran 162 games, our projected fourth-place finishers in four of the six divisions were given a 1% chance or less at finishing first. The Phillies, the presumed fourth-place finishers in the NL East, were given less than a 5% chance of winning their division. Then there was the NL Central, where the Cardinals were pegged for fourth but given a 17% chance to finish on top, with a projected record that was within four games of the first-place Cubs. That would have been the tightest grouping of the top four teams in any division since the AL East in 1988.

When the new 60-game season was done, just five games wound up separating the top four teams in the NL Central, and from the looks of our Depth Charts projections, the race figures to be incredibly tight again in 2021. While the Pirates lag far behind the pack, the top four teams in the division stand incredibly close in talent level.

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Christian Yelich Turned Into Joey Gallo for a Year

In 2017, Christian Yelich finished his last season as a Miami Marlin with a 117 wRC+. That figure, along with the help of his owner-friendly contract, was enough to make him a highly sought-after trade chip — valuable enough for Milwaukee to send the then-No. 13, No. 52, and No. 87 prospects in baseball to acquire his services. Yelich was widely recognized as an excellent baserunner and at least a passable defensive outfielder. But the Brewers were acquiring him for his bat, and they felt his offense from the previous season helped justify the price they were paying.

Fast forward three years, and there are a different set of expectations for Yelich. This winter, he’s coming off a season which he finished with a 112 wRC+, not far from that final season in Miami. But after back-to-back seasons in which he posted a 170 wRC+ and 15.4 WAR — both tops in the National League in that timeframe — and finished in the top two in the MVP voting, that number now looks like a disappointment. There were some positive aspects of his 2020: He walked more than 18% of the time, and while his .225 ISO was below the standard he’d set in his previous two seasons, it still leads all of his Marlins seasons by a substantial margin. But while that helped him maintain an above-average wOBA, they obfuscate a season full of bizarre and unexpected developments for the 28-year-old outfielder.

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The Royals Have Improved, But Their 2021 Ceiling Is Somewhat Fixed

While scrolling The Athletic’s site recently, I came across a headline that gave me pause, citing Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore saying he “expects to win” in 2021. Front office personnel in every organization do a bit of work hyping up their teams during the offseason; just a year ago, Rockies owner Dick Monfort predicted a 94-win season for a club that had won just 71 games the year before. Moore, to his credit, was much more vague when assessing the Royals. From Athletic beatwriter Alec Lewis:

“We expect to win next year. What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. But our mindset is going to be to go out and win every single pitch, every inning, every game. That’s the only way we’re ever going to win another championship.”

Moore isn’t guaranteeing a playoff spot, or even a winning record; all he vows is an intent to win games, which is a pretty easy promise to keep. Every team wins games, because the season lasts a very long time, and baseball itself is a weird sport in which a very bad team can defeat a very good team on any given day with only a couple of things breaking the right direction. Even if Moore is hedging here, though, his tone is unambiguously positive, and not even in some “trust the process” sort of way. He thinks his team has a fighting chance, just five months after drafting in the top four selections for a second year in a row.

That kind of faith inspired me to figure out for myself if Royals fans should share that optimism. I’d never previously considered Kansas City to be a threat in 2021. I still don’t, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Peek over at our current Depth Charts projections, and the Royals’ WAR total ranks 21st in baseball. That’s far above 100-loss territory, and even within spitting distance of plausible playoff territory; it’s within two and a half wins of the Phillies, Reds and Cardinals, three teams you wouldn’t be shocked to see in the postseason next year. That would also constitute a downgrade from where the Royals finished this season, when they ranked 15th in the majors in batting WAR and 19th in pitching WAR.

You may not have noticed, since they never stumbled into the playoff hunt the way other rebuilding teams like Detroit and Baltimore did, but the Royals actually improved quite a bit in 2020. They added nearly 70 points to their win percentage in one season, going from 59–103 to 26–34. Their pythagorean record was actually slightly better at 27–33. Part of the reason for that could certainly be the shortened season, but it isn’t as though limiting the previous year to 60 games would have done them any favors. Kansas City went 19–41 over its first 60 games in 2019 and 16–44 over its final 60. This was a step forward — the first big one of the rebuild.

Where did those improvements come from? The most obvious source would be the pitching staff, which featured two rookies — Brady Singer and Kris Bubic — joining the rotation full-time after never previously appearing in the majors, or even in Triple-A for that matter. Those two wound up holding their own, while staff ace Brad Keller turned in a career year.

Royals 2020 Starting Pitchers
Brady Singer 12 12 64.1 8.53 3.22 1.12 0.260 53.1% 4.06 4.08 4.05 1.0
Danny Duffy 12 11 56.1 9.11 3.51 1.60 0.285 31.9% 4.95 4.75 4.94 0.6
Brad Keller 9 9 54.2 5.76 2.80 0.33 0.233 52.8% 2.47 3.43 4.33 1.3
Kris Bubic 10 10 50.0 8.82 3.96 1.44 0.312 46.6% 4.32 4.75 4.48 0.5
Jakob Junis 8 6 25.1 6.75 2.13 2.49 0.350 44.8% 6.39 6.23 4.77 -0.2
Carlos Hernandez 5 3 14.2 7.98 3.68 2.45 0.349 38.3% 4.91 6.4 5.09 -0.2
Matt Harvey 7 4 11.2 7.71 3.86 4.63 0.477 42.0% 11.57 9.45 5.41 -0.5

As it stands right now, the top five names here are the likeliest to fill out the rotation in 2021, and it’s a solid enough group. Bubic was No. 110 on Eric Longenhagen’s global Top Prospect list entering this season, and Singer, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, ranked just one spot below Bubic on his Royals list. The success of those two were significant victories for the organization this year.

The lineup saw modest gains as well thanks to two veterans who weren’t around the year before. Salvador Perez was the headliner: After missing the entire 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery, he burst back into the offense by hitting .333/.353/.633 with 11 homers in 156 plate appearances, getting a bit lucky on balls in play while also hitting for more power than he ever had. Perez’s terrific season at the plate received an enthusiastic cosign from Statcast, which rated him in the 96th percentile in xwOBA despite the fact that he walked in less than 2% of his plate appearances.

Then there was third baseman Maikel Franco, who signed with the Royals after being non-tendered by Philadelphia and rewarded his new club by slashing .278/.321/.457 for a 106 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR while starting all 60 games at the hot corner. It was Franco’s best offensive season since 2015 and, despite the shortened season, his best WAR total since ’16. With Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier and Whit Merrifield all still hitting at an above-average clip, Kansas City recovered some of the thump it had sorely missed out on in recent years; its 92 wRC+ as a team was its highest since 2015, the year it won the World Series.

To have so many things go well in 2020 — the successful return of the star catcher, the bounce-back of the change-of-scenery–free-agent signing, solid seasons from two rookie starters and the established core players meeting expectations — should certainly give a GM a jolt of energy heading into the winter. The flip side is that in spite of all that good news, the Royals still couldn’t contend, and it’s hard to see much more room for growth from the players currently on the roster.

As good of a sign as it was to see the young pitchers quickly settle into the rotation, neither Singer nor Bubic are projected to be much more than No. 3 or 4 starters, which wouldn’t be far above what they did in 2020. Meanwhile, Keller outperformed his xwOBA by more than 80 points last year according to Statcast, making him more likely to regress than to improve.

The offense doesn’t appear to be standing far below its ceiling, either. Dozier and Soler could help by returning to their 2019 numbers, but that may be offset by any regression that comes for Perez. Perhaps Adalberto Mondesi taps into the pop he showed in 2018, or one of the Irish Ryans at first base — McBroom or O’Hearn — makes some kind of jump. But a scan of this roster doesn’t really reveal any good hitters who woefully underperformed this season or some dormant former top prospect waiting to break out. The offensive performance this team showed in 2020 may be as good as this current group is going to get.

There is help coming from the minors, but it’s unlikely the impact will be felt in 2021. Wunderkind shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. is just 20 and has all of 37 rookie league games to his resume. Left-hander Asa Lacy, the No. 4 overall pick in 2020, has yet to throw a pitch in a professional game. Fellow southpaw prospect in Daniel Lynch hasn’t pitched above Advanced-A and is said to have the same limited ceiling Bubic and Singer. Asking any of these players to contribute much in 2021 would require speeding up their developmental timelines considerably.

If Kansas City wishes to take another step forward in the coming season, then, it will require moves to be made this winter. And even though no one is expecting the Royals to be one of the major players in free agency, there may be some reason for optimism that the team could be active in some meaningful way. Again from Lewis:

“There’s a fine line between aggressive and reckless, and Moore has walked it, finding comfort in the former. When the Royals signed Gil Meche in the winter of 2006, they agreed to an extra year so that they could make the acquisition. In the winter of 2013, Moore executed a similar deal in signing Omar Infante. Through experience, he understands teams must reach deep into their pocketbooks. If that time comes again, the Royals will do so again.”

There is no shortage of ways for Kansas City to improve via free agency. It could replace second baseman Nicky Lopez, who has been below replacement level in each of his first two big league seasons, on the open market with Kolten Wong or Tommy La Stella. It could add Joc Pederson or Michael Brantley to its outfield, or sign a starter like James Paxton or Mike Minor. An offseason that includes two or three of these moves wouldn’t break the bank for a team currently on track to spend just $76 million on payroll in 2021, and could add upwards of six or seven wins to the Royals’ projected WAR total, vaulting them into about the 16th-ranked spot in the majors.

Unfortunately, the front office may not see much reason to attempt that kind of run. According to our Depth Charts, Kansas City could add nine wins to its projected WAR total and still not surpass the next-closest AL team, the Red Sox. Boston is one of 10 AL teams currently expected to outperform the Royals in 2021, and that’s before those teams have added free agents and made trades. If Kansas City played in the NL Central, it might be able to spend its way to contention. But in the challenging AL Central, the obstacles are simply too great.

The Royals’ encouraging steps forward in 2020 place them closer to baseball’s middle class than you may have expected. They’re just in the wrong league to take advantage of that. To make the jump in the AL, they will need to develop this line of top draft picks — Witt Jr., Lacy, the No. 7 pick in 2021 and likely another top-10 pick in 2022 — into stars. Moore’s ambitions for ’21 are noble, but this time next year, he’ll probably be happy he didn’t make any bold predictions.

Ke’Bryan Hayes Captured Lightning in a Bottle

Devin Williams won the NL Rookie of the Year Award with 27 innings of pitching. They were 27 historically great innings, but 27 innings all the same — 22 appearances out of the bullpen, the equivalent of five or so starts if he were placed in the rotation. You could fit all of Williams’ 2020 inside one month if you wanted to; the only reason that wasn’t considered a more serious demerit is that the actual regular season only lasted two months. This year was about accomplishing as much as possible in a very short amount of time. With that in mind, let’s talk about Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Hayes, the Pirates’ 23-year-old third baseman, finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting, trailing the three finalists as well as Dodgers right-handers Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May. You just saw a lot of Gonsolin and May, but there’s a good chance you still haven’t watched Hayes at all. He didn’t debut for the Pirates until September, after the team was already well on its way to securing the No. 1 pick with the worst record in baseball. No one sought this team out on MLB.TV, and two thirds of all teams didn’t even have Pittsburgh on its schedule. In case you haven’t updated yourself on Hayes outside of his annual prominence on top prospect lists, here’s what he did in his first game:

The very next inning, Kris Bryant decided to test out Hayes’ arm at third by charging home on a ground ball. It was a mistake: Read the rest of this entry »

Devin Williams Was Preposterous

Here’s a chart I used for a story I wrote last week:

I came across this while writing about Houston Astros left-hander Brooks Raley, whose 2020 season is marked by the dot in yellow. But had you come across this chart in the wild, Raley’s dot wouldn’t be the one that gets your attention. That would be the dot in the upper left, isolated all by itself with baseball’s best whiff rate and one of its lowest exit velocities allowed. If you’re the dot in yellow, it means you had a sneakily good year. If you’re the one off by itself, you’re probably one of the best pitchers in baseball.

That lonesome dot in the corner belongs to Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award on Monday. Among the finalists he defeated for the award were a former third overall pick who reached based 40% of the time in his debut and an out-of-nowhere breakout utility player who helped lead his team to its first playoff appearance in 14 years. From where I sit, the decision shouldn’t have been all that controversial. Read the rest of this entry »

What the Astros See in Brooks Raley

As a long, likely-bleak offseason began late last week, many teams opted out of the final year of players’ contracts, often with the seeming goal of beginning this winter with as little committed money on the books as possible. Tampa Bay will not bring back Charlie Morton, one of baseball’s best starting pitchers. Cleveland will not bring back Brad Hand, one of baseball’s best relievers. Some teams will use the money saved on these unexercised club options to pursue other free agents they feel will provide more value; many are likely to simply pocket the savings as a means of recouping what they say the COVID-19 pandemic cost them. The bar for players hoping to land any kind of guaranteed money this offseason appears to be quite high; in the eyes of the Houston Astros, left-handed reliever Brooks Raley cleared it.

Raley’s $2 million club option (he’ll make just a $250,000 salary in the minors) for the 2021 season isn’t close to the double-digit price tag that Morton or Hand’s would have cost their clubs, but the specific figure in play here doesn’t feel as important as the fact that Houston was willing to pay Raley in the first place. His numbers this season — a 4.95 ERA and 3.94 FIP in 20 innings — aren’t anything special. Other relievers with similarly-priced club options and perfectly good 2020 production, such as Javy Guerra and Darren O’Day, were turned loose by their respective clubs. In a depressed spending environment, the prices for high-leverage relievers this winter could turn out to be low. For Houston to commit to Raley before free agency even begins shows the team must see something valuable in him.

The Astros were already demonstrating their belief in Raley when they used him rather aggressively during this year’s surprisingly deep playoff run. In the ALCS alone, Raley pitched in four games, holding the Rays without a run across three innings while striking out six and walking two. That usage — particularly in close games — was reflective of just how thin the Astros had become at the back of their bullpen, but it also showed how fond Houston had grown of Raley in his short time with the team.

If this year’s postseason was the first you’d ever heard of Raley, you probably aren’t alone. And if you got curious and looked him up, you may have been surprised to learn just how long he’s been around. The 32-year-old lefty was a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2009; he pitched sparingly for them in 2012-13 before being placed on waivers. His run on the waiver wire saw him shuttled to the Twins and then the Angels, but neither found a home for Raley on their big league roster. Lacking interest from MLB squads, Raley answered a call from the Korean Baseball Organization’s Lotte Giants, who offered him a rotation spot he never relinquished. From 2015-19, Raley started 151 games with the Giants, proving to be a durable, if not necessarily dominant, starter. Read the rest of this entry »

Julio Urías Shows Up in the Playoffs

When recording a segment with Ben Clemens for FanGraphs Audio last week, our Dodgers conversation naturally delved into their at-times off-kilter pitching usage, particularly in regards to rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. After following a mostly straightforward (for 2020, that is) pitching arrangement — both spending the year in the starting rotation — the two were shoved into very different roles in the postseason. May was asked to start, follow, take over the middle innings, or anything else the Dodgers needed of him. Gonsolin, meanwhile, was suddenly less a starter than an opener, and never quite got settled into a typical rest schedule. The result of this constantly evolving usage were postseason performances filled with several unpleasant memories for both young pitchers.

We did not talk about Julio Urías during this part of our conversation, even though Urías is younger than Gonsolin, just a year older than May, and had seen his role tinkered with just as much during the postseason. He didn’t come up because we were talking mostly about the pitchers on the Dodgers’ staff who had been struggling, and Urías had been great. He was great when he started, he was great when he was asked to throw in the middle of games, and he was great on Tuesday, when he closed Game 6 of the World Series by retiring all seven batters he faced and striking out four to clinch the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years. Read the rest of this entry »

Randy Arozarena Couldn’t Do It By Himself

Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays were in desperate need of some offense. As he has so many times, rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena delivered. With one out in the top of the first inning, Los Angeles starter Tony Gonsolin threw a slider running off the plate outside that wasn’t able to evade the bat of Arozarena, who launched it over the right field fence to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. It was his record-setting 10th homer of the postseason; no other player in history has more than eight in any playoff run.

But in a game that would see the Dodgers tally three runs, one solo homer wasn’t going to cut it for the Rays. And in spite of Los Angeles using seven pitchers in a bullpenning effort, one solo home run was all Tampa Bay was going to get. After Gonsolin exited just five outs into the game, Tampa Bay totaled just two hits and zero walks over the final 7.1 innings. It was the third game of the series in which they scored two runs or fewer, and the second time they totaled five or fewer hits. Given those numbers, it’s hardly a surprise the team in the other dugout was the one celebrating a championship on Tuesday.

During and after the loss, much of the discussion surrounding the Rays had to do with the pitching staff — both the way it performed and the way it was managed. There was the controversial decision to lift Blake Snell in the midst of a shutout in the sixth inning, the sudden struggles of Nick Anderson, the disappointing pair of starts made by Tyler Glasnow in this series, and plenty of other points to dissect. The focus on the pitching side makes sense. The Rays are a team known not only for the lights-out arms they boast, but also for the unconventional-yet-typically-successful ways those arms are utilized. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff was the reason the team had made it this far, and if the team won the title, the pitching staff would probably be the reason for that too. It isn’t, however, the reason it lost. Read the rest of this entry »

Brandon Lowe Finally Breaks Slump As Rays Even World Series

Prior to Game 2 of the World Series, there was little ambiguity about how Brandon Lowe’s 2020 postseason had gone. He was dreadful, owning a .107/.180/.161 slash line over 61 plate appearances with just one home run. To say the least, Tampa Bay had expected more from him — with 2.3 WAR in the regular season, he was the Rays’ most valuable player, in addition to leading the team in a host of offensive categories. His manager, Kevin Cash, continued not only to play him every day, but position him prominently at the top of the lineup. But with one disappointing series after another, he was quickly running out of time to make a positive impact.

Mercifully, that extended slump fell by the wayside on Wednesday. Lowe homered twice and drove in three runs against Dodgers pitchers, as the Rays defeated Los Angeles 6-4 and knotted the series up at a game apiece. The two sides will take a day off before reconvening Friday, with Los Angeles right-hander Walker Buehler scheduled to face Tampa Bay righty Charlie Morton.

Wednesday’s tilt had a dramatically different feel from the previous evening’s Game 1, when the Dodgers rode a dominant starting pitching performance and an offensive surge in the middle innings to an impressive victory. Los Angeles tapped right-handed rookie Tony Gonsolin as its Game 2 starter, just two days after he’d thrown two innings in a relief appearance during Game 7 of the NLCS. The decision to use Gonsolin, as opposed to Buehler on three days rest, was a signal that the Dodgers were comfortable relying upon their relievers to throw a large chunk of Game 2 — it was just unclear when we’d see them. Read the rest of this entry »

Astros’ Comeback Falls Short as Rays Advance To World Series

Three years ago, when referred to Charlie Morton as an “unlikely” World Series hero, the description was fitting. After nine years in the majors, most of which had come with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Morton had alternated between being acceptable and downright dreadful. Then, in his first year with Houston at the age of 33, he didn’t just pitch the best season of his career — he closed out the final four innings of Game 7 of the World Series to secure the first championship in the history of the franchise. Nobody in their right mind would have foreseen such a responsibility being placed in his hands before the season started, and yet there he was, limiting the Dodgers to one run in a game in which they needed five.

These days, Morton is no longer some big surprise, a novelty pitching far above the expectations anyone holds for him. He’s just a great pitcher who gets the ball in big games because he is clearly the right man for the job. On Saturday, however, the Astros weren’t the team celebrating with Morton. They were the ones who felt his wrath.

Morton threw 5.2 shutout innings while allowing just two hits as the Rays defeated the Astros, 4-2, in Game 7 of the ALCS. With the win, Tampa Bay secured its second World Series appearance in the franchise’s 23-year history, and a chance at its first-ever title.

The Astros entered Saturday having battled back from a 3-0 series deficit to win three straight and force a Game 7, just the second team in MLB history to do so. After being held to just five combined runs over Games 1, 2 and 3, the Astros finally outpitched Tampa Bay with a pair of one-run victories in Games 4 and 5 before unleashing a back-breaking rally in the middle innings of Game 6 to knot the series up. But unlike the Boston Red Sox of 2004 — who rallied from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to steal the pennant away from the New York Yankees and eventually win the World Series — Houston could not pull off that fourth-straight win, a streak the team mustered just once during the regular season. Read the rest of this entry »