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Rick Porcello Should Have A Job By Now

Rick Porcello’s time with the Mets in 2020 began by allowing seven runs in two innings to the Braves. A normal season would have offered him many more starts to help his numbers recover from that performance, but as it was, he took to the mound just 11 more times. So despite giving up two runs or fewer in five of his remaining appearances, his ERA for the season landed at an unsightly 5.64 — the second straight year in which it finished above 5.50.

With that in mind, it isn’t a huge surprise that Porcello, 32, is still unemployed one week before the regular season begins. Throughout his 12-year career, his value rests more on the quantity of his innings than the quality — over 2,000 in total now, and a pre-2020 average of 185 a year. It makes sense that teams would want to be cautious if his skills seem to be deteriorating. I’m not convinced that’s the case. The Porcello of last season bore a lot of resemblance to the Porcello of years before, including the one when he won a Cy Young award. He’s still deserving of a big league job. Let’s find him one.

It’s hard to assess how good or bad Porcello actually was last year. His ERA was the worst of his career, but his 3.33 FIP was his best. At 1.7 WAR, he was just inside of our top 25 pitchers in baseball, tied with Sonny Gray. Mets fans likely thought of him as a disaster, but he actually would have been the most valuable pitcher on 14 different teams.

Rick Porcello vs. Your Team’s Best Guy, 2020
Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
Rick Porcello NYM 59.0 8.24 2.29 0.76 3.33 1.7
Zac Gallen ARI 72.0 10.25 3.13 1.13 3.66 1.5
Max Fried ATL 56.0 8.04 3.05 0.32 3.10 1.5
Keegan Akin BAL 25.2 12.27 3.51 1.05 3.27 0.8
Nathan Eovaldi BOS 48.1 9.68 1.30 1.49 3.87 0.9
Spencer Turnbull DET 56.2 8.10 4.61 0.32 3.49 1.4
Brad Keller KCR 54.2 5.76 2.80 0.33 3.43 1.3
Pablo López MIA 57.1 9.26 2.83 0.63 3.09 1.6
Gerrit Cole NYY 73.0 11.59 2.10 1.73 3.89 1.5
Liam Hendriks OAK 25.1 13.14 1.07 0.36 1.14 1.4
Joe Musgrove PIT 39.2 12.48 3.63 1.13 3.42 1.0
Kevin Gausman SFG 59.2 11.92 2.41 1.21 3.09 1.6
Adam Wainwright STL 65.2 7.40 2.06 1.23 4.11 1.1
Tyler Glasnow TBR 57.1 14.28 3.45 1.73 3.66 1.2
Lance Lynn TEX 84.0 9.54 2.68 1.39 4.19 1.3

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The Other Nationals Star In Need of an Extension

Last week, Jay Jaffe wrote about the rumors that the Nationals were considering a contract extension for wünderkind Juan Soto, the team’s first step toward keeping him in town for the majority of his career. Though just 22 years old and four years away from free agency, Soto receiving an extension in the $400 million range would hardly be premature. Projection systems — which by their nature are supposed to be dispassionate and shoot for the middle — see him as having a no-doubt Hall of Fame career.

Yet if you’re a Nationals fan, you have cause to be suspicious that an extension gets done. You’ve seen your super-talented homegrown players leave unceremoniously in free agency as soon as they could, and while Soto has a more favorable outlook than Bryce Harper or Anthony Rendon did, you don’t want to see these negotiations drag out any longer than they have to.

It would be enough if Washington had just one young player’s future to stew upon this spring, but in fact, there are two. As Soto has been fielding questions about a possible extension in spring training, so too has shortstop Trea Turner, who at 27 is much closer to free agency; he’s set to hit the market after the 2022 season. That makes any extension decision that much more urgent. Turner knows it, and he’s been open about wanting to get an agreement done. From the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga:

“I would love to play here my entire career,” Turner said Tuesday. “I’ve said it in the past. I’ve always liked it here, and don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. … I love it here. I love the atmosphere and the ballclub that [General Manager Mike] Rizzo and the coaching staff has put together every single year. We’ll see. I think those talks have happened in the past, and hopefully they’ll happen in the future.”

The Nationals’ position is a tricky one. Turner’s free agency would come two years before Soto’s, but the latter’s contract may still be the most important one, as it will be the larger of the two and must fit within Washington’s payroll. But retaining Turner in 2023 and beyond won’t come cheap. One of the top prospects in baseball when he debuted in 2015, he has slowly but surely started living up to that billing, turning into one of the league’s best shortstops over the last three seasons.

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Maikel Franco and Orioles Finally Find Each Other

It’s the third week of spring training games, and the Orioles have added a new starting third baseman who’s been available since December: Maikel Franco, seven-year big league veteran with Philadelphia and Kansas City. Baltimore’s roster construction has hardly changed in that time, and I doubt Franco and his career 1.03 WAR/600 needed to be humbled out of demanding a hefty multi-year contract. Both parties have known their situations for months, but are only just now finding each other. This is an odd transaction. Let’s try to unpack it.

It isn’t as though the deal doesn’t make sense. Baltimore’s incumbent at the hot corner is Rio Ruiz, who has gotten a majority of the team’s starts at third base since the O’s claimed him off waivers before the 2019 season and who’s showed some modest fence-clearing ability, hitting 21 homers in 617 plate appearances. But his overall offensive profile is mediocre: His 90 wRC+ in 2020 stands as his career best. At 26, he’s exhausted much of the faith people had in him as a prospect, and his Statcast data doesn’t suggest there’s anything exciting hidden under the surface numbers. Ruiz’s value might top out at less than one WAR, and he entered camp running virtually unopposed for the starting job.

Enter Franco, who signed a change-of-scenery deal with the Royals in 2020 after a disappointing tenure in Philadelphia and turned in his best season in years, hitting .278/.321/.457 with eight homers, a 106 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. That value placed him ninth among all third basemen, just ahead of peers like Eugenio Suárez and Brian Anderson. The bump in Franco’s production didn’t come from some random explosion in power numbers or a big jump in walk rate, though. He just finally got a normal distribution of balls in play to land for hits.

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Yusei Kikuchi Could Make the Mariners’ Rotation Compelling

The Mariners’ starting pitchers can be broken into two different groups. There are the veterans at the top in Marco Gonzales and James Paxton, who between them have spent about 10 seasons in Seattle. They’ve both been successful, and so long as they stay healthy — not a given for Paxton — we know what to expect from them. The other half of the Mariners’ rotation is the young guys: Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert, and others. Each of them had or has considerable prospect stock, but while they’re expected to be successful at some point in the future, we can’t be sure that success will arrive in 2021.

Holding those two groups together in the middle is left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, fittingly, as he represents something from both. At 29 years old and with nine seasons spent in NPB, he’s already a veteran. But as with the young guys, there is still a lot to learn about how he will fare in the majors, given that his MLB experience amounts to two years. The first was 2019, his rookie season and first time pitching in the U.S., when he posted a 5.46 ERA and 5.71 FIP in 161.2 innings as Seattle finished last in the AL West.

The pandemic-shortened 2020 season, though, suggested there could be a lot more to him. Kikuchi’s ERA stayed above 5.00, but his FIP plummeted to 3.30, and he made significant progress with his strikeout and home run rates. If his surface numbers take the step forward this year that his peripherals did last year, it would be a major boost to the Mariners as they try to crawl toward contention.

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Michael Conforto Controls His Own Destiny

It’s hard to think of the right word to describe the Mets’ winter. It hasn’t been “good,” given their prominent position in not one, but three separate sexual harassment scandals. In terms of the team’s on-field talent, the organization has given fans much to look forward to, but the offseason is still somewhat incomplete. Hoped-for defensive upgrades in center field didn’t materialize, and long-term deals for two soon-to-be-free agents — Francisco Lindor and Michael Conforto — have yet to come to fruition either.

Lindor’s extension still feels all but inevitable. New York sent Cleveland too much talent to have him for one season, and it’s hard to imagine a better use for new owner Steve Cohen’s money. And while the 27-year-old shortstop has a good deal of leverage, he does have some incentive to take a deal now, given how many other stars at his position will be available in free agency next year.

A Conforto extension is less certain. Mets president Sandy Alderson said he expects to speak with both players about deals soon, but Conforto is probably less likely to be persuaded away from testing free agency, especially since he could be looking at a particularly friendly market at the end of the year.

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Jason Heyward’s Age-30 Season Looked A Lot Like His Age-20 Season

Here are two seasons, played 10 years apart:

Jason Heyward Batting Numbers, 2010 & 2020
2010 623 .277 .393 .456 14.6% 20.5% .179 134 4.43
2020 181 .265 .392 .456 16.6% 20.4% .190 131 5.96

We’re used to seeing a hitter’s numbers change over the course of that many seasons — sometimes improving in some areas, often declining in others. A table like the one above suggests both an incredible sustaining of abilities and an undying faith in approach. Ironically, that is not the story of Jason Heyward, a player who has been neither consistent in his performance nor trusting of his own approach, having tinkered constantly with his swing mechanics and his goals as a hitter. What the table above omits are the nine seasons between 2010 and 2020, which showed many different versions of Heyward that add up to a hitter far less valuable than the ones that bookend them.

Jason Heyward Career Batting Numbers
2010 623 .277 .393 .456 14.6% 20.5% .179 134 4.43
2011-19 4,957 .260 .337 .407 9.8% 16.9% .148 104 3.21
2020 181 .265 .392 .456 16.6% 20.4% .190 131 5.96

To me, this table is much more interesting than the previous one, providing more information and simultaneously prompting more questions. Heyward started off as a very good hitter, then averaged merely okay performances for the next nine seasons, then suddenly reverted back to his rookie self as a 31-year-old during a pandemic year. The second table is the story I’d like to talk about. (You may be asking, “Then why show us the first table at all?” And to that I say, writing ledes is hard.)

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Let’s Check In On the Padres’ Bullpen

You probably haven’t thought about the Padres’ bullpen in a while, and you’d be forgiven for that. Most of the high-profile additions they’ve made in the last several months have come in the starting rotation. The other big moves, such as trading for Austin Nola and signing Ha-seong Kim, have been upgrades to the lineup. Oh, and there’s that whole record-setting contract they just gave to their 22-year-old superstar.

All of that has overshadowed the fact that the turnover in San Diego’s relief staff lately has been extreme. Seven of the team’s top eight projected relievers on our Depth Charts page were not on the roster at the end of the 2019 season. Like the rest of the Padres, though, that turnover has resulted in a unit that now looks like one of the best in baseball. It’s worth getting caught up, then, on who the newest arrivals are, who has recently departed, and where that leaves the group as a whole.

San Diego did a lot of its heavy lifting last offseason and at the trade deadline, but the team signed two notable big leaguers in the last few weeks. One was Mark Melancon, the 35-year-old veteran who will join the eighth team of his soon-to-be 13-year big league career. Melancon became famous at the back of Pittsburgh’s bullpen in the mid-2010s when his cutter made him one of the game’s most dominant closers for a few years, bringing about the obligatory comparisons to Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. From 2013 to ’16, he threw 290 innings with a 1.80 ERA and 2.25 FIP, all while throwing his cutter about 67% of the time. After that, he landed a big contract with the Giants, who traded him to the Braves at the deadline in 2019. Melancon wasn’t as good over the past four seasons as the four previous, but he still managed to pitch effectively.

Mark Melancon’s Last Eight Years, In Two Halves
Years IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR
2013-16 290 8.32 1.40 0.31 57.4% 1.80 2.25 7.7
2017-20 159 8.04 2.55 0.57 57.2% 3.57 3.18 2.3

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Tyler Anderson’s Comeback Train Rolls Into Pittsburgh

According to Stanford Healthcare’s website, a chondral defect “refers to a focal area of damage to the articular cartilage (the cartilage that lines the end of the bones).” It can be caused either by injury or by a preexisting disorder, and it is often not repairable. Efforts to treat the defect can include a process in which non-viable cartilage is removed and small holes are made in the bone to create pathways for stem cells to travel to the area of missing cartilage, with the hope that the cells will create new healthy tissue. It can also be fixed with bone and cartilage from a donor “that is specifically matched to the size and dimensions of the defect.” In any case, the procedure is an extremely delicate one, and recovery is a slow, arduous process with no guarantee of success.

After years of pain in his left knee, however, a procedure like those was something that left-handed pitcher Tyler Anderson could no longer put off. He underwent surgery in May 2019, having thrown just five games that season. His return — not to mention the quality of pitcher he might be post-surgery — was ambiguous enough that the Rockies waived him that September, allowing the Giants to claim him. As it turned out, Anderson was healthy enough that he pitched a full season in 2020 (albeit helped by the pandemic-imposed delay in starting the year). And he was impressive enough that he now has a guaranteed big league job for 2021.

The Pirates made Tyler Anderson their first major league free-agent signing of the winter on Tuesday, agreeing to terms on a one-year, $2.5 million contract. He will step into the rotation slot vacated by the trade of Joe Musgrove; between him, Steven Brault, and Mitch Keller, it’s probably a toss-up as to who will be the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.

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The Rays Finally Have a Full Rotation, At Least For Now

The average innings per start across MLB has been in decline for a few years now. The last time starting pitchers threw more innings than they did the previous season was in 2014, at 5.97 per start. Just five years later, that number had dropped all the way to 5.18, a loss of nearly 400 starter innings league-wide. At the forefront of this were the Rays, who began using openers in 2018 and finished the year with their starters throwing nearly 200 fewer innings than those of any other team.

Two seasons later, a pandemic-shortened season introduced a number of factors — injuries, larger rosters, seven-inning doubleheaders, and more — that helped the rest of the majors take a step toward Tampa Bay’s minimization of the starter’s responsibilities.

With the 2021 season two months away, it seems apparent that those two lines are about to diverge. With roster sizes being trimmed back to 26 and a somewhat more typical offseason hopefully leading to fewer injuries, I would guess that the average starter workload will go up for the first time in seven years. The Rays, however, appear to be heading for a season of pitching management even more extreme than what they had in 2018, after signing two pitchers over the holiday weekend: 40-year-old lefty Rich Hill and 33-year-old right-hander Collin McHugh, each at one year apiece, with the former set to make $2.5 million and the latter $1.8 million. Read the rest of this entry »

Marlins Buy a Bunch of Home Runs From Adam Duvall

In 2020, for the first time in three seasons, the Miami Marlins finished above dead-last in the majors in home runs. You can blame some of that bad stretch on Marlins Park, which is decidedly pitcher-friendly in the way it suppresses homers. But mostly, it’s because the team just hasn’t had good power hitters. From 2018-19, just three players logged 20 homers in a season, with the highest total being Starlin Castro’s 22. The additions of Jesús Aguilar and Corey Dickerson helped to bolster the team’s totals in 2020, but the Marlins still only out-homered four other teams. It isn’t as though the team can’t hit — Miguel Rojas, Jon Berti and Garrett Cooper were all well above-average hitters last year despite combining for just 12 homers. Miami just lacked an true established slugger in the middle of the order.

On Tuesday, the Marlins took a step toward remedying that by signing free agent outfielder Adam Duvall. The deal is an interesting one — it guarantees Duvall $5 million, but will only pay him $2 million in 2021. The rest will come in 2022, either in the form of a mutually agreed-upon second-year at $7 million, or a $3 million buyout. The mutual option cost, if exercised, would award Duvall a decent chunk of money — the same amount that Adam Eaton and Joc Pederson signed for this winter. Even if it isn’t, however, the $5 million guarantee itself isn’t bad for a slugger in his 30s who just two years ago spent the majority of the season in Triple-A.

The Marlins are hoping the version of Duvall they get is similar to the one who broke out with the Reds back in 2016. That year, he was a surprise All-Star, and finished the season with a .241/.297/.498 line, 33 homers, a 104 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR. He knocked out 31 more homers and notched 1.6 WAR the following year, further establishing the kind of player Duvall could be when things were going his way. He was a right-handed power bat capable of good defense in an outfield corner, but one who was also going to strike out a lot without walking enough to salvage a league-average on-base mark.

In 2018, we found out what kind of player Duvall is when things aren’t going his way. The power that comprised all of his value fell off considerably, and he finished the year with just 15 homers and a 69 wRC+. He was particularly bad after being traded to Atlanta in July (.132/.193/.151 with zero homers in 57 PAs), and started the 2019 season in Triple-A. It seemed like a sign of where Duvall’s career was headed — his weaknesses exposed, he was now a luxury power bat for playoff teams to keep on the fringes of their roster, never to be trusted with a full-time opportunity.

And yet, he’s since earned that trust back. He was a force at Triple-A, hammering 32 homers in 101 games. The Braves couldn’t fit him into their crowded outfield until the last week of July, but once they did, he was suddenly an everyday player in the majors again. He hit .267/.315/.567 with 10 homers in 41 games to finish the season. With the helpful addition of the DH in the National League, Duvall kept that everyday role in 2020, slashed .237/.301/.532, and homered 16 times, making him one of just 14 hitters to hit at least that many last year. That included one torrid stretch during which he recorded two three-homer games just one week apart.

Being able to capitalize on his power with this kind of frequency is what helps Duvall make up for his low batting average and walk rates. Because of the limits placed on his playing time over the last couple years — first because of the Braves prioritizing other outfielders, then because of the pandemic — his 26 big league homers since the start of 2019 have him tied for just 124th in the majors. But if you take all players with at least as many home runs as Duvall in that time and divide those totals by their number of plate appearances, he emerges as one of the best bang-for-your-buck power hitters of the last couple seasons.

Highest Home Run Rate, 2019-20
Player HRs PAs HR/PA
Nelson Cruz 57 735 7.76%
Adam Duvall 26 339 7.67%
Mitch Garver 33 440 7.50%
Yordan Alvarez 28 378 7.41%
Pete Alonso 69 932 7.40%
Mike Trout 62 841 7.37%
Jay Bruce 32 436 7.34%
Miguel Sanó 47 644 7.30%
Eugenio Suárez 64 893 7.17%
Gary Sánchez 44 624 7.05%
Minimum 26 home runs

Keep in mind, this leaves out the 32 homers he hit in 429 Triple-A plate appearances at the start of 2019 — a HR/PA rate of 7.45%. And as you may have noticed in the last video clip above, the Marlins have had a front row seat to Duvall’s most explosive performances. That kind power output is what Miami is hoping to acquire in this deal, and while the transition to the more pitcher-friendly ballpark may pose some challenges, there’s some reason to believe it shouldn’t hamper him too much. According to Statcast’s Expected Home Runs by Park feature, the number of home runs Duvall would have hit in Miami since the start of 2019 (28) is the same number he actually hit for Atlanta.

As for as the rest of the Marlins lineup, there are all sorts of effects signing Duvall can have. Right now, our RosterResource page has him starting in right field, with Dickerson in left and Starling Marte in center. Such a construction, however, would signify a huge step toward giving up on Lewis Brinson, the former top prospect who headlined the Christian Yelich trade return, but has been 2.8 wins below replacement level in three seasons with Miami. Abandoning plans for Brinson could prove too unnerving for management to go through with, though, and the above arrangement would also leave out Magneuris Sierra and Cooper. Instead, it seems likely that without the designated hitter in 2021, the Marlins will platoon the outfield quite heavily — with Dickerson and Duvall splitting up left and some combination of Brinson, Sierra and Cooper taking right, with Cooper also splitting first base reps with Aguilar.

The logistics of adding Duvall, then, are a headache the Marlins didn’t really need to volunteer for. He does, however, make them better, which makes this a fun move. Even after a surprise entry into the second round of last year’s playoffs, a run at contention for Miami in 2021 still feels far-fetched, and Duvall doesn’t change that. But for an offense that managed to be close to league-average last year while getting by on little more than spunk, his muscle will be a welcome addition — especially for Marlins fans who have waited years for another fearless slugger to swing it for their side.