Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.
“I started throwing a slider in probably 2012. I first learned how to throw a slurve, and that taught me how to throw a slider. I remember my uncle teaching me to throw one. He was like, ‘Don’t be throwing curves. You need to throw slurves and cutters, so you don’t mess up your arm.’ He didn’t want any action on my wrist.
“I learned how to throw that, a slurve, which is kind of the basics of a slider. In high school, I didn’t really have a grip. I didn’t know how to hold one, I guess. I just kind of made up my own grip and went with it. I didn’t watch baseball growing up — I watched none — so it was kind of hard. Read the rest of this entry »
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller banter about parity in the NL and imbalance in the AL, then preview the 2019 Dodgers (7:08) with Los Angeles Times national baseball writer Andy McCullough, and the 2019 Kansas City Royals (1:02:45) with The Athletic’s Royals beat writer, Rustin Dodd.
Neither Adam Jones nor Martin Maldonado, two players who signed one-year contracts over the weekend, classify as major signings in 2019, but they do have one thing in common: both contracts say a lot about where baseball is in 2019 and convey important lessons to players hoping to improve the next collective bargaining agreement.
Let me start by saying that I do feel that there’s a payroll problem in baseball. There are multiple reasons for that problem, but chief among them is that the sport’s fastest growing areas of revenue have become increasingly decoupled from the win-loss record and gate attendance of any particular team. This has had an inevitable drag on player salaries. Teams are still motivated to win baseball games, but when winning also increases revenue, it’s going to be more valuable (and likely yield higher average payrolls) than in situations when winning doesn’t.
If a thrifty (or cheap, depending on your point of view) team doesn’t derive significant benefit in revenue sharing from winning, and only sees minimal revenues of their own as a result of a good record, wins can start to become seen as a cost rather than an investment. Wins are good, but wins and more money is better. Read the rest of this entry »
On the heels of a 104-loss 2018 season, the Royals’ 2019 campaign was already heading nowhere in particular; projected for a mere 69 wins by our Depth Chart projections, only the Tigers (68 wins), Orioles (63), and Marlins (62) are expected to be worse. But on Friday, things went from bad to worse with the announcement that catcher Salvador Perez has damage to the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing (right) arm. The 28-year-old backstop could miss the season due to Tommy John surgery, a procedure that’s relatively rare among catchers, without any resounding success stories on the level of other position players. Gulp.
A six-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who was the MVP of the 2015 World Series, Perez is a big (6-foot-4, 240 pound) free-swinging slugger with a powerful arm and a strong reputation for handling pitching staffs. He’s not without shortcomings — he hasn’t posted an on-base percentage of .300 or better since 2013, and has been about 10 runs below average as a pitch framer in each of the past three seasons according to Baseball Prospectus — but he’s immensely popular, a fan favorite who’s been elected to start the All-Star Game in each of the past five seasons. Last year, after missing the first 20 games of the season due to an MCL sprain in his left knee (a freak injury suffered while carrying a suitcase upstairs), he hit .235/.274/.439 with 27 homers, an 89 wRC+, and 1.7 WAR in 544 PA; by BP’s framing-inclusive stats, he was worth 1.3 WARP. For his career, he owns a 92 wRC+ and a total of 17.7 WAR.
Manager Ned Yostsaid that Perez began experiencing elbow soreness in January, at which time an MRI revealed that he had suffered a flexor strain, which resulted in the team shutting down his throwing program for four weeks. He was cleared to start throwing once he reached the Royals’ camp in Tempe, Arizona in mid-February, but soreness after live batting practice led to another MRI that revealed ligament damage. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that surgery has been recommended for Perez, who will get a second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAtrache on Tuesday before a final decision is made. If he’s out, the team will likely turn to Cam Gallagher, a 26-year-old former second-round pick who has just 35 games of major league experience and figured to back up Perez.
As is the case with all position players, Tommy John surgery for catchers is much more rare than it is for pitchers, though because of the volume and intensity of throwing involved with the job, it’s more common for them than it is for any non-pitching position besides outfielders. Still, the limited number of such surgeries is striking. According to the Tommy John Surgery List kept by Jon Roegele, which now includes 1,669 surgeries, just 44 have been done on professional catchers, six of which occurred while they were still amateurs. As best I can tell, a total of 20 catchers who have had the surgery have played in the majors, eight of whom are still active:
* = Active. Dates listed as 1/1/XX are used when only the year of surgery is known. Pre G denotes the number of games played prior to surgery; Post G indicates the number of games played after surgery.
So far, the returns haven’t been great, to say the least. We don’t have any information on the relative severity of these players’ injuries (Perez included) and, the further back we go, less information about players’ defense. But while it’s not hard to find examples of TJS recipients at other positions besides pitcher who have recovered to enjoy productive multi-year stretches or careers afterwards — Jose Canseco, Matt Carpenter, Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Greenwell, Kelly Johnson, Paul Molitor, Luke Scott, and Randy Velarde come to mind, and hopefully we’ll count Didi Gregorius and Corey Seager among them some day (Gleyber Torres too, though his surgery was on his non-throwing arm) — the best that can be said about the catchers is that some of them were able to slog onward with their careers.
Perhaps Knapp or Casali will eventually prove me wrong, but none of the eight catchers who underwent TJS in college or the minors have gone on to have substantial major league careers; Casali is the only one of that group who even reached 1.0 WAR post-surgery. It’s not like those guys were supposed to be stiffs, either. Teagarden was a third-round pick who made two Baseball America Top 100 Prospects Lists post-surgery, and the rest were all drafted in the first 10 rounds, too: Knapp (second, 2013), Tatum (third, 2004), House (fifth, 1999, and a two-time Top 100 prospect pre-surgery), Kieboom (fifth, 2012), Higashioka (seventh, 2008), Jimenez (ninth, 2008), and Casali (10th, 2011). Sure, many picks from the first 10 rounds don’t even reach the majors even without undergoing TJS, or fail to produce in their limited opportunities. Nonetheless, the extent to which the catchers in this subset failed to blossom in the aftermath of surgery is not encouraging.
Leaving those players aside, of the 10 who had major league experience prior to TJS, four (Christmas, Coste, Davis, and Wilson) never played in the majors again. That count doesn’t include d’Arnaud, who is in camp with the Mets and, his ongoing penchant for injury notwithstanding, seems likely to stumble into a game at some point. Of the other five, none has equaled his pre-surgical offensive potency or made a particularly large impact post-surgery. To be fair, the jury is still out on d’Arnaud and Vazquez, though the latter has never even come close to the solid offensive contributions he made at Single-A and Double-A levels.
The biggest name among this group besides Hundley — a two-time All-Star whose pre-surgical performance is clouded by his later appearance in the Mitchell Report, and whose post-surgery peformance featured back and hand woes — is Wieters, a player whose post-surgical plight had been on my mind even before the news about Perez was announced. When I began writing about the Nationals’ post-Bryce Harper era last week, Wieters — Washington’s regular catcher for the past two seasons, at least during the two-plus months of 2018 that he wasn’t sidelined by injuries — was still jobless. By the time that piece was published, the 32-year-old switch-hitting catcher had agreed to a minor-league deal with the Cardinals, still a rather humbling outcome for a player who made nearly $37 million over the past three seasons, and whose career was supposed to be so much more.
A former top-five pick (2007) and number one overall prospect (2009, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus), Wieters made a pair of All-Star teams in 2011-12, winning a pair of Gold Gloves and helping the Orioles emerge from a decade and a half of playoff-free futility along the way. Circa 2013, he was a candidate for a major contract extension, though at the time, agent Scott Boras reportedly countered with a request for something in the range of Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins, despite the fact that Wieters hadn’t racked up anything close to the accolades that Mauer, an MVP and three-time batting champion, had at the time he signed. Needless to say, Wieters didn’t get that kind of money; the Orioles explored trading him in the winter of 2013-14, and then the following season, he tore his UCL after playing just 26 games. While there was initial optimism he would avoid TJS, he ultimately went under the knife in June 2014, at which time I noted the dearth of positive outcomes from among the group above.
Since then, Wieters’ career has been spotty at best. He returned to major league action on June 5, 2015, 12 days shy of a year after surgery, made a solid half-season showing (.267/.319/.422, 102 wRC+, 1.1 WAR in 282 PA), and then, after making a combined $16 million in 2014-15, became just the second player to accept a qualifying offer, after the Astros’ Colby Rasmus. Playing for a $15.8 million salary, he made the AL All-Star team — to this date, he’s the only post-TJS catcher to garner such status — and finished 2016 with a modest 90 wRC+ (.243/.302/.409) and 1.8 WAR.
He’s been considerably less productive since. In February 2017, he signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Nationals, which included a same-sized player option for 2018 (not to mention $5 million worth of deferred money), then stumbled to a 62 wRC+ with -0.3 WAR in the first year and, after exercising that option, something closer to his post-surgical level last year (.238/.330/.374 ,89 wRC+, 0.9 WAR) while making just 271 PA; he missed nearly 10 weeks due to an oblique strain and a left hamstring strain, the latter of which required in-season surgery. Unable to secure a major league deal this winter, he settled for a minor league one, with a base salary of $1.5 million assuming he’s in the majors, another half-million dollars worth of performance incentives ($100,000 apiece for reaching 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 games), and a March 22 opt-out.
Admittedly, once the above catchers are broken into subgroups, we have rather small sample sizes, and as far as the performance outcomes are concerned, we see correlation with surgery but not necessarily causation. Wieters hasn’t made any trips to the DL for elbow problems since returning from surgery, and has continued to throw out would-be base stealers at a more-or-less league-average clip. His decline as a defender — using BP’s FRAA, from 47.9 from 2009-14 to -10.2 from 2015-18 — really began in 2013 and has been driven by subpar pitch framing (-15.8 runs from 2015-18), which depends primarily on his non-throwing arm anyway. Vazquez is still a well above average defender in all facets of the game, averaging nearly 11 FRAA in the past three seasons despite receiving only 798 PA in that span. From among the other active catchers who aren’t on the fringes of jobs, Casali has been solid on both sides of the ball but has only once topped 156 PA in a season, while Knapp has been a rather woeful defender (-15.6 FRAA while making just 419 PA), struggling both with throwing (19% caught stealing) and framing (-9.6 runs).
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while I don’t think we can draw strong conclusions from the group of catchers who have preceded Perez in TJS, their history doesn’t offer him and the Royals a particularly great roadmap for success. He’s relatively young, and under contract for a total of $36 million through 2021, so it’s unlikely he’ll fade into oblivion like some of the aforementioned recipients, but if his post-surgical success approaches his pre-surgical performance, he’ll be breaking new ground.
When publishing our lists — in particular, the top 100 — we’re frequently asked who, among the players excluded from this year’s version, might have the best chance of appearing on next year’s version. Whose stock are we buying? This post represents our best attempt to answer all of those questions at once.
This is the second year that we’re doing this, and we have some new rules. First, none of the players you see below will have ever been a 50 FV or better in any of our write-ups or rankings. So while we think Austin Hays might have a bounce back year and be a 50 FV again, we’re not allowed to include him here; you already know about him. We also forbid ourselves from using players who were on last year’s inaugural list. (We were right about 18 of the 63 players last year, a 29% hit rate, though we have no idea if that’s good or not, as it was our first time engaging in the exercise.) At the end of the piece, we have a list of potential high-leverage relievers who might debut this year. They’re unlikely to ever be a 50 FV or better because of their role, but they often have a sizable impact on competitive clubs, and readers seemed to like that we had that category last year.
We’ve separated this year’s players into groups or “types” to make it a little more digestible, and to give you some idea of the demographics we think pop-up guys come from, which could help you identify some of your own with THE BOARD. For players who we’ve already covered this offseason, we included a link to the team lists, where you can find a full scouting report. We touch briefly on the rest of the names in this post. Here are our picks to click:
Torres was young for his draft class, is a plus athlete, throws really hard, and had surprisingly sharp slider command all last summer. White looked excellent in the fall when the Rangers finally allowed their high school draftees to throw. He sat 92-94, and his changeup and breaking ball were both above-average. Pardinho and Woods Richardson are the two advanced guys in this group. Thomas is the most raw but, for a someone who hasn’t been pitching for very long, he’s already come a long way very quickly.
The “This is What They Look Like” Group
If you like big, well-made athletes, this list is for you. Rodriguez was physically mature compared to his DSL peers and also seems like a mature person. The Mariners have indicated they’re going to send him right to Low-A this year. He could be a middle-of-the-order, corner outfield power bat. Luciano was the Giants’ big 2018 July 2 signee. He already has huge raw power and looks better at short than he did as an amateur. Canario has elite bat speed. Adams was signed away from college football but is more instinctive than most two-sport athletes. Most of the stuff he needs to work on is related to getting to his power.
Advanced Young Bats with Defensive Value
This is the group that produces the likes of Vidal Brujan and Luis Urias. Edwards is a high-effort gamer with 70 speed and feel for line drive contact. Marcano isn’t as stocky and strong as X, but he too has innate feel for contact, and could be a plus middle infield defender. Perez has great all-fields contact ability and might be on an Andres Gimenez-style fast track, where he reaches Double-A at age 19 or 20. Ruiz is the worst defender on this list, but he has all-fields raw power and feel for contact. He draws Alfonso Soriano comps. Palacios is the only college prospect listed here. He had three times as many walks as strikeouts at Towson last year. Rosario controls the zone well, is fast, and is a plus defender in center field.
Corner Power Bats
Nevin will probably end up as a contact-over-power first baseman, but he might also end up with a 70 bat. He looked great against Fall League pitching despite having played very little as a pro due to injury. Lavigne had a lot of pre-draft helium and kept hitting after he signed. He has all-fields power. Apostel saw reps at first during instructs but has a good shot to stay at third. He has excellent timing and explosive hands.
It’s hard to imagine any of these guys rocketing into the top 50 overall. Rather, we would anticipate that they end up in the 60-100 range on next year’s list. Gilbert was a workhorse at Stetson and his velo may spike with reshaped usage. Singer should move quickly because of how advanced his command is. Lynch’s pre-draft velocity bump held throughout the summer, and he has command of several solid secondaries. Abreu spent several years in rookie ball and then had a breakout 2018, forcing Houston to 40-man him to protect him from the Rule 5. He’ll tie Dustin May for the second-highest breaking ball spin rate on THE BOARD when the Houston list goes up. We’re intrigued by what Dodgers player dev will do with an athlete like Gray. Phillips throws a ton of strikes and has a good four-pitch mix.
Bounce Back Candidates
The Dodgers have a strong track record of taking severely injured college arms who return with better stuff after a long period of inactivity. That could be Grove, their 2018 second rounder, who missed most of his sophomore and junior seasons at West Virginia. McCarthy was also hurt during his junior season and it may have obscured his true abilities. Burger is coming back from multiple Achilles ruptures, but was a strong college performer with power before his tire blew.
Potentially Dominant Relievers
These names lean “multi-inning” rather than “closer.” Gonsolin was a two-way player in college who has been the beneficiary of sound pitch design. He started last year but was up to 100 mph out of the bullpen the year before. He now throws a four seamer rather than a sinker and he developed a nasty splitter in 2017. He also has two good breaking balls. He has starter stuff but may break in as a reliever this year.
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.
There aren’t many candidates for best player on the Kansas City Royals. Salvador Perez is a holdover from the team’s run to consecutive World Series’, including one title. Adalberto Mondesi has just 500 plate appearances across three seasons, but he showed considerable promise last season with 14 homers, 32 steals, and a 114 wRC+ in just half a season. The third candidate, and the subject of this post, is Whit Merrifield. The Royals second baseman has been the club’s best player over the past two seasons by putting eight wins, with the only other players above four (Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer) not even on the team a season ago. Merrifield was a late bloomer, not playing a full season until he was 29 years old in 2017, and that makes him an unusual contract extension candidate, but he and the Royals reached a reasonable deal to buy out his remaining arbitration years.
At first glance, the terms of the deal look incredibly slight for Merrifield, getting just $16.25 million guaranteed with $2 million in performance bonuses, per Jon Morosi. With a second straight slow winter for free agents and Manny Machado and Bryce Harper unable to get the long-term deals they desire so far, seeing an All-Star second baseman coming off a very good season settle for such a small guarantee screams out as another piece of evidence of owners getting the better of players. However, that’s not really the case here due to Merrifield’s age and service time.
Merrifield got a late start to his major league career due to a slow crawl up the minors. He was solid in his first full minor league season, posting an average line in High-A back in 2011, and when he repeated the league in 2012, he was roughly the same player and then struggled in a brief promotion to Double-A. The next season he was the same roughly average player at Double-A. He then tore through Double-A in 2014 and held his own in Triple-A, getting to the cusp of the majors, but he took a step back the following season back in Triple-A, entering the 2016 campaign at 27 years old without a callup.
Finally making the big leagues, Merrifield proved to be an above-average player thanks to decent defense, great baserunning, and a roughly average bat. He broke out last season, increasing his walk rate, posting slightly-below-average power numbers with a great BABIP on his way to a 120 wRC+. His 45 steals in 55 tries plus good running -numbers on balls in play added another seven runs above average, resulting in a five-win season. His projections next season are closer to three wins, but there is little doubt that Merrifield is a good, solid player who will help the Royals win more games than they would have without him.
Unfortunately for Merrifield, he enters the 2019 season with just two-and-a-half seasons in the bigs. He’s not yet eligible for arbitration, and he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season. Players with Merrifield’s service time and good track records in the big leagues are often approached about contract extensions. They are looking at one more season at the league-minimum salary, and teams take advantage of that lack of security by offering players millions of dollars. In exchange for that security, teams generally insist on a year or two of the player’s free agent seasons at a discounted rate. Those seasons often become massive bargains as players push out their free agent seasons and teams don’t have to pay for any of the player’s decline seasons. Whit Merrifield presents an interesting case.
When Merrifield hits free agency for the first time, he will be 34 years old. While the Royals certainly like Merrifield for his on-field contributions now, he’s not likely to be the same player at 34 that he is right now. Those free agent years might not be particularly valuable for the Royals, which lessens the club’s interest in guaranteeing money for those years. They might be interested in an option year, but that makes less sense for Merrifield. Security makes sense for Merrifield as opposed to playing out this season and then going to arbitration, where he might get around $4 million if he puts together a solid campaign. If he keeps playing well, he might get $6 million or $7 million in 2021, and then $10 million or $12 million in 2022. Going year-to-year in arbitration probably gets him around $20 million or so if he keeps playing well.
In the end, Merrifield gets his security and the Royals take a 20% discount on the likely outcome. This deal is reminiscent of the one the Twins signed Brian Dozier to four years ago. That contract paid Dozier $20 million over four seasons. Value-wise, Dozier had similar numbers to Merrifield with 7.4 WAR over the previous two years and a 4.5 WAR season just prior to signing the extension. Because Dozier had numbers that pay in arbitration, namely homers, he was likely to receive more money in arbitration than Merrifield. Dozier was also two years younger, making a decline less likely. It was important to Dozier at that time to be able to hit free agency now as opposed to a few years from now. A disappointing 2018 season meant just a one-year deal for Dozier, although if he had kept playing at his 2014-2017 level, he would have been able to cash in on free agency, even in this slow market.
Merrifield’s contract is just an update of the Dozier contract, where teams get some cost certainty and a discount in the arbitration years while the player gets security and doesn’t give up any free agent seasons. These contracts don’t happen often because there is little incentive for the team compared to most of the guarantees they offer to players before they hit arbitration. If the players want security, the cost is generally a free agent year or two. Merrifield’s late age compared to his service time peers created an opportunity for the Royals and their second baseman to reach a deal, and given these factors, it is a pretty reasonable one for both sides.
After having typically appeared in the hallowed pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have now been released at FanGraphs for more than half a decade. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals have an extremely bifurcated offense, with three players projected to be solidly above league-average in Adalberto Mondesi, Salvador Perez, and Whit Merrifield, and a fairly large gulf before the next tier of KC hitters. If the Royals were really going the full rebuild route, you’d see Perez and Merrifield — entering their age-29 and -30 seasons respectively — on other teams’ lists, but the Royals seem content to go the “sorta” rebuild route.
Given how thin their talent is, it’s hard to see them having much success going this route and as such, Perez and Merrifield are likely to be either in their declines or in other organizations by the time the performance matters. Winning 72 games instead of 64 in 2019 isn’t going to jumpstart anything.
I’m sure there will be some gnashed teeth about O’Hearn’s projection, given that he hit .262/.353/.597 in the majors in 170 plate appearances in 2018. He also had a .713 OPS in 406 PA in the Pacific Coast League, which is abysmal for an offensive prospect.
This group won’t be as bad as some people think in 2019, and it wouldn’t take a lot of breaks for the team to achieve their pointless Quest for 75 Wins, which is a little like bragging to your drinking buddies that you can deadlift 125 pounds. Danny Duffy isn’t a lost cause and Brad Keller was good enough in 2018 that it couldn’t all have been a fluke. ZiPS absolutely loves Richard Lovelady, but the rest of the bullpen is a big digital yawn. The Trevor Oaks projection isn’t exactly impressive, but I can’t remember the last time ZiPS didn’t actually hate a pitcher with as low a strikeout rate as he is projected to have.
Bench and Prospects
Troubling and not seen in full here is that ZiPS simply projects very few of the hitting prospects in the upper levels of the organization as good bets to be relevant by the time the Royals are good again. It’s essentially Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez. Khalil Lee and Emmanuel Rivera are the only two other offensive prospects on this list for whom ZiPS gives even an over/under of three WAR over their major league careers. Now, it’s not quite as bad as that considering a couple of the names I’m not yet projecting are Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto, but it’s certainly less than ideal for a team that really ought to be 2 1/2 years into a rebuild by now.
One pedantic note for 2019: for the WAR graphic, I’m using FanGraphs’ depth chart playing time, not the playing time ZiPS spits out, so there will be occasional differences in WAR totals.
Disclaimer: ZiPS projections are computer-based projections of performance. Performances have not been allocated to predicted playing time in the majors — many of the players listed above are unlikely to play in the majors at all in 2019. ZiPS is projecting equivalent production — a .240 ZiPS projection may end up being .280 in AAA or .300 in AA, for example. Whether or not a player will play is one of many non-statistical factors one has to take into account when predicting the future.
Players are listed with their most recent teams, unless I have made a mistake. This is very possible, as a lot of minor-league signings go generally unreported in the offseason.
ZiPS’ projections are based on the American League having a 4.29 ERA and the National League having a 4.15 ERA.
Players who are expected to be out due to injury are still projected. More information is always better than less information, and a computer isn’t the tool that should project the injury status of, for example, a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery.
Both hitters and pitchers are ranked by projected zWAR — which is to say, WAR values as calculated by me, Dan Szymborski, whose surname is spelled with a z. WAR values might differ slightly from those which appear in full release of ZiPS. Finally, I will advise anyone against — and might karate chop anyone guilty of — merely adding up WAR totals on a depth chart to produce projected team WAR.
In 2018, I once again had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of people within baseball. Many of their words were shared in my Sunday Notes column, while others came courtesy of the FanGraphs Q&A series, the Learning and Developing a Pitch series, the Manager’s Perspective series, and a smattering of feature stories. Here is a selection of the best quotes from this year’s conversations.
“My slider will come out and it will be spinning, spinning, spinning, and then as soon as it catches, it picks up speed and shoots the other way. Whoosh! It’s like when you bowl. You throw the ball, and then as soon as it catches, it shoots with more speed and power. Right? “ — Sergio Romo, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher, January 2018
“One of the biggest lessons we learn is that iron sharpens iron. That is 100% how we try to do things with the Rockies — hiring people that are smarter than we are, and more skilled, and have different skills that can complement, and train people to be better at their jobs than I am at my job. That’s how you advance an organization.” — Jeff Bridich, Colorado Rockies GM, January 2018
“We could split hairs and say, ‘Hey, you’re playing in front of a thousand drunk Australians instead of 40,000 drunk Bostonians, and you’re living with a host family instead of at a five-star hotel.’ But The Show is The Show, and in Australia the ABL is The Show.” — Lars Anderson, baseball nomad, January 2018
“Baseball is heaven. Until our closer blows the game.” — Michael Hill, Miami Marlins president of baseball operations, January 2018Read the rest of this entry »