Losing Seasons Don’t Have to Be Lost Seasons

For a losing team, the Cincinnati Reds have been busy. It’s not just trading players either, as Cincinnati made one of the biggest deadline moves while many contenders slumbered in near-stasis, picking up Trevor Bauer with an eye towards retooling for the 2020 season. Only three of the eight players in Wednesday’s lineup were also in the lineup on Opening Day: Tucker Barnhart, Eugenio Suárez, and José Iglesias. Chief among the new additions is the recently called-up Aristides Aquino, a big slugger lurking far back from the head of the team prospect lists coming into the season. After a fairly unimpressive minor league career, Aquino has feasted on the major league bouncy ball in 2019, slugging 28 homers in 294 AB in the formerly pitcher-friendly International League and then a shocking 11 homers in just 20 major league games.

Aquino was not some elite prospect finally being called up. The Reds have only received the benefit of getting a look at Aquino because they decided to use their ABs in a now-lost season in a productive way. If the team hadn’t dropped Matt Kemp or traded Yasiel Puig, choosing to go with the known quantity in a mistaken attempt to goose attendance (there’s no evidence this actually works), there wouldn’t have been as many opportunities to assess Aquino or Josh VanMeter or Phil Ervin in the majors. They now have more information on these players — how they’ve played at the big league level — and that information can have a positive effect on the decisions they make on how to win the NL Central or a wild card spot in 2020. Even picking up veteran Freddy Galvis, a 2.0 WAR player, for free has a value to a team like the Reds given his one-year, $5-million option for 2020. Scooter Gennett was always likely to be gone, but Galvis may not be, and now the Reds have another player who they can choose to start in 2020 or trade over the winter.

The Reds have been fortunate in these decisions, but I would have been in favor of this calculus even if Aquino/VanMeter/Ervin had been terrible. My fundamental belief is that among hitters and pitchers, teams have roughly a combined 12,000 plate appearances/batters faced to work with every year, and as many of them should be devoted to trying to win games as possible. Maybe they’re not 2019 wins — maybe they’re wins in 2020 or 2023 or 2026. But even players not working out gives you information; if Aquino came to the majors and hit like Lewis Brinson, it would still give the Reds data they didn’t have before. You don’t acquire that kind of knowledge when you’re a 90-loss team still penciling Billy Hamilton or Chris Davis into the lineup on a daily basis.

Risk is the best friend of a rebuilding team; it enables them to find out things about players that a contending team cannot. For a team like the Cubs or Cardinals, in contention right now, lottery tickets aren’t as viable as boring old treasury bonds. Contenders would be hard-pressed to dump a regular just to see what an Aquino can do with playing time. (The Yankees have been the rare exception this season, having gotten tremendous performances from castoffs like Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman, though it would have been a challenge for the team to play guys like that were it not for the fact that seemingly every player ever to don pinstripes has been injured in 2019.)

I’ve been hard on the Reds in recent years, but making every game count has been one of the best things they’ve done in recent years, and there’s a very good chance that they’re a better team in 2020 than they would have been without making upside plays.

But what about the other lousy teams in baseball? I’d argue that each one of them has something they can do over the final five weeks of the season, something that might not work out, but can at least answers questions they couldn’t answer otherwise. Since there’s no strict definition of a “lost season,” I’m going to go with every team with a 0% chance of playing October baseball, per our playoff probabilities. Only teams mathematically eliminated are truly at zero, but these teams don’t even have the slim-but-plausible hope a team like the Red Sox or Diamondbacks still possesses.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles have already taken one step by starting to reduce Davis’ playing time and integrating DJ Stewart into the lineup. They need to continue to do so and not worry about Stewart’s rather lackluster performance in his first 50 plate appearances. Paying him or not, there’s no reason to believe Davis will ever help the Orioles to another meaningful win again, and Stewart, well, might. I’d also love to see Baltimore take a look at Mason Williams, a prospect from long, long ago, who fell off radars into journeyman status. Williams has been able to take good advantage of the rabbit ball in the minors, and the fact that he can still at least fake it in center field makes him somewhat interesting. And the Orioles need interesting, especially in center field, given that Cedric Mullins hasn’t hit in Triple-A either.

Toronto Blue Jays

It’s hard to let a solid starter go for free — I’m actually a little surprised Toronto couldn’t get anything for Galvis at the deadline from a team like the Brewers — but it’s nice to give a veteran an opportunity to go elsewhere instead of just sitting him on the bench to watch Bo Bichette play. The Blue Jays have done a great job getting Derek Fisher into the lineup every day and it’s something they need to continue to do, regardless of how he hits in the coming weeks. Fisher is no longer a young-young player and has suffered from inconsistent playing time by virtue of being the third or fourth best outfield prospect on the Astros. David Paulino is injured and gone so no use crying over that spilled milk, but I think the Jays should give at least a cameo to Anthony Kay, who is largely surviving his initial go at Triple-A. Given how brutal the Triple-A offensive environment is now, I’d like to see him pop up in the majors as soon as possible rather than waiting until 2020.

Kansas City Royals

Well, they’re slowly getting there. Chris Owings, Lucas Duda, and Hamilton are finally all gone, but I just wish it hadn’t taken the Royals so long to cut bait. The team’s largely using their starting lineup productively, but I’d also like Nick Dini to get in the offensive rotation rather than being a backup for Meibrys Viloria (who should be getting the starts). Dini has more than doubled his walk rate from last year in the minors and cut back on the strikeouts, enough so that I’m curious if his bat can play in the majors, something I wasn’t so curious about coming into the season given his history and lackluster projections. There are probably not a lot of spare at-bats, but I think the Royals could cobble together enough playing time to look at a player who managed to hit .297/.370/.565 at Triple-A.

Chicago White Sox

I remain unbelievably confused as to why the White Sox are so determined to give Jon Jay so many starts when he’s healthy. His main attraction for the White Sox ought to have been his friendship with Manny Machado, and since they can’t sign him at this point, I don’t get why they are continuing to prioritize at-bats for a 34-year-old journeyman who isn’t even signed past this season. Daniel Palka more than earned his demotion at the start of the season, but he has hit in the majors before and certainly has more upside than Jay at this point. Ryan Goins has been better than Jay and more than adequately filled in for Yoán Moncada, but the White Sox would be better served seeing what Danny Mendick could do with those at-bats at this point.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers escaped a demerit by giving former Braves/Rangers prospect Travis Demeritte an immediate shot at a full-time job, starting him in all but one game since his major league debut earlier this month. It would have been difficult for Atlanta to find a spot for Demeritte, especially since they don’t need a full-time designated hitter, but Detroit is thin enough that Gordon Beckham has been one of the team’s best position players in 2019. Of the things Detroit could do, I’d be a fan of seeing at least one of Casey Mize, Joey Wentz, and Matt Manning getting some garbage-time innings in the bullpen, as Earl Weaver liked to do with young pitchers 40 years ago, even if it starts the service clock. I’ve referenced it above, and I have no way of proving it, but my hypothesis is that the Triple-A offensive environment gives teams a reason to allow more of their talented players to skip that level entirely. It’s like the Coors Field Problem applied to a whole league; how do you get players to work out their kinks in a setting where they either get thrashed (pitchers) or feel like they’re on a Caribbean vacation (hitters)?

Los Angeles Angels

Like most, I’m aching to see Jo Adell in the majors as soon as possible, but given that he hasn’t hit in Triple-A yet, there’s justification for not promoting him now. (I’ll pick up a pitchfork if he’s torching the Pacific Coast League in 2020 and the Angels are slow to call him up.) A player I do want to see get significant time down the stretch is Jose Rojas, who has hit .299/.363/.587 for Salt Lake this season. Again, it’s hard to talk about minor leaguers at Triple-A without noting the level of offense league-wide, but Rojas also hit solidly in 2018, putting up a .289/.355/.501 combined triple-slash across two levels. Rojas is old for a prospect at 26, but that’s partially because he debuted at 23, a long-shot local drafted out of Vanguard University. Rojas can play first and third and has been given opportunities to play second. Unfortunately, getting a lot of playing time may necessitate the team getting the at-bats from Albert Pujols, and I don’t have any faith the team is willing to do that.

Texas Rangers

Whew, I don’t have to freak out about Willie Calhoun in this column as the Rangers have been giving him regular playing time, though admittedly months later than I would have. While on vacation, I intended to use Nick Solak here, but the Rangers have called him up and given him a much-needed shot as well; the trade for Solak is one of my favorite deals that any team in baseball has made in 2019. The Rangers shouldn’t be giving up on Rougned Odor, and Joey Gallo’s injury allows the team to sneak Solak in at designated hitter, but I’d like to see him get some major league time at third base if Gallo returns. Better to try him out now — he has almost no professional experience at the position — rather than in a season when the wins actually matter, and it would be a mistake to let Logan Forsythe be the obstacle.

Seattle Mariners

Austin Nola actually getting an opportunity in the majors (and making the most of it!) has been one of my favorite storylines in baseball this year. The same can be said of Tom Murphy, who you may have not noticed has hit 16 homers in 184 at-bats for Seattle. With Tim Lopes also on the team, Seattle’s done a great job combing the high minors for interesting talent and they may have completed the set with Jake Fraley, who I hope gets the bulk of the playing time in September. They’ve even called up one of my favorite pitchers to watch, fastball-slider-possessing Taylor Guilbeau, giving me little to complain about in terms of how the Mariners have managed their roster in recent months. Plus Justus Sheffield! I promise to find something to complain about before next season.

Miami Marlins

Is it wrong to want to see Sixto Sanchez this season? He’s already at 114 innings, and I’m guessing the Marlins don’t want him finishing the year at 140 or 150, but the aforementioned Earl Weaver Bullpen Cameo option still exists. Short of that, I’d be temped to look at journeyman Brian Moran, a relief prospect from the days of yore who never really got his career back on track after a 2014 Tommy John surgery. He’s been healthy this year and has already appeared in his most games since 2013 and, more importantly, has been effective in the Pacific Coast League thanks to his ability to keep the ball down as well as the slider he added a few years ago. While it’s possible I want him called up because he reminds me of the Get A Brain Morans meme, I think the Marlins have little to lose giving him a look.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Unfortunately, the long-term problem for Pittsburgh isn’t a failure to give players chances, but instead a deeper organizational issue. I know a lot of people think Neal Huntington should go, but I don’t think you can fix the Pirates without fixing ownership’s reluctance to invest money in the team, which essentially forces things like trading Gerrit Cole while you hope to contend and leads to desperation moves like overtrading for Chris Archer because he’s cost-controlled. I’m probably going to get in trouble due to my continued belief that the Pirates should stick with Parker Markel despite his poor results in the majors, but I’ll talk up a fastball-changeup pitcher who has survived the PCL so far and will likely never have a better opening than now to get a chance thanks to injuries.

Colorado Rockies

Stop. Starting. Ian. Desmond. The Rockies already fumbled away their chance to get a serious look at Mike Tauchman, and it’s in their interest to give both Yonathan Daza and Raimel Tapia consistent playing time over the rest of the season. Daza’s 2019 has been enough, when using minor-league translations, to bump his ZiPS projected wRC+ into the mid-80s (where Steamer also is). Similarly, while Tapia is a more known entity than Daza, he needs playing time as well, especially in center field. It appears that Tapia’s bat won’t be enough to make him a starter in a corner, so the Rockies need to see if he can handle center full-time; it’s absurd that he has only gotten seven starts there in nearly two full seasons.

What’s more, the starts the Rockies are giving to veteran Yonder Alonso could be better used assessing minor-league slugger Roberto Ramos. Yada yada yada, Pacific Coast League, but Ramos showed fascinating power in the Eastern League in 2018, hitting 15 homers in 199 at-bats. He’s a bit of a long shot to have a career in the majors, but he has a better chance at helping the team at some point than Alonso does. Four of the team’s top prospects on THE BOARD are first basemen, so if not now, it might as well be never for Ramos in Colorado. When will the Rockies realize that the saying isn’t “nothing ventured, nothing lost?”

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

Dan is absolutely right in the big picture on this. Bad teams should be trying to get their hands on as many Quad-A players as they can, to see if anyone can stick, and the whole “let’s get veteran stopgaps in the offseason” approach is flawed on a lot of levels, at least partly because nobody seems to be giving up anything of value for veteran position player stopgaps at the trade deadline anymore (see: Freddy Galvis, referenced here).

But the AAA weirdness really does complicate things. Most of these guys really do need more development before they’re staring down a Gerrit Cole fastball. Maybe they can handle it? Maybe that’s less bad for their development than having AAA guys missing their spots and getting to crush it for home runs all the time?

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I guess I don’t see the problem with the rabbit ball in AAA. If they’re going to have to deal with it in the majors, why not learn about it first hand against fellow high-minors talent?