The Biggest Holes on Contending Teams, Part Two: Pitching

Earlier this week, I looked into contending teams with weaknesses in the infield. Today, let’s continue by looking at teams who could upgrade their pitching, plus teams involved in blockbuster trades sending MVP’s to the West Coast.

Los Angeles Angels

The Hole: The Angels had only a single pitcher throw more than 100 innings last year. That’s bad. What’s worse is that it was Trevor Cahill, who had a 5.98 ERA and still beat his FIP (6.13), good for a -0.8 WAR effort over 102.1 innings. He’s a free agent at the moment, and that was the pitcher the Angels used most.

It’s hard to disentangle this from Tyler Skaggs’ tragic death, and I don’t intend this to be an indictment of team building, or a dig at the franchise’s response. The team’s 2019 season was tragic, and those woes need not carry into 2020.

Despite a lot of churn, however, they aren’t exactly running out an inspiring rotation. Shohei Ohtani is back, and projects to be their best pitcher on a rate basis, but he’ll be on a strict innings limit. Dylan Bundy is somehow only 27, but it’s hard to see anything but an average pitcher with injury risk to the downside given his uneven career.

Julio Teheran is probably a FIP beater, but with Steamer projecting him for a 5.47 FIP, that isn’t enough. Andrew Heaney is basically Dylan Bundy, only a year older (somehow) — a guy you’d like as an innings-eater but with a checkered injury history.

If there’s upside in this rotation (aside from Ohtani), it’s Griffin Canning, whose fastball/slider combination has looked good in his short career. He’s also coming off of a season shortened by elbow inflammation, and he had a 4.58 ERA and 4.75 xFIP in 2019 — we’re not talking about an ace with a hurt elbow here. Overall, the team has a bunch of league average starters with downside risk.

The Fix: The team attempted defense in depth by acquiring Bundy and Teheran, but I’d prefer to see them try to go tall rather than wide. Paul Sporer suggested a trade for Mike Clevinger, and if the Indians would take Brandon Marsh plus a couple other notable names for Clevinger, the Angels could improve themselves by a lot quickly.

If you think the Indians plan on contending, however, there isn’t much to do when it comes to ace-upside pitchers. Noah Syndergaard rumors have died on the vine, and the teams at the bottom of the standings don’t have much to offer on the star pitching front. They could try to acquire Matthew Boyd to add to their quintet of average pitchers, but why? No, they’re mostly stuck with what they have — which might work out okay, but certainly feels risky for a team with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon at the peak of their powers.

Update: As part of the Luis Rengifo-for-Joc Pederson trade, Ross Stripling is headed to the Angels. He’s a cut above the other fringe-average rotation members; strange as it sounds, he might go from Dodgers swingman to the Angels’ best non-Ohtani pitcher. His downside is lower than that, of course, but a groundball pitcher sounds excellent with Rendon and Andrelton Simmons on the team, and he’s not merely a contact manager; he has a 3.60 FIP. I’d still consider pitching the Angels’ biggest need, but this trade was a step in the right direction.

Chicago Cubs

The Hole: The Cubs have stars at the top of their rotation in Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, enough so that they don’t need to count on blockbuster seasons from José Quintana and Jon Lester to make the rotation a strength. But the bullpen is a different story altogether.

Craig Kimbrel still has name recognition, but he’s not the pitcher he once was. His 2018 had some warning signs, with a 12.6% walk rate foremost among them, but 2019 was an outright disaster. His walk rate stayed high, his strikeout rate fell further, and his 20 innings of work with the Cubs looked like a line from Kyle Barraclough, not one of the greatest closers of all time. His 6.53 ERA and 8.00 FIP sell him short, as bad home run luck sunk his production, but his 4.75 xFIP was still the highest of his career by more than a run. His velocity also declined, and if he’s just a good reliever rather than an historically great one, the rest of the bullpen might not be able to pick up the slack.

Rowan Wick has a live arm and iffy command. Brad Wieck’s fastball is nasty. But it’s mostly a pen of reclamation projects and middling veterans. The team needs at least one of Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Morrow, or Tyler Chatwood to pop, and that’s not a great position in which to find yourself in 2020. Dillon Maples finding command would help as well, but we’re limiting ourselves to semi-realistic outcomes here.

The Fix: This isn’t a bullpen with a bunch of above-average guys who needs a stopper. This is a bullpen in need of three-ish stable arms who can give them innings. If they’re capable of making spot starts, all the better, as the team doesn’t really have a great fifth starter option unless Alec Mills works out.

The Cubs should institute the Nationals plan: wait until June or July, scour non-contenders for relievers whose stuff has taken a step forward, and buy in bulk. In a competitive NL Central where every win counts, it’s not a perfect plan. But given the current state of the roster, it looks like the best way out.

Other Holes: The Cubs have a question mark at second base. I think Nico Hoerner and David Bote will cobble together an acceptable season, though, and having Ian Happ as a safety valve is enough to tip the scales from “not enough” to “might work.”

Chicago White Sox

The Hole: The White Sox are a fun dark horse to win the AL Central in 2020. They have a surfeit of young talents throughout the lineup with backup from Yasmani Grandal, José Abreu, and Edwin Encarnación. But you’ll notice that I’ve been talking about position players here, and that’s by design: the team probably doesn’t have enough arms to finish the job this year.

It’s not for lack of trying. Grandal should improve the entire pitching staff, and offseason acquisitions Dallas Keuchel and Gio González provide depth. But Keuchel is a good No. 3 starter at this point in his career, not an ace, and González is getting by on 89 mph fastballs and guile.

That leaves the staff’s fate in the hands of their young guns, and while there’s talent there, there’s also risk aplenty. Lucas Giolito broke out last year and did so in a sustainable-looking way, but after that, it’s all hopes and prayers. Reynaldo López has the fastball to sit at the top of a rotation, but the strikeout and walk rates of a journeyman. Given his fly ball tendencies, he’d love a less-lively baseball, but that sounds like a lot to ask. Michael Kopech, Dane Dunning, and Carlos Rodón are recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Dylan Cease is still a work in progress.

And while we’re on the topic of pitching, the South Side bullpen is a bummer — aside from Aaron Bummer, who is notably not a bummer. Alex Colomé and Kelvin Herrera are alright, and I’m weirdly into Jace Fry despite alarming walk totals, but the group is uninspiring. They could use reinforcements, though improving the bullpen is a luxury good for the Sox at this point.

The Fix: The fix was signing Keuchel and González. Keuchel, in particular, is an inspired pairing with Grandal’s exquisite framing. The young arms are still promising, and they might still arrive, so doing anything more than patching the tires would be an overreaction.

The rotation will hurt Chicago in 2020, and if none of the prospects pan out there’s more to be done in 2021, but for now I think the team has done an admirable job building a contender while leaving room for internal growth.

Other Holes: Nomar Mazara is a hot prospect name, so long as you’re still looking at our 2015 prospect rankings. Alas, it’s 2020, and he still hasn’t put up an above-average line in the majors. If he doesn’t take a step forward this year, it’ll be time to cut bait; and you could argue that they never should have acquired him if they were trying to seriously contend in 2020. Given that they went out and got him, though, the team likely doesn’t consider right field a hole, so we’ll give them a pass there, at least for this year.

Minnesota Twins

The Hole: I’ll be honest — this one’s a reach. The Twins don’t have holes anywhere in the field now that they’ve bumped Miguel Sanó over to first base by signing Josh Donaldson, unless you’re really down on Eddie Rosario. I don’t even hate their bullpen, with perpetually underrated Taylor Rogers headlining and Trevor May and Tyler Duffey providing good support.

That just leaves the rotation, where the Twins knew they were weak; in addition to keeping Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda, they’ve acquired a sampler platter of veterans. I love Rich Hill, and think he could be a difference maker in the playoffs, though I’m less interested in Homer Bailey and Jhoulys Chacín.

By adding Kenta Maeda in the three-team Mookie Betts trade, the Twins have upped the ante even further. Maeda is a versatile weapon who can start when the Twins need innings and relieve if they need backup in the bullpen later on. He has premium stuff and excellent results over the past several years, though his excellence has been obscured somewhat by the Dodgers’ overall dominance.

In truth, there probably isn’t much separating Maeda from Hill, Pineda, and Odorizzi. But his extreme platoon splits and experience relieving make the bullpen a reasonable outcome in the playoffs. If he turns out to be better than the array of starters the Twins already have, they can leave him in the playoff rotation. Maeda should cover whatever the Twins need in 2020.

The Fix: Minnesota already has its ostensible playoff rotation: Hill, Odorizzi, Pineda, and staff ace José Berríos, with Maeda ready to substitute in for any of the first three that disappoint. That just leaves a bunch of innings to pick up in the regular season, between Hill’s rehab, Pineda’s suspension, and the fact that you need five starters. You don’t have to like any of Bailey, Chacín, and Randy Dobnak — you just have to think they can provide enough bulk mediocrity to survive the regular season.

Luckily, there are pictures of all three in the dictionary next to “bulk mediocrity.” If you were designing the optimal innings-eaters to pair with low-workload studs, you might end up with something like the Twins. I love what they’ve done with their offseason.

Oakland Athletics

The Hole: I struggled with the A’s. It’s reasonable to look at their roster and see second base, where Franklin Barreto is the presumptive starter, as a hole. But Barreto might very well be the real deal — he’s hit well in Triple-A over the past two years, and his tools are thrilling. His major league line is bad, and his strikeout totals scary, but at only 23, I’m inclined to give him more time to mature before writing him off.

That leaves the pitching staff, a perennial thorn in the A’s side. Frankie Montas looks like an ace, PED suspension aside, and Jesus Luzardo was electric in his short stint in the majors (including the Wild Card game) in 2019. But the rest of the staff is heavy on question marks: Sean Manaea didn’t look the same upon his return from shoulder surgery, Chris Bassitt is best suited as an innings-eater, and Mike Fiers is teetering on the edge of relevance.

It’d be one thing if the bullpen could reliably pull the starters out of the fire. But Liam Hendriks aside (and he was a human fire emoji in 2019), Jake Diekman and whatever’s left of Joakim Soria aren’t scaring anyone. Lou Trivino is intermittently interesting, but he looked cooked in 2019. It’s not a terrible bullpen, necessarily — but it’s one Hendriks regression away from looking dicey.

The Fix: Luckily for the A’s, they aren’t stuck with the five starters I named above. A.J. Puk, the team’s top prospect, will start in 2020. He’s something of a unicorn; a 6-foot-7 lefty who throws harder than every other southpaw starter in baseball. He has three solid secondary offerings to pair with his fastball, and while his track record is short due to Tommy John surgery in 2018, he has the potential to eclipse Montas and Luzardo as the best pitcher on the team this year.

Given the A’s perpetual financial limitations, a free agent signing is probably out of the question. But Puk might be enough to tip their rotation over the edge from shaky to solid. Start him in the majors, pitch him to his innings limit, and let the chips fall where they may.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Hole: And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

The Dodgers were perhaps the best team in baseball last week. Then they acquired the second-best baseball player on earth and got David Price as a throw-in. If we’re nitpicking, their bullpen might not be great, though.

The Fix: Get ahead by five runs before getting the bullpen involved. Or have Blake Treinen get good again. Or move surplus starters to the ‘pen for October. Choices abound.

Boston Red Sox

The Hole: Does “desire to compete” count? The Sox have problems in the infield. First base will be an uninspiring Mitch Moreland/Michael Chavis platoon, and second base will be an even more uninspiring time share between Chavis and José Peraza. That wasn’t as much of a problem when they had Mookie Betts, though; he provided enough value to float a few bad spots on the roster.

With Betts gone, it’s more important to squeeze value out of every spot in the lineup. And with Price out of the rotation (and half of his contract reportedly still on the books), the starting pitching will be squeezed as well. Nathan Eovaldi is their third starter right now, and it gets ugly after that.

The Fix: The Red Sox need a superstar. They should send solid but unexciting outfielder Alex Verdugo and top prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers in exchange for an MVP outfielder and an aging but effective lefty starter — Cody Bellinger and Clayton Kershaw.

And failing that comedic trade, they’re kind of stuck. They’re clearly self-constrained by payroll, given the Betts trade, and the market isn’t awash with second basemen unless they’re really into Brian Dozier. Their best plan is probably to hope for outperformance from their existing players, and maybe for Graterol to break into the rotation sooner rather than later.

How will the remaining teams fix their problem spots? How will I find a hole on the Yankees and Astros? And how will I squeeze eight teams worth of mini-articles into a single gargantuan piece? Tune in later this week for the thrilling conclusion!

This article has been updated to include the Angels’ acquisition of Ross Stripling.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Thank god the Angels got Stripling before I read this article or I would have been a lot distressed.

4 years ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

It’s awesome that the Phillies aren’t in this article.