Nearly Opening Day Round-Up

marc w · March 27, 2018 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

One of the positive things about the most recent CBA was the change to baseball’s calendar, sprinkling in more off-days throughout the season. This is great for players trying to maintain focus and health through the long season, and it’s great for bloggers like me. The one thing it necessitates, though, is an early opening day. I don’t really mind that, and I’m looking forward to opening day despite the fact that my expectations for a really successful season are vanishingly low. I’m just excited to talk about something other than this odd, painful off-season.

But until Thursday, I need to address the flurry of minor moves the M’s made to prepare for opening day. We’ll also talk about some of the recent projection updates as well as a wrap-up on the provisions in the omnibus spending bill impacting minor league pay.

1: The injury to David Phelps – and some open 40-man spots – led to a series of moves as the M’s tried to rebuild their bullpen depth. That’s an understandable desire, especially if they need to get 600 innings or more from the bullpen. Given their starting pitching depth AND the health of the guys they’re counting on to provide it (Felix, Marco Gonzales, maybe Hisashi Iwakuma, etc.), they need to get a lot more innings from relievers, and to avoid wearing any one of them down, they need to spread that workload as broadly as reasonably possible. Thus, welcome Dario Alvarez, the fastball/slider specialist recently with the Rangers, who was claimed off of waivers, and Erikc Goeddel, a former Met who signed a MiLB deal with the M’s last week. Alvarez has shown ridiculous K% numbers in the minors and majors, but struggled mightily with his command and with occasional HR trouble. Gopher balls also doomed Goeddel, whose K% shot up last year, but since it was accompanied by an increase in HR/9, he wasn’t able to profit from his ability to miss bats. The M’s then traded for MiLB SP depth by getting Ashton Goudeau and Matt Tenuta from the Royals system.

Alvarez’s slider is a legitimate outpitch, and he should tear up the PCL until he’s needed, but my pick for the best single pitch of this batch of new org depth is Goeddel’s splitter. The pitch plays very well with Goeddel’s fastball, and, like a good splitters should, generates a ton of swings, even if it’s thrown out of the zone. Batters have hit .152 off of the pitch (with a .256 SLG%) on the 501 of them Goeddel’s thrown in his big league career. Like many pitchers, Goeddel started to struggle when batters decided to look for fastballs and just hit those. In the last two seasons combined, batters have hit 9 HRs and are slugging .621 off of Goeddel’s FB. Lance Painter now gets to work on how to improve both Goeddel’s and Alvarez’s fastballs while preserving their outpitches.

The M’s minor league strength, and that is such a low bar that I know many of you are snickering just reading that phrase, is its relief pitching. That’s not a surprise; it’s is the easiest form of minor league depth to acquire in the draft – draft a decent starter out of college, make them a reliever, and figure out which ones gain the most velocity. Guys like Art Warren opened a lot of eyes over the last year (along with Matt Festa and Seth Elledge), so unlike essentially any other position, the M’s have actual home-grown talent that they can turn to for depth. But the moves to acquire Alvarez/Goeddel show that the depth they’ve developed isn’t quite enough. I suppose you have to applaud them for seeing a problem and addressing it, but we’re looking at another year where the minors are absolutely filled with depth acquired from waiver claims (Goeddel/Alvarez), minor trades (Goudeau/Tenuta) and minor league free agents. I’ve said all off season that the M’s are clearly banking on their ability to teach players to make big leaps in their ability levels, leaps that no projection could ever foresee. It’s odd to make that kind of a bet and have to fill the upper minors with late-March acquisitions. If your development is so good, wouldn’t you want to maximize the time they had to work with players? If the cupboard’s bare enough that you’re scrambling through the pile of released/waived guys, are you sure you couldn’t find another free agent or two that could help?

2: The M’s path to contention is pretty clear: they’re in the small group of clubs positioned to fight for the second wildcard. The Astros are several cuts above, and it’s hard to imagine a perfect storm that would produce an M’s divisional championship. Thankfully, the M’s don’t NEED to be better than the Astros for 162 games to make the playoffs. They’re not going to be better than the 2nd place team in the AL East, most likely, as you’d have to figure that the reloaded Yankees and the still-the-same, still-good Red Sox can both earn playoff spots. Realistically, the M’s are competing with other teams in the West, namely the Angels, and the 2nd place team in the Central, most likely the Twins. There’s one spot available, and given the way the divisions shake out, the M’s strength of schedule looks to be a serious, serious headwind.

Fangraphs’s playoff odds takes schedule into account, and thus the same projections produce two fewer wins for the M’s. Oh, and 1.5 MORE for the Twinkies. It’s a situation where every game may matter quite a bit, and the division-weighted schedule means Seattle play a slate of games against better opponents than teams in the AL Central. There’s nothing to be done, here, but it makes it more frustrating that the Twins made a series of moves aimed at improving their club in the off-season, building on what was presumably a surprise contending year last year. The M’s…did not, really, though you can see what it’d look like if things worked out.

3: A big part of THAT is their bet on Dee Gordon, elite CF. This great Wall St. Journal article notes the M’s use of Statcast data to measure certain skills that they believe translate well to CF – his reaction on pop-ups, his sprint speed, etc. If Dee Gordon adds value on defense, he can be a very valuable addition. He’s a better hitter than Jarrod Dyson, and if they’re not giving away runs in the field, those batting runs can really add up, especially considering he’ll play more than Dyson did.

The only problem is the set-up for this story of ingenuity and creativity: the idea that the M’s couldn’t find a great CF in free agency. The M’s kicked off this grand experiment – and after seeing him in the Cactus League, I think it’ll work – only because they completely misread the market. They dangled a multi-year offer to Jon Jay, only to watch Jay sign a bargain 1-year deal in KC. They then watched #1 CF Lorenzo Cain sign a 5-year, $80M deal for an AAV of $16M. Gordon’s got 3 years with an AAV of $12.3, not including a team option, on his deal. Gordon’s less of a commitment in dollars and years, but the idea that the M’s simply couldn’t get close to Cain seemed sound in November, but proved to be incorrect.

To be clear, Gordon is no slouch, and the team might actually like Gordon’s superior value on the basepaths as part of a more Royals-of-2015 style offense (an offense that, ironically, included Cain). The M’s were below average last year in walk rate, and by bringing in Gordon and Ryon Healy, they’re only going to drop further this year. With Gordon’s bat-to-ball skills, they’ll probably also drop in team K%. If the M’s are going to produce a well-above average offense, they’re going to need a high batting average. Guys like Gordon are absolutely critical to that strategy, and Gordon’s speed is going to need to counteract some of the BABIP-suppressing effects of Safeco Field, with park factors that limit hits (especially 2B/3B) and walks, and boost Ks. The M’s OF – with Gordon, Gamel, Heredia, Haniger (and Ichiro!) – is not going to be a huge source of HRs, and (Haniger aside) won’t be pulling up the team OBP unless they do so through a high average.

As it happened, the M’s had more options than they would’ve thought. They’ve now got Dee Gordon, and that could really help if Gordon adds value in the field and hits at least .310 or so, even if it’s an empty .310. I know you didn’t come here to read about batting average, but in this case, that’s how the M’s offense can bail out a shaky pitching staff. The M’s hit .259 the past two years, after several years below .250. With scoring where it is, and HRs set to rise yet again, the M’s are going to need their creativity to pay off in BABIP and old fashioned batting average.

4: Whatever happens this year, the M’s – the business/corporation/anti-trust-exempted entity – will be fine. Owners receive a windfall in their share of the sale proceeds of BAMTech to Disney – the streaming video monster that was once known as MLB Advanced Media. Moreover, team valuations continue to grow at an insane rate, as even struggling teams see revenue and sale prices rise. Ex-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth famously chided owners for choosing to try to win at the expense of the bottom line, but the nice thing about where baseball finds itself is that you don’t have to try to do *anything* and you’ll probably make money. Revenue’s rising faster than salary inflation, and the recent CBAs have focused on *limiting* expenses on amateur talent, so this is the system the two sides have agreed on. It’s not bad for *major league* players, but it’s an amazing deal for owners.

That’s the context into which word came out that baseball’s lobbyist had included a provision in the recent omnibus spending bill to clarify that minor league players are not subject to federal minimum wage laws. Some headlines on this have been a bit hard to parse, but to be clear: minor leaguers weren’t covered by minimum wage/overtime rules already, though they had a lawsuit wending its way through the court arguing that they SHOULD be covered by minimum wage/Fair Labor Standards Act. By getting this provision included, baseball hopes to preempt the lawsuit, arguing that the law now unambiguously states that players are NOT subject to the FLSA.

I know minor league teams often run a tight operation, and that dollars need to stretch pretty far, but not only do major league teams pay minor league player salaries, the idea that MiLB players get no pay during spring training and poverty wages during the long season is completely absurd. There is no reason – none – that MLB teams can’t invest in the players they’re counting on as organizational depth or potential MLB contributors. With bonuses limited, and penalty fees racking up when teams exceed the international bonus pool caps, the teams are already paying millions into a black box that’s supposed to help players (but which no one seems to know what to do with). It seems that any team that wanted a competitive advantage could simply pay minor leaguers a half-decent salary and reap the rewards of players who can afford to eat meals or not take extra jobs just to make ends meet. Would that turn every 33rd rounder into a Real Prospect? No, but if it did it for even one of them, it’d pay for itself for years.

The fact that this happened in the very year in which teams receive tens of millions in completely free, revenue-sharing-exempt money is galling. This is a bad look for MLB. I keep thinking the players would have a better collusion case on the fact that minor leaguers work for free *in every camp* than they would questioning why, say, Mike Moustakas’ market didn’t develop. The problem here is that minor league players aren’t at the table, and so it’s not clear what would happen if a club suddenly decided to give them a decent wage. We see a similar dynamic at play when we hear Alex Anthopoulos’ ridiculous reasoning for why Ronald Acuna won’t be starting the season in Atlanta. Everyone knows it’s a lie, and even fans understand/support the reasoning – they want an extra year of Acuna’s cost-controlled services in the future, when the Braves might actually be good. The players association has made some grumbling about this, especially when the same thing happened with Kris Bryant a few years ago, but fundamentally, what would a “fix” look like for these two bargaining partners? Remember that Acuna – right now a non-member – would take the position of a member. Would the agreement be to *extend* the time a team would have to blatantly lie to fans and everyone why a prospect was sent down? Would that be better?

The relationship between players and owners may be broken. The relationship between minor leaguers and everyone has been broken for years. I’m not sure how to resolve this situation, and I wish I had more confidence that we’d see a good resolution when the next agreement gets signed.


One Response to “Nearly Opening Day Round-Up”

  1. stevemotivateir on March 27th, 2018 7:58 pm

    Add Jayson Werth to the stockpile of minor league reserves, though he might find himself in Seattle fairly quick.

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