The M’s made one of the easiest upgrades of the off-season today, signing catcher Chris Iannetta to a one-year deal for $4.25 million; the deal also includes an option for 2017. Iannetta comes via Anaheim, where he was acquired by Jerry Dipoto from Colorado in a 2011 deal for one-time Angels prospect and starter Tyler Chatwood. Dipoto can’t quit Iannetta, but his obsession came cheap, and the backstop represents a clear, clear upgrade over a position whose production Ryan Divish astutely labeled NSFW.
The M’s made it clear: Iannetta isn’t a mentor or back-up to Mike Zunino, he’s the primary catcher heading into the spring. While Iannetta put up a slash line of .188/.293/.335, Dipoto referenced Iannetta’s abysmal BABIP (.225) and track record as proof that his 2015 wasn’t age-related decline, but garden-variety bad luck. Priced at well under 1 win on the open market, it almost doesn’t matter: Iannetta’s signing makes financial sense for the Mariners no matter what you project his bat for in 2016. His patient approach means he can stay in the line-up even when his BABIP tanks or his K rate edges up, as it did in 2015.
There are two trends that jump off his fangraphs page and complicate the idea of a clear “buy low” free agency bargain. First, his ISO has settled in at around .140-.150, lower than it was in his 20s, and definitely lower than it was in his 20s-in-Colorado. That’s not an indictment or anything, and again, his patience means it’s not as big of a deal, even though he’s likely to post a low average. He can be incredibly productive at that level of power, as he was as recently as 2014. The second trend is a decline in his contact rate. His walks have always been the product of a discerning eye, and not the result of great bat control to spoil pitcher’s pitches. Unlike Zunino, Iannetta simply doesn’t swing at balls, with an O-Swing rate under 20% in 2014 and 2015 against a league average over 30% in both seasons. Despite that, he’s making less and less contact when he *does* swing, with last year’s 71.2% a career low (except for a cup of coffee in 2007).
Again: these trends, paired with his age (he’ll be 33 next year), are warning signs, but they in no way make this deal “bad” or concerning or whatever. A one-year, $4.25m deal for anything north of a batboy makes financial sense in this day and age, and given the M’s needs at the position, this has the potential to be one of the best bargains of the off-season – his projected WAR a bit north of 2 should be worth somewhere around $15-18m, or 4X what he actually signed for.
His offense is what it is, but this signing is even more interesting on the defensive side of the ledger. Check the catcher framing leaderboard on Statcorner, and Iannetta rates as one of the elite pitch framers in baseball, a bit ahead of Zunino. By Baseball-Prospectus’ framing metric, the story’s identical: BP has his saving 14.6 runs to Statcorner’s 14.4. But wait, you say, why wouldn’t the market value this skill? Why doesn’t he command more money, even despite the lousy batting average in 2015? In part, it’s because in every year up to 2015, Iannetta wasn’t a great framer at all – he was lousy.
Is it possible that his framing “skill” is the product of luck? That the luck gods gaveth on defense and tooketh away from his BABIP last year? Well, as Eno Sarris described back in April, this seems to be the result of some serious, intentional work on Iannetta’s part. Iannetta mentions working with ex-teammate and current Astro Hank Conger on his body positioning and focusing on improving this skill. He seems to have been inordinately successful, so we can hope that all he needs to do is keep it up. The sabermetric nerd in me says “regress, regress, regress,” and that an outlier like his 2015 is not the final word on his defensive ability. But sabermetrics is still somewhat divided over framing in general, and the fact that the emphasis on it is so new means that it’s at the very least plausible that Iannetta hadn’t ever worked on it, and that his 2015 represents something much closer to his new true-talent level than you’d gather by compiling a career average. He didn’t know what to do, now he does, so we’re good here. It’s simplistic and I *want* it to be true, which makes me kind of suspicious (I’ve been an M’s fan too long).
If Iannetta’s defense is anywhere on the positive side of the ledger, and if his BABIP bounces back before his contact rate drops into the ZuninoZone, this is easily one of the best signings of the offseason – for the M’s, or anyone else. The market at catcher is an odd one, with a number of players coming off of injury – Matt Wieters, Alex Avila, etc., and a number of somewhat similar players like Iannetta, Soto and Navarro. Iannetta’s played in the toughest hitting park of that troika, and is easily the best framer, even if you regress his 2015 pretty heavily. The downside risk is pretty minimal, considering the money. If Iannetta’s BABIP stays low and he’s a .200 hitter, he’d likely *still* be more productive than Zunino, and Iannetta’s presence means the M’s can be strategic – finally – about Zunino’s developmental path. Nice work, Mr. Dipoto.
1: Last night, the M’s shipped recently-acquired and even more recently-injured OF prospect Ramon Flores, in part, it seems, because the player they got in return (Luis Sardinas) had another option year while Flores did not. As Flores is still recovering from an on-field compound fracture, you understand the it’s-just-business aspect of it, but it’s tough to see these two as equivalents. Given the M’s struggles in the OF last year, and given that they’ve shipped out their two primary CFs from 2015 and wisely moved Mark Trumbo out of the outfield, it seems odd to give up what OF depth they have for a glove-first SS. I say “glove-first” because that’s just nicer than saying no-bat, but seriously, look on Sardinas’ fangraphs page and despair. Yes, he’s controlled the bat decently in AAA, but that’s already factored in to the projection of a .246/.281/.319 slash line.
Look, not every trade is a blockbuster, and not every *minor* trade needs to have a clear and local winner. Given the day – the 40-man roster deadline- it’s even more understandable. Teams are swapping out optionless-but-talented players for lottery tickets all day today, so this is understandable. But you can’t help trace the precedents here and argue that the *primary* return for Dustin Ackley, #2 overall pick, college hitter of the decade and dude who hit 9 XBHs in 57 plate appearances for New York, was traded away due to the minutiae of the uniform player contract and the 40-man roster deadline. Dustin Ackley was never going to return a premium player, but Flores hit everything he saw until he saw his fibula poking out of his sock, and you expect to get more wish-casting enjoyment out of a lottery ticket than the M’s did.
2: The other depressing move necessitated by the deadline was Danny Hultzen’s removal from the 40-man. Another #2 overall pick, Hultzen’s battled shoulder problems for the last three years. He was reportedly solid in the spring, but managed just 8 innings for AA Jackson this year before soreness set in and ended his season. As we learned from AGM Jeff Kington in Greg Johns’ MLB.com story on the move, he’s still not throwing yet, after last pitching in mid-May.
While I’m not big fans of their work, this isn’t a time to blame the M’s player development. Hultzen’s shoulder gave out after very responsible innings limits and no real injury history. Yes, the M’s belatedly tweaked his delivery to avoid the across-the-body motion that provided some deception, but it’s not at all clear if that had anything to do with his injury. This may be nothing more than horrific luck for a young lefty who seems like a dedicated pitcher. He just physically can’t pitch. The M’s needed to make this move due to the moves they’ve made this offseason, but it’s difficult to avoid reading more into it – this, paired with the Miller trade (and the fact that Ackley was already gone), really feels like turning the page on the Zduriencik era. That specific reason is the only aspect of the move that doesn’t feel depressing, or perhaps depressing-yet-necessary.
3: It’s necessary because the M’s had to add new OF Boog Powell and utility man/strong safety Patrick Kivlehan. Kivlehan had a disappointing 2015, putting up a 100 wRC+ for Tacoma. He’s got some pop – he hit 22 HRs this year – but it can play down a bit due to a mediocre hit tool. Given his defensive flexibility and the M’s needs in the OF corners, this was a good call. His lack of experience in college and the fact that he worked hard at making more contact are good signs that he could have a bit more development in him. For next year, he’s a great test case for the new development regime. Boog Powell came over in the Brad Miller deal, and adds plate discipline to the M’s OF mix. If they need a 4th-OF next year, you have to figure Powell’s the guy, especially with Flores now out of the picture. His lack of power limits him, and big league pitchers may not walk him until he shows he can actually hurt them. He’s projected for a .262/.324/.368 line which I’d take in a heartbeat.
The downside – and I realize this post has already wallowed in downside enough – is that 40-man roster day means you can’t help but make comparisons to the unfortunates who’ve been DFA’d today. Need a plus-glove CF who can take a walk but has easily sub-Ketel Marte power? Well, Craig Gentry is available. You know who’s projected to post a very similar line to Powell’s? Daniel Nava! Freely available! Need a lefty-masher? Try Wilin Rosario, who is less than a year older than Kivlehan. These aren’t great comps, of course. Nava’s a decade older than Powell, and Gentry is also much, much older than Leonys Martin (more on him later), but it’s almost impossible to stop seeing similar skillsets on the major league scrap heap. It’s the nature of this time of year. AJ Griffin, one time A’s pop-up prospect and successful rotation member has had almost as many injury issues as Hultzen, and he’ll join Hultzen in limbo after being bumped off the roster by Rich Hill. Teams everywhere love to talk about veteran grit or veteran calm or veteran intelligence, and you can see in free agent salaries that they’re quite willing to pay for it. But for one day in November, it becomes an anchor, a tumor that teams excise.
4: Sooo, the M’s have a new CF, as Leonys Martin heads to Seattle in exchange for the Bartender. I like the approach here of buying low, and making the team more athletic and effective defensively. Martin had an absolutely awful 2015, posting a wRC+ of 50 and ceding his position to a Rule 5 pick. His average batted ball velocity was no great shakes, but it was better than Ketel Marte’s, Elvis Andrus’, Cole Kalhoun’s and Joe Panik’s. That said, there are still some warning signs in his stats.
For one, Martin has been an extreme platoon hitter, with a career wRC+ of 53 against southpaws. This isn’t just BABIP: his K:BB ratio tanks against lefties, and his already marginal power drops to pitcher levels. Yes, you should regress these observed splits, but we’re starting from a very, very low point. Worse, his terrible 2015 coincided with a career high in PAs against lefties. After seeing southpaws in just 28% and 25% of his PAs in 2013 and 2014, respectively, that percentage shot up to 36% last year and everything went to pot. Martin probably needs a right-handed platoon partner.
As Nathan Bishop and others have said, your feelings about Martin may hinge on how much you think a series of hand/wrist injuries hurt his production in 2015. Martin missed time early in the year after hurting his hand on a swing, and then hurt his wrist in the field a bit later. Worse, he suffered a broken hamate bone in his hand while down in AAA, which required surgery and ended his season in August. So really, this hinges on what you think about hamate problems. As always, we M’s fans tend towards the pessimistic, and remember, say, Chris Snelling’s hamate and how he didn’t look the same following it, or the fact that Mike Zunino injured his in 2013 and has looked…nevermind. Luckily, this article at The Hardball Times is a bit more confidence-inspiring. Several young players broke their hamate bones, and it had no effect on their production or power whatsoever. Michael Brantley broke his when he was still a tweener/4th-OF candidate and then became a potential MVP for a Troutless parallel universe. Dustin Pedroia injured his as a promising young player, and then became an MVP winner afterwards. There really is no clear-cut evidence that it saps power or anything else, though the case of Nick Markakis, who injured his in his late 20s (Martin will be 28 for opening day), is a cautionary tale – Markakis’ power dropped precipitously immediately after the injury and hasn’t returned.
It stings to lose Tom Wilhelmsen, though if I’m honest that’s largely due to the improbable back-story and his gif-able personality. He was a solid reliever with good stuff that often played down for some reason. While he had the all-important closer tag and was headed for larger arbitration paydays, and while he always felt like a good 7th-inning guy as opposed to a dominant closer, it feels weird to trade someone with his raw stuff for a glove-first CF coming off the kind of year that Martin just put up. Wilhelmsen now finds himself in a ‘pen that could be one of the AL’s best, though his chances to close again just dropped dramatically with Tolleson, Dyson, Diekman and Kela ahead of him.
This is neither especially timely nor enriching, so I’ll be brief. The M’s 2015 coaching staff has had a rough go over the past few months, and while they were highly paid, visible and generally successful people, it can’t be any fun to be nominally in leadership in a bad organization. None of them, and all of them together, aren’t 100% responsible for the M’s lackluster 2015, but they have titles like “batting coach” on a team that failed to hit, or “outfield coach” for a team spectacularly ill-equipped to catch flying baseballs. It’s a tough gig, and I bet say, Howard Johnson, can spin an angry yarn about Mike Zunino to his friends while nibbling on the last hot wing.
So I understand that Andy Van Slyke must be frustrated, and thus it can’t be a complete and total shock that he professed his frustrations when asked by a sports radio host. But his quick hit turned into more than that: it was so public and so ill-considered that it almost felt like a confession, except for the part where nothing was his fault and Robbie Cano’s to blame for everything.
There are times ex-employees are so angry about how a firing turned out that they value getting their side out more than they value the boost that discretion might get them when applying to new jobs. Tony Blengino comes to mind here, who was very public about what he saw as mismanagement in the M’s FO, and has been writing for Fangraphs/ESPN since. Again, though, Van Slyke’s comments aren’t anything similar. They must be doing tremendous damage on the job market; beyond placing blame for the entire M’s offense on a bad stretch by an ailing 2B, he implied he had inside knowledge of the Dodgers clubhouse (his son is a Dodger) and that Clayton Kershaw wanted Yasiel Puig traded. This doesn’t *help* anything – this doesn’t correct public perceptions, and it doesn’t get his skills as a coach off the hook. They’re sizzling hot takes that have escaped the gravity of the Mariners, of coaching, of baseball.
The specific claims are ludicrous, as sizzling hot takes pretty much *have* to be. Van Slyke says that Cano was the worst #3 hitter he’s ever seen in his lifetime in baseball as a player and coach. It takes like 3 minutes to find this team, the 1994 Pittsburgh Pirates, whose 3 hitters combined for a .699 OPS and an OPS+ relative to league average of 63. That compares…poorly to Cano’s .779 OPS, the .796 OPS the M’s got from the 3 hole or the 95 OPS+ relative to the league. The Pirates just clearly, clearly had a worse #3 hitter in 1994, when that 3 hitter was, of course, Andy Van Slyke.
But hot takes can’t be measured by their accuracy. They should be measured by their reach, and in that sense, Van Slyke hit a long home run. We’re talking about Andy Van Slyke not as a great CF for St Louis and Pittsburgh, but as a failed coach on a team that was bad enough to get errybody involved with creating and coaching it fired. Van Slyke got his name out there, and the way he kept going, it clearly felt pretty good. Maybe we shouldn’t think about how this might affect his job market in MLB. Maybe this was an interview for a new career dispensing salty opinions and hyperbolic takes to people who can’t get enough. Best of luck, Andy.
Three posts in a row by me? Madness. So, the Mariners have announced a trade of OF Ramon Flores to the Brewers in exchange for IF Luis Sardinas, thus exchanging two players that you have likely never heard of.
Flores is a guy whom you probably wouldn’t be as aware of had you tuned out mid-season. For those of you just joining us, welcome! We have a new GM who does not espouse a depressing baseball philosophy! Flores was acquired with right-hander Jose Ramirez as part of the Dustin Ackley trade that sent the former first-rounder to the Yankees. Also, Dustin Ackley is gone. Ramon Flores has a similar offensive profile to that of recently-added outfielder Boog Powell with some added power, except that Flores has the unflattering profile of being a tweener, neither providing enough offense for the corner nor possessing good enough wheels to justify playing him in center on a routine basis. Being that he was out of options, I had tentatively penciled him in to be the team’s back-up outfielder, but given that he broke his ankle at the end of the season, he was neither expected to be ready in time for spring training nor capable of playing to the best of his abilities once he got there. It’s not a ligament injury, obviously, but ankle is still part of the larger leg thing and for a guy who had range questions in the first place, well…
Sardinas is formerly of the Rangers system, where you can make further connections to our existing staff, Bogar, etc. He was signed in 2009 for seven figures and was regarded as one of the top defensive shortstops on the market at the time, which has held and made him a component in the Gallardo trade. His promotion scheme over the years has been Zduriencik-like insofar as he’s been at least two years younger than league-average everywhere he’s played so far and reached triple-A around the time he reached legal drinking age. He’s proven himself over the years to be a guy with a choppy swing who doesn’t tend to hit for more than doubles power. More positively, he’s also a switch-hitter and plays a plus defensive shortstop with good wheels to boot.
This will likely read as a move for bench depth, but we ought to bear in mind that Sardinas is still just 22, turning 23 in late April. To consider his offensive development as fully realized under the circumstances would be presumptuous. Hence, I look at him as a guy who could, if it comes to it, push for competition with Marte as to who starts at the major league level. Sardinas has an option year left and Marte has a few, so it certainly seems possible that he could be an okay piece to have around. Those of us who came of baseball-watching age in the late-90s/early-00s offensive boom among shortstops may be a little more lukewarm on the whole thing, but offense is down league-wide and so the projected production out of Sardinas isn’t terrible, as such.
While I was typing this up, the Mariners also finalized their 40-man roster, and I’m not so ambitious as to make two posts out of it considering the news is somewhat minor. OF Boog Powell and IF/OF Patrick Kivlehan, the two “locks” I identified earlier, were the two players that were added to the 40-man. To clear an additional roster spot, the Mariners designated former first-round pick LHP Danny Hultzen for assignment. Hultzen was a fairly obvious target for designation because he’s out of option years despite having pitched all of eight innings in the last two years of regular season, affiliated ball. The shoulder has proven to be a continuing issue for him, preventing him from having made his major league debut despite being drafted in 2011 and being thought of as near-major league ready then. Let us now fondly remember the meltdown that ensued after I drafted several possible write-ups on who the #2 pick would be, none of which were Hultzen. As major league baseball still had the ability to sign drafted players to major league contracts then, he thus burns through all his options without debuting. The good news is that that’s over with. The other maybe good news is that he could be safely outrighted provide nobody wants an almost-26 left-hander with a balky shoulder. Pause for laughter.
I have a rather uncanny knack for having my regularly-scheduled, irregularly-posted contributions here usurped by major deals or trades that have come to fruition without our prior awareness. Thus, it came to pass that Monday, the Mariners traded with Texas to acquire outfielder Leonys Martin and right-hander Anthony Bass while sending way once-closer Tom Wilhelmsen, stolen base prodigy James Jones, and a PTBNL who I can only assume is a man between the ages of eighteen and forty who has two thumbs and likes baseball a lot. You, friend, may be the player to be named later!
Over the week in which DiPoto has been in charge, we’ve seen moves made in an attempt to remake the team in his own image and philosophies. Whether or not this is a side effect of going mad with power after being released from the perpetual tutelage of one Mike Scoscia, the general idea has been an emphasis on playing more to the uniqueness of Safeco by emphasizing flyball pitching, plus defense, and on-base percentage to compensate where power may be less viable (rather unlike the previous attempts to get bury-the-needle levels of power that would overcome whatever circumstances). Martin helps to tick off the second category and, despite OPS generally below .700 for his career, he’s nonetheless been a positive WAR contributor by virtue of his excellent defensive skills.
One of the remarks made in the presser and by sports pundits afterward is that, while Martin had a down year last season, expecting him to bounce back isn’t outside reason. The offensive skillset the Cuban employs is primarily based on speed and contact and more rarely getting one into the gaps. Since his BABIP last year was below .300, uncharacteristic of his profile, one could be convinced that some positive regression is in order. Cruz and Bogar, who have both been around Martin, have vouched for his abilities, and familiarity with him in his better years makes rebound probable. Since very little of his game was about power, he likely won’t suffer much in Safeco. As for his position in the batting order, I would guess that with the discussion of OBP, we’re likely still looking tentatively at Marte leading off and Martin will serve to lengthen the lineup down at around 8 or 9.
The trade makes sense to me in the same way that the Austin Jackson trade made sense. From a player development and acquisition standpoint, the Mariners have long neglected their outfield depth, necessitating deals for such trivia question answers as Eric Thames and Trayvon Robinson and mercenary lummoxes-for-hire like Mike Morse. Even as outfielders started to be prioritized again, few have been viable everyday centerfield candidates and Braden Bishop, who would appear to be the best bet internally, is at least three years off. Martin helps us bridge the gap and provides a plus defender so that we aren’t shifting the burden directly on Boog Powell and an out-of-options Ramon Flores, whom I would tentatively pencil in as the back-up outfielder at this point.
Anthony Bass’ role might be defined less concretely as a member of the pile of limited material definition. One presumes that someone in the organization is familiar with him insofar as we’re again trading for a former Padres. Bass was a starter in the minors up through 2013 and in the majors has been a reliever with a three-pitch arsenal of fastball, slider, and change with velocity sitting in the low 90s. He’s a pitch-to-contact groundballer who probably walks a higher percentage than you might be comfortable with given the lower strikeouts. In the grander scheme of things, Benoit likely fills the higher-leverage roles that Wilhelmsen had and Bass will sop up innings in lower-leverage situations.
Within the larger organizational scheme, Bass helps the bullpen now while being a potential piece going forward. As noted in the 40-man preview, what with the perpetual trading away of relief resources, the Mariners are a bit thin on bullpen contributors in the near term. Farquhar and Leone are gone. Carson Smith is still here and a bit erratic. Guaipe hasn’t looked like an asset. Zych could be. And then there are guys like Jose Ramirez and Cody Martin… The situation isn’t great. Bass as a tertiary piece is useful, but he could end up being secondary or primary depending on how things shake out. In the interim, I would imagine that DiPoto is still looking to shore up the bullpen before February.
In trading Wilhelmsen, the Mariners lose one of their better arms from the bullpen and their best dancer (as far as I know). Tall Tom from Tucson had a rebound year for the Mariners in which he eventually helped solidify the back end of the bullpen while Fernando Rodney’s arrows went errant and struck hapless passers-by. He had the look of the Tom Wilhelmsen that had been so fun to watch in 2012, but as we’ve repeatedly noticed and hopefully learned, bullpen commodities can be volatile and a frequent reminder of the vagaries of chance and fate we are often oblivious to. For the Rangers, Wilhelmsen is the centerpiece, but they aren’t exactly buying low as the second-half of 2015 did a lot to repair his reputation. The roles Wilhelmsen played for the Mariners bullpen can be delegated to Benoit and others, but having that level of versatility in a single pitcher is a boon to any bullpen.
Of James Jones, there may be less to say other than Chris Gwynn is still somewhere, smiling about his reaching the majors as a position player and not a pitcher. The reality is that Jones’ elite speed and arm strength have not translated to good defensive play. In the minors, he played almost exclusively right field. For whatever stock you put into defensive metrics, the ones Jones has supplied to Fangraphs have stink lines rising up from them. If Rangers fans are interested, I can note that after having perennial issues with strikeouts, Jones ran close to an even K/BB in the minors this year. Whether he has the requisite power to keep pitchers honest is another matter, but there is at least a reason to think that his offense may eventually not be abysmal, as you wait for the defensive improvements that may or may not come.
This is another one of those trades that made sense for both parties involved. The Mariners improved their outfield depth significantly while losing some bullpen depth, the Rangers did the opposite, but one could argue that with the acquisition of Benoit, and even considering the loss of Farquhar, the Mariners had ability to maneuver in the bullpen whereas plus gloves in centerfield were probably going to be harder to come by. About as much as I have for summary is that DiPoto has wasted little time in restructuring the team. While I haven’t been elated by any of the moves, they’ve seemed like potential net positives in each case. We absolutely needed a centerfielder for at least the next three years, probably more than we needed a reliable arm in the bullpen, so I think that the early opinion favors Mariners on this one. Getcher warmed-over, next-day’s-breakfast takes, right here.
What? I still exist.
This round of 40-man roster addition action is newly vexed by the consideration that the Mariners are under new general management. Certain core pieces remain, such as Tom McNamara, who served as architect for many of the drafts in consideration, but DiPoto and possibly even down to Scott Servais may have different opinions on what players are worth protecting than we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Ostensibly, with so much ink devoted to a broader notion of athleticism as a necessity in Safeco Field (one wonders how much Zduriencik was still planning around Miller Park), you might expect there to be a greater emphasis to protect those that are closer to that model. However, there has doubly been the player development concern of having so many high draft picks go on to achieve so little. The new player development director in Andy McKay has made compelling remarks in favor of the idea that while there are the rare exceptions who arrive on ability alone, the game could be as much as 90% mental and preparative. I don’t know how instructive the decisions to be made about the 40-man roster will be, seeing as how we might see the draft philosophy change in the coming seasons, but if nothing else, we might be able to step away from it and assess by the results which players are seen as part of the plan and which aren’t.
The familiar song-and-dance of it is that what we’ll be looking at here are college picks from the ’12 draft and high school and early international signings from around the summer of 2011. This means in some wacky parallel universe where different choices are made, the Mariners may be protecting Mike Zunino for the first time although I prefer the parallel universe in which we draft and somehow properly develop Carlos Correa. As usual, there’s also some level of ambiguity built-in to where it’s hard to tell which international signings had contracts for what year, so this is in some cases the best estimate on the information I have, although I can’t say that there’s much depth this season. Rosters will have to be finalized by November 20th, so, golly, you’ll have a few whole days to mull over what you would do with this immense responsibility that you have no say in.
I’m ordering this roughly through a sense of likelihood and am forgoing the exhaustive listing of who is and isn’t eligible because I’m short of time and it doesn’t seem to be worth it this year.
As you probably know, MLB runs a domestic “winter” league for minor league prospects and potential Rule 5 guys in October/November of each year. The league consists of six teams, with each team comprised of 5-6 MLB teams’ prospects. The league generally draws some of the bigger names in the prospect world, particularly position players, and it’s been wildly successful as a developmental project; *42* members of this year’s MLB All-Star teams once played in the AFL. Trout, Harper, Arrieta, Donaldson, Bryant all had stints in the AFL, and Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell played there last year. While the level of competition is a bit hit and miss (you could face an elite pitching prospects or a selection of minor-league relievers playing for a 40-man spot somewhere), it’s a good proving ground, especially for guys who’ve mostly faced low-minors competition.
The M’s sent DJ Peterson to Peoria for the second straight year, and they’ve got James Paxton heading back to the AFL after suiting up for Peoria back in 2012. In addition, SS Tyler Smith, OFs Tyler O’Neill and Dario Pizzano and LH relievers Paul Fry, Ryan Horstman and David Rollins are all making their AFL debuts. There’s not a ton you can learn from 20-30 games worth of stats, but thanks to the pitch fx systems in Peoria and Surprise, fans can get actual data on some of these guys, though we’ll talk about the quality of it in a minute. And MLB Network’s showing a bit more of the league, including the “Fall Stars” game a week or so back (they’re actually televising a few games as I write this), which both makes sense for the league and is a sign of the growth in general fan interest in prospects overall.
So, have we learned anything new? Not much, but here are some observations:
1: Back when the M’s group was announced, the guy I was most interested in seeing was Paul Fry. The unheralded lefty out of a Michigan community college racked up 113 Ks in just 80 IP over two levels in 2015, finishing strong in AA, and continuing a string of posting lower RA9 and ERAs at every level of the minors. As a 17th rounder, and someone who posted pretty poor numbers in rookie ball after the draft, there’s not a whole lot of scouting information about him. Was he suddenly throwing much harder and blowing people away? Or was he a junkballer, fooling bad hitters with a change-up or a funky delivery?
Fry throws from a low arm angle and sits about 88-89mph with his fastball. His best pitch is a slider with lots of horizontal break. The picture I get is sort of a crafty-lefty version of Carson Smith, which is to say, every situational lefty ever. There’s limited value there, but hey, Jesse Orosco and a host of others rode this skillset to long careers. I’ll admit, I’d prefer the high-octane route to producing a K rate like Fry’s, but at the very least, his regular-season splits were encouraging. He didn’t *pitch* like a LOOGY, at least in the minors.
Given that velocity, it seems we settled the question of fire- vs. junkballer. Worse, through his first 8 appearances, he looked like a *bad* junkballer, yielding 17 hits in just 7 IP, giving up 8 runs and posting a 4:4 K:BB ratio. Where was the guy who struck out 113 and gave up just 22 unintentional walks this year? Today, we caught a glimpse of him. In 2 scoreless innings, Fry gave up 1 hit, no walks, and struck out *5*, freezing Glendale hitters with his fastball and getting a few to swing over sliders. No, he wasn’t suddenly throwing 94, but at least he was missing bats the way he did during the season. If I wrote this post yesterday, this would’ve been a lot more pessimistic. No, one really good game doesn’t radically alter his outlook, but I was starting to worry – a bit – that his 2015 had been something of a fluke. That’s different than saying his 2015 is his true talent level, and he’ll lay waste to the PCL next, but he’s a lefty capable of missing bats.
2: Sooooo, DJ Peterson. Last year at this time, scouts and others easily looked past his .190/.290/.288 batting line and saw a clear plus hitter. In the regular season, Peterson hit .223/.290/.346 for AA Jackson (and worse than that in a brief call up to AAA Tacoma). Thus far in Arizona, Peterson is hitting .220/.343/.407 with 3 HRs; it’s a clear improvement on both last year’s AFL line and his regular season stats, and yet, this is now a pretty long stretch of mediocre hitting from the 1B ranked as the best pure hitter in the 2013 draft.
No one’s overreacting to anything, at least not yet, but I think many M’s fans wanted to see that his 2015 was the product of a hidden injury, feeling tired or literally any mitigating circumstance you can think of. He’ll still show some signs, as in his 2 HR game back in October, but it’s hard to escape the idea that his present hit tool and possible ceiling aren’t quite as high as we once thought. One plus from this repeat of the AFL is that he can work with a new hitting coach, and he’ll get to work with new Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius in the spring – he seems like of 2015.
3: Tyler O’Neill was probably the most interesting position player assigned to Peoria. The Canadian posted a great 2015, building on a decent showing in the Midwest League in 2014 by hitting 32 HRs in Bakersfield AND leading Canada to the gold in the Pan-Am games. He’s the classic Zduriencik hitter – a righty with plus power that’s held back a bit by contact issues. He’s yet to post a K rate under 30% at any stop, though at least it’s not rising as he ascends through the minors. Moreover, he was much, much better in the 2nd half, moving from an all-or-nothing HRs-and-whiffs slugger to an actual hitter, posting an OPS about .250 higher in the second half than the first.
Still, that’s the Cal League. O’Neill had something to prove against more advanced pitching in the AFL, and to date, he’s done so. He only managed 30 plate appearances before jetting off to another international tournament (the Premier 12), and he’s finished with 11 Ks and hasn’t walked yet, but O’Neill still made loud contact much more often than he did in June of this year, let alone 2014. His batting line is gaudy, and he’s keeping it up with Canada – he hit a HR last night against team Italy. The sample’s really, really small, but O’Neill did all you could ask to reassure M’s fans that he’s turned some kind of corner.
4: Ryan Horstman has had a very strange season. For the second straight year, the rare freshman-eligible draft pick out of St. Johns pitched only a handful of innings – 13 2/3 over 3 levels. That brings his *career* total to 22+ since 2013. He’s had trouble staying on the field, I mean. Still, while he was ON the field, things looked OK. Horstman didn’t give up a run this year, scattering 4 hits and 7 free passes thanks in large part to 20 strikeouts. He looks to be a real fly-ball pitcher, which can help with BABIP issues, but often leads to HRs. Obviously, Horstman’s avoided the long ball thus far. The Chris Young plan may work well in the Midwest League in April, but often fares poorly in Arizona*.
Whatever Horstman’s secret is, he brought it with him to Peoria. In 8 1/3 IP, Horstman’s given up 5 hits and 5 walks and struck out just 4, but he’s yet to give up a run. That’s a scoreless streak of about 30 IP over 8 months or so, and includes rookie ball and lo-A. This, by itself, doesn’t make Horstman a “prospect” in the traditional sense, but it does show he’s capable of doing things that can make him tough to hit. While he throws a bit harder than Fry, he’s not a fireballer either, averaging about 91mph with Paxton-like movement: lots of vertical rise. The command hasn’t been there, he sits in the low 90s, he’s missing fewer bats and he’s practically allergic to ground balls – all that isn’t encouraging, but if you squint you understand what would make the M’s assign a guy with 8 IP above the complex leagues to the Arizona Fall League.
5: There are bigger prospects in the league, from St. Louis’ top hurler Alex Reyes (sent home after being suspended for a positive marijuana test) to Philadelphia SS JP Crawford (sent home with an injury), but one of the things I was looking forward to was seeing how a guy with quite possibly the *second* fastest fastball on earth fared. Indeed, looking at pitch fx, I’m even more confident that we’ve identified the guy who sits behind Aroldis Chapman in the velo rankings. Only, it’s not the guy I thought it would be. San Francisco’s Ray Black has battled injuries for years, and thus was in the Cal League at the relatively advanced age of 24 this year. He came back to pitch only 25 IP, but struck out an insane 51 on the year.
If you look at the AFL velocity leaderboard, you’ll see Black’s name at the top. So who’s this other guy? Meet Braves RP Mauricio Cabrera. Cabrera caught my eye after a Baseball America scouting note reported he’d been hitting 102 multiple times in October. Since then, I’ve been checking his appearances, and the guy practically lives at 101. This isn’t just Pitch FX – as the BA article shows, scouts (and the TV gun on MLB Network) have had him throw multiple pitches at 103. Push the pitch fx reading from 50′ to 55′ (as Brooks Baseball does), give him an MLB call-up to get the adrenaline pumping, and you’ve got the best chance I can think of to at least challenge Chapman’s record 105mph pitch.
Now, it’s worth noting that all of this velocity hasn’t made Cabrera…you know, *good*. Somewhat like other minor league vets with the ability to throw hard but not well (where are you now, Phillippe Valiquette), Cabrera’s command is bad, and he’s getting hit harder than anyone throwing 102 should be. It’s odd – it’s not like he doesn’t throw a change-up. He does, and it’s the reason he’s NOT at the top of the AFL velo leaderboard: Pitch FX assumes all of those 89-92mph pitches are fastballs, when they’re actually cambios. He’s got a slider, too, and thus should be fine against RHB/LHBs alike – you can see why he was a starter before 2015. He’s now been in the US affiliated-minors for four seasons and has just 17 innings above A ball AND has yet to post a decent year statistically, but you can understand why he’ll continue to get chances. Hell, if he’s left unprotected, I’d be fine seeing the M’s Rule 5 him.
* Like the rest of baseball, offense has really fallen in the AFL in recent years. From what I can see, the league offense drop lagged the big leagues by a couple of years. Whereas *teams* often posted OPS’s over .900 from 2000-2011, they fell markedly in 2012, and now look more like a “regular” minor league. Whether that’s due to weather, or teams deciding to send better pitching prospects isn’t clear, but it’s stayed lower in each year since 2012.
The M’s added 38 year old reliever Joaquin Benoit in a trade with San Diego. Heading south are RHP prospect Enyel de los Santos and IF Nelson Ward. Jeff Sullivan has a great post on the veteran Benoit at Fangraphs, noting that Benoit seems to have the ability to induce weak contact and thus post consistently low BABIPs. It’s an important part of his skillset, and one that hasn’t shown any signs of age-related decline. Benoit’s velocity’s been remarkably stable as well, but his BABIP has been remarkable ever since 2010, and his solitary season with Tampa.
Tampa, as you may recall, has made a habit of picking up talented-but-struggling closers, making minor adjustments, and letting them walk after big years. Hell, Benoit wasn’t even the only example on the Rays in 2010 – they also had Rafael Soriano that year, who put up a career best BABIP and ERA and turned it into a huge payday with the Yankees the following year. Fernando Rodney was DFA’d by Anaheim in 2011, then turned up at the repair shop in the Trop and turned in a walk rate that’s almost 1/2 of his next-lowest campaign AND a career low BABIP. He couldn’t sustain it the following year, but he was still a very good reliever, and his two-year stint got him a good contract offer from Seattle in 2014. Grant Balfour was a minor-league journeyman before washing ashore in Tampa in 2008.
Despite the similarity, Benoit seems to have learned something that stuck, while the rest turned in volatile performances like normal relievers. Rafael Soriano become a walking cautionary tale. Fernando Rodney had a great year in Seattle, before imploding in 2015. Balfour enjoyed success in Oakland before melting down in a return to the Rays. The key to Benoit’s success at limiting hits is in his command of up-and-away pitches. Benoit uses his 95mph fastball to induce whiffs by keeping it up or even out of the strike zone, and he’s able to keep it away from righties and lefties alike.
As a result, his results aren’t bad, even if batters make contact. In his *career*, which stretches over 4,000+ plate appearances, Benoit’s given up a BABIP of .203 on grounders and .078 on fly balls. His tOPS+ (OPS relative to all other pitchers) is 27 for the former and 80 for the latter. All the elevated fastballs have traditionally meant a fly-ball heavy batted ball profile, though this was less true last year in San Diego. He posted a career high GB% last year, and that was driven in large part by a carer high GB rate on his fastball. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course; remember, he’s been even better at managing GB contact than flies over his career. Still, any time a successful reliever’s peripherals start changing – for any reason, and in any direction – you wonder. Relievers are strange beasts. Here’s hoping Benoit stays strange for another year or two.
The cost was two low-minors semi-prospects. Enyel de los Santos, a lanky 6’3″ righty is the prize. He pitched well in rookie-level Arizona and moved up to Everett this season, pitching pretty well over 8 starts, striking out 42 in 37 2/3 innings. Jason Churchill reported a 89-92mph fastball, a slow curve and a change-up after seeing him in July (and coming away impressed). Statistically, he’s somewhat similar to recent Evertt hurlers like Seon-Gi Kim, Jose Valdivia or Stephen Landazuri and a clear notch behind the likes of Jose Campos or Victor Sanchez. Nelson Ward was a 12th round pick in 2014 out of the University of Georgia, and after a slow start to his pro career, showed decent pop and a good eye from the left side…for a 2B in the Cal League. Splitting time between Clinton and Bakersfield, Ward hit 39 extra-base hits, including 9 HRs. It’s a perfectly decent line, though at 23, time’s getting short. He also struck out in nearly 1/4 of his plate appearances. The odds are low, but to his credit, he was the only thing approaching a decent hitter on the Clinton roster for large swaths of 2015.
This deal got lost in the national shuffle, though, when the Angels and Braves stole the headlines by swapping shortstops. Erick Aybar’s been a solid but inconsistent shortstop for years, showing a plus glove and solid contact skills. The rest of the offensive profile, though, has been in flux. In 2011 and 2012, Aybar had enough power to be a plus hitter overall, posting 16 batting runs to go along with his great defense. Since then, though, his power – even gap power – has all but disappeared. His ISO by year has gone from .142 in 2011 to .126 in 2012 and dropped in every year since, down to .069 last year. At that level, a hitter who doesn’t walk (and Aybar does *not* walk) needs to post really high averages to get by, and Aybar’s has been merely good, not great. That resulted in a wRC+ of just 80. With one year left on his deal, the Angels needed to upgrade SS soon. Luckily for them, the Braves were shopping all-world defender Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons’ ISO was in an Aybar-like free fall, too, dropping from .149 to .073 from 2013-2015, and while he strikes out less often than Aybar and walks a bit more, he’s been a decidedly below-average hitter for the past two seasons. The Braves evidently thought he wouldn’t improve and made their intent to shop him quite public. This is somewhat remarkable, given the Braves locked him up through 2020 in 2014, paying $58m over 7 years. Given the ramp-ups, he’ll make only $6m next year, but the Angels are on the hook for $53m in total. The Braves are in full-on rebuild mode, but they’re somewhat unique in that they’ve sold low on young players like Simmons and Jason Heyward. Clearly, they’ve been able to restock their club and farm systems with these trades, but it’s still odd to see a team so eager to trade off players as talented as Simmons and doing so when poor seasons have driven down their value. And despite his age,
The big return for Atlanta isn’t Aybar, though, it’s Anaheim’s top two pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Newcomb was GM Jerry Dipoto’s first-round pick in 2014, and shot up the ladder in 2015. As LA Times beatwriter Mike DiGiovanna tweeted, the Angels got plenty of offers for Newcomb at the deadline last year, but Dipoto turned them all down:
#Angels would not include Sean Newcomb in just about any deal in July. Funny how those things change with a new GM.
— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) November 12, 2015
Can only imagine what type of hitter (Cespedes? Zobrist?) #Angels might have gotten had they been willing to trade Sean Newcomb in July.
— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) November 13, 2015
Just as we’ve seen in Seattle, a new GM often has a much different view of his new MiLB assets than his predecessor.
That said, just as I’m a bit surprised at the Braves willingness to part with Simmons (even if you’re down on advanced defensive metrics, you KNOW he’s adding value defensively), it’s somewhat surprising to see the Angels decide to flip Newcomb. Pitching at 3 levels this year, Newcomb struck out more than a batter an inning and posted great runs-allowed totals. He’s physically huge, and possesses a plus fastball and a good slider, and the results have been there. Command, however, is still a work in progress. The Angels – and most prospect watchers – weren’t too concerned, given Newcomb’s northeast background and limited experience on the mound. New GM Billy Eppler may see this as a way to sell high on a strong-armed question mark. Ellis has his own issues. With fewer Ks, command problems of his own, and odd HR struggles, Ellis will be something of a project. That’s OK, as a terrible junior year meant he fell to the Angels in the 3rd round, and they were able to make some adjustments that made him a legitimate prospect – I don’t want to overstate his “problems” based on a so-so 1/2 season in AA.
So, the AL West added the best defensive shortstop since Omar Vizquel, but the Angels top 30 prospect list might actually include peanut vendors or like-new iPhone chargers. The Braves now have very little payroll committed as the prepare to move into a new suburban ballpark. They’ve acquired a plethora of pitching prospects, but they are still absolutely terrible. With payroll flexibility and lots of pre-arb assets, they could make a move in free agency, but may wait a few years to do so. In the meantime, being a Braves fan seems to be a pretty dour experience, and I realize this is a bit of a pot/kettle thing to say, given my baseballing proclivities. The thing that’s striking isn’t how each team view defensive metrics or minor league pitchers’ value or any of that – it’s just a reminder that reasonable people can disagree substantially on how to value players. There really *IS* a kind of tunnel vision or preference for one’s own prospects, and that’s something a healthy org needs to work against. Remember that Jack Zduriencik shipped out the M’s previous top prospect, Jeff Clement, for a package of Ian Snell and Jack Wilson…and “won” the trade.
It’s an easy analogy – the M’s have a glut of young shortstops, making one of them obsolete. Other teams *know* that said SS is on the block, and low-ball the M’s accordingly. But it’s tough finding middle infielders with decent power in 2015, so they eventually yield and make the deal. And thus, a year-plus after dealing Nick Franklin, the M’s have shipped Brad Miller (and Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar) to Tampa for SP Nate Karns, CF prospect Boog Powell, and reliever CJ Riefenhauser. The M’s hope Karns/Powerr are more useful than Austin Jackson turned out to be, while the Rays hope that THIS M’s SS prospect works out better than Nick Franklin.
The irony isn’t lost on Franklin, the guy who became expendable BECAUSE of Brad Miller, and will now be blocked again thanks to Miller’s arrival. The Rays have all but given Miller the starting SS slot, with last year’s incumbent, Asdrubal Cabrera (himself a former M’s SS prospect who got shipped out because the M’s had Yuni Betancourt locking down SS for a decade), leaving in free agency and Tim Beckham OBP’ing .274 and striking out over 30% of his plate appearances. And that makes sense: Miller’s cheap, and by most statistical measures, perfectly fine at SS and flawed-but-solid at the plate. The M’s front office(s) (both Zduriencik and Dipoto) have decided that Miller won’t be a SS while Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor remain in the org. The Rays remember the M’s view of Erasmo Ramirez, and have decided to take another gamble that the M’s evaluation isn’t exactly rock solid.
As Dipoto himself mentions, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. “They addressed needs. We addressed needs, and everyone walks away happy,” Dipoto said to Bob Dutton, who had the initial report on the swap. The M’s didn’t need a super-utility guy whose best profile was SS if they’re going to give the starting job to Marte. Meanwhile, they actually DID need an athletic CF who won’t strike out all the time. Enter Boog Powell. The former A’s farmhand moved to Tampa in the Ben Zobrist deal after a remarkable 2014 that saw the 21-year old get on base at a .450 clip between the Midwest League and Cal League. The average and thus OBP were a bit lower in 2015, split between AA Montgomery and AAA Durham, but he showed a bit more pop than he did in the A’s org. That is a laughably low bar, however. Of Powell’s 90 hits in 2014, only 18 went for extra bases. The 3 HRs are understandable from an undersized speed/defense CF, but the lack of 2Bs and 3Bs was a concern. With Tampa, the 22-year old Powell notched 28 XBH from his 103 total hits, which..that’s not great, but it’s a hopeful sign, especially when considering the difference in league run environment.
The M’s have gone into the past few seasons thinking that SP depth wasn’t much of an issue. They had to send Roenis Elias to Tacoma in April last year, which didn’t go down well with the Cuban lefty. They swapped the out-of-options Erasmo Ramirez to the Rays. The year before, Elias made the club with Hector Noesi in the pen, which pushed Blake Beavan to..OK, bad example. In any event, SP depth has continued to bite them. James Paxton has struggled to stay healthy, and is now taking his customary tour of the AFL to get more innings in. Danny Hultzen has *really* struggled to stay healthy. Mike Montgomery started out brilliantly, but ended the year not in Seattle but in instructs, close to, but not actually a part of the AFL. Jordan Pries, Forrest Snow and, hell, Chien-Ming Wang weren’t able to force their way into the picture. That’s the context in which the M’s made a deal *featuring* righty Nate Karns. If the M’s are able to bring Hisashi Iwakuma back, Karns is fighting for the 5th slot with Elias. Many may see that as a bad return for a guy the Rays believe is a starting shortstop, but it’s an intriguing move for Seattle.
Like many of the Rays, Karns is a straight-over-the-top, rising FB pitcher. His four-seamer averaged over 11″ of vertical movement, making it an extreme fly ball pitch that he’s comfortable throwing up in the zone for whiffs or poor contact. His best pitch is a power curve at 81-83, and with good two-plane break. He’s also working on his change-up, and the pitch may now be within range of league average, after starting out as something of a project. That three-pitch mix enabled the somewhat unheralded Karns to post 1.5 fWAR and 2.6 RA9 WAR for Tampa, using the curve and a willingness to pitch up to rack up impressive strikeout totals.
The downside to all of the elevated fastballs probably isn’t a surprise. Karns has given up 1.42 HR/9 in his brief career, and while he improved on that last year, he still clearly had a HR problem. But just as Miller makes sense in the AL East, especially for a team whose frame of reference for defense was Asdrubal Cabrera, Karns’ weakness should be masked a bit by Safeco and the other coastal parks in the AL West. Of course, you wouldn’t want to run a fly ball pitcher out there with Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo in the OF, but that’s where Powell comes in. On paper, the M’s have ticked every box – they reduced K’s offensively, they added to SP depth, and they swapped something of a poor fit for their park for a great one.
But these are the M’s, and they’ve been trading from the same areas of surplus and receiving a bit less in production than they would’ve hoped. For the past two years, the one position the M’s have felt comfortable trading has been the bullpen – they simply had too many arms for too few spots out there, until suddenly their depth vanished thanks to variance and regression. Last year, it was Chris Taylor’s remarkable 2014 that had the M’s ready to entertain offers on Brad Miller, and then Taylor melted in a short big league trial. Brad Miller had the job, then lost it to Chris Taylor and then Marte. The areas teams identify as surpluses have a weird tendency to become areas of need in short order.
That cautionary note aside (and they’re pretty much required for M’s fans), this is a solid deal for the M’s. Forget Miller’s Fangraphs stats. He wasn’t going to play SS here, not while Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor remain. With K% a concern of the new GM, Marte’s elite contact skills and Miller’s…not as elite contact skills made Miller’s ISO advantage irrelevant. Meanwhile, the Rays have Matt Moore AND Alex Cobb AND Drew Smyly coming off of long injury layoffs last year and likely would’ve sent Karns to AAA if those three plus Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi were healthy. Yes, pitchers get hurt, and the Rays know that better than anyone, but the Rays were able to sell high on a righty without an overpowering FB and without a guaranteed rotation spot. I’m sure there are Rays fans upset they couldn’t get more for a cost-controlled, improving-but-already-league-average starter, and if it makes them feel better, despite knowing it was coming, it still stings to trade Miller after his last two sub-par years.
Just as the inclusion of Powell makes this a much more intriguing deal for M’s fans, the inclusion of Logan Morrison makes…ha ha, no, sorry. Morrison is no longer exciting, but he still fits a clear need for Tampa. M’s 1B ranked 28th in baseball last year, thanks in large part to Morrison’s disappointing campaign. But James Loney and the Rays’ first sackers were even worse, finishing 30th out of 30 with a combined 77 wRC+ (the M’s 1Bs managed an 88), while playing worse defense. The Rays have somehow made dumpster diving work in recent years, getting Casey Kotchman’s best year after the M’s cut bait, and then getting what passes for a good Loney campaign before striking out last year. LoMo isn’t much of an upgrade, but it’s the kind of low/no-cost move the Rays have a surprisingly good track record with.
Finally, the clubs swapped disappointing relievers, as Danny Farquhar and CJ Riefenhauser swap places. Farquhar has the better stuff, by far, with plus velo and what looked like great breaking stuff in 2013-14. But Farquhar was absolutely awful last year, and while you imagine the Rays have a few tweaks they’d like to make, Farquhar’s inclusion in this deal isn’t going to trouble M’s fans. Riefenhauser is more of a LOOGY, with a slider-dominant arsenal and a low 3/4 arm slot for his 88-90 MPH fastball. Oddly, Riefenhauser’s been better against righties than lefties recently (small sample alert), which is nice, but made it impossible for the Rays to figure out how to actually use him in games. He and Edgar Olmos will fight it out as strange lefties without well-defined roles.
Congratulations to the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. A team picked by many to finish 3rd or 4th in their own division, and with striking agreement among most projection systems, has shocked the baseball world and inspired a great deal of commentary about what teams should and shouldn’t take from their success. With two consecutive AL Pennants, one Series title and a highly idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable approach, the Royals seem like a good team to learn from, or out-and-out copy.
You probably know a lot of what makes the Royals so seemingly unique: their possibly historically great contact skills helped them in the playoffs when they faced good/high K% pitching. Their team speed put pressure on opposing batteries, while providing their own pitchers with an elite run-preventing defensive unit. Finally, they have an incredible bullpen that’s been consistent for a period of years, defying the volatility that’s sunk other groups (and proved to be a key issue in the M’s disappointing 2015). The M’s new front office and manager have alluded to or mentioned a few of these directly – from Jerry Dipoto noting that the M’s minor leaguers had serious whiff problems and Scott Servais saying he’d like to spend on bullpen improvements this offseason.
This post isn’t about copying the Royals, though. The pieces linked above are all much better on that topic than anything I could wring out, if you’re interested in the Royals Way and how to make it our own. What I’d like to talk about is the problem with Grand Theories of Roster Construction, or the idea that the first step in organizational change is adopting a bulleted list of the attributes of successful rivals. This isn’t to say that a team should go full Zen and let go of any and all theories about the game, how to win, and what attributes to scout for. Rather, the point is that baseball keeps telling us that it’s the particulars that matter, not the sweeping theories. We get fixated on the theories because it’s fun, because humans always love finding patterns in things, and because GMs sometimes talk about them and because writers – from beat writers to basement-dwellers like me – like talking about GMs talking about them. The Cubs are the dingers and strikeouts team. The Mets are the fast-fastballing team with all the hair. The Royals are the put-it-in-play and catch it team. None of this is wrong, but it’s limited, and that means it’s of limited use when trying to copy it.
The Royals offensive K% was the lowest in baseball this year at 15.6%. Despite the league-wide rise in strikeouts, the Royals cut their rate by a little less than one 1 percentage point from 2014 – when they were *still* the hardest team in baseball to strike out. But look at #2 on the 2015 (and 2014, actually) list: the Athletics. The A’s offense wasn’t completely terrible – they left that to their bullpen – but then, neither the A’s nor the Royals offense was all that great. The Royals position players excelled not because they didn’t strike out, but because they combined contact skills with defense.
The difficulty of combining the two won’t come as a surprise to M’s fans, of course. In 2008, the M’s offense put up a K% of 14.4%, lowest in the big leagues. They had one elite defender and baserunner in Ichiro, but many of the other low-K guys were defensively-challenged: Jose Vidro, Miguel Cairo, Jose Lopez. Still, this was clearly a priority for the front office at the time, and one that drove many of us crazy at the time. I won’t lie and say this isn’t a bias; I hear about collecting contact hitters and the advantages of a “relentless” lineup and I think about the Jose Vidro trade, or about Yuniesky Betancourt starting at SS for what felt like decades. No one that I know of is saying that contact rates, on their own, are the key to success in the low-scoring run-environment we find ourselves, but *recent* history shows just how limited it can be.
Contact hitting has gotten all the recent press, but any team is, by its structure and complexity, pretty hard to sum up in 3-4 bullet points. One of the most striking things to me about the Royals, and one I haven’t seen mentioned as much, is their patience. Not at the plate, of course. I mean: the Royals acquired, developed and then waited on several key members of their offensive core. Most teams, I suspect, would have cut bait on one or more of Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. The Royals didn’t, and the players in question matured and improved substantially in the majors. Is patience the next market inefficiency? Is it impossible to develop players *in the majors* in a world of hot takes and hot seats?
Again, the Mariner fan in me would argue that “patience” is more or less neutral as a descriptive term for a front office. The Zduriencik regime made a potentially franchise-altering deal of a rent-a-pitcher about 6 months before Kansas City did – both acquired prospects their new clubs expected to become part of an offensive core for years to come. Lorenzo Cain had a brief call-up with Milwaukee, just as Justin Smoak had appeared for Texas. While both had made their debuts just before the trade, the industry was higher on Justin Smoak than Lorenzo Cain or Alcides Escobar; the fact that the Royals went for quantity over quality complicates the neat little parallels I’m drawing.
In any event, the immediate effect on the receiving teams wasn’t a big one. Cain spent nearly all of 2011 in AAA, while Smoak scuffled at both AAA and Seattle. Alcides Escobar went directly to the Royals’ starting lineup, but produced a 70 wRC+. The defense was nice, but a .290 OBP is tough to stomach on a team that hit for average and tried (and failed) to hit their way past an abysmal pitching staff. Escobar and Cain made huge strides at the plate the next year. While Escobar’s glove was a bit shakier, he actually hit, and Cain was solid in about half a season. 2013, though, was a disaster. In the year after the big Wade Davis trade (it seems pointless to keep calling it the Shields trade), Cain slumped to an 80 wRC+, while Escobar utterly collapsed, posting one of the worst non-Zunino years in recent memory* with a line of .234/.250/.300 (a wRC+ of 49) over 642 plate appearances. Defense up the middle is great, but we M’s fans remember Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan, and know that there’s a minimum level of offense required, and I’d argue that Escobar was comfortably short of it. If the Royals looked for upgrades between 2013 and 2014, they didn’t pull the trigger. Escobar started at SS again in 2014, and the Royals decided to stick with both Cain *and* homegrown defensive ace Jarrod Dyson. You know what happened.
The M’s, too, showed remarkable patience with both Justin Smoak and his fellow future star, Dustin Ackley. Ackley’s debut was brilliant, and while Smoak was up and down, there were signs of life, especially after a decent 2013 campaign. Both Ackley and Smoak would tantalize with a brilliant month. They’d work on something with hitting coaches in Tacoma, or they’d change their diet and/or their swing. You can understand why the M’s were loathe to either sell low on either, and conflicted over whether this or that stretch of 50 at-bats was the one where something clicked permanently. The M’s stuck with their youngsters as long as they could, and it cost the front office their jobs. The M’s, more than any other team in the AL West, was a draft and wait team. With Oakland and Houston constantly making trades, and with Anaheim using free agency and a few trades to work around a thin system, the M’s were remarkably dependent on drafted players. The Royals and M’s were perhaps the two most patient teams in the game, and it’s taken them to very, very different places.
The point here is fairly obvious, but, at least to me, worth repeating. How WELL you implement your strategy is more important than your strategy. If a team wants to copy the Royals by cribbing a set of high-level traits, they will most likely fail, just like a team trying to copy the Cubs dingers-and-Ks strategy will fail as bad as the M’s attempts at slugging their way out of the basement did. The one positive thing about being an M’s fan in the past decade is that we’ve had a long, painful object lesson in the meaninglessness of grand strategies that aren’t connected to on-the-ground competence in the core activities of player development. So you want to build around young sluggers, great: which ones are Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant and which ones are Jeff Clement and Justin Smoak? Contact and defense? OK, but you need to differentiate Escobar from Betancourt, and you need to trade for Coco Crisp and not Jose Vidro. The M’s efforts in re-making their player development group matters more – hopefully much more – than the vision of the specific type of MLB team Jerry Dipoto wants to build.
* For all of their successful moves and their remarkable 2-year run, this year’s Royals managed to give 455 PAs to Omar Infante, who produced a 44 wRC+ this year – .220/.234/.318, which is pretty amazing. It’s superficially a bit better than Zunino’s .174/.230/.300 line, but park effects give Zunino the edge in wRC+, 47 to 44. We’re [not] #1!!! Patience got Infante a heck of a long rope, but it did not get him on a postseason roster.