The M’s won 86 games last year, and are once again forecast to be in the running for one of the AL Wild Card spots. They are also one of the AL’s older teams, and several players are now at an age when age-related decline comes quickly and decisively. This is the premise of this Thomas Jenkins piece at BTBS the other day, and it’s the focus of this great David Skiba post at LL a few weeks ago. It’s also something I wrote about in July. The ramifications are pretty big, I’d say – the M’s don’t have the farm system to make high-impact upgrades; they haven’t been players in the Chris Sale/Jose Quintana sweepstakes, and thus they struggle to close a deal at the trade deadline if they’re in contention. I like Tyler O’Neill, but the M’s don’t have a Lindor/Correa/Bryant/Betts-type about to hit the big leagues. They are within striking distance in 2017, but the downside risk is pretty huge.
This gets at an interesting divide that’s opened up about the M’s throughout the blogosphere and on twitter; two opposing camps who each point to a set of facts, make some logical arguments, and come to very different conclusions. The M’s are a good team that is projected to compete for the playoffs, and the M’s seem like they’ve fallen a step behind some of their rivals, and if the season started today, appear a player or two short in what may be their best shot at contention in a while. The key to this seeming discrepancy is the fact that their core, now supplemented with SS Jean Segura, is among the most volatile in baseball – something we see when we look at their projections for 2017.
About a month ago, there was an interesting conversation on twitter between several current/former LL folks about the Steamer projections for the M’s core of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Jean Segura. Logan Davis noted that the projections for this quartet shaved a grand total of about 11 WAR from their 2016 production; that is, their forecasted production was much, much lower than their recent history – a fact that narrowed or even eliminated the gap between the M’s and Angels, for example, and made the M’s look much worse than the Astros. That led to some follow ups about how often that happens. This seemingly simple question is really two separate ones: how often does a team lose 10 WAR from its star players (answer: all the time) and how often is a group of star-level players *forecasted* to lose 10 WAR between them (answer: not often)? The reason for this little historical diversion is two-fold. First, lol 2015 Nationals, but second, and more importantly, it highlights WHY many fans are so nervous about 2017, and why people are increasingly frustrated by a team that’s still projected to contend.
So, first, let’s take a look at teams that have lost 10 WAR between four players – four stars or regulars whose collective production drops by 10 full wins from one year to the next. My first thought was to look for good aging teams, and yes, that produced a ton of teams that have done this. 2009 Phillies? Of course. 2004 Mariners! Oooohhh yeah. You can find teams that meet this criteria by looking at teams that seemingly overachieved, like the 2005 Chicago White Sox, or, with a bit less emphasis on “achievement,” the 2007 Mariners. You can find teams who’ve lost 10 WAR between 4 players all over the place, because it’s remarkably common; baseball is unpredictable, etc. etc. But a few teams cry out for more explanation. I mentioned the White Sox, who lost a bunch of WAR the year after their improbable World Series win in 2005, but they hilariously (depending on your feelings for them) did it again the next year, with a different group of players. That is, they lost a bunch of production from 2005 to 2006 (Buehrle had a down year, and Scott Podsednik came back to earth, and Neal Cotts utterly collapsed, only to turn up years and years later with the Rangers), but then an entirely different group of stars face-planted from 2006 to 2007 (Jermaine Dye went from all-star to sub-replacement level, and Joe Crede completely collapsed at age 28. Still, though, the most unreal core-collapse in recent memory belongs to the 2014-15 Washington Nationals. In 2014, the Nats had four position players worth at least 4 WAR. A year later, that group shed a grand total of nearly 16 WAR, with their top 2 most productive players in 2014, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, losing 11 WAR between them. By RA9-based WAR, their pitching staff was similarly hobbled, with Tanner Roark and Doug Fister losing another 8.5 WAR that year. No team could survive an implosion like this, and the Nats were no exception, despite the fact that Bryce Harper went from 1.4 WAR in 2014 all the way up to 9.5 in 2015. Their manager was fired, and their overpriced, deadline-deal closer tried to choke out the NL MVP in the midst of one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory. Someone should write a book about that team.
So teams lose production all the time – but do teams lose that many wins in projections? Almost never. Here, we need to find not only teams that overachieved, but players with really odd career trajectories – either guys who were too new for projections to get a handle on their true talent, guys at the end of their careers who fight off aging much better than did their historical comparison players, or guys with really odd career arcs. The M’s now have two aging stars in Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano whose comps started to turn bad at around this age. Nelson Cruz’s top 3 comps through age 35 (and Cruz played half of 2016 at age 36, thanks to his July 1st birthday) were all essentially done at 36. Cano is just 34, but it’s not surprising that the projection systems don’t know what to make of him thanks to what we can only hope was an injury-plagued anomaly in 2015. His comps aren’t all that encouraging either, even including the hall of famers – Ryne Sandberg posted his last greater-than-average OPS+ batting line at age 33, and Bobby Doerr retired after his age 33 season. Vern Stephens was essentially cooked at 35, Scott Rolen by 36. There are some much more encouraging decline phases, from George Brett’s and Adrian Beltre’s, so it’s not all bad news, but you can see why any projection system that takes age into account is going to be somewhat suspect of Cano and Cruz.
And that brings us to Jean Segura, a guy who was a league average batter at age 23 before spending two full, injury-free seasons hitting like Luis Sardinas before busting out as a 5-win shortstop last year. Even giving more weight to 2016, any offensive projection (one using math, that is; you could argue that his work with hitting guru Bob Tewksbary overrides whatever the numbers say) is going to take him down several pegs. Pairing him with Cruz, owner of one of the strangest career arcs in a generation, and you have a perfect storm. The error bars around any projections for Cruz or Segura have to be really, really wide. If his 2016 was a career year – if he retains any trace of the Jean Segura that put up an OBP in the mid .280s *in Arizona* over the course of 1,100+ PAs – then the M’s need serious help somewhere to really make a run at things.
On the plus side, you know who else has a core group of stars who’re forecasted to give back a ton of value vis a vis 2016? The Cubs. Kris Bryant was worth 8.4 fWAR last year and is still improving, but comps for guys that good that young aren’t common, so he’ll get compared to regular old stars instead: his Steamer projection is 5.7 wins. Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, at least by RA9 WAR, should lose a ton of value, too, and Dexter Fowler (probably not a Cub in 2017, but whatever) had his best hitting AND fielding year last year, and thus is projected to lose over 1/2 of his value next year. A lot went right for the Cubs, and they have hard-to-figure players, making their projections look much less rosy than a typical Cubs fan might think. And yet the Cubs are still one of the very best teams in the league. Saying the M’s projections look like the Cubs is forced at best and dishonest at worst, so I’ll just say that the M’s and Cubs projections have at least one similarity.
All of this just brings us back where we started, though. We’ve illustrated why the projections are going to struggle, and thus the reasons why the M’s look remarkably volatile going into 2017. But volatility works both ways – every projection has them behind the Astros, but given the projections don’t know what to do with Cruz/Segura/Cano…how would they know? It’s always a fool’s errand to pencil in last year’s production from the best guys and then add in some (positive) regression for the guys who struggled and call it a contending ball club, but the M’s have reason to think that their stars will be better than many think in 2017. At the same time, the M’s could very easily collapse if the end comes early and ignominiously for Nelson Cruz and if Segura turns back into Zack Cozart, but without the glove. All I can say is that I really hope that the *potential* for the M’s to beat their projections by a lot isn’t a factor that’s led them to be so tentative this past month. I’d hate to think the M’s are confident that the team as currently constructed can compete for the AL West, thus kneecapping any sense of urgency to get another starter. They may not have ever been involved with Edwin Encarnacion (who apparently didn’t want to play on the west coast), and they may not convince Jose Bautista to join the over-30 squad in Seattle, but they need to get creative – and soon – to improve their run prevention. There’s not a lot of help on the farm, at least for 2017, and the club lacks pitching depth. That’s critical, because again, once Cruz and Iwakuma go, thus club starts to look pretty mediocre pretty fast.
1: MLB held the Rule 5 draft today at the winter meetings in Washington, DC, and with the M’s roster full, they weren’t able to make any selections in the big league phase. They were *involved,* however. Tampa took SP Kevin Gadea from the M’s with the 4th overall pick, and this one hurts…at least, as much as (potentially) losing a 22-year old who only made it to A-ball half-way through 2016 can hurt.
Gadea signed for just $42,000 out of Nicaragua in 2013 at the comparatively old age of 18. He’d been eligible for the July 2nd signing period before, but had languished as a light-hitting 3B before an M’s scout suggested he try pitching. That late start on the mound explains his relatively slow progression: he pitched in the Venezuelan league after signing in 2013, then moved up to the Arizona League in 2014, but struggled with his command, and ended up moving *back* to the Dominican League in 2015 (after the M’s shuttered their VSL operations). Something clearly clicked for him in 2015, as he looked like a different pitcher in 2016. Starting off again in the AZL, he walked 3 in 18 1/3 IP, and then moved up to join Clinton in the Midwest League. The Lumberkings eased him in, giving him some shorter outings in the early going, but he took off and was the ace of the Clinton staff by the end of the year. Luiz Gohara was great, and is the bigger prospect name, but Gadea posted better numbers: Gohara struck out 60 and walked 20 in 54 1/3 IP, while Gadea struck out *72* and walked just 11 in 50 1/3 IP. Gadea closed out the year on a phenomenal run – in his last 5 starts, Gadea struck out 48 while walking just 5 in 31 innings.
Yes, he *just* made it to the Midwest league and he’s 22, but that kind of command is pretty special in an ex-position player – and the M’s should know, given their 3B-to-RP conversions (eg. Ramon Morla). Gohara wasn’t available in the Rule 5 draft, but even if he was, I think you can make the case that Gadea would be as likely or perhaps even more likely to stick with a team. The Rays can stash Gadea in their bullpen for 2017, and then either try to start him again in 2018 or, if he does passably, develop him as an intriguing set-up man. For me, Gadea was easily a top-20 M’s prospect, with a possibility to start 2017 in the top 10. Damn it.
The M’s made some moves in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft as well, picking up crafty lefty reliever Paul Paez from the Mets and OF Chuck Taylor from the D-Backs, while losing overslot tools prospect Austin Wilson to the Cardinals. Paez has a FB in the 87mph range, and thus hasn’t been a big strikeout guy (though his K rate went up in his first taste of AA last year). He doesn’t seem to be a Rzepczynski clone – he’s a flyball pitcher, which is somewhat remarkable given his lack of HRs-allowed. That and his control are probably his most notable skills, and he figures to add some depth to Tacoma’s bullpen next year. The warning sign is that, despite some Ks, he got lit up in the AA Eastern League, giving up 4 HRs (doubling his career total) and 29 hits in less than 20 IP.
Chuck Taylor was a high-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks, and showed some solid tools, but has essentially zero power. That put a lot of pressure on his bat-to-ball skills, and ultimately, he just wasn’t able to hit enough to stick with the snakes. There’s potential in there somewhere, as Kiley McDaniel noted a few years ago, but Taylor’s collapsed since that note was written. Of course, one could say the same about Austin Wilson, the ex-Stanford corner OF whom scouts had been following for years. Like Taylor, Wilson could work a walk, but never hit for enough average or power to move up. Both players undoubtedly have some untapped ability in there somewhere, and so I kind of like viewing this as a kind of change-of-scenery trade. The Cards player development staff have been tremendous, and who knows, maybe they can make some adjustments, but there’s no sense lamenting losing Wilson, who K’d at a staggering 36% clip last year in the Cal League. Taylor makes much more contact, but it hasn’t helped him any, which implies a hell of a lot of slow ground balls. He’ll be an M’s project now, and figures to play in AA Arkansas or maybe A+ Modesto.
2: The M’s bolstered their starting pitching depth by picking up RHP Chris Heston from the Giants for a player to be named later. Heston famously tossed a no-hitter against the Mets in 2015 as a rookie starter. He pitched nearly 180 IP and made 31 starts for SF that year, with a perfectly acceptable 4.02 FIP, 3.95 ERA. He’s not overpowering, with sinker in the 90mph range and a big breaking slurvy slider, a curve and a change-up, and unfortunately, he’s not a great control guy, either. Thanks to his low-rise sinker and change, he’s a decent GB arm, but his real carrying card is his ability to shut down righties. The sinker/slider combo is highly correlated with platoon splits, and Heston’s pitches move quite a bit, thanks to a lower release point that is itself correlated with difficulties with opposite-handed hitters. Indeed, lefties torched him in 2015, hitting .270/.356/.462, which is pretty bad for an NL starter pitching half his games in San Francisco. Of course, the flip side is that he dominated righties, with a 3.3 K:BB ratio, very few HRs and a FIP under 3.
He missed nearly all of 2016 with an oblique injury; he logged just 4 IP for SF, and looked like a different pitcher, often struggling to hit 87. This is a solid bounce-back move, and is pretty much risk free, though we’ll have to see who the PTBNL is, of course. To make room on the 40-man, the M’s DFA’d Richie Shaffer, the promising-but-struggling IF they acquired from the Rays earlier this offseason.
3: The M’s have been quite open about their desire to acquire another solid MLB starter to make up for the loss of Taijuan Walker in the Jean Segura trade. Heston helps with depth, but is clearly not someone the M’s can just pencil into the big league rotation; the odds are good he doesn’t make the M’s roster and heads out in search of another opportunity. Thus, if the M’s want to acquire some rotation upside, they may look to the free agents still available. In general, that’s something of a scary thought, given the overall quality of the FA pitchers this year. The best of them have already signed anyway, now that Rich Hill inked a deal with the Dodgers. At this point, anyone on the market comes with a host of red flags, but that may actually make them MORE enticing to Jerry Dipoto, who’s been very active in baseball’s bargain bin the past year.
Isabelle Minasian has a great article on perhaps the most intriguing of the broken toys on the market, ex-Padres RHP Tyson Ross. Ross, an Oakland native, came up with the Athletics in 2010, and was then shipped to San Diego in the immortal Andy Parino deal of 2012. The Padres got him to use his tight-spinning slider more, and he turned into an incredibly valuable starter, racking up 9.5 fWAR in the 3 years from 2013-2015. He’s always been somewhat injury prone, and ended up losing his 2016 with his most severe injury yet: a shoulder problem that was eventually diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Ross had thoracic outlet surgery on his right shoulder this past October, which means it’s likely he won’t be ready for spring training, but the recovery time from TOS is much, much less than it is from Tommy John or more serious shoulder procedures. In a perfect world, he could pitch most of the year and bounce all the way back to his pre-injury self. Years ago, thoracic outlet syndrome was an extremely rare/rarely-diagnosed issue that would show up as numbness in the arm or fingers. It’s caused by nerves getting pinched or compressed by the upper ribs and arm, and doctors found that an easy fix to give the nerve bundle more room was just to remove a rib (presumably the 1st rib, just under the clavicle). I’ve joked for years on this blog that it could’ve been named the Texas Rangers surgery, as the Rangers seemed to be the first to diagnose it in ballplayers – Kenny Rogers and Hank Blalock were among the first to have it done around 10 years ago. And once they started looking for it, they found it everywhere. John Rheinecker, Matt Harrison, etc. Soon, other teams cottoned on, and it’s now somewhat common. The M’s picked up Chris Young after he had it, and signed Jeremy Bonderman after he restarted his career following the procedure.
That said, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s safe and routine. Just as Tommy John surgery isn’t foolproof, TOS isn’t minor surgery. Shaun Marcum never really recovered following his, and the Padres – a team with essentially no rotation – were scared enough to non-tender Ross despite positive reports from Ross’ surgeon. His Steamer projection has him as a better-than-league average starter in just shy of 150 IP, which seems high, but attainable. He’s apparently looking for a one-year deal in the range of $9m-$11m, which is probably a bit more than he’d have gotten in arbitration. That’s a lot of money for a guy who just got stitches in his shoulder removed, but it’s also a one-year commitment to an All-Star caliber pitcher.
From there, the risks just get riskier. Lefty Brett Anderson is someone I wouldn’t mind the M’s making a play for. He missed nearly all of 2016 after accepting the Dodgers qualifying offer for him, so he figures to make considerably less. His injury history spans several leather-bound volumes, and he’s made 30 starts just twice in his 8-year MLB career. Still, he was decent as recently as 2015, and helps balance an M’s rotation that’s grown increasingly right-handed. You can’t count on him the whole year, but that might allow the M’s to get a longer look at Ariel Miranda. Safeco is no longer a great place to pitch for lefties, but there are worse places to go if you’re looking for a one-year pillow contract.
Derek Holland’s available after the Rangers declined their option on him. Another lefty, and another guy with an extensive injury history (he needed knee surgery after being undercut by his dog, once, and has had severe, lingering shoulder problems), Holland pitched over 100 (so-so) innings last year, and may command a bit more money solely because he was able to take the ball in 2016. That said, he hasn’t really been good since 2013, and has had serious HR issues for much of his career. If you’re willing to accept some risk and the need for more than a one-year commitment, it might be better to look at Jason Hammel, who also had his team option declined. Hammel struggled at the end of the year, and has had some injury issues of his own in recent years, but his topped 150 IP in each of the last three years. This is what passes for an interesting option in this horrific FA market, but it’s possible that teams stay away and the price on all of these guys – and Doug Fister – drops, but the M’s might want to go with a short FA commitment instead of trading more of their prospects away.
Not that long ago, I had a post about some early contenders for the bullpen pile after the M’s acquired Dean Kiekhefer in a waiver claim. With his low 3/4 delivery and the resultant horizontal movement, he looked a bit like fellow new-Mariner, Ryan Weber. Two things are clear at this point, some 13-14 months into the Jerry Dipoto tenure: first, the man cannot stop acquiring relievers, and second, when he does, he seems to like to acquire two or three guys with the same approach/skills.
I thought back to that “buy in bulk” strategy when looking into new Mariner Casey Fien. John Trupin has a handy overview of Fien over at Lookout Landing. The short version is that he was once a perfectly, er, fine member of the Twins bullpen, who was absolutely destroyed by the home run ball last year. His career walk rate is under 5% too, so at first glance, this looked a bit like acquiring another Evan Scribner. Solid K-BB%, horrific HR/9 buy-low guys who can appear to improve a ton thanks to some regression in their HR/FB rates. Scribner gave up an astonishing 14 HRs in 60 IP for Oakland in 2015, which is why he was available for a low-level prospect despite posting one of the best K-BB% marks in all of baseball. Well, Fien gave up 13 HRs last year in just 39 1/3 IP, good for a vertiginous HR/9 of 2.97. That’ll get you waived, and indeed, Minnesota waived him last year. He caught on with the Dodgers, but didn’t fare any better, so he’ll cost the M’s $1.1 million if he sticks on the MLB roster.
The more you look at how he pitches, though, the less like Scribner he looks. Scribner has a fairly high-spin fastball, at 2,286 RPMs and a 91mph velocity. Fien actually blows Scribner out of the water in this measure, with a high-spin, 2,501 RPM fastball at 93.9mph. To borrow a concept from Kyle Boddy, who likes to use the ratio of RPM to MPH, Fien still gets more spin per MPH than Scribner, and more still than the MLB league average ratio for four-seam fastballs.* Looking at each pitcher’s curve, the picture’s reversed. Scribner has elite curveball spin (well over 2,800 RPM, compared to a league avrerage of 2,471), which I’m sure was something that attracted the attention of the M’s analytical staff. Fien’s comes in at 2,620, so higher than league average, but far short of Scribner’s. But look at pitch movement, and they look completely different: Evan Scribner’s fastball has a lot of effective spin, meaning the spin is producing movement (in this case, rise). Fien’s four-seam rises a tiny bit more than average, but it’s nothing to write home about. Fien’s second pitch, a pitch he goes to about *40% of the time* is his cutter, which again has remarkably high spin rates (2,500+ RPMs) and not much in the way of actual movement. Does this sound familiar?
This high-spin, meh-movement repertoire was something I spent far too long discussing in the context of Rob Whalen, another new Mariner. Fien’s cutter looks a bit like Whalen’s odd fastball. Both come in around 90mph, have ~0 horizontal movement, and less-than-normal-fastball amounts of vertical rise. As cutters produce, *on average*, worse contact, a team might want to look at high-spin pitchers who, for whatever reason, don’t get much transverse (movement-causing) spin on the ball. That’s the theory, anyway. On the field, Fien’s cutter got obliterated last year, with batters slugging .649 on it. Even looking at his career as a whole, they’re slugging .452, which is pretty high for a reliever who’s spent his career in the low-scoring 2010’s. That said, it may help disguise his flat four-seamer, which has been pretty effective for him, 2016 aside. If the M’s think he was tipping his pitches or have some other tweak in mind, he’d be a perfectly serviceable middle-relief guy, though it’s worth noting that the M’s bullpen’s already pretty full. In any event, while Fien is definitely not a clone of Rob Whalen, there are some surface similarities that make me wonder if they’re traits that the M’s are actively searching for.
I’d love to know more about how teams value gyro spin, and why it might be useful. In the public analytical space, we tend to focus on movement, and for some very good reasons: high-spin, high-movement curves really do seem to be “better.” But I’m not at all convinced that gyro spin is bad in a *slider.* A high-spin, low movement fastball might also provide some sort of advantage, either by producing weaker contact or by confusing hitters whose swing paths essentially build in the horizontal movement that nearly all fastballs have. Spin efficiency, the ratio of transverse to total spin, is useful in some contexts, but less so in others. Why is that, and how might a pitcher’s arsenal – or pitch sequencing – take advantage of it?
* Boddy calls this ratio “Bauer Units.” The league average for four-seamers was 24.3 last year. Scribner’s fastball ranked at 25.3, while Fien was up at 26.6. Using his league indexed BU+ measure, Fien comes in at 109.
You’ve got to hand it Jerry Dipoto: there’s no subterfuge, no hiding his wish-list. He’s told everyone who’ll listen for months that a high priority of the team was signing a veteran left-hander to round out the team’s bullpen, so we can’t be shocked that he’s signed Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year deal.
I think we *can* be a little surprised that he’s guaranteed the player nicknamed Scrabble 2 years and $11 million, slightly more than the 2-year, $10 million deal he gave Steve Cishek, and the second largest contract he’s given out in his tenure as GM. He signed last year’s starting catcher for 1 guaranteed year, and he’ll pay Chooch Ruiz $5m to back up Mike Zunino this year. Obviously the biggest deal was Hisashi Iwakuma’s extension, but even in that 3-year deal, only the first year was guaranteed. Iwakuma hit the IP threshold to give him a second year, and could earn that third year if he stays healthy, but Dipoto’s been somewhat reluctant to dive into the free agent market, unless he’s shopping for relievers. And he’s seemingly always shopping for relievers.
Marc Rzepczynski’s legitimately great at two things: absolutely neutralizing left-handed power and getting ground balls. Since 2010, Rzepczynski’s .293 SLG% allowed to lefties ranks 9th out of 265 pitchers, just behind Clayton Kershaw, but a bit above Brett Cecil, who just signed a 4-year deal with St. Louis. Those are legitimate strengths, and Rzepczynski’s consistency is a key reason he’s been traded mid-season *four times* already. A contending team that believes they’ll face some critical, high-leverage situations involving a tough left-handed hitter could do worse than picking up Marc Rzepczynski. It’s just that the going rate for Rzepczynski hasn’t been all that high- Cleveland got him for a non-prospect from Toronto. Oakland got him as a smaller part of the Yonder Alonso deal, and then swapped him for a lower-ranked (but intriguing!) prospect from Washington.
So, should M’s fans banish any doubts from their mind and cheer this solid investment in a low-risk bullpen arm, the baseballing equivalent of investing in treasury bonds? Here’s another leaderboard, looking at how pitchers have fared against RIGHT handed batters since 2010, with a minimum of 150 IP. Marc Rzepczynski’s OBP-against is the highest, out of 372 qualified pitchers, at .391. Yes, yes, regress those results, and you need 2,000 PAs of average splits, etc. But the problem is, Rzepczynski’s splits are just getting worse, not better, with time. Scrabble hasn’t allowed righties to post an OBP below .400 since *2012.* “Usage will take care of this,” you say. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to ensure any pitcher will see a steady diet of same-handed hitters. Last year, Scrabble faced 102 RHBs and 113 LHBs. For his career, he’s faced 960 righties and 768 lefties. Even with benches constricted by the growth of the modern bullpen, teams can, and do, pinch hit when they see splits like Scrabble’s. It’s likely that his high walk rate is his adaptation to life as a pitcher whom righties see really well, and that’s further solidified his role as a true LOOGY (Lefty One-Out-GuY). He’s made over 70 appearances in each of the last 3 years, but hasn’t tossed 50 IP in any of them.
The M’s aren’t going to get a lot of total innings from their $11 million man, so they need to make sure those innings count. For whatever reason, that hasn’t usually been the case for Scrabble. For obvious reasons, Rzepczynski isn’t a threat to close, and closers typically post the highest leverage index for players, meaning that they enter the game with the highest stakes: the situations featuring the biggest possible swing in win expectancy. Closers might get near a gmLI of 2, with elite set-up men/firemen coming in around 1.5. Scrabble was at 1.13 last year, and 1.18 for his career, meaning he was used in equivalent situations as Drew Storen, and a bit less critical than Tom Wilhelmsen. The M’s bullpen *averaged* a gmLI of 1.16 last year, with Cishek and Diaz leading the group. If this move is going to pay off, the M’s need to get Scrabble in at crucial times.
At one point, the M’s seemed to be after a high-octane, flame-throwing lefty, and Rzepczynski isn’t that. He now throws about 91, with a big slider as his primary weapon. Rzepczynski’s consistent dominance of lefties mean he can be used in late-inning, pressure-packed situations, but he’s not an Andrew Miller type. Dipoto has, in fact, already made a move for a lefty reliever with premium velocity and high upside in his trade for James Pazos. Signing Rzepczynski makes that move a bit harder to figure out; the M’s now have fewer situations in which they can use Pazos, and while letting him pitch low-leverage innings seems like a good way to ease him in to the majors, it means the M’s may now struggle to find enough IP for two pieces they spent a decent amount of capital on.
Of course, this worry about cost and IP may be yet another understandable miscalculation of the baseball market. $11M for 2 years of *anything* in baseball isn’t much anymore, and again, with proper usage, it could become money well spent. It’s just surprising given Dipoto’s reticence to dive into the market elsewhere. Take Steve Pearce, the lefty-mashing RH bat that just signed for Toronto for just a touch more than Scrabble will get. Both players have limitations and both are seen more as platoon players. To me, Pearce makes a heck of a lot more sense, especially given the fact that the M’s already *have* a high-octane, lefty-destroying bullpen arm in Edwin Diaz. This isn’t to say Scrabble doesn’t have value – he does – but it just underscores the importance Dipoto and the M’s place on the bullpen. A year ago, the M’s seemed to be the one team avoiding the mad rush to spend money on super ‘pens, like the one the Yankees constructed. The M’s stayed out of that, and focused on role on certain types: guys who’d been stung by high HR rates, but walked no one. It’s not that they didn’t *spend* on the bullpen, they just looked for different (and cheaper) skillsets than the Yanks and Red Sox sought. They seem to be taking the same approach this year – leaving Aroldis Chapman to someone else, and instead building a pen around some key roles, roles that don’t require 103mph fastballs. That’s sensible enough, but you wonder if the somewhat unorthodox approach isn’t as blind to a pitcher’s market value as a spend-at-all-cost alternative would be.
Rob Whalen is one of two starting pitcher prospects the M’s picked up from Atlanta in exchange for Alex Jackson, and given his size, stuff, and results in his first big league trial with the Braves, I kind of skipped over him in my write-up of the trade to get to Max Povse. Povse is 6’8″, and while his fastball velo has been all over the map, it’s at least touched the mid-90s, something Whalen is probably not going to do. That said, I think I may have skipped over Whalen a bit too quickly.
Whalen’s minor league track record is more encouraging, in that he’s consistently posted great runs-allowed numbers despite a good-but-not-great FIP thanks to low BABIPs. It’s generally a fool’s errand to count on something like that long term, and even though he had a low BABIP with the Braves, it didn’t prevent him from getting knocked around. The story’s somewhat similar for the guy I saw/still see as his best comparison, albeit purely from a pitch fx/pitch movement standpoint: former Dodger Stephen Fife. But when I mentioned Whalen’s 90mph fastball, I mentioned another, better, comp: “Purely on movement, his four seam looks like Garrett Richards’, though of course Richards adds about 7-8 MPH to the mix.” How does this change how we might see Whalen, particularly given the huge gap in velocity between the two odd fastballs?
Back in 2015, I geeked out about Garrett Richards’ spin in this game post before he faced off against Felix and the M’s. As Alan Nathan’s baseball physics lessons teach us, there are two kinds of spin a pitcher can impart to the ball. One, the one we generally care about, is transverse spin, which is what causes the pitch to move. A fourseam fastball from Chris Young or Yu Darvish has a ton of backspin, meaning that the ball is spinning around an axis perpendicular to the direction the pitch is going. In this case, that spin causes turbulence behind the ball, and the magnus force pushes the fastball up (Ok, technically, it just resists gravity more than a non-spinning pitch would). This backspin produces the big “rise” or vertical movement you see from pitchers, and these rising FBs generally induce more swinging strikes. The other type of spin, gyro spin, is on an axis parallel to the direction of travel: this is akin to a spiral in football. The quarterback isn’t throwing a spiral to cause the ball to move – he’s throwing a spiral so that it DOES NOT deviate from its course. Gyro spin in a baseball produces *no movement* compared to a ball thrown without spin.
If you measure a pitch’s spin based on that pitch’s movement – and that’s exactly how pitch FX does it (it imputes spin from trajectory, so it’s *only* picking up transverse spin) – then you’ll find that fastballs move like crazy, while some breaking balls, particularly sliders, don’t “move” at all. Trackman’s cameras can actually measure spin directly instead of deriving it from other data, so it’s an entirely different measure, one that includes *both* transverse and gyro spin. In general, as Alan Nathan found, fastballs have a higher proportion of transverse spin (again, think of a rising fastball), and thus the measures of spin on fastballs in pitch fx and trackman are closer than they are for sliders and curves.
But not for Garrett Richards. Pull up a pitch fx view of his fastball, like this one, and you’ll see a pitcher with a *low* spin fastball – well under 2,000 RPM – but a higher (2100) rate on his curve. Ask Trackman/Statcast, and the picture’s very, very different: Garrett Richards is the high-spin poster boy. His four-seam fastball, the one pitch fx shows as spinning very little, is a wonder in Statcast, spinning 2,500 times per minute. That’s a huge, huge discrepancy, and the only explanation is that there’s a lot – an absolute ton – of gyro spin on his fastball.
Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report on Whalen is a lot like mine – 90mph, scuffled with Atlanta, may be a reliever or swingman. But buried at the end was a note about Whalen’s exceptional spin rates, measured at 2,400RPMs. I pulled up Baseballsavant, and it’s true: Whalen’s FB spins like crazy, it just isn’t generating any movement, just like Richards’. But why would you *want* that? If high transverse spin creates movement (and whiffs), then isn’t that better than this useless gyro stuff? Maybe not.
Years ago, Max Marchi set out to categorize pitches and how batters reacted to them with pitch FX. Instead of using the standard pitch types, or what MLBAM classified them as (or even what the pitchers *themselves* called them), he made his own categories based on how they moved. In the end, he came up with *17* categories, separating “jumping” fastballs (think Chris Young) from “riding” fastballs (think Sean Manaea now, or old school Randy Johnson). This debate about where the boundary between a slider and a cutter or a fastball and a cutter is keeps popping up, and it’s something I’ve mentioned here before. Anyway, if you click the link to Max’s work, his “cutter” bin had an average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.6″. Garrett Richards’ “four seam” last year had average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.9″. Rob Whalen’s “four seam” last year averaged -0.2″ and 6.5″, respectively. There are two things I take from this: first, Whalen and Richards’ four-seamers are actually cutters, and second, a handy definition for *this sort of cutter* (not those way over on the slider end) is a fastball thrown with gyro spin. They spin like mad, but don’t move like mad.
Ok, ok, so again, why does that matter? Why should we care more if we call them cutters versus four-seamers versus shplankoids? Because batters have a bit more trouble with cutters – their movement may be part of the reason why. Firing up statcast, we see that the average exit velocity – how hard the average ball was hit – on a four-seam fastball in 2016 was 90.5 MPH. For sinkers, it’s exactly the same, 90.5 MPH. For cutters, the average exit velocity was just 87.5 MPH. This difference of ~ 3.333% doesn’t sound like much, but it is. If we look at the average slg% on contact for balls hit at at least 90 MPH, we see a Godzilla-like SLGCON% of .874. But for balls hit below 88 MPH, it plummets down to just .255. That’s…that’s a big difference.
There are caveats galore here. That SLGCON analysis is focused on balls in play, and thus misses the big advantage of the high transverse spin FB: all of the whiffs. It’s also using MLBAM’s definition of cutter, so it might be pulling in more slider-y pitches, perhaps thrown in slider counts like 0-2, 1-2, when SLGCON plummets for everyone, no matter what pitch is thrown. And then there’s the obvious point that averages don’t really help individual pitchers. Jarred Cosart throws a Richardsian 94-95mph cutter 70% of the time, and he got destroyed last year. Stephen Fife couldn’t hack it either. Throwing a weird FB is not a panacea.
It might, however, be a strategic move. Back in 2014, when he was still in the Mets org, Whalen pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Maybe due to pitching at the end of a long season, or maybe due to small sample weirdness, he got hit pretty hard in the desert. Looking at his meager pitch FX numbers from back in 2014, though, Whalen looks completely different. His four-seam was more of a traditional, rising, back-spinning offering. He didn’t yet have a slider, just a slurvy breaking ball that showed *less* spin than average. Everything about Whalen’s movement was just…average (or worse). What he’s done since then is split the meh slurve into an actual slider and a high-spin curve that comes in slower. Gone is the completely normal (but slow) four-seamer, replaced by his cuttery thing. Whalen dominated in the minors despite good-not-great K rates and K-BB% with his new approach. It carried over into the bigs, but was undone by a bout of wildness. This was always Fife’s downfall, and it’s destroyed Cosart, too – Cosart’s career K-BB% is around 3%. Whalen still needs to limit his walks, but the great thing about the cutter-FB hybrid thing is that he doesn’t NEED to post big K rates. Even getting hit fairly hard, and with a HR/9 mark of nearly 1.5 last year, Whalen’s average exit velocity was just 88 MPH, well below average. On grounders, it was under 84 MPH, which is great; too bad he was more of a FB pitcher, but still, it’s encouraging. You can begin to see how Whalen can succeed despite his underpowered arm, and despite the cautionary tales of Fife and Cosart. He may not need Richards’ velocity (Collin McHugh is a 90-91 MPH example), and he may not need a lot of Ks. If he can use his gyro-spinning FB to limit contact authority, he may be better than I initially gave him credit for.
A day ago – literally a day ago – I said this of the Jerry Dipoto M’s:
Jerry Dipoto and the M’s came to view a player who’d played his way to a lower ceiling as having more value in trade – even without a mint-conditioned prospect sheen – than they do on the M’s roster.
That was true of Tai Walker, who, despite adding a few wins above replacement level at the MLB level was clearly not picking up something that Dipoto/Servais was laying down. It’s *also* true of the latest Mariner to be traded: OF prospect Alex Jackson, the #6 overall pick in the 2014 draft, and one of the M’s top prospects (based on pre-draft ability/pedigree) ever since.
If M’s fans have thought of Jackson since draft day, it’s probably to lament his lack of progress. Most of this is Jackson’s fault (he’s still only been as high as Class A Clinton), and a great deal of *that* is due the lingering stain of Jackson’s disastrous early 2015 stint with Clinton, where he was clearly unready for the pro arms that he faced. In every other assignment, he’s hit a bit better than league average. It’s not that Jackson’s been out and out awful, it’s that he’s been flawed (his K rate is worryingly high) and his progress slower than we’d expect from the consensus best prep bat in his draft class.
Of course, that pedigree and the fact that he’s been kind of okay (if you see past the expectations that come with his draft position) that enable Jerry Dipoto to acquire prospects for him. It would surprise no M’s fan if Jackson stalls out in AA. You look at his peripheral stats, and you see a guy who looks like Mike Zunino, but in a corner OF spot, and that’s just not going to work. And yet, the idea of a ‘prospect pedigree’ is more than marketing/hype and old-school mumbo-jumbo. Not many big leaguers suffered through the slumps Jackson has, but the uber-talents have a better track record (or, depending on your perspective, are granted a much longer leash and/or second, third, & fourth chances).
Atlanta might ‘win’ this trade handily. Jackson is, by some margin, the most talented ballplayer in the exchange. He’s demonstrated some power, but really needs some help with making contact. In return, the M’s get low-to-mid ceiling pitchers Robert Whalen and Max Povse. Whalen’s best comparison player may be Stephen Fife, the one-time Dodger who was part of the 3-team trade that netted the M’s Trayvon Robinson. He throws 90 and got hit hard in 5 starts for the Braves in 2016. Povse, a 6’8″ righty, is more of a traditional prospect, but doesn’t have the pure stuff to be among Atlanta’s org top 10 (or possibly 20).
Whalen’s fastball is something of an oddity in that it has absolutely zero horizontal movement, but also no vertical rise. Purely on movement, his four seam looks like Garrett Richards’, though of course Richards adds about 7-8 MPH to the mix. That brings us to Stephen Fife, a long-time MiLB vet who possesses a similar FB and change-up. Fife’s ‘odd’ FB couldn’t consistently confuse big league hitters, but he was okay in between injuries and minor league options. Despite Whalen’s struggles, there’s room for optimism. Whalen’s average exit velocity was well below league average last year, and he was exceptionally good at limiting GB batted-ball authority. If part of that is skill and not just unfamiliarity/luck, then he might have some value, particularly if he makes more use of his sinker. This is a longshot #5 prospect whose real utility may be at the AAA level, but if he can ride his weird low-spin movement to poor contact (he gave up very few ‘barrels’, or exceptionally well-struck balls in his 20-odd IP), he may end up more useful than Jackson. And it’s not just tiny-sample batted-ball data: Whalen’s posted consistently low BABIPs throughout the minors and in his MLB stint, too. Of course, he’s also coming off a shoulder injury that ended his 2016 campaign, and thus may be even riskier than the underpowered-funky-fastball-and-guile profile suggests.
Povse has much more of a traditional prospect profile thanks to his 6’8″ frame and a sinking FB that’s touched 97. He’s also hit AA in 2016 and posted freakishly low walk rates.* Despite all that, Povse hasn’t wowed scouts because he’s struggled to miss bats. In isolated games, he looks like an ace, but more often, he’s been tall-Aaron-Cook, giving up a ton of (mostly grounded) contact. Still, if the M’s look back on this trade fondly, it’ll likely be due to Povse, who could morph into a Justin Masterson or Jeff Samardzija type, if everything breaks right.
The return is…fine, I suppose, and at least Povse holds out the possibility of some upside, but it feels amazing after following the team that couldn’t quite quit Dustin Ackley/Justin Smoak. The last time the M’s moved a pre-Major Leagues first-rounder was when they packaged Philippe Aumont as part of the Cliff Lee deal (that worked out). They traded Adam Jones earlier – you may have heard how that turned out – but he’d already hit AAA for the M’s. The M’s haven’t made a move quite like this in a while, though the motivation for it may be similar to the Tai Walker trade we discussed yesterday.
The M’s were unhappy with Walker’s effort/fight during the year and moved him to AAA for a week or so in 2016. Following Jackson’s lost 2015, the M’s held him back in instructs until he met, as Ryan Divish reported, performance and attitude standards. He got out of instructs, but the M’s haven’t been shy about ID’ing the prospects that frustrate them. They’ve moved them despite performance struggles and despite their own public misgivings about the players, and yet it’s hard to say it’s really hurt them. Would Jackson have fetched more after 2014, if he could’ve been moved in a Dansby Swanson-type deal? Sure, but the fact is he wasn’t, and given the M’s made the move now, when every other club knew about the K’s and the ‘attitude’ concerns, Dipoto and company did all right.
That’s not to say it’s a clear upgrade the way the Walker/Segura move was. This has a much, much bigger chance of blowing up in the M’s faces. But at this point, Jackson’s odds for contributing to the Mariners was quite low, and yet Dipoto was able to move him for something of value (not much value, but value nonetheless). Dipoto clearly had a contingency plan with Jackson, and in Atlanta – a rebuilding team with a deep, deep farm system – he had an ideal trading partner.
* Like a few low-walk pitchers before him, Povse’s walk totals hide some elevated HBP numbers. It doesn’t change his value or control grade, but it’s worth remembering that his Bb% or BB/9 understates the number of batters he put on base.
There’s a natural tendency for people writing about baseball to judge a General Manager based on his/her biggest moves: the blockbuster trade that changes a franchise, the big first-round draft pick who turns into a star, the key free agent signing (or avoiding the big free agent land mines). This isn’t wrong, of course, as big moves (especially when you can pick out the big moves with the benefit of hindsight) clearly do impact a team’s chances. The problem is that they’re not distributed evenly. The M’s were *able* to take a risk with the Robinson Cano signing while the A’s, for example, were not. Similarly, inheriting a team with a loaded farm system, a big new TV deal, or just a club in a big coastal city means you’ve got a leg or two up on some of your rivals. And of course, even if you (correctly) saw that signing Player A was the key to your offseason, you may or may not be able to prevent the Yankees from signing him first. The key to having a universally-praised resume is first building a resume that can be judged.
As a result, some bright internetting soul (I forget who) pointed out that a key component of a GM’s value is the ability to actually make good on their plan. It’s not enough to intuit that some free agent is a good value – you’ve got to go out and make the deal, with all that that entails: convincing the player, his agent, maybe your own ownership group, whatever veteran is most at risk of lost playing time, etc. So far, we’ve been focused on players *entering* an org, but there’s something just as critical about how and when players leave it, too.
Poor player development results in trading an ex-prospect for pennies on the dollar and watching them develop into Jake Arrieta. Misjudging one’s own talent leads to disasters like the Erik Bedard trade. Hold onto a struggling player too long, and suddenly your scouts are flinging frozen foods at them on some low-level field, but trading a player after a surprisingly good season or two can result in Josh-Donaldson for some 5th starters and a SS prospect. The result seems like a kind of baseball Anna Karenina principle (great moves are all alike, while bad moves are each bad in their own way), but is really a restating of the principle we just discussed. A GM needs to play for each player’s possible role, but to have – and enact – contingency plans.
Two different Mariner front offices planned on Taijuan Walker becoming an ace. They invested in development, and thanks in large part to Walker’s ability to learn and adapt to a series of coaches, watched Walker move from ultra-raw talent to a universally-lauded prospect. As they waited for him to assume the mantle of Felix’s heir apparent, they also at least engaged in some discussions to move Walker (for Justin Upton, perhaps for Yoenis Cespedes, etc.), then decided to hold on to the young righty. Until now.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the M’s and Diamondbacks kicked off the Holiday weekend last Wednesday when they swapped Tai Walker for SS/2B Jean Segura, OF Mitch Haniger, and LHP Zac Curtis. The D-backs sidestepped a horrific free agent pitching market, and got a players who can help them for the medium-to-long term. They also dealt from surprisingly solid middle-infield AND outfield depth. Meanwhile, the M’s, as expected, addressed *two* of their key weaknesses for 2017 by netting a starting shortstop and getting a right-handed hitting OF who’s projected to out-hit Guillermo Heredia and with the potential to clear bars a hell of a lot higher than that.
I’ll admit it: I was one of the guys most intrigued by Taijuan Walker’s potential, and continually thought he was one mechanical tweak, one adjustment, from becoming a clear #2 or better. It’s so easy to do considering their numerous missteps, but I wondered if any, er, delays in Walker reaching his potential were due to unforced errors made by the Zduriencik front office. The more time went on, the harder it was to sustain that sort of conspiratorial thinking. The Dipoto regime clearly saw Walker as responsible for his own struggles, as they made the rather stunning move of demoting him for a short while last year. At that point, with a manager and GM who’d pretty much openly questioned their ace-in-waiting’s mental toughness, a move like this one comes to seem inevitable.
As with the Chris Taylor deal last year, Jerry Dipoto and the M’s came to view a player who’d played his way to a lower ultimate ceiling as having more value in trade – even without a mint-conditioned prospect sheen – than they do on the M’s roster. Unlike that Chris Taylor deal, though, I think Dipoto was able to leverage Walker’s potential and the historically bad pitching market to make an intriguing deal, one that could make the M’s much better in 2017. We can quibble with Dipoto’s handling of Walker, but Walker’s the guy who gave up 1.81 HR/9 last year. Dipoto saw 1) that he needed a shortstop and 2) that Walker was probably not going to be an ace *in Seattle* anytime soon. Instead of trading him for Zack Cozart, he was able to snag Jean Segura, who posted a 5-WAR season in Arizona, AND get an interesting OF prospect in the process.
Walker’s remaining potential and the paucity of external alternatives mean that the classic arguments about overpaying for a player coming off a career year don’t apply. Segura’s got two remaining years of club control and joins an M’s squad that got all of -1.1 WAR from their SS last year, much of that thanks to the frustrating Ketel Marte, who’s Arizona’s puzzle now. Segura’s Steamer projections look a lot like Walker’s – about 2.2 WAR. That’s less than half of his production last year, and that’s despite a so-so defensive year at 2B (so he got less of a bump in positional value). A 2.2 WAR year adds over 3 wins to the M’s middle infield, and the M’s again look to be in a position where three wins would be pretty important.
Of course, many observers would take the over on that projection for Segura. This Al Melchior piece at Fanrag (hat tip to Bob Dutton) dives into his peripheral stats and note that Segura’s power spike seems like the product of sustainable changes in approach rather than luck or a fortuitous home park (he had pretty minor home/road splits last year). If Segura’s able to post a 3-4 WAR season, look out. If Safeco’s as homer-friendly as it was last year, and Segura’s able to hit 20 bombs again (I have more faith in that than a repeat of his 41 doubles, for the record), the M’s look like a formidable team, even with a hole in the rotation.
To be clear: you can’t just start with Segura’s 2016 and work from there. Segura spent all of 2014 and 2015 hitting like Ketel Marte hit in 2016. He had slightly more value thanks to a decent glove and some baserunning success, but at the plate, Segura was utterly lost. It’s nice to point to changes in approach, or working with a well-respected coach, but there’s risk here, too. Any projection has to take his entire history into account, and much of that history – even the recent stuff – looks bad. That said, his 2016 counts too. This is the part of the post where we’d typically look at similar moves – cost-controlled SS/2Bs coming off big years that get traded. The problem is that it just doesn’t happen that often (for obvious reasons).
The buy-low adage is still a good one, but it often leads to even-lower production. Cristian Guzman to the Nationals, Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals (LOL), Ronny Cedeno/Jack Wilson/etc. Players have signed free agent deals after solid years – Marco Scutaro’s 2-year deal with the Red Sox after a breakout with the Blue Jays comes to mind, or Jose Reyes’ blockbuster deal with the Marlins – but it’s just rare to move a decent SS coming off a great year. That makes it hard to judge (is Segura more Brad Miller, Aaron Hill, or Howie Kendrick?), but at the very least, there’s not a clear pattern of similar moves backfiring. It’s not like there’s clear evidence that guys who go from 20 runs below average to 20 runs above give all of those gains back again.
The inclusion of Mitch Haniger makes the deal even easier to like. Dave Cameron’s wrap-up of the move spent a great deal of time talking about the young OF, whom many observers think has the glove to play CF long term. Even without that advantage, he’s projected as a near-league average player in 2017, and he’d fill perhaps the biggest need the M’s have.
The Mariners pitching depth wasn’t great, but the drop off from Walker to Karns is a lot smaller than the drop off from Segura to Marte. I don’t really understand what went on between Walker, Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto, and I think there’s still a chance a change of scenery helps him unlock his potential. Those are cliches layered on cliches, I realize, but as much as I’m disappointed Walker never really “happened” in Seattle, maybe Walker made the M’s 4-5 wins better after all.
A year ago around this time, Jerry Dipoto traded upside for a rotation upgrade. He did it when he moved Brad Miller for Nathan Karns, and he did it when he traded Roenis Elias and Carson Smith for Wade Miley. Perhaps we need an addendum to the principles we’ve discussed here: learn from your mistakes. Brad Miller is not, and was not, anything remotely akin to Jean Segura. But a year ago, the M’s saw reliability in the rotation as a cornerstone value. It didn’t have a pithy acronym that everyone would say on the broadcast, but it was worth parting with Miller and it was worth trading the most valuable reliever in the org for what seemed like a generic, if reliable (ha!), #4. This year, the M’s had a frustrating but valuable #4, and this year, Dipoto saw the worth of that – the frustration, the possibility, the clear value in 200 IP – differently.
(I realize I’ve given short shrift to Zac Curtis, the lefty reliever the M’s picked up. I saw his BrooksBaseball page and literally lol’d. Curtis throws 92, and has a ton of horizontal movement, the byproduct of the exact same low 3/4 delivery Dipoto’s sought out throughout organized baseball.)
Given the sheer volume of activity during Jerry Dipoto’s first offseason at the helm of the M’s front office, it should be much of a surprise that he’s been busy again this fall.
Since my AFL update post, the M’s have made three fairly interesting trades, added a few players to their 40-man roster, and lost and signed a number of minor league free agents. Let’s take a look at each of them.
1: The M’s traded for former Oakland/Boston/Minnesota/Kansas City/Baltimore corner OF/IF Danny Valencia, who’s coming off a solid year at the plate, playing 130 games with a 118 OPS+. Valencia’s always been a lefty-mashing platoon guy; he’s got a career 139 OPS+ vs lefties, but just 85 against righties. That and some defensive limitations partially explain his availability, and his availability for the bargain-basement price of AA starter Paul Blackburn (the throw-in in the Montgomery for Vogelbach trade this summer). The rest, and perhaps the BULK of the seeming chasm between his value and his price, is that he’s gathered the reputation of a difficult personality. Valencia slugged 17 HRs last year, but his most noteworthy smash of 2016 was a punch he landed to the face of Oakland DH Billy Butler. He played for two organizations at the big league level in 2012, 2014 and 2015. There’s essentially zero question about his ability to hit lefties, and his performance against righties has actually been trending upwards in recent years – he was a slightly-above-league-average hitter against them last year. This is an amazing get for the M’s, especially given Blackburn’s lack of projection.*
Personality rumors aside, I don’t want to oversell the “headcase” angle. He’s also going into his third year of arbitration, and will presumably be a free agent after the year. He’ll get a substantial raise from the $3+ million he made last year, and while that’s not terribly important to the M’s, it’s starting to sound like real money to Oakland. His defense has also been an issue. He’s primarily played 3B, something the M’s don’t need him to do. That’s probably for the best, as UZR and DRS agree that Valencia’s been a poor defender at the hot corner. He got a few games at 1B for the A’s last year, and would fit nicely in a platoon with Vogelbach there, but he’d be a lot more interesting as an OF. The M’s #1 LF at this point (via the M’s official depth chart) is Ben Gamel, a lefty who’s projected to post a 91 wRC+ next year. Guillermo Heredia’s a right-handed alternative with a much better glove, but he’s projected for an only slightly better 94 wRC+ mark. Seth Smith is 34, and his defensive marks tumbled last year. There’s room for someone like Valencia (who’s 32 himself) to get a look. Right now, the depth chart lists Valencia as the starter at 1B, but given everything the M’s have said about Vogelbach (and given the M’s interest in acquiring him), I’d assume the hefty lefty will get every opportunity to start vs. righties and thus claim the lion’s share of playing time. Valencia can play 1B, I’d assume, but he’d have a bit more value if he could fill in in an OF corner as well. There’s a surprising amount of risk in his profile: he’s had several lost years at the plate, he could be a defensive disaster in LF, etc. But this is a great, low-cost move to solidify their batting order and satisfy Dipoto’s desire to get another RH bat.
2: As good as that trade was, I’m still scratching my head about the M’s trading impressive starting pitching prospect Zack Littell for left-handed reliever James Pazos of the Yankees. Littell was an 11th round pick out of a North Carolina high school in 2013, and he’d moved slowly in his first couple of years in the system. In 2015, something clicked, and he quickly became the only bright spot on a dismal Clinton Lumberkings team. He started in Clinton in 2016, and was even better. A promotion to the California League didn’t slow him down, and he ended the year as a top-10 prospect for the M’s (that’s where I would’ve put him, anyway). MLB had him as the M’s 14th best prospect, while mentioning that his FB touches 94. Other reports have him with a bit less velocity, and in any case, Littell hasn’t been successful thanks to a spectacular FB. He typically sits around 90 with his well-located FB and has a very good slow curve along with it, according to those who’ve seen him pitch. His calling card is probably his command, as his mediocre stuff plays up, allowing him to post a walk rate below 5% last year while minimizing HRs. He doesn’t have clear, obvious plus-grade stuff, but this is a pretty good get for the Yankees.
In return, the M’s get a hard-throwing lefty reliever who’s had intermittent control problems and battled the always-encouraging “undisclosed injur[ies]” in his minor league tenure. He throws very hard: Brooks measured his average FB last year at 96 MPH, up from 94.5 in 2015. Pazos throws it from a low 3/4 motion, and it’s got plenty of armside run. I kind of like the pitch in theory, but big league hitters haven’t had too much trouble hitting it hard (miniscule sample alert). He’s been great in the minors, and he seems ready for an opportunity to get more playing time in the bigs, though it’s perhaps telling that the Yankees are moving him after clearing some space in their bullpen by trading Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. They, like most teams, have plenty of options for the back of the bullpen, so that’s not a slam on Pazos, but this feels like an overpay by the M’s because of their stated need to get a lefty reliever. Pazos shouldn’t have come free – he’s a lefty with a weird arm angle throwing 96 – but I was amazed it took Littell. On the plus side: despite his long tenure in the minors and being drafted out of college, Pazos should still have two options years left. He didn’t use one in 2015, so he burned the first of three in 2016. If his control goes south again, he can head to Tacoma to refine it. If he’s working out the kinks in the PCL, though, the trade may seem even more lopsided, however.
3: In a great change-of-scenery trade, the M’s picked up IFs Richie Shaffer and Taylor Motter from Tampa in exchange for SP prospect Dylan Thompson, RP Andrew Kittredge and 1B Dalton Kelly. Thompson’s the prize here, as the M’s went overslot to get him a few years ago in the draft, but he threw just a handful of innings this year, all of them in the Arizona League (he started the championship game, actually). Kittredge, a former UW Husky, has been a long-time M’s farmhand, working out of the bullpen in Jackson and Tacoma for many years. When the M’s pulled Thyago Vieira out of the AFL, they replaced him with Kittredge, presumably so the Rays could get a better look at him. He throws a a low-90s FB with a hard, cuttery slider and a slower, big breaking curve. Dalton Kelly was a very late round pick out of UCSB and had a hot start for Clinton, but really tailed off down the stretch. He showed some good bat-to-ball skills, but doesn’t currently have the power you’d look for in a 1B.
In return the M’s got a lottery ticket in Richie Shaffer and at least the potential for a super-sub in Taylor Motter. Shaffer was the Rays’ first-round pick out of Clemson in 2012, but he combined poor power (for a 3B/1B) and didn’t hit for average. He’s shown the ability to work a walk (you can tell why Dipoto was interested), but hadn’t really gotten his BP power to show up in games. That changed in 2015, when he knocked 26 HRs and worked his way from AA to MLB. While his walk rate stayed high, his K rate crept up at each level, and that’s been a huge problem in his two cups of coffee in Tampa. Without any development, he’s a useful piece for Tacoma, as a “Mike Zunino’s skillset minus the catching parts” isn’t playable, but while his odds of breaking out aren’t great, he’s shown he’s capable of driving the ball. Will working with Edgar unlock some latent ability? I’m not wagering any money on it, but his odds are better than your average waiver-wire find.
Taylor Motter has always hit remarkably well for a guy who’s always had the “4th OF” or utility man tag slapped on him. A 17th rounder out of not-yet-national-power Coastal Carolina, Motter combined decent speed with a solid eye and contact skills to post solidly above-average batting lines throughout the minors. He played all over the diamond, logging most of his time at 3B and RF, but getting quite a few games at SS, 2B and CF. Motter’s older and right-handed, but there’s some Ben Gamel in is approach at the plate: both have a decent eye, don’t hit for a lot of power (Gamel’s 2 years younger, to be fair), and after some solid seasons in the upper minors, both got steamrolled by the American League last year. Gamel’s projected to do a bit better next year, but Motter had the superior MiLB lines and didn’t crash *quite* as badly as Gamel.
In terms of his, uh, utility to the M’s, the clear comp for Motter is Shawn O’Malley, a guy who can play all over and not embarrass himself, and hit enough to justify a roster spot, particularly given today’s short benches that put a premium on positional flexibility. Motter appears to be a top-shelf version of O’Malley (who, like Motter, was drafted by the Rays), with a bit more upside at the plate, but without the switch-hitting ability. O’Malley’s the better defender at SS, but Motter’s got more upside than most utility guys.
4: So, I mentioned it above, but just after I wrote about Vieira, the M’s removed him from the Peoria roster, replacing him with Andrew Kittredge. You can understand the thought process: the deadline for the M’s to roster was fast approaching, and they had one last chance to see him face decent competition. Vieira responded by throwing 102 with decent control, and thus the decision didn’t turn out to be that difficult: the M’s added Vieira to the 40-man, and then shut him down to avoid the risk of injury.
Joining Vieira on the MLB roster were left-handed reliever Paul Fry and 1B/DH DJ Peterson, the club’s first round pick in 2013. Peterson had some injury issues in 2016, but on the whole, he performed far better than his atrocious 2015. At this point, I’m not sure he’s ever going to hit for average, but he’s demonstrated in-game power in the upper minors, and could tap into more after some work with the M’s coaches. Paul Fry could be a LOOGY for the M’s next year, a possibility Dipoto mentioned to Ryan Divish the other day. He posted a nice ERA, though a high walk rate and plenty of un-earned runs make that a bit misleading. Making room on the roster were Tom Wilhelmsen, who’s now a free agent, and Stefen Romero, who’ll ply his trade in Japan next year. LH RP David Rollins, the M’s last Rule 5 pick (2014), was claimed by the Cubs off of waivers.
Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, by adding Vieira, Fry and Peterson, the M’s 40-man roster is now full, so it doesn’t look like they can play in the MLB portion of the Rule 5 on December 8th. In fact, the M’s are already facing a roster crunch: CF Boog Powell is currently on the restricted list following his PED suspension, so while he’d been on the 40-man, his spot doesn’t officially “count” until he serves his time. At that point, the M’s are going to have to make a move to either keep Powell or try to slip him through waivers. Powell’s currently playing in the Dominican League, where he’s posting his customary solid OBP, but, sadly, a sub-.300 SLG%. Hey, better than Taylor Motter who’s 0-18 in the Dominican.
5: The M’s signed a few minor league free agents, grabbing RP Peter Tago who’d last been in the White Sox org. Tago had been with the White Sox, where he showed solid bat-missing ability, and elite-level strike-zone-missing ability. They also signed Blake Perry, a right-hander who’d played his entire pro career (dating back to the 2010 draft) in the D-Backs organization. They even re-signed Steve Baron, whom they bumped from the 40-man roster a few weeks ago. The M’s have lost a few farmhands as well, with Venezuelan righty Osmer Morales signing with the Angels and 2016 Tacoma starter Kraig Sitton signed with Colorado.
6: At this point, the M’s have made a number of small moves that, taken together, make the 2017 club a bit better at the expense of some low-minors pitching depth. That sounds like an unalloyed good thing, and I suppose it’s not bad, but if you’re going to play for 2017 – and let’s be clear: they absolutely should – then they need to take a decisive step instead of tinkering with the 11-13th reliever on the active roster. The M’s SS position is a problem, and they’re actively working to upgrade it, either with Cincinnati’s Zach Cozart or someone else. Ketel Marte needs more seasoning, more ABs…*something*. But the M’s OF is a bigger, more complicated problem. They have 5 rostered OFs (6, including Powell), and only Seth Smith – who’ll turn 35 next year – is projected to be league average at the plate. Leonys Martin’s 2nd half swoon makes his projection of an 82 wRC+ a bit more plausible, and Gamel and Heredia’s sub-100 projections seem fair, too. Shawn O’Malley isn’t on the roster to be a league-average bat, and if Motter impresses, he may not be on the roster at all. Sure, use Danny Valencia out there, but that makes it less likely that they improve on their -40 defensive runs last year, and you also can’t use him at 1B. You can hope Gamel and Heredia make strides, but the whole “he hasn’t shown it yet, but I swear it’s coming,” thing is what sunk the Zduriencik administration.
I’m preaching to the choir, and the M’s know this as well as anyone. This is not the OF that the M’s will enter the regular season with. But with all of the talk about the SS position, the M’s have lots to do with their outfield.
* I kind of imagine the A’s making the deal without really knowing who they were getting.
“We’re interested in Valencia”
“SURE, no problem. We can make this work.”
“Ok, you want pitching?”
“Yes. Or hitting.”
“We’ve got a lefty in AA who ca”
“Done. Sounds great. I’ll start the paperwork.”
So since last we spoke of Brazilian fireballers and AFL data, a lot has happened. Free agency is now in full swing, with the Braves already landing two starters in RA Dickey and Bartolo Colon. There’s been…other news as well. I’m not going to talk about any of that today, as I’ve a well-earned anti-topicality reputation, and now’s no time to start getting timely. The news brings us some interesting musing on the free agency market, but I’d like to talk about trades – which is nice, because the M’s recently made another one.
The real impetus of this post was an image – a picture of Mike Montgomery and the Cubs celebrating their Game 7 win, an event you probably heard about. I think it was this one*, and I think it came from a retweet from new Lookout Landing co-editor and Montgomery fan Kate Preusser, but there are a bunch of them; this happens when you get the save in Game 7 of the World Series, breaking a 108-year Series drought. Mike Montgomery, recent trade acquisition (with M’s, for Dan Vogelbach), replaced Carl Edwards Jr., less-recent trade acquisition (with Texas, for Matt Garze), who replaced Aroldis Chapman, most-recent trade acquisition (with Yankees, for Gleyber Torres+), in a game started by Kyle Hendricks, least-recent trade acquisition (with Texas, for Ryan Dempster).
Everyone knows that the Cubs had been in a rebuild, and that they drafted well in recent years, giving them key contributors Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber, among others. What stood out to me, though, was the sheer volume of traded players on that team. Jake Arrieta was acquired in a deal so minor it involved the actual Steve Clevenger. Addison Russell came over in a blockbuster, with the Cubs shipping two starters (including Jeff Samardzija) to Oakland. Anthony Rizzo swapped for Andrew Cashner, etc. Sure, sure, as a team with plenty of resources, they didn’t need to rely *solely* on this draft-and-trade philosophy; Jon Lester was a big free agent signing, along with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. But the volume and importance of the trades seemed somewhat remarkable, and so in the wake of that win, I tweeted this:
Wonder what the average WAR from players acquired through trades is for a WS winner? Cubs have to be 2X, 3X that, right?
— Marc W (@USSM_Marc) November 3, 2016
Was that off-handed comment even close to being right? Does it matter? This is just some observations and not a real study or anything, but the initial answers are 1) kind of, but it depends and 2) no, none of this matters, but it’s nice to think about championships sometimes.
I took a look at the 10 most recent Series winners, going from the 2007 Red Sox through the 2016 Cubs, and then broke out the WAR they got from players acquired in trade. I then broke that out by pitchers and position players. I used bWAR for this, since they have some handy tables on traded players. The average Series winner over the past 10 years got 7.36 WAR from traded-for players, while this year’s Cubbies got 22.2 – nearly triple the 10-year rolling average. Not bad. But this is way too simplistic you say, snatching away a tiny, harmless moment of joy from me: isn’t this 10-year look going to heavily, heavily overweight the Giants teams that somewhat bizarrely had essentially no contributions from traded players? Yes, I suppose you’re right, you pedant, but if you think I’m going to pull the numbers from every WS winner, you’re insane. Fine, continues this irritating-yet-undeniably-on-to-something know-it-all, but at least show the WS *losers,* as then you might pick up on trade-crazy teams like the Rangers. To get rid of this pest and this equally-annoying writing device, I did the same for the WS *losers* from 2007-2016. The Series *losers* averaged 15.3 WAR from traded players, with this year’s Cleveland Indians notching 21.4 WAR from traded players (thanks Corey Kluber). The Cubs got a ton of value from traded players, but so did the Indians, and neither was all THAT far out of step with previous Series teams.**
The Giants clearly were a team that got by with savvy free agent pick-ups and a truly remarkable player development team. The first Giants Series winning team (2010) had all of 3.5 WAR from traded players. Their 2012 winners were up to 8 thanks to Melky Cabrera. By 2014, Hunter Pence was a key factor, but they were still at only 6 WAR from traded players. Joining them in the trades-are-overrated camp were the Phillies of 2008-09, who had 5.2 WAR *combined* in their two NL championship years. Their opponents in 2009, the Yankees, had only 1.4, so the combined traded-player WAR total of the AL and NL champs in 2009 was just 2.8. The Cardinals had very little, too, and even the Mets last year, who famously rode Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard to the NL title, only came in at 7.7. So the Cubs have been quite remarkable for a *National* league team, but much less stunning than several recent AL teams.
Why have recent AL teams gotten so much more WAR from traded players? Fully 5 of the past 10 AL champs have at least 20 WAR from traded players, headlined by the team with the most in this 10-year look, the 2011 Texas Rangers. The Rangers have long had a a formidable talent pipeline; they’re a team that’s done a lot of work in Latin America, but they’ve also drafted fairly well. Still, these data reflect the fact that Jon Daniels and the Rangers make a *lot* of deals. Hell, we’ve already mentioned that the Cubs got some vital components of their Series winning teams by trading with Texas. The Rangers were, in many ways, the anti-Giants (or, perhaps better, the anti-Phillies) – they developed young talent and then traded it away for whatever they needed. They developed Edinson Volquez then swapped him for Josh Hamilton. They acquired Mark Texeira, then swapped him for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Felix and Matt Harrison. It’s still their MO – need a lift? Trade for Cliff Lee, or Cole Hamels, or Matt Garza, or Ryan Dempster, etc. In part, this is the benefit of a deep farm system; you always have the ability to make a deal if you want to. But it also allows them to avoid the problems that come with being TOO focused on free agency or player development. The Phillies have had a hard time since their homegrown core turned brittle and bad, and they’re now rebuilding through some big trades after a front-office shake-up.
The Rangers and Cubs are notable in that their WAR was acquired through multiple deals, many of them minor. The Tigers of 2012 and, to an extent, the Royals of 2014-15 are the opposite: they had a decent amount of production from traded players, but it came from a couple of big blockbusters. The Tigers 23.1 WAR in 2012 was in large part the product of the franchise-changing trade that sent Miguel Cabrera to Detroit for Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Not only that, but the Tigers swapped Edwin Jackson for Max Scherzer, so they had huge contributors on both sides of the ball. The Royals made the series in 2014 thanks to two huge trades: their swap of Zack Greinke to Milwaukee that netted them Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, and the much-discussed swap of Wil Myers for Wade Davis and James Shields. By 2015, Shields had moved on, and so nearly all of their trade value came from Cain, though Ben Zobrist – acquired at the deadline from Oakland – helped as well.
The Cubs experience stands out because so many of their deals turned out favorably. Turning a clearly busted prospect in Jake Arrieta into an ace? Buying low on Anthony Rizzo and watch him go from average-ish to superstar? Tweaking Dexter Fowler’s positioning and watching him go from overrated player to all-around asset? That’s got less to do with a front office’s *approach* and much more to do with its *skill*. The Rangers traded just as often, if not more so, at every level – from waiver claim swap to blockbuster – and have a history littered with both wins and losses. That trade for Rule 5 pick Josh Hamilton? Huge, as was the Teixeira trade. Losing Kyle Hendricks to Chicago, or Chris Davis to Baltimore, or even Edwards in exchange for Garza, who’d put up negative WAR in 2013 hurt. That’s not to say their approach is wrong; the Rangers won two pennants and are *still* a threat in the AL West thanks to their high-frequency trading strategies.
What have we learned here? Not quite sure, but we’ve confirmed that the Cubs had a much larger-than-average share of their production come from trades. Texas is almost addicted to swaps, which has entailed suffering through some oops moments, but may help their resilience and budgetary flexibility (NOT signing Josh Hamilton helped there, too). The recent Giants and Cardinals teams were remarkably good at developing home-grown players, which lessened the need for trades. There are clearly multiple pathways to success in the league, but in the end, player development is a key part of any of these strategies. You can lean almost entirely on player development, like the Giants did (Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, etc.), OR you can turn low-key trade throw-ins into superstars like the Cubs (Arrieta, Hendricks). You can get more value out of hyped prospects like Addison Russell, and you can take players with some MLB experience to the next level, like Wade Davis or Anthony Rizzo. Ultimately, everything in baseball gets easier when player development works. The M’s saw some hopeful signs in that department this year; let’s hope they build on them.
* I’ve thought about the most iconic moment from a recent Mariner is – that is, what’s some event or image that’s indelibly imprinted on sports fans that centered on a Mariner? The Double, yes, Felix’s perfecto, ehhhhh – there are things that mean the world to US, but that suffer due to the fact that the M’s have never won an AL title, let alone a series. I was thinking that this image, of Mike Montgomery as the final pitcher in the final inning of the Cubs 108-year drought would have to be it. While it was an unremarkable performance from Monty, it was highly, highly leveraged. In fact, it was a rare example of a “Golden Pitch” – a term invented by SABR member Wade Kapszukiewicz for a pitch that could produce two different World Series winners. An out, and the pitcher’s team would win the Series. A HR, and the batter’s team would win. Only a few series in history come down to situations like this (the 2014 Series had some, too). This displaces Dave Henderson’s heroics in Game 5 of the ALCS of 1986. Henderson, who’d been acquired a few months earlier in exchange for Mike Trujillo and Rey Quinones, came in late in the game and ended up hitting a go-ahead HR with 2 outs in the 9th, with the Sox down 3-1 in the series against the best closer in the AL. To top it off, Henderson knocked in the winning run in the 10th (after the Angels tied it in the bottom of the 9th). That was amazing, and I remember being so happy for him – this was M’s fandom in the dark days of the 80s: hoping to see your favorites do well in the playoffs after being traded away/signed by bigger clubs. Randy Johnson has plenty of qualifying moments, like his Series MVP-win in 2001, but they occurred quite a ways after leaving Seattle. He nearly single-handedly carried Houston to the playoffs after the trade in 1998, but Houston couldn’t hit, giving him 2 losses despite an ERA under 2. Any others come to mind?
** The Cubs didn’t have as much total WAR from traded players as the ’11 Rangers, but they’re the only team in this (small) sample to get at least 10 bWAR from both pitchers and position players.
The timetable having moved up a year since our last check-in (I always re-read my old articles, it seems faster that way), we are now looking at 2013 college draftees and early international and high school signings from 2012 due to be added before the end of day on Friday. This would mean protecting Edwin Diaz for the first time if he wasn’t already an amazing and intimidating closer! It would also mean protecting Tyler Olson if he weren’t at this moment in another organization and someone who often reminded us of good ol’ Anthony Vasquez. Never forget. As further disclaimer, which renders this paragraph mostly disclaimer at this point, roster legerdemain sometimes results in my international prospects being guesses. I came into this offseason expecting that we’d be staring down a potential Luiz Gohara addition, but as Ben Badler showed us, that ain’t happening. But this also leaves me not really knowing if Kevin Gadea signed a 2013 or a 2012 contract. I’m guessing we won’t need to worry about him until next year, when we’ll have more tasty data and he’ll have pitched a year in our new awesome Cal League affiliate.
If you want to ask about specific players, I’m happy to answer in the comments, but these were my best guesses in the order of expectation, and still more exhaustive than you’ll find in many places. Over 2300 words? Light reading for me!