2019 League Rankings
Cincinnati Reds: Akiyama Arrives
by Mark Neuenschwander
A song for the Reds:
“When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.”
The above statement is popularly misattributed to Mark Twain, but certainly holds some truth regardless of its true origin. In 2015, the Miami Marlins signed a 41-year-old Ichiro Suzuki as part of his journey towards 3,000 hits and what ended up being the start of a very protracted farewell tour. That contract made the Marlins the 29th team in MLB to employ a Japanese-born player on its roster. It would take another five years for the last remaining holdout to catch up with the rest of the league.
The Reds signed free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama to a three-year, $21 million deal in January 2020 as part of their off-season upgrades. There’s nothing particularly damning to the fact that the Reds signed their first Japanese export 25 years after Hideo Nomo crossed the Pacific and completely altered the market from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). While the team was rather late to allocating dedicated scouting resources to the Pacific Rim, it’s largely been the traditional financial barrier of the posting system that’s left a small-market team like Cincinnati without a player from the Land of the Rising Sun until now. Even if the Reds had interest in meeting a player’s expected salary demands, the silent auction bidding for exclusive negotiating rights was a game best played by franchises with deeper pockets.
Last year, Reds leadoff hitters posted a combined .253/.329/.438 for a team that finished in the bottom quintile of MLB with only 701 runs scored. While a league-average hitting line is generally beneficial to all teams, you’d rather not utilize that production in the lineup spot that gets the most plate appearances throughout the season. In Akiyama, the Reds get a veteran player with a career .301/.376/.454 batting line in the NPB whose on-base ability will provide a solid floor to set the table for their other off-season slugging additions (Mike Moustakas & Nick Castellanos).
Absent the loose demographic similarities, Shogo Akiyama’s role and profile with the Reds in 2020 can be mostly closely linked to another Cincinnati outfielder from the recent past: Shin-Soo Choo. Choo was acquired by the Reds in a three-team deal during the winter of 2012 that also sent current Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer from Arizona to Cleveland. Choo was entering his age 30 season with the defensive profile of an average corner outfielder, but was forced into patrolling centerfield at Great American Ballpark due to team need. As expected, he was below average with the glove at a premium up-the-middle position, but put together a career year at the plate. Batting leadoff, Choo hit .285/.423/.462 and scored 107 runs. Choo’s .423 OBP was good for 2nd-best in the National League that year, trailing only teammate Joey Votto in that category.
Shogo Akiyama turns 32 at the beginning of this season. He has won six Golden Glove awards as a center fielder in Japan, but advancing age and increased playing time for Nick Senzel likely means Akiyama will see time in all three outfield positions. He is slated to be the everyday leadoff hitter and his solid contact skills should translate well from NPB to MLB. If Akiyama can get on base at a rate anywhere near his .376 career average, then the Reds may once again find themselves in a position they haven’t seen since Shin-Soo Choo’s arrival in 2013 — back into October baseball for the playoffs.
What is success for the Reds in 2020?
One of the stronger divisions of the past few years is settling into something resembling parity plus Pirates. Sensing a continuing decline in the 2016 World Series-winning Cubs core and a lack of improvements out of both Milwaukee or St. Louis, Bob Castellini has pushed his chips into the middle of the table (largest ever Reds payroll at over $140 million) for an all-out attempt at reaching October baseball for the first time since 2013. With 90 wins as a likely threshold for an NL Central title, anything short of a Wild Card berth in 2020 will be a disappointment for a city that also had the worst professional soccer and football teams during the 2019 calendar year.
Which Reds player will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
A Queen City team that features Joey Votto, Trevor Bauer, and Michael Lorenzen is never going to be short of Effectively Wild talking points, even for a podcast that “never talks about the Reds.” But another player emerged last year as much for his personality as his on-field performance: Amir Garrett
The adoption of the three-batter minimum rule is likely to lead to reduced roles for many left-handed relievers in 2020. Not so for Garrett, who remains effective at retiring right-handed batters (.221/.333/.407 allowed in 2019) while acting as a true shut-down option against same-handed hitters (.202/.342/.298). The southpaw saw marked increases in both K% (26.9% → 31.7%) and BB% (9.5% → 14.2%) due to a wholesale change to his pitch mix. Garrett completely eliminated his changeup, switched from a 4-seam fastball to a sinker, and ramped up his slider usage to video game-like levels (33.4% → 57.3%). Getting more out-of-the-zone swings-and-misses and better command on this new weapon will enable Garrett to reach the next level and ensure we’re continued to be entertained by his swashbuckling, pacifism, and any future AND1 Mix Tapes.
If the Reds were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would they be?
Moose Tracks – Sticking to the theme of the Reds scooping up free agents this off-season, it’s only appropriate to get a double dip of the namesake flavor for part of their new double-play combo: Mike Moustakas. The Reds of the past few years have been strikingly similar; a plain, vanilla base that’s resulted in six consecutive losing seasons with just enough fudge and peanut butter cup filling in the form of exciting individual players and personalities (Joey Votto, Billy Hamilton, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig) to keep fans interested for most of the season. Hopefully the 2020 recipe finds a richer version that doesn’t skimp on the toppings.
What’s one food you MUST try at Great American Ballpark?
Goetta Fry Box – A serving of french fries or tater tots topped with goetta gravy, bacon, shredded cheddar cheese, and green onions. Think deconstructed potato skins with a uniquely Cincinnati twist of goetta breakfast meat topping.
Fun fact: Approximately 99% of the world’s goetta is consumed in the Greater Cincinnati area.
Win Total Prediction
Cleveland Indians: Starting Pitcher Devil Magic
A song for Cleveland: Panic! At the Disco – High Hopes
Had to have high, high hopes for a living
Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing
Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision
Always had high, high hopes
I rest my case.
The backstory: After winning three straight division titles, the 2019 Cleveland Indians cut payroll while still trying to contend, but ultimately missed the playoffs despite posting a respectable 93 wins. After that inauspicious end, highlights of the following offseason included trading Corey Kluber for a reliever and a fourth outfielder, fielding trade offers for superstar Francisco Lindor, and adding veterans with question marks on one-year deals to fill roster holes. It was far from an ideal offseason for a contender with a strong core in place and expectations to contend in 2020, and frustration from fans has swirled around the team as Opening Day approaches.
Yet despite the cost-cutting, this is still a good team. Are they Yankees-Astros-Dodgers good? No. Are they still a solid Wild Card contender, even capable of winning the division with a few lucky breaks? Absolutely. They have stars in the lineup in Lindor and Jose Ramirez, potential Cy Young candidates Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger in the rotation, and a bullpen that’s anchored by closer Brad Hand and newly invigorated with a couple of high-velocity rookies. Whether they end up division champions, wild card holders, or spectators come October is going to depend on the depth behind these stars.
Let’s talk for a moment about that depth–specifically, in the starting rotation. Recently, the Indians have had young starters like Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac rise from near-total obscurity to contribute to the major league team. None of them were top-100 prospects or even prominent figures on organizational prospect lists before their debuts, but the Indians’ system quietly developed these college arms into reliable starting pitchers capable of succeeding in a contender’s rotation. Basically, it’s like Cardinals Devil Magic, but for starters instead of position players.
So, who’s the new pitcher who will step up for the Indians in 2020? I present four candidates for your consideration:
Stat to Know: 1.00 WHIP with AA Akron in 2018; 0 IP in 2019
McKenzie is a former top-100 prospect who missed all of 2019 due to back injuries. Continued health is a concern, as his frame is something along the lines of “Chris Sale, but on a diet” (6’5’’ and 165 pounds). His skillset, however, is still highly regarded–his fastball and curveball are above average, and he pairs them with good command. He’s likely to start the season in AAA, but if he succeeds and stays healthy, he could earn a call-up to the majors this year.
Stat to Know: Once bet John Cena $1 that he would make the major leagues (and won, obviously)
Another former top 100 prospect, Allen made his MLB debut with the Padres last year before being traded to Cleveland in the Trevor Bauer deal. He struggled last year and spent the offseason working on mechanics, but he still has four pitches that look to be average to slightly above average and will almost certainly earn more time in the majors sometime in 2020.
Stat to Know: 159 strikeouts in 130.2 innings across AA and AAA in 2019
Also acquired in the Bauer trade, Moss would have led all Indians minor leaguers in strikeouts in 2019 if his pre-trade K’s counted, although they came with an uptick in walks. His strike-throwing did improve somewhat after the trade, and he performed well in a brief call-up to Triple-A at the end of the season. He’s likely to open 2020 there, but if his command improves and he continues to have success against minor league hitters, he could have an impact in the majors down the line.
Stat to Know: Best changeup and best control among Indians prospects, per Baseball America
Morgan is the least advanced player on this list; he started 2019 in High-A but forced a promotion after six lights-out starts. His repertoire might not be sufficient to get outs at higher levels, as his fastball velocity hovers in the high 80s. However, his changeup and control have been consistently excellent, and the organization has a track record of helping pitchers increase velocity in the past. My guess is he starts the season in Double-A, but is one of the first call-ups to Triple-A when the rotation needs reinforcements.
Now, which do you see stepping up in 2020? Of course, knowing the nature of Devil Magic, the correct answer is probably “none of the above,” because it ends up being someone else entirely. In that case, I’ll take Adam Scott, please.
How does Cleveland define success in 2020?
In a successful edition of the 2020 season, the Cleveland Indians are consistently competitive throughout the season, patch up any weak spots (*cough* outfield) at the trade deadline without shipping off Francisco Lindor, and finish the season in possession of a playoff spot. The team is squarely behind the Twins on paper and in the projections, but with steps forward from some of the young pitchers in the organization, strong seasons from the established stars, and better injury luck than last year, they could still contend for the division, although they’re more likely to be in the wild card race. Bonus points if the outfield situation is resolved for the near-term future by the end of the season, because I’m pretty sure it’s been at least five years since that last happened.
Who is one Cleveland player who will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
Keep an eye on right-handed rookie reliever James Karinchak, who could be in the running for Most (Literally) Effectively Wild Player this year. I might be cheating a bit with this pick, since he earned a mention on the podcast as one of the “Stories We Missed in 2019” thanks to his video game-esque 21.9 strikeouts per nine innings (not a typo) across Double- and Triple-A. After going down with an injury in June, he earned a short call-up to the majors in mid-September, where he succeeded to the tune of 8 strikeouts and 1 walk in 5.1 innings and his fastball averaged 97 miles per hour. His command is definitely suspect, but if he can manage the walks, Karinchak has a chance to become a legitimate high-leverage relief option.
What flavor ice cream is your team?
To me, these Cleveland Indians are a good-quality mint chocolate chip. There’s a little bit of a “been there, done that” element to them, and they might seem uninspiring compared to the flashier Twins and the up-and-coming, free-spending White Sox. However, if you look a little more closely, you see a profile with a proven track record, accentuated with enough freshness to keep things fun and interesting over the course of a long summer, and maybe even surprise you with how good it really can be.
What is one food item at Progressive Field that you MUST try?
The best food item that I ever had at Progressive Field was a dish of pierogi topped with beer cheese, crispy onion pieces, bacon, sour cream, and probably even more toppings that I’m forgetting. Unfortunately, it was an All-Star Game special last year and I don’t think it’s making a reappearance. If it does, though, it’s hands-down my recommendation for a ballpark special with a dash of Cleveland cultural flair.
In lieu of that, I polled some friends and family for their own recommendations, and the response was nearly unanimous: Bertman Original Ballpark Mustard. It’s a spicy brown mustard made by a Cleveland-based company, and it’s been a mainstay at Cleveland professional baseball games for almost a century. It has a bit of a cult following among local fans, and (not unlike the team itself) it’s as cheap financially flexible an option as you can find among expensive ballpark food. It’s available at all the condiment stands in the park, so just buy a hot dog or bratwurst and enjoy!
Win total prediction
88 wins, second place in the AL Central
Colorado Rockies: Building Not for the Future, Nor for the Now
by Dan Freedman
A song for the Rockies: Neil Diamond – Love on the Rocks
On the last day of the 2018 season, the Rockies beat the Nationals 12-0, tying the Dodgers and forcing a Game 163 to determine the division winner. They lost to the Dodgers the next day, but bounced back to beat the Cubs in 13 innings in the Wild Card game. Some might say that it has been all downhill for the franchise ever since. The Brewers swept the Rocks in the ensuing NLDS; and after starting 2019 with two wins, they went on to lose twelve out of thirteen, en route to a 91-loss season.
In theory (and according to owner Dick Monfort), the future seems bright. We are, of course, just one season removed from the Rockies pushing the Dodgers past the end of the season, and making it to the second round of the playoffs. However, that optimism doesn’t take into consideration this winter of discontent.
It was just about a year ago that the Rockies signed franchise stalwart Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million contract. But, it was just three months ago that they decided that the remaining seven years and $227.5 million was too much to pay to keep their third baseman. Around the time of baseball’s winter meetings in December, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich starting seeking suitors for Arenado; he found none.
After two months of shopping Arenado, Bridich pulled him back and declared that all talks were off the table. Unfortunately, that was too little, too late. During the course of this anti-courtship, things were said that could not be unsaid; and Arenado was hurt, offended, and most critically, felt disrespected. As of this writing, after a few weeks of spring training, and after months of rancor, Bridich and Arenado still have not hashed things out. This does not bode to end well.
Arenado has vowed to put it all behind him when he steps on the field, and no one who has watched him play for seven seasons – no one who has seen him as a Rookie of the Year finalist, a seven-time Gold Glover, a five-time All-Star, a five-time Top-10 MVP candidate, with 227 career home runs and a career .897 OPS – should expect anything less than excellence once the campaign begins. Sadly for the fine people of Denver, Bridich elected not to talk to his superstar, or anyone else, this off-season.
A team with All-Stars and Silver Sluggers on the left side of their infield and a slew of homegrown pitching, but who won only 71 games the previous season, theoretically should have tried to fill some holes over the winter. Other than pissing off a player to whom the team owes nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, here is what Bridich did to improve the hapless Rockies:
1. Signed Jose Mujica to a big-league contract even though he has more Tommy John surgeries (1) than big league appearances (0).
2. And then he signed the following former major leaguers to minor league deals:
- Daniel Bard (this would be one of the all-time reclamation projects).
- Drew Butera (10 years, career 51 OPS+)
- Michael Choice (3 years, career 59 OPS+)
- Tim Collins (6 seasons, 1.41 WHIP; 5.1 BB/9)
- Elias Diaz (.250 average and 13 HRs over 5 seasons)
- Mike Gerber (66 career ABs)
- Ubaldo Jimenez (only 1 season out of previous 7 with an ERA under 4.11; hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2017)
- Chris Owings (7 years, career 71 OPS+)
- Wes Parson (39 big league innings)
- Zac Roscupp (6 seasons, 83 IP, 5.16 ERA)
- Eric Stamets (48 career ABs)
- Kelby Tomlinson (4 seasons, 3 HRs)
In short, this is not a team building for the future, or the now. This is a team that is built for mediocrity. And my guess that is issue #1 for Nolan Arenado. It can be easily understood that trying to compete with the Dodgers in their current form is a fool’s errand. However, the Rockies do have an obligation to their more than 2.5 million fans (as many as 3 million in 2018) to put a competitive product on the field; to try to re-develop a winning culture; to get back to the Blake Street Bombers or the Chuck Nazty Rox. Spending an off-season doing essentially nothing to achieve that goal is an abdication of a public trust. And, if nothing else, Monfort, Bridich, and the rest of the organization should feel ashamed.
Or, viewed through a different lens, Monfort is right: the Rockies will win 94 games and end the Dodgers seven season division title streak and find themselves playing meaningful baseball well into October. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.
How do the Rockies define success in 2020?
There are two ways to define success for the Rockies in 2020:
- Dick Monfort is right, the team performs like the 2018 squad, and competes for a playoff spot throughout September; or
- The team implodes early and decisively, and they are able to trade Arenado before the deadline for a package of young, major league-ready pitching.
Who is a player on the Rockies likely to be mentioned on “Effectively Wild” this season?
Sam Hilliard projects to hit twelve home runs this season in just over 200 at bats. He had a 1.006 OPS and a 136 OPS+ last season in 27 games, and may very well displace overpaid and out-of-position Ian Desmond by early June. If the Rockies want to start building for their future (debatable), they should get Hilliard and Brendan Rodgers as many reps as possible this season. Playing in Coors Field could provide a literal launching pad for Hilliard, who was the Rockies 2019 Minor League Player of the Year, with 35 dingers and 29 doubles. If/when he gets the call, and if/when he either cuts down his strikeouts or hones his eye, he will be an OPS monster for years to come.
What ice cream flavor are the Rockies?
Rocky Road seem like the easy and appropriate answer. But vanilla seems like the right answer.
What is one food item at Coors Field that you MUST try?
The Rocky Mountain Po’boy from Rockie Mountain Oysters in Section 137 is a must-try/must-eat at Coors Field. This delicacy comes with garlic cole slaw, green chili ranch, pico de gallo, guacamole, and cojita cheese. But, to be clear, this is not a Big Easy Po’boy. This one, like its concession stand namesake, comes loaded with Rocky Mountain oysters, which, for the uninitiated, are meat balls – also known as prairie oysters – made from bull testicles. They are skinned, deep fried, coated in flour, salt, and pepper, and then (ahem) pounded flat. You cannot get these at Dodger Stadium or Fenway Park. Near as I can tell, they are exclusive to Coors Field.
Win total prediction
2020 Win Projection Roundup
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