2019 League Rankings
Boston Red Sox: They COULD Make the Playoffs…But They Don’t Deserve It
A song for the Red Sox: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
I have to admit, as much as I want to, I don’t completely buy into the idea that baseball is suddenly, uniquely saddled with an increasingly stingy cabal of owners.
Front offices have always cut corners, they’ve always tanked, they’ve always cried poor, and they’ve always made decisions more based on money than fan happiness. See the Marlins’ many sell-offs or the constant claims that teams like the Royals and Pirates were content to simply trot out mediocre rosters while the revenue sharing cash rolled in. The very point of Moneyball was that the Oakland A’s realized they could pay smart front office employees a small amount of money so they could avoid paying talented baseball players large amounts of money. We were spoiled, in a way, when teams like the Red Sox and Dodgers and Cubs rose up and challenged the Yankees for financial supremacy. (I’m not excusing any of this, I should note, just saying that it’s not a 2020 baseball problem or even a 21st-century baseball problem.) We should deride ownership when they act on their stingiest instincts, but we shouldn’t exactly be surprised about it.
And yet, as a Red Sox fan, I expected cooler heads to prevail. They wouldn’t trade “one year of” Mookie Betts for a few good-not-great prospects and a mediocre outfielder, right? And they certainly wouldn’t toss David Price in the deal, only to still pay for half of his salary. When the original trade broke down, and there were reports – almost definitely planted by the Red Sox front office – that they were waffling in response to public outcry over the original deal – I kept the faith. Mookie would be back, he’d be manning Fenway’s cavernous right field for the rest of his career, and the Red Sox wouldn’t need to use Ryan Weber as their fifth starter. They wouldn’t sell off one of recent baseball history’s most certain can’t-miss players for an obscenely small monetary saving.
But they did. Betts is a Dodger, Alex Verdugo and his broken back are in Boston, and their rotation is flimsier than John Henry’s cries of poverty. It never made sense given the team’s near-infinite war chest, it still doesn’t make sense (those “bad” Sale and Eovaldi deals were fine then and they’re fine now), and I hate how good Mookie looks in Dodger blue. The team has spent weeks trying to sell the public on the deal, and for some fans, the pipe dream that they could sign him in free agency has taken hold. Remember when that worked with Jon Lester?
No, Mookie’s gone, and what could have been a few more years of an open championship window is almost certainly now slammed shut. They still don’t have a long-term option at first base, their once-deep outfield now seems flimsy, and their fifth starter’s fastball is slower than yours and mine. Dave Dombrowski is gone but they still don’t have a bullpen.
Could they pull it together and scrape out a playoff berth? Sure. But they don’t deserve to.
How do the Red Sox define success in 2020?
Growing up a Red Sox fan in the 2000s, it felt like they were always the Wild Card team. Looking it up in 2020, that was a surprisingly accurate memory: the Red Sox won the Wild Card in 1998, ‘99, 2003, ‘04, ‘05, ‘08, and ‘09. But since Major League Baseball expanded the playoffs to five teams per league, the Sox haven’t made the Wild Card once. Now, with MLB threatening to expand the playoffs again and an AL East title likely out of reach, it would be fun to see a scrappy, underdog Red Sox team be the last one in and finally have to pay for all of their mid-2000s playoff series wins over the A’s and Angels.
Who is one Red Sox player who will be a topic on Effectively Wild this season?
We need to talk about Jeter. The elder Jeter – newly minted Hall of Famer, constant tormenter of the Red Sox – haunts my dreams. I hate his stupid face, his stupid flip play and stupid 3000th hit home run and stupid diving into the stands catch and stupid Jeffrey Maier.
But have you seen his namesake? His smile is as sweet as his swing, and his glove is silky smooth. He seems like a nice kid, and would look great in an infield alongside Bogaerts and Devers. Trading away the Red Sox’ best position player since Ted Williams for a kid named after their bitter rival’s most recent superstar? It’s the ultimate troll. But as much as I want to, I can’t hate the kid.
He just better not try any jump throws.
What flavor ice cream are the Red Sox?
Sometimes on cooking shows or at absurdly fancy restaurants, you’ll see ice cream covered with gold leaf, which is the most pointless “food” in the world. It’s shiny and absurdly expensive, but it’s completely tasteless. It’s fancy for the sake of being fancy; expensive for the sake of being expensive.
Just like the Red Sox. Despite trading away Mookie Betts and half of David Price for greed and spite (and a few prospects), the Red Sox will still run one of baseball’s highest payrolls. In addition to all of their active players, they’re also paying Dustin Pedroia over $13 million, (which, frustratingly, could be a bargain if he were still playing), Pablo Sandoval $5 million, Rusney Castillo $14 million, and – I didn’t know this until just now – Manny Ramirez $2 million. If you add that to the $16 million they still owe David Price, that’s more money they’re giving to players who won’t be wearing a Red Sox uniform this season than the Pirates, Marlins, and Orioles are giving to their entire rosters.
It’s not that they it’s disappointing that they decided to pinch pennies, it’s that they’re so goddamn bad at something so pointless. Just like gold leaf-adorned ice cream.
What is one food item from Fenway Park that you MUST try?
On game day, the Red Sox close off Lansdowne street, which sits just over the back of the Green Monster. On the centerfield side of Gate C, near the Game Day Ticket Sales window, is a sausage cart.
The cart is manned by two middle-aged men with Disney cartoon-style proportions: you talk to the hefty, bumbling, chain-smoking cashier, whose only tender is a mammoth wad of cash; then you grab your sandwich from the shorter, thinner … chef?
You’ll order the sausage sandwich with peppers and onions, because that’s all they sell, you’re hungry, and they’re half the price of what you can get inside the park. It’s also the greatest sausage sandwich with peppers and onions you’ll ever eat.
Win total prediction
Though I think there’s some chance that the 2020 Red Sox could finagle themselves into a Wild Card berth, there’s almost no chance that they challenge the Yankees atop the division. Despite my low opinion of the Rays, even they seem out of range. I’m picking the Sox for a repeat 84 wins.
Chicago Cubs: Not the Trajectory You Were Looking For
by Ben Bailey
A song for the Cubs: “Back and Forth” by The Dismemberment Plan
This wasn’t the trajectory this Cubs team was supposed to follow. The team came out of the rebuild ahead of schedule in 2015, and, of course, won it all in 2016. The Cubs were on the precipice of becoming a dynasty. Then, due to a slow start in 2017, the team had to make up ground in the second half, and were steamrolled by the Dodgers after narrowly defeating the Nationals in a memorable Game Five. In 2018, the Cubs won 95 games, but that only earned them a one-game playoff for the division title and a ticket to the Wild Card game, which they lost in extra innings.
The offseason after that early exit began with Theo Epstein proclaiming the offense broke, and was marred by moral and public relations blunders. Despite the general sense of restlessness surrounding the team, the Cubs signed only one position player to a major-league contract (Daniel Descalso, who was the least valuable position player on the team in 2019 by fWAR). While the team managed to battle back from an uncharacteristically rough start, a surprise Craig Kimbrel signing move wasn’t enough to put the Cubs over the edge. They finished third in the division and missed the playoffs after a September collapse precipitated by injuries to several star players.
If you look only at results (making the NLCS twice, winning a World Series, and reaching the playoffs four seasons in a row) there’s little to complain about. Looking at the seasons in order, though, the Cubs have gotten worse results each year since they won the World Series. So, after last season, the team hired a new manager, replaced much of their coaching staff, and restructured their front office.
The winds of change didn’t make it to the major league roster, though. After yet another consecutive end-of-season press conference expressing disappointment and a desire to improve the team, the Cubs signed only two players to guaranteed major-league contracts: $1M to Steven Souza Jr. and $850K to Jeremy Jeffress. The main storylines of the offseason were the launch of the team’s new cable television network (which many fans remain unable to access) and whether they would trade their best player to save money and shake up the roster.
Come spring, the core of the team remains intact, for better and for worse. The team has staked their season on rookie manager David Ross’ ability to get more out of the players and their new and improved player development system. It’s a risky strategy.
The 2020 Cubs could still be a great team, but the reason fans are upset, and what may ultimately sink their season, is the large amount of risk and variance in this roster. Sure, Ian Happ could emerge as an above-average center fielder, the Kyle Schwarber breakout could have finally arrived at the end of last season, Jason Heyward could hit well enough outside of the leadoff spot to make up for his slowly declining defense, and Nico Hoerner could be the high-contact bat the Cubs have been looking for and provide plus defense at second. Willson Contreras’ framing could improve, Yu Darvish could repeat his second half to become a legitimate Cy Young contender, Tyler Chatwood could finally harness his stuff as a starter, the Pitch Lab could transform anonymous relievers into dominant set-up men, and Craig Kimbrel could regain his velocity and control after a normal spring training. All of these things are possible, but the likelihood of several of them happening at the same time is slim.
What if David Ross has more of a tactical learning curve than we expect? What if a member of the rotation regresses or gets injured? What if Javier Báez suffers another injury, forcing Nico Hoerner to rush his development?
As we’ve seen the last few seasons, what makes the best teams great isn’t just that they have great players, it’s that they have great options to back them up. When people thought the Cubs would be a dynasty, this was what set them apart, like the Dodgers of the past several years. The frustrating part for fans is that, yes, the upside to this group of players is clear, but the downside is too, and the spending hasn’t been there to shore up the depth. The Cubs didn’t need to sign Anthony Rendon, but they could have used someone like Eric Sogard or César Hernández.
Could this team win the World Series? Yes. Could they be sellers at the trade deadline? I think it’s more likely. Big market teams like the Cubs shouldn’t have to roll the dice, but due to a confluence of circumstances, they’re going to in 2020. Here’s hoping it works.
How do the Cubs define success in 2020?
Many would be satisfied with winning the division and playing a full round in the playoffs. Some may accept nothing less than another World Series appearance, but while any team can beat any other in a playoff series, it was difficult enough to imagine the Cubs beating the Dodgers before they traded for Mookie Betts. Especially in Ross’ first season as manager, and after two years of earlier exits, playing in the NLDS would be a success and a step in the right direction.
However, there’s another, more divisive way to define success for the Cubs: falling out of the division race before the trade deadline. This would allow the front office to shop Bryant, Schwarber, Quintana, Chatwood, Kimbrel, and any of the utility players they brought in on short-term deals. Trading these players would also get them under the lowest luxury tax threshold, something they tried to do all winter. Whether this constitutes success is debatable, but ownership would prefer it to another September collapse.
Who is one Cub who will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
This has to be Yu Darvish. There are many reasons to love Darvish, from his dizzying array of pitches (including a knuckle-curve that he picked up from Craig Kimbrel) to his Twitter account, but it’s easy to forget the rough start to his time in Chicago. His 2018 was marred by injury and he didn’t pitch particularly well when he was on the field. Despite increased confidence going into 2019, Darvish started the season with an unsustainably high walk rate. Then, in the second half, he struck out 118 batters and walked only seven. As Darvish’s results improved, his personality came out more in interviews and on social media, completing his transformation into a fan-favorite entering 2020. The one knock on his second-half performance was a high home-run rate, but the Cubs will take his 2.37 FIP any day. Darvish is one of the most fun pitchers to watch in the game, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season.
If the Cubs were ice cream, what flavor would they be?
Rocky Road–it’s a potentially ominous portent of the season ahead.
What is one food item at Wrigley Field that you MUST try?
I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but if you haven’t had it elsewhere, it’s worth trying the Impossible Burger at Wrigley.
Win total prediction
by James Cardis
A song for the White Sox: Purple Mountains – That’s Just the Way That I Feel
The White Sox made the first big splash of the 2019 offseason, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to the biggest contract in franchise history. Despite the superlative nature of the deal, Grandal’s 4-year, $73 million signing rates as fairly modest, historically: Joe Mauer, Mike Piazza, Yadier Molina, Buster Posey, and Russell Martin rank as the top five catcher signings in baseball history. For fans of a traditionally frugal team, Grandal’s swift signing served to counter some of the bitterness left behind by the team’s mishandling of the prior offseason.
So what are the White Sox getting in their new catcher? As Ben Clemens noted in his analysis of the deal for FanGraphs, Yasmani Grandal might be the best catcher in baseball, full-stop. With his bat alone, Grandal should have an immediate impact on the team. The 2019 White Sox ranked dead last by Wins Above Replacement at the designated hitter position in the lineup, divvying plate appearances between 14 players not named Yonder Alonso (-0.9 WAR). At the catcher position, James McCann and Wellington Castillo performed admirably, ranking a collective 8th in the league by WAR (2.9). Adding Grandal’s offense to the mix—along with less-heralded signing Edwin Encarnacion, a veteran slugger entering his age 37 season—figures to improve both measures for the 2020 White Sox.
Defensively, Yasmani Grandal brings a talent for framing (i.e. catching pitches in favorable position from the umpire’s point of view) that is as outstanding as Wellington Castillo’s was poor. For comparison’s sake, Jeff Mathis has been a framing-first, bat-deficient catcher his entire career, and Castillo, the White Sox previous starting catcher, now a non-roster invitee to Nationals camp, was his inverse (notoriously so). Grandal combines these skills—the ability to gift pitchers with borderline strike calls and an excellent approach at the plate—to the tune of a projected 4.8 wins at FanGraphs.
Adding arguably the best catcher in baseball alone won’t be enough, however, to vault the White Sox into playoff contention. The White Sox continued to be active in the off-season free agent market, adding veteran depth to the team’s rotation and bullpen with Dallas Keuchel and Steve Cishek, but whiffed on the heavily rumored signing of Zack Wheeler, who projects to contribute more to the Phillies than Keuchel and Cishek combined. After locking in sure-thing power hitter Eloy Jimenez to a contract extension in 2019, the team worked out a long-term deal with Luis Robert before his big league debut as well. Yoan Moncada broke out in his age 24 year in 2019, delivering at last on the hype of his minor league track record with a top-15 finish in all of baseball ranked by WRC+. Tim Anderson posted an eye-popping .335 batting average, best in baseball for 2019, during a campaign in which he also became one of the sport’s most electric personalities. Newly acquired outfielder Nomar Mazara figures to be another post-hype project for the White Sox, with room to grow into the disciplined power-hitting profile scouts described eight years ago when he was only a 16-year old Texas Rangers signee.
Behind Lucas Giolito, the pitching staff remains a mystery, with both Carlos Rodon and Michael Kopech slated to return from Tommy John surgery. The 2019 staff compiled the second highest strikeout total in franchise history, a fact that would be more remarkable if the league as a whole weren’t setting consecutive annual benchmarks for strikeout totals. Objectively speaking there’s not a lot to like here, but Aaron Bummer, recently signed to a five-year deal, could prove novel if he keeps forcing hitters into grounders on 3 out of every 4 batted balls.
Success for the 2020 White Sox is a playoff berth. Question marks abound regarding how they achieve it. Whether the team’s first playoff appearance in 12 years comes in the Wild Card or as an outright division winner depends on outcomes for some of its more pronounced variables. Can the rotation overcome its projected mediocrity? Which Nomar Mazara did the White Sox welcome into the clubhouse, the slugging prospect or the average major leaguer? Is Luis Robert the real deal, or will his Steamer-projected 111 wRC+ be more realistic? And what to make of division rival Twins and Indians?
Betting markets have the White Sox pegged at 84-85 wins, but I’m an optimist. If everything breaks the right way for the White Sox they’ll be well on their way to 93 wins, enough to clinch the division and put this newly renovated team to its first playoff test.
This team’s most Effectively Wild player will be Tim Anderson. He’s the embodiment of MLB’s “Let The Kids Play” campaign: young, talented, outspoken, and sincere. He’s not favored to repeat .335 but I’m going to go out on a limb and say not only that he can, but also that he will, and that it’ll be one of the highlights of the South Side’s best season in over a decade when he does.
Compared to the other ballpark in Chicago, Guaranteed Rate Field (I’m still calling it “The Joan”) has always had the superior food scene, full of authentic local flavors and tasty, affordable options. If you’re looking for something to go along with your DIPA from the Craft Kave, try the elotes, a delicious boat of corn off-the-cob smothered in cotija cheese, crema, lime juice, and cayenne, available at lower and upper concourse food stands and perfect for summertime snacking.
Because the editor asked: The Original Rainbow Cone® may not be the official ice cream of the Chicago White Sox, but it might as well be. This south suburban institution deep in the heart of Sox territory serves up its namesake cone, a heaping helping of five different scoops that includes a flavor aspirationally named Palmer House. Off-kilter traditions are a signature of the second city’s second team, and this cone has just enough chips in its broad shoulders to match the team it’s being arbitrarily dedicated to in this space.
2020 Win Projection Roundup
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