Twenty-seven signifies completion in baseball, and the wild week that began with the Winter Meetings included 27 notable transactions among Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs. That’s a funny little coincidence. It means nothing, especially because the moves seem to leave as many questions as answers for several teams, but it sure is clean.
In the spirit of that cleanness, I wanted to give you a nice, round 100 notes on those 27 transactions, from stats that explain why Team X wanted to Player Y, to scouting tidbits that might help forecast Player Y’s performance with his new club. Too much happened last week for any of you to have truly digested the impact, the implication and the intrigue generated by all of those moves. The idea was to help lend clarity and texture to them, so you could look ahead with some idea of what they all mean, and what teams still need to do, and where this wild winter will turn next.
Unfortunately, I’m hopelessly long-winded and detail-mad, and the project has become rather unwieldy. I’m delivering this, the first half of the thing, a day and a half later than I wanted to, partially for the reasons listed above, and partially because, hey, real life, man. In the first two days of this new week, another 10 (or so) transactions worth at least a note or two have come down the pike. So, for now, here are 50 notes, all about deals from last week. On Friday, I’ll give you another 50, focused on the remaining, untreated moves from last week, plus the new flurry of things that have happened (and are happening, even now).
Here we go.
1. The best player to change teams last week was probably (not certainly, but very probably) Jon Lester, who took a six-year, $155-million offer from the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have never given out a contract this large, to anyone. Here’s how they can afford to do so now, for Lester:
Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, Salaries, 2015-19
|2015||$6 million||$5 million||$11 million|
|2016||$7 million||$5 million||$12 million|
|2017||$9 million||$7 million||$16 million|
|2018||$10 million||$7 million||$17 million|
|2019||$11 million||$11 million||$22 million|
Both players will be 25 years old in 2015. Both are under team control, on affordable but non-binding club options, in 2020, when they will each be 30. They were worth 8.5 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs in 2014, and 7.1 WAR according to Baseball Reference. A good low-end estimate of their value, a near worst-case scenario, is that they will be worth six combined wins in each of the next few seasons.
This is all a way to remind you that pre-arbitration contract extensions are the single best way a team can capture and maximize the value of talented young players, but especially, that such extensions become absolutely invaluable in the hands of big-market teams. With between six and eight wins locked up at less than the market value of two wins, for each of the next five years, the team can more readily make big outlays like this one.
2. Lester has five seasons with at least 4.0 (4.4, in fact) Baseball-Reference WAR. Since the dawn of the expansion era, in 1961, here are all of the left-handed starters who have turned in 4.0-WAR seasons for the Cubs:
Is that because lefties are somehow damaged, in a special way, by Wrigley Field? I don’t think so, and I would note that Lester already achieved his success in the game’s hardest environment for lefty arms, Fenway Park. Maybe it’s a fluke thing. Just pointing it out. Ted Lilly was solid, but rather a different guy. Most Cubs fans have no living memory of a southpaw pitcher this good wearing their team’s colors.
3. My favorite move of the week, the one that left me most impressed by the GM who worked it out, was the one in which Angels GM Jerry Dipoto turned Howie Kendrick into Andrew Heaney. Kendrick, 30, is a good player coming off a great season, but the Angels had just one year left before he would have hit free agency. Heaney is an MLB-ready top-tier pitching prospect. (He even made seven appearances with the Marlins late in 2014.) The Angels have a superstar, in Mike Trout, and won the AL West in 2014, but much of the rest of their core is aging, and their farm system is barren. Kudos to Dipoto for finding a way to add young talent that will help sustain Anaheim’s success.
4. The Angels had an above-average pitching staff in 2014, but not by much:
They got a much higher level of performance, the third-best in baseball, out of their position players:
Trading Kendrick for Heaney shifts some resources toward an area of the team that threatened to be a weakness in 2015, with C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver getting old, and with Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs hampered by injuries. That’s what savvy contenders do.
5. Kendrick made a substantial change in 2014, emphasizing power less, controlling the strike zone more carefully.
He struck the ball well, but power is a diminishing part of his game. He’s shortening his stroke to keep age from stealing his production, but this kind of major change, at age 30, always gives me pause.
6. The Astros signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to three- and two-year deals, respectively. The conventional wisdom says that a rebuilding team signing a costly reliever is foolish, but I think Houston was in a good position to make these additions. The Astros had the worst bullpen ERA in baseball in 2014, but they also had three relievers (Chad Qualls, Josh Fields and Tony Sipp) with solid peripheral indicators, and two of them even posted ERA numbers better than the average pitcher’s. Three solid relief arms is two or three more than most truly bad bullpens can boast. All three will be back in 2015. They might regress, but their presence allows GM Jeff Luhnow to dream on a decent corps of middle relievers, at least, and adding Gregerson and Neshek gives the team a chance to have a really good bullpen, if the three incumbents keep pitching fairly well themselves.
7. Speaking of upgrades to bad bullpens, the White Sox threw a bunch of money at their miserable misadventure in relief in 2014. Look just how bad they were:
The difference between the strikeout-to-walk ratio of White Sox relievers and that of the second-worst bullpen was larger than the difference between the second- and 10th-worst teams. Staggering. Sox GM Rick Hahn had already added to his bullpen before last week, with a three-year contract handed out to Zach Duke, but he redoubled his efforts by signing David Robertson for four years last Monday night. FanGraphs had Robertson being worth 1.7 WAR in 2014, or 1.0 WAR more than they credited to the White Sox’s entire bullpen.
8. Hahn’s bigger prize, though, and maybe the biggest one outside of Lester whom anyone landed during the Meetings, was Jeff Samardzija. That assured that the Sox will enter 2015 with the strongest starting rotation in the AL Central, which is a mind-blowing statement, given where the Tigers were even a few months ago. Samardzija is a tremendous addition. He’s proved himself durable and his skills sustainable, and although he’s a one-year rental, the price was right, and the return on Hahn’s investment could be huge.
9. Samardzija gave up just seven home runs through June, while pitching for the Cubs, but surrendered 13 after being dealt to Oakland in early July. Eno Sarris explored the reasons for that, and for Samardzija’s vulnerability to homers in general, last week. In short, Samardzija attacks the middle of the strike zone, and sometimes, giving up long balls is the price of that aggressiveness. I’ll just add one thing to that explanation: Wrigley Field was a bad place to try to hit home runs in 2014. ESPN rated it 19th in total park factor for homers. Baseball Prospectus pegged it 24th for left-handed batters, and ninth for right-handers. Oakland was actually a better overall offensive environment than the North Side of Chicago, if you take park factors at their word. Park factors mostly change statistics; their impact on actual value is very small. Still, Samardzija might be one who will wish for friendlier pitching climes at times this season.
10. Samardzija also made some approach changes after going to Oakland. He used his four-seam fastball and his slider more, at the expense of his sinker, cutter and (especially) splitter.
Those alterations led to more home runs and a higher ERA, but (perhaps more tellingly, especially in so small a sample) cut his walk rate by 60 percent. It will be interesting to see whether, under the tutelage of new pitching coach Don Cooper, Samardzija sticks to his new approach, or reverts to the ground-ball focus and unwillingness to give in that marked his time with the Cubs.
11. When the Cubs traded Samardzija to the A’s in July, they also traded Jason Hammel. Last Monday, they brought him back. Hammel had a much harder transition than Samardzija in going to Oakland:
Hammel, too, threw more four-seam fastballs as an Athletic than he had as a Cub, but it didn’t help him in the least. However, I think the Hammel sketched by those Oakland stats is more real than the one the Cubs might have thought they had. A terrific stretch of eight starts basically made Hammel’s season, and as soon as it was over, he had an 18-start stretch to finish the season during which he gave up a lot of fly balls, a lot of home runs and too many hard-hit balls to be considered a top-shelf arm. That erosion did not coincide, at least not perfectly, with the trade to the A’s.
12. At this point, I’m not sure what it means, but Hammel also saw opponents’ whiff rate on his slider drop precipitously during the second half.
While that may be nothing, or may be correctable, and is not a fatal flaw, it matters. The sum of these findings on Hammel is enough doubt to justify the apparent softness of his market. The Cubs got him back for a two-year, $20-million commitment, less than I would have anticipated he would get, before seeing all of this data. The Chicago front office is brilliant and likely knows what they’re getting much better than I, but these insights help assuage any feelings that the Cubs somehow bamboozled Hammel into a team-friendly, cozy deal.
13. Wade Miley has a solid slider. Batters whiff on approximately 35 percent of their swings against it. In 2014, Miley bumped his strikeout rate from solidly below-average to slightly above-average, and it wasn’t because that slider suddenly missed bats on half of all swings, or anything. Rather, Miley simply threw the pitch more often:
14. Miley made 23 of his 33 starts on more than four days’ rest in 2014, easily the most such starts in baseball:
I’m unable to discern whether this was a quirk in the schedule or a deliberate choice the team made. If the latter, though, it was both a bizarre decision, and a poor one. Miley, 27, has virtually no injury history, and he pitched better on those rare occasions when he came back on the industry’s standard amount of rest:
The Red Sox traded two young pitchers and a middle-infield prospect for three years of Miley’s services. I think they can confidently expect even better production than that which the Diamondbacks have elicited from him over his first three campaigns.
15. I did some research into guys who have two false starts to open their careers. The prognosis for such players, as it turns out, is really, really ugly. For that reason, you won’t find me among those wringing their hands over the Red Sox’s decision to trade Allen Webster as part of the Miley deal.
16. The Mets were the second-worst offense in baseball in 2014, when a left-handed pitcher was on the mound (the sorted column is sOPS, or, the percentage of the league’s OPS against left-handed pitchers represented by the given team’s OPS against them):
That neatly explains the team’s interest in John Mayberry, whom they signed for the bargain price of $1.45 million. Mayberry is a .269/.324/.533 career hitter against left-handers, with 30 home runs in 534 plate appearances. He has the chance to make a real impact, and the Mets paid hardly anything for him. Mayberry isn’t the capstone of a championship team, but there’s such a vacuum in the NL East that finishing second is not out of the question for New York in 2015. This signing nudges them forward in their pursuit of that respectability.
17. The Marlins might have something to say about any hope the Mets have of emerging as the Nationals’ primary challenger next season, though. The team paid too high a price for Dee Gordon, sending not only the aforementioned Heaney, but a handful of other complementary pieces as well, but they improved at second base without paying a cent to do so. Gordon’s ceiling might be league-average performance as a second baseman, but average would be a big step forward for the Marlins’ second-base slot. Gordon also applies some much-needed pressure to defenses and opposing pitchers. He stole 64 bases and was caught 19 times in 2014, while the Marlins stole only 58 and were caught 21 times as a team.
18. Breaking this out into a separate note, because I think we should keep this in mind, purely for entertainment purposes: Miami may now have the best power hitter and best base-stealer in baseball.
19. The first domino to fall in what looks like a massive Phillies rebuild was Antonio Bastardo, whom the Pittsburgh Pirates extracted in exchange for stalled-out pitching prospect Joely Rodriguez. Rodriguez was impressive at two minor-league levels in 2013, but scuffled at Double-A in 2014. He’s still a prospect, and the Phillies seem to be betting on the gut of a scout who still believes. There are worse things to do in a trade like this one.
20. Bastardo is a really nice get from the Pittsburgh side, though. Compare him to Justin Wilson, whom GM Neal Huntington traded earlier this winter, for presumed starting catcher Francisco Cervelli:
Like Wilson, Bastardo is a lefty with relatively small splits, a solid reliever with broad utility, not just a specialist. That Huntington made the small upgrade from Wilson to Bastardo and essentially turned in an anonymous pitching prospect for Cervelli is exceptionally impressive.
21. Cervelli, though not acquired during the qualifying period of study here, is a good pivot point to another trade. Cervelli’s greatest claim to fame and best asset is that he is a very, very good framer of pitches, stealing strikes and securing ones on the edge of the strike zone extremely efficiently. Miguel Montero is another such catcher. The Cubs traded for Montero, formerly the Diamondbacks’s starting backstop, Tuesday, mostly because of that skill. According to Baseball Prospectus’s numbers, Montero represents an upgrade of between 25 and 30 runs over incumbent Welington Castillo.
22. Montero is also a superior hitter to Castillo, though, and as I detail here, he’s a pitch-perfect fit for a Joe Maddon-managed Cubs roster. The Cubs took on the whole of his three-year, $40-million remaining contract, which allowed them to minimize the actual talent they surrendered. Arizona got fringe relief prospect Zach Godley and recently-signed prospect Jeferson Mejia. Mejia, 20, has yet to pitch above the complex level, so while his upside is considerable, he’s eons from actualizing it. Montero is, in my opinion, another of the most admirable acquisitions made by any front-office execs last week.
23. I raised an eyebrow when the Braves traded both Jason Heyward and Tommy La Stella during November, removing two left-handed hitters with strong contact rates from a lineup badly in need of left-handedness and contact skills. Over the last few weeks, though, the team has replaced each player via free agency. Nick Markakis’s deal predates the period under our consideration, but Alberto Callaspo’s low-profile one-year deal does not. Callaspo is an infielder who hardly ever strikes out, given the league level, and should help both at second base—the spot vacated by La Stella’s banishment—and third base as needed.
24. Rick Porcello has become a true five-pitch pitcher, with a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a curveball, a changeup and a slider. This season, he was less afraid than ever to mix in the four-seamer at the expense of the sinker.
25. Porcello’s stuff did soften in 2014, even though he pitched the whole season at the young age of 25. He lost velocity on his fastballs:
and his swinging-strike rate sagged. It’s not totally clear that the Red Sox, who traded Yoenis Cespedes and two minor prospects for Porcello, are getting a real breakout candidate. Porcello did post a 3.43 ERA, easily the best of his career, and bear the heaviest workload he ever has, but it wasn’t pretty. A 15.3-percent strikeout rate will not get it done in Fenway, even if Porcello keeps attacking the strike zone. (He did post the lowest walk rate and highest first-strike rate of his career in 2014.)
26. Porcello was rushed to the Majors, as all Tigers prospects are, but he was also used very cautiously during his early career.
Rick Porcello, Ages 20-25
|Pitches Per PA||Pitches Per GS||GS, Pitches > 100|
Remember, he’s also never made more than 31 starts in a season, so he’s really been protected from the risk of injury or abuse. Looking over all of this, though, I’m inclined to think that when the Tigers tried to really take off the restrictor plates and let Porcello find his ceiling, he failed to take off. I think this deal signifies that Detroit is confident Porcello will not develop into the star for whom many still hope. As such, I would be wary, were I a Red Sox fan.
27. If it’s true that Porcello is missing his window to become a front-line starter, why did the Red Sox have to include two other arms (nothing shiny, mind you, but two potentially useful arms, one of whom could pitch in Detroit’s bullpen all season) in order to get this deal done? It’s simple. They’re the equivalent of the draft pick Detroit lost in the trade.
Both Porcello and Cespedes can become free agents at the end of 2015. However, because of a clause in Cespedes’s contract, he can’t be given a qualifying offer, and therefore, can’t be tied to draft-pick compensation. The Red Sox can, however, offer Porcello that tender, and collect the compensatory pick if he declines.
That’s the theory. In practice, I’m not remotely convinced that Porcello will be worth a qualifying offer, and if he does get one, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up accepting it. There are, as I outline above, just too many questions surrounding him, going into next season. I feel a lot of trepidation on Boston’s behalf, in this deal. Porcello is a low-ceiling guy with too much bust potential for my taste.
28. As for Detroit, Cespedes joins a lineup that was sturdy without him. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez were all worth at least 4.2 WAR on Baseball Reference in 2014. J.D. Martinez will regress downward somewhat, and Cabrera, Kinsler and Victor Martinez all will age and regress downward, too. Still, add Cespedes—for whom any regression seems likely to push him upward, not down—and the positional core remains scary. Only four players have higher isolated slugging rates over their first three seasons, since 2010:
29. Having shed one starter, the Tigers felt they needed to add a different one. (Another unsettling sign for Boston.) Off went Eugenio Suarez, who played some acceptable shortstop for Detroit in Jose Iglesias’s absence, but who becomes expendable once Iglesias is healthy. Off went Jonathon Crawford, the Tigers’ first-round draft pick in 2013. Back came Alfredo Simon, who strung together some good starts and made the All-Star team in 2014, but isn’t really that caliber of hurler as a starter.
Suarez is a favorite, in some circles, to take at least part of Reds shortstop Zack Cozart’s job. He has a tall order if he wants to earn that, though the door is open wider than it was a year ago.
Suarez had an 82 OPS+ in 2014. That was precisely equal to the number Cozart had posted in both 2012 and 2013. In 2014, though, Cozart fell off a cliff, posting an abysmal 61 OPS+. On the other hand, check out the defensive chops, and how they feed into his overall value:
30. The Tigers got better in this pair of moves, at least for 2015. The only strange thing is the shape of the improvement, as the team continues to shift resources toward big offensive numbers, even (now) at the expense of the long-revered starting rotation. If the chips fall right and Simon lands back in the Tigers’ bullpen, though, the fit will be perfect. Remember, the Tigers had one of the Big Four bullpen messes of 2014, alongside the Astros, White Sox and Rockies.
31. Three starting pitchers had to wait a while to figure out how their market would really look, because everyone was so busy chasing Jon Lester that no one took notice of the secondary market. Once Lester signed, so did Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy and Ervin Santana. Liriano stayed put in Pittsburgh. McCarthy agreed to become a Dodger, and Santana headed for the Minnesota Twins.
32. McCarthy got a four-year, $48-million deal, one Jeff Sullivan turned over in his hands like a Rubik’s Cube, here. Sullivan is brilliant and that piece is good. It shows how McCarthy managed a durable season at a good time, leveraged it well, and still signed a contract on which the Dodgers can realize some upside. In particular, Sullivan hones in on McCarthy having found a strength-training regimen in which he’s more comfortable, and posits that that could augur a more durable future for McCarthy.
33. I hate to quibble, but I’m not as sold on McCarthy. Shoulder issues tend not to go away forever, especially after proving fairly chronic for as long as they have with McCarthy.
34. McCarthy added roughly two miles per hour to his average velocities in 2014. That was, surely, a part of that new shoulder strength, but as much as anything, it blinks to me as a warning beacon. The arm speed required to achieve that velocity bump probably adds undue strain to the frame, and in the long term, I don’t see McCarthy staying healthy, as a result. I may be showing my ignorance, but I’m unable to think of a pitcher who failed to stay healthy all through his 20s, then found good health and improved stuff for multiple seasons in his 30s. Show me that precedent, and I’ll be more open to the notion that what McCarthy did in 2014 is sustainable for the long term.
35. (You can tell the McCarthy deal is interesting, because in addition to a whole bunch of articles about it, the move merits four separate notes.) While I have deep reservations about McCarthy’s future, though, the Dodgers made a smart play to sign him. The trope might grow tiring, but it’s truth sustains it: There seems to be no bottom to the well of money in Dodger Town, and the front office is going to (rightly) leverage that margin for error by taking big swings on some high-risk, high-reward guys, until the well runs dry. With Zack Greinke likely to opt out and test free agency after 2015, McCarthy is not only an upside play based on his apparent 2014 breakout, but a solid arm to shield the team against losing Greinke.
36. I already wrote about my nagging issue when it comes to Ervin Santana. I stumped for him to take the qualifying offer instead of trying free agency with draft-pick compensation around his neck again. (Remember, last winter, he ended up one of the last free agents on the market, taking a one-year deal from Atlanta only after that team met some bad luck with pitcher injuries.) Instead, he hit the market, and this time, someone paid up. The Twins are giving Santana just a shade more than they gave Ricky Nolasco last winter, a shade more than the Orioles gave Ubaldo Jimenez, a shade more than the Brewers gave Matt Garza, a shade more than the Cubs gave Edwin Jackson, a shade more than the Dodgers will pay Brandon McCarthy. Of those five pitchers, Santana is by far the most similar to Jackson (as I show in the link above), who has also been the biggest bust of a bad bunch.
37. As galling as the money paid to a pitcher whose future concerns me is the timing of the Twins’ decision. Santana can’t vault them into the playoffs this season. Nothing can. They’ll have a worse than five-percent chance of reaching October when the season begins, and I’m likely to pick them to finish last in the AL Central. As the names listed in comparison to Santana above demonstrate, there are always arms like this one hitting the market.
The Twins are ossifying their roster at precisely the time when they need more flexibility. They need to find out, by the end of 2015, where Trevor May, Tommy Milone, Alex Meyer and Kyle Gibson fit into their future rotation, if at all. By mid-2016, they figure to be carving out a place for Jose Berrios, their best pitching prospect. With Phil Hughes under contract through 2016 and Santana and Nolasco locked in longer, there are too few open rotation slots to conduct the weeding out the team needs to do. Terry Ryan’s idea of a pitching solution seems to be tons of options; he would do better to find just a few good options.
38. Liriano was the steal in this batch of players, as I suspected he would be before any of them came off the market. The Pirates paid less per year for Liriano than the Twins paid for Santana, and committed only three seasons to him. Talk all you want about his problematic injury history (which McCarthy shares) and the pattern of inconsistency he traced early in his career (Santana can sympathize), but the fact is, Liriano can miss bats at an elite level. That will never not have value, and is a more durable skill than any other a pitcher can possess. Here’s the list of pitchers with the most seasons of 150 or more innings pitched and a strikeout rate of at least 23 percent, since Liriano’s first full(ish) season in 2006:
39. The Oakland Athletics traded Brandon Moss to Cleveland. It’s a nice pickup for the Indians, who got the league’s third-worst production from their designated hitters in 2014. Moss can play some corner outfield, some first base and some DH, and should be a plus at each place. As he was in Oakland, Moss will also be sheltered from left-handed pitchers. Here are the teams whose batters had the platoon advantage in the highest percentage of their plate appearances in 2014:
40. From the A’s side, though, this trade makes just as much sense. That is a pretty bold departure from the consensus evaluation, but I stand by it. Remember the scene in ‘Moneyball,’ where Brad Pitt’s version of Billy Beane lays out how the A’s will replace Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon? His plan for doing so is to find three players with components of those players’ strengths. “We’ll replace them in the aggregate,” Pitt-Beane says. That’s how the 2014-15 A’s are operating, too.
In the decade and change that has passed since the time of the first ‘Moneyball’ A’s, the game’s economy has left the team even further behind. They can no longer afford to wait for players to actually reach free agency before letting them go make the big money elsewhere, and anyway, they’ve found that the draft is not the inefficient marketplace it once was (or, maybe never was). The A’s no longer do the draft, develop, depart thing, because it’s no longer cheap or effective. Their mandate remains the same, though. They have to win with less money than other teams have at their disposal. Therefore, Beane has switched tactics. This is what that looks like.
Two weeks before trading Moss, the A’s acquired Ike Davis. Here’s what Davis did against left- and right-handed pitchers in 2014:
Davis is a perfectly fine hitter against right-handers. In fact, he’s about as good against righties as Moss is overall. Obviously, though, Davis isn’t able to face so many right-handers that he can replace all of the 580 plate appearances Moss took last season, and obviously, YIKES, he can’t be allowed to face left-handers. So, on Thursday, the A’s acquired Rule 5-eligible first baseman Mark Canha, from the Marlins system. Here’s Canha’s platoon breakout for 2014 (he played all season in the Pacific Coast League, so discount these stats to some degree, of course):
|vs RHP as RHB||118||381||12||39||87||.311||.391||.502||.893||166|
|vs LHP as RHB||71||156||8||18||25||.284||.365||.515||.880||69|
Ignore the fact that Canha’s overall numbers were actually better against righties. He had a much better command of the strike zone against lefties, and considerably more power, to boot. If he’s going to make an impact in the Majors, it will be as a platoon first baseman or DH. And if he’s going to do that, he will do it for the league-minimum salary, in Oakland, with Ike Davis helping form a potent full slate of playing time.
41. The note above does not even mention Joe Wendle, the player the A’s actually got back for Moss. Wendle is a left-handed hitter who plays the middle infield, and has a modicum of on-base ability. He’s unexciting. If he turns into anything, it will be gravy for the A’s.
42. In the modern baseball economy, I’ve learned to be dubious of any claim that a given team needs to cut payroll, or is unable to stretch beyond a specific number. Too many teams have moved beyond what appeared to be hard budgetary caps, or have talked about a need to find salary relief but never found it. On top of that spotty record, there’s the fact that we know—we just know, these days—that no one actually needs to cut payroll. Teams are making money by the bucketful. Teams who cut payroll are doing so not out of actual, fiscal need, but because owners want to preserve some profit margin and demand that the club be trimmed to fit that objective.
That said, when the people in charge are as candid as the Reds were in the middle of the Winter Meetings, it’s a good idea to listen up. Often, a publicity push like that is meant to explain in advance, to soften the ground for a move that might otherwise be unpopular. Two days after these whispers began, the Reds started making potentially unpopular moves, trading Mat Latos to the Marlins for Anthony DeSclafani and Brett Wallach. Latos made $7.5 million in 2014, and will probably push toward a $10-million salary in 2015.
43. Dealing Latos might well be unpopular in Cincinnati, but I’m a fan of the decision. Latos has finished each of the last two seasons with elbow problems. He has a funky delivery that has always concerned many onlookers. His 2014 season was halved by knee surgery, and was arguably his worst campaign even after he returned. He lost velocity.
There are no positive indicators for Mat Latos’s future. He was a very good pitcher from 2010-13, and it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that he will bounce back, but I like the Reds’ choice to bet against that chance for his one remaining (expensive) season of team control.
44. In return for Latos, Cincinnati got a nice pitching prospect. Anthony DeSclafani rated as the Marlins’ sixth-best prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus, not long before the trade that made him a Reds prospect instead. DeSclafani actually reached the Majors and made 13 appearances in 2014, and although his ERA was a ghastly 6.27, he struck out 26 and walked only five. He has a decent fastball, and both his slider and his changeup look like usable pitches when he gets them right. His scouting report in the link above does note that he occasionally gets into too much of a “challenge mode,” daring hitters to hit pitches they can, in fact, hit. The great strikeout-to-walk ratio and poor ERA might speak to that. If the thing most holding him back from being a competent back-end or mid-rotation starter is that hyper-aggressive mentality, though, that’s a nice gamble the Reds are taking. There’s upside there.
45. The Red Sox signed Justin Masterson for one year and $9.5 million. Based on Masterson’s name, which carries some cache because he’s a former Red Sox prospect and had two good seasons in Cleveland, that sounds like a nice addition to the rotation the team set out to rebuild after missing out on Jon Lester. Based on the money they paid for him, it sounds like a solid commitment to a surefire back-end starting pitcher, maybe more.
In truth, I’m not sure Masterson adds a damn thing to the Red Sox. He induces a lot of ground balls (a LOT of ground balls), but he’s only had one season in which he glimpsed impact potential in terms of missing bats, and he consistently walks more batters than an average starter. That ground-ball talent keeps his head above water, and is especially nice to have in the AL East, but there’s very little upside here. Unless a knee injury that took a bite out of his 2014 season really was the source of his problems, he’s just not the guy who broke out so impressively in 2013. On the plus side, despite that knee problem and an oblique strain in late 2013, Masterson has a pretty clean injury history. He should be able to pile up some innings. It’s just that, unless there’s another big arm coming to Boston, he’s going to be too close to the front of the rotation for my taste.
46. Masterson is a total enigma, in a way. Because the consensus is that his lingering injury played a role we can’t capture well in the struggles of 2014, he defies analysis. There just isn’t enough information available to decide whether we ought to trust him to produce much in 2015. Kendrys Morales is in a similar situation. Last winter, Morales and agent Scott Boras took a hideously ill-advised stand against the qualifying offer, counting on someone to pony up with a substantial deal, then not signing with anyone until June, due to the draft pick hanging around Morales’s neck until then.
Even after signing, though, Morales had a nightmare of a season. The Twins made the curious choice to bring him along, basically have him catch up in terms of preparation, by playing every day in the Majors. Without Spring Training, without a pseudo-rehab stint in the minor leagues, without any sort of ramping up, Morales was out of sync. He never found his rhythm. Between Minnesota and Seattle, to whom he was traded at the deadline, Morales amassed 401 plate appearances, but batted .218/.274/.338.
The Royals are betting that the source of that abysmal collapse truly was a wrong-footed start. They signed Morales to a two-year, $17-million contract, making him the replacement for long-time DH and departed free agent Billy Butler. If they’re right, that contract will be reasonable. If they’re wrong, and any significant part of Morales’s struggles stemmed from real skill decay, they’ll regret it. I’m willing to bet on the former, as Dayton Moore did, but this one is a blind gamble.
47. The Cardinals signed Mark Reynolds to a one-year deal for $2 million. He’ll fill in at first base and come off the bench with runners on base, presumably. St. Louis scored only 26.01 percent of their runs via the home run in 2014, the third-lowest figure in baseball. That’s a part of their organizational identity, really, but in hopes of being better able to throw a haymaker now and then, the Cardinals stepped outside their paradigm for a moment to grab Reynolds.
48. Reynolds is a nice bargain for the Cardinals, too. He’s managed 21 or more home runs in each of the last seven seasons, and posted his lowest strikeout rate on record in 2014 (though it was still an unseemly 28.2 percent). At $2 million for a single season, almost anyone is a bargain, and Reynolds is no exception, despite his lack of contact skills or defensive value. I have just two concerns:
|vs. SP, 1st||108||108||8||8||33||.260||.315||.520||.835||.305||143|
|vs. SP, 2nd||100||99||5||12||28||.214||.316||.452||.769||.250||115|
|vs. SP, 3rd||74||74||3||10||13||.190||.297||.333||.631||.188||68|
|vs. SP, 4th+||1||1||0||0||0||.000||.000||.000||.000||.000||-100|
|vs. RP, 1st||110||149||6||17||48||.133||.242||.289||.531||.145||56|
|vs. RP, 2nd||2||2||0||0||0||.500||.500||.500||1.000||.500||156|
Reynolds really scuffled against relievers in 2014, yet, did worse the more times he faced a starter in a contest. That makes me wonder whether Reynolds is really attacking bad pitchers, more than anything else, since he seems to be well-handled by guys who make it through the lineup a couple of times.
My other hangup:
This goes hand-in-hand with the first chart. Clearly, guys with more intense stuff (‘power,’ here, means a guy whose combined strikeout and walk rates are among the highest tercile in the league; ‘finesse’ guys are those whose combined rates were among the lowest third) are getting Reynolds out fairly easily. That’s not something you want to see, especially from a 31-year-old who has relied on winning the three true outcomes (home runs, strikeouts and walks) to produce at the plate throughout his career.
On the other hand, maybe the idea with Reynolds is not so much to find a perfect platoon player or a pinch-hitter to face late-game flamethrowers, as to give some of the team’s regulars a breather on getaway days against second-rate arms. If that’s how the Cardinals use Reynolds, maybe they’ll tap into some serious value, and if this plays out that way, I’ll tip my cap. It’s possible.
49. The Texas Rangers dealt for Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler. Two years ago, this would have rated as mildly interesting, as Detwiler had racked up 37 starts with an above-average set of surface-level numbers, even while striking out a very low number of batters, and even while throwing his fastball nearly all the time. One year ago, it would have been an intriguing buy-low move, after Detwiler’s 2013 season had been derailed by an oblique strain and a herniated disk. This winter, it’s a trade for a spare arm, a guy who didn’t start a single game in Washington but probably gets at least a look as a starting option in Texas. Detwiler still throws his fastball over 80 percent of the time, sometimes a straight four-seamer, sometimes a sinker. He still gets it up to 93 miles per hour with some regularity. It’s becoming clear, though, that he’s never going to do much else, even in relief.
50. Perhaps more interesting than Detwiler himself was one of the men for whom he was traded, Chris Bostick. After a strong season in the Midwest League in 2013, Bostick was one part of a trade last winter, going to Texas in a deal that sent Craig Gentry to Oakland. In the Carolina League, Bostick had a solid 2014, too, though he was certainly slightly less impressive. He still looks like a capable second baseman, and has a tantalizing blend of speed, pop and pure hitting ability. Nothing about him leaps out, but he’s a solid mid-level prospect. To be honest, I’m not sure how he went from helping fetch a solid, well-rounded, team-controlled center fielder like Gentry to being just part of a trade for a nearly useless swing man.
It does signal to me, though, that he’s unlikely to meet the potential an outsider might see in him. A prospect treated this much like sheer currency might be treated that way because he has more value that way than as a player judged coldly on his merits, his chances of really contributing to a winning team. I think there are players in whom hardly any GM or serious talent evaluator genuinely believes, but who have some tool or profile that does carry cache, broadly speaking. One might keep such a player around for an occasion on which just enough is missing from a trade package that you can say, “Hey, want to take your chance with Bostick?” The guy on the other side of the table might not have any more confidence in Bostick returning actual value than you have, and he still might be willing to take that chance instead of haggling over two more real prospects who (nonetheless) aren’t worth holding up the deal over. Just a meandering thought.
Next time, from the other side of the rubber: More on the Lester deal, especially its implications on the Cubs’ next steps; the two big, as-yet-unofficial Dodgers trades; a few White Sox tidbits; this week’s new run on hitters; and more.Next post: Time Capsule: Cards from the ’80s & ’90s (Part 2)
Previous post: Almost Heroes: The Last Ten Franchises to Lose a World Series, Part 3 – Rangers