You know the feeling. We’ve all done it. You’re putting off reading about race and gender in nineteenth-century coastal Ecuador by just casually clicking through Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, or whichever other site your baseball fandom dictates. It was a five minute break twenty minutes ago, when suddenly a certain statistic just sticks out so glaringly it disrupts your deep dive. Now admittedly, my trawling wasn’t particularly intense today – I was feeling vaguely on the ball when it came to my schoolwork – but Michael Cuddyer won the NL batting title last year?!
As a career .277 hitter, and someone who had never hit above .284 coming into 2013, Cuddyer’s mark of .331 was not only hugely surprising, but blew away the competition; the 34 year old’s clip was a full 10 points ahead of his nearest competitor (Chris Johnson), and left perennial batting average contenders like Yadier Molina, Joey Votto, and teammate Troy Tulowitzki in the dust. Throw in his 20 HRs, 84 RBIs, and 10 steals, and Cuddyer probably swung more than a few fantasy leagues in his second year as a Rockie. Alas! Fantasy baseball is not real, nor is the idea that Cuddyer will put up a good fight in defending his average crown; his deal with the baseball Gods is likely over.
Quite simply, the regression monster is coming – and in a big way; the former Minnesota man’s 2013 batting average success was all smoke, mirrors, and good ol’ luck on batted balls in play. Trailing only the aforementioned Johnson and former Twin’s teammate Joe Mauer, Cuddyer’s 2013 BABIP of .382 was a full 70 points higher than his career rate, and more than 16 percent higher than his previous career high of .328 all the way back in 2006. And while both Johnson and Mauer were also among the leaders in line drive percentage (27.0% and 27.7% respectively), Cuddyer only managed a rate of 20.2% – only his fourth highest percentage in a season in which he stepped to the plate at least 250 times; based on such a number, Cuddyer’s BABIP should have been at .295, making his average .264. Which y’know, would put him right in line with his 2012 season, in which the then-33 year old slashed .260/.317/.489 thanks to a .287 BABIP and was a 1.5 WAR player – the sort of normal figures that restore my faith in baseball reality.
My aim in pointing out his inflated average is not to rag on Cuddyer, or suggest he is a bad player who simply got by last year by faking it – far from it. In fact, the Virginia native has recently been remarkably consistent, his peripheral numbers remaining mostly the same despite his advancing age and a change in home ballpark. But as fantasy draft season rapidly approaches, such knowledge of obvious regression candidates should be deemed absolutely necessary – kind of like a buyer’s beware PSA. The 16-20 HR power? Legit. Plenty of RBI opportunities batting behind Carlos Gonzalez and Tulo? Assured. 10 steal potential? Sure. A DL stint and a final total of around 140 games played? Inevitable. Terrible defense in right field guaranteed for another year because the Rockies went out and signed Justin Morneau to play first this year? Lock it in.
The batting average though? I’ll let you work that one out.
Three posts in one day – unprecedented territory here at The Dugout Perspective. I’d just like to break from researching a paper for my Global Politics class for a minute to say thank you to everyone who has simply clicked, read, or commented on this blog since its inception a little over a month ago – in the month of February, The Dugout Perspective ranked 24th among Fan Blogs per MLB.com Blogs Central’s ‘Latest Leaders’. Considering yesterday I found out I’ve torn my ACL (amongst other knee-related things), such good news has provided both welcome consolation and the inspiration to keep writing even amidst essay deadlines and upcoming exams. If there is anything you (excellent) readers would like to see more/less of, or even any special requests to stop ragging on your team’s GM – sorry by the way Seattle – do feel free to let me know either by posting in the comments section or tweeting me - @TomJFMonson.
Thank you once again DP readers. I hope you enjoy all my future offerings just as much as you apparently did in February - Tom Monson.
Phillies now inquiring about Ervin Santana
— Nick Cafardo (@nickcafardo) March 7, 2014
Though obviously Cole Hamels’ latest injury is his largest motivation in regards to kicking the tires on a pitcher who has just fired his agent, and whose slider usage last year has raised questions concerning his elbow durability, Amaro is swinging for fences about 1000 feet away. Accept it Ruben – the Phillies are not going to be good in 2014! Save whatever dignity you have left and accept the inevitable rebuild! Otherwise we’re going to soon have to find the Amaro-equivalent to this YouTube gem:
I’m preemptively setting the over/under for days before Ruben insists Ryan Howard will exclusively play against lefties this year at 15.5. Seems altogether reasonable considering the Phillies GM’s twisted logic.
While Spring Training lingers on for the next three weeks or so, I’ll every now and then be interspersing my usual content with award predictions for the 2014 season. Today marks the first such instance of my forecasting, as I plump for a relative outsider in the National League ROY race.
Boy was 2013 a doozy of a year for exciting rookies joining the Senior Circuit; in terms of hitters there was the indomitable Yasiel Puig, overshadowing key contributors such as Jed Gyorko and Nolan Arenado, whereas on the pitching side of things, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Gerrit Cole all built strong enough cases to claim the award in any other year but for one including the dominant eventual winner – the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez. The 2014 class too, looks like a heated debate waiting to happen; aside from the (currently-blocked) future stars Archie Bradley and Oscar Taveras, names such as Billy Hamilton, Kolten Wong, Kris Bryant, Chris Owings, even Eddie Butler, are waiting in the wings themselves ready to break out. Somewhere in the middle of those two echelons though, is my favorite – the New York Mets’ top prospect, Noah Syndergaard.
Packaged to New York alongside catcher Travis d’Arnaud in exchange for R.A. Dickey prior to the 2013 season, the 6’6 righty simply destroyed the minors in his first year as a member of the Mets organization. Behind – as Baseball Prospectus so aptly put it – “his ungodly K/BB numbers” (he struck out 133 batters in 117.2 innings, walking just 28 along the way), Syndergaard blazed through a season in which he spent time at Single-A, but ultimately finished at Double-A Binghamton. With a “plus-plus fastball that he can throw to a teacup” (H/T to BP again) that regularly flirted with triple digits, a curveball that manager Terry Collins has already dubbed the “hook from hell”, and a potentially plus change up too, the Texas native oozes ace potential – something that has not gone amiss so far this spring.
When Baseball Prospectus wrote “He could probably do a decent Matt Harvey impression at the major-league level right now,” even after his supreme 2013 showing, I was skeptical; the 21 year old hadn’t thrown a single pitch in Triple-A after all. Then came Monday, and his Spring Training debut, after which I quickly changed my mind. In his first Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves, Syndergaard demonstrated exactly why Mets fans are dreaming of a time in the near future in which he, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler will all simultaneously occupy the same rotation. He pitched two innings of scoreless ball, striking out both Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis with 98mph fastballs, giving up a solitary single to Ryan Doumit, and generally looked at ease against big-league opposition. When Terry Collins said afterwards “he’s on track to be special,” he wasn’t wrong – Syndergaard is going to be great. When the Mets allow him to be so however, is the question crucial to his ROY case.
The timetable for Syndergaard’s arrival will presumably be much akin to the paths taken by Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler to The Show; both were delayed somewhat by the Mets’ willingness to delay the inevitable ticking of their respective service time clocks, and were brought up only once their addition wouldn’t cause further financial damage to a low-payroll squad rocked by the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme scandal. With Jonathon Niese, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, and Jenrry Mejia all healthy so far – the likelihood of Syndergaard being taken back north at the end of the month would appear to be slim; he’d instead spend until late June or even July at Triple-A Las Vegas waiting for his Super-2 eligibility to expire, and spend only a half-season in the majors. Typically, that’s not going to be long enough to stake a legitimate ROY case, no matter how good you are.
However, the reports of Mets GM Sandy Alderson’s internal staff meeting might have ramifications that would see their top prospect arrive sooner rather than later; as John Harper of the Daily News pointed out, “if Alderson really thinks this team is capable of winning 90 games, Syndergaard should be up here sometime in May.” With news of his demands now public, Alderson to some extent owes it to Terry Collins (and the fans too for that matter) to provide him with the best roster possible – a prospective 25-man unit which would easily include Syndergaard. And if he is to crack the rotation early (Collins has said it “conceivable” that the 2010 draft pick makes it straight from Spring), Syndergaard’s case for ROY may well be comparable to Fernandez’s 2013 offering in terms of results.
Though it may seem that I’m banking on the aforementioned Taveras and Bradley encountering similar issues in regard to their service clocks in building my case for Syndergaard, I equally believe in the power righty’s potential. Though he may not spend the year in the majors, I’m all-aboard the hype wagon after the rave reviews he has so far drawn from teammates, managers, and opposition alike this Spring. That, and the fact that Mets fans sorely need a Matt Harvey-like feel-good story replacement to root for this year, is why I’m picking Noah Syndergaard as my 2014 National League Rookie of the Year.
Many internet prognosticators figured it would be at least 12 months before Robinson Cano voiced his displeasure concerning Seattle’s roster construction, projecting a full season of disappointment before any public outcry. Instead, it has taken only 90 days as a member of the Mariners for the star second baseman to provide the front office with some pointers. Though the speed of his ‘advice’ hasn’t earned him much in terms of popularity amongst his new fanbase, it would be wrong to instantly dub Cano and his contract off the mark, and begin the what seems inevitable process of his becoming a financial albatross to the team. He’s probably actually right.
Cano’s signing with the Mariners started the clock of contention ticking for Seattle, a situation succinctly explained by Mike Curto: “The mix of Cano’s age (31) and the financial commitment speeds up the Mariners’ calendar. The team is now pressured to win in the next few years, before Cano’s skills severely decline.” With a clear window of serviceable Cano years to operate in, and armed with an impending $2 billion thanks to a new long-term agreement with DirecTV, the M’s promised to be aggressive on the free-agent market in building a team around their prize in order to immediately contend in a loaded AL West division. What actually happened however… well, they struck out – as my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series detailed. Entering the season, the Mariners are projected to have Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager batting ahead of Cano, with Corey Hart in line for clean-up duty. That’s a problem, one Cano had no issue with immediately highlighting in an interview with CBSSports.com earlier this week:
“I’m not going to lie. We need an extra bat, especially a right-handed bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty. You don’t want to face a lefty pitcher with a lineup of seven left-handed hitters.”
When Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million contract in December, it was clear he was leaving a bad offense behind in New York; as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their fantastic annual, “The second baseman accounted for 68 percent of the Yankees’ BWARP” in 2013. At age 31, he quite rightly jumped at Seattle’s offer – purportedly $65 million more than the next-highest bidder – and GM Jack Zduriencik’s promise to build a contender around him during the remainder of his prime. The problem there being that Cano’s prime may already be over – and Zduriencik has so far done nothing.
Mike Bates of SB Nation studied the 20 most valuable players who spent more than half of their careers at second base through age 30 since 1900; his results showed that the group average fell from a cumulative 47.3 WAR through their age 31 seasons, to just 22.3 WAR after. So while Cano has been remarkably durable so far in his cumulating a career 45.1 WAR (he’s currently in the midst of a seven season streak of at least 159 games played), and consistently great at both the plate and in the field, every historical indicator points to those days of healthy performance soon ending. In his study of the unsightly aging curve of offense-minded second basemen, Fangraphs writer Tony Blengino wrote the following about Seattle’s splashy acquisition:
History says that Cano will ride out the end of his peak period in 2014, begin a solid decline phase with some .300ish, 18-20 HR seasons, than begin a deeper secondary decline phase during which he accumulate hits — and outs. By age 35, there will likely be a severe disconnect between Cano’s salary and his production.
Paging Jack Z – 2014 is this year! It has always been acknowledged that the back end of the Dominican native’s contract would be an overpay, but the obliviousness of the Mariners front office to the obvious decline on the horizon is a little frightening for a long-suffering Seattle fan base. Father Time catches up with even the best players in the end – just ask Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.
All of which is why Cano’s recent lobbying for help (including for the still-available Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales) makes sense; if he is only going to be able to provide front-loaded production, the team should go out and get help now. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Seattle payroll is currently sat at around $74 million, with just Cano and Felix Hernandez as the only large contracts, yet with the benefit of their upcoming TV deal they neither seriously pursued Nelson Cruz or Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency, nor made an aggressive push for a David Price deal despite possessing a suitable return piece in Taijuan Walker (who is now injured, naturally). Cano’s addition alone will not be enough to in one year turn around completely an offense that in 2013 finished 12th in the Junior Circuit with 624 runs scored and ranked 10th in the AL in team OPS (.695), let alone push a 91 loss team to the peak of the AL West and into the playoffs – baseball is the most individual ‘team sport’ after all. One man can only do so much, and that one man is due to decline; (the admittedly conservative) PECOTA has him projected to hit .297/.352/.482 with a .307 TAv and 21 HR in 2014 – and his numbers are only going in one direction from there.
Cano probably knows it. Seattle apparently, does not. Keep talking Robbie, I don’t blame you. If the M’s are serious about contending, maybe they’ll start listening too.
Seeing as I didn’t exactly do my team full justice in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series – which finally concluded yesterday with a parting glance at Jose Reyes’ and Toronto’s injury woes – I figured today I would spend some further time scrutinizing a player close to my heart. Or at least, he was. Then again, he could yet climb back in. Brandon Phillips is a contentious subject for Cincinnati fans heading into 2014.
Since arriving in the Queen City in 2006, the dynamic play and happy-go-lucky personality of Brandon Phillips had secured the second baseman a long leash with Reds fans. Combining consistently Gold Glove worthy defense with above average offensive production, DatDudeBP was a perennial All-Star with a smile, more loved than even the Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto. So when his offensive output dropped off significantly in 2013 (If anyone brings up RBIs as a measure of production – GTFO), we ignored the five year trend of decline and found excuses for him. When his behavior followed suit however, well that ticked off more than just the fans.
Questionably inked to a six-year, $72.5 million contract in 2011 as a 30 year old coming off a career year (.300/.353/.457, 122 wRC+, 5.6 WAR), Phillips last year publicly called out the man responsible for prioritizing his signing, Reds CEO Bob Castellini. Despite his leveraging of Cincinnati management and overlooking of the fact that second basemen don’t tend to age gracefully, Castellini had apparently done Phillips wrong by signing other key teammates to (larger) contracts too. In a July interview with the Cincinnati Magazine, the unhappy player sounded off regarding the man who signs his checks:
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie.
All of a sudden, $72.5 million was, according to Phillips, “a slap in my face.” Not long after too, cameras caught Phillips berating beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans over a tweet which rubbed him the wrong way; simply stating Phillips’ less than stellar career offensive statistics when hitting in the No. 2 hole earning the Cincinnati Enquirer writer the distasteful threat “I’m tired of you talking that negative sh*t on our team, dog. I found out your Twitter name now motherf***er. It’s a wrap.” Top athletes get away with such behavior routinely though; it’s when they stop producing that we have an issue with it. And unfortunately for Phillips in 2013, he fell off the wagon on the field too.
After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, the increasingly unpopular Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013, his OPS ranking seventh among second basemen on the Senior Circuit. As Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris noted too, it marked another year of decline:
Here’s the list of statistics in which Phillips showed a five-year worsts in 2013: Batting average, home runs, runs, stolen bases, strikeout rate, swinging strikeout rate, slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage, batting average on balls in play, batted ball distance on homers and flies, ultimate base running, and four-component speed score.
That’s a heck of a lot of offensive categories. Yes, he had a career high 103 RBIs (…urgh, I’m disgusted to even acknowledge so), as most competent major leaguers could hitting behind the NL’s two best on-base men; hitting savant Joey Votto was on base 101 times when Phillips came to the plate, whereas the recently departed Shin-Soo Choo was there 56 times himself. His 69 weighted runs created , and .257 true average spoke more volume of his struggles however, which in combination with the disappearance of his running game, public missteps, and remaining $50 million owed in salary over the next four seasons, landed Phillips on the trading block this winter.
The Braves were reportedly in on the now-32 year old, but insisted on Dan Uggla’s albatross contract being a part of any return package. The Reds blanched. The Dodgers made overtures before landing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero. The Kansas City Royals had interest before signing Omar Infante. Talks progressed beyond mere rumor with the Yankees about a Brett Gardner/Phillips swap, only for New York to nix a potential deal (they have of course since signed Gardner to a 4 year $52 million extension). With trade scenarios cropping up every other it seems then, that barring a sudden rejuvenation, Phillips will be playing elsewhere as soon as Cincinnati can find a taker for his contract.
It will be interesting to see if the former favorite can rebound in 2014 however, whether it be with the Reds or elsewhere. Though his strikeout and contact rates both went in the wrong direction last season, his decline was far greater than expected. At least some of his down year can be pinned on a more than ordinary HBP which occurred in Pittsburgh on June 1st; prior to Tony Watson hitting his left forearm in the eight inning of a game against the rival Pirates – Brandon later acknowledging “He got me good… I thought it was broke for sure.” – Phillips was hitting .291/.340/.476. The keystoner played through the pain however, avoiding the DL and surely in no coincidence, posted his lowest isolated power mark since 2006 (.135). Whether his being nicked up last year can really be viewed as the sole reason for his below-par performance rather than a sign of attrition, will certainly play a part in deciding Phillips’ future with the Reds organization. But as he recently stated in an interview with Jon Danneman of FOX19 – breaking his offseason media silence in the process – “If they feel like they can do better without me than good luck with that”.
You made it! After 4 weeks, 29 teams, and countless hours spent writing when I probably should have been paying attention in class, it’s finally Day 30 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. With Spring Training games well underway, I yesterday detailed the alternative options vying for a back-end spot in Texas’ already injury-riddled rotation. Today though, a team which suffered from more injuries than most in 2013 is on the clock; it’s (somewhat obviously via simple deduction) the last team of the alphabetical AL, the Toronto Blue Jays, who will be looking to rebound in 2014 behind healthier showings from their top talent.
Ask the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, 2012 Angels of Anaheim, or a host of other momentarily hyped, but ultimately disappointing teams. They’ll attest that a splashy offseason often doesn’t manifest itself in immediate on-field results, a cruel fact that last season the Toronto Blue Jays unfortunately learned the hard way. After seemingly taking advantage of Miami’s fire sale to acquire Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes, they parted with top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud in order to nab NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, and rounded out their offseason by inking NL batting champ and All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16-million contract. With a presumably wide open AL East ripe for the taking, and tipped for much more than simply a division crown, Toronto improved their lowly 2012 record by a measly one game, finishing 74-88 and in last place.
But as is often the case when considering lost seasons, injuries lay at the heart of Toronto’s struggles. Per Baseball Prospectus, the team ranked 29th in days lost to the DL (1449 in total), a figure only exacerbated by the quality of those players who went down; Franchise centerpiece Jose Bautista suffered a twisted ankle on just April 4th, and saw his season end in mid-August after being shut down with an ailing hip. Promising center fielder Colby Rasmus finally experienced a pseudo-breakout, but only garnered 417 at-bats, missing time with an oblique strain, and late in September, a case of takingaballtotheface-itis. New addition Josh Johnson made only 16 starts due to a variety of injuries, though probably helped the team by his getting so many splinters from the trainers table – in his 16 starts the righty went 2-8 with a brutal 6.20 ERA. Even Edwin Encarnacion put off putting up career numbers for 20 games. Perhaps no more statistic was more telling of the Jays’ fragility than the fact that no regular played more than designated hitter/first baseman Adam Lind, who himself only appeared in 143 games. No one absence however, hurt more than that of shortstop Jose Reyes.
The prized capture of the Marlins haul, Reyes started out strong in April, even as the rest of the team foundered; entering Game 10 against the Royals on April 12th, the Dominican Republic native was raking to the tune of .395/.465/.526, and had already racked up five stolen bases. In the sixth inning however, his feet got tangled up underneath him on a further steal attempt; Reyes severely sprained his left ankle, and would miss the next 2 1/2 months. Without him, the Jays became mired in a funk; after being tapped as pre-season contenders, by the end of April alone, the team was already 9 1/2 games back of the Red Sox for first place in the AL East.
Though his replacement Munenori Kawasaki made a noticeable impact on the fans, his lack of production only highlighted the powerful absence of Reyes – both at the dish and on the left side of the infield. R.A. Dickey perhaps voiced the powerful absence of Reyes to the team best, surmising ”Imagine a car trying to start without a spark plug, that’s what it was like.” Defying medical expectation by making it back before the All-Star break however, Reyes tried his best to play catalyst to the team, but was clearly still hobbled – his lingering injury robbing him of the trademark speed that led GM Alex Anthopoulos to call the shortstop in his introductory press conference, “my favorite guy in the league to watch.”
Despite his best efforts, Reyes just wasn’t the same post-injury. Though he finished with a more than respectable (especially so given his position) slash line of .296/.353/.427, his extra-base-hit percentage (7.2 percent) was the second-lowest rate of his career with a minimum of 300 PAs. As noted by ESPN‘s Jayson Stark too, after hitting 12 triples the year prior, Reyes failed to noth a single one in his 93 games in 2013, and was beten in the category by Dillon Gee and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And though Fangraphs still pegged him as a 2.2 WAR player, both his base running and fielding value dropped off a cliff from his usual standards; perennially amongst the lead leaders in the category, Reyes stole just 15 bases on the season and was 7-for-13 in attempted steals of second post-injury – his 0.9 BRR significantly below his 4.6 BRR in 2013. Similarly, his range in the field was noticeably limited, an observation borne out in the statistics. Fangraphs rated his 2013 fielding to be —8.0 UZR/150, a substantially worse return than the -3.1/150 mark of 2012.
When told of his numerical decline last week, Reyes remarked “That wasn’t me, that was somebody else playing.” Entering the third year of a six-year, $106 million contract, the Blue Jays will need him to make good on his promise to return to full-speed – after averaging just under 110 games played per season since 2009, the soon-to-be 31 year old Reyes has vowed to play in at least 150 games this year, Rogers Centre’s artificial turf be damned. With few expectations upon them heading into 2014 after lying low through the winter, the everyday presence of their spark plug atop the lineup would certainly go a long way towards Toronto surprising some folks in 2014.
The talent is there for the Jays to make a push. It just needs to stay on the field.
In yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I found yet another reason to love the Rays - RHP, and amateur thespian, Chris Archer. From Tampa Bay’s seemingly endless stream of above average hurlers then, to a club in dire need of some additional pitching depth; less than a week into Spring Training, the Texas Rangers are already beset by injuries to their projected starting rotation. They’ve a lot to figure out in the coming few weeks before Opening Day…
When the calendar flipped to 2014, it looked as if the Texas Rangers were ready to reclaim their throne atop the AL West from this pesky Athletics. Having lost the second AL Wild Card spot in a tie-breaking Game 163 with the Rays, Texas first traded for Prince Fielder’s left handed power bat, parting with longtime franchise keystone Ian Kinsler in the process. Then, looking for an outfield boost and leadoff hitter, they inked Shin-Soo Choo – he of the .423 OBP in 2013. With an upgraded lineup to backup a rotation that last season cumulatively accrued a 114 ERA+, the Rangers were looking well stocked. At least until the injury bug bit two surefire starters.
First it was Derek Holland on crutches and out until midseason – after a curiously unlucky incident involving his dog, the Rangers were without a man who provided 213 innings and 3.3 WAR last season, as well as some of the iffiest facial hair in the game. Then it was 2012 All-Star Matt Harrison, who after undergoing three surgeries last year, two of which were to alleviate a herniated disc, reporting lower back pain in the same area as the previous procedures. Throw in the loss of Matt Garza and Justin Grimm over the winter, and the Rangers officially moved in scramble mode barely a week into Spring Training. Fortunately for Texas, they have plenty of internal options to fill in the gaps; whether the replacements are up to scratch however, is another matter entirely.
At the top of their starting five, the Rangers appear to be pretty well set; AL strikeout king and primary subject of the GIF of the year Yu Darvish would be the bona fide ace of the staff even before the injury bug bit Texas, while Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando would also doubtlessly have been carried over from their respective 2013 rotation roles. Both however, in an ideal situation would have remained at the back end of the staff, Ogando having bounced between the rotation and long relief before making 30 starts last year (and falling off badly down the stretch), and Perez entering only his second full season in the majors, despite posting a more than respectable 3.62 ERA as a rookie. Instead, the pair are slotted in as no. 2 and 3 behind Darvish.
Tommy Hanson meanwhile, was brought to camp as a lottery ticket after suffering through a terrible 2013 with the Angels (going 3-4 with a 5.42 ERA, in just 15 games), but is now projected to be the no. 4 member of the rotation – this despite a history of shoulder problems and a worrying loss of fastball velocity last year (a potentially huge problem given the launching pad Globe Life Park provides for opposing hitters). Behind Hanson in the five spot? It could be any number of candidates, all with significant question marks aside their names.
As the top pitcher on the consecutive World Series teams fielded by Texas in 2010 and 2011, Colby Lewis and his veteran experience would appear to have the inside track on the job, but at 34 years old, is coming off a lost 2013 in which he underwent a hip surgery that no other pitcher has ever had before. Nick Tepesch, while not a hard thrower, gained some starting experience last year, compiling a 4.84 ERA in his 17 games, but barring improvement, is simply a replacement level option. Last year’s Spring Training darling, Michael Kirkman, too is in the mix, even after a 8.18 ERA and a 2.318 WHIP as a reliever in 2013. Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers will also both be given the chance to start in the Cactus League, but their removal from the bullpen would leave Texas dangerously thin on the back end; with Joe Nathan gone to Detroit and Neftali Feliz only just returning from injury himself, both will presumably be needed for depth purposes. Scheppers in particular, who posted a 1.07 WHIP and a 1.88 ERA in 76 relief appearances last year, appears to be too valuable a commodity for Texas to significantly alter his role, whereas Ross struggled with reverse-splits to such an extent last year that a promotion to starting seems far off.
Questioned about the problematic final starting spot, manager Ron Washington voiced humorous unease: “You’re never comfortable, but someone will emerge… There’s no doubt about it. All of those guys can’t be horses—.” In a tough AL West, the vacancy certainly represents Texas’ biggest weakness as Opening Day approaches, with no apparent savior on the horizon either; Having spent big already this offseason to bring in the aforementioned Choo and Fielder, it seems GM Jon Daniels has closed the checkbook on Ervin Santana (probably a wise move given his less than ideal fit for the park), meaning there’s no one else really to sign. Help will have to come from within, and perform admirably until the wounded return. If they’re to live up to their lofty winter expectations, Texas might just have to get by being lucky for a while. They’re due at least.
Yesterday I put my life on the line, shredding Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik’s misguided winter effort to deflect attention from front office dysfunction by improving the product on the field. All very well and good, except he didn’t. I’m sure Seattle fans will let me live when I visit Safeco in May (on what’s effectively a Mike Trout pilgrimage) though – they still have the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks after all. Anyhow, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series today rolls on to perhaps the most well-managed team of all 30 – the Tampa Bay Rays. From GM Andrew Friedman on down, year after year it seems, the Rays somehow get the most out of the least. Continually they unearth talent from the unlikeliest sources, RHP Chris Archer being a prime example.
It’s easy to love Chris Archer. Beyond his excellent Twitter feed and commendable off-field work, he’s a treat to watch play baseball – something perhaps ESPN’s Michael Baumann put best in creating his All–MLB Network Team for Grantland last summer:
What makes Archer so fun to watch is not what he does but how he does it. Archer paces around the mound like a leopard in a cage that’s too small to be comfortable. He isn’t the only pitcher who points up whenever he gives up a fly ball, but nobody does it with such enthusiasm. On a ground ball, Archer not only turns around to see the result of the play, but he turns his body to face whichever fielder is handling the ball at the moment. With his socks and stirrups pulled all the way up (a style that looks excellent in Tampa’s striped socks) and his hat slightly crooked, Archer looks and moves like the oldest kid on the Little League team.
He’s basically the anti-John Lackey on the mound; his theatrics indicative of raw enthusiasm rather than anything malicious. Pay another attention though, and you’ll notice something else about the 25 year old beyond his remarkable affectations – he’s actually pretty darn good.
Unlike his first experience of The Show, Archer’s road to the majors was hardly smooth sailing. Raised by his grandparents after being abandoned by his biological parents, Archer failed to make the baseball team in middle school. Instead of quitting however, the North Carolina native improved enough via recreation ball to make the high school squad, and would sign a letter of intent to attend the University of Miami. Things changed suddenly in the summer of 2006 though, when the young righty was selected in the fifth round of the draft by the Cleveland Indians. Traded to the Cubs in 2008 as part of a package for Mark DeRosa, he was named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and installed on the 40 man roster only to be again packaged off – this time to Tampa – in exchange for Matt Garza. It would be another relatively rocky couple of years in the minors – mixed with flashes of brilliance and too many walks – but when David Price went down last year, Archer would finally get an extended chance to stick in the big leagues.
After compiling a bored-looking 3.96 ERA in 10 starts with Triple A affiliate the Durham Bulls, the excitable righty was called up on June 1, and would start out brilliantly. Predominantly riding his fastball (which topped out at 97mph) and sharp-breaking slider combination, Archer proceeded to give up no more than 3 runs in any of his first 10 starts, including a ridiculous four game stretch in which he gave up just one run and threw two complete-game shutouts. Though he faded down the stretch, Archer eventually compiled a ERA of 3.22 and 1.13 WHIP (with opposing batters hitting just .223 against him) across his 23 starts – good for third in AL ROY voting, and a 2.2 WAR value.
His impactful success can be mostly attributed to improved command (though slightly lucky peripheral numbers such as a .253 BABIP and a 78.8 LOB% certainly didn’t hurt). Sacrificing strikeouts slightly, Archer posted a career low 2.7 BB/9, his previously wild ways disappearing from his pitching if not his actions on the mound. Throwing 59.8% fastballs, 33% sliders, and 7.2% changeups according to Fangraphs, there’s certainly room for Archer to now expand his repertoire too in order to counter the inevitable adjustments of hitters in his sophomore campaign; Brett Talley actually rates his changeup as his best ‘out’ pitch, and its continued development will be key to Archer’s avoiding regression towards his 2013 SIERA (3.95).
Don’t count on the 25 year old’s performance falling off though; the competitive fire that fuels his mound manners has similarly pushed the former fifth-rounder to ramp up his offseason training in a determined attempt to follow up his strong rookie showing. And if Archer has made any additional improvements, then placing him alongside David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Jake Odorizzi in a once again loaded Rays rotation will be just plain unfair on the rest of the AL East in 2014.
At the very least, Chris Archer will be must watch TV.
It’s Day 27 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, meaning it’s finally the alphabetically-determined time of my newly local team! After yesterday waxing lyrical about Oakland’s new star pitcher Sonny Gray, today I look at a fellow AL West club; the 2014 iteration of the Seattle Mariners. After a noisy offseason full of signings, coaching turnover, and postulations of contention, are the M’s actually ready to flourish though? (Here’s a hint: No!)
When God gives you 19 intra-division games against a team as hapless as the 2013 Houston Astros, you are supposed to take fully advantage and sing His praises; unfortunately last years Seattle Mariners said “meh”, and passed over the scheduling gift, going just 10-9 against one of the worst teams in baseball history. Even worse, they were actually lucky to do so averagely, allowing the punchless Astros offense 91 runs in those 19 games while scoring only 81 themselves. Needless to say, the 2013 Mariners (who went 71-91, though their pythagorean win expectation was just 67-95) weren’t especially good.
And so the offseason began with drastic change promised. First out the door was manager Eric Wedge, who reportedly felt the incredible foulness of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik’s, president Chuck Armstrong’s, and CEO Howard Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with yet another losing season. Amidst the damning accounts of front office dysfunction, former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon was hired to right the ship – Zduriencik’s third manager of his tenure, and the team’s seventh since 2007.
Faced with a wave of negative press while simultaneously attempting to improve their lackluster offense, the Mariners threw money overboard in an attempt to right the ship, inking 31 year old second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten year, $240 million contract (a contentious subject to be discussed in a later post). In securing free agency’s biggest prize early, Seattle headed to baseball’s Winter Meetings ready to spend further in order to alter the public’s perception of their tolerance for losing.
The additional deals promised never materialized though. With incumbent DH Kendrys Morales and his associated compensatory pick lost to free agency (at least so far – he remains unsigned), and in need of a power outfield bat to replace Raul Ibanez (… I know – you can’t be good if Ibanez is playing the field), the Mariners were strongly linked to Nelson Cruz, but couldn’t work out a deal with the righty slugger. Instead, the M’s settled for Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, who will split time in between the outfield, first base, and DH. Hart it must be added, who is expected to play 145 games and bat cleanup behind Cano, is already listed as day-to-day with knee tenderness – this after having missed the entire 2013 season recovering from surgeries on both knees. It appears then, that Seattle will be relying on significant improvements from former top prospects Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley (Jesus Montero seemingly out of the mix given his still-awful receiving and just incredible winter weight gain) to ignite an offense that has produced the least runs of any team over the last half-decade. Given their respective longstanding struggles, such a sudden reversal in fortunes seems unlikely.
With an enviable stable of young impact arms on the way to join Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation, Seattle’s lack of urgency in regard to acquiring additional starting pitching was more understandable. Already though, the Mariner’s presumed biggest strength is hurting; Iwakuma will miss a further 3 weeks and the start of the season after catching his finger in some protective netting, whereas top prospect Taijuan Walker has himself a worrying case of shoulder soreness. With Danny Hultzen too already out for the season, suddenly the back end of Seattle’s rotation looks set to feature the relatively unproven James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, veteran Scott Baker (returning from elbow surgery that kept him out of 2012 and most of 2013), or (gulp) Hector Noesi. With just Ervin Santana left available on the free agency market – who is apparently demanding a multiyear deal – it seems for now that Seattle will once again be pinning their hopes for respectability on the continued existence of King Felix’s healthy right arm.
Where the Mariners did make a splashy signing however, was probably at the least needed position; in giving former Ray and ‘proven closer’ Fernando Rodney a two year $14 million deal, they not only managed to antagonize sabermetricians everywhere, but blocked the more than capable Danny Farquhar from the role. With Farquhar having saved 18 of his 20 opportunities towards the end of last season, Tom Wilhelmson waiting in the wings, the proven volatility of closers, and the 36 year old Rodney’s horrific peripherals, the contract seems questionable at best; but hey, it’s not like the ultra-savvy Rays know anything about extracting value from unreliable relievers before letting other teams overpay for them.
After pledging change, Zduriencik has somewhat misguidedly delivered then. Even after his expensive capture of Cano though, and subsequent signaling of Seattle’s willingness to open the checkbook (quite rightly so too, given the TV money boom the team will soon enjoy), Cot’s Contracts pegs their opening day salary at just $73,994,643, the Mariners’ lowest payroll since 2000, and $32,342,136 below the ML average. With the perennially underrated defending AL West champions Oakland going nowhere, a re-tooled Texas squad, and the Mike Trouts too, their division would have looked plenty daunting even if Seattle had aced this past offseason; as it is, a fourth-place finish again looks likely. The Mariners are still the Mariners, dysfunctional as ever.
Perhaps next winter, it will be Zduriencik’s ass getting hit by the door on the way out.