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The 2021 MLB draft class, as a whole, may not be as deep as this past year’s group, but it may be better at the top with Vanderbilt right-handers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.

Other top prospects include prep stars Brady House, Braylon Bishop, Christian Little, Tyree Reed, and Luke Leto, as well as Miami catcher Adrian Del Castillo, Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, Louisville third baseman Alex Binelas and UCLA shortstop Matt McLain.

After the trade deadline that saw Mike Clevinger, Austin Nola, Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Jason Castro, Ross Stripling, Cal Quantrill, Mike Minor, David Phelps, Archie Bradley, Starling Marte and others traded for Ty France, Luis Torrens, Taylor Tammell and a slew of other prospects, the fortunes of former and acquiring clubs changed, and in some instances dramatically.

The ‘2019’ column represents a club’s win-loss record last season, which breaks ties. In the case of identical win-loss records (percentages), the club with the lowest win-loss percentage from the prior season gets the higher pick in the current draft order.

This will be updated about once a week through September 21, then once a day for the final week of the MLB regular season.

Note: Despite consideration of other means to determine the 2021 MLB Draft Order, it now appears the league is going to stick with reverse order of 2020 win percentage, though it’s not yet official, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

 …

The Seattle Mariners had two separate leads on Justin Verlander in Friday night’s opener; 1-0 and 2-1, and both came on the strength of the home run ball. Kyle Lewis hit a 1-0 fastball (95 mph) 438 feet from home plate to get things going in the second inning. Kyle Seager gave the Mariners the lead back in the fourth on a 2-0 fastball clocked at 94.4 mph.

Verlander never really was rattled, however, and the Houston Astros rallied to beat Seattle 8-2 to open the 2020 schedule.  

The world knows Verlander has nasty stuff. He’s up to 99 mph deep into games, features plus curveball, plus slider and an above-average changeup. Friday, his slider was mindbogglingly good. And when a pitcher like Verlander has a pitch like that going, sometimes the quality of the opponent matters very little. Sometimes the lineup has no other choice but to taste filth.

He threw 28 sliders (37%) on the night, 14 strikes and 14 balls. On the surface, that doesn’t sound so great, and if it were fastballs we were discussing, it would be awful. But sliders are chase pitches, often started to look like it will be in the zone and breaking sharply out of the zone to induce weak contact and swinging strikes.

Of Verlander’s 14 strikes with the slider Friday, eight were of the swinging variety, four were called and two were fouled off, all good by themselves without a lick of context.

Speaking of that context, however, here’s the zone plot for Verlander’s sliders from Fridays matchup:

This is for batters from both sides of the plate. Verlander pounded the down-and-in area versus lefties and down and away versus righties with that slider. Only two of the eight whiffs were on sliders that hit the strike zone and they barely scraped the zone, putting not even a quarter of the baseball into the lower-outside edges of the strike zone o right-handed batters.

As you can see, only one of the four called strikes was above the belt (it was a 1-0 pitch to Evan White), and of the six non-competitive results in terms of location, two induced slight check swings and one produced a whiff. Five of the six were thrown when Verlander was ahead in the count, three with two strikes.

Perhaps more impressive than the strikes are the eight competitive sliders that did not end up as strikes. One should have been a strike. About a quarter of the baseball scraped through the zone. The home plate umpire just didn’t see it that way. That was a 1-0 pitch to Jose Marmolejos. Yes, Verlander threw a rookie bench player a 1-0 slider in the fifth inning of a game he was losing 2-1.

One other was within an inch or two of the strike zone, one was the first pitch of the PA, one was on an 0-1 count after a called strike fastball, and three others were no more than three inches off the plate. Seven of these particular eight misses would unequivocally be called very good pitch locations.

Verlander’s slider averaged just under 87 mph, per Brooks Baseball, broke just under three inches vertically, not including gravity, and broke three inches horizontally, representing the sixth-most horizontal break Verlander got from the slider in a game since 2017. Of the five game his slider had more horizontal break, the vertical break was between 2.34 inches and 2.61 inches. Friday it was 2.9. 

It wasn’t one of Verlander’s better overall performances, as he struggled with fastball location a bit, didn’t use the changeup much, and threw just one or two curveballs, but the slider was about as good as ever for the 37-year-old defending Cy Young Award winner.

In other words, Verlander’s slider was filthilicious. Dirty. Disgusting.

And the Mariners tasted it.…

Austin Nola was a 5th-round pick in 2012 by the Miami Marlins out of LSU, six spots behind Chris Taylor (Seattle), two behind Mallex Smith (Pittsburgh). He spent six years in the Marlins organization before the Mariners signed him as a minor league free agent following the 2018 season.

He played shortstop in college and was solid-average in the SEC for some good LSU teams. He batted .299/.420/.434 as a senior.

Nola is the older brother of Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola.

Draft Year Tools Grades
Hit: 45  Pwr: 40+ Run: 50  Throw: 55  Glove: 45+

Early in his pro career Nola stayed at shortstop primarily. He began to play a bit at second base and third base in Double-A Jacksonville in 2014 and 2015, but remained primarily in his natural spot. In 2016 he played just 32 of 110 games at SS, and 56 at second.

Following the ’16 season, the Marlins transitioned him to catcher, where he caught 75 games between AA and AAA in 2017, then caught 68 games in AAA in 2018. He split time between catcher and 1B in Triple-A Tacoma.

Once the Mariners summoned him last summer, he spent just just 38 2/3 innings for at catcher, as Tom Murphy and Omar Narvaez covered the position. Nola played 59 games at first base, 15 at second, four at third, and two in the outfield.

He spend all of the 2020 season at age 30.

Intro

Nola’s minor league results at the plate were at best a mixed bag, often showing a playable hit tool when he was older than the median competition, but success was limited. His contact rates were passable, and he drew walks at least nine percent of the time in all but one season. But the swing limited his damage to 15 career minor league home runs in more than 2,800 plate appearances through 2018.

At Triple-A Tacoma in 2019, Nola, albeit as an older player, smacked seven home runs and 15 doubles in just 55 games, slugging a career-best .520 while batting .327 with a .415 OBP.

He then played in 79 games in the big leagues and hit .269/.342/.454 with 10 homers.

Some of the power can be attributed to Nola’s strength. Once he moved from shortstop to catcher, he added good weight to his lower half. But Nola also made some swing adjustments that paid off in the form of more leverage without sacrificing zone coverage.

Nola’s 2019 half-season with the Mariners is interesting to look at in graph and table form, so let’s do that, courtesy Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.

The Numbers

wOBA is weighted On Base Average, similarly-valued to wRC+ except it doesn’t adjust for park effects. In the short sample that was Nola’s 2019 in Seattle, he posted a .337 wOBA. The league average for catchers was .303. The league average for all positions was .320.

For the record, Nola’s wRC+ landed at 114, or 14% above the league average for the year.

Obviously, if Nola repeats his 2019 offensive output and can handle the catching duties, he’s a good player and a solid value despite his advanced age for a player with limited experience.

Sidebar: One thing to keep in mind with Nola’s age is the fact so little of his time has been spent in the crouch, so he’s far from the typical 30-year-old backstop, and he began 2020 with less than a year of service.

Nola hit the ball solidly last summer (34.5% hard hit rate), despite lacking impressive exit velocity numbers (87.4). There was almost certainly a bit of randomness to his success, but hitters that use the field the way he did tend to find grass more often.


Nola’s batted ball profile from 2019 shows a 19.3% line drive rate, 39.8% ground balls, 40.9% fly balls. 13.9% IFFB, 13.9% HR/FB, and impressively just 21.5% of the balls he put in play were considered softly struck.

Nola was very consistent in making solid contact, even if he wasn’t murdering baseballs like a middle-of-the-order power bat might.

In 2020, Nola may need to make a little more contact — 23.6% strikeout rate — not that such a rate is inherently poor or that he swing through a lot of pitches. Nola posted a 7.9% swinging strike rate, chased just 21% of the time and made contact on pitches in the zone 78.5% of the time he offered, all average to well above-average marks.

So why did he strike out nearly 24% of the time?

He took some hittable pitches early in counts, gave away a few too many strikes, and fouled off 46% of the four-seam fastballs he swung at over a 399-pitch sample, which is about 4% higher than the league average.

The Scouting Report

The scouting report says Nola tends to struggle with plus velocity at times, likely due to average bat speed, but when he’s aggressive on them early in counts he’ll hit for average or better power. He sees the ball well, too, which bodes well for him against average fastballs, and Nola showed an ability to stay back on soft stuff and drive them from gap to gap.

He will use most of the field with doubles power, and does a good job covering the zone with the barrel and spraying balls from line to line. His home-run power in the majors was pretty severely to his pull side, but he does create lift to right-center and right field with some authority, suggesting perhaps there’s enough pop in that direction to expect to see a few more long balls to that side over the course of a larger sample.

For 2020

For Nola to have a shot at repeating last year’s output, or coming close to it, he’s likely going to need marginal improvements in contact rate and performance versus above-average fastball velocity — which is about day-to-day game plan more than anything physical or swing-related.

Doing so will help him avoid so many two-strike counts — 136 of his PAs last season ended with a two-strike count, 56 of those when behind, 37 more when the count was even at 2-2, suggesting he saw a ton of pitcher’s pitches.

Nola batted .524 with a 1.143 slugging percentage on 1-1 counts, .467 with a 1.067 slugging percentage on 2-1 counts and .750 with a 1.000 slugging percentage on 3-1 counts. He didn’t have a ton of luck on the first pitch of the PA (.241 AVG) but he slugged .414 despite a .214 BABIP, suggesting that will even out a little bit.

Like any batter, Nola just need to get a little bit better in 2020 at getting pitches to hit and executing before he gets to unfavorable counts. 

As we examine Nola’s defensive prowess behind the plate in 2020, his bat remains in question, too. But what we saw a year ago was promising, as is the recent trend, where he mashed in Triple-A, hit well with some pop in the majors, and now has a chance to adjust to the adjustments and prove he possesses staying power beyond the Mariners’ rebuilding seasons.

Nola’s ability to play first base, third base, a little left field and even second base in a pinch could make him an ideal third catcher with the new 26-man roster rule, if he’s not a viable No. 2, which certainly is in play.…

It’s here. Opening Day has arrived for the 2020 Seattle Mariners. Nearly four months after originally planned, but here we are. The 2020 Mariners are likely to be both the same as last season and a lot different simultaneously. Like their 2019 brethren, they’re unlikely to win a lot of games. Unlike last year’s club, the ’20 team begins the season with a number of young players on the roster. It’s almost like the club is starting the season in September call-up form. Almost.

Friday in Houston at 6:10 PM PT it’s Marco Gonzales vs. Justin Verlander. The defending American League Champions. Jose Altuve. George Springer. Alex Bregman. Carlos Correa. Dusty Baker is the skipper and the front office has been overhauled as a result of Cheatgate, but the talent remains for the Astros, who enter the season a pretty sure bet to make another postseason run. So, what should be expected of the Mariners tonight, in this series, and this season? Let’s chat.

Marco Gonzales

Gonzales is the defacto No. 1 starter for Seattle but don’t let that qualification nor his substandard fastball velocity fool you. Gonzales can pitch. But this isn’t a good matchup for anyone, especially an arm relying on weak contact and aggressive hitters; Houston will make Gonzales work. 

But one thing I we might see from Gonzales in 2020 is a return to his 2017 velocity, perhaps behind a bit more usage of his four-seam fastball, a pitch he all but abandoned in 2019.

The left-hander’s sinker averaged 89.2 mph a year ago, down from 90.7 in 2018. His four-seamer, back in 2017 when he threw it more, averaged 92 mph. Gonzales does a lot of things to manipulate his fastball and basically has three of them, including the cutter — more on that in a second.

But looking to get ahead with sinkers and changeups, then in two-strike counts take a shot above the hands for a few more swings and misses sounds an awful lot like what I wrote about Kendal Graveman right here.

Gonzales didn’t do much of that in 2019 and after posting swinging-strike rates of 9.1 and 9.3, watched that mark dip to 7.9% a year ago.

Despite the sinker-changeup combo, Gonzales has never been a true ground ball pitcher, living in the 44-45% range the past two seasons — which was not due to the use of a sinker, since he induced a better rate of ground balls from his changeup and curveball. He doesn’t throw downhill and the movement isn’t sharp and late, not to mention at 89 mph allows hitters to measure it better than, say, Zack Britton‘s 96 mph sinker that’s also coming downhill.

Because he doesn’t induce ‘a lot’ of ground balls, Gonzales is left with two ways to get enough outs to stave off big innings and pitch deep into games: Strikeouts and weak-contact fly balls/pop ups.

His stuff doesn’t suggest a lot of the former, and the latter is a very dangerous venture, as we’ve learned over the years in Major League Baseball: Fly balls represent the one result which the pitcher — and the defense — have the least control over the result.

Gonzales, however, has proven skilled at limiting hard contact and he does it with changing speeds and working the entire strike zone.


As a result of said skill,. Gonzales has limited home runs the past two years to 11.3% and 9.3% (lowest rate in baseball among qualified pitchers) of the fly balls he allows. How truly sustainable that is remains to be seen, and the baseball itself has a lot to do with the results.

Since 2015, only Gio Gonzalez, a relatively similar pitcher, has a better HR/FB rate than the Mariners’ ace at 10.3% to Gonzales’ 10.4. That’s over 700 innings of data. I’d say it’s simply something Gonzales is good at and he’s likely to sustain that. Mostly anyway, since small samples are always a problem, and that’s all the 2020 season is.

But Gonzales is creative and makes adjustments from inning to inning, start to start, and certainly year to year, including with how often he uses a certain pitch:

Every year of his career thus far he’s made some kind of significant change — which isn’t all that uncommon, but it’s generally reserved for pitchers that struggle or reinvent themselves later in their career or due to injury.

Gonzales has to get to his changeup to continue his two-year run of a 3-4 win pitcher, and if he’s to make any kind of jump he’ll need more fastball value. Throwing more four-seamers could be the answer to both.

Evan White

We’ve talked a lot about White the past several months since the club recognized him as their version of Anthony Rizzo (a steady, leadership-type player whose floor they’re willing to live with and ceiling they’re willing to bet on) and extended him for six years.

But White will make his big-league debut Friday night and that’s a lot of fun. But it’s not just any debut. The 24-year-old’s first career plate appearance will be versus reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who care not one bit about a rookie’s feelings and is rarely off his game. Talk about an early litmus test.

My expectations for White this year are very similar to my expectations for Shed Long. The floor is high enough to think he’ll battle his way to respectable numbers. But White’s progress in creating more backspin and identifying pitches to pull has been quite remarkable since the middle of last season.

He’s also shown maturity in terms of pitch selection, suggesting he could reach whatever his ceiling is rather quickly. While that upside isn’t coming in 2020, we’ll probably going to see flashes.

I don’t know if it’s reasonable to think White can compete for Rookie of the Year honors, but I’d take the over on 20 extra-base hits, and if you haven’t seen him play first base you’re going to say “John Olerud” aloud a lot this year watching White in the field.  He’s truly remarkable there, making non-routine plays look not only routine but ho-hum easy.

The Pitching

Last year, the Mariners’ relief corps compiled the least fWAR in the American League (0.4), and ranked No. 12 in FIP, No. 14 in WPA, No. 12 in strikeouts per nine and No. 13 in HR/9. 
There’s not much reason outside small sample to believe anything different will transpire in 2020.

One popular question surrounding the Mariners this offseason was why not add more veterans the club can flip in trades, and while they did that with CJ Edwards, the Mariners are looking to give innings to young arms, even in the bullpen.

In addition to the arms that are on the roster now — the youngest being Anthony Misiewicz, Nick Margevicius, Taylor Guilbeau and Rule 5 pick Yohan Ramirez — we’re likely to see Art Warren, Sam Delaplane, Aaron Fletcher and Joey Gerber at some point. Warren is already on the 40-man and each of those four are on the 60-man Training Roster.

The rotation, as noted by Luke Arkins on the latest episode of Baseball Things, is vastly different than the one the club tossed out there a year ago in that every arm after Gonzales can touch at least 95 mph and sits 90-94 or better.

      • Taijuan Walker will sit 91-94 to go with a curveball, cutter,  and splitter.
      • Graveman is 91-95 (up to 97 with the four-seamer, up to 95 with two-seamer), with a slider, changeup and curveball.
      • Yusei Kikuchi is up to 96 to go with a slider, changeup and curveball.
      • Justin Dunn sits 91-94 and is up to 96 to set up a slider and developing changeup.
      • Justus Sheffiled is 91-93 (up to 95) with a slider and changeup.

A year ago, Mariners starters averaged 90.5 mph on the fastball, and that includes openers and the short starts Dunn received last September. That mark was last in the American League by 1.3 mph, and No. 30 in the big leagues. The Cubs averaged 90.7. Every other club’s rotation averaged 91.7 mph or better. The Mets led the league at 94.9, followed by the Rays at 94.5, the Reds and Astros at 94 and the White Sox at 93.9. The Mariners should at least jump into the middle of the pack in 2020 where clubs averaged 92.5-93 mph.…

In this clip, Jason A. Churchill and Luke Arkins talk starting pitching.

Subscriber here to get the full episode.

Full Episode Showsheet

While the 2020 season for the Seattle Mariners is all about development, moving the club closer to contention and doing it without sacrificing recently-created roster and payroll flexibility, there are some veterans — non-rookies, non-prospects — that warrant watching for specific reasons.

Here are six I’ll be watching closely, and why.

Taijuan Walker, RHP

Walker wasn’t signed simply in hopes he’d blow up and Jerry Dipoto could trade him… but that was one of the factors. The other is the possibility he mans a rotation spot in the early years of the Mariners’ next competitive window so the club can take its time with young arms. For that to be a possibility, however, four things have to happen.

One, Walker has to be healthy, but the right-hander is slated to start in Anaheim, so all is good on that front… knock on wood. Two, he has to stay healthy throughout the 2020 season. But he also has to pitch well, and if he does, (4) the Mariners would need to engage on a contract extension.

The problem with that is the cloud left by the short season. Even if Walker pitches well for 8-10 starts, it’s a small sample and difficult to make future, full-season decision based on 50-60 innings of work. I could see Walker getting another one-year deal, perhaps with some options attached.

Walker is 27 now (28 in August), and hits 94 mph with easy arm action after Tommy John surgery kept him almost all of last season. He features a four-seam fastball (91-95), a traditional curveball (74-77), hard splitter (86-90) and a cutter-slider (86-90).

At his best, Walker spots the fastball and cutter in on left-handed batters, expands the zone with the splitter and curveball and increases the usage of the cutter-slider versus right-handed batters. 

If he can do that in 2020, the Mariners may very well be into the idea of being back Walker for another run in 2021.


Kendall Graveman, RHP

Graveman, like Walker, is most likely a placeholder of sorts that holds down the fort until enough of the kids are ready to stake their claim, or frontline acquisitions push the rotation out through the bottom.

But unlike Walker, Graveman’s deal with the club includes a club option for 2021.

The right-hander looked very good in four frames at T-Mobile Park this week, touching 97 mph with a fresh four-seam offering, showing good run on the sinking two-seamer and flashing the cutter, slurve and changeup.

He’s 29 years old and missed most of 2018 and all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He’s an interesting upside play, but he also brings both reliability — if healthy, of course — and a wealth of experience most of the Mariners current pitchers don’t have.

Graveman spent four years with the Oakland Athletics after debuting with the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s spent a lot of time around the likes of Edwin Jackson, Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, offering a wide variety of their own experiences.

But in 2019, while rehabbing, Graveman was with the Cubs where he had conversations with Mr. Old-School himself Kyle Hendricks, and was able to watch the likes of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish up close and on the daily.

Graveman has been a groundball guy in his career, entering 2020 with a career GB rate of nearly 52%, and posted a 55.2% mark in 2018.

The addition of a four-seamer to his repertoire may reduce the raw rates of ground balls he induces, but the trade-off may very well be more missed bats.

Graveman’s career strikeout rate is just 15%, or 5.77 per nine innings pitched and a career best of 7.1/9 two years ago. But 94-97 at the top of the zone in Major League Baseball these days is a swing-and-miss pitch when hitters are looking for the ball up.

And versus Graveman, that’s exactly what they’re doing because of the effectiveness of the sinker and changeup that work down in the zone.


Yusei Kikuchi, LHP

I’ve talked about Kikuchi a lot in the form of confidence, but I was hoping for the full season for him to work out any bumps in the road as he unveils a new delivery designed for more consistent release points and velocity.

Kikuchi, 29, sat 91-94 mph with his fastball last year, but has shown signs of a firmer version of the pitch, both in March and this month in Summer Camp. It’s not a high-spin pitch, so command and velocity matter more here.

His best swing-and-miss pitch is the slider (15.4% whiff), followed by the changeup (11.6% whiff) and when put in play, neither pitch is squared up with any regularity. But he had trouble getting to either pitch last season, often falling behind in counts and being forced to go to the fastball in the zone, a pitch that was pasted to the tune of a .623 slugging percentage. He also had to use the curveball too much, a pitch designed to steal strikes, rather than serve as a go-to.

Kikuchi proved durable last season, making every start and only being short-scripted once, despite making the transition to the MLB rotation schedule. He’s athletic and is very self-aware, a factor in development for pitchers of all ages in baseball these days.

We may not see a lot of it in 2020 because Kikuchi likely makes but 10 starts, but I expect fewer blow-ups and more signs he’s a legit mid-rotation starter.


J.P. Crawford, SS

While I’m not seeing significant changes to the swing I believe are absolutely necessary if Crawford is to hit for average with regularity, it’s clear the shortstop got a lot stronger over the winter, which may allow for his current swing to work a little better for him.

Crawford’s average exit velocity a year ago was 84.3 mph, a very pedestrian mark, but his launch angle wasn’t a suboptimal 11.2, even considering the fact he wasn’t consistently hitting the ball hard.

For comparison, Domingo Santana also posted a launch angle of 11.2 a year ago, but at an average of 89 mph off the bat. Somewhere around 103 mph is considered the mean value for home runs and around 90 mph for singles.

While it’s not exactly this simple, it remains pretty clear Crawford didn’t square it up enough in 2019 and strength can only go so far to remedy that.

Having said all that, the 25-year-old Crawford doesn’t swing and miss much (8.1%) and appears to be looking for fastball he can pull — judging by his spring and Summer Camp plate appearances — which could make a meaningful impact in his results.

The reason Crawford is so watch worthy in 2020 is he’s the only current option the club has at shortstop for the foreseeable future, including the first few years of the club’s competitive window. 

Noelvi Marte, the club’s top prospect at the position, is more likely to move to third base than stick at short, and is at least three years away, anyway.

But Crawford also brings relatively high floor for the position as a plus defender, and when his swing starts to create leverage there could be 12-16 homers available to him.


Kyle Seager, 3B

Seager’s next few years could go one of two ways

1. Play out his current contract as the starting 3B with the Mariners which runs through 2021 if he remains in Seattle.
2. Get traded to a club with a considerable amount of cash to help cover the majority of his $18 million 2021 salary and the $15 million option for 2022 that becomes the player’s choice if he’s dealt.

On the surface, one would think if Seager proves last July and August wasn’t a fluke just a result the club will see a little more of after he made swing adjustments that his chances to be trade skyrocket. And while that may be true — think of Seager, who will be 33 and 34, as a two-year, $20 million player, assuming Seattle includes about $13 million in cash.

If Seager shows he’s a 3-win player or better, that’s not only a tradeable commodity, it’s one with some sneaky value.

Again, he has to hit with consistency this summer for a trade to be possible.

But I’m buying the swing adjustments to the extent I think he gets back relatively close to where he was prior to his career year of 2016 when he batted .278/.359/.499 with 30 homers and 36 doubles. All those marks are career highs. Before that season, Seager was pushing through .250-.260 averages with OBPs in the .330s and slugging percentages in the .450s.

And he slugged .468 last season and posted a .321 OBP., so if all he does is repeat last summer’s triple-slash, it’s a viable regular — Seager posted 2.9 fWAR despite playing just 106 games.

But the trade part of Seager’s saga isn’t likely unless there’s consistency in 2020.


Tom Murphy, C

Murphy, who is starting the 2020 season on the IL with a fracture in his foot, is 29 and was very good last year in what some might call a BABIP year for the backstop.
He posted 3.2 fWAR and a 126 wRC+ on the strength of 18 homers and a .535 slugging percentage. 

He did bat .273 with a .324 on-base mark, both above league average and far exceeding the mean for catchers.

But it was a 76-game sample and Murphy’s batting average on balls in play was .340, which likely regresses some in 2020. But I’m not on the whole “he’s going to sink hard” wagon. Some hitters just produce more when they make contact than others. Good hitters have higher BABIPs. Domingo Santana, for example, boasts a .361 career BABIP in 1630 plate appearances. 

Murphy, like Santana, strikes out a lot, but when he puts the ball in play he hits it hard. Suggesting Murphy can hit .250 or better and continue to produce power is far from unreasonable. It’d be more surprising if he fell entirely off the planet this season.

The fact Murphy is 29 makes little different. He’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time after this season and a free agent after the 2023 season, which means he’s likely to be good enough and affordable for Seattle as they groom their next catcher, likely Cal Raleigh.

But he could also end up being solid trade bait, considering the dearth of catching in baseball.…

The 2020 MLB Season is upon us and while there are major hurdles the league and its personnel must leap to get through the entire 60-game schedule, we will get a beginning to the campaign.

Considering the longest offseason of all-time and the dynamics that come with it for this season, let’s power rank every team in baseball.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s the best roster in baseball with two of the game’s top 5 position players in reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger and former AL MVP Mookie Betts leading the way. The starting pitching might be a bit thin after Kenta MAeda was traded, Hyun Jin Ryu left via free agency and David Price opted out, but the re-signing of Alex Wood offers depth and young arms Julio Urias and Dustin May have a shot to help from the start this season.

Walker Buehler is primed to take over as the true ace of the staff, too, and while bullpen questions may remain, the addition of Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol could end up significant moves.

Ross Stripling is starting the season in the rotation, but if the club can add another quality arm Stripling can help out the bullpen down the stretch.

This is a juggernaut destined to get back to the World Series and the truncated schedule shouldn’t be much of an obstacle.

2. New York Yankees

Another very good roster, but the Yankees will be without Luis Severino this year and there are at least moderate concerns about the health stability of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.

The Yankees will mash and they might have the league’s best bullpen with Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino leading to Aroldis Chapman. If the rotation holds up behind Gerrit Cole, we could have the first Yankees-Dodgers World Series since 1981.

Houston Astros

The Astros lost their greatest advantage when Cole left for pinstripes, but Justin Verlander remains, Lance McCullers Jr. returns and the entire lineup remains intact. Aside from the bullpen, the main question here might be about how much the trash-can banging actually helped the Houston hitters.

I’m going to predict not a ton and another Astros division title, but with Zack Greinke and Verlander aging and with contracts up after 2021, and the pending free agency of outfielders Springer and Brantley, 2020 may be the last hurrah for their current core.

Whether that means they’ll be aggressive at the deadline or not remains to be seen, but there isn’t a lot left on the farm to go out and bring in impact players, so they may have to rely on what they have now to repeat in the west and get back to the World Series.

4. Washington Nationals

We can talk about the loss of Anthony Rendon all day if you’d like, but the defending champs boast the league’s best 1-2-3 rotation punch in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and the bullpen gained Will Smith via free agency.

Starling Castro and Eric Thames add veteran help for the lineup and 21-year-old Juan Soto and 22-year-old Victor Robles are just scratching the surface. The Nationals are just as dangerous as a year ago.

5. Tampa Bay Rays

From a pure roster standpoint there are flashier clubs ranked behind them, but Kevin Cash is masterful at using his pieces and there are several young players trending up in their process, including shortstop Willy Adames and outfielder Austin Meadows.

If they stay healthy, the Rays’ top 3 starters — Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow — may be as good as any trip in the American League, and the Tampa bullpen led the American League in fWAR last year and everyone is back, led by Nick Anderson and Jose Alvarado.

6. Minnesota Twins

In a 162-game season, I’d pick the Twins to win the American League Central by 5-10 games. But they don’t have the impact rotation pieces Cleveland does, so I think the Twins are in for a season-long battle.

The key here for me the Twins’ bullpen which lacks names but performed very well in 2019 leading the AL in FIP, but it’s worth keeping an eye on some of the older players in that lineup, including Nelson Cruz and newly-acquired Josh Donaldson. It’s a short season, so the issue isn’t tiring down the stretch, but older players tend to get hurt more and Cruz is closer to 40 than 35 and Donaldson, 34, missed over 150 games to injury 2017-18.

Do they have the guns in the rotation for a deep playoff run? I don’t see it.

6. Atlanta Braves

The Braves aren’t quite as deep and veteran-laden as the Twins, but they have advantages in impact, starting with their rotation and MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Atlanta’s key may be getting enough from an unproven young arm such as Kyle Wright and keeping Mike Foltynewicz healthy.

I look for Max Fried to take a big step forward this season, and the Braves’ catching tandem — Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers — is among the best in baseball.

8. Oakland Athletics

We used to say, yeah, they aren’t as talented as everyone else but they get the job done, kinda like the Rays. But from a pure talent standpoint, the A’s trail only the top 3 teams on this list.

Matt Chapman is an MVP candidate, Matt Olson is one the elite first baseman in the game, Marcus Semien is a top-level shortstop and this year’s rotation is more naturally gifted than any Bob Melvin has had.

If rookie lefty Jesus Luzardo shows he’s legit behind Sean Manaea — whom the club had for the final month only last season and still won 97 games — the A’s will challenge the Astros in the west.

One interesting situation to monitor on the field is left-hander AJ Puk, who is not ready to go to start the year, but could be a boost in some form in August.

Something to ponder as we watch these A’s in 2020: Where will Semien play in 2021? He’s a free agent at season’s end.

9. Cleveland Indians

Five years ago if you would have said Trevor Bauer and Core Kluber are no longer in Cleveland as of 2020, most would have replied “so much for that starting rotation.”

But Carlos Carrasco remains — and appears to be healthy — and both Mike Clevinger (30, 4.5 fWAR in 21 starts in 2019) and Shane Bieber (25, 5.6 fWAR in 33 starts) have effectively filled the gaps well.

Add to that the emergence of Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez and the rotation is not only very strong again in Cleveland, but more sustainable than it’s been since the World Series run.

The Indians didn’t add a lot of help offensively, but the addition of Cesar Hernandez shores up a weak spot at second base and the additions of Domingo Santana and Franmil Reyes lengthen the lineup and bench.

The club has two MVP candidates in Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, one of which is looking to rebound from a bit of an off year (Ramirez played 129 games and posted a 104 wRC+) and the other is playing for a contract. Lindor hits free agency after next season, suggesting this may be his final season in Cleveland if the Indians choose to move him rather than let him play out the string.

10. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals aren’t among the 10 most talented rosters and in that regard do not belong ahead of divisional rival Cincinnati, but they won 91 games a year ago despite a down year for Paul Goldschmidt (116 wRC+, 2,9 fWAR | 5.2, 146 in 2018) and Carlos Martinez pitching out of the bullpen.

Not to mention the emergence of Jack Flaherty, who starts the year as the club’s ace after leading NL pitchers in fWAR (4.1) and ranking No. 2 in FIP after the All-Star break last season.

11. Cincinnati Reds

Lots of talent, not major holes in projected lineup, but they may lack rotation impact to put them over the top. Legit division contender and should score a lot of runs if they stay healthy.

12. New York Mets

Despite the loss of Noah Syndgergaard for the season, the Mets rotation boasts five mid-rotation or better talents led by Cy Young favorite Jacob deGrom. Marcus Stroman‘s recent injury puts a damper on that a bit, but he’s considered week-to-week and does not require surgery.

With Pete Alonso anchoring, the Mets’ lineup could be as daunting as any in recent years, but there are some ifs that serve as prerequisites, including a return-to-form by Robinson Cano.

13. Chicago Cubs

On paper, the Cubs should score runs, but the pitching staff is a lot of what-ifs and question marks with both performance and injury concern.

Keep an eye on Kris Bryant, a free agent after 2021, whom the Cubs may shop as early as this summer if they’re not in plain sight of a postseason berth in five weeks.

14. Philadelphia Phillies

Among the clubs outside the top 10, Philly might have the most upside. They were a .500 club last year, added Zack Wheeler and Did Gregorius, Andrew McCutchen is healthy to start the year (played just 59 games last season) and Joe Girardi is a significantly better puzzle master than his predecessor.

15. Texas Rangers

I’m high-man on Texas, and I’m fine with that. A year ago, the Rangers went 78-84, six games better than the division-rival Angels, and did so with Joey Gallo (paced for a 7-win season at the time) out for more than half the season.

General manager Jon Daniels added Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles and Kluber to a rotation that ranked No. 5 in the AL in fWAR last season, despite lacking a lot of impact performances beyond Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. the Rangers also boast multiple position players either on their way up or right in their prime, including Danny Santana (111 wRC+), Gallo, Willie Calhoun (110 wrC+) and Ronald Guzman.

16. Milwaukee Brewers

Still don’t see the starting pitching the Brewers need to do damage in October, but the lineup remains good and deep, led by former MVP Christian Yelich and the surging Keston Hiura, and the division isn’t exactly flush with flawless, runaway rosters.

17. Arizona Diamondbacks

I like Ketel Marte a lot, and liked him a lot before anyone else liked him at all, but I don’t buy his 7-win season as repeatable and the D-Backs didn’t do enough on the pitching front to lend confidence in competing for more than the No. 2 Wild Card. Madison Bumgarner and Starling Marte help, but they’re not stars and that’s what’s lacking in Phoenix.

18. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Yep, they have Mike Trout, and yes, they signed Anthony Rendon, an MVP candidate. But Rendon may start the year on the IL, and the Angels have questions marks all over the roster after that.

Albert Pujols is a shell of himself, Justin Upton is now 32 (33 in August) and showing some signs of slowing down (missed 99 games in 2019, posted 92 wRC+), and perhaps the tremendous wizardry at shortstop is taking its toll on Andrelton Simmons, too.

The good news for the Angels is Shohei Ohtani is ready to roll and the dude can hit and he can really, really pitch. The bad news is, Andrew Heaney is a No. 3 at best, and an injury risk. Dylan Bundy is a No. 4 at best and an injury risk. Griffin Canning, who might be the defacto No. 2, is not yet established and had a bit an elbow scare this week.

The re’s no pitching depth in the minors for Joe Maddon to go to, but Maddon himself might be the Halos’ biggest addition.

If I’m Gm Billy Eppler and owner Arte Moreno right now, I’m eyeing every impact starter in baseball – readily available or not — and offering anything in my organization outside Trout, Rendon, and prospect Jo Adell to try and add one. Otheewise, the long-term, pricey addition of Rendon, who is already 30, stumbles out of the blocks.

19. San Diego Padres

A very talented team just waiting for young arms to blow up, and that could start in 2020. Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet are ready to show they’re frontline arms to lead a staff, Garrett Richards will be good as long as he stays healthy and Cal Quantril has No. 3 written all over him.

The bullpen figures to be very good again and they start the season with a healthy Fernando Tatis Jr. The reliance on so many young players is the only reason why the Padres don’t rank 8-10 spots higher, but they do have that kind of upside in 2020.

20. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox don’t have the Padres’ depth just yet, but they might have as many or more high-impact talents. For every Tatis Jr and Manny Machado San Diego boasts, the White Sox have their Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, not to mention Lucas Golito at the top of a staff balanced by veterans Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez.

The South Siders have similar upside as the Padres, but come with more questions marks (pitching, overall depth) than the clubs ranked ahead of them to start 2020.

21. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox are a mess. They traded Betts for Alex Verdugo ( a nice player, but one without Betts-level upside) and Chris Sale is out for the year, leaving the rotation to Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and patchwork. The bullpen doesn’t look much more stable. They’ll score runs, but they’re going to need to threaten .500 this year.

22. Toronto Blue Jays

A team on the rise that will get Nate Pearson late in Week 1 of the season could be a nuisance to AL East rivals. They;re a year away, most likely, from even Wild Card contention, but are one of the clubs with a real shot should MLB and the PA agree on a 16-team playoff format before Opening Day.

Side Note: I hate changing the playoff structure this late. Doing so did not give fringe clubs a chance to consider their opportunity over the past month, likely leading to fewer trades, more focus on development and less interest in acquiring veteran free agents.

23. Colorado Rockies

I have no idea what it is the Rockies are doing. Neither do they.

There’s talent here and two top-10 players in the NL in Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado, but there are a lot of holes and it’s difficult to think the field staff and players buy into the brand right now.

24. San Francisco Giants

Do not know what the Giants think they are doing, but they seem stuck in the middle of rebuild and add veterans to stay relevant. Reeks of the Howard Lincoln-Chuck Armstrong led Mariners after Pat Gillick left in 2003.

25. Miami Marlins

Young talent starting to sprout — Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, Pablo Lopez, Brian Anderson –and some sneaky veteran depth could get the Marlins out of the cellar trio in the league in 2020.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates

Chris Archer is out for the year, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon are on the IL and after Josh Bell there doesn’t appear to be much firepower in the lineup.

The Bucs saving grace in 2020 is a future rotation including Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove joining forces this year, and the club is one year closer to the arrivals of Ke’BRyan Hayes’ bat and the overall games of Oneil Cruz and first-round pick Nick Gonzales.

27. Kansas City Royals

The Royals remains years from competing, but have several potential trade targets on which to keep an eye over the next six months, including White Merrifield, Danny Duffy, Trevor Rosenthal and Salvador Perez.

Otherwise, it’s a potential 40-loss season.

28. Seattle Mariners

Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais are committed to continuing the development path, despite a 60-game season offering increased chances of a fluke postseason berth. Such consistency in approach to the rebuild is a microcosm of the differences between the current and previous front office and ownership.

It also appears, despite 2020 clipping their path a bit, the Mariners are on a faster track to being competitive than is typically foreseeable when clubs tear it all the way down the way they have.

29. Detroit Tigers

They have arms brewing in the minors to team up with Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris in a few years, but 2020 is all about maximizing assets, so expect Matthew Boyd‘s name to come up in trade talks until he’s traded.

One thing to watch for with the Tigers this season is a healthy Miguel Cabrera, who will surpass 1700 RBI and could get to 2900 hits. He’s also 23 shy of 500 homers, but 23 in a 60-game stretch is prime Cabrera fire, not that of the 37-year-old version.

30. Baltimore Orioles

The O’s are still pretty early in their rebuild and had nothing of impact to trade to get a legitimate jump-start the way Dipoto and the Mariners did after the 2018 season, so this is going to take a while.

Baltimore has some pitching growing on the farm, namely Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, and their top prospect is catcher Adley Rutschman, among the top talents in all of baseball. That group should start showing up next season, but 2023 is probably the soonest the Orioles could be competitive again.…

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Yusei Kikuchi, LHP

Kikuchi displayed mid-rotation raw stuff a year ago, but reliever mechanics. He flashed a handful of times, but his command and the consistency of his secondaries was rarely a present combination for the southpaw. The result was a back-end starter that might ultimately be a middle reliever.

The club helped Kikuchi make some mechanical adjustments over the winter, however, and in his spring showing in March he sat 93-96 mph with a sharper slider and better command of everything.

The fix was essentially eliminating the pause at the top of his delivery, allowing a more fluid, consistent delivery, much easier to repeat, getting Kikuchi out front to release point on time with momentum. He was also over-striding at times a year ago and there were a few signs in the spring he’d cleaned up that, too.

It also seems to allow more violent lower-half work, producing better arm speed, and therefore the high range of Kikuchi’s velocity. A year ago, Kikuchi’s fastball averaged 92.9 mph per FanGraphs’ Pitch Info. If he can add a tick or more to that and attack the edges of the zone more effectively, everything else will play up and we’ll see a mid-rotation or better version.

He’s already a horse, so any kind of consistent production likely gets Kikuchi on a 200-inning pace, which in a shortened season won’t happen of course, but a strong 2020 could be harbinger for a big 2021.


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J.P. Crawford, SS

Crawford, too, entered the offseason needing to make some swing adjustments (plural) and he’s made at least one and was putting it to the test in the Cactus League when things were shut down in mid-March.

The idea is more balance and better timing, allowing Crawford to generate a little more pop, plus a hand position adjustment that could help the left-handed batter create a bit more loft.

Crawford showed good plate discipline and a reasonable 145 ISO for a defensive-minded shortstop, but there’s too much physical talent present (bat speed, hand-eye) to let his 2019 production stand.

If everything works by design, Crawford not only uses more of the field, makes more — and more valuable — contact, but may also show a bit of additional power in 2020. In a full sample, a .260/.340/.420 triple-slash isn’t out of the question.


Kyle Seager, 3B

Seager posted wRC+ marks of 108, 116, 127 and 115 his first four full years in the majors. In 2016, he jumped to 134 when he bashed 30 homers and hit .278/.359/.499 — all career highs. A year later, he dipped to 107, which was more in line with his first four seasons.

In 2018, his walk rate sank to a career-low six percent, his strikeout rate rose to a career-high 21.9% and it resulted in the worst year of his career by far. An 83 wRC+ and a .221/.273/.400 triple-slash was one of two outliers in Seager’s career. The other, a bit more subtle but still an outlier nonetheless, was the 134 he posted in ’16.

Seager has been a pull hitter his entire career, typically landing in the low-to-mid 40-percent range in pull rate, and using the opposite field less than a quarter of the time he put the ball in play.

It doesn’t help that Seager’s above-average power doesn’t support a severe fly ball swing (career: 44% FB, 8% IFFB ), so the former third-round pick may have been overdoing the power approach, particularly with two strikes.

Seager crowds the plate — he’s always wanted to pull the ball — and his swing is engineered to hit the ball in the air. That combination makes it awfully tough to handle hard stuff in unless he cheats a bit, which in turns exposes soft stuff away.

Last season, Seager employed a more line-drive friendly approach, which helps him keep the bat in the zone longer and get some value off balls in play that aren’t in the air to his pull side. His pull rate dipped five percent from 2018 and he used the middle and backside over 60% of the time he made contact.

He also stayed back better versus right-handed pitching, though the numbers didn’t pan out in his favor in just under 300 PAs against northpaws.

Seager was one of the more predictable left-handed bats in the American League the previous four years, making him a lot easier to defend, and therefore an easier hitter to attack from a pitching standpoint. All pitchers needed to do was stay out of his wheelhouse and make him deal with the outer edge.

The adjustments led to a terrific six-week period that began in late July. Sidebar: No, it had nothing to do with being moved down in the order by Scott Servais in early August. Seager was already raking, homering on July 22, hitting two balls hard in each of the next two games before homering again on July 25. The full results weren’t there thanks to some hard-hit outs, but he stayed hot until about September 5 — a two-homer game at Houston.

Seager may have found something legit here and it’s too bad we won’t see more than 60 games of it in 2020.  His new swing and game plan actually forces pitchers to attack him differently, and more specifically forces them to consider throwing fastballs middle-in a bit more often if he continues to hit the ball hard to center and left-center field on pitches middle-away.

If he finds more consistency for two months in 2020 it’ll be more of a return to prominence than a breakthrough, but Seager belongs in this discussion.


Justus Sheffield, LHP

Sheffield needs to find a way to get his slider more and avoid hitter’s counts. It starts with throwing more strikes, but digging a little deeper it may be about confidence in his fastball.

He threw a lot of two-seamers in March in attempt to limit the backspin and keep the ball in the ballpark more — and perhaps generate a few more ground balls. He sat 91-95 mph with the pitch, and still has the 93-96 mph four-seamer when he reaches back.

Most importantly, Sheffield seemed to have simplified his delivery a bit — a less aggressive leg kick for more control and balance — which helped him throw more strikes and hit his spots with more consistency. It was a small sample, like with Kikuchi, but there’s promise here that should excite Mariners fans.

Sheffield’s slider is above-average to plus and if he gets ahead in the count more he can offer a promising changeup to right-handed batters, who sat on the hard stuff last year and slugged .500 against him.

I expect more flashes of No. 2-3 stuff from Sheffield in the shortened schedule, and because the club may go with six starters for a decent portion of the season, both Kikuchi and Sheffield may show the high end of their velocity ranges more than otherwise could be expected.


CJ Edwards, RHP

Edwards signed for $950,000, which is a bargain considering the upside he brings to the table. The right-hander has a loose arm, athletic delivery and terrific arm speed, producing a fastball with life up to 97 mph, and a 70-grade power curveball. 

The key for Edwards is to throw more quality strikes with the heat; he’s never posted a walk rate under 10%, but he misses bats — career 32.8% strikeout rate and a 14.7% swinging strike rate — and despite turning 29 in September has but 176 big-league innings under his belt. 

Any fix that improves his control offers at least setup upside for Edwards in 2020, which would make him a prime trade candidate in August.


Bonus 1: Marco Gonzales, LHP

Gonzales isn’t likely to vastly improve upon the year he had in 2019 when he surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career and was worth 3.7 fWAR in 34 starts.

But coming into the year I thought Gonzales might find a little more velocity in the fastball this year — not a lot, but maybe more toward where he was right after the trade from St. Louis to Seattle when he was sitting 90-92 mph  and occasionally touching 93, rather than living 88-90 mph as he did a year ago.

Everything he threw in 2019 was softer. The fastball was down 1.5 mph from 2018, the cutter was 2 mph slower, the changeup was down to 81.6 mph from 84.2 mph the year before and the curveball was 2 mph off the pace of the pitch the previous season.

This was partially by design, and while it’s not all that important the velocity ticks up with those other pitchers, the fastball is the key, since everything else works off the heater. Gonzales threw a lot more four-seam fastballs in 2017 than the last two seasons, which explains at least some of the dip in velocity. But even when he did throw it last season it often failed to scrape 90 mph.

Gonzales now is four full years off Tommy John surgery and three since he last had any symptoms. This may be the year Gonzales’ arm is strongest of any year in his entire career. It may not be intended, but we could see a little more out of the fastball if the lefty discovers the zip in side sessions and uses the four-seamer a little more in games.

And since everything works off the fastball, that can only be good for his curveball, cutter and changeup. He’s not going to change who he is, which is a command-and-feel sinkerballer with a plus changeup, but he had a tough time with the cutter last year and the effectiveness of the curveball works off the fastballs and the cutter.

If all else is equal to 2019, a little more bite on the heater makes Gonzales the equivalent of a 4-win starter in a league that had just 22 of them a year ago. That’s 22 in all of baseball. The American League had just eight such starters last season.


Bonus 2: Mitch Haniger, RF

Haniger has to get healthy and on the field consistently. That’s it. That’s the entire reason he’s mentioned here.

He wasn’t quite himself in 63 games prior to his season-ending injury last year, but his batted ball data and the scouting report match up pretty well, which suggests his time was coming.

Haniger was swinging under fastballs more than usual last year and that led to more pitcher’s counts, more strikeouts and more balls in play off offspeed pitches in defensive situations. He was also a bit unlucky.

Still, he smacked 15 homers — a 40-HR pace — and continued to draw walks at a high rate of 10.6%.

The only question is the health. Can he get back in 2020 for a significant enough amount of plate appearances to post confidence-building numbers heading into the offseason?

Starting camp this past week on the 60-day IL isn’t a great sign, but it doesn’t seem like it surprised anyone.

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