Mitch Haniger Mariners

Will the Seattle Mariners contend in 2021? Probably not. But after the season, GM Jerry Dipoto will know what remains for Seattle to be a 2022 contender. Essentially, the Mariners are entering a season of discovery. The premise of waiting another year for postseason baseball in Seattle won’t go over well with a long-suffering fan base. But that’s the reality the Mariners face by Dipoto’s design. For proof, consider how the team performed last season and what’s been done to improve the roster since. Lean Lineup The Mariners’ run production ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in most categories. To that point, only two qualified hitters had an OPS+ above league-average – Kyle Lewis (126) and Kyle Seager (122). Lewis started the season on fire before slumping badly. Seager’s production also dipped in September, although his decline wasn’t as noticeable. Others had a strong OPS+, but with less playing time. Austin Nola (152 OPS+) was one of the Mariners’ best hitters before being traded to the Padres. Ty France (129), who joined Seattle in the same deal, performed well. So did Dylan Moore (139). On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. Therefore, a hitter with a 150 OPS+ was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Still, too many regulars delivered subpar production: J.P. Crawford (92 OPS+), Tim Lopes (80), Evan White (57), and Shed Long (50). Newcomer Luis Torrens (97) was just below average after joining the Mariners in September. A Promising Rotation The pitching staff’s overall numbers were awful thanks to an ineffective bullpen hamstrung by injuries. Conversely, the rotation demonstrated some promise. Starters combined for a .308 xwOBA tying for ninth lowest in MLB with Houston. Four Mariners had an xwOBA better than the league-average: Yusei Kikuchi (.279), Marco Gonzales (.291), and Justus Sheffield (.303), and Nick Margevicius (.301). Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312 Still, everything wasn’t hunky-dory with the rotation. Although Kikuchi’s xwOBA was excellent, he experienced command and consistency troubles. A 4.34 ERA from Justin Dunn doesn’t sound bad. But a .369 xwOBA with a 15.7-percent walk rate is bad. No Relief For The Weary Two of the Mariners’ biggest 2020 bullpen additions – Carl Edwards Jr. and Yoshihisa Hirano – made just 18 combined appearances due to health. Worsening matters, too few relievers delivered value. Still, there were several notable performers. Anthony Misiewicz (.278 xwOBA) impressed as a rookie. So did fellow freshmen Yohan Ramírez (.305), on occasion. But his 21.3-percent walk rate was worst in the majors. With the exception of one outing, rookie swingman Ljay Newsome (.279) was good. So was journeyman Casey Sadler (.247). So, What Got Fixed? Not enough to contend. Dipoto chose to focus on two areas – retooling the bullpen and adding rotation depth. That’s it. No hitters from outside the organization were added to the 40-man roster. Two key bullpen arms came from AL West rivals. Rafael Montero via a trade with Texas and free agent Keynan Middleton from the Angels. Both pitchers underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018. Reliever Will Vest arrived via the Rule 5 draft. Finding Rule 5 picks to help in the bullpen is part of Dipoto’s playbook. In 2018, the Mariners drafted Brandon Brennan. A year later, Ramírez. Vest now gets an opportunity to follow suit. To bolster the rotation, Dipoto signed Chris Flexen, who spent 2020 with the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). In 116.2 innings, Flexen struck out 131 hitters against 30 walks. If the 26-year-old continues his KBO success in MLB, the Mariners have a solid starter under club control through 2026. Dipoto’s splashiest move was signing former Mariner and fan-favorite James Paxton. The southpaw spent two years with the Yankees after being dealt to the Bronx for Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams. So where does Dipoto’s offseason maneuvers leave the Mariners heading into 2021? Let’s discuss. Hope Is The Course Of Action With no external help coming, the Mariners are essentially counting on a young, unproven lineup taking the next step in its maturation. In a nutshell, hope is the plan for improving the offense this year. Look across the diamond to see what I mean. White is an elite defender at first base, but he must improve a .176/.252/.346 slash and a 41.6-percent strikeout rate. On a positive note, the 24-year-old’s hard-hit rate and a strong 30-game stretch last year suggests he could still rebound to be a foundational player in Seattle. After a breakout 2020, Moore is Seattle’s starting second baseman. That’s assuming the small sample of 38 games and 159 plate appearances qualifies as a season. Ironically, a year ago, the team hoisted the same status onto another player with about the same amount of experience as Moore’s. It didn’t go well. Long was anointed the 2020 Opening Day second baseman after a solid, but brief, 42-game/168 plate appearance audition in 2019. Unfortunately, his year went sideways due to a leg injury requiring season-ending surgery. Now, the 25-year-old seems to be an afterthought. That’s unfortunate and troubling. Crawford’s glove is outstanding, but his offensive profile remains unclear. The 26-year-old was adept at drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts leading to a .336 OBP. However, the team needs more extra base power from their shortstop. Seager begins his tenth season as the Mariners’ third baseman. The 33-year-old is the anchor of the infield and the organization itself. Lewis returns in center field after winning 2020 Rookie of the Year. Much like Lewis did during post-shutdown summer camp, prospect Taylor Trammell pleasantly surprised the Mariners in Spring Training. So much so, the 23-year-old will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder. Mitch Haniger is back in right field after several injuries sidelined him since June 2019. It’s plausible Haniger is Seattle’s best player in 2021. Starting catcher Tom Murphy also missed last season. In 2019, Murphy hit 18 home runs and .273/.324/.535 in 75 games. Still, the fact the right-handed hitter feasted on southpaw pitching, but not so much the other way (.653 OPS vs RHP; 1.103 vs LHP) bears watching. Torrens will share catching duties with Murphy. Last year, he hit .257/.325/.371, although the 24-year-old did have an impressive hard-hit rate. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the organization’s top catching prospect, Cal Raleigh, debuts this year. Ty France projects to be the primary designated hitter, although he’ll see time in the field too. Regardless of where France plays, his bat will be a staple in Seattle’s lineup. In 112 games spread over two seasons with the Padres and the Mariners, the San Diego State product has 17 doubles, 11 home runs, a .265/.326/.431 slash, and a 105 OPS+. The Starting 6.5 And The Other Guy Gonzales headlines a six-man rotation with Paxton, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Flexen, and Dunn behind him. Margevicius, who competed with Dunn for the final rotation spot, will be a reliever. That said, expect the 24-year-old to make starts. Perhaps he piggybacks with another starter during games this year. Injuries ruined Paxton’s 2020, which only advanced his injury-prone reputation. Still, the 32-year-old averaged 28 starts and 156 innings in 2018-19. Moreover, his .296 wOBA was twentieth best among starters during that span. In a six-man rotation, Big Maple making 24-28 starts with similar production would be perfect. We don’t know whether Flexen’s KBO performance carries over to MLB. But his 2.3 BB/9 in Korea is reminiscent to a 2.9 BB/9 in 122 minor-league appearances. Additionally, the right-hander’s 116.2 innings logged last season suggests he could handle a greater workload than other starters. Remember, Gonzales led Seattle with just 69.2 frames last year. Realistically, Dunn wouldn’t make a standard five-man rotation. Now, the 25-year-old must demonstrate he deserves to keep his gig by the time management deems top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert (the other guy) MLB-ready. More Relief, But How Much More? The bullpen definitely looks different and it should be improved. But how much better? The answer will figure heavily into the Mariner’s season record. Montero will close games. Getting the ball to Montero will be Kendall Graveman, Misiewicz, Middleton, Sadler, Vest, and Margevicius. Either Domingo Tapia or Drew Steckenrider will take the final bullpen spot. Sounds great, but this is an unproven group. Montero’s 95.8-MPH average fastball velocity last year was nearly 3-MPH higher than when he debuted in 2014. Yet, he remains an unknown quantity at closer. The same is true about Graveman, who has little relief experience (14.2 innings). Something else to monitor – Middleton’s walk rate. In his 19.2 innings since returning from TJ surgery, he’s walked 13 while striking out 17. Not a good ratio for high-leverage relievers. And the rest of the crew? They’re inexperienced and/or have yet to succeed in the majors. And That’s Where The Adventure Begins As noted at the outset, Dipoto will learn this season what he’ll need to do to make the Mariners a contender next year. But fans should expect a bumpy ride during the 2021 campaign, while the team learns lessons, both good and bad, about itself. Remember, few position players have significant major-league experience. Hence, the potential for turbulence as the season unfolds. Consider this: Seager has more career MLB plate appearances than the combined total of the eight hitters starting with the former North Carolina Tar Heel on Opening Day: Career MLB PA’s 1B – Evan White (202 PA) 2B – Dylan Moore (441) SS – J.P. Crawford (853) 3B – Kyle Seager (5,534) LF – Taylor Trammell (0) CF – Kyle Lewis (317) RF – Mitch Haniger (1,499) DH – Ty France (356) C – Tom Murphy (491) We’ve seen flashes from Lewis, Moore, France, and Murphy. But will these players sustain their success over a long season? And let’s not forget Trammell will struggle too. So will eventual call-ups Raleigh and Jarred Kelenic. That’s a lot of uncertainty. There are reasons to be optimistic about the rotation too. But a wait-and-see approach is advisable. Gonzales has a reputation of consistently delivering quality outings. Who else on the starting staff can make this claim? Paxton can do it, when healthy. Sheffield may develop into that pitcher with more time. So may Kikuchi and Flexen, but they’ve yet to deliver consistent quality outings in MLB. In fact, only three starters have more than 20 career starts in the majors. Three! Career MLB Starts James Paxton (136) Marco Gonzales (88) Yusei Kikuchi (41) Nick Margevicius (19) Justus Sheffield (17) Justin Dunn (14) Chris Flexen (11) With so much depending on 10-plus players demonstrating their potential this year, two basic outcomes await the Mariners. One is a surprisingly good year creating a postseason buzz in the Pacific Northwest. In that case, Dipoto likely acquires players in-season capable of elevating his club in 2021 and beyond. On the flip side, the Mariners end up closer to last place than a Wild Card berth. Then, they’re deadline sellers. That said, Dipoto doesn’t have many pending free agents to peddle. Any reliever performing well might be available. We’ve discussed Seager’s poison pill extension for 2022 ad nauseam, so we’ll move on. Alas, the most valued potential free agent would be a healthy Paxton performing up to his immense talent. Would Dipoto trade the big left-hander for a second time? If you don’t know the answer, ask Taijuan Walker. Regardless of where the Mariners finish this year, we’ll get to enjoy a preview of what awaits in 2022. That’s when young studs like Lewis, Sheffield, Trammell, Kelenic, Gilbert, Raleigh, and perhaps Julio Rodriguez will comprise over 25-percent of the team. And that’ll be the best part of the adventure this year – watching the Mariners’ young roster morphing into something special. My Oh My…Go!

Face it baseball fans, the sabermetric revolution is over. The nerds won. Advanced metrics influence roster moves, player development, and gameday strategy for all 30 MLB teams. Ironically, many local and national broadcasters resist using saber-stats despite knowing the clubs they cover depend on this information. Instead, booths across the league continue relying on generations-old conventional numbers when discussing players. It’s as if these holdouts prefer being stuck in a time loop over embracing the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating broadcasters altogether scrap conventional stats that were popular when your grandparents were your age. Baseball has a rich history and should preserve it. On the other hand, ducking innovation is a disservice to fans. Isn’t the goal of a game-caller to convey the most meaningful information available to the fan? If the answer is yes, advanced metrics, in some form, have a place in every broadcast. Again, there’s no need to abandon conventional stats such as AVG and RBI for hitters or wins, ERA, and saves for pitchers. These standards, generally preferred by longtime fans, should remain part of our lexicon. That said, it wouldn’t hurt for broadcasters to use advanced thinking when using old-school numbers. Doing so would prevent providing misleading info to fans and might even open the door to introducing the new stuff. Take RBI, for example. Driving in runs is a skill deserving of recognition. But the number of RBI a player has may not correctly reflect his ability. Other than the solo home run, it takes base runners for the batter to generate an RBI. Yes, the man at the plate has to do his part. But in reality, the quality of the lineup and its ability to provide RBI opportunities is a large factor rarely mentioned. Consider this; the 100-RBI season has long been considered a benchmark of offensive excellence. Yet, Mike Trout, one of the best players ever, has accomplished the feat just three times since his 2012 Rookie of the Year season. A retired player, David Ortiz, did it four times during the same span and he hasn’t played since 2016. So has Trout’s teammate, Albert Pujols (because he had Trout to drive in). Does anyone for an instant believe either of these players were better than Mike Trout since he debuted? Instead of touting a hitter’s RBI total, why not focus on the stats measuring the skills needed to drive in runs – reaching base (OBP) and/or slugging (SLG). If the player is adept at both skills, use OPS. Keep the RBI available for the diehards. But why not place the other stats on the screen also? Some local broadcasters are already taking steps in that direction. So how might broadcasters incorporate new-fangled metrics without losing the attention of the casual viewer? Use those new numbers when relevant to the game situation or as a positive reinforcement of a player’s achievements. Whenever possible, deliver the stat in a relatable context – compare a player to the league-average player in some way. Many advanced stats are designed to do just that. Most importantly, avoid explaining how the sausage is made. Honestly, how many casual fans know how to calculate AVG or SLG? Just provide a quick explanation, how the stat relates to the player being discussed, and then move on. That should suffice for the casual fan. The nerds already know how the sausage is made – they’re nerds! On-screen graphics are a great way to interject advanced metrics into the consciousness of viewers. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) quantifies a hitter’s overall production. Last year, Kyle Seager had a 118 wRC+. Since a 100 wRC+ is always average, that means Seager was 18-percent more productive than the average player. This screenshot from a Mariners broadcast last night says all that with a picture. Seeing Seager’s wRC+ in this light is something Mariners fans will probably appreciate, even if they’re not seam-heads. Their veteran third baseman was above average offensively in 2020. Fans intuitively knew this already. But now, they have an over-arching modern stat quantifying his productivity. How can that be a bad thing? It can’t. Broadcasts can also utilize graphics to illustrate pertinent stats – old and new – together in a fresh manner. That’s something fans of all generations should be able to accept. The below screenshot from a 2019 Mets game provides such an example. It’s a nice blend of conventional numbers with a few newer ones too. There’s even room for a sponsor’s name. Next up is another example from a Giants game in 2019. What’s fun about this graphic is it’s a product of the opposing team’s broadcast. AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain does a fine job of doing everything possible to inform their viewers. In this instance, we see different metrics included with the familiar stuff. The fan learns how Giants starter Drew Pomeranz fared using wins-losses and ERA and that opponents hit .305 against him. Also on display, Pomeranz’s pitch distribution and the AVG hitters produced against each of his pitches. That’s a lot of information in a snapshot. But it’s not overly nerdy and there’s something for everyone. Our next example is something I saw last night. ROOT Sports Northwest did a splendid job of using advanced metrics and familiar conventional numbers to demonstrate how Seattle’s Opening Day starter – Marco Gonzales – ranks among peers within the AL West division. Very quickly, the viewer is left with the impression Gonzales is much better than some at the national level perceive him. In fact, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the AL West over the past three seasons. This is not a narrative you’re likely to hear from a national outlet. Mariners fans will undoubtedly eat up this kind of information even though it’s not in the form of old-school numbers. A stat tending to receive consternation from the old-guard is wins above replacement (WAR). In the preceding, we see the FanGraphs version (fWAR) in use. Like it or not, WAR is increasingly used by fans, baseball writers, and Hall of Fame voters. Now, it’s ever-so-slowly creeping into booths across the league. There’s no reason WAR couldn’t be made available more often during broadcasts. Again, no big definition needed. Just note WAR captures the total value of a player. For a position player, that’s offense, defense, base running. From there, mention the all-time leaders in career WAR are Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Henry Aaron. Sure, some grumps will fixate on Bonds’ inclusion with the best to ever play due to alleged PED use. But the message should be clear to the open-minded – the greatest players in the game have the highest WAR. If you haven’t noticed already, you’re seeing a bunch of screenshots from Mariners games. Their broadcasts provided a plethora of tasty examples on how to communicate advanced stats to the viewer in a smart fashion – particularly in the last year. ROOT Sports Northwest has also found innovative ways to use graphics to deliver snapshot identification of player trends – both good and bad. Last year, a Mariners broadcast captured the difficulties the team’s former designated hitter, Daniel Vogelbach, had against fastballs later in the season. It was a quick and dirty look using batting average and whiff rate – the percent of misses on swing attempts. We even learn most of Vogelbach’s home runs came off fastballs. This was relevant and easily understandable information about a slugger, who wasn’t slugging for Seattle at the time. Just last night, ROOT Sports explored the platoon splits of reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis. Based on batting average alone, a fan might believe the right-handed hitting Lewis struggled against southpaws last year. However, a deeper look by play-by-play announcer Aaron Goldsmith discovered Seattle’s star center fielder was actually productive against lefties and righties in 2020. Former player turned analyst Mike Blowers astutely noted Lewis had so few plate appearances last year that his batting average likely would’ve normalized with more playing time. That’s player-speak for “it’s a small sample size.” This is an instance when sabermetrics and a player’s perspective combined to provide a quality product to viewers. The preceding screenshot doesn’t explain “the why” behind Lewis’ negative split. But the visual does give us reason to pause and consider what Goldsmith and Blowers were discussing. It’s just not in the numbers arena where graphics can help make the broadcast more viewer-friendly. I found this particular visual of the Twins’ lineup and bench players to be quite useful. Not only do we see the batting order, the handedness of both starters and reserves is also presented. Beyond the numbers, there’s another element of game broadcasts that’s in dire need of upgrading across the league – inputs from either the analyst in the booth or the pre/postgame show. Too often, they don’t deliver their valuable insight in a useable form to the masses. Consider this. One of my wife’s responsibilities as a paralegal is retaining expert witnesses for trial. The right expert for the job must possess three important characteristics. They have to be competent and have credibility with the jury. Most importantly, an expert witness must be capable of elaborating on their area of expertise, which is probably complicated, in a manner that jurors will understand. The same rings true with on-air baseball analysis. Unfortunately, analysts frequently fall into the trap of directing their evaluation of a player at the knowledge level of peers in the booth or studio rather than the viewer on the couch. Discussing a hitter’s mechanics or a pitcher’s arm slot without context is tantamount to a nerd spouting off about run expectancy without explanation. Believe it or not, many casual fans have no clue what the analyst is trying to convey about the player. There’s a simple solution to this challenge – at least I think it’s simple. Photographic training aids for the viewer. After all, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Here’s an example from a Mets broadcast in 2019 when former player and now-analyst Keith Hernandez discussed changes in the hand placement of Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. from two different seasons. This is information the average fan can at least relate to on some level. From here, the analyst could potentially explain why the different hand positions mattered or how the different stances affected Acuña’s ability to make contact, hit for power, etc. And isn’t it cool for a local broadcaster to be discussing an opposing player? Learning moments for fans don’t necessarily have to involve the hometown nine. Greatness should be recognized and discussed regardless of uniform. Everything mentioned thus far is doable with the right mindset. Unfortunately, the greatest hurdle to enacting change may be convincing broadcasters to come along for the ride. A common reason heard to justify resistance to advanced metrics is the fear of alienating fans, who don’t want to understand the data. That sounds like an excuse. If a booth crew can’t convey the information to the audience in a useful manner, that’s on them. Not the metrics. Choose the correct stats for a given situation, learn them, and then explain them. Our examples from AT&T SportsNet, NBC Sports Bay Area, ROOT Sports, and SNY demonstrated how to deliver advanced metrics with relative ease and in a manner that shouldn’t turn off fans not interested in the material. In reality, broadcasters have a tremendous opportunity to generate interest and influence fans through the use of advanced metrics. This task can be accomplished without suffocating viewers with big-brain data and overly busy graphics. Having said that, an all-hands effort is needed to deliver that quality product. Specifically, buy-in from the booth, studio, and producers. Easier said than done in some locations. The “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality towards the use of conventional stats won’t help grow a a sport in dire need of a fresher look. How would we have ever reached the moon with such a mindset? Including a few advanced metrics in baseball broadcasts is a smidge easier than space exploration. Make it so, broadcasters. My Oh My…Go!

J.P. Crawford Mariners

The Seattle Mariners face a big decision on J.P. Crawford, a Gold Glove defender yet to consistently produce at the plate. Is Crawford the team’s long-term answer at shortstop? Or, does Seattle pursue a more accomplished replacement at a position teeming with elite-level hitters? To be clear, Crawford isn’t a terrible hitter – far from it. As with his glove, there’s a lot to like about the 26-year-old from an offensive standpoint. The following illustrates areas where he excelled and the MLB average for each category. Crawford demonstrated superb plate discipline. He didn’t strikeout too often and walked at a league-average rate. Moreover, his swing and contact rates inside and outside (chase) the strike zone were better than average – top-20 in some cases. These accomplishments led to an OBP 14 points above average, which is certainly valuable to a lineup. Still, there’s been a longstanding concern regarding Crawford’s run production – a lack of power. A scouting report produced by MLB Pipeline discussed his light-hitting when he was at Class-AAA Lehigh Valley and a Top-100 prospect in 2017. Essentially, the California native’s batted balls have lacked the consistent explosiveness needed to regularly produce extra base hits. A great way to demonstrate this is with a modified form of my favorite advanced metric – xwOBA. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. For this discussion, let’s consider Crawford’s xwOBA only on the balls when he made contact (xwOBACON). Doing so removes walks and strikeouts, which gives us a better idea on the potency of his batted balls. It turns out the Lakewood High School product’s .329 xwOBACON was well below league-average (.378) last year. In fact, he ranked 172nd of 184 hitters putting 100-plus balls in play (BIP). Crawford also placed low among his Seattle teammates with at least 50 BIP. Mariner xwOBACON Leaders: Evan White (.458) Ty France (.437) Dylan Moore (.433) Kyle Lewis (.432) José Marmolejos (.401) Kyle Seager (.364) Luis Torrens (.350) Tim Lopes (.331) J.P. Crawford (.329) Shed Long Jr. (.297) Dee Strange-Gordon (.262) When we view Crawford’s slugging prowess through the lens of more familiar conventional stats and advanced metrics, we receive confirmation of what xwOBACON has already told us – the pop in his bat was subpar. It wasn’t just in the home run department where Crawford trailed the league. His 4.7-percent extra-base hit percentage was well below the 7.0-percent MLB standard for 2020. Furthermore, the 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft recorded a .391 SLG in 2,645 minor-league plate appearances. In the majors, he owns a .359 SLG in 853 plate appearances. It’s worth noting adjustments resulting in a supercharged bat would likely lead to Crawford missing on swings more often than he does now. But trading some contact for added pop would be worth it assuming the outcome was more production. Ideally, a nice blend of quality and quantity would be preferred. Easier said than done, obviously. Ironically, another young Mariner experienced the exact opposite problem as Crawford did last year – Evan White. Seattle’s other 2020 Gold Glover struck balls extremely hard, but didn’t make contact often enough. Just for fun, I did a side-by-side comparison of the pair with each player’s glaring issues highlighted in red. Obviously, Seattle fans hope both Crawford and White take the next step in their development during the upcoming season. Both are young and have the potential to help form the core of a contending roster. Still, time may be running out for Crawford to influence his destiny with the Mariners. Next offseason, a relatively large class of premier shortstops are projected to hit the free agent market. Candidates potentially available to the Mariners and 29 other teams include Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story. All are All-Stars, several were Silver Slugger winners, two were MVP finalists. If Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto felt his young roster gelled in 2021 and was on the verge of something special, would he pursue any of these acclaimed shortstops next winter? Perhaps, but it likely depends on how the Mariners view Crawford. Despite the absence of a power stroke, it’s understandable why Philadelphia drafted him so high and how his potential intrigued Dipoto. He’s hard-working, athletic, a great defender, and demonstrates excellent plate discipline. With more power, Seattle would have an all-star caliber player. A less expensive, younger option than the stars of next year’s free agent class. That’s why the upcoming season will be pivotal in determining Crawford’s future with the Mariners. Sticking with him past 2021 means Dipoto bypasses a chance at signing Lindor, Correa, Seager, Story, or Báez to anchor the middle of his infield. To date, a compelling argument can’t be made for keeping Crawford rather than pursue one of these star shortstops. Then again, there’s a full 162-game season approaching. It’ll give Crawford the opportunity to demonstrate he should be Seattle’s shortstop of the future. If he can thrive at the plate this year, Dipoto’s decision next offseason will be an easy one. Otherwise, the Mariners will continue searching for an adequate, long-term replacement for Álex Rodríguez two decades after he left the Emerald City. My Oh My…Go!

Mitch Haniger Mariners

When Mitch Haniger last appeared in a regular season game for the Seattle Mariners in June 2019, he was Seattle’s best player. Nearly two years later, Haniger may reclaim the “best Mariner” mantle in 2021. To some of you, the notion of Haniger having a better year than the Mariners’ growing stable of young studs sounds a bit far-fetched. Plus, there’s his health. Injuries, surgeries, and rehab setbacks have sidelined the Cal Poly product since June 6, 2019. And let’s not forget Haniger was having a subpar season when we last saw him. So, what’s driving my seemingly inane optimism in the face of everything I just mentioned? Two assumptions. Haniger is healthy and will remain so – there’s no reason to believe otherwise. A player of his ilk is able to identify and correct whatever was causing his below-average offensive production in 2019. Since I’m not a doctor and just a dumb blogger, I focused on Haniger’s 2019 statistics rather than his physical readiness. When doing so, I kept running across indicators suggesting swing mechanics may have played a central role in his down year. Again, I’m the dumb stats guy, not a hitting guru. But that was my takeaway. To see what I mean, let’s start by comparing Haniger’s offensive production at the time of his injury in 2019 to previous years. Very quickly, we see several things amiss. A Spike In Strikeouts After a breakout campaign in 2017, Haniger demonstrated even greater growth the following year with his first All-Star selection and an eleventh-place finish in MVP voting. Unfortunately, a spike in strikeouts sparked noticeable declines in every slash category in 2019. In 25 of Haniger’s 63 games in 2019, he struck out two-or-more times. By contrast, the right-handed hitter achieved this dubious milestone 35 times in 157 games the year prior and 27 times in 96 contests during the 2017 season. Strikeouts were definitely a problem for Haniger in 2019. Some of you may suggest strikeouts have been trending upwards across MLB over the last decade and Haniger’s spike in 2019 was a reflection of league-wide trends. It’s true the league’s strikeout rate has risen from 18.1-percent in 2011 to 23.4-percent last year. But strikeouts only increased by 0.7-percent across the majors in 2018-19. Haniger’s rate jumped nearly ten times that. Something else was going on with the Mariners’ right fielder. Dropping Contact Rates, Especially On Chase Pitches When we turn our attention to Haniger’s plate discipline numbers, we see a potential smoking gun to his sudden rise in strikeouts. In 2017-19, Haniger’s swing rates remained relatively stable whether he was targeting pitches in the strike zone or “chase” pitches off the plate. It’s worth noting the Californian didn’t expand the strike zone during his suboptimal 2019. When he went down in June, his 24.9-percent chase rate was 30th lowest among qualified MLB hitters. Still, we do see a negative turn with Haniger’s contact rates. The steepest decline coming on chase pitches. In 2018-19, the league-average chase contact rate hovered around 63-percent. In 2018, Haniger was just below average. But a year later, his 53.6-percent chase contact rate ranked 140th among 162 qualified hitters. Less Grounders, More Unproductive Airborne Balls When Haniger did make contact in 2019, he wasn’t generating enough line drives. The following illustrates the fifth-year major leaguer’s rates for ground balls, line drives, fly balls, and pop-ups. Also included, the MLB average for each category in 2020. Haniger’s rates were stable between 2017 and 2018, almost identical. But there were significant changes the following season. In a vacuum, a drop in ground balls sounds appealing. That’s until we notice he hit fewer line drives with significant climbs in fly balls and useless pop-ups. Just how important are line drives to Haniger or any hitter? Our next table answers that question by showing the distribution of doubles and home runs, plus the slash line success based on type of batted ball. Intuitively, we know line drives are great. But the differences between the outcome of liners compared to other batted balls is starker than some fans may realize. As you can see, some value can be derived from flyballs. But mostly on home runs and a relatively low number of extra base hits. If it’s not a dinger, a flyball more likely leads to an out than an on-base event. Ground balls can lead to runners on base, but not often enough. This is why consistently hitting grounders isn’t the strategy of big-league batters. The least fruitful batted ball is the pop-up. It’s almost as statistically ineffective to an offense as a strikeout. Missed It By That Much Based on his swing-and-miss problems and drop in well-struck balls in 2019, it seems reasonable Haniger’s issues could boil down to not finding the ball with the ‘sweet spot” of his bat often enough. If there was only a metric measuring this. Oh wait, there is. Naturally, the smart people at Baseball Savant found a way to quantify sweet spot success. Sweet Spot percentage (SwSp%) quantifies how often a hitter produces batted-ball events with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Balls hit within the sweet spot range create those very favorable line drives at a very high rate. With Haniger, we know his line drive rate dropped significantly in 2019 compared to the year prior when he was an All-Star. As you may have expected by now, the delta in his annual sweet spot percentage aligned with the decline in liners he experienced. The following illustrates Haniger’s sweet spot percentages in 2017-19, plus the MLB average for last season. After being above the league average in 2017-18, Haniger’s SwSp% was down nearly five points before he went to the IL in June 2019. To be clear, a high SwSp% doesn’t guarantee success. But striking the ball on the sweet spot is an essential element of making consistent quality contact. The amount of contact made is paramount also. Optimally, a hitter produces a smooth blend of quality and quantity – pitchers would prefer the opposite. In Haniger’s case, the negative delta in his SwSp% between the 2017-18 seasons and 2019 was the core issue – not the actual number itself. Not The First Time Haniger Scuffled It’s important to remember a key truth easily overlooked if we myopically stare at Statcast without context. Haniger’s 2019 season was a small-sample size – just 63 games. He may have corrected course if it weren’t for his season-ending injury. Haniger was slashing .244/.331/.520 with seven home runs and a 127 OPS+ in 142 plate appearances through the end of April 2019. It was after this point, in May-June, when his productivity went sideways. With this in mind, I searched for a period of similar length when Haniger scuffled in a comparable manner and then rebounded. I found one in his first year as a Mariner – June 23 through August 31, 2017. The numbers aren’t identical. Haniger struck out at a much higher rate in 2019, although he did earn many more free passes and hit for more power. But both periods were tough stretches for a player normally associated with top-shelf production. It’s worth noting Haniger missed time during the 2017 period after Jacob DeGrom of the Mets buzzed a fastball off his face. He’d bounce back in September capping off the season with seven home runs and a .353/.374/.613 slash line. Haniger’s September surge foreshadowed his outstanding 2018 campaign. Best Mariner, Again?  For some, the sexy picks for best Mariner in 2021 will be shiny new names such as Kyle Lewis, Ty France, Taylor Trammell, and Jarred Kelenic. But don’t sleep on Haniger. Remember, he possesses something the youngsters don’t have yet – a proven record of sustained success in the majors. The issues at the heart of Haniger’s troubles in 2019 seem correctable to me, especially by such a talented and intense player with a legendary work ethic. As we’ve noted, it’s plausible he would’ve fixed himself with the benefit of time in 2019. Unfortunately, the injury bug had other plans. Since Cactus League stats are fool’s gold, it’ll be well into the regular season before we can reasonably assess how Haniger and his young teammates are performing in 2021. Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, it’ll be fun watching the Mariners’ youngsters arrive and attempt to thrive at the big-league level. Still, in this instance, I prefer age and experience over youth and potential. My preseason pick for best player on the Mariners in 2021 is Mitch Haniger. My Oh My…Go!

Seattle Mariners Managing Partner and Chairman John Stanton faces a franchise-defining crossroads. The path Stanton chooses will be abundantly clear once the Mariners replace former President and CEO Kevin Mather. If the team makes an internal hire, it signals the organization prefers staying within its comfort zone at a time when getting outside help to challenge deep-rooted paradigms would be the best course of action. Let’s face it, Seattle’s baseball club has been mired in mediocrity, unable to get out of its own way for nearly two decades. Hanging over the team like a dark cloud is the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports. It’s an organization desperately needing a facelift, not more of the same. Promoting from within facilitates remaining an afterthought on the national stage rather than becoming an industry leader. Strong words, I know. But my opinions on leading an organization were forged by decades of experience in the U.S. Navy. A baseball team may seem a far cry from a military unit, but the same basic leadership tenets apply to both. Leading through personal example, moral responsibility, self-accountability, open dialogue, and sincere interest in people. Editor: Luke retired from the Navy in 2014 with the rank of Commander. He worked in the Naval Aviation community making seven forward deployments on four different aircraft carriers. His assignments included leadership roles with combatant commands, various DOD agencies, and even a tour at FEMA HQ in Washington, D.C. His 33-year career culminated as a Commanding Officer of a unit stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington. And that brings us to Mather and the culture permitting his improper behavior to persist for an extended period. Let’s not overlook the fact Mather had been with the team for 25 years until resigning last week following outrageously insensitive and inappropriate comments to a Rotary Club breakfast group. The disrespectful views publicly expressed towards people inside and outside his organization wasn’t a first-time transgression for the long-time club executive – far from it. Thanks to diligent journalism by the Seattle Times, we know the Mariners made financial settlements with women filing sexual harassment complaints filed against Mather over a decade ago. But he wasn’t a lone wolf gone rogue. Mather’s predecessor as team President – Chuck Armstrong – and now-former Executive Vice President Bob Aylward were also named in grievances. Inflaming the situation, all three men remained within the Mariners family with Mather being promoted twice into positions of greater authority and influence. Defenders of Stanton and his partners can say majority ownership of the Mariners was in the hands of others at the time of the sexual harassment incidents. True, but Stanton and the minority owners comprising the new partnership are holdovers from the previous regime. Mariners chairman emeritus John Ellis emphasized this point at the time of the sale’s approval by MLB. “There’s not a soul, other than the people retiring, that will be impacted, because all of these same partners are still involved.” – Mariners chairman emeritus John Ellis Essentially, the transfer of team ownership more resembled a game of musical chairs in the boardroom than an actual changing of the guard. Then, there are Stanton’s own words. During a press conference following Mather’s resignation, Stanton, a minority owner since 2000, stated more than once he didn’t agree with the assertion Mather’s recent public comments created a trust problem with its fan base, staff, and player personnel. Stanton declared, “I don’t agree with the premise.” He later commented, “I don’t think that the trust has been completely eroded” and “You build trust over time, and you build that relationship by communicating honestly, consistently.” Stanton’s statements remind me of a phrase uttered daily in the Navy. “One ‘aw, shit’ wipes out a thousand attaboys.” Unfortunately, Mr. Stanton, your former CEO’s commentary in front of a group he perceived as friendly erased a tremendous amount of goodwill your organization has built up. Particularly when the controversial statements came from a senior executive with sexual harassment complaints on his résumé. In reality, Mather burned through a great deal of your club’s reputation-equity during a 40-minute Zoom call. Perhaps trust in the organization hasn’t completely eroded. But the Mariners certainly face a crisis of confidence. Winning back the faith of skeptical fans won’t be easy or a short-term undertaking. That’s why now is the time for a fresh message delivered by a new voice, not a familiar face. Hiring an outsider would go against the Mariners’ normal status quo approach. But an agent of change is what this team needs. Someone not tethered to franchise history or personal relationships. A leader with the necessary authority to enact change and the charisma to sell employees, players, and the fan base on the team’s new direction. It simply can’t be someone with ties to Stanton or other owners. Assume for a moment the Mariners were willing to hire someone from outside the organization with a national profile. The name mentioned most often is former Cubs and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who currently works for MLB. Epstein’s credentials are exemplary. He led two organizations with World Series droughts spanning over a century to championships. But there’s a critical factor to consider when discussing Epstein or other qualified candidates from the outside. The appetite of ownership to change course with an unfamiliar face at the helm. An outsider will address uncomfortable truths with people throughout the organization – including ownership. Will team leadership, who has a reputation for being allergic to criticism, embrace the concept of self-assessment and potentially receiving negative feedback? The truth will set you free, but it can hurt. It is plausible ownership opts to split Mather’s President and CEO duties between two people. Doing so would make sense. Perhaps giving one person so much authority negatively affected the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the franchise. In that case, adding an outsider CEO and promoting Executive Vice President and GM Jerry Dipoto to the President’s position would have merit. Dipoto is the best thing to happen to the Mariners’ baseball operations since Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick left Seattle after the 2003 season. Perhaps elevating the sixth-year GM permits him to avoid undue influence from a President/CEO more focused on dollars and cents than building a sustainable winner the way Dipoto believes is best. Moving forward, the competence and character of ownership will determine whether the team regains the trust and confidence of its fan base. Mather’s inappropriate behavior and the organization’s willingness to retain and subsequently promote him speaks volumes about its culture. Not just to fans, but more importantly, to employees forced to work under someone with a documented history of disrespect and intolerance. A team owner, like a Navy Commanding Officer, sets the moral tone for the organization. As managing partner, Stanton can pivot his organization in a new and much more promising direction with the counsel of an outside voice. The alternative isn’t as appealing. More of the same. Big promises. No results. That would be an unfortunate outcome for all involved. My Oh My…Go!

Luis Torrens Mariners

Seattle Mariners catcher Luis Torrens has put in a great deal of effort into improving his defensive skills. But we shouldn’t overlook Torrens’ bat when assessing his future with the Mariners. There are indicators suggesting he could eventually deliver more production to Seattle’s lineup than he has up to this point of his young career. Torrens arrived in the Emerald City last August with Ty France, Andres Muñoz, and minor leaguer Taylor Trammell via a trade sending Austin Nola, Austin Adams, and Dan Altavilla to San Diego. At the time, most attention was focused on Trammell (top-100 prospect), France (possible third baseman of future), and Muñoz (potential closer). Not the likely backup to Tom Murphy in 2021 and eventually the organization’s top catching prospect, Cal Raleigh. So why my interest in Torrens, a projected reserve? An intriguing average exit velocity with San Diego and Seattle in 2020. How many Mariners fans realize the Venezuela native’s 92.3-MPH exit velocity was highest on the team last season ahead of Evan White (91.1)? But there’s more. It turns out Torrens’ 57.1-percent hard hit rate with the Padres and Mariners last year was fourth highest among MLB hitters with 50-plus batted balls. Check out the impressive names surrounding Seattle’s newest catcher on the following list. For anyone not familiar with Ke’Bryan Hayes, he’s an early favorite for 2021 NL Rookie of the Year after an impressive 24-game debut with the Pirates last season. Highest Hard Hit Rate (50 Batted Ball Min) Fernando Tatís Jr. – 62.2% (SDP) Travis d’Arnaud – 57.8% (ATL) Miguel Sanó – 57.3% (MIN) Luis Torrens – 57.1% (SEA) Ronald Acuña Jr. – 57% (ATL) Corey Seager – 55.9% (LAD) Eloy Jiménez – 55.7% (CWS) Christian Yelich – 55.6% (MIL) Ke’Bryan Hayes – 55.4% (PIT) Mike Trout – 55.1% (LAA) Yes, Torrens’ 78 plate appearances last year equate to a small sample size and should keep our expectations in check. On the other hand, conventional and advanced stats from his 2019 campaign with Class-AA Amarillo hint at an ability to deliver value with his bat. The following illustrates the right-handed hitter’s numbers with the Sod Poodles (!!) two years ago. Also on display, how each stat compared to 225 AA players with 300-plus plate appearances. Torrens’s strikeout and walk rates ranked in the top 25-percent in 2019. Moreover, his slash-line was particularly robust with only two players in the entire Padres farm system recording a higher wRC+. MLB Pipeline’s number-45 prospect Luis Campusano (148) and Torren’s current teammate, France (196). It’s worth noting France led all minor leaguers in wRC+; Julio Rodríguez (164) led the Mariners’ system. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. Every point above 100 represents a percentage point above average. League-average is always 100. As I wrote recently, approaching MiLB statistics with caution is advisable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t glean something from them. For example, consider the transformation in Nola’s production numbers after joining the Mariners organization. We now know Nola enjoyed a breakthrough in 2019 when he made changes to his approach suggested by the Mariners. The result was a reduction in groundballs and improved power numbers. His success first materialized with Class-AAA Tacoma and then followed him to the majors as a rookie and in 2020. Could Seattle help Torrens in a similar manner? Obviously, every player is unique in so many ways. Still, Torrens would certainly benefit from putting more well struck balls in the air rather than driving them into the ground. Here’s what the groundball rates of both Torrens and Nola looked like in the years leading up to the 2019-20 season. Imagine if Torrens could reduce his groundball rate, as Nola did, and continued to have a high hard hit rate. Maybe he won’t ever be top-10, as was the case in 2020. But an above-average hard hit rate coupled with a lower groundball rate could unleash a potentially potent bat. Perhaps my notion Torrens could thrive offensively is simply the byproduct of excessive staring at Statcast data until seeing something I wanted to see. If that’s the case, he still projects to be a solid backup to Murphy and/or Raleigh. On the other hand, what if Torrens were able supercharge his bat with a change in swing mechanics? Perhaps then, he could elevate himself to being a serious contender for Seattle’s starting catcher job. Sound unrealistic? Maybe, but consider this. How many Mariners fans were aware of a catcher named Austin Nola at the beginning of the 2019 season? My Oh My…. [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Jarred Kelenic, Mariners scouting report

Former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather suggesting his team manipulated the service time of prospect Jarred Kelenic confirmed what the MLBPA long believed. Clubs intentionally exploit the service time of young players to delay arbitration and free agent eligibility. Even projected stars fall victim to this practice. “Because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service time clock.” – Kevin Mather Mather’s revelation will undoubtedly have ramifications during CBA negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA later this year. The relationship between both parties was already acrimonious. Mather’s unprovoked admission to an unethical practice only worsens matters, assuming that’s possible. So what about Kelenic? Should the Mariners avoid further negative publicity by promoting him to their Opening Day roster? That depends on the answer to one question. Is he ready? To be honest, I have no idea whether Kelenic is ready for the majors. Nobody outside the Mariners does. Several national media members have advocated his readiness, while passionate fans have taken to Twitter doing the same. Still, most of these folks haven’t seen Kelenic play in a regular season game nor could they pick him out of a lineup. Instead of engaging in hyperbole about Kelenic’s current plight or connecting it to the Mariners’ 20-year absence from the postseason, let’s try something else. Have a rationale conversation based on recent history, available facts, and objective opinions. Maybe then, we can arrive at a conclusion regarding the sixth overall pick of the 2018 draft. History Lesson Although Mather’s comment about the service time of his former team’s minor leaguers was egregious, the MLB readiness of those players is debatable. That wasn’t the case with two prominent players, who seemingly had their service time manipulated in the last six years. In 2015, the Cubs started Kris Bryant in the minors after he led all of professional baseball (including MLB) with 43 home runs and a 192 wRC+ the year prior. Chicago promoted Bryant twelve days later guaranteeing an additional year of service from the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year. Bryant later filed a grievance against the Cubs over the perceived service time manipulation, but lost in judgement. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. Every point above 100 represents a percentage point above average. League-average is always 100. The Blue Jays executed a similar maneuver with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who had the highest AVG, SLG, and wRC+ among minor leaguers with 400-plus plate appearances in 2018. Despite his success, Toronto opted to leave Guerrero in the minors at the beginning of 2019 before recalling him a month into the season. The tactic assured another season of club control for the Jays. There are other instances of seemingly unethical service time decisions. However, the Bryant and Guerrero sagas are two of the most glaring examples of why players are fighting mad with ownership. Mather’s comments simply raised the temperature in an already simmering pressure cooker. Production Let’s review Kelenic’s offensive numbers from his last season in 2019. The left-handed hitter played with three teams – Class-A West Virginia, High-A Modesto, and Class-AA Arkansas. The following illustrates his combined production and its ranking against 686 players from all levels with 500-plus plate appearances. Also included, Kelenic’s standing among the 107 individuals under age-21. Overall, Kelenic’s numbers look great, particularly against youthful peers. After joining Arkansas on August 11, he slashed .253/.315/.542 with six home runs. Furthermore, his .857 OPS was higher than the output of other top Seattle prospects when the Wisconsinite was their teammate. Specifically, major leaguers Kyle Lewis (.526) and Evan White (.789), plus catcher Cal Raleigh (.761). Kelenic’s 133 wRC+ with Arkansas ranked fourth on the team for the season behind leader Jake Fraley (156). Fraley left the Travelers to play with Class-AAA Tacoma and then the Mariners in 2019. His situation is why minor-league stats don’t have much relevance to me. Despite the success in MiLB, Fraley has yet to establish himself in the majors. The 25-year-old has a .152/.200/.227 slash-line with a 16 wRC+ in 70 MLB plate appearances in 2019-20. To be fair, an injury derailed his first year shortly after he debuted and opportunities have been rare ever since. It’s also worth pointing out Lewis was slumping before his September call-up in 2019. He then took Seattle by storm with six home runs in 18 games. Honestly, the most relevant number to me is Kelenic’s playing time, which is very limited above Class-A level. His stint with Arkansas totaled 21 games with 83 plate appearances. Few players from this generation have reached the majors with less MiLB experience and at similar young age. Experience With this in mind, let’s contrast Kelenic’s MiLB career to other players recently debuting at an early age. How many spent more time in the minors than what the Waukesha West High School product currently has? The following illustrates all MiLB games played and at AAA/AA by 14 hitters debuting by their age-20 season since 2010. Two caveats; they had to play 40-plus games during their debut campaign and produce at least a 0.0 bWAR. We’ve sorted our list by games played at AAA/AA. Kelenic is included to aid with our comparison. As you can see, our list is teeming with recognizable names. Only two players – Bryce Harper and Juan Soto – debuted with less than 200 MiLB games. It’s worth noting both began with the Nationals and have been successes ever since. Harper won 2012 NL Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Soto has been so electric Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently drew a comparison between the 22-year-old and Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Based on Kelenic’s inexperience in the minors, it’s understandable why Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto insists his team hasn’t delayed his star prospect’s march to the majors. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any monkey business going on behind the scenes. However, there’s a plausible explanation, based on precedent, as to why Kelenic has yet to join the big-league team. Evaluations Okay, we’ve compared Kelenic’s stats to peers and his MiLB experience to major leaguers debuting at a young age. Let’s now consider how four national outlets recently evaluated his future. The following are only snippets from their write-ups. All ranked Kelenic fifth or better on their top-100 list. He probably would have debuted in 2020 had there been a full minor-league season, and I expect he’ll be up by the middle of 2021. I know it pains Mets fans to read this, but I think Kelenic is going to be a superstar. – Keith Law, The Athletic I expect him to come up in 2021 and be an immediate impact player. – Eric Longenhagen, FanGraphs Kelenic has an all-star potential and his major league debut is on the horizon in 2021. – Bill Mitchell, Baseball America Kelenic performed well in a 21-game Double-A sample in 2019. He first stood out on the national stage after his sophomore year in high school, so he has a long track record of standout offensive performances that gives scouts some certainty that it will continue. – Kiley McDaniel, ESPN Obviously, these are subjective anecdotes. That’s how readers likely view them. My takeaway is all four assessors agree that Kelenic projects to debut in MLB this year. However, none states he’s ready to begin the season with the Mariners. Then again, they may avoid such language when discussing prospects. On the subject of evaluations, Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill is in the process of publishing his annual top Mariners prospect reports. Numbers 1-3 release on February 26-28. Spoiler alert: Kelenic’s name has yet to appear. You can click on Jason’s name to find previously published reports, including his most recent offering – number-3 prospect Emerson Hancock. Editor’s note: Kelenic’s report by Churchill has since published and can be found here. Well? Does Kelenic need more seasoning in the minors or should the Mariners play him on Opening Day? Even after our discussion, I still don’t know the answer. His production was excellent, but not the best in MiLB as was the case with Bryant and Guerrero. Moreover, both of those players spent time at AAA – Kelenic has not. I don’t see how anyone could rationally determine whether Kelenic should be on the Opening Day roster without personally evaluating him. For this reason, I’ll continue placing my faith in the assessments of Dipoto and his staff. I realize many of you won’t agree and that’s fine. However, Dipoto has been extremely transparent about baseball operations since his arrival in late 2015. More so than any GM in MLB and perhaps all major sports. Besides, he didn’t hesitate to recall top prospects Lewis and Justin Dunn in September 2019. Why? He and his staff deemed both ready to test the waters in the majors. Sure, Mather’s buffoonery gives us pause regarding the way the Mariners run their business and the organization’s culture. Still, we should separate the two issues at hand. Whether Kelenic is actually ready in the eyes of professional evaluators has nothing to do with Mather telling fans his former team was conspiring to manipulate the service time of its best prospects. As for the latter issue, Mather has resigned. Now, Mariners Chairman and Managing Partner John Stanton has the daunting task of repairing the serious damage done to his franchise’s reputation by his former CEO. I don’t envy Mr. Stanton. Regarding player personnel decisions, Stanton remains comfortable with Dipoto making the call on when to promote prospects – so do I. The sixth-year GM reinvigorated a farm system once considered the worst in MLB. Now, the Mariners’ system is both deep and full of top-100 prospects. They seem to have a handle on developing minor leaguers. Besides, I have no idea when Jarred Kelenic – or any prospect – deserves a promotion to the majors. And neither do you. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Bob Melvin Oakland Athletics

Over the last three years, the Oakland Athletics have found ways to cobble together competitive rosters despite being a low revenue organization. From a financial standpoint, this offseason appeared even more challenging than usual. Before discussing money matters further, let’s reflect on the A’s 2020 campaign. Looking Back After winning 97 wins in 2018-19 and only earning a wild card berth, the Athletics won the AL West for the first time since 2013. Oakland defeated the White Sox in the initial round of playoffs marking the first time it won a postseason series since beating the Twins in the 2006 ALDS. The team would subsequently fall to the division-rival Astros in the ALDS. Surprisingly, the A’s lineup wasn’t as potent as recent seasons. Several hitters delivered below average production for manager Bob Melvin. Matt Chapman fell prey to a hip injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. Despite the setback, Chapman did manage to hit 10 home runs with a .535 SLG. However, the 27-year-old had an anemic .276 OBP. Across the diamond at first base, Matt Olson hit 14 home runs, although his .195/.310/.424 slash-line was his worst since debuting in 2017. Staying in the infield, shortstop Marcus Semien finished with a 91 OPS+, just one year after being an MVP finalist. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Designated hitter and former AL home run champion hit Khris Davis just two homers and .200/.303/.329 in 30 games. Right fielder Stephen Piscotty had five dingers, although his .226/.271/.358 slash was similarly awful. It wasn’t all bad in Oakland. Several hitters had productive seasons. Among them, left fielder Robbie Grossman (130 OPS+), Mark Canha (126), deadline deal acquisition Tommy La Stella (124), and freshman catcher Sean Murphy (131). Murphy’s performance earned a fourth place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting. On the mound, strong pitching helped the A’s overcome sagging run production. Although the bullpen was the backbone of the staff, the rotation was solid also. There were no marquee names, but the starting staff’s combined xwOBA was sixth lowest among MLB rotations. Chris Bassitt (.289 xwOBA), Sean Manaea (.292), and 23-year-old Jesus Luzardo (.298) were top-50 in the majors. Rounding out the rotation, Frankie Montas (.316) and Mike Fiers (.320) were slightly worse than league-average. Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312 The bullpens .283 xwOBA ranked fifth in the majors. Leading the charge was closer Liam Hendriks (.227). Getting the ball to Hendriks was a deep and versatile group. Among the arms used most often: Jake Diekman, (.240), Joakim Soria (.248), J.B. Wendelken (.260), Lou Trivino (.282), and Yusmeiro Petit (.311). Defensively, Oakland took a big step backwards. After ranking twelfth in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2019. The team was in the bottom 20-percent with -19 DRS last year. The dramatic decline is traceable back to several players. Semien went from a top-5 defender in 2019 to a bottom feeder last year. At second base, the main offenders were Tony Kemp (-6 DRS) and La Stella (-2). There were also strengths in the field. Although he failed to win a third consecutive Gold Glove, Olson (5 DRS) once again provided stellar first base defense. Across the diamond, Chapman (5) was superb. Ramon Laureano (5) was also excellent in center field, as were Canha (3) and Piscotty (2) in right field. Behind the plate, Murphy rated very well in pitch framing and pop time on throws to second base. In limited action, young backstops Austin Allen and Jonah Heim also made positive contributions. Offseason Action The A’s lost two stars to free agency – Semien and Hendriks. However, GM David Forst chose to remain relatively idle until the first week of February. Forst’s biggest move sent Davis and Heim to the Rangers for shortstop Elvis Andrus and catching prospect Aramís Garcia. Andrus will earn a total of $28 million over the next two years compared to Davis’ $16.75 million paycheck this season. Yet, the A’s managed to find financial relief from this deal. Texas is sending two annual installments totaling $13.5 million to offset Andrus’ salary. Therefore, Oakland pays Andrus $7.75 million this season, essentially shaving $9 million originally programmed for Davis off this year’s ledger. The Athletics’ net savings seemingly spurred several free agent signings. First came veteran relievers Sergio Romo and Trevor Rosenthal. Then, 35-year-old first baseman Mitch Moreland. In the same window, the team re-signed two of its own free agents – Fiers and Petit. All five players agreed to one-year pacts. The team brought back another familiar face. Infielder Jed Lowrie, who previously spent five seasons with A’s, returned on a minor-league contract with a non-roster invite (NRI). Lowrie is the most notable of many players offered an NRI this offseason by Oakland. A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason. Outfielder Ka’ai Tom and reliever Dany Jiménez were Rule 5 Draft picks. Tom spent 2019 at AA/AAA in Cleveland’s system. The right-handed Jimenez appeared in two games with the Giants last season. In 2019, he struck out 93 in 59 frames for Toronto’s High-A and Double-A affiliates. Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand.  If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors. Looking Forward Olson will continue holding down first base, while Chapman to patrol the hot corner. With this pair, Oakland has arguably the best infield corner defense in the majors. After 12 seasons with the Rangers, Andrus takes over at shortstop. The 32-year-old will attempt to rejuvenate his career after slashing .194/.252/.330 and losing the starting gig in Texas to Isiah Kiner-Falefa. At second base, Kemp, Chad Pinder, and Vimael Machín will vie for playing time. If he’s healthy, Lowrie could factor into the equation. The 36-year-old was an All-Star at the position in 2018, but missed most of the last two seasons due to a knee injury. Both Kemp and Machín are lefty hitters, while Lowrie is a switch-hitter. Perhaps one option for the team is forming a platoon with Pinder’s righty bat. The infield backups likely depends on how the competition at second base goes. Pinder, Kemp, Machín, and Lowrie are capable of playing multiple positions, which bolsters roster depth and versatility. Pinder has starts at every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. Kemp has played left and center field, while the second-year Machín has touched every position on the field as a professional. Lowrie has time at every infield position, although we have to reemphasize his age and recent health issues. The starting outfield projects to be Canha in left field, Piscotty in right field, with Laureano playing between them. Tom, Dustin Fowler, and Seth Brown are in the mix for playing time along with the gang vying for the backup infield spot. The departure of Davis seemed to signal the club’s departure from a full-time designated hitter. That probably changed with the signing of Moreland last week. The left-handed hitter produced 10 home runs and a .265/.342/.551 slash with a 130 OPS+ with the Red Sox and Padres last year. Moreland has always performed much better against righties during his 11-year career. Perhaps Melvin uses right-handed hitters at DH on days there’s a southpaw starter on the mound. Murphy is the starting catcher. The sophomore is recovering from surgery for a collapsed lung, although the team expects him to be ready for Opening Day. Competition to be Murphy’s backup or serve as minor-league depth includes Allen, the recently acquired García, and non-roster invites Carlos Pérez and Francisco Peña. Bassitt, Luzardo, Fiers, Montas, and Manaea return to the rotation, which bodes well for the A’s. Bassitt is one of the more underrated starters in the majors, while the duo of Luzardo and Montas can still get better. Fiers has a reputation of being durable and delivering innings. That’s a valuable trait in a year clubs will have to manage pitcher workload following a truncated 2020 campaign. After dealing with shoulder problems, left-hander A.J. Puk projects to join the rotation at some point. Management might opt to use the 25-year-old out of the bullpen until he builds arm strength. The Dodgers have succeed employing this tactic with young starters Julio Urías Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin. Other youngsters who could eventually help the rotation include Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian, and Grant Holmes. Jeffries, Kaprielian, Holmes were at the team’s alternate training site last summer. Jeffries and Kaprielian made their MLB debuts; Holmes didn’t get the call. It’s conceivable all three could contribute in a relief role. Rosenthal is set to replace Hendriks as closer. Tasked with getting the ball to the 30-year-old will be Diekman, Trivino, Wendelken, Petit, Smith, plus newcomers Romo and Adam Kolarek. After a downward skid in 2018-19, Rosenthal rebounded with the Royals and Padres to tie Tampa Bay’s Nick Anderson for the third lowest xwOBA (.210) among MLB relievers. Entering his age-38 season, Romo remained an effective reliever (.293 xwOBA) with the Twins last season. Kolarek has a unique side-arm delivery, but delivered excellent results with the Dodgers in 2020. The southpaw held hitters to a .164 AVG and .250 xwOBA – both top-40 among MLB relievers. Others vying for bullpen spots are Jiménez, Jordan Weems, Nik Turley, Miguel Romero, and the starters previously mentioned. Considering the recent influx of experienced arms, it’ll be challenging for the club to retain the 27-year-old Jiménez as a Rule 5 draftee. Turley has no more minor-league options remaining, which could play into the decision making of Forst and his staff. It’s worth noting there are several players vying for positions, who are in the same situation as Turley. Players on a 40-man roster have three minor-league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors. Pressing Business Oakland dealt its most expensive pending free agent – Davis – this offseason. But the team’s practice of signing free agents to short-term deals means there’s always rental players available to move at the July 31 trade deadline. Considering Oakland’s recent success, shipping out veterans probably isn’t in the cards. Instead, the team would appear more likely to add pieces this summer to facilitate a return to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. Then again, there’s a possibility financial reasons compel the A’s to avoid adding payroll at the deadline. As noted earlier, the A’s remained idle in the marketplace until offloading Davis and his salary, which was the team’s highest. Only then did they sign Petit, Fiers, Romo, Rosenthal, and Moreland. Is this a coincidence or evidence of a need to strictly manage dwindling resources? It’s impossible to know for certain. But the circumstances surrounding a potential reunion with Semien and then details regarding Rosenthal’s contract suggest the A’s may be spread thin financially. When Semien signed with the Blue Jays last month, Ken Rosenthal of the Atlantic reported the A’s had previously floated the notion of a “one-year/$12.5 million deal with $10 million deferred in 10 one-year installments of $1 million each.” This came on the heels of Oakland declining to make an $18.9 million qualifying offer to their longtime shortstop. Then, the team reportedly signed Rosenthal to an unusual one-year deal with deferments. Trevor Rosenthal’s one-year, $11M deal with the Athletics is heavily backloaded, sources tell @TheAthletic. Rosenthal will be paid $3M in 2021, $3M in ‘22 and $5M in ‘23. — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 19, 2021 Is A’s owner John Fisher mired in a financial crisis or is Fisher simply being conservative with his resources? The answer doesn’t matter, but the franchise taking a more austere budgetary approach would have consequences this year and in the future. An inability or unwillingness to spend may prevent Forst from acquiring needed help this season. Moreover, the financial motivation driving recent contract negotiations make it increasingly likely the team trades Chapman and Olson before they reach free agency after the 2023 season. Perhaps the purge begins this summer. All of this must be very frustrating for A’s fans. To be tantalizingly close to reaching the World Series only to be held back for financial reasons. Then again, it probably won’t surprise that fan base if money brings their team’s great run to a screeching halt. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, Houston Astros

The Houston Astros’ offseason was absent of significant roster improvements. So much so, it’s reasonable to speculate whether the Astros can win in 2021. We’ll delve into the team’s offseason strategy and much more after discussing its 2020 season. Looking Back First-year manager Dusty Baker did a splendid job guiding his squad through cheating scandal backlash, losing players to injury, and ineffective production from several key contributors. Despite having a losing record, the Astros earned a Wild Card berth and then marched to the ALCS before falling to the Rays. Houston saw a steep decline in run production last year compared to 2019. The problem was attributable to subpar performances by multiple players including 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuvé, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, shortstop Carlos Correa, and right fielder Josh Reddick. Altuvé also missed time due to a knee strain. He wasn’t the only Astro missing time – far from it. An August hamstring strain limited 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman to 42 games. Bregman’s offense fell significantly afterwards and into the postseason. Meanwhile, the team lost 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez two games into the season after he underwent surgery on both knees. Correa, who missed significant time to injuries in recent years, played in 58 of 60 games last season. However, he was average-ish at reaching base (.326 OBP) with a below average 92 OPS+. The 26-year-old also suffered from a power outage. His .383 SLG was nearly 100 points below normal. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. It’s worth noting both Altuvé (five home runs and .375/.500/.729) and Correa (six home runs and 1.221 OPS) performed much better in the postseason. Normally, this might not matter since it was only 13 games. Still, that equates to 22-percent of last year’s regular season. There were also Astros who delivered excellent results. George Springer hit a team-leading 14 home runs with a 140 OPS+. Michael Brantly continued his hitting excellence during his age-33 season with a .300/.364/.476 slash line, while pacing the Astros with 15 doubles. Kyle Tucker had a breakout season leading Houston in triples (6), stolen bases (8), He also hit nine home runs and .268/.325/.512. Despite losing 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (elbow) for the season after his Opening Day start, the starting rotation was a strength. Houston’s staff had a combined .308 xwOBA, which was ninth lowest in the majors. Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312 Wily veteran Zack Greinke headlined the rotation, although there were potential signs of age-related regression by the end of the shortened season. Lance McCullers Jr. had a solid campaign after spending 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Framber Valdéz continued his breakout season into the playoffs. Among pitchers facing at least 40 hitters in the postseason, Valdéz had the fourth best xwOBA (.272) behind Dodgers Clayton Kershaw (.217) and Julio Urías (.251) and Gerrit Cole (.262) of the Yankees. Cristian Javier posted a .256 xwOBA, which was sixth best in the majors among all pitchers facing 200+ hitters last year. This placed Javier ahead of stars like Cole, Kershaw, and Yu Darvish. The 25-year-old’s strong debut resulted in a third place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Another youngster, José Urquidy, performed well in five regular season starts and then went on to help his team in October by holding opponents to a .204 AVG in three postseason starts. Based on xwOBA, the bullpen went from being fourth best (.300) in 2019 to middle-of-the-pack last year (.311). Not helping matters was the loss of former closer Roberto Osuna to a UCL injury after just four outings. Fortunately, Ryan Pressly (.247 xwOBA) was able to take over and perform well in the closer role. Behind Pressly, Baker relied on a cadre of young arms out of the bullpen. Among them; Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Cionel Pérez, Humberto Castellanos, Nivaldo Rodríguez, Brandon Bailey, Bryan Abreu, and Carlos Sanabria. All were 25-or-younger; some performed better than others did. Although the Astros dropped from third in defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2019 to eleventh last year, the team’s overall defense was good. The following illustrates the team’s DRS totals for each position and respective MLB rankings. Advanced metrics have never cared for Altuvé’s second base defense; last season was no different. There was regression from Reddick in right field, but it wasn’t gross. Still, it’s important to remember that it’s best to consume defensive metrics in large quantities. Therefore, looking too deeply into changes in 2020 could unnecessarily lead you down a rabbit hole. Offseason Action As noted earlier, GM James Click was relatively inactive during hot stove season. This must be particularly concerning for Astros fans with the team losing its best player (Springer) to free agency and its best pitcher (Verlander) out for 2021 due to Tommy John surgery. Houston’s biggest move was re-signing Brantley to a two-year/$32 million deal. The team added a pair of experienced arms – Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek – to augment its young bullpen. Veteran reliever Steve Cishek signed as a non-roster invite. Outfielders Jose Sirí and Steven Souza Jr. also received an NRI. A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason. The final notable addition was a reunion with the team’s 2008 first round draft pick – catcher Jason Castro. Since leaving Houston after the 2016 season, the 33-year-old played for the Twins, Angels, and Padres. Looking Forward Once again, the infield will consist of Gurriel (1B), Altuve (2B), Correa (SS), and Bregman (3B). It’ll be tough for Houston to challenge for a postseason berth unless this group is more productive than last year. Health will be crucial too. There are few ready replacement options within the organization. Aledmys Díaz remains in the utility role. Díaz has experience at all infield positions and left field. He’s also delivered good production (.273/.327/.460 and 109 OPS+) over five big-league seasons. However, injuries have slowed him during his career. Last year, a groin injury sidelined the 30-year-old. Another player who’ll factor into the infield depth picture is Abraham Toro. The switch-hitter has slashed .182/.269/.327 in 186 plate appearances since debuting in 2019. Considering he’s just 24-years-old and has minor-league options remaining, he may bounce between Houston and the minors. Players on a 40-man roster have three minor-league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors. Brantley spent over half his playing time as the designated hitter due to Álvarez’s absence. He’ll return to left field where he’s a very capable defender. Álvarez projects as the full-time DH following two knee surgeries. Myles Straw enters camp as the favorite to be the center fielder. Straw’s defense is excellent and he’s a disruptive base runner. However, his bat will have to justify a starting job. Last season, the 26-year-old slashed .246/.327/.322 with a 37 OPS+. Another potential option for center field could be prospect Chas McCormick. Assuming he picks up where he left off last season, right field will be Tucker’s position with the Astros for a long time. Sousa and Sirí are potential backups for both corner outfield spots. That’s if they make the major-league roster. In the end, the best choice for fourth outfielder may be McCormick, assuming he doesn’t win the center field job. Behind the plate, Maldonado will be the starter. It’s plausible Baker forms a semi-platoon with the right-handed hitting Maldonado and the lefty bat of Castro. However, Maldonado is the superior defender and likely sees more playing time as a result. Garrett Stubbs is the third catcher on the 40-man. The Astros have a talented rotation with Greinke, Valdez, McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier. Backing up the starting five is a gaggle of promising, mostly unproven youngsters. Once a top pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley has become an enigma after suffering injury and performance setbacks in the minors. Is 2021 the season we finally see Whitley’s MLB debut? Other minor-league starters include Luis García, Bryan Abreu, Brandon Bielak, and Nivaldo Rodríguez. García, Abreu, and Rodríguez each made their big-league debut last season pitching mostly out of the bullpen. Bielak, also a rookie, made six inauspicious starts. The bullpen received the most attention in the offseason and should be solid. The top candidates to backup  Pressly are Báez, Stanek, Paredes, Taylor, Raley, Scrubb, and COVID opt-out Joe Smith. Other arms in the mix include the young starters just mentioned. Two future options for the bullpen include Josh James and Austin Pruitt. Both are recovering from surgery and will miss the start of the season. It’s worth noting Pruitt and Raley are without minor-league options. This will figure into roster decisions now and during the season. Stanek will get an opportunity to earn a high-leverage role. He became available when the Marlins didn’t tender him a contract. Last year, the 29-year-old lost a month to COVID and logged just 10 innings. He’ll get his shot to bounce back with Houston. Notoriously one of the slowest workers on the mound, Báez had another solid season with the Dodgers in 2020. Still, there were signs of potential erosion. Walks and home run rates were up; strikeouts were down. Moreover, his fastball velocity has incrementally dropped from 97.4-MPH in 2016 to 94.4-MPH last year. Pending Business The recurring theme for the Astros is areas that were once strengths (offense, starting pitching, and bullpen) have significantly regressed since the end of 2019. It’s plausible the downward slide continues into the upcoming season. Since losing the 2019 World Series, the team has lost two Cy Young caliber starters – Cole (free agency) and Verlander (injury). Obviously, finding suitable substitutes is no easy task. Nevertheless, this season likely hinges on whether Greinke slows any potential decline, the oft-injured McCullers remains available, and the staff’s young arms take the next step. With the Mets signing of Taijuan Walker, the most appealing free agent starter remaining on the market is Jake Odorizzi. There are other options, but none as appealing as Odorizzi. They include Mike Leake, Gio González, Jeff Samardzija, Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, and Rick Porcello. Leake opted out due to COVID last year, Hamels missed nearly the entire season with shoulder issues, and the remaining pitchers were ineffective. The Astros don’t have a proven commodity to replace Springer in center field or in the lineup. In theory, Álvarez’s return should help offset the loss of Springer’s bat. However, Álvarez essentially missed all of last season and his MLB career encompasses 89 games and 378 plate appearances. Shouldn’t a contender strive to add more certainty to its roster? Free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. would be an excellent addition in center field. Perhaps Bradley is asking for more dollars and years than the Astros want to commit to a 30-year-old center fielder. That said, there are few viable free agent options other than the former All-Star. Veteran Jarrod Dyson is available, although he has a 55 OPS+ since 2018 and is 36-years-old. Versatile Danny Santana has center field experience. Santana had a down 2020, but just a year removed from a 112 OPS+. The 30-year-old could help provide additional depth across Houston’s roster – he has double-digit starts at every infield and outfield position. Considering the recent health and performance of the team’s aging roster, this kind of positional flexibility may be appealing. For a club that reached Game 7 of the ALCS last year, leaning forward would have seemed like the thing to do this offseason. But that wasn’t Houston’s strategy. If the season were to take an unexpected downward turn, perhaps the organization takes on an uncharacteristic role at the deadline – sellers. Considering the Astros lost their 2020 and 2021 first and second round picks due to the cheating scandal, moving expiring contracts could help the organization recoup needed prospect value. After all, Keith Law of the Athletic recently ranked Houston’s farm system in the bottom 20-percent of MLB. Obviously, Verlander is going nowhere. But rotation-mates Greinke and McCullers could appeal to buyers, assuming they’re having good seasons. Both have playoff experience and would be unflappable during a postseason run. Talented relievers like Pressly, Smith, and Raley will always be in demand during the deadline deal season. The same applies to backstops like Castro and Maldonado. Perhaps the Astros hope to sign Correa to a long-term extension before he hits the market after the season. Still, considering his reaction to the mega-extension signed by Fernando Tatís Jr., keeping Correa will be costly. Love to see it. Congrats Fernando — Carlos Correa (@TeamCJCorrea) February 18, 2021 Finally Since owner Jim Crane fired previous GM Jeff Luhnow in January 2020, the team hasn’t made a significant trade or signed a top free agent. This stagnation jeopardizes a return to the postseason this year and is uncharacteristic for a proud organization with so much recent success. Perhaps there’s a shift in philosophy on the horizon for Houston. One without as much postseason certainty as we’ve seen over the last half-decade. The rest of the AL West would be just fine with that. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels

It wasn’t a surprise when Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno replaced GM Billy Eppler with Perry Minasian. After all, every AL West team has at least one winning season since 2015 except Moreno’s club. But did the front office shuffle actually change the Angels’ trajectory for 2021? We’ll consider the answer to that question and more. First, let’s review the team’s 2020 campaign before digging into Minasian’s offseason maneuvers. Looking Back Not only did the Angels have another losing season, they finished in fourth place behind the Mariners – a team in rebuild-mode. Despite the overall mediocrity, elements of the roster did perform well. The first being the offense. The following illustrates the Halos’ stats and the MLB ranking for each. Mike Trout continued being Mike Trout, although the future first-ballot Hall of Famer “only” finished fifth in MVP voting and his OPS was below 1.000 for the first time since the 2016 season. Then again, the 29-year-old did hit 17 home runs and .281/.390/.603. Last year’s big offseason addition – third baseman Anthony Rendon – didn’t disappoint. Rendon’s .418 OBP was eighth best in the majors, his 151 OPS+ was top-20. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Infielder David Fletcher is of the more overlooked players in the majors. The 26-year-old delivered outstanding results hitting .319/.376/.425, while ably filling in for injured shortstop Andrelton Simmons. When healthy, Simmons also performed well (.297/.346/.356 in 30 games) before opting out during the last week of the season. Although he appeared in just 32 games, first baseman Jared Walsh managed to hit nine home runs and finish seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The 27-year-old slashed .293/.324/.646 with a 158 OPS+. Several other part-timers were also productive. Catchers Max Stassi (139) and Anthony Bemboom (130) had an OPS+ over 100. So did Tommy La Stella and Brian Goodwin before leaving via trade in August. Unfortunately, there were also players who struggled last season. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols endured career lows in AVG, OBP, and OPS+. Left fielder Justin Upton displayed power with nine homers, although he struggled to reach base (.291 OBP). In right field, touted prospect Jo Adell hit just .161 with a 31 OPS+ in 38 games. The 21-year-old’s -1.3 WAR (Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions) ranked last in the majors. Two-way player Shohei Ohtani slashed just .190/.291/.366, although he did manage to hit seven home runs and steal seven bases. Regrettably, Ohtani pitched in just two games due to health. This time, a forearm strain that limited him. This came on the heels of not pitching in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Losing Ohtani certainly didn’t help a rotation that ranked in the bottom-third of the league in walks, strikeouts, innings pitched, and xwOBA. Despite the overall bad numbers, there were bright spots. Particularly newcomer Dylan Bundy. The 28-year-old had a breakout season with a .258 xwOBA, which was ninth best in the majors. Bundy also received Cy Young Award consideration for the first time in his career. Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312 Southpaw Andrew Heaney battled inconsistency, but did pace the rotation with 12 starts and a better than average .307 xwOBA. Griffin Canning, who dealt with elbow issues before the shutdown, made 11 starts and matched Heaney’s xwOBA. In seven starts, 24-year-old Jaime Barria also showed promise (.273). Unfortunately, the rest of the starters covered a third of team’s games and were awful. Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval, Julio Teheran, Dillon Peters, Matt Andriese, and Jose Suarez combined for an 11.29 ERA and a .369 xwOBA in 21 starts with opponents hitting .319 against them. Although the bullpen didn’t look good using conventional stats, the unit was better under the lens of xwOBA. Angel relievers combined for a .298 xwOBA, which was ninth best in the majors. Standouts included setup man Mike Mayers, who had a breakout year with a 12.9 SO/9 and a .231 xwOBA. Felix Peña (.283) also proved valuable and even closed out a pair of games. So did Andriese, who held hitters to a .160 AVG. Poor glove work certainly didn’t help the reliever’s traditional stats. As you can see, defensive metrics were not the Angels’ friend last year. Angel outfielders combined for a -24 defensive runs saved (DRS); the worst in the majors. The usually stellar Simmons (-2) had a down year at shortstop, while La Stella (-5) didn’t fare well at second base. To be fair, defensive metrics are most useful with a large sample. The 2020 season certainly wasn’t that. There was some good news. Catchers Max Stassi and Anthony Bemboom rated well as pitch framers. Furthermore, Canning made the pitching staff proud by earning his first Gold Glove. Offseason Action Whether by choice, direction from ownership, or the market dictated it, Minasian added around the edges rather than making splashy acquisitions. There was a reported flirtation with Trevor Bauer, who eventually signed with the crosstown Dodgers. However, it’s unclear how serious talks became between the Halos and the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner. Minasian did acquire a pair of starters to augment the rotation. Free agent José Quintana and Alex Cobb via a trade with the Orioles for prospect Jahmai Jones. In another deal with Baltimore, the Halos received José Iglesias for a pair of minor leaguers. Iglesias takes over at shortstop for Simmons, who left as a free agent. A recurring theme of the offseason was adding players who previously played for manager Joe Maddon. Most notably, Quintana, Cobb, and outfielder Dexter Fowler, who arrived from St. Louis via trade. Cobb played for Maddon in Tampa Bay. Both Quintana and Fowler were with the 67-year-old skipper as member of the Cubs. Minasian also signed catcher Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal. Suzuki fills the void created when the team traded Jason Castro to the Padres last August. To help the bullpen, Minasian dealt reliever Noé Ramirez and a minor leaguer to the Reds in exchange for Raisel Iglesias. He also acquired Aaron Slegers from Tampa Bay and inked free agent Álex Claudio to a one-year pact. The team also signed reliever Junior Guerra to a minor league contract with a non-roster invite. Other non-roster invites include outfielders Juan Lagares and Jon Jay and catcher Juan Graterol. A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason. Looking Forward It appears Pujols will be a part-time player this season – the final of his 10-year contract with the Halos. With the 41-year-old moving aside, Walsh should assume a larger role at first base, although it’s worth recognizing his strong rookie debut was a small sample size. Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward are potential depth pieces. Fletcher will be the everyday second baseman. Even though Iglesias doesn’t have the Gold Glove pedigree of Simmons, he and Fletcher should provide solid middle-infield defense. A caution regarding Iglesias’ 160 OPS+ with Baltimore last season. The nine-year veteran played in just 39 games and has a career 80 OPS+. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Rendon will be the Opening Day starter at third base for a long time. The 30-year-old inked a seven-year/$245 million free agent deal with the Halos in December 2019. Franklin Barreto and Luis Rengifo are candidates to serve in the utility infielder role. Barreto has experience at shortstop and third base. However, second base has been his primary position in the majors. Rengifo has a similar résumé, although he previously spent time in the outfield in the Mariners’ system and during Winter Ball in 2017. BREAKING: Mike Trout will be the center fielder. Upton remains in left field with Fowler expected to take over right field. Both Upton and Fowler could eventually lose playing time to top prospects Adell and Brandon Marsh. Still, Marsh has yet to debut and Maddon suggested in the offseason Adell might need more time in the minors before being MLB-ready. Lagares and Jay are be in the mix for reserve outfield roles. The right-handed hitting Lagares is a premium defender capable of playing all outfield positions, although he’s struggled against righty pitching throughout his career. Entering his age-36 season, the left-handed hitting Jay may be better suited for a corner outfield spot. Stassi and Suzuki project as the catching duo. Stassi should be the starter, although he’s underwent hip procedures in two consecutive years. While Stassi is a strong defender, Suzuki’s best contribution is his bat. Over the last two seasons with Washington, the 37-year-old Suzuki slashed .266/.331/.460 with a 103 OPS+ as a part-timer. Anthony Bemboom is the third backstop on the 40-man roster and likely serves as minor-league depth. Ohtani projects to be the regular DH with Pujols seeing time there too. In theory, Ohtani will be in the rotation and won’t be available to hit on days he pitches. It’ll be interesting how much longer the Shohei Ohtani experiment as a two-way player continues. Injuries have limited the 26-year-old to a combined 18 games and 79.2 innings in Japan and the U.S. since 2017. Heading into Spring Training the Angels plan on using a six-man rotation. The starting staff projects to be Bundy, Heaney, Canning, Quintana, Cobb, and Ohtani. It’s worth noting Quintana missed most of last season due to injuries, although he averaged 32 starts and 193 innings pitched during the seven seasons leading up to last year. On the other hand, Cobb had a 5.10 ERA and .362 xwOBA during three seasons in Baltimore. Potential organizational depth includes Jaime Barria, Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez, and prospects Reid Detmers and Chris Rodriguez. Barria is out of minor league options, so the club may use the 24-year-old out of the bullpen rather than risk running him through waivers. Players on a 40-man roster have three minor league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors. When clubs make final roster cuts, minor league options are a planning factor. The Angels have quite a few players without options. Obviously, Stassi is safe. However, Barria and Barreto are names to watch. Leading bullpen candidates are Iglesias as closer, setup men Mayers and Peña, plus Slegers and Claudio, Ty Buttrey, Guerra, and Rule 5 pickup Jose Alberto Rivera. As noted earlier, Barria could serve as a long reliever. Other relief options include Sandoval, Gerardo Reyes, Luke Bard, José Quijada, and Kyle Keller. Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand.  If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors. Pressing Business The most obvious example of the Angel’s chronic failure is the starting staff. Since Trout’s Rookie of the Year season in 2012, the team’s starting pitchers have the third lowest fWAR (66.2) in the majors. Meanwhile, the crosstown rival Dodgers got 71 fWAR from their starters in about half that time. Heading into 2021, the Halos are heavily relying on hope with their rotation. Hopefully, Ohtani remains healthy and can start at least 20 games – something he hasn’t done since 2016. Hopefully, Quintana returns to being the innings-eater he was with the Cubs. Hopefully, Cobb is better than he’s been in recent years. Hopefully, other starters with a history of arm issues (Heaney and Canning) remain available. That’s a lot of hope! If the season were to go south, it’d make sense for Minasian to pivot and convert pending free agents into prospect capital for his farm system. Keith Law of the Athletic recently ranked the Angels in the bottom-third of MLB. Every projected starting pitcher except Ohtani and Canning is a free agent after the upcoming season. Assuming Bundy repeats his 2020 excellence, he’d certainly be an appealing option to contenders looking for a quality arm. Heaney, Quintana, and Cobb may also garner interest by the July 31 trade deadline. Suzuki and Fowler have postseason experience. Both would be nice additions to clubs attempting to deepen their bench. The same applies to all the non-roster invites, who’ll be free agents if they earn a spot on the 26-man roster. Although it appears the Angels are trying to compete this season, their offseason acquisitions were short-term commitments. As a result, the club’s payroll will be relatively low once Pujols’ contract expires at the end of the season. Perhaps the Halos plan to go big next offseason when the shortstop market will be rife with marquee shortstops such as former Maddon player Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and maybe Francisco Lindor. Maybe then, the Angels will finally put a roster around Trout capable of going deep into the postseason before it’s too late. Want to be they’ll still need starting pitching? My Oh My…Go!

Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers were dismal in 2020. Afterwards, the organization underwent a significant overhaul leading to the departure of several longtime Rangers and team’s best player. There was even a front office shakeup. All of this made for a hectic offseason, which we’ll dig into after reviewing last season. Looking Back Texas had the second worst record in the majors last year; only the Pirates were worse. Adding salt to the wound, the team now has a losing record in each of the last four seasons. Its longest stretch of futility since 2005-08. Being a bottom feeder was a recurring theme for the Rangers, particularly with run production. The following illustrates several common stats and the MLB ranking for each. Texas was the only MLB team without a player having 100+ plate appearances and at least a league-average OPS+. Closest to doing so was 37-year-old Shin-Soo Choo (96). On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Being average was an accomplishment for Texas hitters. Isiah Kiner-Falefa was team leader in OBP (.329). Rougned Odor blazed the way with a below average .413 SLG. Odor did tie Joey Gallo for team lead in home runs (10). However, both Odor (.209) and Gallo (.301) were well below league-average in OBP. Overall, the pitching stats didn’t look much better. But there were several solid performers. Other than Lance Lynn, the starting rotation was a mess. Lynn was a workhorse leading the majors with 13 starts and 84 innings pitched. He also finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting. After Lynn, there was a huge drop off. Mike Minor regressed after a career-year in 2019 with the club trading him to the division rival A’s in August. Two other rotation mainstays also had disappointing seasons – Kyle Gibson (5.35 ERA) and Jordan Lyles (7.02). Fortunately, Texas did have a decent bullpen. Its .305 xwOBA ranked eleventh best in MLB. Top relievers included Jonathan Hernández (.245), Brett Martin (.254), Wes Benjamin (.256), Taylor Hearn (.268), and Joely Rodríguez (.274). Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312 There were a few rough spots, but Texas fielders were collectively above average. The following lists the defensive runs saved (DRS) for each position and its MLB ranking. The -12 DRS at second base was the combined total of Odor, (-5) and Nick Solak (-5), plus substitutes Derek Dietrich (-1), Anderson Tejeda (-1), and Yadiel Rivera (0). Two Rangers earned their first Gold Glove. Kiner-Falefa at third base after spending time at second base, shortstop, and even catcher during his first three big-league seasons. Gallo took home the hardware for his right field defense. He too moved around the diamond earlier in his career. Previous positions played include both infield and outfield corner spots. Offseason Action Longtime GM Jon Daniels became President of Baseball Operations with former pitcher Chris Young taking over GM duties. Prior to joining Texas, he worked for MLB. During 13 big-league seasons, Young played for the Rangers, Mariners, Mets, Padres, and Royals. As far as action involving players, there was a significant exodus. Some left via free agency, others by trades brokered by Daniels and then Young. Early in the offseason, the team shipped Lynn to the White Sox for pitcher Dane Dunning and minor-league pitcher Avery Weems. Closer Rafael Montero went to the Mariners for prospect Jose Corniell and a player to be named later, who’s likely to be a minor-leaguer. Young later traded shortstop Elvis Andrus with catching prospect Aramís García to Oakland. In exchange, Texas received designated hitter Khris Davis and 25-year-old catcher Jonah Heim. The other notable named added via trade was Nate Lowe, acquired from the Rays for a pair of minor leaguers. Free agent pickups included Japanese starter Kohei Arihara, fellow righty Mike Foltynewicz, and outfielder David Dahl to major-league deals. Several notable players received non-roster invites. A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason. Looking Forward Ronald Guzmán once appeared destined to be the long-term answer at first base, but he’s yet to take hold of the job. Enter Lowe, who’d seem to have an advantage over the 26-year-old heading into Spring Training. Still, it’s worth noting Guzman was Dominican Winter League MVP this offseason and he’s out of minor-league options. Players on a 40-man roster have three minor league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors. Prospect Sherten Apostel could eventually enter the first base picture. Primarily a third baseman in the past, four of Apostel’s six starts with Texas last year were at first base. Still, Apostel hadn’t played above High-A before 2020. Expect the 21-year-old to begin the season in the minors. Solak gets a shot to be the full-time second baseman. The 26-year-old had a solid rookie debut in 2019 with a 123 OPS+ in 33 games. Last year, he followed up with a less impressive 84 OPS+. Despite the dip, Solak holds the edge over Odor. Odor followed up leading the AL with 178 strikeouts in 2019 with another bleak campaign – 64 OPS+ in 148 plate appearances. Heading into 2021, the veteran seems destined to be a utility player. However, he’s only played second base in seven big-league seasons and 15 games at shortstop as an 18-year-old minor leaguer. That said, Odor did play third base for Venezuela in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Kiner-Falefa and his Gold Glove move from third base to shortstop. Assuming the defense doesn’t regress at his new position, the issue will be whether the 25-year-old can generate enough offense to remain a starter. In 846 plate appearances spanning three seasons, he’s hit .260/.319/.351 with a 77 OPS+. With Kiner-Falefa abandoning hot corner, it’s likely utility-men Charlie Culberson and Brock Holt vie for playing time with Odor. Still, neither Culberson nor Holt has appeared in 130 games since debuting in 2012. Perhaps manager Chris Woodward platoons the right-handed Culberson and the lefty bats of Odor and Holt. That said, it’s difficult imagining a scenario that includes all three players on the Opening Day roster. Realistically, the Opening Day third baseman is only a placeholder while top-100 prospect Josh Jung continues his development in the minors. The 23-year-old, who hasn’t played above Single-A, likely begins his year with Class-AAA Round Rock. This year’s outfield unit has a chance to be better than the 2020 group with Dahl and Gallo in left and right field respectively and presumably Leody Taveras patrolling center field. Once ranked a top-50 prospect by MLB Pipeline, injuries have sidetracked Dahl’s development since his big-league debut in 2016. The most games the 26-year-old has played in a season is 100 in 2019 with Colorado when he was an All-Star. Obviously, the Rangers hope Dahl repeats his 2019 form. It’s worth noting he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last September, which bears watching during Cactus League play. Despite playing just 33 games last season, Taveras tied Houston’s George Springer for fifth most DRS (6) among center fielders. The 22-year-old’s elite-level sprint speed also led to steal eight stolen bases. As with several youngsters getting the chance to be a regular, Taveras must prove he can hit big-league pitching. A year removed from being an All-Star, Gallo had his worst offensive campaign since his rookie debut in 2015. Certainly, the offensively challenged Rangers need a rebound from their star right fielder in 2021. It’ll be interesting to see how management handles the remaining outfield spots and designated hitter. In the mix are Davis, Delino DeShields, and Willie Calhoun. DeShields spent five seasons with Texas before the team dealt him to Cleveland for Corey Kluber in December 2019. The 28-year-old likely competes with Taveras for time in center field. Fourth outfielder seems like a realistic outcome. Davis and Calhoun appear to be better fits at designated hitter than the outfield. Their bats are their most valuable weapons and advanced metrics rates both players as below average defenders. Still, there’s uncertainty surrounding the pair’s ability to contribute in 2021. In 2015-18, Davis averaged 40 home runs with a .528 SLG and 127 OPS+. Over the last two seasons, he averaged a .378 SLG and 83 OPS+. Is the 33-year-old on an inevitable decline or can he rebound with a change of scenery? Ever since the Rangers acquired Calhoun in the deal sending Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, the narrative has been he could hit. The issue was always where he’d play in the field. The 26-year-old seemed destined to start in left field last year. Unfortunately, a broken jaw suffered in Spring Training and poor results during the regular season have clouded his outlook. Eli White is an interesting option to serve as minor-league depth. Currently on the 40-man roster, White played a considerable amount at shortstop in the minors, plus he spent time at second and third base. Lately, the 26-year-old has been an outfielder, primarily playing left field.  White has proven to be a strong defender even if he may not hit. Jose Trevino projects to start behind the plate. However, the recent arrival of the 25-year-old Heim puts pressure on Trevino. Depth candidates include veterans Drew Butera and John Hicks, and top prospect Sam Huff. Although Huff appeared in 10 games with Texas last year, the 23-year-old may remain in the minors a little longer to hone his skills. Arihara, Foltynewicz, Gibson, and Lyles enter camp holding the first four starting rotation spots. The right-handed Arihara should provide a valuable resource to the Rangers after a pandemic-shortened 2020 MLB season – innings. With the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last year, the 28-year-old tossed 132.2 innings. For context, Lynn led the majors with 84 frames. Foltynewicz had a career year in 2018 posting a 2.83 ERA in 31 starts with the Braves. But the 29-year-old has struggled ever since. So much so, Atlanta outrighted him last season. Now, the right-hander gets a chance to redeem himself in Texas. As noted earlier, Gibson and Lyles each performed poorly in 2020. The Rangers need quality innings from both veterans to depressurize the workload on younger arms likely to see action during the upcoming season. Dunning, a top-100 prospect, is the logical choice to earn the fifth spot. The 26-year-old rookie had an impressive .287 xwOBA during seven starts for the White Sox last season. He even earned a spot on Chicago’s postseason roster. Behind Dunning, there’s a plethora of youngsters. Notable candidates include Benjamin, Hearn, Kyle Cody, Kolby Allard, John King, and Joe Palumbo. Several served as relievers in 2020 and may do so again this year. José Leclerc enters camp as the closer, although he did miss most of last season with a torn shoulder muscle. Setting up before Leclerc will be Hernández and Rodríguez. The remaining candidates are a mix of holdovers, newcomers, and youngsters: Martin, Hearn, Benjamin, Josh Sborz, Nick Vincent, Hunter Wood, former Ranger Matt Bush, Sam Gaviglio, Demarcus Evans, Joe Gatto, and Rule 5 draftee Brett de Geus. Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand.  If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors. Pressing Business FanGraphs projects the Rangers with a 1.7-percent chance of reaching the postseason this year. That’s reasonable considering the club is rebuilding with many holes to fill. One method to add talent is offloading pending free agents to contenders at the July 31 trade deadline. Not counting non-roster invites, Texas doesn’t have many of those players. Still, the team could find ways to be active sellers. Assuming he’s having a good season, Gibson could interest contenders looking for rotation depth. He’s under contract for a relatively affordable $7.7 million next year. Foltynewicz might also be attractive, if he’s performing well. Next year will be his final year of arbitration eligibility. Leclerc is set to earn $9.7 million through 2022, so he may not draw much attention. However, every other reliever performing well would be potential trade chips. Several other personnel issues could potentially come to a head this summer. Odor is set to make $24.7 million over the next two seasons with a $3 million buyout for 2023. If he doesn’t rebound, how long does the team retain him? Considering his contract size, finding trade partners will prove challenging. With a pair of 40 home runs seasons, Gallo certainly possesses a potent bat. Yet, the 27-year-old hasn’t put together consecutive seasons with at least a league-average OBP since debuting in 2015. With one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, will Young consider moving Gallo this summer? It may make sense if he’s having a strong first half. Woodward is entering the final year of his contract, although the team holds an option for 2022. Will the third-year manager enter the season as a lame duck or will management commit to their skipper past this year? The Rangers won’t be good this season. However, there are signs of what the future may hold. Expect to see some of the club’s best prospects reach the majors. When they arrive and how they perform likely sets the tone for 2021 and beyond. Such is the life of a rebuilding organization and its fan base. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Luis Torrens Mariners

The use of defensive shifts is an increasingly contentious topic among MLB fans. Many of whom believe shifts limit action and therefore suck the fun out of baseball. It’s an understandable sentiment also shared by some members of the media covering the sport. Their solution to the shift problem is simple – ban them. Despite the recent groundswell of support for doing away with shifts, I continue to resist the notion of placing restrictions on the defensive countermeasure. For me, nothing about shifts is straightforward. Therefore, taking decisive action without a clear understanding of whether doing so will improve a situation is impractical. Ironically, much of what I’ll be showing you will seemingly justify regulating shifts. Nevertheless, the basis for my refusing to jump onboard the “ban the shift” bandwagon should become clear by the end. Perhaps you won’t agree with me – that’s okay. Respectful discourse and sharing of ideas can generate reasonable recommendations and sustainable solutions. What’s a shift? Intuitively, we know the purpose of defensive shifting is to put fielders in the best position to record outs. Thanks to advanced metrics and cutting-edge technology, clubs can accurately determine the tendencies of individual hitters and then devise a strategy that positions the defense for the greatest chance of success. Think about it. If there were an 80-percent likelihood that a batter hits a ball to a specific zone of the field, why wouldn’t teams consider setting its defense accordingly? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to gamble with such favorable odds at a Vegas casino? So what exactly is a shift? For our conversation, I’ll be using the Baseball Savant definition, plus two other basic shift-related terms: Standard alignment: All four infielders standing in their traditional spots. Shift: The three or more infielders positioned to the same side of second base. This extreme alignment is the impetus for our conversation. Strategic shift: One player out of position. Example: the second baseman moving into right field. Guarding the lines against doubles, playing the infield in, or at double play depth fall within the standard alignment category. If you want to learn about more about Statcast’s shift classification, you can find information here. We won’t be discussing the use of a fourth outfielder because this defensive oddity is rarely used. Last year, teams used four outfielders 115 times – 0.2-percent of all plate appearances. The two players seeing the tactic most often were Cavan Biggio (24 plate appearances) and former Mariner Justin Smoak (14). Moving forward, the focus will be on the standard alignment and the shift only. Clubs used the strategic shift accounted on less than 10-percent of plays last year, plus it’s essentially a modified standard alignment. Besides, it’s extreme shift causing the stir. Now, let’s turn our attention to shift-related numbers. Shifts are up, but not as much some believe. Teams employed a shift during 34-percent of all plate appearances last season. That’s a steep increase since the beginning of the Statcast era in 2015. Despite this huge increase, extreme shifts were in place for a minority of all plays. The standard alignment remained the most used at 52.1-percent. Lefties see way more shifts. The focus of our conversation is on the entire league. But it’s worth noting left-handed hitters faced shifts much more often than their right-handed hitting counterparts did. MLB – 34-percent LHH – 50-percent RHH – 21.7-percent The universal DH created more shifts. The jump in shifts between 2019 and 2020 may have been less dramatic without the universal designated hitter last year. In 2019, NL pitchers and designated hitters faced a shift during 185 plate appearances – just 0.39-percent of all shifts employed in the majors. In 2020, NL DH plate appearances accounted for six percent of all shifts. Slightly more than half of the 8.6-percent climb in shifts from 2019 to last year was attributable to the universal DH. Therefore, MLB may see a noticeable drop in shifts in 2021. The count matters. It’s become routine during MLB games. Pitcher throws a pitch; the infielders realign their position afterwards. Yes, that’s right. Teams literally determine whether to shift based on the ball-strike count. Even someone like me, who’s averse to restricting shifts, has to admit the aesthetic awkwardness of infielders constantly repositioning is a tedious feature of today’s game. Shifts may affect the amount of balls put in play. One reason I’ve previously railed against curtailing defensive shifts is the recent decline in balls in play. Since 2015, balls in play (BIP) have incrementally dropped from 70.9-percent to 66.3-percent last year. How could shifts affect that? Well, research for this piece led me to realize the BIP rate with shifts deployed was lower than with standard alignments. The anti-shift faction may see this discrepancy as proof of the negative influence extreme shifting has on game action. However, nothing about this subject is straightforward. Since 2015, BIP has decreased by 2.7-percent when shifts were in use. On the other hand, drop during standard alignments is larger (3.9-percent). My takeaway, shifts influence batter and pitcher behavior on some level. However, defensive positioning isn’t the only factor affecting the dip in BIP. Shifts also influences batted balls. We’re also seeing changes in how batters are hitting balls. The following illustrates the rates for the four types of batted ball classifications Statcast uses – fly balls, pop-ups, line drives, and ground balls. We see evidence shifts lead to batters hitting more fly balls and fewer grounders. Is that a bad thing? How are shifts affecting stats? We now know batted balls are decreasing and hitters are putting more balls in the air. How does that translate to player stats? There are obvious changes, plus a few surprises. Please note all rates expressed below are per/plate appearance. Counter to what opponents believe; the shift hasn’t led to a large increase in strikeouts. The difference between shifts and standard alignment last season was rather small – one percent. We’ll return to the strikeout issue later. A stat some shift-haters use as proof of the damage the shift does is batting average. It’s true AVG was considerably lower for batters facing a shift. However, OBP was slightly higher with SLG even better. There was also a notable uptick in home runs and walks. Once again, we encounter numbers suggesting pitchers and hitters behave differently when teams deploy shifts. Base runners remains unchanged.    The preceding table illustrated a noteworthy decline in hits and AVG. This ignites the concern shifts disproportionately limit the number of men on the base paths. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. The following illustrates the percent of all plate appearances with a runner on base. Despite a steep climb in defensive shifts since 2015, the amount of men on base with a hitter at the plate remained stable. Again, nothing about shifts is straightforward. Shifts alone didn’t increase strikeouts and homers. We’ve already noted the jump in home runs and strikeouts with shifts in place last season. However, this increase isn’t solely attributable to shifts. Both were climbing long before teams began embracing shifts. To demonstrate this, I put together the following table illustrating the dramatic rise in home run and strikeout rates over the past five decades. It’s amazing how strikeouts have nearly doubled since the Seventies. I’m sure none of us was surprised to see the spike in home runs during the Nineties. Yet, strikeouts didn’t appreciably increase during the decade dominated by steroid use. This changed with the new millennium. Some teams shift a lot more than others do. MLB had a 34-percent shift rate in 2020. However, shift usage varied greatly between teams. Maybe the level of disdain a fan feel towards the shift depends on their favorite club’s approach. Considering the large delta between the World Series champion Dodgers and the Braves, perhaps the league finds a middle ground on shift usage without help from MLB rule-makers. Then again, maybe not. What about the Mariners? This piece is focusing on MLB, but I thought I’d quickly mention the Mariners since Prospect Insider’s primary reader base hails from the Pacific Northwest. As we saw above, the Mariners were mid-pack with their overall defensive shifting. However, Seattle used shifts more aggressively against lefty hitters ranking fourth highest in the majors behind the Dodgers (77%), Tigers (74%), and Reds (72.1%). Conversely, Mariner hitters faced a shift in 26.8-percent of their plate appearances. Here are the individual rates for prominent players from last year’s squad: Kyle Seager – 76.5% J.P. Crawford – 39.7% Evan White – 16.9% Dylan Moore – 7.9% Ty France – 7.2% Luis Torrens – 5.1% Kyle Lewis – 3.7% Please note the numbers for France and Torrens include their time with the Padres last year. Among 193 players with at least 150 plate appearances, Seager’s 76.5-percent shift rate ranked 19th highest in the majors. At the other end of the spectrum, Lewis ranked 178th. What should be done? The shift is aesthetically unpleasing. Therefore, it’s an easy target for people trying to identify what’s wrong with baseball. Yet, it remains unclear to me whether banning shifts would improve the game from an entertainment/excitement perspective. Yes, singles will increase. But we’ve seen the number of runners on the base paths probably won’t change much. There may be fewer home runs, although that’s not a certainty based on decades-long trends we discussed. Limiting or banning shifts won’t fix baseball’s “strikeout problem.” We should remember hitters from this era believe it’s more helpful to their team from a run production standpoint to strikeout than hit a grounder into a double play. They’re not wrong. Even if MLB banned shifts, would hitters abandon trying to put balls in the air? Remember, slugging gets players paid – not hitting singles. At some point, restrictive measures on shifts might make sense. But not right now for me. That said, I do have a compromise suggestion that could potentially curtail extreme shifting without direct intervention by MLB. Perhaps instituting a 20-second pitch clock, like the one the minor leagues already use, would have the second order effect of limiting the constant re-shifting between pitches. That’s something I’d support. MLB wouldn’t be dictating how teams deployed defenders. However, the time crunch between pitches may compel clubs to re-position less often. In the end, this may lead to less shifts league-wide. As I said earlier, I’m okay with people disagreeing with my rationale. But please consider this whenever debating about baseball. Our views about the game probably depend on the era we became fans, so our opinions can vary drastically. Even when we disagree, we still share a common bond – an affection for the game. With that in mind, I’ll continue listening to others’ ideas with an open mind – even if I don’t initially agree with them. Maybe I’ll learn something new. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

When I was 10-years-old, my family was vacationing in the Catskill Mountains. While there, I plead with my Dad to take me to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was relatively nearby. He finally relented and we made the trek to sleepy Cooperstown, New York. When we got to the Hall, there were so much to see, so much to learn. I fell in love with baseball that day. Still, one thought never entering that kid’s mind on that beautiful summer day: “I wonder who decided that these players deserved plaques.” Oh, how times have changed. Many years later, baseball fans are now laser-focused on the annual election of new Hall of Famers and the people filling out the ballots – not the Hall itself. The drama surrounding the ballot grows with each passing year. Also on the rise, animosity directed towards the process and the actual electors. There’s always been energetic, sometimes heated, debate on whether ballplayers merited inclusion in the sport’s very exclusive Hall of Fame. This type of banter used to be fun – at least I thought so. Not anymore. Vitriol weaponized by social media, particularly Twitter, has supplanted healthy discourse. Instead of using stats and anecdotes to make a player’s case, people are more apt to hurl insults and profanities – many times anonymously. It’s natural to want our favorite stars to achieve Cooperstown immortality. However, an increasing number of vocal fans equate Hall induction as validation of their team, their city, their fandom. That’s a peculiar correlation when you think about it. Perhaps a personal connection to a particular player and his accomplishments explains the passion displayed by fans. Still, nothing justifies the acrimonious behavior we witness in the months leading up to the Hall announcement each January. Candidates for baseball’s highest honor earned that distinction through hard work and a decade or more of sustained superior performance – not by playing in front of a specific fan base. Another factor fueling the Hall vote drama is the reality baseball writers are unintentionally becoming part of the story. That’s not good. I’m not suggesting the group electing Hall of Famers, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), is responsible for the discord choking the fun out of debating Hall candidacies. Then again, writers publishing their ballot choices for public consumption well before the official announcement in January does add to the drama. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the theatrics on display in this short docudrama produced by MLB Network. Acclaimed scribe Tom Verducci serves as leading man with his ballot appearing in a supporting role. Academy Awards, he we come. “The weight of history in your hands is heavy.” Tom Verducci takes you through his @baseballhall ballot… and the honor and responsibility that comes with it. pic.twitter.com/U6bnUfDiiE — MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) January 26, 2021 “The weight of history in your hands is heavy.” Are you kidding me? It’s a ballot used to select players for inclusion in a museum – albeit an exclusive one. Imagine the effort it must have taken Verducci to vote in our most recent federal, state, and local elections. You know, the elections with actual consequence. I’m not trying to single out Verducci, who has forgotten more about writing than I could ever hope to know. He’s the best of the best. But Verducci’s peers are increasingly injecting themselves into the story by publicizing their ballot selections prior to the official results announcement. Casting an even bigger spotlight on the process is the meticulous vote tracking undertaken annually by Ryan Thibodaux and his staff. Fans, the media, and even candidates can now monitor the progress of vote tallies from the time writers begin announcing their choices in early December until the official announcement a month later. Therefore, we basically know who will or won’t gain entry into the Hall before selections are made public. But is that a good thing? I’m not sure anymore. Perhaps Hall of Fame voting should be remain under a veil of secrecy until the official announcement. I realize that won’t be a popular sentiment with many of you. However, BBWAA members don’t divulge their choices for annual awards such as the Cy Young Award, Most Valuable Player, and Rookie of the Year. Wouldn’t it make sense to enact the same policy for baseball’s most prestigious honor? Will not disclosing Hall of Fame ballots until after the official announcement put an end to the on-line antagonism? No, of course not. Doing so likely generates a different set of controversies. However, the duration of hostilities should be much shorter, as it is with other major sports’ Hall of Fames. It’s probably a pie in the sky thought. But placing a renewed emphasis on the Hall’s mission, not the annual slugfest over the player vote, might reduce tensions. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I’d like to point out the official name of that wonderful place in upstate New York is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It isn’t simply a place to hang plaques celebrating baseball’s greatest players. So why the emphasis on just one section? The Hall of Fame’s mission is to preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball. Likewise the institution functions as three entities under one roof with a museum, the actual Hall of Fame and a research library. – Official HOF mission statement The museum celebrates so many aspects of the sport and those who played it, including many who’ll never be a Hall of Famer. Exhibits highlight topics such as the trials and tribulations of Black ballplayers, growth of the sport in Latino and Asian countries, and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. There are two permanent exhibits dedicated to a pair of American icons – Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron – plus memorabilia from the game’s biggest moments throughout its century-plus history. You can learn about the many records held in high esteem by fans young and old. The Hall also pays homage to the people who have brought the games into our homes – writers and announcers. So yeah, it’s not just about very small number of players enshrined in the plaque gallery. Although I wouldn’t recommend doing so, you could skip the wing with plaques altogether and still have a wonderful time at baseball’s Hall of Fame. To learn more about what the Hall offers to fans and students through its museum and education programs, visit its website. Perhaps focusing on the history of the Hall and baseball itself won’t resonate with the masses. Fine, call me a curmudgeon. But the current situation regarding the selection of Hall of Famers feels untenable.  Just to be clear. When it comes to selecting players for the Hall of Fame, the BBWAA is the best choice for the job. Are the writers perfect? No. Who is? That said, they’ve done extremely well at selecting the right players. Still, the too public nature of the Hall selection process and the drama that’s increasingly consuming it are unhealthy for the sport. It’s draining the fun out of something that should be celebratory. And what is baseball without fun? I don’t want to know. My Oh My… [tipjarwp id=”2″]Go!

Marco Gonzales Mariners

While some Seattle Mariners fans are content with the grinding pace of the team’s rebuild, a vocal segment of its fan base is not. They want results now. It’s been nearly two decades since the Mariners appeared in the postseason and they’re tired of it. Enough is enough! Personally, I support the disciplined approach GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff are employing. That said; I understand and respect both side’s point of view. More so now after reading articles by Brent Stecker, editor of 710Sports.com and Dave “The Groz” Grosby, host emeritus of 710 ESPN Seattle. Brent preaches staying the course. Don’t rush young players, retain prized prospects, build from within, add premium talent from outside only when ready to contend. Naturally, long-suffering Mariners fans weary from years of mediocrity, who’ve grown accustomed to shifting their attention to the Seahawks in August, disagree. That’s where Groz enters the conversation. Groz believes the Mariners should act now. He’s not suggesting Dipoto should scrap the team’s ongoing rebuild. Instead, do something – anything – to excite the fan base before it’s too late. As Groz astutely notes, the Seattle sports market is highly competitive and likely to become more so moving forward. There’s the Seahawks, who’ve seemingly taken up permanent residence in the minds of local fans. Both the Sounders and Storm have earned their niche in the Emerald City thanks to their sustained superior performance. And then there’s the new kids on the block – the Kraken. In my mind’s eye, Seattle’s NHL entrant is the biggest threat to discretionary income currently spent on the local baseball team. The other franchises have already carved out their slice of the pie. But the Mariners’ lightweight status in MLB combined with diminishing fan interest leaves them vulnerable. Particularly to an incursion by a new and exciting organization determined to succeed immediately. Sure, there will always be “die-hard” Mariners fans. But we shouldn’t ignore the reality that college-age natives of the Pacific Northwest have zero recollection of the team’s last postseason appearance. They don’t remember “The Double” because they weren’t alive when it happened. Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Jay Buhner were their parents’ favorite players. The best Mariner of their generation – Félix Hernández – is no longer here. They want something new and they want it now. That’s why those growing increasingly impatient with the rebuild’s pace are pining for top prospects Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh, Julio Rodriguez, Taylor Trammell, and even 19-year-old Noelvi Marte. After witnessing what 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis just did, they want more of that and less of what’s been going on at T-Mobile Park lately – losing. That brings us back to the Mariners’ current situation. Should Dipoto and crew remain laser-focused on their strategy regardless of fan blowback and the looming competition from Climate Pledge Arena? Would abandoning the rebuild for a win-now approach be better for business? I have a third option likely to resonate with some of you, but not others. What if the Mariners listened to both Brent and Groz instead? Continue developing the kids, as Brent suggests. But heed Groz’s warning. Add free agent talent capable of energizing the fan base this year and contributing for several more seasons. I’m not talking about premium free agents like Trevor Bauer or J.T. Realmuto, although that would be fun. Why not target an established name with recent success, not a reclamation project. How about former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka? I recently suggested Tanaka as a potential candidate to stabilize the Mariners’ young rotation as the club attempts to take the next step. The right-hander represents a veteran presence still capable of delivering results. Essentially, he could serve as a bridge to the organization’s heralded up-and-coming arms – Gilbert, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Juan Then, Sam Carlson, and Brandon Williamson. Former Mariner Taijuan Walker or Jake Odorizzi could serve a similar purpose, although neither possess the cache Tanaka does. In the end, the specific names may not matter as much as the team simply making a good faith gesture to reward fans for remaining patient. While my idea would buoy the team near-term, it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a winning season in 2021. Still, it’d deliver the much needed dose of excitement Groz and so many others want and deserve. Moreover, this approach provides something Mariners fans are desperately craving – hope. Of course, the impatient among us will demand much more than what I’m proposing. I get that. But consider this stark reality. Even if Dipoto traded for Blake Snell and Francisco Lindor this offseason, the Mariners would still begin 2021 as a fringe contender – that’s it. The Mariners organization is deep with young, promising talent. Some of it arrived last season and more is on the way. But what the current team lacks more than anything right now is certainty. It’ll take a lot more than Snell and Lindor to change that. Other than Marco Gonzales, how much confidence do you have in the rest of the current roster? Although Lewis appears on a path to becoming a historically good Mariner, it’s plausible he takes a step back or at least stumbles a bit in 2021. Remember, the Mercer product’s career is a whopping 76 games since debuting in September 2019. Does Evan White take a big step forward or do we see more of the great glove, inconsistent bat on display in 2020? Like Lewis, White has very little MLB experience – just 54 contests. There’s a reason for both hope and concern with the Kentucky alum. Sure, he may flourish. But what if he doesn’t? The same applies to others projected to be in the Mariners’ starting lineup. Tom Murphy will be back after missing last year. But what is he, actually? The native New Yorker has 491 career plate appearances. Gold Glove shortstop J.P. Crawford has an 82 OPS+ through 218 games. Dylan Moore hits the ball really hard and may turn out to be a diamond in the rough. Ty France looks like he can hit anytime anywhere. But can the duo sustain previous short-lived successes over a full 162-game season? Perhaps, but it’s worth noting Crawford has more career plate appearances than Moore and France do combined. Justus Sheffield is another good news story from last year. Can he elevate to the next level in 2021? The 24-year-old seems primed to do so, but he too lacks a long record of success in the majors. And what about Yusei Kikuchi? It’s make-or-break time for the southpaw. Where does Kyle Seager stand entering the final year of his contract and possibly his Mariners career? Will he be a strong presence in the middle of the team’s lineup? Or does he end up leaving Seattle simply remembered as the last remnant of previous failed regime? Just to be clear, pointing out obvious blemishes and concerns with the 2021 roster doesn’t mean I’m souring on the Mainers’ direction. Quite the opposite. However, a lot has to go the team’s way for big strides – and a postseason berth – to become reality this year. Now, a word of caution for the fans okay with sticking with the kids until they develop. Sorry folks, they’re all not going to pan out. Consider for a moment the Astros, a team that blew up its franchise and started from scratch. The end product was a championship and a half-decade of dominance. Yet, not everything went as planned with their rebuild. It’s true Houston developed stars like José Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers Jr. But, as Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill recently noted, the same farm system yielded far less noteworthy names – Jake Marisnick, Hank Conger, A.J. Reed, Jason Castro, Matt Dominguez, Jordan Lyles and Jared Cosart. Haven’t heard of all of these players? That’s my point. Brent noted in his piece that rebuilds require optimism and that’s true. Thus far, Dipoto and ownership have demonstrated tremendous optimism and an inordinate amount of organizational discipline. That is something the Mariners have never displayed until now. It would be a shame to scuttle such a promising future for a possible whiff of fleeting success. And let’s talk about that infamous postseason drought for a moment. Dipoto can’t undo nearly two decades of mediocrity and disappointment. His tasking is to overcome prior misfires and transform the organization. At the moment, it appears he’s on the right track and should be permitted to continue. Even if the Mariners eventually reach the World Series or…gasp…actually win it, doing so won’t rewrite the team’s history. There will always be that long, barren period of organizational malaise and dysfunction in the record book. Sorry Seattle, nothing will ever erase that. The most logical method to achieve what Mariners fans are clamoring for – a true contender – is continuing on the course set by Dipoto. But giving Mariners faithful something substantive to hold on to until the franchise begins to turn a corner isn’t too much to ask for. Is it? I don’t think so. My Oh My…Go!

Kyle Lewis

Considering he’s reigning AL Rookie of the Year, it’s understandable why some fans may view Kyle Lewis as a future Seattle Mariners star. But is that a fair assessment so early in a young player’s career? Is Lewis a future Mariners star or something else? Just so that we’re clear, I’m not suggesting Lewis can’t be a centerpiece on Seattle’s roster when the club eventually exits from its rebuild phase. Just that we temper expectations for the Georgian until he gains more big-league experience. Only then can we assess what he’ll actually be for the Mariners. Remember, his MLB career to date consists of an 18-game September call-up in 2019 and 58 contests during a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign – 76 games. That’s it. I realize suggesting anything but stardom for Lewis is tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of some Seattle fans. Particularly, after the Seahawks just treated them to another early and disappointing playoff exit – sorry 12’s. Still, a closer look at the Mercer product’s season exposes volatility worth discussing. Stone Cold Finish By mid-August, Lewis established himself as a front-runner for the Rookie of the Year award. He was easily the best player on the Mariners leading the team in every significant offensive category through its first 30 games. Not only that, he paced the majors in OBP and was top-5 in wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR. Then, the bottom fell out. In the second half of the Mariners’ truncated season, Lewis’ offensive production cratered. The right-handed hitter’s batting average was worst in the majors, while his slugging and strikeout percentages were bottom-5. Another troublesome indicator; a sudden inability to make sufficient contact. After the Mariners’ thirtieth contest, 208 hitters attempted at least 150 swings. Only two had a higher whiff rate than Lewis. Whiff rate is the percentage of misses on swing attempts. Other notable names on the leaderboard include highly touted Angels prospect Jo Adell, teammate Evan White and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Luis Robert. Highest Whiff Rates After August 24th Bobby Dalbec – 46.2% (BOS) Adalberto Mondesi – 42.7% (KCR) Kyle Lewis – 42.5% (SEA) Willy Adames – 42.2% (KCR) Jo Adell – 41.8% (LAA) Jorge Alfaro – 41.7% (MIA) Miguel Sanó – 39.9% (MIN) Gregory Polanco – 39.2% (PIT) Keston Hiura – 38.2% (MIL) Brandon Lowe – 38% (TBR) Franmil Reyes – 37.85% (CLE) Matt Olson – 37.4% (OAK) Evan White – 36.8% (SEA) Javier Báez – 36.5% (CHC) Luis Robert – 36.4% (CWS) We know current players are far more comfortable with striking out than their predecessors from previous generations. However, making adequate contact still matters and Lewis struggled to do just that for half a season, albeit a shortened one. Evan White Had A Better Second Half When we recently White’s 2020 season, the term used to describe his conventional stat line was “ugly.” For this reason, suggesting he was better than Lewis at any point of the 2020 season may initially come across as a form of comedy. It’s not. The Gold Glove first baseman’s overall production during the Mariners’ final 30 games wasn’t noteworthy – not even close. Yet, his numbers ranked ahead of the 2020 Rookie of the Year’s in nearly every category. As you can see for yourself, the bats of neither Lewis nor White were particularly productive during Seattle’s final 30 games. Lewis did manage to walk at a good clip during his prolonged slump. This helps reconcile the large gap between his AVG and OBP. White Was Also Better In 2019 Since the 2020 was so short, I decided to do another comparison between Lewis and White. This time, their 2019 season stats with Class-AA Arkansas. Some of you may be surprised to learn White was more productive at the plate than Lewis. In fact, the Kentucky alum’s .488 SLG as a Traveler was fifth highest among 131 AA players with 400-plus plate appearances. I have to admit that I previously missed that tidbit. Thanks to FanGraphs, we can quickly determine how minor leaguers stacked up against their peers across MiLB in multiple categories, included several advance metrics. Since a 100 wRC+ is always the league-average, White’s 132 wRC+ tells us he was 32-percent better than the average AA hitter was in 2019. Lewis was above average also, but not nearly as much at 109. It’s important to note I’m not suggesting White will be a more productive major-league hitter than Lewis. I’m only highlighting the disparity between their 2019 production levels and the subsequent similarity of their stats during the final 30 games of the 2020 season. For me, these factors establish the need to wait on more mature data before evaluating either player’s outlook. Reality Check Okay, I’ve demonstrated that Lewis struggled for half of the 2020 season, which may or may not be cause for concern. Perhaps some of you are now wondering whether he’s destined to suffer from the dreaded sophomore jinx in 2021. Although such an outcome is plausible, there are a few things to consider before you consider abandoning the USS Kyle Lewis. Teeny Tiny Sample I’ve said this so many times during the offseason I’ve lost count. Whenever we find ourselves fixated on 2020 stats, we have to remember an important reality. Last season constituted just 37-percent of a normal campaign. Therefore, treating a 60-game slate during a pandemic the same way as a normal year would be unwise. A Work In Progress We should bear in mind the combined major-league experience of Lewis and White is just 130 games. That’s a recurring theme with the Mariners. Only three Seattle hitters on its 40-man roster have more than 500 career plate appearances with any team in the majors. Career MLB Plate Appearances By Current Mariners Kyle Seager (5,534) Mitch Haniger (1,499) J.P. Crawford (853) Tom Murphy (491) Dylan Moore (441) Ty France (356) Kyle Lewis (317) Shed Long (296) Luis Torrens (233) Evan White (202) José Marmolejos (115) Braden Bishop (94) Jake Fraley (70) Sam Haggerty (58) Donovan Walton (33) For added perspective, consider this. The longest tenured Mariner – Kyle Seager – has more career plate appearances than the combined total (5,058) of the remaining position players on the team’s current roster. So yeah, we should give the kids a chance before passing judgement on them. Lewis Hits To All Fields A common solution fans suggest to combat defensive shifts is for players to “hit it where they ain’t.” Easier said than done in an era where so many pitchers thrown over 95-mph. Still, Lewis proved capable of spraying the ball around the field last year. Of the 88 players with 50-plus hits, only three had a higher percentage of balls hit straightaway or to the opposite field than Lewis. Highest % of Straightaway & Opposite Field Hits Raimel Tapia – 83.1% (COL) Jackie Bradley Jr. – 81.5% (BOS) D.J. LeMahieu – 80.3% (NYY) Kyle Lewis – 79.6% (SEA) Alec Bohm – 79.6% (PHI) Juan Soto – 77.8% (WSN) César Hernández – 75.8% (CLE) Nelson Cruz – 75% (MIN) Víctor Reyes – 75% (DET) Travis d’Arnaud – 71.7% (ATL) The names you see above are an impressive lot. Included are both league batting champions, four Silver Slugger awards, and a player Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently compared to a young version of the greatest hitter ever – Ted Williams. Lewis didn’t just slap the ball around the field for singles or doubles as we remember future Hall of Famer Ichiro doing. It turns out most of his home runs were hit straightaway or were opposite fielders. Last year, 68 other players and Lewis hit at least 10 home runs. Only four had a higher percentage of straightaway and “oppo” dingers than Seattle’s center fielder. Highest % of Straightaway & Opposite Field Home Runs Juan Soto – 84.6% (WSN) Dansby Swanson – 80% (ATL) Nick Castellanos – 78.6% (CIN) Eloy Jiménez – 78.6% (CWS) Kyle Lewis – 72.7% (SEA) Ronald Acuña Jr. – 71.4% (ATL) D.J. LeMahieu – 70% (NYY) Keston Hiura – 69.2% (MIL) Teoscar Hernández – 68.8% (TOR) Trea Turner – 66.7% (WSN) Christian Yelich – 66.7% (MIL) Considering so many notable names surround Lewis on our previous two lists, there’s a reasonable chance he can enjoy success in the majors. Improved Strikeout & Walk Rates We all remember Lewis bursting onto the scene in September 2019 with five doubles and six home runs in just 18 games. That said; he also had a 38.7-percent strikeout rate. Only Eric Hosmer (39.6) of the Padres and Toronto’s Teoscar Hernández (39) struck out more frequently that month. Despite the initial spike during his MLB debut, Lewis’ strikeout rate returned to a more normal (at least for him) level in 2020. While Lewis’ 2020 strikeout rate aligned with previous career norms, he did demonstrate significant improvement at earning free passes with a career-high 14-percent walk rate. Even when his strikeouts soared late last season, he still managed to draw walks at a 13.7 walk rate. Good enough for top-30 in the majors and well above league-average (9.2-percent). This is promising. Finally Imagine for a moment we flipped Lewis’ 2020 season splits. Instead of enjoying a torrid start, a stumble out of the gate occurred before a superb finish. Would he have won the Rookie of the Year award? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? For Mariners fans seeking recognition and validation for their team’s players, the answer is yes. However, Lewis would be the same player with or without the award. A potential foundational piece deserving more time to develop into the hitter he’s destined to be; whatever that is. For now, I suggest enjoying the sight of Lewis, White, and so many other of Seattle’s youngsters as they develop before our eyes. As Jason A. Churchill deftly noted recently, some Mariner prospects won’t develop as quickly as the team needs. Others will never fulfill the promise their prospect rankings once suggested was possible. In Lewis’ case, seeing his numbers plummet at the end of the 2020 campaign should give us pause. Especially when you consider his 2019 MiLB stats lagged behind White’s, who struggled mightily this year. Having said that, I do feel a degree of optimism that he puts his rough ending behind him and to good use as a learning opportunity. Assuming he continues to have a discerning eye at the plate, keeps his strikeouts at a reasonable level, and uses all fields, Lewis will be a valued contributor to the Mariners. But will he be a star? Time will tell. Considering what he overcame to reach the majors, I won’t bet against Kyle Lewis – ever. Instead, I’ll be rooting for him. My Oh My…Go!

Evan White was arguably baseball’s best defensive first baseman in 2020. Regrettably, his offensive production was the polar opposite. These contrasting realities have a segment of the Seattle Mariners’ fan base wondering whether White can become a foundational piece for the rebuilding franchise. Fan apprehension about White is understandable. It’s hard to ignore a .176 AVG, which was the lowest among qualified hitters this year. Other than slugging eight home runs, all of the rookie’s numbers were significantly below MLB averages. Still, we should remember White’s ugly stat line was merely a short introduction to a bigger story yet to be written. With this in mind, let’s consider the former Kentucky Wildcat’s brief 54-game audition by reviewing several key points about his debut campaign. Some are good, or at least encouraging. Others are really bad, but need to be covered. Let’s start with the worst one. Historically High Strikeout Rate White’s 41.6-percent strikeout rate was second only to Miguel Sanó of the Twins in 2020, but it gets worse. The duo didn’t just pace the majors this year. They produced the two highest strikeout rates of any qualified hitter in MLB history. Highest Strikeout Rates Ever Miguel Sanó – 43.9% (2020) Evan White – 41.6% (2020) Chris Davis – 37.2% (2017) Joey Gallo – 36.8% (2017) Chris Davis – 36.8% (2018) Chris Carter – 36.2% (2013) Willy Adames – 36.1% (2020) Joey Gallo – 35.9% (2018) Mark Reynolds – 35.4% (2010) Joey Gallo – 35% (2020) Another indicator of White’s struggles was the high number of multiple-strikeout games. Even for a rookie, the right-handed hitter struck out at a near-record pace. Only Sanó and Javier Báez of the Cubs had more two-plus strikeout performances in their first 54 career games. Most Two-Strikeout Games in First 54 Career Contests Miguel Sanó – 30 (2015) Javier Báez – 30 (2014) Evan White – 26 (2020) Austin Riley – 25 (2019) Pat Burrell – 25 (2000) To be fair, White isn’t not alone in rapidly achieving a significant number of two-strikeout games. Stars such as Giancarlo Stanton (23), Trevor Story (22), George Springer (22), Kris Bryant (22), and Fernando Tatís Jr. (21) were relatively close to White’s total after their first 54 contests. Not Enough Contact Although White struck out at a record-setting pace, he wasn’t a free-swinger. Check out his plate discipline numbers found at Baseball Savant. Included are MLB averages for each category. Among hitters facing 750-plus pitches, White’s 43.8-percent swing rate ranked just ninety-first. Notable hitters swinging more often included Corey Seager, José Abreu, Freddie Freeman,  D.J. LeMahieu, Bryce Harper, Trevor Story, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz, and Tatís. Similarly, the Mariners’ first baseman wasn’t hyper-aggressive by chasing balls outside the strike zone. Although White wasn’t a free-swinger, his contact rates inside and outside of the strike zone were significantly lower than MLB averages. As a result, the Ohio native’s 38-percent whiff rate fell in the fourth percentile meaning 96-percent of hitters were better. Whiff rate is the percent of misses on attempted swings. The perfect storm of White’s below average swing aggression and low contact rates led to him putting just 12-percent of pitches he saw into play, which was one of the lowest rates among qualified hitters this year. Lowest Percentage of Balls Put in Play Miguel Sanó – 11% Christian Yelich – 11.3% Ronald Acuña Jr. – 11.4% Joey Gallo – 11.9% Niko Goodrum – 11.9% Gary Sánchez – 11.9% Evan White – 12% Yasmani Grandal – 12.2% Gregory Polanco – 12.6% Ryan McMahon – 12.7% A subset of White’s contact issues was the number of times he struck out on a called strike. On 253 occasions, the Lincoln High School product faced a two-strike. Once again, he led the majors in an inauspicious category by hearing a called strike three on 10.3-percent of those pitches. Now that we’ve discussed the really bad stuff, let’s look at factors suggesting White can improve upon his extremely difficult rookie campaign. Great Hard Hit Rate In November 2019, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told David Laurila of FanGraphs that White had the second highest exit velocity in Seattle’s minor league system behind only 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis. This year, the 24-year-old validated Dipoto’s confidence with a 52.5-percent hard hit rate, which ranked thirteenth among qualified hitters. Hard hit rate is the percent of batted balls with an exit velocity greater than or equal to 95-MPH. The following list, which includes White, includes several of baseball’s biggest stars. Top Hard Hit Rates Fernando Tatís Jr. (62.2%) Travis d’Arnaud (57.8%) Miguel Sanó (57.3%) Ronald Acuña Jr. (57%) Corey Seager (55.9%) Eloy Jiménez (55.7%) Christian Yelich (55.6%) Mike Trout (55.1%) Marcell Ozuna (54.4%) Freddie Freeman (54.2%) José Abreu (53.3%) Teoscar Hernández (53.1%) Evan White (52.5%) Juan Soto (51.6%) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (50.8%) Another indicator of White’s ability to produce well-struck balls was a 14.1-percent barrel rate, which placed him twenty-sixth among 257 qualified hitters. In 2020, MLB barreled balls averaged a 104.5-MPH exit velocity producing a .797 AVG and 1.373 wOBA. Moreover, 81.5-percent of all home runs in 2020 were barreled balls. Obviously, White’s proficiency at creating hard contact would be more beneficial if he put bat-to-ball more often. While his 14.1-percent barrel/batted ball sounds impressive, he had a more pedestrian 6.9-percent barrel/plate appearance ratio that ranked seventy-third in the majors and behind teammates Dylan Moore (8.2%), José Marmolejos (7.8%), and Seager (7.3%). Leading the majors was Fernando Tatís Jr. at 12.5-percent rate. Other Rookies Had Strikeout Woes Several other notable freshmen have recorded excessively high strikeout rates in recent years – Joey Gallo (46.3%) of the Rangers in 2015, current Mariner Tom Murphy (45.8%) with the Rockies in 2018, and Javier Báez (41.5%) as a Cub in 2014. Moreover, celebrated Angels prospect Jo Adell (41.7%) struck out as often as White did this year. Perhaps the most recognizable rookie with a super-high strikeout rate was Aaron Judge. Although he’d be the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, Judge had a 44.2-percent strikeout rate at the end of the 2016 campaign. That’s the highest strikeout rate ever recorded by a player with 90-plus plate appearances during the final two months of any season. Since then, the Yankees slugger’s strikeout rate hovers around 30-percent. If you’re wondering why we didn’t discuss the high strikeout rates of Gallo, Murphy, Báez, and Judge earlier, they didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Thanks to COVID-19, White did this season with just 202 plate appearances. Just for fun, I compared White’s 2020 to the debut years of Judge and Báez. Coincidentally, their stat lines are from the final two months of the season indicated. Obviously, we’re talking about three completely different players. That said; both Judge and Báez have gone on to be an MVP runner-up after extremely high strikeout rates during their initial debuts. Perhaps knowing this fosters some measure of patience among Mariners fans concerned about White. Am I predicting White is a future MVP candidate? No, but the achievements of Judge and Báez suggests it’s too early to typecast White. No History Of Strikeouts Problems In 2019, there were 686 minor leaguers with 400-plus plate appearances. White’s 23-percent strikeout rate with Class-AA Arkansas ranked 303rd within this group. Furthermore, his overall career MiLB strikeout rate was 20.4-percent – very different from this year. Considering the large gap between White’s strikeout rates in the majors and minors, let’s review the MLB/MiLB strikeout and walk rates of the high-strikeout rookies we’ve been discussing. In every case, players struggling out of the gate eventually improved greatly once they gained MLB experience. With this in mind, please note White and Adell debuted less professional experience than anyone in our group. Each had just over 1,000 MiLB plate appearances prior to reaching the show. Could it be all the duo needs is more time to establish themselves as big-league hitters? A Respectable Six Weeks White’s overall offensive production numbers were undeniably bad. The again, he did manage to cobble together an encouraging 30-game span within the season (August 12 – September 21). During this time, his stat line was average-ish. During White’s decent six weeks, his .468 SLG led the team, while only Lewis (7) had more home runs. Similarly, the AL Rookie of the Year was the only Mariner with a higher wOBA (.337) than White, who also paced Seattle with a 15.1% barrel rate. Yes, I’m cherry picking. However, 30 games was half the regular season and 55.6-percent of White’s MLB experience. Again, maybe all time is what he needs to prove his value to the team. The Contract Isn’t A Big Deal When the Mariners signed White to a six-year/$24 million extension in November 2013, the news caught the attention of the baseball world. Per Baseball Prospectus, the deal was the largest contract awarded to a U.S. player, who hadn’t played above Double-A. Naturally, the contract received scrutiny from fans, local media members, and several scribes on the national stage. During the season, Jon Heyman of MLB Network mentioned White’s deal in a tweet that riled some Seattle fans. Evan White is said to be a great kid and he’s obviously a really good defender, but to give $24M to someone who’s only played Double-A and hadn’t proven he could hit a breaking ball was a bit of a risk. He should be OK but is currently batting .114. — Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) August 15, 2020 Some Mariners fans came to White’s defense by attacking Heyman, although it’s important to note his comments were accurate. The 2017 first round pick was hitting .114 at the time and it’s true signing a player with just four games at Triple-A to a six-year deal is risky. The issue for the Mariners is how much risk the team is actually assuming. I believe the correct answer is not much. Let’s explore White’s contract through its six guaranteed years and the three club options afterwards. The following illustrates his projected annual salary and the running total throughout the deal. All contract data is courtesy of Sportac. In baseball terms, White’s pro-rated $481,481 salary this year was low. Assuming there’s a full 162-game slate in 2021, he’ll receive $1.3 million. Among the 23 first baseman with guaranteed contracts, White ranks last just behind former teammate Daniel Vogelbach ($1.4 million). Even at its guaranteed peak in 2025, White’s $8 million salary currently ranks twelfth among his positional peers. Per Sportac, the current average pay for a first baseman next season is $5,826,987. He won’t exceed that threshold until 2024 – not exactly a budget buster. On that note, let’s not forget the Mariners are paying the Mets $3.75 million in each of the next two seasons so Robinson Canó plays in Queens instead of the Emerald City. Even if White doesn’t develop into a centerpiece on the Mariners’ roster, his salary won’t deter the club from acquiring other major league talent. His paycheck would be a nothing-burger for a serious postseason contender willing to spend up to its market size. Reality Check The Mariners expected White to struggle this year and he most certainly did. Perhaps management would’ve dispatched him to Class-AAA Tacoma to re-cage himself, if there had been a minor-league season. That opportunity didn’t exist, so he learned on the job taking his lumps as a major leaguer. Enduring such adversity can potentially be a good thing. Realistically, White doesn’t have to be great at the plate to be valuable to the Mariners; average would be acceptable. Remember, his 7 DRS led the majors in 2020. Not only that, just two first basemen – Matt Olson (23) and Christian Walker (10) – had a higher combined DRS for the 2019-20 campaigns than White’s tally for this year. And average is exactly what we saw from White during the 30-game period we discussed. Similar productivity sustained over a full season is all Seattle needs for the Gold Glover to be a foundational piece for the team. Otherwise, he’ll be just another in a long line of Mariner busts at first base. Personally, I’m banking on White being much better than average next year and that he’ll become a cornerstone player for the Mariners. He hits the ball extremely hard and it’s highly likely his strikeouts drop significantly with additional MLB seasoning. Perhaps, someday, fans will consider Evan White the best first baseman in Mariners franchise history. After such a turbulent debut, wouldn’t that be something? My Oh My…    Go!