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…
With Major League Baseball, betting can be about the winner of the game, a game prop like ‘will there be a run scored in the first inning?’, a player prop (total hits in a game by a player), or a Futures bet, which is season-long totals of team or player statistics, including wins, or picking division, league or World Series winners. With a month left before Opening Day, I went and checked the Updated World Series odds and found some interesting lines and odds. Here are my favorites by bet type. To Win 2021 World Series New York Mets +1200 (bet $100 to $1200) Minnesota Twins +2200 Toronto Blue Jays +1800 San Diego Padres +700 Atlanta Braves +1000 Even a $100 bet to $300 on the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers seems worth a stab. To Win 2021 American League Pennant Tampa Bay Rays +900 Minnesota Twins +800 I even like +2000 on the Los Angeles Angels. They’re motivated to keep adding to their roster and they may have the ultimate Wild Card to help with their greatest weakness with Shohei Ohtani likely to pitch some this season. To Win 2021 National League Pennant San Diego Padres +425 Atlanta Braves +600 New York Mets +550 And the Washington Nationals +2500? Seriously? With all that returning talent and a chance to be a lot healthier? Worth the $100 risk. To Win 2021 American League East Tampa Bay Rays +450 The Rays have a chance to be better than last year’s team with Randy Arozarena up to start the year, Austin Meadows healthy and just as much pitching talent as ever. To Win 2021 American League West Los Angeles Angels +360 To Win 2021 National League Central Milwaukee Brewers +375 Often, a club is held to a standard somewhat set by the previous year’s success or lack thereof. The Brewers are better on paper and will start 2021 healthy. Worth the bet. To Win 2021 National League East Washington Nationals +650 New York Mets to Make 2021 Playoffs No: +170 Yes, I’m betting out of both side of my mouth — that’s how it works. This is too good of a bet — risk $100 to win $170 — considering how difficult the NL East is likely to be. New York Yankees to Make 2021 Playoffs No: +550 Same story — too good a bet. It’s also worth mentioning the Yankees’ volatile roster with big-name injury and performance unknowns littering the organization. To Lead MLB in Home Runs in 2021 Yordan Alvarez, +2000 Take this bet. Do it. Bryce Harper, +2000 Cody Bellinger, +1300 Mike Trout, +1000 To Win 2021 AL CY Young Gerrit Cole, +325 To Win 2021 NL Cy Young Jacob deGrom, +450 Max Scherzer, +700 Yu Darvish, +1000 Jack Flaherty, +1500 Max Fried, +1800 To Win 2021 AL MVP Mike Trout, +230 DJ LeMahieu, +3000 Yordan Alvarez, +4000 To Win 2021 NL MVP Juan Soto, +850 Christian Yelich, +1500 Cody Bellinger, +850 Bryce Harper, +2000 To Lead MLB in Regular Season Strikeouts in 2021 Yu Darvish, +1200 Jacob deGrom, +525 To Lead MLB in Regular Season Hits in 2021 Francisco Lindor, +2000 Bo Bichette, +2200 Tim Anderson, +2200 To Lead MLB in Regular Season Saves in 2021 Liam Hendriks, +750 Edwin Diaz, +1000
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″]
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″]
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 Angels’ 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…
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″]
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″]
Yes, the title reads like a bit of an oxymoron, but that’s done purposefully in order to make sure we’re talking about talents with a high-percentage chance to show up in future MLB stories. The pool of players I’m working off is MLB.com’s Top 100 as of December 15, 2020. Here are the eight most underrated top prospects, and why. Ryan Mountcastle, 1B/DH — Baltimore Orioles MLB RANK: 90 Mountcastle raked in 140 plate appearances in the majors in 2020 (.333/.386/.492) and has a long track record off hitting for average and power in the minors. He’s limited to first base or DH thanks to a poor throwing arm that gets a lot of 30s and 35s from scouts, but he’s a decent athlete who projects to hit .280 with 25-30 homer power, and he’s clearly ready to face big-league arms (again). Reid Detmers, LHP — Los Angeles Angels MLB RANK: 75 He’s yet to lace ’em up in pro ball, but Detmers should be a quick study thanks to plus command and control and a 65 curveball. He’s a good athlete, repeats a deceptive delivery, and the value in his ETA suggests 75 is a 10-20 spots low. Francisco Alvarez, C — New York Mets MLB RANK: 58 Alvarez has a traditional catcher’s build and is tooled up from a plus throwing arm to defensive instincts and an above-average hit tool that may end up plus. There’s some funk to his non-stride, but it’s conservative if anything. He’s 2-3 years away, but the profile itself is too unique and as risk averse as it gets for young backstops that 58 just too too low. Brennen Davis, OF — Chicago Cubs MLB RANK: 72 Davis is a five-tool prospect with at least above-average grades across the board, including plus speed and projectable power that could end up his best tool. He’s still maturing physically, but showed an advanced skillset considering he was 20 years old posting a .305/.381/.525 slash in the Midwest League. He has a real chance to stick in center and the trends are all pointing sky high. Davis has big-time bat speed, generates easy leverage and loft, and covers the zone well for his age and experience. No. 72 is minimum 15-20 spots low. Sam Huff, C — Texas Rangers MLB RANK: 69 Huff’s raw power and improved hit tool suggest a chance he’s an average first-base bat if he has to move off catcher, but despite his size — 6-foot-5, 239 pounds — he has good feet, soft, strong hands, has shown adept at framing and may be able to handle catching early in his career, a la Matt Wieters. Either way, there’s 30-homer power in there, and he’s short to the ball despite long levers. George Kirby, RHP — Seattle Mariners MLB RANK: 95 Kirby cruises at 91-94 mph, touching 97, with plus command and three projectable secondaries, two of which already flash big-league average or better. He used the downtime in 2020 to remake himself physically and now looks the part of 200-inning No. 3 starter. There’s so little risk here and the right-hander figures to move quickly due to his ability to throw strikes and locate the fastball that 95 is at least 20-25 spots too low. Luis Patino, RHP — San Diego Padres MLB RANK: 23 Ranking at No. 23 suggests it’s very difficult to be underrated, but at 20 years of age the right-hander competed in the majors and struck out nearly 25% of the batters he faced in 11 appearances. The stuff is undeniable, including a 94-98 mph fastball, a slider that misses bats and flashes plus-plus, and a changeup that’s already a useful weapon. He’s not as udnerrated as some others here, but right now Patino is ranked below CJ Abrams, Matt Manning, Drew Waters, and Forrest Whitley, and for me that’s a mistake. Edward Cabrera, RHP — Miami Marlins MLB RANK: 80 Despite developing late, Cabrera is 22 and big-league ready after fewer than four years in pro ball. The fastball has plane at 93-97 mph, runs some to his arm side, and the slider is above-average with a chance to be plus-plus in time. He’s shown feel for an average changeup, too, and has at least average control at present. He’s built like an ace and those two potentially-elite pitches offer a high floor and ceiling, screaming ’80’ is far, far too low for the Marlins’ right-hander.
Over the weekend, MLB.com’s Will Leitch penned a piece picking the most likely player in every MLB organization to make the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now, I hate almost every hall of fame conversation, for reasons I won’t get into here and now, but I disagreed with six of Leitch’s picks so I thought I’d do one of my own. Let’s go by league and division, starting in the American League and moving East to West. American League East Toronto Blue Jays Leitch: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Churchill: Bo Bichette I get the pick of Guerrero here but he’s likely to spend a lot of years as a DH and despite Edgar Martinez breaking down some walls in that regard a few years back such a tag puts a lot of pressure on the offensive numbers. Bichette also has an early advantage over his teammate. At 22, he has posted two stints — 46 games in 2019 and 29 games in 2020 — where he’s batted .300 or better, slugged .500 or better and has showed well enough at shortstop. Baltimore Orioles Leitch: Adley Rutschman Churchill: Rutschman The Orioles are simply devoid of such talents right now, so their top prospect will have to do. Rutschman is a future star, though, so it’s a good pick and the best bet by far. Tampa Bay Rays Leitch: Wander Franco Churchill: Franco Same as with Rutschman and the Orioles, Franco is the lone star-level talent in the organization with a chance to be a superstar. Boston Red Sox Leitch: Rafael Devers Churchill: Devers Chris Sale is 31, coming off Tommy John and is probably 91 wins from garnering serious HOF consideration. Xander Bogaerts, at this pace, would probably need to play 10 more years to reach such status — and be very very good for most of them. Devers is 24, has 74 career homers and 433 hits and the last full season produced 32 long balls and a 132 wRC+. If he sticks at third long-term, he has the best shot in the org. For now. New York Yankees Leitch: Giancarlo Stanton Churchill: Aaron Judge Stanton has 312 homers, 796 RBI, has four 30-homer seasons and a 59-homer campaign. But he’s 31 and already starting to run into the IL quite a bit the last two seasons, which threatens his career numbers and may push him to a lot of DH work the rest of the way. Judge, too, has run into some injury issues despite being three years younger than Stanton, but he has every bit the power and is a better overall hitter than Stanton, suggesting a better shot to produce well into his 30s. American League Central Cleveland Indians Leitch: Jose Ramirez Churchill: Ramirez He’s 28, has been a top-5 MVP candidate three times in four years and should be able to stay on the field for most of his career where he’s a very good third base glove. Kansas City Royals Leitch: Salvador Perez Churchill: Perez Perez is the defacto pick here since there’s no one else reasonably close to the conversation, but he’s been an above-average bat just twice since 2013, and one of those is a 37-game sample from 2020. Detroit Tigers Leitch: Miguel Cabrera Churchill: Cabrera A no-brainer. He’s 37 now and complete toast but he’s 13 homers shy of 500, has driven in 1729, owns a .391 career OBP and won back-to-back MVPs. He’s getting in. Minnesota Twins Leitch: Josh Donaldson Churchill: Donaldson Donaldson isn’t getting in, either, but unlike Perez is a consistent all-around performer with an MVP on his resume. Chicago White Sox Leitch: Jose Abreu Churchill: Tim Anderson Despite the MVP in 2020 (which he shouldn’t have won), Abreu is not quite a hall of famer. He’s 33, has hit 198 homers and owns a .294/.350/.520 slugging percentage. Anderson, a fine shortstop, is just 27, has a batting title, 74 homers, 73 stolen bases and the last two seasons has posted a .357 OBP. He has a significantly better chance to post the kinds of numbers a shortstop needs to garner serious consideration than does Abreu versus first base standards. American League West Los Angeles Angels Leitch: Mike Trout and Albert Pujols Churchill: Trout and Pujols Ummm… Oakland Athletics Leitch: Matt Chapman Churchill: Chapman Chapman is Oakland’s best player, will be 28 in April and is among the best third basemen in recent memory. I don’t think he has much of a shot, but he’s far more likely than anyone else on the roster. Houston Astros Leitch: Justin Verlander Churchill: Verlander Another no-brainer. Seattle Mariners Leitch: Kyle Lewis Churchill: Jarred Kelenic The case for Lewis has a leg up since he’s performed a bit in the majors, but he’s 25 and Kelenic is likely to make his MLB debut before he turns 22. He’ll also enter the bigs with a better hit tool, which lends tons more confidence he’ll hit for the long haul. Texas Rangers Leitch: Joey Gallo Churchill: Gallo Gallo may hit 500 homers and have a legit shot, but it’s probably going to take more than that if he continues to struggle to hit for average. In five of Gallo’s six seasons — three full, three part — he’s batted .209 or under. National League East Atlanta Braves Leitch: Freddie Freeman Churchill: Ronald Acuna Jr. Freeman just won an MVP and will enter 2021 with a career .295/.383/.509 triple-slash with 240 homers. But he’s 31 and not yet halfway to some of the counting stats it’s likely to take. The one caveat is his 2020 season. If he puts up .341/.462/.640 a few times in full seasons, everything changes. Acuna, though, is just 23 this week, has a 40-homer season under his belt and was on another 40-homer pace in 2020 despite missing 14 games. The power alone may get Acuna in, and it helps that he’s been a passable center fielder and should remain a solid corner-outfield defender for the next 10-plus seasons. Oh, and he’s swiped 61 bags in 313 career games. Miami Marlins Leitch: Sixto Sanchez Churchill: Sanchez The Fish are filled with young talents and Sanchez is the best of them all. New York Mets Leitch: Jacob deGrom Churchill: deGrom Cano might have been in the convo here had it not been for a second PED suspension, but deGrom is an easy choice. He’s 32 but already has two Cy Young awards, finished third in 2020 and is showing no signs of slowing down. deGrom, however, isn’t likely to have the traditional numbers voters have looked for historically, namely wins. He has 70 in seven seasons and has no shot to get to even 200. Let’s see how voters treat modern day starting pitchers, starting with CC Sabathia in 2025. Philadelphia Phillies Leitch: Bryce Harper Churchill: Harper I think he’s going to get in on counting stats, but he does have an MVP and owns a 138 career wRC+. His 232 career homers have come before his 28th birthday and his lifetime .387 OBP makes up for seasons without a high average. Washington Nationals Leitch: Max Scherzer Churchill: Scherzer Mad Max is 36 and has 175 wins, three Cy Youngs and is among the elite starting pitchers of his generation. He’ll get to 200 wins sometime in 2022 and has a shot to surpass 3,000 strikeout if the 2021 is a full slate of games — he’s 216 shy, and hasn’t struck out fewer than 231 in a full season since 2011. Teammate Juan Soto owns a career .295/.415/.557 slash with 69 homers. It won’t matter much that he’s not a very good defender. Best hitter in baseball and he just turned 22 in October. National League Central Milwaukee Brewers Leitch: Christian Yelich Churchill: Yelich The Brewers are without another star at the moment, so Yelich is a runaway winner here. His candidacy is rather weak, however. He’s now 29 and has 151 homers, a 296/.381/.488 lifetime slash and despite his MVP just hasn’t had enough great seasons. At least not yet. St. Louis Cardinals Leitch: Yadier Molina Churchill: Molina Molina has compiled 54.5 fWAR in 17 seasons and has six season of four wins or more, including two near-8 win campaigns in 2012-13. But he’s been a league-average hitter overall and there’s no inherent value to staying in one organization. He’s likely getting in, but I’m not convinced he should with a career .257/.305/.402 line and 160 homers. Chicago Cubs Leitch: Anthony Rizzo Churchill: Kris Bryant Rizzo is 31, has 229 career homers and a career 131 lifetime wRC+. But he’s finished in the top 5 in MVP voting just twice and has just three top-10 finishes. He’s been very good but has a lot of work to do. Bryant is three years younger, has 142 career homers, a 136 wRC+, and has spent his career playing third base and left field. He also has three 6-win seasons an an 8-win season. Rizzo hasn’t surpassed 5.3 wins. Pittsburgh Pirates Leitch: Ke’Bryan Hayes Churchill: Hayes He’s played fewer than 30 games in the majors, but he’s clearly the Bucs’ bets bet. Cincinnati Reds Leitch: Joey Votto Churchill: Votto Votto has a career .304/.419/.517 line with 295 homers and he’s 37 years old. I think he gets in with Edgar Martinez setting the precedent for bat value. National League West Arizona Diamondbacks Leitch: Madison Bumgarner Churchill: Bumgarner Bumgarner is an interesting case. He’s a postseason legend, but has just 119 wins, no Cy Young wins, just two top-5 finishes and is fading fast. But he’s only 31 and has time to find a way to get back. He’s not getting in, but I think he should get more consideration than his win totals suggest. Los Angeles Dodgers Leitch: Clayton Kershaw Churchill: Kershaw Kershaw is the no-brainer, but Mookie Betts has accumulated 40.2 fWAR in five full seasons and two partials, including a 10.4 fWAR MVP year in 2018. San Francisco Giants Leitch: Buster Posey Churchill: Posey He’s a better candidate than Molina, even though he doesn’t catch quite as much an the voter sentiment likely favors the Cardinals backstop. Posey’ 2012 MVP helps, as do the World Series titles, but he’s also just 33 and has a chance to add to his 140 homers, 1380 hits and career .302/.370/.456 triple-slash. Also, Posey had the easiest swing to project to the majors I’ve seen in 20 years. San Diego Padres Leitch: Manny Machado Churchill: Machado I think he’s overrated, but he dos have four 5-win seasons, three of them 6-win efforts and has 223 homers at age 28. This past season may be a sign he’s made an adjustment and his experience is finally starting to pay off at the plate by way of more contact, better batting averages and OBPs. Colorado Rockies Leitch: Nolan Arenado Churchill: Arenado I do think Arenado is the best bet right now, having posted 32.2 fWAR, but the edge on Trevor Story isn’t large, especially considering the threshold on shortstops versus third basemen.
Every season we see dozens of prospects break through to the big leagues, including many who got a taste the prior season. The following is an introductory look at what may be the best rookies in 2021. A handful of these names were prominent rookies in 2020. Some haven’t even sniffed the majors yet, but have a great chance to next season. This is not an attempt to predict the best ROY candidates. This is not a ranking of prospects or rookies. It’s just an early thought on the the 50 best rookies for 2021, in no particular order. This also is not a projection of wins above replacement, where relievers or back-end starters who spend most or all of the season in the bigs outvalue a high-impact player that comes up in late August or September. NOTE 1: You may notice not every top prospect is mentioned, because of their chances to see the majors or to see enough time to serve in a prominent role. You also may notice there aren’t a lot of pure relievers on the list, for what should be obvious-to-all-of-us reasons. NOTE 2: Players maintain “rookie” status until they have surpassed 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues, whether it’s over one individual season or combined over multiple years. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B — Pittsburgh Pirates Terrific in 24 games in 2020 (.376/.442/.682, 195 wRC+), the 23-year-old is primed to sustain that explosion next season. He’s a plus-plus glove, a good athlete, and carries the makeup of a true franchise player. Randy Arozarena, RF — Tampa Bay Rays Arozarena hit seven homers in 76 PAs in the regular season and then hit a thousand long balls in October. OK, it was ‘just’ 10, but he did so in just 77 PAs. He also batted .377 in 20 postseason games. He’s among the favorites for the American League ROY entering 2021, and potentially a major returning piece for the defending AL champions. Dylan Carlson, OF — St. Louis Cardinals Carlson spent all of 2020 as a 21-year-old and while the final numbers (.200/.252/.364) weren’t good, he flashed from both sides of the plate and showed solid defensive ability. The scouting report suggests a .280 hitter with above-average on-base skills and power, but he may just need a little more time to put together both swings. Joey Bart, C — San Francisco Giants Bart profiles as a plus defensive backstop with plus pop and a chance to hit .260. He’ll need to be more selective, but has all the tools to make a number of All-Star games and help propel the Giants back to where they want to be. Devin Williams, RHR — Milwaukee Brewers Williams won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2020 but has yet to surpass the innings threshold to DQ him for another run as a ‘rookie.’ His devastating changeup not only helped him strike out 53% of the batters he faced, but it also induced a 64% ground ball rate on the rare occasion batters made contact. That’s repeatable to a large enough extent to keep Williams high on your list. Ian Anderson, RHS — Atlanta Braves Anderson was very good in 38 frames in 2020, filling the void left by Mike Soroka who spent almost the entire season on the IL with an Achilles injury. If the right-hander wants repeat his success from 2020, however, he’ll need to throw more strikes, but he avoids the barrel consistently and misses bats. James Karinchak, RHR — Cleveland Indians Karinchak, like Williams, was great in 2020 and maintains rookie status into 2021. The right-hander used a mid-90s fastball with a lot of life up in the zone to set up an overhand curveball. The stuff produced a 49% strikeout rate to offset a severe fly ball batted ball profile and a 147% walk rate in 2020. Despite the high rate of fly balls, Karinchak kept the ball in the yard last season. Sixto Sanchez, RHS — Miami Marlins Sanchez was good in seven starts last summer, generating 58% ground balls and going at least six innings on four occasions. He’s consistently 95-98 mph with the fastball to go with a hard slider and firm changeup, all of which are quality big-league offerings. He’s still learning how to use his stuff, but when he does expect the whiff rate to spike from the 20.6% rate he posted in 2020. Triston McKenzie, RHS — Cleveland Indians McKenzie is a tall, lean, and athletic right-hander who’s been dripping with projection since he was a comp round pick in 2015. Since Day 1, however, he’s thrown strikes and missed bats, and he did that for 33 innings last season in Cleveland. The velocity is easy from 92-96 mph and his two breaking balls are average or better — the slider might be special. His changeup teases thanks to good arm speed and he repeats a deceptive delivery very well. Nate Pearson, RHS — Toronto Blue Jays Pearson debuted in 2020 but struggled to command his fastball (16% BB), something he rarely experienced in his two-plus minor league seasons. The right-hander can be absolutely filthy, however, with a 95-99 mph fastball that shows arm side run and life up in the zone, and three secondaries that project as average or better, led by a slider that’s already a swing-and-miss pitch. The difference-maker may end up being a plus changeup. Pearson has a shot to be a legit ace. Josh Jung, 3B — Texas Rangers Jung, 23 in February, may have a path to the majors early in 2021 with the Rangers moving Isiah Kiner-Falefa from third base to shortstop and transitioning Elvis Andrus into a utility player. Jung isn’t yet on the 40-man, but his best tool is his ability to swing at strikes and find the barrel. He’s not likely to hit for a lot of power just yet, but he’s always drawn his share of walks and made a lot of contact. He projects as average defensively. Wander Franco, SS — Tampa Bay Rays The top prospect in baseball possesses the best hit tool on a teenage prospect I’ve ever seen, showing plus ability now and a chance to be an elite 80. But the 5-foot-10, 190-pound switch hitter isn’t all contact, as he also brings above-average power potential to the batter’s box. He’s a 60 runner, too, and should be at least average in the field with a plus arm. He could end up a .330/.400/.500 bat with a chance to swipe 30-40 bags and be a value with the glove, and he might do it before it’s legal for him to have an alcoholic beverage. Shane McClanahan, LHS — Tampa Bay Rays The Rays know how to extract value from young arms and McLanahan may be next in line. He finished 2019 in Double-A and has pounded the strike zone all the way up through the minors. He’ll sit 93-96 mph and has one of the better left-handed curveballs in professional baseball, a true 60-grade pitch. His changeup still needs work, but flashes average. While he throws strikes, his fastball command could use a bump if he’s to reach his ceiling as a No. 2 starter. Jarred Kelenic, OF — Seattle Mariners Kelenic, 21, has ascended quickly since being the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. He ended 2019 in Double-A and likely figures into the Mariners plans early in 2021 — with left field being filled by placeholders until then. Ultimately, it’s at least a 55 hit tool with 60 power, but I’m bullish on the power and see a chance he’s a 35-40 homer stick in his prime. He throws well and is at least an average runner. Logan Gilbert, RHS — Seattle Mariners Gilbert is the closest among Seattle’s top arms in terms of reaching the majors and likely sees the show by the midway point next season. He’s up to 97 mph with his fastball and cruises 92-94 with a plus slider, above-average knuckle curveball and a changeup that at times has been his best secondary. He’s a beast at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds and figures to be a No. 3 starter — with a chance at more. MacKenzie Gore, LHP — San Diego Padres Gore, 22 in February, is pure filth with a 92-96 mph fastball and three 60-grade offspeed pitches in a 73-77 mph curveball, a changeup at 82-85 and a slider that may end up his most effective of the trio. He has 60 control and 50 command, but he’s athletic from head to toe, his arm work well despite a long path — it actually creates deception — and there’s a solid chance he ends up with plus command, too. Keibert Ruiz, C — Los Angeles Dodgers Ruiz isn’t the athlete Will Smith is, nor as polished as Austin Barnes, but it’s an average present hit tool with a chance to be plus and then some, and he’s already a gap threat with strength and bat speed to project for more power. He’s not a great receiver but can handle the position and has a high-floor offensive game to offer while he’s working out the wrinkles in the rest of his game. How he gets time in 2021 remains to be seen, but he’s ready. “He was ready in back in 2019,” said one AL scout. “He makes good solid contact with a line-drive swing, uses most of the field — uses the middle well — has a very good idea of the zone and doesn’t chase.” Josiah Gray, RHS — Los Angeles Dodgers Gray was under-drafted in 2018 when he fell to the No. 72 pick overall pick, likely for two reasons. One, he’s 6-foot-1 and at the time 180 pounds. Two, the competition he faced at Le Moyne College (NY) was the NFL’s equivalent to the NFC East. But Gray is a great athlete, is up to 95 mph and possesses three potential major-league quality offspeed pitches, including a slider that may be his best. He’s yet to build up the arm strength in the minors, so he’s unlikely to make 25 starts in 2021, but could be a combo or multi-inning relief arm for the Dodgers early next season. Forrest Whitley, RHS — Houston Astros Whitley’s scouting report far exceeds his production the last two years, but he’s also battled through some injuries and has managed just 197 professional innings in four seasons — not counting whatever unofficial work he received in 2020. The stuff is great — a 65 fastball at 93-96 mph, four, yes four above-average to plus secondaries, led by a plus curveball and changeup. Aside from the injuries, Whitleys bugaboo is control, where he’s issues 95 bases on balls in under 200 innings. A fine-tuning that gets him to 45-grade control and command makes Whitley at least a No. 3 starter — if he can stay off the IL, that is. He’s ready for the majors. Bryan Abreu, RHP — Houston Astros Abreu is an underrated arm, but his chances to start lean heavily on his ability to improve his control — he’s walked 174 batters in 287 innings in the minors. The raw stuff, however, is undeniable, including a plus fastball up to 96 mph, a plus slider, and a curveball that gets a lot of 65 and 70 grades from scouts. His changeup also shows some promise. Abreu, like Whitley, has had a few injuries along the way, too. At worst, Abreu has a shot to be a high-leverage reliever, but he’s ready to face major league hitters consistently. Casey Mize, RHP — Detroit Tigers Mize was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 and reached the majors last summer. He didn’t have his best stuff in seven starts for Detroit, but he’s up to 96 mph with devastating cutter-splitter-curveball combo backed by above-average command. He’s had some issues staying healthy, which may be the biggest hurdle on his way to being the staff ace in Motown. Tarik Skubal, LHP — Detroit Tigers Skubal has great life on his mid-90s four-seamer and an above-average slider. His 75-78 mph curveball and low-80s changeup remain below-average, and his control and command are blocking him from consistent outings. He needs more seasoning in the minors, but can miss bats now so a relief role could be in the offing once the Tigers are ready to start winning. Lefties went 3-for-24 (.136) off him in the big leagues last season — all singles. Nolan Jones, 3B — Cleveland Indians Jones, 23 in May, is blocked at third base by Jose Ramirez, but may be best suited at first base, anyway — I get a lot of 40-grade reports from scouts on Jones’ defense, at least as of September, 2019. The power is very real, however, and could reach the 35-homer level or better if he can improve his bat-to-ball skills. He may be ready for a long look in the majors in 2021, and first base is wide open in Cleveland. Nick Lodolo, LHS — Cincinnati Reds Lodolo was the No. 7 pick in the 2019 Draft and may see the majors in 2021. I thought he was over-drafted a bit, but he has a starter’s repertoire and eventually should throw a lot of strikes. He can miss bats with his changeup and steal strikes with an above-average curveball he commands consistently. Tyler Stephenson, C — Cincinnati Reds Stephenson debuted in 2020 and while it was just an eight-game, 20-PA sample, the bat looked very good (.294/.400/.647, 2 HR), despite a lot of strikeouts. The main question on Stephenson is the glove, where he may be able to get to fringe-average in time, but has a chance to hit .270 with high OBPs and the bat speed to hit 25-30 homers if he can work a power swing into his game plan. He has a great arm, but may not have the feet to play anywhere else on the diamond. Andrew Vaughn, 1B — Chicago White Sox Vaughn mashed in college and while he’s a bat-first, nearly bat-only prospect who batted .252 with a low-.400s slugging percentage in his two full-season stops in 2019 (a 52-game sample), he walks, he makes contact a high rate and carries 30-40 homer pop — the upper range of that in the band box that is Guaranteed Rate Field — which should be called Guaranteed Rake Field, if you know what I mean. Garrett Crochet, LHS — Chicago White Sox Crochet, who started at Tennessee, including one start before the shutdown last spring, then pitched out of the bullpen for the White Sox in September and October. It’s a 96-100 mph fastball in either role, and the slider flashes plus-plus. He has a hard changeup with a chance to get to average over time, but he may not throw it much if the White Sox keep him in the bullpen. If he dialed down the velo a bit in a starting role, he may throw more strikes, and I think early in 2021 Crochet will get that chance in the minors. Brailyn Marquez, LHS — Chicago Cubs Marquez is up to 99 mph and cruises at 93-97, but his third pitch and command need a lot of work. He has thrown strikes at times, but generally doesn’t locate consistently, and has bouts of control problems that knock him out of games early. He’s just 22 in January, and the Cubs are retooling, so there’s no need to rush him out of the rotation right now. Because the Cubs are likely taking a step or two back, Marquez may get most of is work in the majors in 2021. Jeter Downs, 2B — Boston Red Sox Downs is a below-average shortstop glove but should be average or better at second base. He doesn’t do anything really well — there’s no lead tool — but he should hit .280 with solid OBPs and average or slightly above-average power. He’ll also swipe a few bags, despite fringe-average speed. The Red Sox have other options at second base in 2021, but none have the staying power of Downs. He’s not yet on the 40-man, but is due to touch down next season. Adley Rutschman, C — Baltimore Orioles My favorite prospect in baseball right now, and I think he’s closer to No. 1 than No. 3 is to the former Oregon State star. Rutschman is a very good defensive catcher with a plus arm and a chance to be the best in the game in short order. Oh, and he can hit for average and power from both sides of the plate, and brings championship makeup to the ballpark every single day. On the upside, we could see a .300/.400/.550 MVP-type prime from Rutschman. It’s unlikely he’s up early in 2021, but sometime over the summer isn’t out of the question. That’s how gifted he is. Cristian Pache, CF — Atlanta Braves Pache’s bat is going to need some time, especially in the power department, but he’s an elite glove in center — perhaps the best in baseball already — and has right-field arm strength. He’s also a plus to plus-plus runner capable of legging out triples, infield hits and swiping 30-40 bags if given the chance to run freely. In the long run, he should produce enough offensively to stick in the lineup, and there’s All-Star upside here. All that could start from the get-go next April. William Contreras, C — Atlanta Braves Contreras will be 23 this month and got a cup of java last season with the Braves. He’s been inconsistent offensively, but has 15-20 homer raw power and makes enough hard contact to suggest a playable hit tool. He has a plus arm and is about average in the receiving and blocking departments. Contreras has a great chance to be the No. 2 catcher to start 2021, and it may be more a time share if the kid hits. Drew Waters, OF — Atlanta Braves Unlike Pache, Waters isn’t yet on the 40-man, but he’s a five-tool prospect with a chance at four plus tools, including hit, power, speed and throw. Waters finished 2019 by batting .271/.336/.374 in Triple-A, and his power has yet to develop n games, but he does everything on the field, and should fit nicely in either corner once his bat is ready. Waters could very well be Ender Inciarte‘s eventual replacement, and that could be sometime next season. Alex Kirilloff, OF/1B — Minnesota Twins Back in July 2018, an NL assistant GM texted to ask if anyone was talking about Kiriloff in the same conversations as Eloy Jimenez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. “They should be,” he said. “He’s the best hitter I’ve seen all year down here.” Once he got to Double-A a year later, however, he began chasing a bit more — he hits a lot of pitches hard 4-6 inches off the plate, at least relative to the typical prospect — and big-league arms will take advantage with breaking stuff and significantly better command. The power is legit plus and some scaling back of his selectivity could unlock what may be a plus hit tool, too. He’s fringey in right field, but the bat may play at first base, and he’s ready to be tested by the Twins. Deivi Garcia, RHS — New York Yankees Garcia is five-foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’, but touched 95 mph and misses bats with aa plus changeup. He’s pitched in relief just eight times in pro ball, but five of those came at Triple-A in 2019, which seemingly was a precursor to a middle-relief role in the big leagues in 2020. But the Yankees needed starter’s innings last season, and Garcia came through, averaging nearly six innings per start, pounding the strike zone and perhaps offering the Yankees more role flexibility than some believed he could entering last season. Spencer Howard, RHP — Philadelphia Phillies Howard, 24, is near-ready to grab a rotation spot with the Phillies and auditioned with mixed results in 2020. The fastball is up to 97 mph and dwells 92-95 with relative ease. He has three major-league quality secondary pitches, including a plus curveball and above-average changeup. He throws enough strikes at this point to warrant time in the bigs, but there’s room for more consistent fastball location, which pushes him from back-end arm to potential No. 3 starter. Luis Patino, RHS — San Diego Padres If he can keep his delivery together consistently, he may be a favorite for ROY in 2021. He flashed this past season in 17 innings, sitting 95-99 with an out-pitch slider and useful changeup. Luis Campusano, C — San Diego Padres Campusano may not get much of a chance in 2021 barring injury after the acquisition of Austin Nola last summer, unless he beats out Francisco Mejia in spring training, which is plausible, though not necessarily probable. Neither is more than a fringe defender, but Campusano brings more offensive upside and appears to be progressing with the glove while Mejia’s defensive development has been relatively stagnant. Seth Romero, LHS — Washington Nationals Romero is likely a big-league reliver but he might be a very good one in the mold of Sean Doolittle if he can settle into the role and avoid the off-field issues that have plagued him to date. He’s been up to 97 mph with the fastball but sat 92-94 last summer, albeit with an above-average slider that projects to plus. He also has a useful changeup and when he holds his mechanics together can throw a lot of strikes. Bobby Dalbec, 1B — Boston Red Sox Playable at third base, Dalbec fits best at first base, especially in Boston where Rafael Devers is settled at third for the time being. He has monster raw power thanks to bat speed and tremendous swing leverage. He’s adept at working counts and drawing walks, but hasn’t shown an ability to hit for average in the minors. He batted .263/.359 in 23 games for the Sox last summer, but his BABIP was .394. He ended the season with an xBA of .199. A minor adjustment or two could aid in his efforts to make more consistent contact, perhaps thrusting Dalbec into run-producing corner infielder for years. Adonis Medina, RHS — Philadelphia Phillies Medina’s name has been included in significant trade talks each of the last two winters, but he made his debut with the Phillies last summer, starting and lasting four innings. It’s an average fastball at 91-94 mph, plus a sinker in the same range. The three offspeed pitches all tease average to above-average, but the changeup is the best at present. Depending on what Philly does this winter with their roster, Medina could start spring training with a job to lose in the rotation. It’s a No. 4 profile, there may be a ground ball skill hidden in the profile, which could provide a bit more upside. Royce Lewis, SS — Minnesota Twins Lewis, 21, wouldn’t be buried in this section if it appeared he was the favorite to be the starting shortstop or second baseman for the Twins on Opening Day next season — but he’s not, at least not yet with Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez projected to start up the middle. Lewis is a 60 runner with plus raw power that’s starting to show up in games. The arm is average, but the shortstop defense is fringey, despite the athleticism. Scouts don’t love the swing, but they still like the player quite a bit. Lewis probably belongs in left field on the current Twins roster, but he hasn’t played but eight innings in the outfield in games, so we may not see him do it in the bigs early in 2021. Julio Rodriguez, OF — Seattle Mariners Rodriguez was dinged up in 2019, rebounded quickly to mash at both Class-A levels. In 2020 he missed almost all of full workouts at the Alternate Training Site with another wrist injury, but returned to mash in the Winter League. He’s just 19, but it’s an average hit tool with upside, 65 or better raw power, and a right field defensive profile that includes a 65-grade arm. I wouldn’t put it past Rodriguez to force his way into the majors in 2021, and if Seattle is hanging around in the race for the No. 8 spot in the American League, that roster is going to be fun. Michael Kopech, RHP — Chicago White Sox After TJ surgery in 2018 and opting out of the 2020 season, Kopech should be all healed up and ready to go. The disadvantage here is the overall workload for 2021; the Sox may take it easy on him. When 100% healthy, Kopech has an 80-grade fastball that consistently hits triple digits and has tagged 105. The slider is plus with tilt and the curveball isn’t that far behind. His change has a chance to be average in time, as does his command. Matt Manning, RHP — Detroit Tigers Manning has been Detroit’s most consistent pitching prospect, but he lacks the raw stuff of either Mize or Skubal. He sits 92-95 mph and complements with an above-average changeup and curveball. He throws strikes and in 2019 showed improved ability to locate to both sides of the plate versus both lefties and righties alike. He’s athletic and the trends are all pointing up, suggesting his mid-rotation projection isn’t necessarily his ceiling. Max Meyer, RHP — Miami Marlins Meyer was the No. 3 overall pick last June and could be on the fast track to the show. The arsenal is very good — up to 100 mph and regularly 93-97, with a 70-grade slider — and Meyer’s changeup has a real chance to be average or better. He’s just 6-feet and 195 pounds, but is a brilliant athlete and comes with a high ceiling as a dominant high-leverage reliever available to the Fish whenever they want it. Meyer added strength each year at Minnesota to give him a chance to start long term, so the only chance we see him in relief in 2021 is in a pennant race or playoff run after Meyers logged too many innings in the rotation. Taylor Trammell, LF — Seattle Mariners If Trammell had a better throwing arm he might be the club’s centerfielder of the future (sliding Kyle Lewis to a corner or out the door as trade bait), but it’s a 40 noodle that fits OK in left. Trammell is a great athlete with contact skills that have been disrupted by a lot of tinkering with his swing aimed at unlocking legitimate power potential. He’s a 65 runner and 65 defender — think: Jacque Jones — but if the bat speed meets a better swing, there’s above-average power in there, too. He projects to get on base a lot and swipe some bags. On the upside he’s hitting at the top of the order but otherwise could be a 7-or-9-hole hitter in a very good lineup with no automatic outs. DL Hall, LHP — Baltimore Orioles Hall’s three above-average offerings start with a fastball up to 97 mph in a starting role. The curveball and changeup tease plus, too, and with more work his control and command should get close to big-league average. It’s the makings of a No. 3 starter with a high-leverage floor. He’s ready to face major league bats, but hasn’t thrown more than 94 innings in a season as a pro. Oneil Cruz, SS — Pittsburgh, Pirates Cruz is the tallest shortstop I’ve ever seen at 6-foot-7, and considering he’s 210 pounds at age 22, there’s a great chance he slides to third base sooner than later. He’s a left-handed hitter with plus raw power who offers average hitting skills sans some swing and miss, but since he’s still maturing physically we can’t close the door on the raw power grade, suggesting a 45 hit tool may play just fine, anyway. Brandon Marsh, OF — Los Angeles Angels If there were a minor league season, Marsh may have broken through to the majors last season. At the end of the 2019 season the power was all projection, but he showed average or better hitting tools and the bat speed backs up the raw power grades. Marsh has a good arm and runs well, especially for a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, and hasn’t outgrown center field yet. Because he’s a better bet to hit he may end up a better player than org mate Adell, not unlike how Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar ended up solid major leaguers while Brandon Wood and Dallas McPherson did not.
This time of year in baseball it’s all about the Hot Stove, which may not be as hot this winter, but there will be movement. In reading reports’ tweets and stories as clubs maneuver for roster and payroll flexibility there are nuggets everywhere. Here’s what I’ve seen so far since the end of the World Series that rang up some intrigue, though most of it came with any level of surprise. The Pittsburgh Pirates declined their option on right-hander Chris Archer, which would have paid out $11 million. The 32-year-old had surgery in June to repair neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). As a result, he missed all of 2020 but is expected to be ready for 2021. Archer made 23 starts for Pittsburgh in 2019, covering just under 120 innings and posting a FIP over five and a career high home run rate. He peaked in 2015 and 2017 posting fWARs of 5.1 and 4.5 with the Tampa Bay Rays. Archer represents a potential reclamation project for a club in search of relatively inexpensive help on the mound. The Seattle Mariners may be in a position to discuss such a player, but Archer may represent one of those starter converts we’ve discussed on Baseball Things recently. Archer is likely to get offers to start, but if he doesn’t get starter money — and guaranteed money at that — he may be willing to start thinking about a career coming out of the bullpen. His stuff plays anywhere, including a 93-96 mph fastball and a plus slider. His changeup, however, has been below-average most of his career, putting a lot of pressure on his ability to locate and vary the breaking ball. In relief, the questionable durability — he’s made 50 starts since the end of the 2017 season — goes away, his two-pitch arsenal plays up and the lack of a consistent, quality changeup becomes pretty much irrelevant. Archer the closer? Just a thought. The Minnesota Twins will not spend big dollars. They went to a prorated $158.2 million in 2020 and two seasons hovering around the $140 million range. The 2021 club needs a bat or two, plus some additional pitching to complement Jose Berrios and likely replace Jake Odorizzi in the rotation. They’d like to bring back 123-year-old wonder Nelson Cruz. But in order to do all that they may need to say goodbye to more than free agents. One of those possibilities? Eddie Rosario, per Lavelle E. Neal III. Rosario, 29, had a solid 2020, batting .257/.316/.476 with 13 home runs, resulting in a 110 wRC+. The left-handed batting outfielder is a former infielder due a raise via arbitration. He made a prorated $7.75 million this past season and would be due around $10 million for next season. So the Twins are almost certain to move on from Rosario. Rosario isn’t likely a fit for Seattle, but any club looking for an outfield bat that doesn’t want to splurge for George Springer might wait for the Twins to make this move. But the move could vary from non-tender to trade, and in the current climate it appears the non-tender route is the most likely path. The New York Mets have a new owner, Steve Cohen, and are expected to make a change at GM, a role in which former agent Brodie Van Wagenen has flailed the past two years. What’s apparent just about everywhere else is not in Queens; the Mets aren’t looking to go cheap. Right-hander Marcus Stroman, who opted out of the 2020 season, will receive a qualifying offer from the club, tweets Anthony DiComo. Of course, this report comes while Van Wagenen remains atop the baseball operations totem and Cohen has yet to officially take over, but Cohen has all but given indications he’s going to spend. After all, he is the game’s richest owner and didn’t take ay revenue hits from the pandemic-laden season that just ended. Stroman isn’t likely to accept the QO, but the fact the Mets are willing to dangle it in what is certain to be the dumbest winter ever in terms of free agency says a lot. Which prompts thoughts about how good the Mets could be in 2021, and how aggressive the new GM might be in reshaping that roster. It’s already a good roster led by Jacob deGrom, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso and Robinson Cano, but it’s imbalanced and has been running with a lot of what-ifs scenarios when it comes to injury-prone players. What might a re-shaping of that club look like? If you’re thinking your favorite team might be able to rob the new GM the way Jerry Dipoto did Van Wagenen 24 months ago, don’t count on it. But some good players might become available, and if I’m betting, the Mets turn their sights toward adding more reliable starting pitching depth — including another frontline arm and at least two more relievers. They could spend money and get a lot of that done with, say, Trevor Bauer, Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen. But if Bauer signs elsewhere, there are some position players the Mets may want to use as trade bait in order to better align their roster. For example, Dominic Smith is playing out of position in the outfield and whoever takes over the personnel reins may prefer not to have a regular DH so the spot can be used more efficiently. Might this mean Alonso is dangled? Maybe Smith himself is trade bait. More likely, a J.D. Davis or Jeff McNeil is available for pitching, and/or the logjam at shortstop is used to acquired a controllable arm. Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez each can play the position, though Rosario has the better defensive projection. Neither may last long at short with the imminent arrival of prospect Ronny Mauricio, but one of the two incumbents could slide to second and take over for Cano in a year or two. Cano’s contract runs through 2023, but he could serve as DH if the middle infielders force the club’s hand. The most likely scenario for the Mets right now has expected-president Sandy Alderson hiring a baseball-first GM and fills the front office with varied skills and experiences on all sides of the evaluation equation. This strongly suggests an experienced GM or an executive with a unique blend of scouting, market evaluation, and how analytics fit best into the picture. Tampa Bay Rays special assistant Bobby Heck fits this description better than anyone mentioned in various reports. If you’re unfamiliar, Heck drafted Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr., George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Kike Hernandez, J.D. Martinez, Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, Delino DeShields, Jr., Adrian Houser, Mike Foltynewicz, and Brett Phillips over a five-year span, laying the foundation for the recent run by the Houston Astros which included a World Series title and two appearances. Heck has spent the last six seasons with the Rays, gaining first-hand knowledge how that fascinating front office wins games with the most efficient roster approach in the game. The Mets are one good offseason from being as dangerous as any club in baseball and I expect significant player movement, in name or quantity, once the new GM is named. Speaking of the Rays, they’ve been busy since falling in Game 6 of the World Series, declining the options on right-hander Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino. The 37-year-old Morton is likely to retire or return to Tampa, and it’s plausible the Rays look to bring back Zunino at a lower price than his $4.5 million option, but for the first time in years the Seattle Mariners have no need for a veteran major-league catcher. With the trade acquisition of Luis Torrens and the expected return of Tom Murphy, Seattle has no need for a veteran due guaranteed dollars of any kind. They could, however, use another tweener to serve with Joseph Odom as a backup plan should injuries occur. Last year, Joe Hudson, who was recently outrighted and hit free agency, served in this role. Hudson could be brought back, but there are numerous veterans that could fit the mold, too. More Notes Catchers John Ryan Murphy and Luke Maile, recently outrighted by the Pirates, could be among the backstops Seattle looks into this winter to bolster their depth for spring training and perhaps Triple-A… Another low-risk option on the mound is Jimmy Nelson, who has yet to pitch well since having Tommy John surgery in 2018. Nelson struggled in 2019, walking 16.4% of the batters he faced in 22 innings, and didn’t see the big leagues this past season thanks to the depth on the Dodgers roster and a back issue… He’s 31 and last season showed a dip in velocity from 94 in 2017 to 92, but in March was touching 95 in bullpen sessions. Back in 2017 Nelson was the Brewers’ ace, posting a 3.05 FIP and 4.8 fWAR in 29 starts. The right-hander could be an interesting relief option or rotation project for a club that has the room, and Seattle has the room. The Los Angeles Angels don’t have a GM and free agency is wide open. The Philadelphia Phillies don’t have a GM, either, but I’m picking on the Angels because of who the favorites for that job are. From what I’ve been told, the favorites are Michael Hill and Dan Jennings in tandem, who represent an upgrade to Billy Eppler is allowed to run the baseball operations autonomously, but as I said to a friend in the industry over the weekend, I could serve as an upgrade to Eppler simply by emphasizing pitching this winter, rather than continuing to insist the lineup needs work… Foltynewicz should interest the Mariners in some capacity this winter. He’s 29, made just one appearance in 2020 due to what can only be categorized as ineffectiveness. No injury was reported, but the right-hander’s velocity was down three and half ticks — 95 to 91.5 — and he never saw the majors again. In his 3.1 innings, Folty walked four and served up three homers. Prior to 2020, Foltynewicz had a plus fastball and posted 3.8 fWAR in 2019 before fading in 2019. This might be another potential convert option… Free agent Hector Neris is another potential target for the Mariners in their attempt to stabilize the bullpen. The Phillies declined their $7 million option on Neris, who posted a 2.50 FIP and 26% strikeout rate in 24 games this past season. He also walked 12.6% of the batters he faced and has a career swinging strike rate of 16.6%, among the highest in baseball. Philadelphia holds the righty for another year via arbitration, but there’s a chance he’s traded or non-tendered, since his arb number is likely to get to $6 million or beyond after he made a prorated $4.6 million in 2020. If he’s non-tendered and hits the market, Seattle could have legitimate interest in making him their closer for 2021… No team should give J.T. Realmuto anywhere near $200 million. That’s it, that’s the note.
So, the 2020 MLB season has come to an end. The expanded playoffs are about to start. In a month we’ll learn the results of the official voting, but let’s talk about MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. But first, a couple of notes about the way I look these awards. The MVP, for me, is the best player in the league that year. If, after studying the players’ performances, it’s really close between two or more, his place and value to his team’s winning, or lack thereof, can be a deciding factor, but isn’t part of it until and unless. Not unlike MVP, the Cy Young is more of a Pitcher of the Year for me, and has nothing to do with value to a winning team unless the race is so close I can use that as a tiebreaker. It’s not that when these players perform and how much it means in general aren’t part of my process, but looking at team win-loss to quantify it is shallow and close to meaningless. Rookie of the Year is no different than MVP or Cy Young, but I tend to add a little extra credit if the player is especially young and inexperienced. That, however, isn’t the case in 2020 in either league. And for the record, I don’t do Manager of the Year. It’s a ridiculous award that shouldn’t be voted on by media. How can a reporter possibly have enough info to vote on such an award? Too many of the things one would need to know are intentionally kept secret, and even if one had all the info it would be impossible to quantify it in comparison to the rest of the league’s skippers and their own secret info. Anyway, here are my picks for both leagues. National League MVP: Freddie Freeman, 1B — Atlanta Braves Freeman is a solid defensive first baseman, but a first baseman nonetheless, meaning to be the MVP he’d have to produce special offensive numbers. He did just that in 2020. Freeman finished No. 2 in all of baseball in on-base percentage (.465), slugging percentage (.648), and wRC+ (190), finishing behind Juan Soto in all three categories. Freeman batted .343, No. 3 in MLB and No. 2 in the NL, again behind Soto, and finished No. 1 in runs scored and No. 3 in RBI — No. 2 in the NL behind teammate Marcell Ozuna. Freeman, who posted a 225 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, played all 60 games and led all of baseball with a 3.4 fWAR. So why not Soto? The phenom played in 13 fewer games, which is 21.6% of the season — than did Freeman and wasn’t as valuable with the glove. Had he played a full slate, Soto might very well be the pick here, despite the Washington Nationals sleeping until noon this season. 2. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS — San Diego 3. Mookie Betts, RF — Los Angeles 4. Manny Machado, 3B — San Diego 5. Yu Darvish, RHP — Chicago Cubs American League MVP: Jose Ramirez, 3B — Cleveland Indians Ramirez won this award in September by batting .354/.440/.823 with 10 home runs and a 229 wRC+. He was helped by the struggles of others, but his underrated all-around game and red-hot final month was overwhelming in the end. Ramirez batted .287/.380/.597 for the season, posting 10 stolen bases and another great year on the bases, not to mention the above-average defense at third base. Ramirez’s 158 wRC+ was No. 5 in the AL and he led the circuit with 3.2 fWAR. 2. Shane Bieber, RHP — Cleveland Indians 3. Jose Abreu, 1B — Chicago White Sox 4. Mike Trout, CF — Los Angeles Angels 5. DJ Lemahieu, 2B — New York Yankees National League Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, RHP — New York Mets Darvish got the nod as the top pitcher in my MVP rankings but deGrom edges the Cubs’ ace and Reds right-hander Trevor Bauer because, well, he had a better year. The Mets star led the NL in xFIP (2.46) and K/9 (13.76), and was second in FIP (2.26 to Darvish’s 2.23). DeGrom struck out 10 or more in five of 12 starts, and beat Atlanta twice, the Rays once, and Philadelphia twice. All three opponents ranked in the Top 10 in wRC+. Darvish faced just one of the Top 15 offenses in baseball (White Sox twice). Bauer, who won the Nl ERA title, finished No. 5 in both FIP (2.88) and xFIP (3.26), and while he’d use the total number of playoff teams he faced to boost his candidacy, let’s top off the argument against Bauer with a closer look at how he put up the great numbers. Bauer faced Detroit twice — No. 24 offense in MLB — Pittsburgh twice (No. 29), Milwaukee (No. 25) three times, and both Kansas City (No. 20) and Chicago-NL (No. 21) once. Bauer faced one team with a top-19 lineup, the 6th-ranked White Sox. 2. Yu Darvish, RHP — Chicago Cubs 3. Trevor Bauer, RHP – Cincinnati Reds 4. Corbin Burnes, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers 5. Dinelson Lamet, RHP — San Diego Padres American League Cy Young: Shane Bieber, RHP — Cleveland Indians Bieber had this wrapped up before September. The ace led all starting pitchers in K/9 (14.2), fWAR (3.2), ERA (1.63), FIP (2.07), xFIP (2.07), K% (41.1), SIERA (2.52), and he did it against the White Sox (No. 6) twice, and the No. 16 Minnesota Twins three times. He fanned 10 or more eight times in 12 starts and allowed more than two runs in a game just three times. 2. Kenta Maeda, RHP — Minnesota Twins 3. Lucas Giolito, RHP — Chicago White Sox 4. Zack Greinke, RHP — Houston Astros 5. Framber Valdez, LHP — Houston Astros National League Rookie of the Year: Jake Cronenworth, 2B — San Diego Padres There’s a lot of beat-reporter chatter about Brewers reliever Devin Williams, but Cronenworth was the best NL rookie in 2020, despite a late fade at the plate. His .285/.354/.477 triple-slash says a lot, but he was also versatile defensively, playing 47 adequate innings at shortstop as well as 78 very good innings at first base and the bulk of his time as an above-average second base glove. He hit just four home runs, but tripled three times and logged 15 doubles in 54 games. 2. Tony Gonsolin, RHP — Los Angeles Dodgers 3. Devin Williams, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers 4. Ian Anderson, RHP — Atlanta Braves 5. Sixto Sanchez, RHP — Miami Marlins American League Rookie of the Year: Kyle Lewis, CF — Seattle Mariners Lewis struggled in September, but finished the year a .262/.364/.437 with 11 home runs and a rookie-best 1.7 fWAR. He played a more-than-adequate center field and is an above-average baserunner. Furthermore, Lewis served as an anchor in the Mariners lineup with as little ‘protection’ as any ROY contender in either league. 2. Luis Robert, CF — Chicago White Sox 3. Willi Castro, SS — Detroit Tigers 4. Sean Murphy, C — Oakland Athletics 5. Justus Sheffield, LHP — Seattle Mariners 2020 All-MLB Team POSITION PLAYER TEAM STATS 1B Freddie Freeman Atlanta Braves 187 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR 2B DJ LeMahieu New York Yankees 177 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR 3B Jose Ramirez Cleveland Indians 163 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR SS Fernando Tatis Jr. San Diego Padres 149 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR C J.T. Realmuto Philadelphia Phillies 125 WRC+, 1.5 fWAR OF Mookie Betts Los Angeles Dodgers 149 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR OF Mike Trout Los Angeles Angels 164 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR OF Juan Soto Washington Nationals 200 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR DH Marcell Ozuna Atlanta Braves 179 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR SP Shane Bieber Cleveland Indians 2.04 xFIP, 3.2 fWAR SP Jacob deGrom New York Mets 2.46 xFIP, 2.6 fWAR SP Yu Darvish Chicago Cubs 2.82 xFIP, 3.0 fWAR SP Trevor Bauer Cincinnati Reds 3.26 xFIP, 2.5 fWAR SP Dinelson Lamet San Diego Padres 3.30 xFIP, 2.4 fWAR RP Devin Williams Milwaukee Brewers 1.09 xFIP, 1.4 fWAR RP Liam Hendriks Oakland Athletics 207 xFIP, 1.4 fWAR
Deciding postseason berths after just 60 games feels so wrong. It’s akin to deciding medal winners 10 miles into an Olympic Marathon. Then again, we all know why MLB shortened the regular season to about 35-percent of its normal length. There are far more important things than baseball going on in our world. Since we were limited to a small sample size of baseball, I wanted to find a way to contrast what we saw in 2020 to last year. I decided to use a straightforward approach – compare team’s 2019 records through 60 games to this season’s final standings. Will this exercise prove anything? Not really, but we may be able to add a smidge of perspective to the weirdest MLB season ever. To simplify the process, I segregated the 30 clubs into three basic categories: improved; relatively the same; fell on their sword. Movin’ On Up Leading the way in our first section are four teams heading to the playoffs after being a rebuild project just a year ago. Perhaps the success of these organizations will be a source of encouragement for Mariners fans anxiously awaiting Seattle’s long overdue return to the MLB postseason. Much of the success enjoyed by the Blue Jays, Padres, Marlins, and White Sox is attributable to emerging young stars, who were either homegrown or acquired via trade. Despite a return to the postseason, all four clubs will require upgrades in the offseason to continue their ascent. Still, how satisfying must it be for fans of these teams to see positive results? It’s worth noting Toronto didn’t languish in mediocrity as long as the other cities did. The Blue Jays played in consecutive ALCS in 2015-16, although the team went into a tailspin afterwards. That said; the others waited over a decade prior to returning to the postseason in 2020. The White Sox last made a playoff appearance in the 2008 ALDS against the subsequent AL Champion Rays. Similarly, the Padres last saw postseason action in the 2006 NLDS in a losing effort to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Then, there’s Miami. The Marlins last played meaningful October baseball in 2003 when they beat the Yankees in the World Series. Before reaching the Fall Classic, the Fish had to get past the Cubs in an NLCS best remembered for the infamous “Steve Bartman incident” at Wrigley Field. Ironically, the two teams square off against each other in the Windy City this week. Although the Orioles and Royals were once again bottom-feeders, each team showed signs of improvement over their atrocious 19-41 records in 2019. That’s good, right? Same Ole Story Next up, our largest subset. Teams posting similar records in 2019 and 2020. Doing so was a good thing for some clubs – not so much for others. The Dodgers remain the model of consistency after winning an eighth consecutive NL West division title. Whether you love or hate them, there’s no denying the Yankees epitomize sustained superior performance. The last time the Bronx Bombers posted a losing record was 1992 – George H.W. Bush was in the White House. The remaining 2019 postseason clubs made the cut again with the exception of the Nationals. As most of you know, Washington scuffled out of the gate last year before going on to win the World Series. At one point, manager Dave Martinez seemed destined to lose his job before his club rebounded. The Cubs were the lone club with an identical record in both years. Ironically, Chicago didn’t get into the playoffs last year. Yet, the North Siders are the 2020 NL Central division champions. Staying in the division, the Reds were comparable to their 2019 record. That said; Cincinnati looked like a team that would’ve flourished over a full regular season – their pitching was that good. Two teams entered the season with playoff aspirations but fell on their faces – the Mets and Angels. Last year, the Amazin’s started slowly, but were 46-26 after the All-Star break and remained relevant into September. Conversely, the Halos were mediocre early and only worsened as the season progressed – much like 2020. Three rebuilding clubs – the Giants, Tigers, and Mariners – took noticeably different approaches in 2020 despite posting similar records to last year. San Francisco’s roster remained laden with veterans this year, which kept them in the hunt for a postseason berth until the final day. Realistically, this team probably wins 75 games and finishes well out of contention in a full 162-game season. The Tigers took an aggressive approach with their roster opting to debut several of their top prospects during the truncated season without regard to the impact doing so would have on player service time. Conversely, the Mariners were conservative choosing to delay the MLB debuts of their best and brightest youngsters at least until 2021. Time will tell which team had the better strategy – my money is on Seattle. Fallin’ Down Our last group is a collection of rebuilding organizations and several that should seriously consider initiating a roster makeover. The once mighty Astros were mediocre at best this year. The only reason they’re playing in October for a fourth consecutive year is the expanded eight-team postseason field in effect for 2020. Another key factor favoring Houston – playing in the awful AL West division. With a normal 162-game slate, the ‘Stros would’ve been fortunate to finish with a .500 record. Another team benefiting from the larger playoff field is Milwaukee. Sure, it’s possible the Brewers would’ve rebounded over a full season. On the other hand, they didn’t look like a sustainable contender this year. While the Pirates and Red Sox committed to rebuilding, the remaining organizations outwardly appeared intent on competing this year – they all fizzled. It’s plausible we’ll see several of these teams make changes at the general manager and field manager positions – perhaps both. Unlike Martinez with the Nationals last year, these folks will be losing their respective jobs based on their record after 60 games. Seems a bit harsh. Then again, it’s 2020 – what else would you expect? My Oh My…
The MLB playoff brackets are finally set. So, I decided to have fun by compiling power rankings for the 16 teams with a shot at winning the World Series. These aren’t predictions – just assessments of how I view these clubs heading into the oddest postseason of all time. Realistically, it’s conceivable a Cinderella gets hot and goes deep into October or even wins the Fall Classic. This is particularly true for a playoff tourney with teams playing 3-game series in the first round – we’re bound to see a few upsets along the way. First up, the prohibitive favorite to win it all. 1. Los Angeles Dodgers The winner of eight straight NL West titles finished the regular season with the best record in MLB thanks to being top-3 in both run production and run prevention. Heading into October, the Dodgers’ talented and deep pitching staff should be a difference-maker during early postseason rounds with no off-days. Perhaps this year is the first time since 1988 the World Series trophy returns to Los Angeles. The roster certainly favors such an outcome. 2. Tampa Bay Rays The organization with one of the lowest payrolls is primed to be a disruptive force. The Rays aren’t great at any one thing, but the team is top-10 in hitting, pitching, and defense. That’s a good blend heading into postseason, especially with an innovative tactician like Kevin Cash at the helm. To a degree, Cash and his crews are already battle-tested after going 21-9 against teams with winning records this season. 3. Minnesota Twins Run production fell off after the Twins set the MLB record for most home runs last season, although ageless Nelson Cruz continued destroying baseballs as did Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Miguel Sano. Offsetting the downturn in offense, a solid starting staff led by probable Cy Young finalist Kenta Maeda and a deep bullpen relying on Taylor Rogers, Matt Wisler, Tyler Clippard, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Sergio Romo. Minnesota certainly has a strong chance of representing the AL in the World Series. 4. Cleveland Indians If pitching is truly key to going deep into the postseason, Cleveland is also be a strong contender for the AL pennant. The offense ranked in the bottom-third of MLB, but the team has one of the best and deepest rotations in baseball headlined by AL Cy Young front runner Shane Bieber. Again, starting staffs with length should be vital during compressed playoff series – the Tribe certainly has that box checked. 5. San Diego Padres Recent injuries to starters Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet are concerning, especially if one or both pitchers aren’t available for the playoffs. Then again, San Diego’s super-charged offense and strong relief pitching could help keep the club competitive. Will that be enough to propel the Friars back to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1998? Tough to envision it without an effective Clevinger and/or Lamet rejoining the team. 6. Oakland Athletics The A’s are tough to gauge. They were dominant within the dreadful AL West, but a pedestrian 10-10 against the more competitive NL West. Oakland’s offense and starting rotation were average, but the bullpen stood out as one of baseball’s best. An added edge for the team – veteran skipper Bob Melvin making the most of his roster. Assuming Melvin’s squad generates enough run production to the get the ball to the bullpen with a lead, the AL West division champions are championship material. 7. Chicago Cubs The Cubs pack a powerful one-two punch with Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks atop the rotation. Joining in on the fun with strong Septembers were veteran Jon Lester and Alec Mills, who tossed a no-hitter. Even a bullpen that struggled early has been reliable during the stretch run. Still, the lineup is below average in every significant offensive category, including the most important of all – runs scored. 8. New York Yankees The offense is potent thanks to the bats of DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, Clint Frazier, Gio Urshela, Aaron Hicks, Gleyber Torres and 36-year-old Brett Gardner. Plus, Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ form a very respectable top-of-the-rotation. Nevertheless, the Yankees’ once-formidable bullpen has been less-than-ordinary lately. A troubling development for an organization that believes there is only one acceptable outcome for any season – a World Series win. 9. Cincinnati Reds The Reds barely made the tournament, but they’re the type of opponent high seeds probably prefer avoiding. Why? A dynamic rotation with a top-three of NL Cy Young front-runner Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray. Shoring up the rear – a versatile bullpen with closer Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, Lucas Sims, Amir Garrett, Tejay Antone, and Michael Lorenzen. The issue most likely to slow Cincinnati’s roll in October – an underachieving offense averaging just 4.05 runs/game. 10. Atlanta Braves The Braves led the majors in runs scored with Freddie Freeman having an MVP-worthy season, but the team’s success moving forward hinges on an injury-decimated rotation. Max Fried is a Cy Young candidate and rookie Ian Anderson has been superb. After that, it gets squishy. Atlanta does have a solid bullpen headed by veteran closer Mark Melancon, although it may not be enough to drive deep into the postseason. 11. Chicago White Sox The White Sox were top-5 in offense and run prevention with a fun roster featuring both youth and experience. The rotation was solid with Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, and Dylan Cease, while the bullpen led by closer Alex Colome was a strength. The most fascinating Chicago reliever – 2020 first round pick Garrett Crochet, who typically tops 100-MPH on the radar gun. One concern – the Sox finished the season 2-8, which includes a 4-game sweep by Cleveland. 12. Toronto Blue Jays Deadline pickup Taijuan Walker performed well along with staff ace Hyun Jin Ryu, but the rest of the Blue Jays’ rotation struggled in September. Moreover, the bullpen wasn’t particular good down the stretch. This doesn’t bode well for a club that backed into a postseason berth that wouldn’t normally be available. 13. St. Louis Cardinals A COVID-19 outbreak wreaked havoc on the Cardinals’ schedule, but the team powered through to reach the postseason. St. Louis defenders were among the best in MLB with the most defensive runs saved (DRS). But the offense ranked in the bottom-third of MLB and the pitching staff doesn’t rate much better. That’s not going to work in a frenetic postseason tourney. 14. Miami Marlins The surprising Marlins overcame an even more disastrous COVID outbreak than the Redbirds to earn a playoff berth for the first time since they won the 2003 World Series. The Fish don’t appear to be built for a deep postseason run, but their stable of young rotation arms that includes Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez could make them a difficult early round opponent. The future is bright in Miami. 15. Houston Astros Oh, how far the defending AL champions have fallen. Houston limps into the postseason thanks to a second place finish in the underwhelming AL West. Give manager Dusty Baker credit for keeping the club moving forward, but the end is looming for a once-formidable franchise. 16. Milwaukee Brewers Pitching has been a strength with Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes at the top of the rotation and Josh Hader, Brent Suter, and rookie Devin Williams the marquee arms in a power bullpen. Unfortunately, Burnes just went down with an oblique strain and likely misses the postseason. Adding to the Brewers’ woes – well below-average run production. This eleventh hour qualifier appears destined for an early exit. Looking Ahead In a few weeks, my power rankings will probably look awful with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Then again, who cares? We were lucky to have an MLB season to watch or debate about. I’m okay with being roasted for my rankings. Bring on the postseason.
The Seattle Mariners had two separate leads on Justin Verlander in Friday night’s opener; 1-0 and 2-1, and both came on the strength of the home run ball. Kyle Lewis hit a 1-0 fastball (95 mph) 438 feet from home plate to get things going in the second inning. Kyle Seager gave the Mariners the lead back in the fourth on a 2-0 fastball clocked at 94.4 mph. Verlander never really was rattled, however, and the Houston Astros rallied to beat Seattle 8-2 to open the 2020 schedule. The world knows Verlander has nasty stuff. He’s up to 99 mph deep into games, features plus curveball, plus slider and an above-average changeup. Friday, his slider was mindbogglingly good. And when a pitcher like Verlander has a pitch like that going, sometimes the quality of the opponent matters very little. Sometimes the lineup has no other choice but to taste filth. He threw 28 sliders (37%) on the night, 14 strikes and 14 balls. On the surface, that doesn’t sound so great, and if it were fastballs we were discussing, it would be awful. But sliders are chase pitches, often started to look like it will be in the zone and breaking sharply out of the zone to induce weak contact and swinging strikes. Of Verlander’s 14 strikes with the slider Friday, eight were of the swinging variety, four were called and two were fouled off, all good by themselves without a lick of context. Speaking of that context, however, here’s the zone plot for Verlander’s sliders from Fridays matchup: This is for batters from both sides of the plate. Verlander pounded the down-and-in area versus lefties and down and away versus righties with that slider. Only two of the eight whiffs were on sliders that hit the strike zone and they barely scraped the zone, putting not even a quarter of the baseball into the lower-outside edges of the strike zone o right-handed batters. As you can see, only one of the four called strikes was above the belt (it was a 1-0 pitch to Evan White), and of the six non-competitive results in terms of location, two induced slight check swings and one produced a whiff. Five of the six were thrown when Verlander was ahead in the count, three with two strikes. Perhaps more impressive than the strikes are the eight competitive sliders that did not end up as strikes. One should have been a strike. About a quarter of the baseball scraped through the zone. The home plate umpire just didn’t see it that way. That was a 1-0 pitch to Jose Marmolejos. Yes, Verlander threw a rookie bench player a 1-0 slider in the fifth inning of a game he was losing 2-1. One other was within an inch or two of the strike zone, one was the first pitch of the PA, one was on an 0-1 count after a called strike fastball, and three others were no more than three inches off the plate. Seven of these particular eight misses would unequivocally be called very good pitch locations. Verlander’s slider averaged just under 87 mph, per Brooks Baseball, broke just under three inches vertically, not including gravity, and broke three inches horizontally, representing the sixth-most horizontal break Verlander got from the slider in a game since 2017. Of the five game his slider had more horizontal break, the vertical break was between 2.34 inches and 2.61 inches. Friday it was 2.9. It wasn’t one of Verlander’s better overall performances, as he struggled with fastball location a bit, didn’t use the changeup much, and threw just one or two curveballs, but the slider was about as good as ever for the 37-year-old defending Cy Young Award winner. In other words, Verlander’s slider was filthilicious. Dirty. Disgusting. And the Mariners tasted it.
The 2020 MLB Season is upon us and while there are major hurdles the league and its personnel must leap to get through the entire 60-game schedule, we will get a beginning to the campaign. Considering the longest offseason of all-time and the dynamics that come with it for this season, let’s power rank every team in baseball. 1. Los Angeles Dodgers It’s the best roster in baseball with two of the game’s top 5 position players in reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger and former AL MVP Mookie Betts leading the way. The starting pitching might be a bit thin after Kenta MAeda was traded, Hyun Jin Ryu left via free agency and David Price opted out, but the re-signing of Alex Wood offers depth and young arms Julio Urias and Dustin May have a shot to help from the start this season. Walker Buehler is primed to take over as the true ace of the staff, too, and while bullpen questions may remain, the addition of Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol could end up significant moves. Ross Stripling is starting the season in the rotation, but if the club can add another quality arm Stripling can help out the bullpen down the stretch. This is a juggernaut destined to get back to the World Series and the truncated schedule shouldn’t be much of an obstacle. 2. New York Yankees Another very good roster, but the Yankees will be without Luis Severino this year and there are at least moderate concerns about the health stability of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. The Yankees will mash and they might have the league’s best bullpen with Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino leading to Aroldis Chapman. If the rotation holds up behind Gerrit Cole, we could have the first Yankees-Dodgers World Series since 1981. Houston Astros The Astros lost their greatest advantage when Cole left for pinstripes, but Justin Verlander remains, Lance McCullers Jr. returns and the entire lineup remains intact. Aside from the bullpen, the main question here might be about how much the trash-can banging actually helped the Houston hitters. I’m going to predict not a ton and another Astros division title, but with Zack Greinke and Verlander aging and with contracts up after 2021, and the pending free agency of outfielders Springer and Brantley, 2020 may be the last hurrah for their current core. Whether that means they’ll be aggressive at the deadline or not remains to be seen, but there isn’t a lot left on the farm to go out and bring in impact players, so they may have to rely on what they have now to repeat in the west and get back to the World Series. 4. Washington Nationals We can talk about the loss of Anthony Rendon all day if you’d like, but the defending champs boast the league’s best 1-2-3 rotation punch in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and the bullpen gained Will Smith via free agency. Starling Castro and Eric Thames add veteran help for the lineup and 21-year-old Juan Soto and 22-year-old Victor Robles are just scratching the surface. The Nationals are just as dangerous as a year ago. 5. Tampa Bay Rays From a pure roster standpoint there are flashier clubs ranked behind them, but Kevin Cash is masterful at using his pieces and there are several young players trending up in their process, including shortstop Willy Adames and outfielder Austin Meadows. If they stay healthy, the Rays’ top 3 starters — Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow — may be as good as any trip in the American League, and the Tampa bullpen led the American League in fWAR last year and everyone is back, led by Nick Anderson and Jose Alvarado. 6. Minnesota Twins In a 162-game season, I’d pick the Twins to win the American League Central by 5-10 games. But they don’t have the impact rotation pieces Cleveland does, so I think the Twins are in for a season-long battle. The key here for me the Twins’ bullpen which lacks names but performed very well in 2019 leading the AL in FIP, but it’s worth keeping an eye on some of the older players in that lineup, including Nelson Cruz and newly-acquired Josh Donaldson. It’s a short season, so the issue isn’t tiring down the stretch, but older players tend to get hurt more and Cruz is closer to 40 than 35 and Donaldson, 34, missed over 150 games to injury 2017-18. Do they have the guns in the rotation for a deep playoff run? I don’t see it. 6. Atlanta Braves The Braves aren’t quite as deep and veteran-laden as the Twins, but they have advantages in impact, starting with their rotation and MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. Atlanta’s key may be getting enough from an unproven young arm such as Kyle Wright and keeping Mike Foltynewicz healthy. I look for Max Fried to take a big step forward this season, and the Braves’ catching tandem — Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers — is among the best in baseball. 8. Oakland Athletics We used to say, yeah, they aren’t as talented as everyone else but they get the job done, kinda like the Rays. But from a pure talent standpoint, the A’s trail only the top 3 teams on this list. Matt Chapman is an MVP candidate, Matt Olson is one the elite first baseman in the game, Marcus Semien is a top-level shortstop and this year’s rotation is more naturally gifted than any Bob Melvin has had. If rookie lefty Jesus Luzardo shows he’s legit behind Sean Manaea — whom the club had for the final month only last season and still won 97 games — the A’s will challenge the Astros in the west. One interesting situation to monitor on the field is left-hander AJ Puk, who is not ready to go to start the year, but could be a boost in some form in August. Something to ponder as we watch these A’s in 2020: Where will Semien play in 2021? He’s a free agent at season’s end. 9. Cleveland Indians Five years ago if you would have said Trevor Bauer and Core Kluber are no longer in Cleveland as of 2020, most would have replied “so much for that starting rotation.” But Carlos Carrasco remains — and appears to be healthy — and both Mike Clevinger (30, 4.5 fWAR in 21 starts in 2019) and Shane Bieber (25, 5.6 fWAR in 33 starts) have effectively filled the gaps well. Add to that the emergence of Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez and the rotation is not only very strong again in Cleveland, but more sustainable than it’s been since the World Series run. The Indians didn’t add a lot of help offensively, but the addition of Cesar Hernandez shores up a weak spot at second base and the additions of Domingo Santana and Franmil Reyes lengthen the lineup and bench. The club has two MVP candidates in Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, one of which is looking to rebound from a bit of an off year (Ramirez played 129 games and posted a 104 wRC+) and the other is playing for a contract. Lindor hits free agency after next season, suggesting this may be his final season in Cleveland if the Indians choose to move him rather than let him play out the string. 10. St. Louis Cardinals The Cardinals aren’t among the 10 most talented rosters and in that regard do not belong ahead of divisional rival Cincinnati, but they won 91 games a year ago despite a down year for Paul Goldschmidt (116 wRC+, 2,9 fWAR | 5.2, 146 in 2018) and Carlos Martinez pitching out of the bullpen. Not to mention the emergence of Jack Flaherty, who starts the year as the club’s ace after leading NL pitchers in fWAR (4.1) and ranking No. 2 in FIP after the All-Star break last season. 11. Cincinnati Reds Lots of talent, not major holes in projected lineup, but they may lack rotation impact to put them over the top. Legit division contender and should score a lot of runs if they stay healthy. 12. New York Mets Despite the loss of Noah Syndgergaard for the season, the Mets rotation boasts five mid-rotation or better talents led by Cy Young favorite Jacob deGrom. Marcus Stroman‘s recent injury puts a damper on that a bit, but he’s considered week-to-week and does not require surgery. With Pete Alonso anchoring, the Mets’ lineup could be as daunting as any in recent years, but there are some ifs that serve as prerequisites, including a return-to-form by Robinson Cano. 13. Chicago Cubs On paper, the Cubs should score runs, but the pitching staff is a lot of what-ifs and question marks with both performance and injury concern. Keep an eye on Kris Bryant, a free agent after 2021, whom the Cubs may shop as early as this summer if they’re not in plain sight of a postseason berth in five weeks. 14. Philadelphia Phillies Among the clubs outside the top 10, Philly might have the most upside. They were a .500 club last year, added Zack Wheeler and Did Gregorius, Andrew McCutchen is healthy to start the year (played just 59 games last season) and Joe Girardi is a significantly better puzzle master than his predecessor. 15. Texas Rangers I’m high-man on Texas, and I’m fine with that. A year ago, the Rangers went 78-84, six games better than the division-rival Angels, and did so with Joey Gallo (paced for a 7-win season at the time) out for more than half the season. General manager Jon Daniels added Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles and Kluber to a rotation that ranked No. 5 in the AL in fWAR last season, despite lacking a lot of impact performances beyond Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. the Rangers also boast multiple position players either on their way up or right in their prime, including Danny Santana (111 wRC+), Gallo, Willie Calhoun (110 wrC+) and Ronald Guzman. 16. Milwaukee Brewers Still don’t see the starting pitching the Brewers need to do damage in October, but the lineup remains good and deep, led by former MVP Christian Yelich and the surging Keston Hiura, and the division isn’t exactly flush with flawless, runaway rosters. 17. Arizona Diamondbacks I like Ketel Marte a lot, and liked him a lot before anyone else liked him at all, but I don’t buy his 7-win season as repeatable and the D-Backs didn’t do enough on the pitching front to lend confidence in competing for more than the No. 2 Wild Card. Madison Bumgarner and Starling Marte help, but they’re not stars and that’s what’s lacking in Phoenix. 18. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Yep, they have Mike Trout, and yes, they signed Anthony Rendon, an MVP candidate. But Rendon may start the year on the IL, and the Angels have questions marks all over the roster after that. Albert Pujols is a shell of himself, Justin Upton is now 32 (33 in August) and showing some signs of slowing down (missed 99 games in 2019, posted 92 wRC+), and perhaps the tremendous wizardry at shortstop is taking its toll on Andrelton Simmons, too. The good news for the Angels is Shohei Ohtani is ready to roll and the dude can hit and he can really, really pitch. The bad news is, Andrew Heaney is a No. 3 at best, and an injury risk. Dylan Bundy is a No. 4 at best and an injury risk. Griffin Canning, who might be the defacto No. 2, is not yet established and had a bit an elbow scare this week. The re’s no pitching depth in the minors for Joe Maddon to go to, but Maddon himself might be the Halos’ biggest addition. If I’m Gm Billy Eppler and owner Arte Moreno right now, I’m eyeing every impact starter in baseball – readily available or not — and offering anything in my organization outside Trout, Rendon, and prospect Jo Adell to try and add one. Otheewise, the long-term, pricey addition of Rendon, who is already 30, stumbles out of the blocks. 19. San Diego Padres A very talented team just waiting for young arms to blow up, and that could start in 2020. Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet are ready to show they’re frontline arms to lead a staff, Garrett Richards will be good as long as he stays healthy and Cal Quantril has No. 3 written all over him. The bullpen figures to be very good again and they start the season with a healthy Fernando Tatis Jr. The reliance on so many young players is the only reason why the Padres don’t rank 8-10 spots higher, but they do have that kind of upside in 2020. 20. Chicago White Sox The White Sox don’t have the Padres’ depth just yet, but they might have as many or more high-impact talents. For every Tatis Jr and Manny Machado San Diego boasts, the White Sox have their Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, not to mention Lucas Golito at the top of a staff balanced by veterans Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez. The South Siders have similar upside as the Padres, but come with more questions marks (pitching, overall depth) than the clubs ranked ahead of them to start 2020. 21. Boston Red Sox The Red Sox are a mess. They traded Betts for Alex Verdugo ( a nice player, but one without Betts-level upside) and Chris Sale is out for the year, leaving the rotation to Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and patchwork. The bullpen doesn’t look much more stable. They’ll score runs, but they’re going to need to threaten .500 this year. 22. Toronto Blue Jays A team on the rise that will get Nate Pearson late in Week 1 of the season could be a nuisance to AL East rivals. They;re a year away, most likely, from even Wild Card contention, but are one of the clubs with a real shot should MLB and the PA agree on a 16-team playoff format before Opening Day. Side Note: I hate changing the playoff structure this late. Doing so did not give fringe clubs a chance to consider their opportunity over the past month, likely leading to fewer trades, more focus on development and less interest in acquiring veteran free agents. 23. Colorado Rockies I have no idea what it is the Rockies are doing. Neither do they. There’s talent here and two top-10 players in the NL in Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado, but there are a lot of holes and it’s difficult to think the field staff and players buy into the brand right now. 24. San Francisco Giants Do not know what the Giants think they are doing, but they seem stuck in the middle of rebuild and add veterans to stay relevant. Reeks of the Howard Lincoln-Chuck Armstrong led Mariners after Pat Gillick left in 2003. 25. Miami Marlins Young talent starting to sprout — Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, Pablo Lopez, Brian Anderson –and some sneaky veteran depth could get the Marlins out of the cellar trio in the league in 2020. 26. Pittsburgh Pirates Chris Archer is out for the year, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon are on the IL and after Josh Bell there doesn’t appear to be much firepower in the lineup. The Bucs saving grace in 2020 is a future rotation including Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove joining forces this year, and the club is one year closer to the arrivals of Ke’BRyan Hayes’ bat and the overall games of Oneil Cruz and first-round pick Nick Gonzales. 27. Kansas City Royals The Royals remains years from competing, but have several potential trade targets on which to keep an eye over the next six months, including White Merrifield, Danny Duffy, Trevor Rosenthal and Salvador Perez. Otherwise, it’s a potential 40-loss season. 28. Seattle Mariners Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais are committed to continuing the development path, despite a 60-game season offering increased chances of a fluke postseason berth. Such consistency in approach to the rebuild is a microcosm of the differences between the current and previous front office and ownership. It also appears, despite 2020 clipping their path a bit, the Mariners are on a faster track to being competitive than is typically foreseeable when clubs tear it all the way down the way they have. 29. Detroit Tigers They have arms brewing in the minors to team up with Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris in a few years, but 2020 is all about maximizing assets, so expect Matthew Boyd‘s name to come up in trade talks until he’s traded. One thing to watch for with the Tigers this season is a healthy Miguel Cabrera, who will surpass 1700 RBI and could get to 2900 hits. He’s also 23 shy of 500 homers, but 23 in a 60-game stretch is prime Cabrera fire, not that of the 37-year-old version. 30. Baltimore Orioles The O’s are still pretty early in their rebuild and had nothing of impact to trade to get a legitimate jump-start the way Dipoto and the Mariners did after the 2018 season, so this is going to take a while. Baltimore has some pitching growing on the farm, namely Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, and their top prospect is catcher Adley Rutschman, among the top talents in all of baseball. That group should start showing up next season, but 2023 is probably the soonest the Orioles could be competitive again.