The Philadelphia Phillies have agreed to a contract with free-agent first baseman Carlos Santana, and while at first glance it might seem like an awkward fit on a team that had 2017 rookie star Rhys Hoskins penciled in at first base, it’s actually a clever and creative move by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak.
Quick thoughts on the signing and the overall state of the Phillies:
1. First off, at three years and $60 million, it’s not overpaying, and limiting the deal to three years means there’s little chance of it blowing up on the back end. Santana owns a career .365 OBP, so he brings some much-needed on-base ability to the Phillies lineup. The deal takes him through his age 32-34 seasons, and while Santana’s home run production has been inconsistent through the years -- 27 in 2014, 19 in 2015, 34 in 2016, 23 in 2017 -- we know he will draw his walks. The Phillies were 11th in the NL in walks and 13th in OBP in 2017, so they need a hitter like this to help anchor the middle of the lineup.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona also praised Santana’s defense the other day, and the metrics suggest Santana was very good there in 2017, with 10 defensive runs saved. UZR had him at 4.8 runs, third place among all first basemen. Even if those numbers regress a bit, it seems pretty clear Santana won’t be a defensive liability. He’s not a DH masquerading as a first baseman.
Santana also could benefit from the move to Citizens Bank Park. Progressive Field is basically home run neutral, but Citizens Bank ranked as the easiest home run park in the majors in 2017 -- even more so than Yankee Stadium. Santana has been worth 3.0 and 3.4 WAR the past two seasons. Frankly, I’d much rather have Santana on a low-risk $60 million deal than Eric Hosmer on a high-risk $150 million deal (or whatever he ends up signing for).
2. It makes sense for the Phillies to spend some money. The best thing the Phillies have going for them these days is they had pared their payroll to nothing. Entering the offseason, the only player signed for 2018 was outfielder Odubel Herrera (who is signed through 2021). A big-market team with enormous payroll flexibility is a wonderful thing. They’ve added Santana along with relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, both of them on two-year contracts. Those two didn’t break the bank, and they double as potential trade bait at midseason.
Yes, the Phillies could have hoarded that money until next year’s free-agent class and go all-in on Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Andrew Miller and everyone else. The only problem with that strategy is that you don’t know whom you’re going to get. You can save the money and then be left at the altar. Signing Santana isn’t going to push the 2018 team into the playoffs, but it gives them one guarantee for 2019 and 2020. The layout also won’t prevent them from going hard after Harper and Machado.
3. They obviously believe in Hoskins’ ability to play a passable left field. There is admittedly some risk, as Hoskins had played just three games in the outfield in the minors before the Phillies put him out there for 30 games in the majors. The sample size is too small to read much into, but he recorded minus-1 defensive runs saved and 0.1 UZR, so the early indication was that he at least won’t be awful out there. Plus, Citizens Bank Park, with its shorter power alleys, is one of the easier outfields to play for a corner defender. I don’t see Hoskins as a major liability out there, and Herrera and Aaron Altherr are decent defensive outfielders.
This season will still be a building curve for the Phillies. They also traded Freddy Galvis to the Padres for interesting pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos, opening up shortstop for J.P. Crawford. His bat has stalled a bit at the upper levels of the minors, but the plate discipline remains a plus, and he was much better in the second half at Triple-A after a terrible start. It’s time to see what he can do. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them trade Cesar Hernandez and install Scott Kingery at second base, although that may be more of a midseason move to give Kingery a few more months at Triple-A. Maikel Franco will get one final chance at third base before the Machado sales pitch ensues.
If you’re a Phillies fan, you can start to finally see some hope here. They are still a long way from playoff contention -- outside of Aaron Nola, the rotation remains a big question mark as Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez took backward steps last season -- and they’ll need Crawford, Kingery and catcher Jorge Alfaro to develop alongside Hoskins, with at least two of those guys becoming star-level players. Then you add Machado or Harper to the mix. Or maybe both.
The Baltimore Orioles probably haven’t received enough credit for what they’ve done the past six seasons. They’ve reached the playoffs three times in that span, the same as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. They’re sixth in the majors in total wins, just seven behind the Yankees and 18 ahead of the Red Sox. With that track record of success, it’s understandable why Orioles owner Peter Angelos and general manager Dan Duquette are reluctant to trade Manny Machado, their three-time All-Star third baseman who has twice finished in the top five of the MVP voting.
It’s also understandable why the Orioles are finally engaging other front offices in trade talks for Machado. Sure, they could give it one more run with this group. Like Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton and Brad Brach are impending free agents. After all, the Minnesota Twins went from 59 wins to 85 wins to earn a wild-card berth. Anything is possible! On the other hand, the Orioles are coming off a 75-87 season in which they were outscored by 98 runs. The current projections at FanGraphs have the Yankees and Red Sox at 91 wins and the Orioles way below that at 75. The odds of keeping Machado and winning the division appear slim. The odds of re-signing Machado as a free agent are even slimmer.
So, there are trade rumors. Buster Olney said the Yankees and White Sox are interested. Other reports have mentioned the Phillies and Cardinals, although the Cardinals acquired the big bat they desired in Marcell Ozuna. Machado’s stated desire to play shortstop in 2018, however, opens up a wide range of trade possibilities. Let’s take a look.
Indians: Make it happen, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff!
This idea has me so excited, I’m considering moving to Cleveland and buying season tickets. The Indians loved the way Jose Ramirez played second base in 2017, which is why they’re shopping Jason Kipnis. That leaves an opening at third base; nothing against Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela. Machado essentially replaces Carlos Santana’s bat, and he gives the team excellent defense at third base -- and maybe this lineup:
3B Manny Machado
2B Jose Ramirez
So, can the Indians make the money work? Machado should receive $17-18 million in arbitration, which is a big contract for the Indians to take on; but if they trade Kipnis to the Mets -- one rumor that’s out there -- that’s only a $4 million increase. Any team can afford $4 million.
The time is now for the Indians. The lineup needs another hitter. The pitching is arguably the best in baseball, and more importantly, it will enter 2018 in good health. We all know what can happen with pitchers, and maybe in 12 months you’re looking at three guys needing Tommy John surgery. You’re not hoping to keep Machado long term, but you might win it all in 2018.
The Orioles reportedly want young arms, so this trade will probably cost you top pitching prospect Triston McKenzie. It will be worth it.
Yankees: It makes sense, but it’s not going to happen
The Yankees could use a third baseman for 2018, giving prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar a little more time in the minors. They have some highly rated pitching prospects, including Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield and Domingo Acevedo. From a personnel standpoint, it’s a perfect match. But if you're the Orioles, why help your division rival? Sure, maybe you hurt the Yanks by extracting a couple of prospects, but if you give Machado a season in the Bronx, maybe he loves it so much that it becomes more likely that he signs with the Yankees as a free agent. If I’m Duquette, I don’t want to see Machado in pinstripes. At least not of my own volition.
White Sox and Phillies: Trade and sign
This would be the White Sox's or Phillies' scenario: Trade for Machado, get him acclimated to your organization and city, convince him of the bright future of the club and sign him to an extension. Stranger things have happened. The Phillies don’t seem to be as interested in this idea, according to reports. While you will no doubt be going after Machado as a free agent, why give up prospects in a year you’re very unlikely to contend for the playoffs? The odds of Machado signing any kind of extension before hitting free agency are slim. Just wait until next offseason and make your pitch.
Giants: The obvious candidate
The Giants have a gaping hole at third base, unless you believe in some rejuvenation of Pablo Sandoval. They missed out on Giancarlo Stanton. They intend to make a playoff push. The trouble is, they don’t look like a good match for the Orioles. Tyler Beede is their top pitching prospect -- the only pitcher in their top 10, according to MLB.com’s list -- and he had a 4.79 ERA at Triple-A, with poor peripherals. If the Orioles do trade Machado, they can find better prospects from another team.
Teams that could use him at shortstop
Here’s the weird thing: The good teams, or the teams we think we know are good, already are set at shortstop. Here are the teams with the highest projected WAR at shortstop, according to FanGraphs:
Astros: 6.1 (Carlos Correa)
Indians: 5.9 (Francisco Lindor)
Dodgers: 5.4 (Corey Seager)
Nationals: 3.9 (Trea Turner)
Angels: 3.7 (Andrelton Simmons)
Cubs: 3.6 (Addison Russell)
Red Sox: 3.6 (Xander Bogaerts)
Yankees: 2.9 (Didi Gregorius)
Giants: 2.9 (Brandon Crawford)
A list of teams with less than 2.0 projected WAR that made or contended for the playoffs last season includes the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Brewers. The Rockies and Brewers would have to punt on Trevor Story and Orlando Arcia, respectively, at least for one season; that’s possible but not likely. The Diamondbacks have Ketel Marte and could certainly use a bat to replace J.D. Martinez, but their system is also thin in pitching prospects. As fun as it is to think of Machado playing shortstop, there isn’t an obvious match here.
Cubs: The challenge trade
Well, here’s an idea. Would you trade four years of Addison Russell for one year of Machado? The Cubs love their infield defense, but Machado would be a big upgrade at the plate -- and the Cubs could potentially re-sign him if they’re comfortable with his defense at shortstop. The Orioles wouldn’t get a premium pitching prospect back in the deal, but getting four years of a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who can pop 20-plus home runs would be a nice return.
Angels: Billy Eppler clinches executive of the year
Then we have the Angels. They’ve already signed Shohei Ohtani and re-signed Justin Upton. They picked up Ian Kinsler. They still have a hole at third base. There appears to be room in the payroll. Like some of the other teams here, however, they’re a little thin in the pitching prospect department, as their top prospects are outfielders Jahmai Jones and Jo Adell.
Maybe there’s a sleeper team out there. After all, if you can get Manny Machado, you make room for him. Maybe the Twins make a surprise move. Maybe the Cardinals still aren’t done. Maybe he does go to the Yankees.
Or maybe Machado just stays in Baltimore and the Orioles see where they are in July.
Jack Morris spent 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association Hall of Fame ballot. He started with a small level of support, hanging around 20 percent of the vote his first four years. Then his climb to the 75 percent needed for election to Cooperstown kicked into gear -- and so did one of the most contentious debates in Hall of Fame history.
Morris got up to 66 percent in his 13th year. His election seemed a sure thing at that point as players usually get a big spike their final appearances on the ballot. In his 14th year, however, he climbed to just 67 percent. Then the crushing results of his final ballot: His percentage sunk to 61 percent. The analytic crowd rejoiced. The old-school group of writers -- the same writers who had never voted Morris higher than third in a Cy Young vote -- were bitter that the numbers crunchers were somehow missing a greater truth.
The Hall of Fame case for Alan Trammell, Morris’ longtime teammate with the Detroit Tigers never took off, even though by advanced metrics he had a much better case than Morris, ranking eighth all time among shortstops in WAR, just ahead of Barry Larkin, who sailed in on his third ballot. Trammell started at around 15 percent, but didn’t get to 20 percent until his ninth year on the ballot. His move came too late and with a ballot overcrowded with PED players, Trammell peaked at 40 percent his final year.
Well, Tigers fans, go book your hotel rooms in Cooperstown for the final weekend in July. Morris and Trammell will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 29. It’s a time to celebrate two memorable careers, the grit and toughness of Morris, the grace of Trammell. The 1980s are underrepresented in Cooperstown, so even though Morris is a weak Hall of Famer by the standards of those already elected, it’s also nice to see the Modern Baseball Committee actually elect a couple recent players instead of the managers, executive, former commissioners and 19th century catchers they’ve elected the past decade.
As tough as the writers have been, those various second-chance committees have been even tougher. The special committees who consider players the BBWAA passed on haven’t elected a living former player in 16 years. The only post-World War II player elected since Bill Mazeroski in 2001 was Ron Santo, and he had died the previous year, perhaps helping his case.
It’s not surprising that Morris and Trammell made it this time. Five of the six former players on the 16-person committee were American League contemporaries: George Brett, Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew and Dennis Eckersley. (Don Sutton was the other Hall of Fame player on the committee.) One of the executives was Paul Beeston, the president of the Blue Jays when they won two World Series with Morris on the staff. Our former ESPN colleague Jayson Stark was on the committee for the first time, and Jayson has always been a big Hall voter. It was a perfect storm to get Morris and Trammell elected.
That said, Morris’ case really does rely heavily on one game -- yes, Game 7 of the 1991 World Series remains one of the most memorable in baseball history and he deserves a certain amount of extra credit for that performance. There’s no doubt Morris was famous and he won four World Series rings (although wasn’t on the playoff roster for the Jays in 1993). The rest of his case simply falls short. For example, he finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA just five times -- no higher than fifth. He finished in the top 10 in WAR in his league just four times -- again, no higher than fifth. His 3.90 ERA will be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame and his career WAR of 43.8 ranks 61st out of 71 Hall of Fame hurlers (three of those below him were relievers). Yes, he won 254 games and the “most wins in the 1980s” stat probably helped as well. Mostly, though, I think he was helped by having some friendly faces in his favor.
Two big winners of his selection could be Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, two strong candidates on the current BBWAA ballot. Look, the dumbest thing to do would be to start voting in everybody who had a higher career WAR than Morris, but Mussina and Schilling were so obviously better than Morris that I wonder if it helps their vote total this year (although many of the ballot may already have been turned in).
And before you point out that Mussina doesn’t have any World Series rings, I’ll point out he has a lower postseason ERA than Morris (3.42 to 3.80) in more innings. Schilling’s postseason history is essentially unrivaled.
For now, congrats to Morris and Trammell. The future will tell us if Morris’ selection opens the door for many others.
Shohei Ohtani is taking his talents to Orange County. And just like that, the Los Angeles Angels are not only a lot more relevant, they're one of the most intriguing teams of 2018.
Ohtani, the Japanese two-way sensation, selected the Angels over six other finalists -- the Mariners, Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Rangers and Cubs. In L.A., he'll team up with Mike Trout and try to lead the Angels back to the postseason, a spot they've reached just once in Trout's six full seasons with the team. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since 2009, but now you can argue the Angels have the best two players in the world -- although that's buying that Ohtani can be a star on both sides of the ball.
It's no surprise that Ohtani landed with a West Coast team and it shouldn't be a surprise that he chose an American League team. It's simply not a realistic scenario that Ohtani will play the outfield between starts. In Japan, he hasn't played the outfield since 2014 and hasn't played regularly there since 2013 -- and we don't even know if he will hit as well in the majors as he did in Japan, where he posted a 1.004 OPS in 2016 and .942 in 2017 (when he missed time with ankle and hamstring injuries and made just five starts while batting 231 times).
What we do know is that Ohtani, with his 100 mph fastball and plus off-speed stuff, could immediately become the best starter in the Angels' rotation. That group was riddled with injuries in 2017 and now includes Garrett Richards, J.C. Ramirez, Matt Shoemaker (expected to be ready after forearm surgery), Tyler Skaggs, Parker Bridwell and possibly Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano.
My first thought: The Angels should go to a six-man rotation. One reason Ohtani was able to go both ways in Japan is that starters only pitch once a week. That provides rest between outings and time to be the designated hitter. Ohtani's career highs in Japan are 24 starts and 160 innings, so asking him to make 30 starts and pitch 180-plus innings while also hitting on the side and adapting to a new culture is a monumental demand. Remember, even Babe Ruth gave up pitching and that was against a vastly inferior level of competition 100 years ago.
It's not like the Angels have a 200-inning workhorse in that group anyway, and giving injury-prone guys like Richards and Skaggs an extra day should be beneficial. They'll just have to adapt their routines to pitching once every six days. In doing so, Ohtani's schedule could look like this:
Day 1: Pitch
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: DH
Day 4: DH
Day 5: DH
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Pitch
When he DHs, they'll have to move Albert Pujols to first base, which is no guarantee given all his feet issues. He played just six games in the field last year, although he's reportedly working to drop some weight this offseason. Benching C.J. Cron is no big deal; he's not that good. Of course, neither is Pujols, at least based on his 2017 performance. Angels first basemen ranked 29th in the majors in wOBA; their DHs ranked 14th of the 15 AL teams. That's one reason they could promise DH at-bats to Ohtani: They don't have anything to lose.
Signing Ohtani does not make them instant contenders to the Astros, but it helps push them into the wild-card race. The Angels still have two glaring holes in the lineup, however, as their third basemen ranked 25th in the majors in wOBA and their second basemen ranked last. They should have room in the budget to make a bid for a major free agent. Maybe they bring Mike Moustakas back to Southern California, where he went to high school. With a farm system that Billy Eppler has turned around the past couple of seasons, they could also trade for Cesar Hernandez of the Phillies, a player reportedly on the block with Scott Kingery ready to take over at second.
How's this lineup look?
That doesn't make them as good as the Astros, but if they can get 50 starts from Ohtani and Richards, it could make them a 90-win team and push them into wild-card position.
The big loser here is the Mariners, who were even more desperate for a starting pitcher than the Angels. Jerry Dipoto had made two deals this week to acquire an extra $2 million in slot money to offer Ohtani. He had said they would play Nelson Cruz in the outfield when Ohtani DHs. They have a large Japanese population in the Seattle area. It wasn't enough.
Now Dipoto has to go back to the board to patch his rotation and that may entail spending big money to lure Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb or -- unlikely, given what he'll cost -- even Yu Darvish to the Pacific Northwest. The Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the majors and the window of contention in the Robinson Cano/Cruz/Felix Hernandez era is drawing short.
Aside from the Angels, the big winner is all of us. I don't think Ohtani going to the Dodgers or Cubs would have been good for the game, just a case of the rich getting richer. The more interesting teams we have the better. While 2017 had some remarkable individual seasons and the postseason was fantastic, the pennant races were mostly duds. It's better for the game if the talent is spread around and the division winners less predictable. Of course, the Angels are a big-market franchise and their lack of success in recent seasons wasn't from a failure to spend money.
Still, it's going to be exciting to see if Ohtani can deliver on the hype as he pairs up with Trout. I think the odds of him succeeding as a two-way player are less than 50 percent -- there's a reason nobody has been able to do it -- but here's hoping it works. I know I'll be up late watching a lot of West Coast baseball in 2018.
I love watching Yu Darvish pitch. He's tall, lean and athletic, a pitcher sculpted by Michelangelo. The stuff is electric, the delivery -- he works from the stretch even with the bases empty -- is simple and fairly effortless with a leg kick that goes up to the lettering across his jersey, and he simply looks like the coolest kid in the class.
Darvish is a free agent, but after five seasons in the majors -- not including 2015, which he missed due to Tommy John surgery -- it seems fair to admit that he's a No. 2 starter, and that he's not to going reach that 2013 pre-injury peak when he finished second in the Cy Young voting and struck out 277 batters in 209⅔ innings. His strikeouts dipped a bit in 2017 and his disastrous World Series performance when he lasted just 3⅓ innings over two starts and allowed nine runs cemented the idea that he's not an ace, if you like to label those things.
I've always thought Darvish nibbled too much and didn't trust his fastball, leading to too many walks or hitter's counts, but maybe he simply lacks elite fastball command. When he gets to his slider or curveball he racks up the strikeouts, but the fastball and cutter still get him into trouble (batters slugged .450 against his fastball and .511 against his cutter in 2017).
Still, the man is going to get paid. Look at some recent contracts for starting pitchers of a similar caliber:
Stephen Strasburg: Seven years, $175 million, age 28 ($25M AAV)
Johnny Cueto: Six years, $130 million, age 30 ($21.7M AAV)
Jordan Zimmermann: Five years, $110 million, age 30 ($22M AAV)
Jon Lester: Six years, $155 million, age 31 ($25.8M AAV)
Darvish will be entering his age-31 season, owns a career 3.42 ERA in the majors, has that Tommy John surgery on his medical charts and has been pitching high-leverage innings since he was an 18-year-old in Japan. Estimates suggest a six-year contract in the $160 million range.
Let's look at where he might land:
The rotation projections at FanGraphs put the Rangers at 28th in the majors, ahead of only the Orioles and White Sox. The Rangers' current payroll has room to sign Darvish -- and maybe another starter as well -- and they're obviously familiar with his work. The Rangers are one of the seven finalists for Shohei Ohtani, but getting him wouldn't preclude a deal for Darvish.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Everyone seems to rule out a return to Los Angeles, especially after what happened in the World Series, but the Dodgers' rotation is still full of injury risks. Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu have all spent extensive time on the DL in the recent past. Scott Kazmir is still around as well after missing all of 2017.
Walker Buehler is banging on the door for a rotation job, however, and Yadier Alvarez and Mitchell White could be ready in 2019, so they have some young pitching on the way. Kershaw can also opt out of his deal after 2018, so they'll likely have to give him a pay raise to keep him around. Then there's the decision on whether to go after Giancarlo Stanton -- don't rule out that possibility just yet -- or keep some money in the bank to go after Bryce Harper for 2019. It all points to Darvish signing elsewhere, but the Dodgers might want another power right-hander for the rotation.
Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta is a free agent. John Lackey is a free agent. The No. 4 starter right now is ... Eddie Butler? The Cubs obviously desire and need another starter to line up behind Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.
Would you rather have Darvish or Arrieta, who is a year older, but with less wear and tear on his arm and no Tommy John history? The concern about Arrieta is he has gone from 33 starts and 229 innings in his 2015 peak to 30 starts and 168 innings in 2017. Some of that lessened workload was by design, but pitching an inning less per start than in 2016 didn't improve his effectiveness. Still, Arrieta might make a rational alternative: Not quite as good, but maybe $60 million cheaper.
St. Louis Cardinals: The attention given to acquiring Stanton at least proves one thing: The Cardinals are willing to take on a big contract. Everyone points to them looking for a big bat, but while they were seventh in the NL in runs scored they were also sixth in runs allowed. An upgrade is an upgrade.
Right now, the rotation would be Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright (coming off a 5.11 ERA), Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty, with Alex Reyes on the mend from Tommy John surgery. Remember, they traded Mike Leake late last season to the Mariners and Lance Lynn is a free agent.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins have given out one $100 million contract in franchise history, the eight-year, $184 million extension Joe Mauer signed back in 2010 (and is finally entering its final year). The second-biggest contract was for Justin Morneau, another homegrown player, but the biggest free agent deals have been $58 million for Phil Hughes and $55 million for Ervin Santana.
This hasn’t been a team to spend big dollars in free agency, but that could change after their surprise wild-card berth in 2017. The only players signed beyond 2018 are Hughes and Jason Castro (Santana has an option), so there is enormous payroll flexibility here to make a big splash and build a better rotation around the young lineup. GM Thad Levine was also the assistant GM in Texas, so has a relationship with Darvish that could be a positive.
Milwaukee Brewers: Like the Twins, the Brewers haven't played in the free-agent market, but like the Twins they’re in a good financial position to make a serious pitch. Ryan Braun is still under lock and key through at least 2020, but other than minimal commitments to Eric Thames and Chase Anderson, nobody else is signed long-term.
With such a young roster, there is clearly room to make a big addition. Keep in mind that Jimmy Nelson is expected to miss a large portion of the 2018 season after injuring his shoulder diving back into first base last September. The Brewers have the talent to at least make a wild-card push, but need a rotation anchor with Nelson out.
Philadelphia Phillies: At some point, the large-market Phillies will dip into free agency since they’ve pared their roster of veterans (Freddy Galvis is the only player with even four years of service time and Odubel Herrera the only player signed to a long-term contract). They can wait until next year’s blockbuster group of free agents when they’ll also hopefully be a year closer to actually contending for the playoffs. Throw in the lack of history the Phillies have with Japanese pitchers and they’re probably a longshot, even with money to spend.
Friday's deadline for non-tendering arbitration-eligible players provided few surprises among the 26 players added to this winter's free-agent pool. The threat of paying them at arbitration-inflated prices might have liberated them to take their chances on the market, but they can use their newfound freedom to land solid deals to provide useful performances at affordable prices. Adding more free agents to the pool of possibilities makes it that much more likely that teams shopping for affordable help can find it.
The winter's free-agent market is already overstocked with first base/DH bats, so it might not seem like the best time for Matt Adams to be a free agent. But Adams slugged .543 in 100 games with the Braves after getting dumped in a deal by the Cardinals. St. Louis essentially gave up on him after a brief, ugly trial in left field that ought to discourage anyone else from considering that option going forward. Adams was picked up to fill in for an injured Freddie Freeman, but on the strength of his 10-homer June, the Braves gave Freeman a test run at third base to keep Adams in the lineup at first.
After contributing to the Cardinals' last pennant as a rookie in 2013, Adams is already 29 years old and better off with a new team rather than riding pine behind Freeman. What damage he did was once again almost entirely against right-handed pitching -- he had a 300-point OPS differential in 2017, consistent with a split of more than 230 points on his career, and he has slugged .495 against righties in his career. On the right team and in the right park, that has value. If he's given a shot with a team that has the roster flexibility to carry a platoon bat at first base and the ballpark to make his power play up -- hello, Colorado -- he could be a great cost-conscious pickup on a two-year deal, or one year with an option.
For every team looking for relief help, seeing Hector Rondon's name added to this year's list of free agents might seem like a godsend. The Cubs were sensible in terms of not bothering to arbitrate his value -- his brief run as their closer was sure to escalate his pricing -- but put on the market, the former Rule 5 find might instead receive some multiyear security at a lower annual average value than the $6 million-plus he might have won in arbitration. Between his late-game experience and his nice mix of a 97 mph fastball and a high-80s slider, he'll be of interest. If his next team can help him improve on his off-speed offerings to stymie left-handed hitters, he could regain his status as a quality pitcher in the ninth inning, and for considerably less than what teams were spending on closers last winter.
The Astros cut their ties with Mike Fiers, closing the book on that 2015 trade with the Brewers that brought Fiers and Carlos Gomez to Houston while putting prospects Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips and Adrian Houser in Milwaukee. With a fastball that sits just under 90 mph on average, he's a durable finesse righty with a broad assortment who can handle 30 starts per season -- ideally pitching in a bigger ballpark. Fiers didn't have a ton of success in the DH league, managing an ERA+ of just 86 across two years and two months as an Astro. So cutting him loose makes sense. But so would some other team signing him to round out a rotation and provide depth.
There's even less surprise over the Mariners non-tendering Drew Smyly. His blowing out his elbow before throwing a regular-season pitch for Seattle was disappointing enough, and his recovery from his Tommy John surgery last June might keep him off the radar of teams hoping for anything more than stretch-run participation in 2018. But he wouldn't be the first recuperating pitcher to sign a deal that locks him in during his recovery and employs him the year after. The Yankees struck exactly this kind of deal with Jon Lieber in February 2003 knowing that he'd miss the '03 season; they reaped the benefit with a 14-win season from Lieber on their 101-win team in 2004 while paying him just $2.7 million. It's extremely easy to envision Smyly getting something similar from anybody who wants a lefty starter in 2019 with the stuff to average a strikeout per inning. Who doesn't want that?
The other interesting position player among the new additions is Ryan Goins, who was non-tendered by the Blue Jays. Guys who can play both short and second while providing a little bit of power already have value as bench players, but for Goins' value to escalate beyond something in the neighborhood of $2 million or so per year, a lot depends on what teams end up thinking about his value at shortstop. Defensive metrics like defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating soured on his performance in 2017, but those are just starting points as far as evaluation goes, and clubs use their own metrics. It isn't inconceivable that some front office might think he's capable of handling short on an everyday basis while also providing some modest power (he hit 21 doubles and nine homers for Toronto last year). He might not be worth much in terms of WAR, but teams like the Royals and Padres might not have a replacement-level alternative in-house and might be thrilled to sign Goins as a second-division placeholder for a year or two.
Other names to note: Bruce Rondon put up 10.7 K/9 during his career with the Tigers, relying heavily on high-90s heat; you can bet 29 other teams will want to see if they can harness that if he's over his back problems. ... T.J. McFarland didn't have a great year in Arizona, but he held lefties to a .548 OPS with a 20 percent strikeout rate, which still has value for teams looking for situational lefty help. ... Tom Koehler flopped in 2017 in his work with the Marlins and Blue Jays, but some club is going to remember that when he was paired with ace pitch-framer Jeff Mathis in Miami in 2016, he held hitters to a .593 OPS in 13 starts. If he turns up in a starter-hungry venue with a good receiver -- say, Cincinnati with Tucker Barnhart, or Minnesota with Jason Castro -- he could be a bounce-back surprise at bargain-basement pricing as a No. 4 starter.
You're the San Francisco Giants. You've won three World Series championships this decade. You made the playoffs as recently as 2016, and if your bullpen doesn't melt down in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the division series against the Cubs you might even win that series.
On the other hand, since the All-Star break in 2016 you've been the worst team in the majors, with 94 wins and 140 losses -- worse than the Phillies and Padres and White Sox and a bunch of other teams that weren't even trying to win. You just finished 40 games behind the Dodgers.
What do you do for 2018?
I heard an interview last week with Giants general manager Bobby Evans and his message was pretty clear: We're the Giants. We don't rebuild. Thus, the rumors of a Giancarlo Stanton trade that would send Joe Panik and prospects Tyler Beede and Chris Shaw to the Marlins for Stanton and Dee Gordon, with a recent report from Sirius radio host Craig Mish saying the Giants would take on the entirety of Stanton’s $295 million contract. The only problem with that report is that if it's accurate, you have to wonder why the Marlins haven't already made the trade.
Brian Sabean, the former general manager and now executive vice president, echoed Evans' thoughts a couple of weeks ago in a radio interview in which he said, "I think we're prepared to do as much as we have to without gutting the team or without having to peel it all the way back from a payroll sense. It's best to use a phrase like 'reset.' It's not going to be a rebuild. We don't have the time or the patience to go through something like that."
There are two ways to look at this:
- The Giants are crazy.
- The Giants are not crazy.
The Giants are crazy
To get back to playoff contention, the Giants will need to find 25 or so wins from last season. To contend for an NL West title, the Giants will need to find 30 wins and hope for some regression from the Dodgers. That's not impossible. Just this past season the Diamondbacks improved from 69 to 93 wins and earned a wild-card berth, and the Twins improved from 59 to 85 wins to reach the playoffs. Heck, the 2013 Red Sox improved from 69 to 97 wins and took the whole enchilada.
It's possible, but not likely. I looked at all teams from 2012 to 2016 that won fewer than 70 games, 28 teams all told. The average win increase was 8.9 wins. Only five of the 28 finished over .500. In addition to the three teams above, the other two were the 2015 Rangers (88 wins, up from 67) and 2013 Indians (92 wins, up from 68). Interestingly, all five made the playoffs. I don't know what to make of that. You'd think some team would improve from 69 to 82 wins or something like that, but that hasn't happened in recent seasons.
The Giants have some major issues to work through. Generally speaking, young teams get better and old teams get worse. In 2017, the Giants had the fourth-oldest group of position players; they had the 22nd-oldest pitching staff. "High on the wish list is to get younger, more athletic and play better defense overall," Sabean said in that radio interview.
He identified the three major spots in need of an upgrade as center field, third base and the bullpen. I'd suggest they need to upgrade right field and left field as well. Collectively, their outfielders ranked last in the majors with a .305 wOBA -- 29th in left field, 23rd in center field, 30th in right field. Those aren't park-adjusted numbers, but you get the idea: The outfield couldn't hit. But, wait! It couldn't play defense either. The Giants ranked last in the majors with minus-45 defensive runs saved in the outfield. The front office has acknowledged that Denard Span no longer has the range to play center, but Hunter Pence, in the final year of his contract, has become a problem as well.
Third base? FanGraphs currently gives the Giants the lowest third-base projection in the majors at 0.1 WAR. Bullpen? Projected as 22nd best. They have a lot of holes to fill. Too many.
The Giants are not crazy
There is still enough talent here to build around, starting with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. Sure, they could trade those two and reload a farm system that ranks near the bottom. You try telling that to fans who just paid $88 to watch a bad team as they chow down on overpriced crab sandwiches and sushi rolls.
FanGraphs projects the current roster as a 78-win team. The projection includes a big improvement from the starting rotation, dropping from a 4.58 ERA to 4.06. Having Bumgarner for a full season helps, but it's not crazy to suggest Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore will be better.
So let's get the Giants from 78 wins to 94.
- Trade for Stanton. The current right-field projection is 1.2 WAR; Stanton is at 5.4 (he was at 7.6 in 2017). Let's be optimistic and put him at 6.5 WAR. We're at 83.3 wins.
- They need a center fielder who can chase down fly balls. Andrew McCutchen -- another trade rumor -- is not the answer. Free agent Lorenzo Cain is a better answer. He projects to 3.2 WAR, or 2.2 additional wins. We're at 85.5 wins.
- That slides Span and Pence over to left field. The current hodgepodge group projects to minus-0.6 WAR. Pence and Span could be worth two wins better. We're at 87.5 wins.
- Then they need a third baseman. Todd Frazier is a free agent who provides some pop and still plays decent defense. His projection is 2.2 WAR, which is arguably a little conservative (FanGraphs had him at 3.0 WAR in 2017). Let's split the difference and say 2.6 WAR -- that's 2.5 wins above Pablo Sandoval and others currently on the roster. Now we're at 90 wins.
- Throw in a more effective bullpen and maybe an additional win above the projections from Brandon Crawford or Brandon Belt and we're at 94 wins.
Not so hard, is it?
Trouble is, we've also blown out the Giants' payroll. Stanton will make $25 million in 2018. Cain might come in at $17 million or so, Frazier at $12 million. We just added $54 million to a payroll that already sits at an estimated $182 million to $187 million, and we haven't even added any relievers. The competitive tax threshold for 2018 is $197 million.
It seems impossible to add Stanton and sign a couple of premium free agents. You could go Jarrod Dyson instead of Cain to play center field, but he's not as good. You could trade for another inexpensive defense-first center fielder. You could just roll with Sandoval and Christian Arroyo at third base. Maybe Mark Melancon -- and his $20 million salary -- bounces back in the bullpen.
See the problem? It's hard to get to 94 wins. Plus, we don't even know if Stanton wants to play in San Francisco, and he has a full no-trade clause to block any deal. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported Thursday that the proverbial person in the know says Stanton "has concerns about the depth of the Giants and chances for a turnover after their 64-98 season."
It's going to be a Herculean task to get to 90 or 94 wins. It's possible, especially if they're willing to crash past the tax threshold. Just expect that sushi to be a little more expensive in 2018 if it happens.
Jerry Dipoto is ready. Jerry Dipoto is always ready. You get the feeling the Seattle Mariners general manager sleeps with his cellphone under his pillow, assuming he actually does sleep; hey, you never know when you may get a trade offer.
So the Mariners are definitely ready to make their pitch to Shohei Ohtani.
“We have spent most of the past year preparing for this moment,” Dipoto said a few days ago on the debut edition of his podcast on the Mariners team site. “Whether it’s written presentations, something aesthetic for him to touch and feel ... we’ve put together a film on the merits of Seattle and the Mariners. And we’re hopeful at some point we get to sit down in the same room.”
Dipoto was the first general manager to publicly say he’d be willing to use Ohtani as a two-way player, with Nelson Cruz sliding to the outfield to let Ohtani DH a few times a week if he signs with Seattle. Dipoto scouted Ohtani in person in September and said he’s willing to fly again to Japan if that helps -- with Ken Griffey Jr. in tow.
This is a different kind of deal for Dipoto, one that could alter the course of the franchise that has the longest playoff drought in the majors. His usual deal-making involves another team. Since he was hired as Mariners GM in late September 2015, Dipoto has made 60 trades, easily most in the majors, more than two per month on average.
Indeed, while the rest of the majors have been silent so far this offseason, Dipoto has swung three trades, acquiring first baseman Ryon Healy from the A’s, reliever Nick Rumbelow from the Yankees and sending reliever Thyago Vieira to the White Sox for some international bonus money that can be used to help sign Ohtani.
The question looms, however: Has Dipoto’s hyperactivity made the Mariners better?
He inherited a team that had gone 76-86 in 2015 and had finished below .500 in nine of 12 seasons since reeling off four straight 90-win seasons from 2000 to 2003. In 2016, the club went 86-76, missing the wild card by three games. The 2017 squad fell back to 78-84 as a slew of injuries wrecked the rotation, with the projecting Opening Day rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo combining for just 68 starts. Not a single Mariners pitcher qualified for the ERA title, as they were forced to use 17 different starting pitchers.
Meanwhile, as the Mariners watched the playoffs from home again, an ex-Mariner was one of the stars of October. If there’s one of those 60 trades Dipoto would like to have back, it’s the June 2016 deal that sent infielder Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for pitcher Zach Lee. Taylor reinvented himself as a center fielder and posted a 4.8-WAR season for the Dodgers. Lee never even appeared in a game for the Mariners before he was placed on waivers.
With that trade in mind, let’s take a look at the value gained and lost in Dipoto’s trades (some minor trades and lesser prospects not listed):
In this accounting, Dipoto has lost so far. The Taylor trade has hurt, as has the Dan Vogelbach-Mike Montgomery deal. Vogelbach, while still on the 40-man roster, looks like a fringe major leaguer at best, while Montgomery has turned into a valuable swingman for the Cubs. Logan Morrison had a big 2017 for the Rays (4.1 WAR), while Nate Karns and Boog Powell, the two players acquired in that deal, are no longer with the Mariners (Karns was traded for Jarrod Dyson and Powell for Yonder Alonso, both now free agents).
Obviously, the WAR totals will change through the years, but the numbers above don’t even consider the potential future value of all the prospects the Mariners traded.
As Eric Longenhagen, the prospect expert at FanGraphs put it in a recent chat, “They’re trading away legitimate prospects whose value is artificially low because of their proximity to the majors ([Carlos] Vargas, [Juan] de Paula, [Alexander] Campos, [Juan] Then, [Aneurys] Zabala, [Brayan] Hernandez) for fringe big leaguers. It’s shortsighted. Their system is bad even though they have good scouts and it’s a huge bummer.”
The best prospect Dipoto traded was pitcher Luiz Gohara, an enormous Brazilian lefty who was part of the three-way deal that brought the Mariners Smyly. Gohara hadn’t advanced past low A in four seasons in the Seattle system, and he still appeared a few years away and a likely candidate to end up in the bullpen. With the Braves, he advanced all the way from Class A to the majors, making five starts for Atlanta while establishing himself as a rotation candidate for 2018. Smyly, meanwhile, was injured in spring training and eventually had Tommy John surgery.
To understand Dipoto’s trades, however, we have to understand the state of the franchise he inherited. The Mariners were not only a bad team in 2015, but outside of a strong core of five players -- Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Hernandez and Iwakuma -- the 40-man roster was pathetic with a complete lack of depth. A series of bad drafts and poor player development under former GM Jack Zduriencik had left a barren farm system, with no talent at the upper levels except Edwin Diaz. To make matters worse, Cano, Hernandez and Seager were in the midst of $100 million-plus contracts ($240 million in Cano’s case), so there wasn’t much payroll flexibility.
So Dipoto had no depth, no farm system and not much money to spend.
Given those circumstances and the ages of his core players, Dipoto embarked on a plan to somehow contend while his big five core was still good. Primarily, he improved the depth of the 40-man roster with a bunch of small upgrades. It worked pretty well in 2016 as the team won 86 games and improved its run differential by 129 runs. The injuries hurt in 2017, but something else happened. The big five wasn’t as good:
In 2015, that core accounted for 71 percent of the Mariners’ overall WAR. The group was even better in 2016 -- Cano had 7.3 WAR and Seager 6.9 WAR -- and the rest of the roster was much improved as well (look at the big improvement in the below replacement level value). But in 2017, the big five was worth half as much as in 2016 and just 33 percent of the team’s WAR -- Cano and Seager were nowhere near as good and Felix and Iwakuma battled injuries. If that group had produced close to what it had the season before, the Mariners make the playoffs.
That’s the big concern for the 2018 Mariners. That group is now another year older. Cruz will be playing his age-37 season. Cano will be 35 and Seager 30. Hernandez is no longer an ace, even if healthy, and Iwakuma just signed a minor league contract as he tries to return from shoulder surgery. They’ll need better seasons from Cano and Seager and 30 starts from Hernandez, even if he’s a No. 3 or 4 starter these days.
What Dipoto hasn’t managed to do with all his trades is find his own Chris Taylor. Maybe Mitch Haniger is that guy. He was worth 3.0 WAR in just 96 games in his rookie season. Incremental upgrades, however, aren’t going to push this team to its first playoff appearance since 2001.
In the second half of the 2017 season, Giancarlo Stanton terrorized opposing pitchers with 33 home runs in 73 games while slugging .702, a stretch that catapulted him to MVP honors.
He was not the best hitter in the league in that span. J.D. Martinez hit 31 home runs in 66 games, slugging .751, in a stretch that might catapult him to the largest free-agent contract this offseason -- $200 million if you believe his agent, Scott Boras, or $160 million or so if you take a more likely appraisal.
“I’m not really down about it,” Martinez said at the time. “It is what it is. Obviously, Houston is a team that brought me up and where I want to be. Everything happens for a reason.”
Martinez was in the midst of retooling his swing that spring, but he hadn’t played much. Two days later, he signed with the Detroit Tigers, though they didn’t call him up until April 21, and he played part-time though mid-May, going homerless in his first 39 at-bats.
Then everything clicked. You watch his old swing, and it was all upper body. The new swing uses his legs a lot more conventionally. He talked about how the swing allows his bat to stay in the zone longer and hit the ball harder.
Now he’s the hitter Boras is selling as J.D. Kong. Over the past four seasons, he hit .300/.362/.574. Not including 2017 rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, only Mike Trout has a higher slugging percentage. Only Trout, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper have a higher wOBA. Martinez is coming off a season in which he hit 45 home runs in just 119 games, so he is clearly one of the game’s elite hitters.
Nobody doubts the bat, and as he’ll be entering his age-30 season in 2018, a six-year deal takes him through age 35. Even accounting for some regression in the latter years of such a contract, he should remain a productive hitter. It’s his defense in the outfield that raises concerns about his long-term value.
Martinez’s defense the past two seasons has rated poorly, with minus-22 defensive runs saved in 2016 and minus-5 in 2017. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection pegs Martinez’s value at five years and $100.8 million, or just over $20 million per season. That value, however, increases to $120 million if he DHs. Add a sixth season, and you’re up to $140 million, which means a $160 million contract doesn’t sound like a huge overpay.
Keep in mind that Martinez’s defense might have been somewhat affected in 2016 by the fractured elbow he suffered when he crashed into a wall in June. He also missed the first six weeks of 2017 with a sprained foot. His defense metrics were better in 2015, his last completely healthy season, when he was credited with plus-4 defensive runs saved -- a figure bolstered, however, by 15 outfield assists.
More likely, Martinez is comparable to Nelson Cruz, a slugger with below-average range. Cruz played regularly in the outfield through age 32, split time between DH and right field the next two seasons, spent most of his time at DH in his age-35 season and became a full-time DH at 36. From 30 to 35, Cruz was worth 18.6 WAR, even with subpar defensive metrics.
That would seem to suggest that Martinez is a better fit for an American League club, knowing the team would have the DH option in the back pocket, but I don’t think it precludes a National League team from going after him. Here are some possible fits:
The Red Sox were last in the AL with 168 home runs -- 18 fewer than any other team and 73 fewer than the Yankees. Boston first basemen and DHs combined to hit just .242/.321/.424. They’re obviously on the hunt for power, and they could sign Martinez to DH, sliding Hanley Ramirez back to first base. Martinez isn’t a perfect fit, as a lot of his power is to right-center, the difficult home run area at Fenway. Here’s his 2017 hit chart:
The question for the Red Sox is whether they’d prefer Martinez or Eric Hosmer. Odds are they will sign one but not both. Martinez is a couple years older but is the much superior hitter and probably less of a risk than the inconsistent Hosmer.
Considering the way Martinez hit with Arizona -- .302/.366/.741 with 29 home runs in 62 games -- the Diamondbacks will certainly want to bring him back, and Martinez certainly loved their high-octane hitting environment. The Arizona lineup isn’t really that deep, as only Goldschmidt, Martinez, Jake Lamb and Chris Iannetta had above-average adjusted OPS figures (and Lamb can’t hit lefties).
The hitch: Is there room in the payroll? The Diamondbacks had an Opening Day payroll in 2017 of $93 million; the current roster projects to about $121 million, according to Cot’s Contracts, and that’s without Martinez. Keep in mind that Goldschmidt is eligible for free agency after 2019. I wouldn’t rule out Martinez's returning to Arizona -- you could backload the contract to make the first two seasons less costly -- but it seems unlikely that the Diamondbacks would be able to afford both Martinez now and Goldschmidt in two years.
You could trade for Stanton and the potential $295 million left on his contract -- or just sign Martinez. Sure, a healthy Stanton who hits like he did in 2017 is the better player thanks to his solid defense, but Martinez at $160 million might be the better gamble and won’t cost you any players. Of course, like Fenway, AT&T Park with that big triangle in right-center will steal some home runs, and you’ll have to play Martinez in left field. One way or another, the Giants need a power-hitting outfielder, and they’ve indicated that they’re looking to contend in 2018.
Here’s the kind of amazing thing about American League DHs in 2017: They hit a combined .242/.316/.418 -- worse than the overall league mark of .256/.324/.429. That means a lot of AL teams could use an upgrade at DH.
In the Blue Jays' case, they need several offensive upgrades after finishing last in the AL in runs scored. Jose Bautista is gone, and they need a replacement for him in the outfield. The Jays have Josh Donaldson for one more year before he hits free agency. If they’re going to keep him, they better go all-in and sign a big bat.
Having been burned by the Chris Davis contract, the Orioles might be hesitant to make another similar signing. Orioles outfielders ranked 23rd in the majors in wOBA in 2017. There’s a hole in right field, and though pairing Martinez with left fielder Trey Mancini and center fielder Adam Jones would be a defensive nightmare, the Orioles’ lust for power is well-known. They also could make the money work. Jones is a free agent after 2018 (that’s $17.3 million off the books), and they’re unlikely to re-sign Manny Machado, so Martinez could serve as a long-term replacement for Machado’s bat.
This is a dream scenario. Like the Diamondbacks’ offense, Colorado’s is overrated because of its home park. The Rockies actually need another thumper. As it happens, Carlos Gonzalez is a free agent and coming off an awful season, so Martinez would be a big upgrade. Gonzalez was worth 10 runs below average at the plate in 534 plate appearances in 2017; Martinez was worth plus-40 in 489 PAs. Did we mention that Martinez slugged .741 in the second-best hitter’s park in the majors?
Hey, it’s a rule that you have to include the Dodgers as a possibility for any player who will sign a $100 million-plus contract. They don’t need a left fielder for 2018, as they have Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles, plus Bellinger can play out there. But imagine this lineup:
The 2017 season was extraordinary for many reasons, including this one: The Dodgers, Indians and Astros all won 100 games -- 104, 102 and 101 to be exact. It was the first season with at least two 100-win teams since 2004 and the first with three since 2003. Since the divisional era in 1969, the only other seasons with three 100-win teams were 2002, 1998 and 1977.
What made those inflated win totals even more interesting, however, was that the Dodgers, Indians and Astros didn't take wins from the bottom of the league, but rather from the middle. No team lost 100 games in 2017; the Tigers and Giants led the way with 98. In 2016, for example, the Twins lost 103 games and there were eight 90-loss teams, just like 2017. In 2017, only four teams finished above .500 but failed to win 90 games; in 2016, there was one .500 team and nine that won between 84 and 89.
What makes our three powerhouses so scary to the rest of baseball is that all three could be even better in 2018. That probably won't happen -- when you win 100 games, a lot obviously goes right, which is why we haven't had a team win 100 games in consecutive seasons since the 2004-05 Cardinals. Plus, those teams in the middle are going to try to get better. It's much easier for a mediocre team to improve than for a great team to improve.
Still, it wouldn't surprise me if all three won 100 games or more again. Let's examine why.
Houston Astros (FanGraphs projected record: 98-64)
According to the numbers, the Astros were neither an old team nor a young team in 2017. According to Baseball Reference's average batting and pitching age -- which uses a formula based on playing time -- the Astros were essentially league average in both areas. Except the Astros weren't really that old. Carlos Beltran, 40, batted 509 times, wasn't very good and is now retired. Nori Aoki, 35, was the left fielder for part of the season. Brian McCann was 33 and had a solid season but isn't a key part of the lineup.
If the Astros get better production at DH -- easily possible with a low-cost free-agent signing like Yonder Alonso or Lucas Duda -- and improvement from Carlos Correa (23 in 2018) and Alex Bregman (24 in 2018 and coming off an excellent second half), their historically great offense could be even better.
Other than Marwin Gonzalez and maybe an aging McCann, there isn't an obvious regression candidate. Jose Altuve and George Springer should both be excellent, and Correa will be more valuable simply by playing 40 more games.
On the pitching side, a full season from Justin Verlander as opposed to one month will obviously help, but I think the bullpen can be better in 2018. That might seem like a strange thing to say after the way it performed in the postseason, but you have to separate what happened in those pressure situations versus what will happen next regular season. In 2017, Houston ranked 17th in the majors with a 4.27 ERA – but it ranked second to the Yankees in strikeout rate and 11th in wOBA.
There are lots of good arms down there, Joe Musgrove probably will be a reliever all season, and general manager Jeff Luhnow probably will sign a veteran free agent to add even more depth -- maybe lefty Mike Minor or righty Anthony Swarzak.
Cleveland Indians (Projected record: 95-67)
Let's start here: They led the majors in bullpen ERA and ranked second to the Dodgers in rotation ERA. There was nothing fluky about those numbers either as they ranked first in strikeout rate and lowest walk rate while allowing the second-lowest wOBA. The good news: Other than workhorse setup man Bryan Shaw, everyone is back.
Obviously, they'll need good health to have that kind of season again on the mound -- they basically used only six starting pitchers last season (No. 7 starter Ryan Merritt made only four starts), but Mike Clevinger's emergence behind Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer means Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin are the fifth and sixth starters, which speaks to the depth.
On offense, the Indians will have to replace free agent OBP machine Carlos Santana. They could move Edwin Encarnacion to first base and use guys such as Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis at DH, or maybe use the small amount of money they have to spend on a second-tier free-agent first baseman like Mitch Moreland, Danny Valencia or Adam Lind.
They also can hope for a bounce-back season from Kipnis and improved production from Bradley Zimmer in his second season.
Here's a primary reason the Indians can win 100 games again: The AL Central will be terrible. FanGraphs currently projects the White Sox, Royals and Tigers among the seven worst teams in baseball. Their pitching staffs ranks 30th (White Sox), 27th (Royals) and 26th (Tigers) in projected WAR. The Twins' pitching staff isn't much better.
Los Angeles Dodgers (Projected record: 93-69)
The Dodgers have a few more obvious concerns than the Astros and Indians, in part because they had more surprise contributors -- particularly Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor -- which is why their projected win total at the moment is a little lower. On the other hand, FanGraphs also projects Bellinger and Taylor to be worth just 4.7 WAR after they combined for 9.0 in 2017. I'll take the 9.0 again over the 4.7.
The Dodgers also have a couple of youngsters who could make an impact in pitcher Walker Buehler and outfielder Alex Verdugo, although the roster is so deep that neither is guaranteed a starting position and both could open in Triple-A. Re-signing Brandon Morrow -- or another setup guy -- will be necessary.
Other than Yu Darvish and Morrow, however, all the key guys from 2017 are under contract -- and they get out from some big contracts including Carl Crawford ($21.8 million in 2017), Andre Ethier ($17.5 million) and Alex Guerrero ($7.5 million), which means they might have an estimated $40 million or so in payroll flexibility.
Yes, the Dodgers have talked about lowering the payroll, and with Buehler and Verdugo, they have the ability to add two more low-cost rookies to the roster, but come on: They finished one game short of glory. They're going to make a big addition in the offseason. Maybe it's Giancarlo Stanton -- although Andrew Friedman sounds as if he's reluctant to bring on that contract. Maybe it's Shohei Ohtani.
Maybe it's Eric Hosmer, with Bellinger moved to the outfield and Joc Pederson traded for some pitching depth. Or maybe it's a combination like Ohtani and Hosmer. No matter, you know the Dodgers aren't going to sit back and rest after 104 wins and a seven-game World Series defeat without doing something big.
So, the powerhouses should be powerful once again. Now let's see how the rest of the league reacts this offseason.
We’re now one step closer to Shohei Ohtani coming to the major leagues after the MLB Players Association signed off on a new posting system that was agreed to by MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball.
Here’s what we need to know right now: For this offseason, last year’s posting rules will be in play, which means the Nippon Ham Fighters would receive the maximum posting fee of $20 million. Once posted, probably in the next two weeks, Ohtani is then eligible to negotiate with any team, but he is subject to the international bonus pool money available to each team. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available -- $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees -- while 12 teams are limited to a maximum of $300,000 (including the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Nationals and Royals). The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million to spend.
The money is what makes Ohtani’s situation different from those of the other Japanese stars to come over to the majors. Any team can afford the $20 million posting fee plus the small bonus, so the bidding won’t be limited to just the big-market teams. Under the international signing rules, if Ohtani had waited two more years until he turned 25, he wouldn’t be subject to the bonus pool caps, and given his 100 mph fastball and ability at the plate, he would receive a deal in excess of $100 million and likely close to $200 million.
So that tells us one thing: Ohtani isn’t motivated by money. The difference between a $3.5 million bonus and $300,000 bonus isn’t likely to be a critical factor in where he signs. He has repeatedly stressed the desire to test himself against the best competition, and that’s why he wants to come over now rather than wait. What we don’t know is how important is his desire to remain a two-way player.
The logical follow-up question: What would prevent a team from an under-the-table agreement with Ohtani? Say you give him the maximum signing bonus and then two months into his rookie season sign him to a seven-year, $125 million extension or something? The answer: I don’t know, although that is something MLB would clearly frown upon. Given the penalties just handed down on the Braves for their shenanigans in Latin America, any subterfuge with Ohtani could face severe consequences. Any extension would probably have to fall in line with those signed by similar players with limited major league experience -- in other words, far below $200 million.
The other question: Exactly how good is Ohtani? Dan Szymborski ran Ohtani’s major league equivalencies last week. And here are the numbers for 2016 (he missed part of 2017 with ankle and thigh injuries and made just five starts while DHing in 65 games):
Pitching: 11-3, 3.24 ERA, 133 1/3 IP, 146 SO, 51 BB, 10 HR
Hitting: .289/.356/.547, 22 HR in 342 AB
While U.S. scouts rate him much higher as a pitcher, the two-way ability is obviously there (although his 2017 numbers at the plate weren’t as strong, translating to a .265/.317/.460 line). Some teams no doubt will view him strictly as a pitcher who can do some pinch-hitting on the side, believing the game is simply too tough for a player to regularly go both ways. It’s unlikely any team would actually let him play the field between starts; in Japan, he last played in the field in 2014, appearing in six games in right field.
There has been a debate then, about which league is the better fit for Ohtani. In the American League, he could DH a couple of times a week between starts; of course, that limits him to teams that don’t already have a full-time DH. There’s also the question, however, of whether you let him bat when he starts on the mound. If the pitcher bats, you lose your DH for the entire game. Maybe that’s not a big issue for the two or three at-bats Ohtani gets, but it complicates matters when he’s pulled for a reliever.
That might mean he’s a better fit for the National League, where he can essentially pinch hit for the pitcher every game he doesn’t start. Think of the value Madison Bumgarner has provided the Giants. Over the past four years, he has hit .224/.272/.433 with 15 home runs in 263 at-bats. He has been worth 3.7 WAR at the plate, or about 1.0 WAR per season (on top of his value provided as a pitcher). The projections suggest Ohtani could provide even more value as a hitter than Bumgarner. As a designated hitter, Ohtani is less valuable, since the bar for a DH is much higher than for pitchers.
Of course, determining his value is up to the clubs. Ohtani just wants to play baseball. The next few weeks will see a spike in Ohtani fever. All 30 clubs will undoubtedly reach out to his agents, CAA Sports. Ohtani will be wined and dined. Where does he end up? Some speculation:
Los Angeles Dodgers -- The Dodgers have scouted Ohtani since high school. And in the past, they have had success with Japanese players, including Hiroki Kuroda and Kenta Maeda. We assume that cities with a large Japanese population might have an advantage in signing Ohtani, although we don’t know if that’s an important factor.
New York Yankees -- The lure of the pinstripes might be unavoidable. The bonus pool money at least helps a little bit, as does the fact that the Yankees’ leading DH candidate right now would be Jacoby Ellsbury. In other words, they’re one AL team that could entice him with some DH at-bats.
Texas Rangers -- The Rangers need pitching help, with the second-lowest projected pitching WAR for 2017, according to FanGraphs. How about a package deal in bringing back Yu Darvish and then signing Ohtani?
Seattle Mariners -- They need a starting pitcher and have a long history of signing Japanese players, from Ichiro Suzuki to Hisashi Iwakuma. Nelson Cruz is locked in at DH for another year, but Ohtani could get some DH time starting in 2019.
Minnesota Twins -- They have one of the larger bonus pools available, and general manager Thad Levine was in Texas when Darvish was there. They also need starting pitching to go with that offense. Similar to the Rangers, a Darvish-Ohtani package deal could come together.
Chicago Cubs -- With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey free agents, they’ll be signing somebody. Theo Epstein did a great job wooing Jon Lester before the 2015 season. Now that the Cubs are annual playoff participants, wooing Ohtani might be easier.
San Francisco Giants -- While they’re focusing on rebuilding their offense, they won’t turn away from Ohtani. Heck, this is one team that could actually use him in the outfield.
Where does Ohtani end up? Let's just say there's confidence in New York, with the New York Daily News saying Ohtani “to the Yankees seems like an inevitable conclusion after latest developments.”
Because we need more issues to squabble about right now, it's the new Hall of Fame ballot! Let the arguments begin, and please, keep the language civil.
Here's a quick review of the new names on this year's ballot. Combined with all the strong holdovers, it's going to be a crowded ballot, and those BBWAA members who vote for 10 candidates will once again be forced to leave off somebody they'd like to vote for.
Chipper Jones: An easy first-ballot Hall of Famer, Jones hit .303/.401/.529 with 468 home runs and 1,623 RBIs, winning the 1999 NL MVP Award along the way. With 85.0 WAR via Baseball-Reference.com, Jones ranks among the greatest third basemen of all time:
Mike Schmidt: 106.5 WAR
Eddie Mathews: 96.4
Adrian Beltre: 93.9
Wade Boggs: 91.1
George Brett: 88.4
Chipper Jones: 85.0
Brooks Robinson: 78.4
If you fudge the numbers, you can argue Jones is the second-best third baseman behind Schmidt -- he's third behind Mathews and Schmidt in offensive WAR but was the weakest defender of those top seven. Jones played in a tougher era than Mathews and is close enough to Brett, Boggs and Beltre that he could be considered at least their equal or better, especially when you consider how much of Beltre's WAR total is dependent on his defense.
Chipper played in 12 postseasons and was also popular with the media, so he'll finish with a high percentage of votes, although Ken Griffey Jr.'s record percentage should remain safe.
Jim Thome: With 612 home runs (eighth all-time), 1,699 RBIs (26th), a .402 OBP and a .956 OPS, Thome is one of the great sluggers to play the game. Unlike others in his era, he hasn't faced any PED allegations or rumors, so that shouldn't be an issue. He should be a first-ballot guy, and I think he will be, but he might not clear that 75 percent threshold with much room to spare. Some voters might hold his defense against him (he played 818 games at DH), or his .276 batting average, and a select few are suspect of any slugger from the steroid era and won't vote for him.
Scott Rolen: This is the most fascinating player on the ballot in some regards. No, he's not going to get elected, but does he get 30 percent of the vote and establish himself as a strong candidate in the future, or does he get less than 5 percent and fall off the ballot? At his peak, Rolen was clearly a Hall-level player, with a monster 2004 season (9.2 WAR), plus seasons of 6.7, 5.8 and 5.5 WAR. He had five more between 4.1 and 4.7. He also had a lot of injuries later in his career, reaching 500 plate appearances just three times after turning 30, so his counting numbers don't blow you away. He finished with 316 home runs, 1,287 RBIs and barely cleared 2,000 hits.
Rolen’s Hall of Fame case rests on how voters evaluate his defense. He won eight Gold Gloves, and the defensive metrics back up that assessment -- among third basemen, Baseball-Reference rates him just behind Robinson and Beltre in career fielding runs. On that list above, he's ninth in career WAR (Ron Santo is eighth). He's a strong borderline candidate, although I don't know if he's one of the 10 best candidates, which is why his ultimate vote total is a big wild card.
Andruw Jones: Chipper's longtime teammate with the Atlanta Braves, Andruw burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old sensation when he hit two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. Jones has a lot of positives: In his 20s, he was not just the best defensive center fielder in the game -- he won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves -- but one of the best ever, rightfully drawing comparisons to Willie Mays. He was effortless out there, with great reads and the ability to glide to the right spot, and a key reason guys like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were consistent contenders for Cy Young Awards. He reached the postseason in the first 10 seasons of his career. He also hit 434 home runs. So you have a legendary defensive player who hit more than 400 home runs. That's a pretty intriguing Hall of Fame case.
Alas, Jones turned 30, gained weight, couldn't stay healthy and had a disastrous second half of his career. After turning 30, he hit .214/.314/.420 with just 92 home runs, and those seasons leave a sour legacy and the feeling of wasted talent. He finished with 62.8 WAR -- two or three good seasons from owning a much stronger case. WAR totals for a few outfielders:
Kenny Lofton: 68.2
Andre Dawson: 64.5
Dave Winfield: 63.8
Billy Williams: 63.6
Andruw Jones: 62.8
Vladimir Guerrero: 59.3
Sammy Sosa: 58.4
Lofton got zero Hall of Fame support. The next three were elected. Guerrero received 71 percent of the vote last year. Sosa, with extraneous factors, hasn't received much support. There will be a stathead element arguing in his favor, but Jones falls short in my book, and I wouldn't be surprised if he fails to receive even 5 percent and falls off the ballot.
Omar Vizquel: Vizquel's candidacy promises to reach a Jack Morris-like level of contentiousness. Will his defensive reputation -- he won 11 Gold Gloves and played more games at shortstop than anybody in history -- be enough to overcome his weak offense and mediocre career WAR? He was a key performer along with Thome on those powerhouse Cleveland Indians teams of the late 1990s, but he also received MVP votes just once in his career (finishing 16th in 1999).
The comparisons to Ozzie Smith will be made. Offensively, he was similar (Smith rates a little better since he played in a lower run environment), but Baseball-Reference credits Smith with 76.5 career WAR compared to just 45.3 for Vizquel. That's because the defensive metrics say Vizquel wasn't really in Smith's class with the glove. Baseball-Reference rates Smith the No. 2 defensive shortstop of all time (behind Mark Belanger), with 239 runs saved above average and Vizquel 12th (128 runs saved).
So this sets up as an old-school vs. new-school debate. I think I’m already tired of this one, and the debate hasn't even started. Keep in mind that for most of his career, the defensive metrics are estimates and not as precise as what we generate today, so there's a small chance that maybe the estimates are missing something. There are voters who will simply ignore the numbers and remember Vizquel as the best defender of his generation, a shortstop with gifted hands and acrobatic athleticism.
I'm on the fence, certainly not as anti-Vizquel as those who are vehemently opposed to him as a Hall of Famer. Vizquel could be a unique case, a guy who starts off at 40 percent of the vote and never climbs higher. Or maybe he gets elected in his ninth year on the ballot. I have no idea.
Johan Santana - Look at these three pitchers:
Santana: 139-78, 3.20 ERA, 136 ERA+, 50.7 WAR, 2 Cy Youngs
Max Scherzer: 141-75, 3.30 ERA, 127 ERA+, 44.6 WAR, 3 Cy Youngs
Sandy Koufax: 165-87, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 53.2 WAR, 3 Cy Youngs
I guess the point: Scherzer right now is exactly where Santana was before his shoulder blew out (and Santana should have won a third Cy Young in 2005, when an inferior Bartolo Colon won because he had more wins). Maybe Santana's career was too short, but for a few years he was something else. Will that be enough to get him in? Probably not, but he's a pitcher who deserves more attention than many will give him.
Jamie Moyer: In one of the more remarkable careers of the past 40 years, Moyer won 269 games and lasted until he was 49 years old by throwing slow, slower and slowest. Moyer is one of my favorite Mariners ever, and it's pretty awesome that since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, only 17 pitchers have won more games. But as with Tommy John and Jim Kaat, longevity isn't enough to make him a strong candidate.
Johnny Damon: Late in his career, Damon looked like he had a pretty good chance at 3,000 hits. At age 35, he hit .282 with 24 home runs and scored 107 runs for the Yankees as they won the World Series. He sat at 2,425 hits. He needed to average 115 hits per season through age 40 to get to 3,000 -- which has meant automatic selection to Cooperstown. Instead, he lasted just two more seasons as a regular and finish with 2,769 hits. His career WAR of 56.0 is better than some Hall of Famers but was built more on being a very good player than a big star (he had just two 5-WAR seasons, two All-Star appearances and never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting). A memorable player, he'll probably get a few votes, but he likely falls off the ballot after one year.
Chris Carpenter: That Carpenter even made it to a Hall of Fame ballot is a minor miracle. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow in 1999, had elbow and labrum surgery after the 2002 season, tore his labrum again in 2003 while on rehab in the minors, missed almost all of the 2007 and 2008 seasons with elbow issues and then Tommy John surgery, suffered lingering numbness the rest of his career, and had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2012 before returning at the end of the season. His career was certainly a testament to perseverance and toughness. He won 144 games and a Cy Young, and helped the Cardinals win two World Series (he threw eight scoreless innings in his one start in 2006 and won Game 7 in 2011 on three days of rest). He'll be remembered as an all-time great Cardinal, but the injuries cut into what could have been a Hall of Fame career.
Others: Brian Fuentes, Livan Hernandez, Aubrey Huff, Jason Isringhausen, Carlos Lee, Brad Lidge, Hideki Matsui, Kevin Millwood, Kerry Wood.
Holdovers with last year’s vote total: Trevor Hoffman (74.7 percent), Vladimir Guerrero (71.7), Edgar Martinez (58.6), Roger Clemens (54.1), Barry Bonds (53.8), Mike Mussina (51.8), Curt Schilling (45.0), Manny Ramirez (23.8), Larry Walker (21.9), Fred McGriff (21.7), Jeff Kent (16.7), Gary Sheffield (13.3), Billy Wagner (10.2), Sammy Sosa (8.6).
Prediction: Chipper, Thome, Hoffman and Guerrero get elected (results are announced January 24). After throwing a shutout in 2013, this would mean 16 players the BBWAA will have elected since 2014 -- with many more deserving candidates still on the ballot.
OK, time for trades and free-agent signings! Awards season is over and the MVP winners are Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros. Congrats to both of them on their outstanding seasons. They are deserving winners; we simply don't get crazy awards results like we did a decade ago. The voters have learned and adapted and vote with more knowledge than they once did.
The National League MVP vote promised to be a chaotic result and that's what we got with Stanton edging out Joey Votto by two points (302 to 300) in the fourth-closest vote ever. Six different players received first-place votes, seven different players finished in the top three on somebody's ballot and Stanton and Votto finished one-two despite both playing on losing teams. Stanton became just the seventh MVP winner from a losing team, joining Ernie Banks (twice), Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout.
In dissecting the voting results, if there's any consolation for Votto it's that there wasn't a weird, rogue ballot that changed the results. He and Stanton both received 10 first-place votes -- that's important since a first-place vote is worth 14 points and a second-place vote is worth nine points. Stanton beat out Votto by receiving 10 second-place votes to nine for Votto and five third-place votes to four for Votto. Stanton, however, was placed sixth on one ballot while Votto was no lower than fifth, so it was incremental placements that allowed Stanton to win.
The one vote that was a little odd was MLB.com's Mark Bowman giving Kris Bryant his lone first-place vote -- not that Bryant didn't have an excellent season, but he once again hit very poorly in high-leverage situations (.185) -- and was the only voter to put Bryant first or second. But Bowman had Stanton second and Votto third, so Votto wins only if he leapfrogs Stanton into first place. Still, we were this close to the second tie in MVP history: If Bowman or another voter had simply put Votto second and Stanton third instead of vice-versa, both finish at 301 points.
One thing that's worth pointing out with a vote this close is that while the voting process is designed to be fair -- there are two voters from each local chapter of the BBWAA -- in some instances the representative for a chapter is a national writer rather than a local beat guy. The point there is that the beat guys may tend to show a little favoritism for their candidate.
In this case, the voters in the Miami and Cincinnati chapters were all local writers. The two Miami voters were Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Craig Davis of the Sun Sentinel. Both of them had Stanton first and Votto third. The two Cincinnati voters were C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. Both of them had Votto first. Rosecrans had Stanton second and Sheldon had him third, so Stanton received one more point from the Cincinnati writers than Votto received from the Miami writers.
Anyway, Stanton mashed 59 home runs, not just because he was finally healthy for an entire season, but because of a crucial in-season change to his batting stance. In June, he changed from a straight-up stance to a closed one, with his left foot closer to home plate. This dramatically improved his plate coverage. As Mark Simon reports, Stanton hit .267 and slugged .541 on outside pitches, a 34-point jump in batting average and 100-point jump in slugging percentage from 2016. From June 19 to the end of the season, Stanton hit .284/.388/.695 with 42 home runs in 93 games. Wow.
FYI, the three MVP votes that were closer than this one:
1979 NL: Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez tie. This was a weird vote because Stargell won basically on his intangibles as the clubhouse leader -- probably the last player to win an MVP with that as a major consideration. Hernandez led in WAR, 7.6 to 2.5, but Stargell's Pirates won the division with Stargell famously handing out his gold stars like stickers on a college football helmet. Stargell received 10 first-place votes to four for Hernandez, so he was obviously much lower or left off some ballots.
1947 AL: Joe DiMaggio beats Ted Williams, 202 points to 201. Williams led in WAR, 9.9 to 4.8, while winning the Triple Crown. The Yankees won the pennant. One voter left Williams off his ballot, and Williams falsely accused Boston Glove writer Mel Webb of the misdeed, a legend that then persisted for decades. Webb didn't have a vote that year and all three Boston writers put Williams first. As Glenn Stout reported in his book "Red Sox Century," it was a writer from the Midwest who didn't include Williams. In fact, The Sporting News would reveal that the results were made available to the writers a week before they announced and some used that information to wager on the results. Ah, the good old days.
1944 NL: Marty Marion beats Bill Nicholson, 190 to 189. Marion was the shortstop on the pennant-winning Cardinals, hitting .267/.324/.362, while Nicholson hit .287 with 33 home runs and 122 RBIs for the 75-79 Cubs. Marion was an elite defender. A better selection would have teammate Stan Musial, who led Marion in WAR, 8.8 to 4.7, but finished fourth in the voting. (Yes, I know we didn't have WAR back then.)
Over in the American League, it was a little surprising that Altuve crushed Aaron Judge in the final results, collecting 27 of the 30 first-place votes. I thought Altuve would win in a close vote. It seems that Judge's post-All-Star-break slump factored heavily into the votes and that his 15-homer September wasn't enough to convince voters.
Altuve becomes the second MVP in Astros history, joining Jeff Bagwell, and he did it on the strength of his all-around brilliance and season-long consistency. He won his third batting title, reached 200 hits for the fourth season in a row, stole 32 bases and played solid defense at a premium position. Not bad for a guy who was told to go home after the first day of a tryout camp when he was 16 years old.
He came back the next day anyway. Now he's the MVP.
The MVP awards will be announced Thursday, and the American League vote between Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge promises to be a tight one. If Altuve wins, it will be the final exclamation point on his rise from novelty to superstar, the culmination of a season that included a World Series title, his third batting championship and his fourth straight 200-hit campaign.
Aaron Judge's MVP-caliber season was even more of a surprise. While he was a highly rated prospect after the Yankees drafted him 32nd overall in 2013, his struggles during his late-season call-up in 2016 meant he wasn't even guaranteed to be the Yankees' starting right fielder when spring training kicked off. He'd win that job and go on to set the major league record for rookies with 52 home runs.
In the end, maybe it doesn't really matter who wins. Both players are great for the sport; not only terrific ambassadors for the game, but exciting and unique players to watch. They are two guys who, when they're about to bat, you don’t change the channel or take the dog out. For different reasons, they defy the baseball logic we've constructed in our brains.
How can a guy hit a baseball that far? How can somebody as short as Altuve be so powerful? How can somebody as big as Judge move like that in the outfield? How does Altuve swing so hard and not strike out more?
No matter the voting results, we need an Altuve-Judge commercial for next season: No matter your size, baseball is the sport for you. Maybe we'll have a tie for only the second time in MVP voting -- Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez tied for NL honors in 1979 -- and everybody will be happy.
There's this little thing I do in my head at the end of every baseball season that kind of goes like this: Who was the story of the season? If historians were going to focus on one player to tell the story of a season, who would they focus on?
That's not always easy to answer. Sometimes it's obvious. When you think of 1988, you think Orel Hershiser: the Cy Young Award, the consecutive scoreless innings streak, the dominant postseason performance. In 1998, it’s Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In 2014, Clayton Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and won Cy Young and MVP honors, but Madison Bumgarner's historic run in the playoffs made it the Year of MadBum. Sometimes -- like 2016 -- the story is about an entire team, which trumps any individual narrative.
Who was the big story of 2017? I suppose you can argue Giancarlo Stanton with his 59 home runs, but the Marlins weren't a factor in the playoff race. Plus, his push for 60 homers came in the second half. We were talking about Altuve and Judge all season.
It feels more like the season belonged to Judge. Maybe that's the influence of playing for the Yankees. Maybe it's because his season was more shocking, and something new always gets more attention. Altuve also had others stealing focus away from him at various times as the Astros ran away in the AL West -- George Springer and Carlos Correa and then Justin Verlander.
Meanwhile, Judge was in the headlines all season, bashing those mammoth home runs, winning the Home Run Derby in dramatic fashion, slumping after the All-Star break, and then carrying the Yankees to a wild-card berth with a monster September when he hit 15 home runs and drove in 32 runs.
That said ... I think Altuve is the MVP here. Judge has the lead over Altuve in FanGraphs WAR (8.2 to 7.5), while Altuve has the slight edge in Baseball-Reference WAR (8.3 to 8.1). The difference for me is that Altuve was much better in clutch situations, with far superior numbers in high-leverage situations and a higher win probability added. Judge not only beat up on a bad pitchers -- in 89 at-bats when the game margin was five runs or greater, he hit 17 home runs and slugged 1.000 -- but also benefited from that short porch at Yankee Stadium, hitting 33 of his 52 home runs at home.
The interesting thing about Altuve, if he wins, is how his season doesn't really fit the usual MVP parameters. I searched for all players since 1931 (the first year of BBWAA voting) who hit between .336 and .356 and slugged between 22 and 26 home runs -- a list of 31 players. Altuve's 81 RBIs are fourth-lowest on the list, ahead of only three partial-season players (Matt Williams in 76 games in 1995, Moises Alou in the strike-shortened 1994 season and Johnny Mize in 1946).
One player on the list did win an MVP Award -- Buster Posey in 2012, although he drove in 103 runs that year (Daniel Murphy finished second in the NL MVP voting last year with similar numbers and drove in 104 runs).
Altuve's 81 RBIs would be the fewest for an MVP winner who wasn't a pitcher since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Again, that's no knock on his production: He hit .350 with runners on base. Altuve basically had the same season as 2016, when he finished third in the MVP vote, so maybe it's a testament to the level he's achieved that he might win the award in a season that might not even stand out as his best.
And if he doesn't win? Then Judge joins Ichiro and Fred Lynn as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. That would be pretty cool. As fans, we can't lose.
During the media session at the All-Star Game in Miami this past summer, the players sat behind tables lined across the outfield warning track. The hot-button topic at the time -- as it would remain through the World Series -- was the baseball. A reporter asked Joey Votto about the speculation that the ball was juiced.
“I’m not going to speculate about speculation,” the Cincinnati Reds first baseman answered.
I can’t think of a better characterization of Votto than that response. He’s a master of precision at the plate, and apparently about the particulars of language and the way he’ll answer a question as well. He wasn’t being a jerk. I phrased the issue in a different manner and he agreeably talked about the increase in home runs across the sport.
Votto is one of the three National League MVP finalists, and that seemed to catch some by surprise. One national TV host was foaming like a rabid dog about Votto finishing that high in the voting, and not just because the Reds finished 68-94. You can debate whether the Reds’ bad record hinders Votto’s consideration for MVP, but you can’t debate his value on the field.
He was the best hitter in the National League, leading the league in OBP, OPS, adjusted OPS, wOBA, wRC+ and walks, while ranking second to Giancarlo Stanton in Baseball-Reference WAR among NL position players and fourth in FanGraphs WAR. He hit .320/.454/.578 with 36 home runs and played every game (although somehow lost out on the Silver Slugger Award to Paul Goldschmidt).
It’s not really accurate to say Votto is underrated. After all, he’s going to finish at least third in this year’s MVP voting. He finished seventh in 2016 while playing for another 94-loss team. He finished third in 2015 while playing for a 98-loss team. These results would not have happened 15 years ago, but the writers who cover the league are obviously respectful of Votto’s brilliance in the batter’s box, of the importance of getting on base and not making outs.
“I wanted this to be my pièce de résistance,” Votto told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer at the end of the season. “I wanted this to be my work of art. I felt like shrinking strikeouts, keeping the walks, competing on a daily basis, playing every day, improving my defense. I felt this was definitely the best year of my career.”
In many ways, Votto is this generation’s Ted Williams. That sounds like blasphemy, but the similarities are obvious, both in their approach at the plate and the resulting .300 batting averages and high OBPs.
No, Votto isn’t on the same level as Williams when comparing each to his peers, but here’s a little nugget to consider: Williams hit .328 on the road in his career; Votto has hit .321. And Williams wasn’t facing an entire league of pitchers throwing 95 mph.
The Red Sox won the pennant once in Williams’ 19 seasons with the team. They were competitive early in his career, reached his only World Series in 1946 (losing in seven games) and finished one game out of first place in both 1948 and 1949 and just four games out in 1950. But in Williams’ final 10 seasons, the Red Sox finished no closer than 11 games out.
The Reds, likewise, are wasting some of Votto’s best years. They did win division titles in 2010 -- Votto won the MVP that season -- and 2012 and lost the wild-card game in 2013, but they’ve now had four straight losing seasons. Given that the Reds allowed the most runs in the NL in 2017, a turnaround in the next few seasons doesn’t appear likely.
Votto also isn’t going anywhere. He’s signed through 2023, and while his $25 million annual salary no longer seems so exorbitant, he holds a full no-trade clause and appears happy to stay in Cincinnati. Maybe the good news for the Reds is that given his ability at the plate, he should -- like Williams -- age well. Maybe by the time the Reds are ready to compete again, Votto will still be one of the elite hitters in the league.
Of course, he’ll probably still receive criticism in some quarters along the way -- as Williams did throughout his career -- for taking too many walks and not driving in enough runs, as if getting on base were a bad thing.
The response to those critics is pretty simple: Votto understands baseball a lot better than they do.
If anything, the irritating part is this misconception that Votto just stands there and takes his walks instead of being more aggressive. That’s just wrong on so many levels. Some numbers:
- Out of 144 qualified regulars, he ranked 76th in average pitches per plate appearance, just ahead of Nolan Arenado, known as one of the more aggressive swingers in the game.
- He ranked 20th in lowest swing rate, so in this regard he didn’t swing a lot. Still, teammate Zack Cozart swung less often than Votto. (Hmm, maybe that’s one reason Cozart had the best season of his career.)
- On the first pitch of a plate appearance, Votto ranked 122nd in lowest swing rate. He swung at the first pitch 36.6 percent of the time. Compare that to Joe Mauer, who swung just 7.6 percent of the time at the first pitch.
- For pitches labeled in the strike zone, Votto ranked 98th in lowest swing rate. If he saw a strike, he swung 69.4 percent of the time.
What Votto doesn’t do is chase pitches out of the zone. This, as it was for Williams, is his brilliance. His chase rate of 14.0 percent was the lowest in the majors, one of just eight players below 20 percent. Why would his critics want him to expand the strike zone and make outs? That’s what pitchers want you to do. Votto hit .152 when he chased.
Oh, and Votto does just fine with runners on base. He hit .371 with runners in scoring position in 2017 and .339 with men on. For his career, he has hit .335 with runners in scoring position and .326 with men on.
Votto said he wanted 2017 to be his work of art. His entire career has been a masterpiece.