Who do you like in the NCAA tournament? I always pick Gonzaga. Hey, it almost worked last year! In honor of March Madness, my editor tossed me an idea: What was the best postseason upset ever for all 30 major league teams?
Big mistake there, Dan, because this sucker is going to run a few thousand words -- but it's worth it. Bonus: I not only picked an upset for each team but ranked the upsets in order from No. 30 (least impressive) to No. 1 (the NC State beating Phi Slamma Jamma of the baseball postseason). Enjoy!
30. Colorado Rockies: Beat Phillies in 2007 NLDS
The Rockies have made the playoffs four times in franchise history and have won just two playoff series, both in 2007, the year of the famous Rocktober run to the World Series. They went 13-1 over their final 14 games, beat the Padres in a tiebreaker to win the wild card and then swept both the NLDS and NLCS -- a remarkable 21-1 stretch. Really, the upset was just getting to the postseason in the first place. The 2007 National League playoff teams were probably the weakest group ever. The Diamondbacks had the best record at 90-72 but had a negative run differential. The Rockies finished 90-73 and had the best run differential. The Phillies won 89 games, and the Cubs took the Central with just 85 wins. So this wasn't really much of an upset.
Key moment/game: Kaz Matsui hits a two-out grand slam off Kyle Lohse in the fourth inning of Game 2 to give the Rockies a 6-3 lead.
29. Milwaukee Brewers: Beat Angels in 1982 ALCS
The Rockies have four playoff trips in 25 seasons, but the Brewers have just four over 49 seasons -- a history of misery that tends to get overlooked. The 1982 team -- affectionately known as Harvey's Wallbangers for manager Harvey Kuenn and his team of sluggers -- was the best in franchise history. This qualifies as an upset only because the Angels won the first two games before the Brewers took the final three at home.
Key moment/game: Down 3-2 in the seventh inning of Game 5, Cecil Cooper hits a two-out, two-run single off Luis Sanchez to give the Brewers a 4-3 lead.
28. Montreal Expos: Beat Phillies in 1981 NLDS
The Nationals have lost all four of their playoff series, so we have to go back to the goofy split-season year of 1981 and the lone playoff appearance -- and victory -- from the franchise's Montreal days. The Expos were the better team, although the Phillies were the defending World Series champ.
Key moment/game: The great Steve Rogers spun a six-hit shutout to beat Steve Carlton 3-0 in the decisive Game 5.
27. Toronto Blue Jays: Beat Braves in 1992 World Series
We'll label the first of the Jays' back-to-back World Series a minor upset. The Jays had gone 96-66, the Braves 98-64 (although with a seven-game edge in Pythagorean record). In an overlooked World Series -- four of the six games were decided by one run -- the Jays won the finale in 11 innings.
Key moment/game: Dave Winfield's two-out double scored two runs in the top of the 11th; the Braves scored one run before Mike Timlin got the final out when Otis Nixon tried to bunt for a hit.
26. Texas Rangers: Beat Yankees in 2010 ALCS
Led by MVP Josh Hamilton, the Rangers were in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. They were a 90-72 team with a plus-100 run differential, while the Yankees had gone 95-67 and plus-166. Hamilton hit .350 with four home runs, eight walks and seven RBIs as the Rangers won in six games.
Key moment/game: Bengie Molina hits a three-run homer off A.J. Burnett in Game 4 to give the Rangers a 5-3 lead in the sixth inning. They go on to a 10-3 win to take a 3-1 series lead.
25. Chicago Cubs: Beat Cardinals in 2015 NLDS
The 2016 World Series title might have been a curse-breaking miracle, but it wasn't an upset. The year before, the Cubs improved from 73 wins to 97 and then beat their 100-win rivals in the division series. Though the Mets then swept them in the NLCS, beating the Cardinals set the stage for 2016.
Key moment/game: The Cubs pound six home runs in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
24. Los Angeles Angels: Beat Yankees in 2002 ALDS
The 2002 Angels won 99 games, but this felt like a fairly monumental upset at the time. The Yankees had won four straight AL pennants, had gone 56-22 in the postseason since 1996 and had won 103 games in 2002. The Angels, in the playoffs for the first time since 1986, wiped them out in four games, hitting .376 in the series.
Key moment/game: The Angels score three runs in the eighth for a 9-6 victory in Game 3. Tim Salmon hits a two-run homer off Steve Karsay for the clinching blow. The Angels go on to win their only World Series.
23. Arizona Diamondbacks: Beat Yankees in 2001 World Series
Maybe the Angels should thank Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, who put a dent in the Yankees' seemingly invincible armor the year before with their World Series victory. Remember, the 116-win Mariners appeared destined for immortality before the 95-win Yankees upset them in the ALCS. The Diamondbacks won 92 games but relied on their two horses in the postseason.
Key moment/game: Luis Gonzalez's blooper off Mariano Rivera capped the two-run rally to prevent the Yankees from a fourth straight World Series, but don't forget Mark Grace got the rally started with a leadoff single.
22. Oakland Athletics: Beat Dodgers in 1974 World Series
The A's have won nine World Series going back to their Philadelphia days, although none really meets the standards of a major upset. This one did feature a significant win differential as the A's had won 90 games to the Dodgers' 102. The A's had significantly underperformed their Pythagorean record (97-65) and, oh, were also the two-time defending champs. They made it three in a row with a five-game victory.
Key moment/game: Ken Holtzman homers and throws 7⅔ strong innings to win Game 4.
21. New York Yankees: Beat Braves in 1996 World Series
Before the dynasty, there was the plucky 1996 Yankees, a mix of young stars on the rise -- Derek Jeter was a rookie while Mariano Rivera had his breakout season in the bullpen -- and past-their-prime vets like Wade Boggs, Cecil Fielder and Tim Raines. Ex-Mets Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were around as well, 10 years past their 1986 glory days. This motley crew in Joe Torre's first season finished 92-70 and then beat the 96-66 Braves in the World Series.
Key moment/game: Mark Wohlers, meet Jim Leyritz.
20. Baltimore Orioles: Beat Dodgers in 1966 World Series
When they were the St. Louis Browns, this franchise was the biggest joke in baseball. After the move to Baltimore in 1954, it would eventually become the preeminent franchise in the American League for a two-decade stretch, with just one losing season between 1963 and 1985. This was Baltimore's first trip to the World Series, and the Orioles swept the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale Dodgers in stunning fashion, throwing shutouts the final three games. Baltimore's three starters were 23-year-old Dave McNally, 21-year-old Wally Bunker and 20-year-old Jim Palmer.
Key moment/game: Palmer beats Koufax 6-0 in Game 2 as Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis commits three errors in the fifth inning (he dropped two fly balls in the sun and made a throwing error) as the O's take a 3-0 lead.
19. Seattle Mariners: Beat Yankees in 1995 ALDS
The Yankees were in the postseason for the first time since 1981. The Mariners were in for the first time ever, after beating the Angels in a West Division tiebreaker. That meant ace Randy Johnson wouldn't be ready until Game 3. The Mariners lost the first two at Yankee Stadium, Johnson won Game 3, Edgar Martinez broke a 6-6 tie in Game 4 with a home run off closer John Wetteland and then played hero once again in Game 5.
Key moment/game: With Johnson on in relief, the Yankees score in the top of the 11th, but Martinez's two-run double off Jack McDowell scores Ken Griffey Jr. from first base for the walk-off win.
18. Detroit Tigers: Beat Cubs in 1935 World Series
A blast from the past as the 93-win Tigers beat the 100-win Cubs in six games. It was the first World Series victory for Detroit, which had lost in 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1934. Six weeks after the win, longtime owner Frank Navin suffered a heart attack while riding a horse and died.
Key moment/game: Tommy Bridges tosses a complete game in the clincher and Goose Goslin's single plates player/manager Mickey Cochrane with the walk-off victory.
17. Cleveland Indians: Beat Yankees in 1997 ALDS
The Indians made the playoffs five straight years in the 1990s, but not all of those teams were powerhouses. This edition finished just 86-75 with a plus-53 run differential (nobody else in the AL Central finished above .500). The Yankees went 96-66 with a plus-203 run differential. Of course, any team with Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Matt Williams in the lineup is capable of an upset. Heck, even Sandy Alomar hit .324/.354/.545 that year.
Key moment/game: Alomar ties up Game 4 in the eighth inning with a home run off Mariano Rivera, and Omar Vizquel's game-winning hit in the ninth bounces off Ramiro Mendoza and past Derek Jeter to score Marquis Grissom from second base.
16. Tampa Bay Rays: Beat Red Sox in 2008 ALCS
An upset? Maybe not. After all, the Rays had won the division with 97 wins while the Red Sox had won 95. Still, these were the Rays -- known as the Devil Rays prior to 2008 -- and they'd lost 96 games in 2007. And 101 in 2006. And so on. It was a fun little ride to the postseason, but no way would they beat the defending World Series champs with the pressure on. They beat them in seven games.
Key moment/game: Rookie David Price, with 14 innings of big league experience, came on in the bottom of the eighth of Game 7 with a 3-1 lead, the bases loaded and two outs. He fanned J.D. Drew and then finished it off for his first major league save.
15. Houston Astros: Beat Cardinals in 2005 NLCS
Behind Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the Astros had some powerhouse teams in the late 1990s and 2000s. This actually wasn't one of them. Bagwell missed most of the year, Biggio was in decline and they won just 89 games. The Cardinals had won 100 games for the second season in a row. The Astros, however, had an imposing trio of starters -- Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt -- who each finished with a sub-3.00 ERA (Clemens was at 1.87). Everyone remembers the Albert Pujols home run to win Game 5, but Houston won the series in six games.
Key moment/game: Oswalt allows one run and three hits over seven innings to win Game 6.
14. Pittsburgh Pirates: Beat Yankees in 1960 World Series
This seems like a bigger upset than it actually was, in part because the Yankees won games by scores of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0. The Pirates finished 95-59, while the Yankees finished 97-57 and the Pirates actually had the better run differential. Still, these were the Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, and the Pirates, perennial losers for most of the 1950s, had won their first pennant since 1927. The defeat would cost Casey Stengel his job as Yankees manager.
Key moment/game: Bill Mazeroski wins the dramatic Game 7 with a walk-off home run to give the Pirates the 10-9 win in maybe the greatest game ever played.
13. St. Louis Cardinals: Beat Phillies in 2011 NLDS
The 2006 World Series champs won only 83 games, so you could go with their NLCS win against the 97-win Mets or their World Series win over the 95-win Tigers, but I’ll go with this shocker over the Phillies. The Phillies were a 102-win juggernaut featuring one of the best rotations of all time. The Cardinals had won 90 games, making the playoffs only on the season's final day.
Key moment/game: Chris Carpenter beats Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 with a three-hit complete game. The Cardinals end up winning the World Series.
12. Florida Marlins: Beat Yankees in 2003 World Series
The Marlins have never finished in first place and yet have two World Series titles -- they've never lost a postseason series. Baseball is weird and unfair and joyous and awful. Which was the bigger upset? The 92-win 1997 Marlins beating the 101-win Braves in the NLCS or the 91-win 2003 Marlins beating the 101-win Yankees in the World Series? We'll give the edge to the World Series upset.
Key moment/game: The Marlins win Game 4 on Alex Gonzalez's walk-off home run in the 12th off Jeff Weaver -- Mariano Rivera never got in the game -- but this World Series is remembered for Josh Beckett's five-hit shutout in Game 6 on three days' rest.
11. Philadelphia Phillies: Beat Braves in 1993 NLCS
The '93 Phillies were a hard-livin', fun-lovin' group of crazies. For one year, they were a legitimately great team -- 1993 was the franchise's only winning season between 1987 and 2000 -- but nobody expected them to beat the 104-win Braves in the NLCS. The Braves, perhaps wiped out by a grueling division race with the Giants, took two of the first three games before the Phillies won the final three.
Key moment/game: In Game 5, the Phillies led 3-0 behind Curt Schilling heading to the bottom of the ninth. After a walk and error, Mitch Williams came in, and next thing you know, the game is tied. Call it foreshadowing. Lenny Dykstra rescues the day, however, with a home run off Mark Wohlers in the 10th inning.
10. San Diego Padres: Beat Braves in 1998 NLCS
The Padres won 98 games, although with a 93-69 Pythagorean record, then beat the 102-win Astros in the NLDS and the 106-win Braves in the NLCS. Along the way, they beat Randy Johnson twice, Tom Glavine twice and Greg Maddux once, before losing to the Yankees in the World Series. This was probably the greatest of all those Braves teams of this era, as they had five starters win 16-plus games and four sluggers with 30-plus home runs. They outscored their opponents by 245 runs. Then they ran into Sterling Hitchcock.
Key moment/game: Hitchcock beat Maddux in Game 3, and then Glavine in Game 6 (with five scoreless innings).
9. Cincinnati Reds: Beat A's in 1990 World Series
It was the Nasty Boys versus the Bash Brothers, the ultimate showdown of power versus power. The A's were heavy favorites, going for their second straight title after winning 103 games -- 12 more than the Reds. It was all Reds. Mostly, it was all Jose Rijo. He allowed one run over 15 1/3 innings in winning Games 1 and 4.
Key moment/game: In the bottom of the 10th of Game 2, little-used utility guy Billy Bates -- he'd had only five plate appearances with the Reds and hit .088 on the season (3-for-34) -- reaches on an infield dribbler against Dennis Eckersley and later scores the winning run. It was the last appearance of his brief major league career.
8. Boston Braves: Beat Athletics in 1914 World Series
Considering all the times the Atlanta Braves were upset in the postseason (see above!), it's not a surprise that we have to go back to the Boston Braves to find their own shocker. The Miracle Braves were in last place on July 18 -- that's eight out of eight teams -- but would go 31-8 in September/October to win the NL pennant. In the World Series, they swept Connie Mack's A's, who had won in 1910, 1911 and 1913. Mack, disillusioned by the defeat and facing financial problems, tore up the team after the loss.
Key moment/game: In Game 3, the A's take the lead with two runs in the 10th. The Braves tie it, however, with one run coming on catcher Hank Gowdy's home run -- back when few home runs were hit -- and then win in 12 innings.
7. Kansas City Royals: Beat Cardinals in 1985 World Series
The 2014 and 2015 postseason runs were of transcendent joy, but this was the biggest upset. This team had George Brett at his peak and 21-year-old Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen, but was a 91-win team and not nearly as good as some of the Royals teams from a few years earlier that failed to win a World Series. The Cardinals had won 101 games.
Key moment/game: The Cardinals led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6, three outs from a title. Jorge Orta hit a bounce to first base, pitcher Todd Worrell covering for the out. Except Don Denkinger blows the call. The Cardinals self-destruct from there with a dropped foul ball and passed ball, and the Royals score twice and then win Game 7 behind Saberhagen's 11-0 shutout.
6. Minnesota Twins: Beat Cardinals in 1987 World Series
One of the worst World Series champions ever, the Twins won 85 games and were outscored by 20 runs. One thing they did well: Win in the Metrodome. They had gone 56-25 at home and 29-52 on the road, but thanks to the quirks of a preset schedule had home-field advantage in both the ALCS and World Series. They would go 6-0 at home. Long live the Homer Hankie. The Cardinals had gone 95-67, although Jack Clark, their best hitter (.286/.459/.597, 35 home runs), missed the series, and Terry Pendleton played just three of the seven games.
Key moment/game: Kent Hrbek's grand slam breaks open Game 6 and sends it to Game 7, which the Twins win behind Frank Viola.
5. New York Giants: Beat Indians in 1954 World Series
The Giants featured NL MVP Willie Mays, 21-game winner Johnny Antonelli and bullpen aces Hoyt Wilhelm and Marv Grissom as they went 97-57 -- and this was still a huge upset. That's because the Indians won 111 games, at the time an American League record, behind the stellar rotation of Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and a still-effective Bob Feller. Larry Doby led the AL in home runs and RBIs. Then the Giants swept the series.
Key moment/game: Mays' famous catch came in the eighth inning of Game 1, preserving a 2-2 tie as the Giants would eventually win in 10 innings on Dusty Rhodes' pinch-hit three-run walk-off.
4. Chicago White Sox: Beat Cubs in 1906 World Series
If your nickname is "The Hitless Wonders," it probably qualifies as an upset. In fact, this makes a strong case for the greatest upset in postseason history since the White Sox were 93-58 while the Cubs were 116-36. If you like 1906 baseball and want to put this atop your list, go for it. Anyway, the White Sox hit .230 that year, which was worst in the American League. The Sox, however, were Moneyball 95 years before "Moneyball," leading the league in walks and finishing third in runs. They also had a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in the league, led by spitballer Ed Walsh, who spun 10 shutouts that year.
Key moment/game: Walsh throws a two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in Game 3. The White Sox win in six games with Jiggs Donahue driving in three runs off Three Finger Brown in the clincher. Never pass up a chance to write "Jiggs Donahue."
3. Boston Red Sox: Beat Yankees in 2004 ALCS
You can make an argumentthat this qualifies as the greatest upset considering not just the history of the two franchises but the Red Sox becoming the only team in postseason history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit. In actual strength, the teams were pretty even: The Yankees won 101 games, the Red Sox 98, and the Red Sox actually had the much larger run differential (plus-180 to plus-89). So maybe it wasn't even an upset!
Key moment/game: Dave Roberts steals second and sets everything into motion.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers: Beat A's in 1988 World Series
The Dodgers had two players who hit more than 10 home runs, and one of them had just one at-bat in the World Series (it was a big one). Their No. 3 hitter in the World Series hit one home run all season. Their No. 2 hitter hit .223 with a .288 OBP. Their third baseman had a .268 OBP. Their shortstop hit .199. The A's had won 104 games, the Dodgers 94. This was about Kirk Gibson's heroics and Orel Hershiser carrying a team on his back and a reminder that absolutely anything can happen in a short series.
Key moment/game: As Vin Scully said, "And look who's coming up."
1. New York Mets: Beat Orioles in 1969 World Series
On one level, maybe this is overrated as the biggest upset. After all, the Mets won 100 games. On the other hand, the Orioles won 109, so there was still a wide spread in the win column. The Mets also outperformed their Pythagorean record by eight wins, so you can argue their true talent level wasn't really that of a 100-win team. Pointedly, they won just 83 games the following season. What still makes the Miracle Mets the preeminent miracle in postseason history is the backstory. They'd gone 73-89 in 1968, which was the best -- by 12 wins! -- in the franchise's short history. They were an extremely young team. Until they traded for Donn Clendenon, the oldest regular position player was 26. The top four starters were all 26 or younger. They came out of nowhere and beat a loaded Orioles team in five games.
Key moment/game: Lots of crazy moments and great catches throughout the series, but the gem was Tom Seaver's 2-1 victory in Game 4 when he pitched all 10 innings.
He did, however, agree to a three-year, $75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies that will make him the seventh-highest paid starting pitcher in the majors in 2018 based on average annual value. I’d suggest that’s a nice deal for a pitcher who ranked 18th in the majors in ERA in 2017, 48th in innings pitched and 24th among qualified starters in strikeout rate.
There’s an obvious reason Arrieta didn’t get the long-term deal he may have been anticipating at the beginning of the offseason. He hasn’t been the same pitcher as he was during his monster 2015 Cy Young campaign.
The Phillies have reportedly signed 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta had the 2nd-best ERA in baseball (2.08) from 2014-15, but hasn't been quite as dominant during the last 2 seasons (3.30). pic.twitter.com/ipRxPCt9iT
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 11, 2018
His innings have slid from 229 to 197 to 168, his FIP has increased from 2.35 to 3.52 to 4.16, his fastball velocity has dropped from 94.9 mph to 92.6 and his WAR has declined from 8.7 to 3.4 and 1.9. That’s not an encouraging trend, but this is still a nice deal for the Phillies as well: Arrieta presumably is healthy, the three-year length minimizes the risk and if he can regain some command, there is more upside here than 1.9 WAR.
What this deal really signifies is the Phillies feel like they’re close to playoff contention -- maybe even this season. You don’t shell out $75 million for Arrieta and $60 million for Carlos Santana on three-year deals if you believe you’re punting the first two seasons of those deals.
The Phillies were a bad baseball team in 2017, finishing just 66-96 without any obvious strengths and a whole bunch of weaknesses. They were 12th in the National League in runs, 10th in runs allowed and outhomered 221 to 174. Against the five National League playoff teams, there were 17-31. But there are reasons to believe much brighter days are on the way, starting in 2018:
-- A full season from Rhys Hoskins. He’s moving to left field and the ZiPS projection has him hitting .264/.356/.513 with 34 home runs, worth an estimated 3.2 WAR. That may even be a conservative projection. Phillies left fielders actually were decent last season, ranking sixth in the majors in wOBA (with a mix of Aaron Altherr, Howie Kendrick, Daniel Nava and Hoskins), but Hoskins should provide an upgrade over 2017’s .252/.350/.442 line.
-- Santana to first base. The Phillies ranked 26th in the majors -- and last in the NL -- in wOBA at first base. Santana has been a consistent .360 OBP guy throughout his career, a big upgrade from last year’s .309 team mark. His defense also will be an upgrade over Tommy Joseph -- addition by subtraction.
-- J.P. Crawford takes over at shortstop. The bat is a wild card, but the one trait he always showed in the minors was a good eye at the plate. In his 87 plate appearances with the Phillies, he drew 16 walks and 22 strikeouts, an impressive 18.4 percent walk rate. To put that number in perspective: Among qualified hitters, only Joey Votto, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout beat that walk rate. Everyone believes in the glove. With his on-base skills and defense, he’ll be better than Freddy Galvis, and maybe a lot better if he can develop a little pop down the road.
-- Scott Kingery, super-sub. After hitting .304 with 26 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, Kingery has been one of the most exciting players in Florida this spring. While he’s still likely to start in Triple-A, he probably won’t be down there for long. What’s intriguing is that the Phillies have moved the second baseman all over the field. As general manager Matt Klentak told me a few weeks ago, the only reason Kingery played second base in college at Arizona was because Pirates prospect Kevin Newman, a first-round pick, was at shortstop. Klentak called Kingery a plus-plus defender at second, but with Cesar Hernandez there, he has been playing some third, some center, some shortstop and could reach the majors as a Ben Zobrist-type utility guy who starts somewhere every day.
-- Arrieta to the rotation. He’ll slot in behind Aaron Nola as the No. 2 starter. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez have tasted some success in the big leagues (more so in 2016 than 2017), Nick Pivetta struggled to a 6.02 ERA as a rookie but did average 9.5 K’s per nine, and Ben Lively also enters his second season. Adding Arrieta provides some certainty while allowing Gabe Kapler to choose from the best of the younger starters behind him. Then, waiting in the wings: A slew of high-upside pitchers that helped the Phillies rank as Keith Law’s No. 5 farm system.
The 2018 Phillies now shape up like this:
They could keep a third catcher in Cameron Rupp and maybe Pedro Florimon beats out Rosales as the utility infielder.
Aaron Nola (R)
Jake Arrieta (R)
Jerad Eickhoff (R)
Vince Velasquez (R)
Ben Lively (R)
Nick Pivetta (R)
One of the above starters could end up here and Mark Leiter Jr. fits in somewhere, maybe as an up-and-down guy. Like many bullpens, there is some volatility here, but check out the strikeout rates for Ramos and Morgan. And there is some depth. Velasquez profiles as a potential multi-inning weapon.
In the big picture, here’s what most jumps out to me: This is going to be an exciting, fun team to watch, with all that young talent to dream on. Even Phillies fans will admit: It’s the first time since the end of that great playoff run from 2007 to 2011 that this team will be interesting. Phillies attendance has dropped from 3.7 million in 2010 to 1.9 million the past two seasons. This team will help bring some of those fans back.
Will they win? One of the fascinating subplots of 2018 is which rebuilding NL East team arrives first, the Phillies or the Braves. With the Arrieta signing, I think this pushes the Phillies ahead and maybe even into the wild-card mix if the Diamondbacks or Rockies fall back. Throw in what should be a better Mets team, and the NL East, the least interesting division a year ago, now has four intriguing teams. It’s going to be a more difficult road for the Nationals, that’s for sure.
The projections I see aren’t quite as optimistic and that’s understandable. It’s a big jump from 66 wins to 86. FanGraphs had the Phillies at 74 before the Arrieta signing and Baseball Prospectus at 78. I see a .500 team, maybe a couple of wins better, and with a year of experience and payroll that will allow the Phillies to bid big in next year’s free-agent class, it could be the start of another strong era in Philadelphia.
In a spring training game on Feb. 27, Tommy Joseph started in left field for the Phillies. It was strange enough to see the stout first baseman in the outfield, but then something even stranger happened. In the top of the second inning, the Phillies made a pitching change. Tigers farmhand Victor Reyes, a switch-hitter, was due up and would be hitting from the left side. Joseph jogged over to right field and Collin Cowgill moved from right to left field. After Reyes struck out, the two outfielders again exchanged positions.
One of the compelling aspects of baseball is how the game continues to evolve. Some changes are obvious even to the untrained eye, like the home run explosion of the past couple of seasons or the infield shifting that began earlier this decade. Some changes are more subtle. For example, take the pitchout. Did you know the pitchout is essentially dead? Last season, National League teams threw just 59 pitchouts. The Nationals under Dusty Baker had three. Back in 1996 when he was managing the Giants, Baker called 96 pitchouts. Nobody throws pitchouts anymore. Why waste a pitch?
So maybe what we’ll call the Gabe Kapler outfield shift will be the beginning of a revolution. In the specific case of Joseph, even if he makes the Phillies' roster, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he ends up in the outfield, although it’s possible the Phillies will also consider the shift with Rhys Hoskins, a converted first baseman with little experience in left field.
As Matt Gelb outlined in the The Athletic, the specific maneuver for Reyes was discussed before the game. The Phillies’ spray charts indicated Reyes was more likely to hit the ball to left field in the air, so they moved their better defensive outfielder there. From Gelb’s piece:
“I think it'll happen a lot,” Cowgill said. “I think it's great. I love it.”
The Phillies have used the Grapefruit League games to implement their aggressive outfield shifting for every batter, based on spray charts. But they will go beyond that, flipping players across the field when the numbers tell them it is wisest.
That is why Hoskins, who will move from first base to left field this season, has begun some light work in right field. The Phillies hope Hoskins can be a passable defender in left field. But they know he lacks range and instincts because it is a new position for him. He will be their worst outfield defender. So Hoskins expects some mid-inning position changes when the data is clear.
“I think if it goes the way they're hoping, I don't see why not,” Hoskins said. “Yeah. If we have a chance to get more outs in a big situation, I don't see why not.”
So there appears to be some buy-in from Phillies players, at least for now, although I haven’t seen evidence of them trying it again so far this spring. The bigger question: Is it worth it?
Part of the complexity of making this move is that while most ground balls are pulled, making the infield shift a more obvious decision, balls to the outfield are sprayed more equally. Here are the 2017 breakdowns for fly balls and outfield line drives from ESPN Stats & Information:
- Left field: 37.1 percent
- Center field: 34.5 percent
- Right field: 28.4 percent
- Far left: 22.5 percent
- Far right: 16.4 percent
- Left field: 29.7
- Center field: 34.8
- Right field: 35.5
- Far left: 17.9
- Far right: 21.4
For the generic hitter, there is no reason to make a change. Obviously, individual hitters have more extreme tendencies. Even then, only five qualified regulars last year hit at least 50 percent of their fly balls and outfield line drives to the opposite field -- Joe Mauer, DJ LeMahieu, David Freese, Eric Hosmer and Christian Yelich. Freese pulled just 3.4 percent of his fly balls and outfield line drives, but since he’s a right-handed batter, that means his balls would be going -- in the Phillies’ case -- to the better outfielder. Hosmer is definitely a batter a you might consider the Kapler Shift for:
What’s the potential value in something like this? Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus studied this in a piece last year. He was writing about using a pitcher in the outfield for a batter (and then bringing the pitcher back in to pitch), but his math still applies. He wrote:
- From 2012-2016, only 8.7 percent of plate appearances ended with either a fly ball or a line drive that the left fielder eventually fielded (whether to catch it or pick it up when it stopped rolling). We also know that most fly balls fall into either the category of “any competent human with a glove on his hand could make that catch” or “no one was going to get to that.” The spread between good fielders and bad is generally on a small subsample of fly balls per year.
I’ve estimated that the difference between an average left fielder and a really bad one is about .02 runs per inning, and we’re not talking about a full inning here.
Of course, the Phillies have their own team of analysts and it’s possible they’ve come up with a different number on the potential runs that could be saved, depending on how often the tactic is employed. If it’s .02 runs, it hardly seems worth the effort, especially after considering the mitigating circumstances: Do you really want to make Hoskins run back and forth throughout a game? Does it affect the pitcher’s rhythm? For the love of god, what about pace of play?
Still, it’s a fascinating idea. Maybe it saves the Phillies a few outs a year -- and maybe one of those outs saves a couple of runs in a key moment. You never know.
By the way, while I don’t know of another team trying this experiment (except a couple of times when a pitcher ended up in the outfield in an extra-inning game), the 1959 Indians tried something similar in the infield. Check out these box scores from June 27 and June 28.
If you click, you can see that Woodie Held’s position is listed as SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B-SS-2B. Same thing with Granny Hamner. Manager Joe Gordon was moving Held and Hamner based on whether the batter was a lefty or righty, playing the younger Held on the pull side.
So why was the experiment abandoned after two games? As it turns out, there were only four games where Held started at shortstop and Hamner at second base, June 25 through June 28. In the first game, there were no changes. In the second game, there was one change (my guess is for Ted Williams). In the next two games, also against the Red Sox, Gordon went wild. But Hamner played just a few more games the rest of the season and started just once more (at third base), so he abandoned the player more than the experiment.
Will Kapler pull his own version of Gordon’s exchange? Stay tuned.
We're now a couple weeks into spring training games, and Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned. They are quality veteran pitchers for sure -- all three have ZiPS projections of at least 2.1 WAR, with Arrieta leading at 2.7 -- but they have yet to find the right match at the right price. Keep in mind that each pitcher rejected a $17.4 million qualifying offer from his former team, and the market they expected never materialized.
So what now? Maybe they're waiting for an injury. So far, the only significant injury of spring training for a rotation candidate has been to Rays prospect Brent Honeywell, who went down with season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Still, you have to think these three will find homes soon, even if that ultimately means terms much lower than they expected in November. Let's look at three groups of teams, the state of their rotations with projected WAR figures from FanGraphs and where these three might fit.
In a glass-half-full scenario, the Orioles can dream of improvement from Gausman and Bundy, another soft-contact, low-BABIP season from Cashner and a healthy Tillman. You don't want to know the glass-half-empty scenario. As is, only Gausman projects to have an ERA under 4.50, and the Orioles are the obvious team selling itself as a contender that needs rotation help. Food for thought: Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo combined for just 2.8 WAR in 2017 -- down from 11.3 in 2016. If those three bounce back, it isn't outrageous to consider the Orioles a sleeper team for the playoffs if the rotation is adequate.
Projected rotation: Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff
Depth/minors: Yovani Gallardo, Junior Guerra, Jimmy Nelson (could return in June), Corbin Burnes
Projected WAR: 11.4 (19)
The Brewers have plenty of options here, especially if Nelson returns from his September shoulder surgery and Burnes, who made 16 starts at Double-A in 2017, proves ready sooner rather than later. What the staff clearly lacks is a No. 1 or No. 2-type starter, but it isn't clear that Arrieta is still that guy. With such a young roster, the Brewers do have the flexibility to take a gamble on Arrieta.
General manager Matt Klentak told me a couple weeks ago that the Phillies were still considering their options in free agency but also that the club wanted to be careful not to block any of its current young starters. In other words, the Phillies aren't ready to give up on Velasquez as a starter and want to see what Pivetta and Lively can do with more experience. He also suggested that it is important not to rush a rebuilding project a year early. That's all understandable, and jumping from 66 wins to the playoffs is unlikely -- though not impossible. The Phillies have ultimate financial flexibility, and they could sign Arrieta to a long-term deal, similar to what they did with Carlos Santana, knowing that he can contribute in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Projected rotation: Ervin Santana (out until May), Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes
Depth/minors: Adalberto Mejia, Anibal Sanchez, Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero
Projected WAR: 10.8 (21)
Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the Twins had offered Lynn a two-year, $20 million contract, an offer Lynn's camp viewed as a "nonstarter" and that the club wasn't actively pursuing Cobb. Considering that the Twins will play 57 games against the White Sox, Tigers and Royals, they should be right in the middle of a crowded wild-card race. That means even a one- or two-win upgrade could make the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
The Nationals are certainly fine with their top four starters, but their depth is among the worst in the majors. Cole's numbers at Triple-A Syracuse were miserable (5.88 ERA), Fedde is starting again after a temporary bullpen stint in the minors, and Jackson might have a chance to make the team as a non-roster invite. The Nationals and Scott Boras are the best of friends, so speculations persist that Arrieta will eventually end up here. The Nationals might not need him to win the NL East, but he could be a boost in the postseason.
POSSIBILITIES, ESPECIALLY IF AN INJURY OCCURS
Projected rotation: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, Jordan Montgomery
Depth/minors: Chance Adams, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Domingo Acevedo, Justus Sheffield
Projected WAR: 16.4 (7)
The Yankees have five proven starters, and I'd take all five over Lynn. Arrieta and Cobb are better but more expensive, and Brian Cashman wants to keep that payroll under the luxury tax and maintain more room for next year's budget. For now, the Yankees will rely on their Triple-A depth, and they should. That Scranton rotation is probably better than what several major league clubs will throw out. Adams had a 2.81 ERA in 21 starts there last year, Cessa has big league experience, and Sheffield could move quickly with his top-shelf stuff. There's no need for the Yankees to do anything right now. They can re-evaluate things in July, as a trade is probably more likely than a free-agent signing.
The middle of the lineup -- Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager -- is another year older, the minor league system is barren, you're trying to chase down the Astros, and you have the longest playoff drought of any team in the four major pro leagues. Gonzales has looked good early in spring, as he has re-added the cutter to his arsenal, a pitch he didn't throw last year in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Still, given the fragile health of Paxton and Felix, finding more depth in that elusive search for the playoffs would be beneficial.
The Dodgers had all kinds of rotation depth last season and needed it, as Scott Kazmir missed the entire season and Julio Urias' shoulder fell apart, and they had to trade for Yu Darvish. The most interesting depth piece the Dodgers have now is Buehler, Keith Law's No. 12 prospect, but he threw just 98 innings last season, so it's unlikely that the Dodgers will want to bump that up to much more than 120 or 130 innings. That means some starts from Stewart and/or Stripling as the Dodgers undoubtedly conserve the innings of the rest of the rotation.
Projected rotation: Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez (expected to start on DL after knee surgery)
Depth/minors: Brian Johnson, Steven Wright, Hector Velazquez
Projected WAR: 15.9 (8)
The Red Sox have five solid starters when healthy, but Rodriguez and Wright are both coming off knee surgery and won't be ready at the start of the season, plus Price has to be considered a potential health red flag, given his DL stint last season.
Projected rotation: Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas
Depth/minors: Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes (possible return in May or June from Tommy John surgery)
Projected WAR: 15.7 (9)
There's no obvious need here at the moment, though the Cardinals are counting heavily on a better Wainwright and Mikolas transitioning back from Japan. Mikolas' first two spring outings weren't good, as he allowed 13 hits and 10 runs in 4⅔ innings, so maybe the door remains open for a possible reunion with Lynn. At the minimum, if Mikolas continues to struggle, that should open a slot for Flaherty, who made five starts in the majors last year after posting a 2.18 ERA in the minors. If Reyes is ready by the All-Stark break, even better, and with Martinez, Weaver, Flaherty and Reyes, the Cardinals could be looking at the best young rotation in the game in the near future.
After signing Darvish and Chatwood, the Cubs would dip into free agency only if a couple of these guys go down for a long period. Even then, they'd probably do something like John Lackey on a one-year deal, rather than shell out for a bigger contract.
Unless they blow way past the tax threshold, there isn't room in the budget for one of the big free agents, even if they're a little short on depth. Plus, they're paying Cueto $21.8 million for at least four more seasons and Samardzija $19.8 million for three more seasons, and they'll have to pony up some loose change for Bumgarner in two years.
The Angels are expected to go with a six-man rotation -- in part to protect Ohtani since he pitched once in a week in Japan but also to limit the innings of a group of pitchers wrecked by injuries in recent seasons. The Angels might have a little room left in the budget to sign another pitcher and remain under the tax threshold, but they'll probably run with this group and see how the six-man experiment unfolds.
Projected rotation: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger
Depth/minors: Danny Salazar (will miss start of season with shoulder inflammation), Ryan Merritt
Projected WAR: 18.8 (2)
The Indians already have one injury with Salazar battling a tender shoulder. Still, the rotation is strong enough and deep enough. Given their payroll roadblocks, the only way they'd dig into free agency is if Kluber or Carrasco suffered a season-ending injury.
Projected rotation: Luis Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Sal Romano, Homer Bailey
Depth/minors: Tyler Mahle, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, Jackson Stephens
Projected WAR: 9.0 (26)
The Reds churned through 16 starters in 2017, with Castillo emerging as the bright spot and potential ace after posting a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts. After that? The Reds have no idea what they'll get from everybody else, so getting stability from a veteran such as Arrieta or Cobb makes sense. As with the Phillies, it wouldn't be so much for 2018 as for the next few seasons.
Projected rotation: Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Zack Godley, Patrick Corbin
Depth/minors: Braden Shipley, Albert Suarez, Shelby Miller (expected back midseason from Tommy John surgery)
Projected WAR: 15.1 (10)
The Diamondbacks have a very good rotation. What they lack is reliable depth if one of the top five suffers a serious injury. Trading Anthony Banda to get Steven Souza provided a necessary upgrade in the outfield, but it chipped away at the potential rotation depth. Still, it would seem that even Lynn or Cobb might be out of Arizona's price range.
NOT GONNA HAPPEN
Rays, Blue Jays, Rockies, Marlins, Braves, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Mets, A's, Padres, Astros and Rangers
The Houston Astros went from losing 111 games in 2013 to becoming World Series champions last year, capturing the first title in the franchise’s history.
The moment the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series has been captured by Major League Baseball-sanctioned artist Opie Otterstad in a painting that is part of a collection of pieces commemorating the championship.
The painting depicts the moment the Astros stormed the field at Dodger Stadium to celebrate beating the Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7. A limited-edition print of the painting will be given to members of the Astros.
The public can preview the piece as part of the Astros World Series art collection from 2 -5 p.m. CT on March 31 at Off the Wall Gallery in Houston. The exhibition will run through April 15.
Otterstad, a Texas native, has been commissioned for many of MLB’s events, including the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series victory.
At the start of training camp, Carlos Correa said he thinks he can have a better season. Nothing unusual there. Every player goes to spring training and says he's going to work hard to keep improving.
“I still have some holes in my game that people might not notice, but I do,” he told reporters. He wouldn’t elaborate on details, saying he didn’t want to give inside information to opponents, but added, “I want to be able to save more runs and be an elite defender, and I think if I can do that with the way I hit, it’s just going to be something special.”
Correa’s comments point to an idea: What can today’s young stars do to improve their games? Let’s look at Correa and some of the other top young position players and how they can get even better.
Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
He’s right about his defense: There might be room for improvement. Correa was credited with plus-4 defensive runs saved in 2017 (up from minus-3 in 2016), though other defensive metrics graded him a little lower. So maybe he’s an average defensive shortstop, maybe a little better. The thing about defense, however, is that it generally peaks early in a player’s career. Correa’s quickness and arm strength aren’t going to improve, so if he saves more runs, it would come from positioning and anticipation.
More likely, his improvement will come on offense. He hit .315/.391/.550 last year even though he got off to a slow start, hitting .233 with two home runs in April. He also didn’t hit quite as well after he returned from the torn thumb ligament, so give him six consistent months and the overall production will increase.
Here’s another reason Correa could post a monster 2018. In 2016, his chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was 27.9 percent. That improved to 26.2 percent last season, which also led to a lower swing-and-miss rate. The league-average chase rate was 28 percent in 2017, so Correa is only a little better than average in this department. If he can get a little more selective -- remember, he just turned 23 in September -- he should be able to better tap into his power and get to 35 home runs.
As with Correa, it’s not fair to expect improvement, but there are holes for Seager to work on. The most interesting scenario is if Seager learns to pull the ball more. I’m not necessarily advocating this; it could be that his natural swing and approach are to hit the ball to center and left field. Some hitters -- Eric Hosmer is a prime example -- simply tend to roll over on the ball too much when they pull it. Here’s Seager’s hit chart for fly balls, line drives and popups in 2017:
Look at all those fly balls to left-center and left field and the very few to right field. Most of his home runs also go to center or the opposite field. The elite power hitters pull the majority of their home runs -- J.D. Martinez is a rare exception -- so if Seager wants to turn into a 30-plus-homer guy, he’ll have to pull more.
Another note: Seager hit just .133/.158/.235 after falling behind in the count 0-2. Of course, all hitters hit worse when down 0-2, but Seager’s numbers were actually worse than the MLB average of .164/.195/.254. Seager is too good to be worse than average in these counts -- and he faced 101 0-2 counts in 2017 (16.5 percent of all his plate appearances).
Staying healthy would be the primary goal, but Harper could also improve against lefties. He hit .311 against them in 2017, but with little power (three home runs in 119 at-bats) and a 36-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That ratio was especially discouraging considering he was almost even in his 2015 MVP campaign (32 walks, 34 strikeouts).
The platoon split for all left-handed batters in 2017 was 92 points -- lefties had a .775 OPS versus right-handed pitchers and .683 versus lefties. Harper’s platoon splits have been much larger than that in his career, although that’s in part because he crushes righties:
- 2015: 174 points of OPS worse versus lefties
- 2016: 69 points worse
- 2017: 285 points worse
Stay on the field and hit southpaws better and he could be looking at a second MVP trophy.
Everyone will be happy if Judge can simply match or come close to last year’s prodigious campaign in which he hit .284/.422/.627 and led the American League in FanGraphs WAR -- while playing through a shoulder injury in the second half. He put up those monster numbers while hitting .185 with three home runs in August, numbers perhaps affected by the sore shoulder, although Judge said early in spring training the injury wasn’t an excuse (and September was his best month).
With 209 strikeouts, the obvious area of improvement would be more contact, although, with his long levers, strikeouts will always be part of Judge’s game. He had the fourth-highest swing-and-miss rate among qualified batters last year -- although his chase rate was better than average, which helps explain why he still drew 127 walks. His kryptonite was sliders; he hit .153/.284/.274 against them. In 148 plate appearances that ended with a slider, 61 were strikeouts, and 38 percent of those came when he chased a pitch out of the zone. If he can lay off some of those sliders, maybe the walk rate increases or the batting average goes up. Easy to say, harder to execute.
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger’s swing is designed to do one thing: hit the ball in the air. He is the young prototype of the launch-angle revolution, with a higher fly ball percentage than even Judge. Unlike his teammate Seager, he pulled almost all of his home runs -- only three of his 39 home runs went to left field. He hit lefties nearly as well as righties, especially impressive for a rookie, and while he struggled against off-speed pitches in the postseason, he actually mashed them in the regular season, finishing with a higher slugging percentage against off-speed pitches than he did against fastballs.
In fact, that looks like an area of improvement: doing more damage against fastballs. While he hit .264/.339/.548 against them -- close to his overall line of .267/.352/.581 -- most batters fare better against fastballs. Out of 144 qualified regulars, Bellinger ranked fifth in the majors in wOBA against off-speed pitches (curves, sliders, changeups and splitters), but just 71st against fastballs.
Bryant has finished 11th, first and seventh in the MVP voting in his three seasons. He owns a career line of .288/.388/.527 and posted a .409 OBP in 2017. His strikeout rate has dropped from 30.6 percent as a rookie to 19.3 percent last season. In some fashion, he has become more of a hitter and less of a slugger, although I’ll take the over on the 29 home runs he hit last year.
There’s an obvious area that will make him more valuable, however: his situational hitting. Check his numbers the past two seasons:
- Runners in scoring position: .237/.373/.458
- Two outs, RISP: .209/.354/.343
- Late and close: .181/.344/.347
- RISP: .263/.366/.474
- Two outs, RISP: .230/.347/.410
- Late and close: .253/.366/.392
It could be nothing more than a two-year coincidence -- he hit .350 with two outs and runners in scoring position as a rookie, for example, or it could be a real thing -- maybe he’s pressing more than he realizes. If he gets back to 39 bombs and hits better with men on base, he’ll be back in the MVP discussion.
Spring training got off to a tumultuous start for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays. Following an offseason in which the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, David Freese and Josh Harrison came to camp and lamented about the state of the franchise. The Rays traded Evan Longoria in December and then kicked off spring training by trading Jake Odorizzi and designating Corey Dickerson for assignment, moves met with fast and furious criticism across the baseball landscape.
Freese’s comments were the most pointed, saying the culture in Pittsburgh hasn’t been conducive to winning. “The last two years, we haven’t done as well as we could have because of our environment. That’s what I think. I walk in every day, and it’s not in the air. The demand to win just hasn’t been in the air,” he told reporters. In January, Harrison released a statement that he’d rather not play for a rebuilding team. He doubled down when he reported to camp. “I want to win,” he said. “If that’s not what they want to do here, trade me.”
The Odorizzi trade to the Twins was hardly a shocker, although many questioned the light return of unheralded prospect Jermaine Palacios. Dickerson was never better than the moment he was designated for assignment, as his mediocre .310 OBP the past two seasons with the Rays was ignored in favor of reminders that he started in last year’s All-Star Game. In a curious twist, the Rays ended up trading Dickerson to the Pirates for reliever Daniel Hudson.
Anyway, for some reason, everyone seemed surprised that two penny-pinching franchises were again pinching pennies. These moves were registered as further proof that the Pirates and Rays simply aren’t trying to win, or don’t care enough. Pirates fans blame the spending of owner Bob Nutting for the team’s fall from three straight playoff appearances from 2013 to 2015 to two straight losing seasons. After finishing 75-87 in 2017, the Rays have had four consecutive losing seasons since making the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008 to 2013.
I’m not going to defend the frugality of Nutting or Stuart Sternberg, although some reports haven’t been completely fair. One of the major criticisms of the Pirates is that they didn’t add enough in-season pieces during their playoff runs. That ignores the 2015 team that won 98 games and added J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Aramis Ramirez and Joe Blanton at the trade deadline. Unfortunately, that team still fell two games short of the division title and lost to a red-hot Jake Arrieta in the wild-card game. Reports have indicated the Rays have cut their payroll from $100 million in 2017 to $73 million. As Sternberg pointed out when he met with reporters Tuesday, Tampa Bay’s estimated Opening Day payroll will be higher than last year’s ($70 million).
The bigger issue is that both teams have done a lousy job lately of producing major league talent. According to thebaseballgauge.com, the Pirates produced the least amount of talent in the major leagues in 2017: Just 12.3 WAR came from players originally signed or drafted by the Pirates. The Cubs led the majors with 58.1 WAR. That disparity explains the 17-win difference between the Cubs and Pirates a lot more than Nutting’s unwillingness to increase the club’s payroll. It’s a minor miracle the Pirates won 75 games with such little homegrown talent.
What happened? After the Pirates drafted Neil Walker in the first round in 2004 and McCutchen in 2005, they had eight picks in the top 10 of the draft from 2006 to 2013, but those players have combined for just 23.0 career WAR. Only Jameson Taillon remains in the organization after the Cole trade.
Neal Huntington became general manager at the end of 2007 and has presided over 10 drafts. He and his lieutenants simply haven’t drafted well.
2010: Jameson Taillon, second overall (3.6 WAR). He could still break out, but the Pirates took the high school right-hander one pick ahead of Manny Machado.
2011: Gerrit Cole, first overall (12.2 WAR). He’s been solid, but five other first-round picks have produced more WAR, including Francisco Lindor, the eighth overall pick.
2013: Austin Meadows, ninth overall, and Reese McGuire, 14th overall. The Pirates took Meadows with a compensation pick for not signing Appel and then a high school catcher in McGuire. Neither has reached the majors and McGuire is now with the Blue Jays. They passed twice on college bat Aaron Judge.
OK, what I just did is a little unfair. You could do a similar “what if” scenario for any team. But you get the idea. On top of that, the Pirates have fared poorly in Latin America. Gregory Polanco, who had a terrible 2017 (0.0 WAR), is the only significant Latin player to come up since Starling Marte in 2012.
The Rays produced more overall value in 2017 than the Pirates with 32.0 WAR, but only 14.2 of that was earned with the Rays. Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero (2.7 WAR) and Rockies starter German Marquez (3.0 WAR) were original Rays farmhands traded away -- Marquez was actually part of the Dickerson trade, along with Jake McGee.
Like the Pirates, the Rays struggled in the draft after plucking Longoria in 2006 and David Price in 2007. They have a little better excuse, as their on-field success meant they weren’t drafting high -- their highest pick between 2009 and 2014 was 17th, wasted on high school outfielder Josh Sale.
Is either team tanking? Predictably, both owners rejected that notion. In his session with reporters, Sternberg said the team will win “more [games] than you think. Whatever it is anybody in this group here is thinking, it’s more. I’m a high man.”
Nutting met with reporters last week and insisted his team’s moves were about building a better team for 2019 and 2020 while remaining competitive in 2018. “Other clubs have taken [the approach], 'We’re going to embrace the cycle. We’re going to build for a few years, and we're going to tank for a few years,'" he said. "We believe that we have the better approach. We believe that we can have a more steady window of performance. That's why this year is not a rebuild year. It's younger players, but it's not a three-year tank."
The Rays appear to have the edge in young talent. Aside from young starters Blake Snell and Jake Faria, who have already reached the majors (unfortunately Brent Honeywell, the team’s top pitching prospect, underwent Tommy John surgery a few days ago), they have some high-ceiling prospects in shortstop Willy Adames, pitcher/first baseman Brendan McKay and outfielder Jesus Sanchez. Others such as first baseman Jake Bauers, infielder Christian Arroyo and outfielder Justin Williams could contribute this season. Keith Law rated the Rays’ system seventh overall (although that was before the Honeywell injury), and their list of 25-and-younger talent is impressive.
The Rays could even be getting a new, more lucrative TV deal in 2019. Sports Business Daily reported that the Rays are close to signing a new TV contract with the Fox Sports Florida regional network that would increase their payment from $35 million in 2018 to an average of $82 million over 15 years (starting at $50 million in 2019). The Rays haven’t commented on that, and even details of their current contract have been secretive.
The Pirates’ system, meanwhile, dropped from fourth to 15th in Law’s rankings. The Latin American pipeline remains thin. They desperately need Marte and Polanco to bounce back and a couple of the young starters to take a big leap forward.
One thing we know: Don’t expect either team to play in the free-agent market in the future. It’s not in the genes of either franchise. Unless the young talent develops, it won’t matter if you label them rebuilders or penny-pinchers because they’re not going to win without the next Andrew McCutchen or the next Evan Longoria.
OK, enough with Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani and J.D. Martinez. Those guys have received enough publicity early in spring training. Let’s look at some under-the-radar players, guys who don’t get much publicity but, though they might not be big stars, help their teams win baseball games.
Baltimore Orioles: Mychal Givens, RP. Hey, a relief pitcher! (It will be a theme.) The Orioles don’t really have another strong candidate, especially with Jonathan Schoop getting some love with his breakout, All-Star performance in 2017. Givens has thrown 153 1/3 innings the past two seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA, which is something. Do you ever get the feeling Buck Showalter could find eight guys at a tryout camp and turn them into a useful bullpen?
Boston Red Sox: Drew Pomeranz, SP. With all the attention given to Chris Sale's Cy Young pursuit and David Price's drama and Rick Porcello's struggles, Pomeranz quietly went 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA while fanning 174 in 173 2/3 innings. He’s a free agent after 2018, and if he posts a third straight strong season, he’s going to become a very rich man.
Chicago White Sox: Nick Delmonico, LF. These are actual strikeout-to-walk ratios of some White Sox hitters in 2017: 162 to 13, 117 to 19, 111 to 33, 165 to 19. Delmonico, on the other hand, was 31 to 23 in his 166 plate appearances, which was almost Ted Williams-esque for this team. So, please, let’s hope he can actually hit.
Cleveland Indians: Dan Otero, RP. His ERAs the past five seasons: 1.38, 2.28, 6.75, 1.53, 2.85. He had 46 bad innings for the A’s in 2015, which is how the Indians were able to get him for nothing, but at some point, we have to believe he’s the real deal, even despite the middling fastball and low strikeout rate. With the departure of Bryan Shaw in free agency, Otero could see a more vital role in 2018.
Detroit Tigers: Warwick Saupold, RP. I just wanted to type “Warwick Saupold” at least once this year. It sounds like a name from some dystopian novel in which America is attacked by mutant lifeforms and only a baseball player and part-time scientist named Warwick Saupold can save the day. Except Saupold isn't American. He’s Australian! (OK, sorry, Tigers fans. How about Shane Greene? He could be a good closer this year.)
Houston Astros: Josh Reddick, RF. He got more attention last season for celebrating the AL West title while wearing American Flag underwear than for anything he did on the field. The first year of his four-year, $52 million contract was a huge success, however, as he hit .314/.363/.484 while playing a solid right field. He has averaged 3.6 WAR per season since 2012.
Kansas City Royals: Whit Merrifield, 2B. I just realized this: Merrifield led the AL with 34 steals. OK, so it was the lowest league-leading figure in either league since Luis Aparicio led the AL with 31 in 1962. Even so, Merrifield has turned himself into a nice player, with 3.9 WAR in 2017 -- not bad for a ninth-round pick who never got any attention as a prospect.
Los Angeles Angels: Martin Maldonado, C. You might be thinking, “a catcher who hit .221 and drove in 38 runs? What kind of list is this?” That’s kind of the point. Maldonado's defense is that good. The bat is weak other than an occasional home run, but Maldonado was worthy of the Gold Glove he won, throwing out 39 percent of base stealers to go with strong framing metrics.
Minnesota Twins: Jorge Polanco, SS. Polanco’s first full season produced 2.1 WAR and more power than expected, with 46 extra-base hits. Polanco's strikeout rate was well below the league average, and his defense graded out as average as well (minus-1 defensive runs saved). He's young enough to get better, especially if you look at his second-half numbers: .293/.359/.511, 10 home runs.
Oakland Athletics: Matt Chapman, 3B. He won’t be anonymous for long if he keeps playing defense like Nolan Arenado. His rookie season showed some promise in the power category to go with spectacular defense, and if he can clean up the offensive approach and improve the OBP (.313 last year), he’s going to make several All-Star teams in his career.
Toronto Blue Jays: J.A. Happ, SP. Over the past three seasons, he's 41-23 with a 3.43 ERA. That's 21st among pitchers with at least 400 innings, better than Gerrit Cole, Marcus Stroman and Chris Archer. If Happ has another solid season, he’ll pass Mark Loretta in career WAR among players from Northwestern.
Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger, RF. If you want a good breakout candidate for 2018, check out Haniger. He was hitting .342 in late April when he went down with a strained oblique. Later, he was hit in the face by a pitch and went on the DL. But he returned in September and hit .353 with seven home runs (though his strikeout-to-walk ratio, strong early in the season, deteriorated to 27-3). He is 27 years old and a plus defender in right and was worth 3.0 WAR last season in just 96 games.
Texas Rangers: Alex Claudio, RP. Claudio is an aberration in this day of flame-throwing relievers, a lefty sinkerballer who throws an 86 mph fastball. His ground ball rate, however, was over 60 percent the past two seasons, so he gets the job done -- 2.61 ERA the past two seasons with just seven home runs allowed in 134 1/3 innings -- with a strikeout rate that even a 1980s closer would blush over.
Tampa Bay Rays: Mallex Smith, CF. Think Ender Inciarte skill set. Hey, nobody thought much of Inciarte his first two seasons, either. If Smith does turn out to be that valuable -- and he has 2.7 WAR in 497 career plate appearances -- that will soothe the loss of Steven Souza.
New York Yankees: Jordan Montgomery, SP. A report the other day said the Yankees were still interested in Lance Lynn. I’m not sure why, as Lynn isn’t better than Montgomery, who had a completely under-the-radar rookie season, going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA and solid peripherals. He is a big kid (6-foot-6), has a four-pitch arsenal, throws hard enough for a lefty (92 mph average fastball) and finished strong (2.49 ERA in September). There’s zero reason to displace him from the rotation.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Robbie Ray, SP. Yes, another reason to mention Robbie Ray. I feel like his agent owes me a little under-the-table payment. But he’s really good! He averaged 12.1 K’s per nine innings! If the humidor that is being installed in Arizona works to suppress offense, Ray could be a Cy Young contender.
Atlanta Braves: Ender Inciarte, CF. He has won back-to-back Gold Gloves and made the All-Star team last year, so it’s not as though he’s being ignored, but this is the kind of player still underrated by the masses. J.D. Martinez is getting a $100 million-plus contract, but Inciarte has outperformed him in cumulative WAR the past four seasons, 15.7 to 15.2.
Cincinnati Reds: Tucker Barnhart, C. The new Gold Glove voting system is a big improvement over when managers and coaches just voted for the same guys every year. Barnhart was a deserving winner in 2017. In the past, the award no doubt would have gone to Buster Posey because of his bat or Yadier Molina as a legacy choice. Plus, Barnhart isn't an automatic out at the plate, with a .270/.347/.403 line.
Colorado Rockies: Jon Gray, SP. Clayton Kershaw might have trouble keeping his ERA under 4.00 at Coors Field in this home-run-dominated era, but that’s exactly what Gray did in 2017. Caveat: He made just 20 starts (only eight of them at Coors) after a broken foot suffered in his third start. But if he pitches like he did last year over 30 starts, we’re looking at a potential 5-WAR pitcher -- with maybe even more upside, given that he has just 58 major league starts.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Ross Stripling, RP. There’s nothing too fancy about Stripling, and though the Dodgers used him almost exclusively in relief in 2017, he could start for a lot of teams. You know, maybe the World Series turns out differently if Dave Roberts doesn’t bury him at the back of the pen.
Miami Marlins: Derek Dietrich, UT. He has been a terrific bench player the past three seasons, hitting .261/.351/.432 while playing second, third and left field. He could be the regular in left field, and if he produces, he probably gets traded.
Milwaukee Brewers: Travis Shaw, 3B. His numbers were less than stellar with the Red Sox in 2016. The Brewers picked him up for reliever Tyler Thornburg, and Shaw broke out with .273/.349/.513 season that included 31 home runs, all while caring for his daughter, who was born in June with a heart abnormality that required three life-threatening surgeries (she was released from the hospital in December). Shaw plays a solid third base, especially impressive for a guy who spent more time in the minors at first base, and he hit better on the road, so he didn’t just take advantage of Miller Park.
New York Mets: Jerry Blevins, RP. Every team needs a 6-foot-6, 190-pound LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy). Blevins has carved out a nice career in part because he isn't completely useless against righties, though Terry Collins limited him to just 91 innings in 148 games the past two seasons.
Philadelphia Phillies: Cesar Hernandez, 2B. Everyone kind of expected the Phillies to trade Hernandez to clear room for prospect Scott Kingery, but they didn’t and with good reason: Hernandez is good. He averaged 3.2 WAR the past two seasons, and the Phillies might end up keeping him and turning Kingery into a Ben Zobrist-type utility guy.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell, 1B. It seems like we waited forever for Bell to arrive, and when he finally played his first full season, we kind of ignored it. There were some positive signs, with 26 home runs and solid control of the strike zone without an excessive strikeout rate. To get to the next level, Bell will need to hit fewer ground balls (51 percent ground ball rate) and take advantage of his natural power.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jose Martinez, 1B/LF. Tommy Pham? You know about Tommy Pham by now. Martinez could always hit -- he hit .384 in Triple-A in 2015 -- but became one of those launch-angle guys last season and began clearing the fence with regularity. He hit 14 home runs in 272 at-bats as part of a .309/.379/.518 line and at the minimum should start against lefties and serve as a strong weapon off the bench.
San Diego Padres: Dinelson Lamet, SP. Hey, they won more games than the Giants, so somebody must be doing something. Lamet struck out 139 in 114 1/3 innings as a rookie while holding batters to a .210 average, so it isn't surprising to see that he averaged 95 mph with his fastball. He’s a fastball/slider guy with below-average control, however, so lefties also slugged .502 off him. If he can develop an off-speed pitch, watch out.
San Francisco Giants: Hunter Strickland, RP. Bryce Harper's favorite relief pitcher. Strickland is known largely for giving up bombs to Harper in the postseason and then instigating a brawl after throwing at Harper last May. However, he has quietly been the one consistent Giants reliever, with a 2.75 ERA the past three seasons.
Washington Nationals: Ryan Madson, RP. Maybe you could go with Anthony Rendon, who led NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, but he has two top-six MVP finishes in his career (that’s one more than Bryce Harper), so you can’t say he flies under the radar. How about Madson, who has been good for three seasons after missing three seasons after Tommy John surgery and a long path to recovery? Between the A’s and Nationals, he was quietly one of the game’s best relievers in 2017: 59 IP, 38 H, 2 HRs, 9 BB, 67 K's.
The last we saw of Tim Lincecum was in 2016, when the two-time Cy Young winner signed with the Los Angeles Angels in May following a showcase tryout, made nine starts and was the worst pitcher in the league. He pitched 38 innings, gave up 68 hits, including 11 home runs, posted a 9.16 ERA, and his 2.374 WHIP was the highest for a pitcher with at least 30 innings since 1997.
Lincecum had another showcase session on Feb. 15 at the Driveline Baseball facility in Kent, Washington, outside of Seattle, where he threw in front of scouts from 15 to 20 teams. Reports from the session indicated Lincecum threw about 25 pitches exclusively from the windup and hit 93 mph while averaging between 90-92. He showed no signs of the hip injury that bothered him at the end of his Giants career and required season-ending surgery in 2015. In December, Rockies pitcher Adam Ottavino posted a photo on Instagram of a ripped Lincecum working out in a sleeveless shirt.
So what do we know? Lincecum is in great shape. He can maybe hit 93 mph throwing at max effort at an indoor baseball facility. He's well-rested after not pitching in 2017 and is now more than two years removed from the surgery. He obviously knows how to pitch, although precision control was never his forte.
This is obviously a complete roll of the dice by the Rangers, a minimal investment with the hope you hit the lottery. The most likely scenario would see Lincecum pitch out of the bullpen, where he would be a better bet to hold his velocity over short stints. With the Angels, his fastball averaged just 87.7 mph. One writer suggested that with the Rangers' closer job wide-open, Lincecum even has a chance to win that role.
Call me skeptical.
First off, Lincecum hasn't really been good since 2011, the last time he posted a sub-4.00 ERA. His year-by-year WAR totals since:
Remember, Lincecum was pitching in one of the best pitchers' parks in the majors and still couldn't keep his ERA below the league average. When the Giants won World Series titles in 2012 and 2014, it's notable that Lincecum made only one playoff start over those two postseasons (and pitched only one game in relief the entire 2014 run).
We're supposed to believe that seven years after his last good season, Lincecum will rediscover stuff good enough to make him a closer? It's not an impossible idea, but he has a lot to prove before the Rangers even remotely consider him for that job. Don't you want to see some results before you trust him to set down Mike Trout with a one-run lead in the ninth inning?
It's also unlikely the Rangers double down on a wild card like Lincecum as their Opening Day closer, given what happened last season. Sam Dyson nearly torpedoed Texas' season in April when he blew all three of his save chances and was 0-4 with a 12.66 ERA through May 7. Alex Claudio isn't a sexy alternative, but at least you know what you're getting with him.
Is there a precedent for a Lincecum comeback? Bartolo Colon made only 47 starts from 2006 through 2010 (missing all of 2010) with a 5.18 ERA and certainly appeared finished before resurfacing with the Yankees in 2011. After his comeback he made two All-Star Games and won 87 games. Guess what? Colon is in Rangers camp as a non-roster invite.
Hey, I hope it works out. Lincecum is from the same Seattle suburbs where I grew up and was obviously a wonder to watch at his peak. That peak was a long time ago, however. Certainly the Rangers saw something to give him a guaranteed contract, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if Lincecum ends up being a major contributor in Texas.
Recently we looked at 2017’s breakout hitters and examined whether they can repeat in 2018. Now let’s take a look at 10 pitchers. Interesting note: As I picked the 10 pitchers I wanted to write about, I realized all 10 pitched for winning teams (and all but one for playoff teams). If you want to find a surprise playoff team for 2018, find a team that has a couple potential breakout pitchers.
Severino was a top prospect with elite velocity, but after struggling in the majors in 2016, his emergence to staff ace was no less dramatic than Aaron Judge’s breakout, if only less publicized. His roll call of stats is impressive: Sixth in the majors in strikeout rate among starters, sixth in batting average allowed, fifth in strikeout-minus-walk rate. Most impressively, he improved as the season went along, dominating with a 2.10 ERA in September even as he topped 190 innings in his first full season. He posted the first sub-3.00 ERA for a Yankees starter since David Cone and Andy Pettitte in 1997 and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
He generates his upper-90s fastball with a strong lower half that suggests durability won’t be an issue in the future. Improved fastball command helped -- in 2016, batters hit .307/.388/.547 against his fastball; in 2017, they hit .253/.331/.442 -- but a better changeup was key as well. He threw it more often and batters hit .158 against it. His slider is a swing-and-miss weapon, so he’s now a three-pitch guy with command. The delivery is of concern -- he throws across his body with a stiff front leg, resulting in a violent coil at times -- but if he stays healthy, he’s going to be a Cy Young contender.
Verdict: The best bet on this list.
Chad Green, New York Yankees
Sticking with the Yankees, Green is proof that you never know where dominant relievers will come from. Acquired from the Tigers after 2015 with Luis Cessa for Justin Wilson, Green looked like a nondescript candidate for the rotation, although he had good numbers in Triple-A. He started the season back in Scranton, made five starts there and joined the big league bullpen, where all he did was post a 103-17 strikeout-walk ratio in 69 innings with a 1.83 ERA.
Green throws hard enough -- average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph -- but that fastball plays up even more because of his above-average spin rate and some deception in his delivery. Batters hit .114 against his fastball (lowest in the majors for pitchers who faced at least 100 batters), and his 48.2 percent K rate with his fastball matched Craig Kimbrel for tops in the majors.
Verdict: The numbers were so good that Green should again be a huge weapon for new manager Aaron Boone. One potential hitch: Green will apparently get an opportunity to start in spring training. Nothing wrong with that idea -- he could still end up in the bullpen -- but we’ll have to see how the stuff plays as a starter.
OK, this might seem like a weird name to include since the World Series hero is coming off his age-33 season. But it was a different Morton in 2017: The Astros had him cut loose with his four-seamer up in the zone rather than rely on his sinker, and his fastball velo shot way up and his strikeout rate increased from a career mark of 16.0 percent to 26.4 percent, resulting in 163 K’s in 146T innings.
Verdict: More of the same, at least over 150 innings or so.
Brad Peacock, Houston Astros
Morton’s Astros teammate was an even bigger surprise, and like Morton, he’s a little old for this list as he’s entering his age-30 season. He has been with Houston since 2013 but entered the season with a 4.57 career ERA. Credit to the Astros for not giving up on him (he missed almost all of 2015 after a series of injuries). He started the season in the bullpen and then transitioned to the rotation in late May. He allowed two or fewer runs in 15 of his 21 starts and fanned 135 in 111T innings as a starter with a 3.22 ERA.
Despite those stellar results, Peacock is the sixth man in the rotation right now. As a starter he uses a four-pitch arsenal, but as a reliever he was primarily a fastball/slider guy. There are no glaring red flags here, other than his uncertain role and a walk rate that’s a little high.
Verdict: Given the depth in the Houston rotation, I wouldn’t expect Peacock to make 21 starts again. He should be fine as a reliever and would be an asset as a multi-inning setup guy.
Wood made his first All-Star team, finished 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA and finished off by allowing one hit in 7T innings in the World Series. Wood’s fastball velocity, which used to sit in the upper 80s, averaged 91.8. He started throwing his changeup more often. His rate of swings and misses outside the strike zone increased. It added up to a dominant first half, when he went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
The second half was a different story, however, as all the numbers took a turn for the worse -- lower K rate, much higher home run rate (two in 80T innings versus 13 in 71T), decreased velocity and a more normalized BABIP. The Dodgers handled him carefully -- he went more than six innings just five times and his season high was 100 pitches -- but fatigue was certainly an issue.
Verdict: Wood is a good pitcher, but he’s not as good as that first half of 2017. Durability is a concern, and the velocity might have been a temporary uptick. I’d expect that ERA to increase at least half a run per game.
My editors might tell you this article was merely an excuse to bring up Robbie Ray yet again. His ERA decreased from 4.90 in 2016 to 2.89 in 2017, but the advanced metrics suggest he might have been the same pitcher: He had a 3.76 FIP in 2016, 3.72 in 2017. The difference: He allowed a .267 average in 2016 compared to .199 in 2017. His exit velocity allowed was about the same. Unlucky versus lucky and just split the middle in 2018?
Maybe, but he wasn’t really the same pitcher in 2017 as the year before. He increased his curveball usage from 4.5 percent to 21.1 percent, and this led to more swings (and misses) on pitches outside the zone and less damage against his fastball.
Verdict: Buy! Maybe the BABIP creeps up a bit in 2018, but a lower walk rate could mean he remains one of the best southpaws in the game.
Zack Godley, Arizona Diamondbacks
My favorite supersecret breakout guy of 2017, Godley was another guy who began the season in the minors -- understandably, given his 6.39 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 2016. Godley pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker, cutter/slider and curveball, but he also got a lot of swings and misses, which isn’t always the case with guys who pitch down. The only NL starter with a higher rate of swings outside the strike zone was Ray. Pitching coach Mike Butcher attributed Godley’s success to more consistent release points with all his pitches.
During the season, I compared Godley to Corey Kluber because of a similar arsenal and age at breakout. I’m not saying he’s the next Kluber -- that’s a little crazy, plus he doesn’t have Kluber’s velocity -- but it does mean I’m buying into his 2017 performance.
Verdict: OK, maybe I’m the high guy on Godley. Maybe hitters will adjust and lay off that curveball below the knees. Or maybe he is the new Kluber.
One trend I’m seeing: A lot of my breakout starters other than Severino threw around 150 innings, so maybe one reason they were successful is because their innings were limited. Anderson missed time with an oblique injury and finished with 141 innings and a 2.74 ERA. His consistency was impressive: He had one six-run game when he served up three home runs on a windy day at Wrigley but otherwise never allowed more than four runs.
Anyway, guess what? Anderson’s fastball velocity pumped up from 91.1 mph in 2016 to 93.1. Where are all these guys finding all this velocity? He did that without losing any of his command. Two red flags: His percentage of runners left on was ninth-best among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and he ranked fifth in lowest rate of home runs on fly balls among pitchers with at least that many innings. There was some legitimate exit velocity suppression going on, but definitely some good results that will be hard to replicate.
Verdict: His FIP was 3.58 and his xFIP (which normalized home run rate) was 4.33. ZiPS projects a 4.32 ERA. I think he’ll beat that, but his ERA might end up a run worse than last year.
Clevinger threw … 121T innings. Maybe I need to re-evaluate my breakout status. Clevinger has a four-pitch arsenal with a 92-93 mph fastball and was very hard to hit (.211 average allowed). What he doesn’t have is plus control at this point in his career, with 60 walks. He also had a large platoon split, holding righties to a .570 OPS while lefties were at .819. His statistical comps on Baseball Prospectus are guys like J.A. Happ, John Maine and David Phelps -- but also a young Jake Arrieta.
Verdict: He’ll have a better season than Vinnie Pestano (trades like that are how you build a 100-win team), but the control will prevent him from making a leap forward or repeating his 3.11 ERA.
After a disastrous rookie season, when he posted an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, Berrios started the 2017 season in Triple-A, made six dominant starts there and then went 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA with the Twins. While you see 145 innings with the Twins, he threw 184 between the minors and the majors, so we know he can handle a 30-start workload. At times the stuff is electric, especially when he can bend his curveball like a whiffle ball and make batters look silly.
Verdict: The changeup is still a work in progress as batters slugged .581 off it, and his fastball isn’t a big swing-and-miss offering yet. He should be good again, but I think he’s at least another year away from better things.
Spring training isn't just about getting your arm ready for Opening Day or getting some reps in the cages. For some players, it's a chance to win a job, or keep a job, or prove that you're healthy, or show that you are ready to take the next step. Here are 30 players to watch this spring.
Baltimore Orioles -- Austin Hays, RF. The big story will be Manny Machado moving to shortstop, but I'm not too worried about that transition; he started 43 games there in 2016 and played well (plus-3 defensive runs saved). Hays will be a more interesting guy to watch. A third-round pick in 2016, he jumped all the way from Class A to the majors last year, skipping Triple-A, and the Orioles have apparently handed him a starting job unless he has a terrible spring.
Boston Red Sox -- Tyler Thornburg, RHP. Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Rodriguez will both be rehabbing from knee surgeries, but remember Thornburg? He had a big season for the Brewers in 2016, the Red Sox traded Travis Shaw (and others) for him, and then he missed the entire season after thoracic outlet surgery.
Chicago White Sox -- Yoan Moncada, 2B. A good approach starts in spring training, and if Moncada is going to maximize his talent, he needs to cut down on the strikeouts. His problem in his first extended stay in the majors wasn't so much chasing out of the zone, but swinging and missing in the zone.
Cleveland Indians -- Michael Brantley, LF. The Indians picked up Brantley's $11 million option even though he had ankle surgery that leaves him questionable for spring training. If the issue persists, the Indians probably will move Jason Kipnis to the outfield and give Yandy Diaz a shot at third base.
Detroit Tigers -- Michael Fulmer, RHP. We want to see if Miguel Cabrera's back is OK, but spring training might not show us much about that. Fulmer had ulnar transposition surgery in September and is expected to be full strength at the start of camp.
Houston Astros -- Anthony Gose, LHP. Yes, that's the former outfielder, trying to make the team as a left-handed reliever. He was a Rule 5 pick so he will have to make the team despite limited mound experience (he pitched just 10 2/3 innings in Class A). It's a flier, but he reportedly touched 100 mph last summer.
Kansas City Royals -- Jorge Soler, OF. The Royals made what looked like a smart trade in acquiring Soler for Wade Davis, but he hit .144 in 35 games and was sent back to Triple-A. He mashed there (.267/.388/.564), but he's 26 now and it's time to produce.
Los Angeles Angels -- Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH. The Angels' priority will be making sure he's ready for the rotation, but they'll want to give him plenty of time at the plate as well. How they handle him -- and how he hits in the small sample of a few spring games -- will be insight into whether he'll be given a real opportunity as a two-way player.
Minnesota Twins -- Fernando Romero, RHP. With Ervin Santana out until May after finger surgery, there's an opening in the rotation even if the team signs a free agent. Romero or Stephen Gonsalves could break camp with a big spring.
New York Yankees -- Gleyber Torres, 2B/3B. The prized prospect had Tommy John surgery last summer on his non-throwing elbow, but he has been deemed ready to go and the Yankees will give him a long look to see if he can win a job at second base. He has only 55 games above Class A, so a couple of months at Scranton probably still makes sense.
Oakland Athletics -- Dustin Fowler, CF. Called up to the Yankees in late June, he injured his knee slamming into a wall chasing a foul ball -- before he even registered his first big league at-bat. A month later, he was part of the Sonny Gray trade. He has been cleared to play games and could win the center field job.
Seattle Mariners -- Dee Gordon, CF. This is maybe the most interesting position move of the spring as Gordon moves to the outfield. He already has spent much of the offseason tracking down fly balls, but now we'll see how he does in game action.
Tampa Bay Rays -- Brent Honeywell, RHP. Honeywell, No. 15 on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list, struck out 172 in 136 2/3 innings in the upper minors last season. The Rays will certainly game his service time so he'll spend at least a couple of weeks in Triple-A, but a strong spring could prompt a Jake Odorizzi trade.
Texas Rangers -- Willie Calhoun, LF. Nobody doubts his bat after slugging 31 home runs at Triple-A, but the prize for Yu Darvish is transitioning from second base to left field and there are serious concerns how that will go. If he can't hack it, Shin-Soo Choo will have to play more defense in 2018.
Toronto Blue Jays -- Danny Jansen, C. He had never hit until last year, when he started wearing glasses. Boom. He mashed to a .323/.400/.484 line across three levels. The Jays have always liked his defense and, while Russell Martin is signed for two more seasons, a strong impression from Jansen could lead to an in-season promotion.
Arizona Diamondbacks -- Yoshihisa Hirano, RHP. A 34-year-old (in March) veteran free agent from Japan, Hirano throws 90-94 mph with a splitter as his strikeout pitch. Arizona isn't an easy place to pitch, but he'll compete with Archie Bradley and Brad Boxberger to replace Fernando Rodney as closer.
Atlanta Braves -- Dansby Swanson. All eyes will be on rookie Ronald Acuna, but Swanson has a lot to prove after a tough first full season. He struggled against breaking balls, but also hit just .234 against fastballs. Only Alcides Escobar had a lower wOBA against fastballs among qualified batters.
Chicago Cubs -- Kyle Schwarber, LF. He has been working all winter to remake his body. Remember, he did hit .253/.335/.559 in the second half, but the hope is better agility on defense -- without any loss in power.
Cincinnati Reds -- Jesse Winker, LF/RF. Right now, Winker is the fourth man on the outfield depth chart, but scouts have always liked the swing and approach. After never hitting for much power in the minors, Winker suddenly slugged seven home runs in 121 at-bats with the Reds. With his on-base skills, he could beat out Scott Schebler or Adam Duvall for a starting position.
Colorado Rockies -- Jeff Hoffman, RHP. Funny thing about prospects: As soon as they reach the majors and struggle we immediately forget about them and move on to the next shiny toy. While the numbers were scary last year -- not surprisingly, he was especially awful at Coors (7.45 ERA) -- Hoffman has only 130 innings in the majors and he still has the big fastball. Some believe it's too straight and lacks deception, so the off-speed stuff will have to improve.
Miami Marlins -- Lewis Brinson, OF. Of all the young players the Marlins received in their trades, Brinson is the one with the biggest tools and most upside. He's pretty much guaranteed to open the season in the big leagues and hopefully he can put his struggles with the Brewers (5-for-47) behind him.
Milwaukee Brewers -- Aaron Wilkerson, RHP. Acquired from the Red Sox for Aaron Hill, Wilkerson was basically an organizational arm before having a big season at Double-A and was pressed into service as a starter in a key game late in the season. He's a finesse guy, but I don't see why he can't beat out Yovani Gallardo for a rotation job.
Pittsburgh Pirates -- Tyler Glasnow, RHP. At Triple-A, he posted a 1.93 ERA with a 140/32 strikeout/walk ratio in 93 innings. With the Pirates, he posted a 7.69 ERA in 62 innings with a 56/44 strikeout/walk ratio.
St. Louis Cardinals -- Miles Mikolas, RHP. The former big leaguer dominated in Japan the past three seasons, including a 2.25 ERA in 2017, and signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract. He'll be in the rotation, but it will be fascinating to see if he turns into one of the bargains of the winter.
San Diego Padres -- Franchy Cordero, OF. He can open his own Home Depot with all his tools, but the universal appraisal is that he lacks baseball instincts. He had 44 strikeouts and six walks in 99 plate appearances with the Padres last year, but also hit .324/.369/.603 at El Paso (with 18 triples, a line out of the 1930s). The odds are long, but it wouldn't hurt the Padres to give him 400 at-bats in the majors and see what happens.
San Francisco Giants -- Mark Melancon, RHP. He missed much of the second half because of a strained forearm. Given the size of his contract -- he'll make $53 million the next three seasons -- the Giants better hope he can regain his closer stuff.
Washington Nationals -- Adam Eaton, LF. Eaton and Daniel Murphy are both coming off knee surgery -- Eaton tore his ACL in late April and missed the rest of the season -- and both will be eased into spring training. If the knee doesn't respond, Eaton could be pushed by super rookie Victor Robles.
I don’t know about you all, but I will never be so happy to read “He’s in the best shape of his life!” stories as players filter into spring training as I will be this year.
I will never be so happy to see that first video of players stretching and playing catch.
This isn’t the usual “winter bad, baseball good” attitude that creeps up this time of year, especially for those of us who live in areas of icy driveways and slush-filled sidewalks. This is about talking baseball and not the offseason mess of free agency. It’s talking about great plays instead of pace of play. It’s talking about who is in camp instead of who isn’t. It’s about watching Judge and Stanton break car windshields and seeing if Ronald Acuna can make the Braves and how Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria look in their new duds.
The Yankees report to camp on Tuesday as pitchers and catchers get their physicals. Aaron Boone will have his first news conference since he was introduced as the team’s manager, and one of the questions he’ll be asked will be about his batting order. He can’t go wrong no matter what he does, but it’s fun to speculate about that Opening Day lineup. All I know is that once Judge and Stanton check in, I want to see the numbers -- not just their projected home run totals but also their body-fat percentages.
Of course, the number that will come up time and time again is the number of free agents still out there; somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 remain unsigned. That list includes J.D. Martinez, who slugged .690 last season with 45 home runs; 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta; Eric Hosmer, who is coming off his best season; and Mike Moustakas and Logan Morrison, who both slammed 38 home runs.
Baseball has a way of doing this, of punching itself in the face, of drawing criticism instead of celebration. We had a remarkable 2017 season that included Stanton and Judge topping 50 home runs, Jose Altuve winning an MVP Award to further show that baseball is for anyone of any size and an exciting postseason that culminated in the Astros’ first championship in franchise history. The star power, especially all the young stars, means the game’s future is in good hands.
Instead, we’ve spent the winter wondering why billionaires aren’t sharing more of their money with millionaires. Whether some teams are “tanking” or just merely “rebuilding.” About the sad state of the Marlins after Derek Jeter traded away an All-Star outfield in Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. About the economics of a sport that saw the Pirates and Rays trade away the longtime faces of their franchises.
To which I point out: The Yankees released Babe Ruth, the Giants dumped Willie Mays, the Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr.
The fact is that a lot of this stuff is inside baseball. It’s interesting to the die-hards like us. The average fan just wants to go to the park, eat food that’s bad for you and not feel guilty, soak in the sun and hopefully cheer for a winning team. In these days of social isolation and political division, the ballpark still brings everyone together.
Anyway, baseball is back, and given the way this winter unfolded, spring training will feel like less of a slog than ever. Here are some camps worth paying extra attention to:
New York Yankees. I think we’ll have to get rid of the Baby Bombers nickname for 2018. Judge is now a wise old veteran who turns 26 in April. Gary Sanchez is an All-Star coming off a 33-homer season. Stanton is the reigning NL MVP and major league home run champ. The record for home runs by three teammates -- 143, by the 1961 Yankees' Roger Maris (61), Mickey Mantle (54) and Bill Skowron (28) -- could be in play, along with the record for home runs by a team (264 by the 1997 Mariners).
Atlanta Braves. Acuna has been pegged as the game’s next great star, the No. 1 overall prospect, after he hit .325 with 21 home runs and 44 steals across three levels of the minors. The most amazing part of his season: He hit .287 in Class A, .326 at Double-A and then .344 in 54 games at Triple-A. He didn’t turn 20 until December. Along with Acuna, the Braves have a slew of pitching prospects to monitor -- eight of them made it into Keith Law’s list of 100 top prospects. Giant Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara debuted last September, while others such as Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and Max Fried will push for midseason call-ups.
Los Angeles Angels. Welcome to America, Shohei Ohtani. His attempt to play both ways begins in Tempe, and spring training is the perfect time to get him as many at-bats as possible. At the same time, Mike Scioscia’s first priority is to get Ohtani on schedule to pitch in the rotation. If Ohtani doesn’t hit well, will that doom his chances of getting some DH time in the regular season?
San Francisco Giants. The Giants collapsed to a 64-98 record -- on the heels of a terrible second half in 2016 -- and will have to prove that their roster isn’t too old to compete in today’s youth-centered game. They’ve added Longoria (32 years old) and McCutchen (31 years old) to help an offense that ranked next-to-last in the NL in runs scored, but the back of the rotation and bullpen have to improve as well.
New York Mets. The Mets hope to throw last year’s soap opera of a season into the trash and start over, but all scrutiny will be on the health and production of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz. Besides the rotation, it will be interesting to see how youngsters Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith respond after their initial big league trials.
Chicago Cubs. It was already an interesting spring for Chicago. Kyle Schwarber is going to show up in really good shape. The World Series hangover year is over, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be better in the NL Central. The Cubs already had a lot riding on 2018 -- and now Yu Darvish is headed to Chicago.
So, yes, it’s time to talk some baseball.
P.S.: Heard anything new on J.D. Martinez?
The Boston Red Sox have offered J.D. Martinez a five-year, $125 million contract, an offer that The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported has left Martinez “fed up” with the Red Sox and that he would rather sign with another team. Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston also talked with Scott Boras, Martinez’s agent, on Tuesday, and Boras said Martinez was prepared to begin spring training without a contract.
While dialogue between Boras and the Red Sox continues, maybe it’s time to admit this deal just may not get done like we’ve speculated all winter. So it’s time to find Martinez a new home.
Here are five potential landing spots:
Arizona Diamondbacks. Why not return to the place where you hit like Lou Gehrig for three months? Martinez slugged .741 in his 62 games in the desert, and if he wants to play the field then he should go back to the National League. We know the Diamondbacks have expressed interest in bringing Martinez back, so even if their payroll looks about $25 million higher than last year’s without Martinez, there must be some flexibility here.
Plus, they need him. Similar to the Rockies, the Diamondbacks have a tendency to overrate their offense because of home-park inflation. The only regulars to post an above-average OPS last year were Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and Chris Iannetta, and Lamb can’t hit lefties and Iannetta signed with the Rockies. Outfielders A.J. Pollock and David Peralta haven’t exactly been pictures of durability, and the less Yasmany Tomas plays the better. The issue is giving Martinez what he wants and not blowing out the budget.
Cleveland Indians. OK, this is admittedly a long shot, as the largest contract the Indians have ever given out was the three-year, $60 million contract given to Edwin Encarnacion last offseason. Yes, the payroll is up to $130 million, but that’s basically the same as last year, and remember that each franchise will get about a $50 million payout this year from the sale of a majority stake in BAMTech to Disney. Even then, a lot of money comes off the books after this year: Michael Brantley ($11.5 million), Cody Allen ($10.5 million) and Andrew Miller ($9 million) will be free agents. If you’re thinking about the long-term ramifications, well, the Indians have already signed Jose Ramirez through 2023 to what will end up as a Jose Altuve-like bargain. That leaves Francisco Lindor, but he’s not a free agent until 2021, so there wouldn’t be much crossover at the end of a Martinez contract and Lindor’s free agency.
The main reason to sign him: This may be the Indians’ best chance to win a World Series. They have Ramirez, Lindor and Corey Kluber in their primes, they have those two weapons at the back of the bullpen, and they have a great rotation. What they need is one more big bat. Does Larry Dolan want to end that 70-year World Series drought or not? How much better does this lineup look with Martinez in the middle?
Atlanta Braves. The Braves had 10 players on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list, including overall No. 1 Ronald Acuna. But eight of the 10 were pitchers, and even if the Braves aren’t ready to contend in 2018, and even if Acuna takes over in one corner outfield spot at some point this season, they’ll still need offensive help in the future, especially given the uncertainty over Dansby Swanson's bat.
Money isn’t an issue here, even for the tight-fisted Liberty Media ownership. The only players signed beyond 2018 are Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Julio Teheran, and Inciarte tops out at $9 million in 2022. All these prospects will be making pennies once they arrive. With Inciarte in center and Acuna in one corner, the Braves can absorb Martinez’s below-average defense. This would create a foundation of Freeman, Acuna, Inciarte and Ozzie Albies. If the pitching develops as expected, the Braves will be in the playoff hunt -- maybe even as soon as 2018.
Seattle Mariners. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The Mariners not only have the longest playoff drought in MLB, they have the longest playoff drought of any franchise in the big four pro sports leagues. FanGraphs projects the Mariners to win 81 games, five behind the Angels for a wild-card spot. Baseball Prospectus projects them to win 83, one behind the Rays for a wild-card spot. The Mariners potentially have more to gain by finding a few more wins than any other team.
It's not like a Ben Gamel/Guillermo Heredia platoon in left field is a roadblock. Plus, with those two and Dee Gordon in center, the Mariners are punting power at two outfield slots. They had just 46 home runs from their outfield a year ago -- Martinez could do that all by himself. OK, you jack up the payroll for one year, but Nelson Cruz is a free agent after this year and you probably let him go given his age. They’re paying a combined $15 million for David Phelps, Marc Rzepczynski and Erasmo Ramirez, and Felix Hernandez’s megadeal has two more seasons. Jerry Dipoto hasn’t made a move yet in 2018. You know he’s itchy!
New York Yankees. The best way for Martinez to stick it to the Red Sox: sign with the Yankees! Sure, the Yankees already have a glut of outfielders. Sure, they’re trying to stay under the luxury tax. Let’s be clear here, however: The Yankees can afford to go past the $197 million luxury tax if they want. But they don’t have to.
Cot’s Contracts has their estimated payroll at around $162 million. Throw in about $10 million for benefits and other things that factor into the tax threshold and you are at $172 million. If Martinez needs a six-year, $150 million contract, that’s an AAV of $25 million, pushing the Yankees right up to that $197 million figure. So you need to make a deal: Jacoby Ellsbury makes $21 million each of the next three seasons and he’s the guy you want to trade, but that’s not going to happen unless the Yankees eat a large chunk of that salary. Even then, does anyone want Ellsbury at $30 million over three years? Probably not. So you have to trade Brett Gardner, making $11.5 million this season with a $12.5 million option for 2019. You can trade that contract.
Here’s the other catch: Signing Martinez could actually save the Yankees money over the long haul since they wouldn’t have to sign Manny Machado (as everyone seems inclined to believe they’ll do). Martinez gives you Machado’s bat for a lower AAV, and if Andujar is legit, they won’t need a third baseman anyway.
Plus, you get to make Red Sox fans cry and create one awesome Murderers’ Row of sluggers. Can you say 300 home runs?
On Aug. 5, the Texas Rangers beat the Minnesota Twins 4-1 as Rangers starter Cole Hamels fired a four-hit complete game. The Twins fell to 52-56, and, though they were only four games out of the second wild card, there were six teams ahead of them. It appeared they were merely playing out the string.
Then something remarkable happened. Everybody started hitting. Through their first 108 games, the Twins had averaged 4.48 runs per game, ranking 20th in the majors. They beat the Rangers 6-5 on Aug. 6 to kick off a six-game winning streak. They swept the Arizona Diamondbacks at home, scoring 27 runs in three games. They had 10-2 and 11-1 wins over the Chicago White Sox.
In September, they had 17-0 and 16-0 wins over the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres. Battling for a wild card the final 10 days, the Twins went into Detroit and swept a four-game series, scoring 39 runs. Over those final 54 games, the Twins went 33-21, won the wild card and pounded baseballs. They averaged 6.13 runs per game, most in the majors over that stretch.
The Oakland Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies didn’t surge to the playoffs, but both teams also experienced much-improved second-half offensive performances. The A's improved from 4.29 runs per game in the first half to 4.89 in the second, including 5.07 per game from Aug. 1 through the end of the season. The Phillies scored just 3.82 runs per game before the All-Star break, 4.77 after. It's no coincidence those lineups improved after Matt Olson and Rhys Hoskins were called up from the minors and tore it up down the stretch.
So here's the question: Are those second-half performance indicators that the Twins, A's and Phillies could have breakout offenses in 2018?
I did some research looking back through first-half and second-half team offense from 2012 to 2016. That's five seasons of data and the changes in offense in those years -- big increases the past two seasons, a big dip in 2014 -- skew the numbers when comparing one season to the next. The results are further complicated, as West Coast teams often score fewer runs in the first half due to weather conditions. I pinpointed the five teams with the largest gains within each season and 11 of the 25 were West Coast teams.
Looked at as a whole, there is anecdotal evidence both ways. The 2016 Atlanta Braves had a 1.30-run improvement in the second half, ranking fifth in the majors in runs per game. Braves fans believed this was a sign of a much better offense for 2017; they finished 19th in runs per game in 2017 (yes, Freddie Freeman missed some time).
The 2015 New York Mets improved by 1.63 runs per game in the second half of 2015; they ranked 26th in the majors in runs per game in 2016. On the other side, the 2012 A's scored 1.47 runs per game more in the second half, best in the majors, and would rank fourth in runs in 2013. The 2015 Seattle Mariners had a 1.20-run increase and ranked sixth in runs the following season.
While 13 of the 25 teams scored more runs the following season, the 25 teams collectively lost 22 more games (although those totals are heavily affected by the 2013 Boston Red Sox and Rangers, who combined for 50 more losses the following season). A positive indicator for the Twins, A’s and Phillies is that four of last year's five second-half gainers did improve:
Braves (1.30 more runs in second half): plus-4 wins
Mets (0.73 more runs): minus-17 wins
Dodgers: (0.63 more runs): plus-13 wins
Rays (0.52 more runs): plus-12 wins
Brewers (0.46 more runs: plus-13 wins
In theory, second-half performance as an indicator for the following season works best for young teams, the idea being that young players are improving. Let's see why our three teams could have breakout offenses in 2018.
Of the 10 Twins hitters with the most playing time, only three were 30 or older and five were in their age-25 season or younger. The most promising second-half breakout belonged to Byron Buxton, who hit .300/.347/.546. With his defense, he’s an MVP candidate if he can hit like that for an entire season.
Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco had big power surges, with Rosario slugging .558 and Polanco slugging .511. Rosario popped 17 home runs in 70 games in the second half. Veteran Brian Dozier has had monster second halves two seasons in a row and ranked sixth in the majors with 21 second-half home runs.
That all sounds good, but here are some red flags. As a team, the Twins essentially had the same strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio in both halves. Their BABIP increased from .302 to .310, but most of their offensive gains came via simply hitting more home runs. As good as Buxton and Rosario were, they still have low walk rates and Buxton struck out five times for every walk in the second half. I'd like to see both of them clean up their chase rate before completely buying into their second-half numbers. The Twins also feasted of some bad pitching from the Tigers, White Sox and Royals. But, hey, those three teams are still in the AL Central.
While their offseason focus has understandably been on pitching -- maybe they’ll still end up with Yu Darvish, especially now with the news that Ervin Santana may be out until May -- runs are runs, and imagine J.D. Martinez in the middle of this lineup.
If the Twins can't get Darvish, they should be willing to give that money to Martinez. He'd be a huge impact bat and could split his playing time between the outfield and DH, putting Max Kepler or Robbie Grossman into a bench role that improves the team's depth while also hedging against some regression from some of the other hitters.
The Cleveland Indians are the clear favorite in the AL Central, but they rely heavily on their stellar rotation and three offensive players (Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Edwin Encarnacion). Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis are injury-prone and if Cleveland suffers a couple injuries in the rotation, the Twins have a chance. They just haven't done anything to close the gap, and expecting the offense to score six runs per game over an entire season isn't realistic.
If the A's were in the NL West instead of the AL West, they'd be a great sleeper pick. The bullpen has depth and could be pretty good, Stephen Piscotty could be one of those little pickups that pays a big dividend and they played .500 baseball in the second half. Most importantly, they have two potential stars in Matt Olson and Matt Chapman.
Those two rookies keyed the improved offense. Olson was the big stud in the second half, hitting .286/.367/.721 with 20 home runs in 43 games (36 starts). Is he going to slug .721 over an entire season? No, but his fly ball swing is going to produce big power numbers. Chapman, who already looks like a Gold Glove defender, slugged .516 after the break. Like Olson, he has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, but the power is legit -- he slugged 36 home runs in the minors in 2016. Neither is going to be a high-average hitter, but they could combine for 70 home runs.
Like the A's, the Phillies were much improved in the second half, going 37-38 while scoring the same number of runs as their opponents. Hoskins was a reign of terror after his call-up, hitting .259/.396/.618 with 18 home runs in 170 at-bats. Sure, the 11 home runs in his first 18 games were freakish, but examine his track record and you see a guy who improved throughout his minor league career and drew 37 walks against 46 strikeouts in the majors. That plate discipline bodes well and he could be a consistent .400-OBP guy with 30-homer power. Sounds a little like Joey Votto to me.
Hoskins isn’t the only reason to believe in the Phillies as a breakout offense. Carlos Santana replaces Tommy Joseph at first base, which means a big upgrade in the OBP department. Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco were also OBP sinkholes and J.P. Crawford -- who posted a .356 OBP in his limited big league trial -- will replace Galvis at shortstop.
Franco is still the third baseman, probably his last chance to prove himself as a major league regular. Aaron Altherr also had a breakout season, hitting .272/.340/.516, although he played just 29 games in the second half.
So the Phillies will be better at first base, better in left field, probably better at shortstop and better in right field if Altherr stays healthy. Second baseman Scott Kingery could also make a major impact in the second half. The Phillies will also get to feast on some bad pitching from the Miami Marlins and Braves and maybe the Mets if their rotation can't stay healthy again.
Like the Twins and A's, the Phillies' rotation has some concerns. They have the payroll flexibility to play in the free-agent game and even if they don’t want to pony up for Darvish, a couple budget-conscious signings like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb could make them a potential wild-card contender. Going from 66 wins to 90 isn't likely, but it's possible. Just ask the Twins. They went from 59 to 85 and squeaked into the playoffs.
It's time for my second annual way-too-early All-Star teams. This is a tough assignment! We should turn this into a contest, that's how difficult it is. Last year I successfully named a whopping 28 of 71 All-Stars. You may think that's a lousy percentage, but only 23 players were All-Stars in both 2016 and 2017. Consider some of last year's All-Stars: Justin Smoak, Corey Dickerson, Yonder Alonso, Avisail Garcia, Chris Devenski, Alex Wood and Corey Knebel. Nobody would have predicted any of those players to make it in February. And veterans like Jason Vargas, Ryan Zimmerman and Zack Cozart had monster first halves to get there. I nailed Robbie Ray, but missed badly on Robert Gsellman (I did, however, predict an injury for Noah Syndergaard).
This year's way-too-early All-Star selection process is made even more difficult by all the unsigned free agents, as we don't even know what teams some potential All-Stars will be playing for. On top of that, we have to account for what the fans might do -- last year, I had Cubs fans voting in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber as starters, and none even made the team -- plus we have to have a representative from every team, including the Marlins. And remember that rosters were cut from 34 to 32 players last year.
So, let's give this a shot and see if I can top my 2017 performance.
C – Gary Sanchez, Yankees
1B – Eric Hosmer, Royals
2B – Jose Altuve, Astros
3B – Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
SS – Carlos Correa, Astros
OF – Aaron Judge, Yankees
OF – Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
OF – Mike Trout, Angels
DH – J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
Yes, I'm predicting Hosmer to re-sign with the Royals and Martinez to sign with the Red Sox and both to become All-Star starters. ... AL first base lacks an obvious favorite to win the fan vote, especially if Miguel Cabrera doesn't bounce back. Smoak was the starter last year, but look for Royals fans to enthusiastically support Hosmer, the 2016 starter. He'll have to get off to a better start than last year, however, when he hit .225 with one home run in April. ... Salvador Perez has started the past four All-Star Games, but Sanchez unseats him thanks to his prolific offensive production. ... Jose Ramirez started at third base last year and might end up on the ballot at second, so I'm going with Donaldson being healthy out of the gate and putting up big numbers. ... Shortstop will be a fun vote with Correa, Francisco Lindor and now Manny Machado, but Correa is my preseason AL MVP favorite, so I'm predicting big things. ... Stanton might be listed as a DH, but let's put him in the outfield in a stellar starting trio.
C – Salvador Perez, Royals
1B – Jose Abreu, White Sox
2B – Jonathan Schoop, Orioles
3B – Jose Ramirez, Indians
3B – Adrian Beltre, Rangers
SS – Francisco Lindor, Indians
SS – Manny Machado, Orioles
OF – Mookie Betts, Red Sox
OF – Byron Buxton, Twins
OF – George Springer, Astros
DH – Khris Davis, Athletics
The players will vote in Perez as the backup, but Mike Zunino could be a surprise here. He was second to Sanchez in WAR among AL catchers in 2017. ... If Abreu doesn't make it, I have no idea who ends up representing the White Sox since Garcia is an obvious regression candidate. ... It's too soon for Yoan Moncada, plus second base is loaded with Schoop, Robinson Cano and Brian Dozier. Schoop made it last year and I'm buying a repeat of his breakout season. ... As I went through the rosters, Beltre was my final selection as the lone choice from the Rangers. He last made the All-Star team in 2014, although AL third base remains loaded with up-and-coming potential All-Stars like Alex Bregman and Matt Chapman. ... A couple years ago, AL outfield was so weak that Michael Saunders, Mark Trumbo, Ian Desmond and an aging Carlos Beltran were All-Stars. There's much more depth now, with defensive whiz Buxton a good bet to make his first All-Star team. ... Davis beats out Nelson Cruz, last year's AL RBI leader, for the second DH spot.
SP – Corey Kluber, Indians
SP – Carlos Carrasco, Indians
SP – Chris Sale, Red Sox
SP – Justin Verlander, Astros
SP – Gerrit Cole, Astros
SP – James Paxton, Mariners
SP – Blake Snell, Rays
RP – Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox
RP – Andrew Miller, Indians
RP – Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays
RP – Shane Greene, Tigers
RP – Chad Green, Yankees
So many good choices for starting pitchers as I left out Luis Severino, Dallas Keuchel and Marcus Stroman among others. Aaron Sanchez, a 2016 All-Star and that year's AL ERA champ, is another starter to watch if he can keep the blisters from popping up. ... Verlander fixed his mechanics in the second half last year when he went 10-2, 1.95. He will be a preseason Cy Young favorite alongside Kluber and Sale. ... How good will the Cole trade look if he makes the All-Star team? ... This is the year Paxton finally stays healthy and makes 30 starts. ... Chris Archer is the more obvious pick for the Rays, but we know there has to be a surprise here, so let's go off the charts for Snell. The young lefty has top-shelf stuff and got his delivery in order in the second half, when he posted a 3.49 ERA and improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.32 in the first half to 2.96. He's a strong breakout candidate. ... I'd love to see Miggy make the team, since that means he's mashing again, but his poor 2017 performance and back issues are a concern, so Greene is my pick for the Tigers. ... We have to pick somebody from that dominant Yankees bullpen and Green is my guy. Batters swing through his high-spin four-seamer as he struck out 103 in just 69 innings. He's not the closer, but he’ll give Aaron Boone a valuable midgame option.
C – Buster Posey, Giants
1B – Freddie Freeman, Braves
2B – Daniel Murphy, Nationals
3B – Nolan Arenado, Rockies
SS – Corey Seager, Dodgers
OF – Bryce Harper, Nationals
OF – Marcell Ozuna, Cardinals
OF – Tommy Pham, Cardinals
Posey makes his fourth straight at catcher, edging out Yadier Molina in the voting. ... National League first base is the most loaded position in the majors. Zimmerman was the starter last year, Rizzo in 2016 and Paul Goldschmidt in 2015, so the fan voting could go in any direction. Joey Votto might be the best, but hasn't started since 2013. How about another new starter in Freeman? He was hitting .341/.461/.748 when he was hit by a pitch and fractured his wrist on May 17. ... Second base is pretty weak, so let's give Murphy his second straight appearance there. ... Arenado won the voting last year, and I'll project him again, although it feels weird to have no Cubs starters given their rabid fan base. ... Kenley Jansen ripped Dodgers fans after Cozart beat out Seager in the voting last year, but Seager should make his third straight appearance and first as a starter ... Harper is an easy choice and Ozuna actually has started the past two All-Star Games. Pham is my surprise choice, but he had a quietly awesome all-around season, and Cardinals fans will vote well if he gets off to a good start.
C — J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
1B – Joey Votto, Reds
1B – Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
1B – Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
2B – Javier Baez, Cubs
3B – Kris Bryant, Cubs
3B – Justin Turner, Dodgers
SS – Trea Turner, Nationals
OF – Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
OF – Christian Yelich, Brewers
OF – Rhys Hoskins, Phillies
OF – Manuel Margot, Padres
Let's hope the Marlins don't trade Realmuto, because the roster is otherwise lacking an obvious All-Star candidate. ... I'm going with three backups at first base and I'm still leaving off Rizzo. One of them can start at DH. ... The players voted in DJ LeMahieu as the backup last year, but let's give the nod to Baez. His OBP won't be great, but there's 30-homer potential here along with plus defense. ... Like first base, third base is loaded. I'm going with Bryant and Justin Turner over Anthony Rendon and Travis Shaw, and last year Jake Lamb made it with a monster first half. ... Trea Turner missed two months last year, but I think he breaks out this year. In April and May, he had just six walks and 38 strikeouts. After that, he had 24 walks and 42 strikeouts. If he can maintain better discipline, the line-drive power will come into play and he hits .300 with 60 steals. ... Blackmon will start if he puts up the same numbers as last year. ... Look for Yelich's power to increase in Milwaukee as he's hit 41 home runs on the road in his career compared to just 18 in Miami. ... Hoskins can flat mash. ... Margot gets the final nod on the bench as the Padres' lone representative.
SP – Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
SP – Max Scherzer, Nationals
SP – Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
SP – Noah Syndergaard, Mets
SP – Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
SP – Yu Darvish, Cubs
SP – Jon Gray, Rockies
RP – Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
RP – Corey Knebel, Brewers
RP – Felipe Rivero, Pirates
RP – Raisel Iglesias, Reds
RP – Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks
Kershaw and Scherzer are easy choices and Strasburg might be the Cy Young favorite considering the way he finished last year -- a 0.84 ERA and one home run allowed over his final eight starts, then zero earned runs over two playoff starts. He also blamed the All-Star Game for his DL stint last year since it forced him out of his regular routine, so it seems likely he'd skip any invitation. ... OK, Mets fans, let's predict good things for Syndergaard this year. ... Damn right I'm still on the Robbie Ray train. ... It's a Yu Darvish sighting! I have an itch to put him on the Brewers instead of the Cubs, but I think he still ends up in Wrigley and pays dividends with a big season. ... OK, we need an unpredictable name and picking a Rockies starter qualifies. Gray would be the first Rockies starting pitcher to make the All-Star team since Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 (Aaron Cook, Shawn Chacon and Mike Hampton are the only others). ... Picking All-Star relievers is a crapshoot, so I'm simply going with the guys who dominated last year. Iglesias is a secret gem, although it's possible the Reds trade him. Rivero is my Pirates rep, but he makes it on merit. Hey, maybe the Andrew McCutchen and Cole trades will end up as good as the Mark Melancon-for-Rivero one.