It has been 8 games worth of surprises for the Atlanta Braves. After losing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to free agency over the offseason, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in consecutive spring starts, and being forced to choose between Aaron Harang and Freddy frickin Garcia for the fourth, let alone the fifth, spot in their Opening Day rotation, the club currently leads the majors in starter’s ERA – their mark of 1.37 more than half a run better than the second-place Detroit Tigers. On the other side of the coin however, their offense – aside from the newly minted Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons – has so far been abysmal; The Upton brothers have cumulatively struck out 24 times in 62 plate appearances. Jason Heyward is batting .188. The team ranks 27th in slugging percentage (.331), 28th in OBP (.264), and last in runs (19). Things haven’t exactly been helped by Fredi Gonzalez‘s questionable lineup construction, but it’s clear something needs to change – in a much more competitive NL East than the walkover the division was last year, the rotation simply won’t be able to keep such a flailing offense afloat for much longer.
Speaking of flailing, Atlanta’s much-maligned second baseman Dan Uggla might well be the first to be sacrificed should the #Barves’ offensive woes continue. Signed to a 5-year, $62.5 million deal back in December 2010 after being acquired from the then-Florida Marlins in exchange for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, the burly keystoner’s numbers have worsened in every year in ATL. After launching 27 home runs or better in each of his four years in Florida, notching a cumulative wRC+ of 118, and accruing 15.6 WAR (all while being paid just $14,286,000 total), Uggla has since hit only .213/.321/.401 as a Brave, and thus become one of the fans’ two whipping boys (along with B.J. Upton), the pair emblematic of Atlanta’s endemic failure to make consistent contact on offense, and frequent miscues in the field – both of which have doomed in the playoffs the past two seasons.
It is at this point I should point out that Uggla’s 2013 was so particularly disastrous, even with his $13 million salary, he didn’t actually make the postseason roster; during the regular season, he had been an abject disaster at the plate, striking out 31.8% of the time on his way to hitting just .179 – the second lowest average for any Brave in Atlanta’s near 50-year history (Jody Davis, a catcher, notched the lowest mark – .169 in 1989), all whilst similar struggling in the field – not even his vaguely playable 2013 OBP of .309 could save Uggla from getting bench splinters when you factored in his -5.9 UZR. By the end of the year the 34-year-old had acquired -1.3 WAR in just 136 games.
Perhap to be expected of someone seemingly sliding down the aging curve so precipitously, not much has improved in 2014 thus far – Uggla is hitting just .194 early on, with a truly horrid .188 OBP and 15 wRC+. Even his trademark power has disappeared, his isolated slugging mark of .065 a disaster when considering how the slugger has also yet to take a walk in his 32 plate appearances. Small sample size be dashed, it’s truly apparent that Uggla is toast, in need of replacing – and pronto – if Atlanta are ever going to kickstart their potentially above-average offense into gear. Fortunately, should they eventually recognize that the $26 million they still owe Uggla over this year and next is a sunk cost, they already have just the man for the second base job.
Down in the minors at Triple-A Gwinnett, Tommy La Stella is drawing rave reviews from scouts – per Baseball Prospectus‘ ‘What Scouts Are Saying: April 10th, 2014‘ one talent evaluator noted of the 25-year-old:
One of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues and yet you don’t hear many people talk about him. I get that he’s older and not going to win a Gold Glove at 2B, but what stops him from becoming the next Matt Carpenter? Look at the numbers, recognize the approach, and watch the swing, and it’s clear he is something special.
That’s a pretty ringing endorsement considering how Carpenter finished fourth in NL MVP voting last year in his first season as a full-time regular. But it’s true; the pair profile extremely similarly through their minor league careers, La Stella’s four-year average line of .328/.412/.495 actually comparing favorably to Carpenter’s .299/.408/.450 triple slash over the same span. Judged by Fangraphs to have “fringe-average” defensive skills, the 25-year-old would be a considerable upgrade over Uggla in the field, and with “a strong left-handed swing with good bat speed and excellent hand-eye coordination… a good eye and a patient approach,” a welcome contact-conscious addition to the whiff-happy Braves*.
It’s somewhat incredible already that he wasn’t called up to replace Uggla last year given his production, nor made the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but after 8 games it should be clear; this shouldn’t even be a matter of whether the Atlanta offense needs a boost (which it most certainly does) – At this point, Uggla needs to find himself a seat, it’s Tommy La Stella’s time to surprise.
*Awesome geeky stat of the day: in La Stella’s four minor league seasons, he has accrued 1012 plate appearances, and walked 113 times compared to just 89(!) strikeouts. Uggla had his 90th strikeout by June 19th last year – in his 67th game of the season no less.
With the (non-Australia games) regular season just a couple of days away, the last thing a team needs now is an injury to a key contributor. Tommy John surgery knock out two of your starters? An inconvenience sure, but if it happens fairly early on in Spring Training you still have time to stretch out a bullpen arm, or go out and bring in a free agent alternative like Ervin Santana. It’s when the injuries hit late that they really become a problem – see how Detroit has handled the Jose Iglesias situation, hastily trading away the newly acquired Steve Lombardozzi for Alex Gonzalez, a 37-year-old who was on the scrapheap less than two months ago.
The poor Texas Rangers have been particularly besmirched by injuries so far this spring, projected starters going down one after another. First it was starting pitchers Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, pushing up Tanner Scheppers and Joe Saunders into the starting rotation (Scheppers is now due to become the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela to make his first career start on Opening Day by the way). Then it was Jurickson Profar – a lot more on him in a bit. Next up (down?) was catcher Geovany Soto, who will be out for 10 to 12 weeks with a torn meniscus in his right knee, leaving J.P. Arencibia – he of the .227 OBP in 497 PAs last year – as the regular backstop. Starting shortstop Elvis Andrus is still experiencing soreness in his shoulder and elbow after not throwing this offseason, making his presence against Philadelphia next Monday unlikely. And if that weren’t enough, Yu Darvish has now too caught the injury bug, his stiff neck also preventing him from making the Opening Day start.
If you weren’t counting, that’s six guys out, all of whom would normally be heavily relied upon by Texas. Of course, if you’re not a Rangers fan you might be a little bummed, but probably don’t especially care; their loss might well have helped your squad’s chances after all. You might only be concerned if you were to own one of the downed half-dozen on your fantasy team. Returning to my original point, when a player gets injured early, it’s manageable; the same applies in fantasy. You simply avoid Cole Hamels and his sore shoulder on draft day, or pick up Hisashi Iwakuma a few rounds later than normal on account of his hurt finger. It’s once you’ve drafted when you have a problem, especially if your disabled starter happens to be a middle infielder. Enter the aforementioned Profar.
Currently being selected 12th among second basemen per ESPN’s live draft results (and 24th among middle infielders, marginally behind Andrelton Simmons), a tear to the teres major muscle in his right shoulder, though not requiring surgery, will keep Profar off the field for 10-12 weeks – approximately half of your fantasy season. Let’s be clear, Profar wasn’t expected to be a fantasy stud in 2014 – ESPN’s 5×5 projection of 49/8/35/10/.269 proves as much – but his ceiling to potentially be among the 10 best middle infielders meant he was being drafted as a starter in standard leagues. Guaranteed playing time at second base thanks to the Rangers trading away Ian Kinsler during the winter, many owners were banking on an improvement from the part-time line (.234, six homers and 26 RBIs) the 21-year-old top prospect put up as a utility middle infielder last year; now though, they’ll have to hit the waiver wire in search of a replacement.
All well and good, but middle infield gets very thin, very quickly, meaning viable replacements are extremely hard to come by, let alone plug ins with any huge upside. Among second basemen, 20th ranked Anthony Rendon would represent the best replacement option, at least if you’re in one of the 28.1% of leagues where he isn’t already rostered; playing everyday in what could be a fairly potent Nationals lineup, the righty should at least accrue decent enough counting stats, and possesses the tools to hit for a plus average with middling pop. More likely available, the likes of Neil Walker (26.4% owned) and Omar Infante (17.%) both qualify for the category of less sexy stand-ins, but are at least somewhat dependable. Both veteran keystoners will, barring injury, play everyday for Pittsburgh and Kansas City respectively, and most likely rack up 50-60 Rs and RBIs apiece, with Walker offering more power and Infante a better average. Neither will contribute in terms of stolen bases, but project to be solid contributors, if below average in comparison to the rest of your league. Dustin Ackley, at only 11.1 owned, would perhaps represent the alternative with the highest ceiling – the much-maligned left-hander hit .304/.374/.435 after the All-Star break last year, and after a strong Spring Training showing, should be playing left field (but with 2B fantasy eligibility left over from last year) everyday for the Mariners this season. His likely spot in the lineup however, will limit his capability to put up above-average counting numbers, and with marginal speed, his value will hinge upon his ability to hit for power and average.
If you’ve the middle infield spot available, picking up a shortstop might actually be the better way to go. Even coming off his PED suspension in 2013, Jhonny Peralta would be a nice play if he’s available; the Dominican Republic native put up a 50/11/55/3/.303 fantasy line last year in just 107 games played in 2013, and despite his winter move away from the great offense of Detroit, St. Louis will provide ample opportunity to continue such production, meaning those 2013 rates aren’t at any real risk of decline (though his batting average will almost undoubtedly regress somewhat.) Somehow, Peralta is still only 63.8% owned, and being drafted behind Asdrubal Cabrera, Derek Jeter, and Jimmy Rollins, all of whom seem (in my opinion at least) bound to provide less fantasy production in 2014, and are being drafted on name-value alone. Right behind Peralta in the SS rankings at 18th, Brad Miller is much more likely to be available (20.5%), and having beaten out Nick Franklin for the Seattle job, has a good shot to improve on his promising 2013 debut, in which he displayed a serviceable little combination of power and speed. Given full-time duty, Miller might give you a combined 25 HRs and steals over the season, but like Ackley, might struggle for the more traditional counting stats in a questionable Mariners lineup. Other functional substitutes (ie. players locked in to playing time in an at least average offense) include the Rays’ Yunel Escobar and Cincinnati SS Zack Cozart – though neither have much capacity to provide surprise output.
As put by Brett Talley on Fangraphs “The list of candidates to replace Profar is fairly long and uninspiring at this point.” There are options out there though, albeit boring ones. Just remember, while less attractive names such as Walker or Infante won’t win you your league, they’ll keep you afloat in the interim – either before Profar returns, or you can swing a trade.
What an odd Saturday that was. Without Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, or Zack Greinke, the Los Angeles Dodgers secured a season opening sweep over the Arizona Diamondbacks (who were themselves without Patrick Corbin after learning the day they departed for Australia their ace would need Tommy John surgery), winning 3-1 in a game that started at 4am Eastern, and 7-5 in the 7pm affair. Some things were to be expected; Clayton Kershaw demonstrating his usual dominance, Paul Goldschmidt going 4-9 at the plate, Mark Trumbo being predictably terrible in left field, the beautiful Sydney Cricket Ground outdrawing Tampa Bay’s two most-attended home games last year, Yasiel Puig doing Puig-like things… Others, not so much; Kirk Gibson’s decision to play Didi Gregorius over Chris Owings against the left-handed Hyun-jin Ryu, Jayson Stark referencing the Dodgers’ PECOTA projection on the MLB Network’s broadcast (!), some of the just awful fielding on show (that means you Miguel Montero), Yasiel Puig doing Puig -like things… And then, in the second game, Dee Gordon’s performance.
At just 25-years-old, it already seems easy to place Gordon. After being called up to L.A. in June 2011, the son of Tom played 56 games that summer for the Dodgers, hitting .304 (and stealing 24 bases) as a classic beneficiary of a small sample size. Aged just 23, Dee began 2012 as not only the Dodgers’ everyday shortstop, but also leading off for Don Mattingly’s squad; this time around however, his numbers regressed. His average had precipitously dropped to .229 (his OBP to an atrocious .280) before he injured his right thumb stealing third on July 4, and when he returned on Sept. 11, the newly-acquired Hanley Ramirez was manning short, and Gordon was without a job. He would receive only 94 at-bats with the ML team in 2013, serving primarily as a pinch-runner in his time up, and would spend the majority of the year in Triple-A Albuquerque.
In other words, he’s a 5’11, 155lb, extremely light-hitting shortstop who, although a threat on the basepaths, ranked by Fangraphs’ WAR measure as the 15th worst player in baseball (on both sides of the ball) over the last three years: of the 343 hitters to collect at least 600 plate appearances over that time, his .274 wOBA is better than only 12 other hitters, while he also racked up 35 fielding errors in the 160 games he appeared in. He lost his job to Nick Punto of all people last year – and a 35-year-old Nick Punto at that. Quite simply, Gordon is bad. Yet on a team with a $233,658,334 payroll, he’s now starting. Not at shortstop though – but at second base.
In forking out $28M in guaranteed money (including a $10M signing bonus) to bring in the then-26-year-old Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero on a four year contract, the Dodgers bought themselves quite the 2B quandary; giving the unproven Cuban the reins, they declined Mark Ellis’ $5.75m team option on October 31, let Skip Schumaker leave for Cincinnati, allowed the aforementioned Punto depart to Oakland, and saw Michael Young and Jerry Hairston opt for retirement – leaving Gordon and his 3.2 innings of time as the only remaining player with 2013 experience at the L.A. keystone. So when Guerrero bombed in his adjustment to second base this spring (like Gordon, he’s a natural shortstop), making an acclimation period in the Minors necessary, the spot was unexpectedly opened up for someone to claim. Not wanting to completely block Guerrero by trading for Brandon Phillips or alike, the Dodgers just needed anyone to step up for a while, and not be truly horrific; so far, by virtue of his being the lesser of evils after hitting .286 this spring with four triples and nine steals without getting caught, it seems Gordon has secured himself the dubious distinction of beating out Justin Turner and Chone Figgins for a majority timeshare of the position.
Which brings us to Saturday’s second game, in which Gordon was… strangely electric? Batting leadoff ahead of Yasiel Puig (a typical Mattingly lineup that reared it’s ugly head when Gordon had second easily stolen on a 1-0 pitch, only for Puig to unnecessarily foul off the ensuing delivery), the speedster got aboard 4 times (3 hits, 1 HBP – courtesy of Addison Reed), and was driven in on two occasions. He would have tripled but for Ryu slowing his progress ahead of him, provided a sacrifice fly when required, and generally looked like a prototypical leadoff man. Could it be then, that at 25, Gordon has cracked it?
Yes, he’s using his blazing speed more to his advantage while at the plate, and showed significant improvement in regards to his approach last year at Triple-A (he had a .385 OBP at Albuquerque). Recognition must also go to how he eliminated basketball from his offseason workouts in an effort to gain weight and put on muscle; Gordon’s apparently up to 170lbs now. But he’s still barely a replacement level player, and the sooner the Dodgers can get Guerrero ready, or find a suitable replacement, the better. The offensive performance was an aberration on Saturday, but the fielding wasn’t; Gordon butchered an easy snag of a line drive, and crossed in front of Hanley Ramirez on a double play opportunity that resulted in every runner being safe. Furthermore, he couldn’t even be trusted to play against Wade Miley – hardly Cliff Lee in terms of lefty-death – in the series opener because of his severe platoon splits (Gordon’s a .271 career hitter against righties, but a miserable .221 vs. lefties).
As much as I don’t want to say so, because it was as fun as watching Puig try and bottle up an ill-advised throw he desperately wants to uncork in the direction of third base, we might well have just witnessed Dee Gordon’s best performance of the season. The Dodgers, considering their World Series aspirations, would be wise in recognizing a return to normalcy is imminent.
Many internet prognosticators figured it would be at least 12 months before Robinson Cano voiced his displeasure concerning Seattle’s roster construction, projecting a full season of disappointment before any public outcry. Instead, it has taken only 90 days as a member of the Mariners for the star second baseman to provide the front office with some pointers. Though the speed of his ‘advice’ hasn’t earned him much in terms of popularity amongst his new fanbase, it would be wrong to instantly dub Cano and his contract off the mark, and begin the what seems inevitable process of his becoming a financial albatross to the team. He’s probably actually right.
Cano’s signing with the Mariners started the clock of contention ticking for Seattle, a situation succinctly explained by Mike Curto: “The mix of Cano’s age (31) and the financial commitment speeds up the Mariners’ calendar. The team is now pressured to win in the next few years, before Cano’s skills severely decline.” With a clear window of serviceable Cano years to operate in, and armed with an impending $2 billion thanks to a new long-term agreement with DirecTV, the M’s promised to be aggressive on the free-agent market in building a team around their prize in order to immediately contend in a loaded AL West division. What actually happened however… well, they struck out – as my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series detailed. Entering the season, the Mariners are projected to have Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager batting ahead of Cano, with Corey Hart in line for clean-up duty. That’s a problem, one Cano had no issue with immediately highlighting in an interview with CBSSports.com earlier this week:
“I’m not going to lie. We need an extra bat, especially a right-handed bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty. You don’t want to face a lefty pitcher with a lineup of seven left-handed hitters.”
When Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million contract in December, it was clear he was leaving a bad offense behind in New York; as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their fantastic annual, “The second baseman accounted for 68 percent of the Yankees’ BWARP” in 2013. At age 31, he quite rightly jumped at Seattle’s offer – purportedly $65 million more than the next-highest bidder – and GM Jack Zduriencik’s promise to build a contender around him during the remainder of his prime. The problem there being that Cano’s prime may already be over – and Zduriencik has so far done nothing.
Mike Bates of SB Nation studied the 20 most valuable players who spent more than half of their careers at second base through age 30 since 1900; his results showed that the group average fell from a cumulative 47.3 WAR through their age 31 seasons, to just 22.3 WAR after. So while Cano has been remarkably durable so far in his cumulating a career 45.1 WAR (he’s currently in the midst of a seven season streak of at least 159 games played), and consistently great at both the plate and in the field, every historical indicator points to those days of healthy performance soon ending. In his study of the unsightly aging curve of offense-minded second basemen, Fangraphs writer Tony Blengino wrote the following about Seattle’s splashy acquisition:
History says that Cano will ride out the end of his peak period in 2014, begin a solid decline phase with some .300ish, 18-20 HR seasons, than begin a deeper secondary decline phase during which he accumulate hits — and outs. By age 35, there will likely be a severe disconnect between Cano’s salary and his production.
Paging Jack Z – 2014 is this year! It has always been acknowledged that the back end of the Dominican native’s contract would be an overpay, but the obliviousness of the Mariners front office to the obvious decline on the horizon is a little frightening for a long-suffering Seattle fan base. Father Time catches up with even the best players in the end – just ask Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.
All of which is why Cano’s recent lobbying for help (including for the still-available Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales) makes sense; if he is only going to be able to provide front-loaded production, the team should go out and get help now. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Seattle payroll is currently sat at around $74 million, with just Cano and Felix Hernandez as the only large contracts, yet with the benefit of their upcoming TV deal they neither seriously pursued Nelson Cruz or Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency, nor made an aggressive push for a David Price deal despite possessing a suitable return piece in Taijuan Walker (who is now injured, naturally). Cano’s addition alone will not be enough to in one year turn around completely an offense that in 2013 finished 12th in the Junior Circuit with 624 runs scored and ranked 10th in the AL in team OPS (.695), let alone push a 91 loss team to the peak of the AL West and into the playoffs – baseball is the most individual ‘team sport’ after all. One man can only do so much, and that one man is due to decline; (the admittedly conservative) PECOTA has him projected to hit .297/.352/.482 with a .307 TAv and 21 HR in 2014 – and his numbers are only going in one direction from there.
Cano probably knows it. Seattle apparently, does not. Keep talking Robbie, I don’t blame you. If the M’s are serious about contending, maybe they’ll start listening too.
Seeing as I didn’t exactly do my team full justice in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series – which finally concluded yesterday with a parting glance at Jose Reyes’ and Toronto’s injury woes – I figured today I would spend some further time scrutinizing a player close to my heart. Or at least, he was. Then again, he could yet climb back in. Brandon Phillips is a contentious subject for Cincinnati fans heading into 2014.
Since arriving in the Queen City in 2006, the dynamic play and happy-go-lucky personality of Brandon Phillips had secured the second baseman a long leash with Reds fans. Combining consistently Gold Glove worthy defense with above average offensive production, DatDudeBP was a perennial All-Star with a smile, more loved than even the Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto. So when his offensive output dropped off significantly in 2013 (If anyone brings up RBIs as a measure of production – GTFO), we ignored the five year trend of decline and found excuses for him. When his behavior followed suit however, well that ticked off more than just the fans.
Questionably inked to a six-year, $72.5 million contract in 2011 as a 30 year old coming off a career year (.300/.353/.457, 122 wRC+, 5.6 WAR), Phillips last year publicly called out the man responsible for prioritizing his signing, Reds CEO Bob Castellini. Despite his leveraging of Cincinnati management and overlooking of the fact that second basemen don’t tend to age gracefully, Castellini had apparently done Phillips wrong by signing other key teammates to (larger) contracts too. In a July interview with the Cincinnati Magazine, the unhappy player sounded off regarding the man who signs his checks:
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie.
All of a sudden, $72.5 million was, according to Phillips, “a slap in my face.” Not long after too, cameras caught Phillips berating beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans over a tweet which rubbed him the wrong way; simply stating Phillips’ less than stellar career offensive statistics when hitting in the No. 2 hole earning the Cincinnati Enquirer writer the distasteful threat “I’m tired of you talking that negative sh*t on our team, dog. I found out your Twitter name now motherf***er. It’s a wrap.” Top athletes get away with such behavior routinely though; it’s when they stop producing that we have an issue with it. And unfortunately for Phillips in 2013, he fell off the wagon on the field too.
After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, the increasingly unpopular Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013, his OPS ranking seventh among second basemen on the Senior Circuit. As Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris noted too, it marked another year of decline:
Here’s the list of statistics in which Phillips showed a five-year worsts in 2013: Batting average, home runs, runs, stolen bases, strikeout rate, swinging strikeout rate, slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage, batting average on balls in play, batted ball distance on homers and flies, ultimate base running, and four-component speed score.
That’s a heck of a lot of offensive categories. Yes, he had a career high 103 RBIs (…urgh, I’m disgusted to even acknowledge so), as most competent major leaguers could hitting behind the NL’s two best on-base men; hitting savant Joey Votto was on base 101 times when Phillips came to the plate, whereas the recently departed Shin-Soo Choo was there 56 times himself. His 69 weighted runs created , and .257 true average spoke more volume of his struggles however, which in combination with the disappearance of his running game, public missteps, and remaining $50 million owed in salary over the next four seasons, landed Phillips on the trading block this winter.
The Braves were reportedly in on the now-32 year old, but insisted on Dan Uggla’s albatross contract being a part of any return package. The Reds blanched. The Dodgers made overtures before landing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero. The Kansas City Royals had interest before signing Omar Infante. Talks progressed beyond mere rumor with the Yankees about a Brett Gardner/Phillips swap, only for New York to nix a potential deal (they have of course since signed Gardner to a 4 year $52 million extension). With trade scenarios cropping up every other it seems then, that barring a sudden rejuvenation, Phillips will be playing elsewhere as soon as Cincinnati can find a taker for his contract.
It will be interesting to see if the former favorite can rebound in 2014 however, whether it be with the Reds or elsewhere. Though his strikeout and contact rates both went in the wrong direction last season, his decline was far greater than expected. At least some of his down year can be pinned on a more than ordinary HBP which occurred in Pittsburgh on June 1st; prior to Tony Watson hitting his left forearm in the eight inning of a game against the rival Pirates – Brandon later acknowledging “He got me good… I thought it was broke for sure.” – Phillips was hitting .291/.340/.476. The keystoner played through the pain however, avoiding the DL and surely in no coincidence, posted his lowest isolated power mark since 2006 (.135). Whether his being nicked up last year can really be viewed as the sole reason for his below-par performance rather than a sign of attrition, will certainly play a part in deciding Phillips’ future with the Reds organization. But as he recently stated in an interview with Jon Danneman of FOX19 – breaking his offseason media silence in the process – “If they feel like they can do better without me than good luck with that”.
If yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series was full of promise – detailing Twins prospect Josmil Pinto’s opportunity to shine before his hyped peers join him in the bigs – todays portion… well, there’s not so much potential. Yes, it’s the turn of the New York Yankees, who having spent nigh on half a billion dollars on free agents this winter, still enter Spring Training play with question marks at every infield position.
The 2013 Yankees infield wasn’t really much to write home about in terms of startling production – a sentiment ESPN’s Paul Swydan astutely evidenced: “for the first time in 11 seasons, the WAR posted by the New York Yankees’ infield starters was less than 10.0. In fact, it fell well short of that mark, as Lyle Overbay, Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez combined for a more modest 5.3 WAR.” Riddled by injuries across the diamond, the Yankees still somehow bumbled their way to a 85 win season, vastly outperforming their pythagorean winning percentage (which called for a 79-83 record) in the process, but finished 2013 with plethora of questions surrounding their future infield; the health status of presumed starters Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, the future availability of Alex Rodriguez, and the free agency of their best player – Cano. How they addressed such matters this past offseason can only be summed up by the title of the aforementioned Swydan’s article: “Yanks infield could be worst ever.” Oh.
Brian Cashman knows it: “our strength is not our infield this year.” Despite spending close to half a billion dollars in free agency this past offseason (exact figures are hard to come by, and depend on the inclusion of Masahiro Tanaka’s posting fee), and blowing past the luxury tax figure the Yankees had been so austerely attempting to duck for the last couple of years, Cano was allowed to leave for Seattle Mariners. As a result, heading into Spring Training with no one else left on the market (I feel we can safely rule out Stephen Drew and his draft pick compensation), New York’s infield profiles to be cobbled together out of a collection badly aging former stars, injury risks, and career backups. Perhaps put best by SB Nation’s ‘Pinstripes Alley’ , “With as much money as the Yankees have spent this offseason, having an infield as shaky as this seems like building a fancy luxury liner with the most amazing amenities without reinforcing the hull.” So while manager Joe Girardi can say “There’s a lot of competition here” all he wants this Spring Training, it doesn’t obscure the fact that it’s a contest between separately dire possibilities.
It’s fairly impossible to say anything with certainty regarding first baseman Mark Teixeira, aside from his contract officially taking on albatross status (he is still owed $67.5 million through the next 3 seasons); missing all but 15 games of 2013 with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist – an injury that has claimed the career of many a hitter before – was a good method in masking the dramatic extent of his recent decline however.
At the keystone, 36-year-old Brian Roberts will be first up in attempting to fill the void left by Cano – if he makes it through Spring Training first that is; his 77 games of wRC+ 90 level offensive production marked his largest workload since 2009, having played only 59, 39, and 17 the three years previous, though were still not enough for AL East rivals Baltimore to offer their seasoned veteran another chance. When he inevitably hits the DL though, Scott Sizemore might be there to fill in – the former Athletic having failed to log a full season since 2011 himself after tearing, then re-tearing, an ACL.
At shortstop there’s a 40 year old with a propensity for gift baskets who, if he stays healthy, will be oldest starting shortstop in the history of baseball. Naturally, he was limited by injuries in 2013 too, playing only 17 games.
Manning third base is future Hall of Famer Alex Rodrig… 32 year old Kelly Johnson, who has played 16 games total at the position over his career. To be fair to the journeyman Johnson, he most probably represents New York’s best chance at real production from their infield – he did after all crack 16 homers in 118 games for the Rays in 2013. Backing him up, Eduardo Nunez, with Brendan Ryan’s (immensely better than Jeter’s) glove and PCL batting champ Dean Anna expected to duke it out for any remaining playing time.
Once the backbone of a World Series offense, the Yankees infield now resembles a hospice, full of ailing players long removed from the peak of their powers – had they any real ones to begin with. More than simply an injury risk though, whichever quartet thrown out by Girardi each day will a liability on both offense and defense, something to be overcome by the seemingly strong outfield and starting pitching staff. If they’re to win close to 85 games again, it will most certainly be in spite of the (lack of) production of the ‘Poor Four’. With 2014 being Jeter’s final season, only God knowing how everyone else will hold up, and not much coming down the minor league pipeline, the Yankees face an uphill struggle in restoring their infield to its former glory beyond just this season. Cashman will certainly have plenty of work to do next winter in finding better than the current replacement level players (at best) he’ll be responsible for trotting out this summer.
Until then, I give it two weeks before Yankees fans long for the days of Robinson Cano not running out routine grounders.
For the third consecutive day, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series stays in the AL Central. Yesterdays celebration of exciting Indians pitcher Danny Salazar saw me most definitely jinx Cleveland’s chances of returning to the playoffs, a destination Detroit has made a habit of easily reaching recently. And while nothing has changed this winter regarding the expectations of the Tigers, in that they’re still widely viewed as World Series contenders, the pack of players that has fallen short for the past two seasons has been shuffled. In the biggest deal of the offseason, 1B Prince Fielder was sent from Motor City to Texas; Detroit in return received financial relief, positional liberation, and Ian Kinsler.
When word came down of this winters big-name swap between the Texas Rangers and Detroit, the prognostication that followed was decidedly mixed in immediately conferring a ‘winner’ of the blockbuster; whereas Dave Cameron of Fangraphs opined “If you’re a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate”, ESPN’s Keith Law expressed a preference to “rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler” (at least from a purely baseball perspective).
I initially agreed with Cameron that Detroit had got the better deal; after all, in swapping Fielder for Kinsler, the Tigers acquired much more than just the second baseman. In their exchange of two players with similar WARP levels, Detroit also secured significant financial relief – saving $76 million in future salary obligations. As Cameron put it: “The Tigers turned a $168 million +3 WAR player into a $92 million +3 WAR player, once you account for the cash they’re sending to Texas”. Not only that, but they freed up their problematic 1B/DH logjam – the loss of Fielder simultaneously permitting Miguel Cabrera to slide back across the diamond to his natural position (after being predictably overmatched at third for the past two seasons), while allowing Victor Martinez to occupy the DH position full-time. Such realignment would leave top prospect Nick Castellanos to slot in at third, Kinsler manning second in place of the departed Omar Infante, and the defensively-excellent Jose Iglesias holding down shortstop. In one trade, the previously imbalanced (and defensively woeful) Tigers infield was solved – which in combination with the savings offered, seemed to represent a coup for Detroit.
If only it were that simple.
No longer trapped by Fielder’s contract, Detroit seemed destined to make another move. Instead, GM Dave Dombrowski chose to… Doug Fister Heist.” href=”http://dugoutperspective.mlblogs.com/2014/02/17/hello-baseball-the-doug-fister-heist/” target=”_blank”>trade away their underrated cost-controlled starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in a deal for three lesser players? Not go out and sign the other starting outfielder (Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, and Curtis Granderson were all still available) which they have so desperately needed for the past two seasons? Neither lock up Cy Young Winner and impending free agent Max Scherzer to a long term contract, nor ensure the best hitter on the planet – Miguel Cabrera, whose contract expires in 2015 – finishes his career a Tiger? Sure, the Tigers replaced the departed Joaquin Benoit with Joe Nathan, but the other shoe – which in December especially, seemed to be dangling by a thread just millimeters from the earth – is still yet to drop.
Which brings us on to Kinsler, and more specifically, Keith Law’s fear that “Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline”. It’s hard to argue with Law’s assessment; second basemen are notorious for their rates of attrition, and the numbers have been already begun trending downward for the Tiger’s new acquisition. Per the Baseball Professor, his rough indicators of production have experienced a sharp decline over the past three seasons:“In 2011, Ian Kinsler combined for 62 HR and SB. In 2012, that total fell to 40. Last year it was just 28.” Furthermore, playing mostly in the incredibly hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Kinsler slashed .277/.344/.413 and posted an OPS+ of 105 in 2013; for comparisons sake, the man he is replacing in Detroit – Omar Infante – had a mark of 113. Of perhaps even more concern for Detroit fans – and an admittedly popular narrative this winter – are the struggles of Kinsler away from Texas, a perception corroborated by his significant home/road splits; over his career (2399 PAs) the Arizona native bludgeoned his way to a .304/.387/.511 line at home, compared to just .242/.312/.399 on the road (2392 PAs).
All this is not to say Ian Kinsler will be a bust in 2014 – far from it. Once again, he will most probably be an above-average second baseman, perhaps even an All-Star again, and has apparently been working hard this offseason to take advantage of Comerica Park’s quirks and quieten down laymen like me. He’ll presumably offer a much more viable leadoff option than either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter, and can’t help but add to Detroit’s absent running game. His contract (a front-loaded $62 million over the next four years) remains a bargain in comparison to Fielder, who also exhibited signs of decline in 2013 and is unlikely to age gracefully himself. The positional reshuffle subsequent to his arrival may even help crucial pieces stay healthier late into the season. But his new team have wholly failed to take advantage of the favorable situation created with the removal of Fielder, and look set to enter the season with the same holes that saw easily win the AL Central, but be bounced in the ALCS. It’s World Series or bust once again for the Tigers, and question marks surround their their new second baseman; fairly or not, the spotlight is on Kinsler.