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.
In theory, you’d think a team boasting the back-to-back AL MVP (not that Miguel Cabrera will win again this year, as I wrote yesterday) as well as the last two AL Cy Young winners wouldn’t especially feel the loss of a light-hitting shortstop. But even considering the trade of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, and the still-confusing deal that sent away Doug Fister, the Detroit Tigers are very much in win-now mode, meaning the loss of Jose Iglesias for potentially the entire season is a big dent in their hopes of finally capturing that elusive World Series pennant. So while Iglesias – who only profiled as the Tigers’ no. 9 hitter, but would have been a Gold Glove caliber defender – is maintaining that he’ll return before the season is out, the Tigers would do well to find an similar, if slightly more able-bodied, replacement in the meantime.
No matter what Dave Dombrowski is currently saying, it’s becoming more and more apparent via Detroit’s enquiries elsewhere that the prospective replacement is not currently in the Tigers organization. Acquired in the Fister trade, 25-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, despite having the reputation of a utilityman, neither figures to fit defensively nor have the bat to make up for his glove (I’m still struggling comprehending that trade obviously). Having appeared in 115 major league games, including starting 24 games at shortstop as a rookie in 2010 before the team traded for Jhonny Peralta, the 28-year-old Danny Worth has some experience at least. Unfortunately, his time has not borne fruit, his ML line of .242/.307/.315 in 246 PAs, like Lombardozzi, not enough to atone for his mediocre glove. Hernan Perez, who was on the Tigers’ postseason roster last year as a pinch-runner, has played only at the keystone since 2010, and is a career .256 hitter in the minors – nor has done anything to justify a call this Spring. 22-year-old Eugenio Suarez fits most comfortably into the defense-first profile of Iglesias in his wielding of a solid glove at short, but hit only .253/.332/.387 in 2013 – which would be fine were it not for the fact that it was in Double-A; Suarez evidently still has some way to go yet before Dombrowski can justifiably use him as an everyday starter on a team with World Series aspirations.
With slim pickings available in house then, one readily-available free agent looms large over Detroit – Stephen Drew. Almost instantly connected to the Tigers as soon as word came down on Iglesias’ injury, signing Drew would almost certainly prove to be a mistake on the Tigers’ part, hence why it was refreshing to quickly hear Dombrowski quash such rumors, even if he iterated he would keep the search in house. Drew is not looking for a short-term deal, as evidenced by his turning down of Boston’s $14.1M qualifying offer this winter, meaning Detroit would most likely have to ink the Scott Boras client to an expensive multiyear contract. Such a move would not only impede Iglesias’ development upon his return, but additionally cost the Tigers a compensatory first round pick in one of the deeper amateur drafts of recent years. Though their selection will be in the latter part of the round, that pick will still be immensely valuable, and could even be used as a trade chip should Detroit need additional help in season. In short, it’s not an asset worth losing for the privilege of shelling out a large contract to an average 31 year old whose offensive numbers were decking before a season in cozy Fenway Park, especially when he might only fill in for a season at best.
With Drew (hopefully) out of the equation, the Tigers still have options via trade. Rumor has it that the Tigers made a quick call to Arizona regarding the availability of Chris Owings. Young, cost-controlled, and potentially a future star though, talks understandably didn’t progress very far – the Diamondbacks probably lukewarm on jettisoning the leading candidate for their Opening Day shortstop job, or Detroit lacking the pieces available for such a move. In shooting for the stars however, Dombrowski may have in the process hit upon on a cloud; Arizona certainly have a surplus at short, a bevy including not only Owings, but Nick Ahmed, Didi Gregorious and Cliff Pennington. Ahmed is still too far away to be a viable option, but his future presence certainly makes the latter pair expendable. Gregorious would fit almost perfectly the void left by Iglesias, but Detroit would then have two very similarly aged players upon their incumbent’s return. Pennington, somewhat of a forgotten man behind the youngsters in Arizona, would thus present the best option; with just one year at a very reasonable $2.75 million left on his contract, the soon to be 30-year-old could fill in capably for the year before moving on when Iglesias comes back. Though he wouldn’t hit much in the interim, his glove would be above average at short, a factor which would not only keep groundball-happy Rick Porcello happy (though I’m sure moving Cabrera off third has already done that), but put a solid fielder next to rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos, who will need help covering the left side of the infield by most accounts. If that weren’t enough, the ZiPS projection of Pennington’s eventual WAR value is almost the same as Drew’s.
If Arizona’s riches don’t suit Dombrowski’s tastes, there are other potential avenues to be explored; Nick Franklin of the Mariners seems to be eminently available, though he has little experience at short. The same goes for Darwin Barney of the Cubs, though he is an excellent defender at second base if that counts for anything in a potential transition. The big name out there, if nowhere near the force he once was, is Jimmy Rollins. Clashing horribly with new Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg already, Rollins is certainly available, but his 10/5 veto rights and remaining salary ($11 million this season and a guaranteed $11 million in 2015 if he reaches 434 PAs this season) would be a serious obstacle to any move.
Losing Iglesias is a certainly a pain in the proverbial for Detroit, but they aren’t completely backed into a corner and needing to lash out into the market. The small move might yet be the right one. After a questionable offseason so far, Dave Dombrowski can easily get this one right, just as long as he stays away from Stephen Drew.
As previously detailed in my case for Noah Syndergaard, I’ll occasionally be interspersing my usual content with my (probably misguided) award predictions for the upcoming season. Today marks the next installment pertaining to my poor judgement – it’s time for an AL ROY pick. Let’s just say it isn’t quite the dark horse equivalent to my NL selection…
Brian Cashman only projects his Japanese import to be a third starter, despite Masahiro Tanaka’s Spring Training so far. Jose Abreu might hit 30 home runs, but he may also struggle to just make contact. Houston’s stud outfielder George Springer will similarly come up with nothing but air far too many times. Taijuan Walker already has shoulder soreness. Kyle Zimmer may not get an opportunity to crack the Royals’ rotation, especially if Ervin Santana returns. I briefly flirted with the idea of Nick Castellanos, but let’s face it – there can only really be one AL ROY. It’s obviously Xander Bogaerts.
It’s not often that a player can boast about being a key cog on a World Series champion one year while still retaining his rookie eligibility for the next, but the no. 2 prospect in all of baseball can. The fact that Bogaerts only flashed his potential in his major-league cameo too, yet still drew rave reviews for his performance, should have the rest of the AL East on notice. As assessed by Marc Hulet of Fangraphs, the Aruba native “could be a perennial all-star at either shortstop or third base for years to come in Boston.”
The then-20 year old earned his one-way ticket to Fenway Park on the back of his combining to accrue an .865 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. He played sparingly during the regular season however, appearing in only 18 games and hitting .250/.320/.364 over 50 plate appearances. Then came October. Despite his youth, Bogaerts was asked to take over as Boston’s starting third baseman in the middle of the ALCS, and took full advantage of the opportunity; as put by Baseball Prospectus “he looked like a veteran of huge, high-leverage, bright-spotlight moments when it counted, drawing key walks and scoring runs when the Red Sox needed them most.” And if their testimony to his precocious ability to belie his years weren’t enough, just ask Max Scherzer about his already incredible approach at the plate.
At 6’3 and 185 lbs, Bogaerts is bigger than the traditional shortstop, but with Boston’s apparent lack of interest in re-signing Stephen Drew, that will be the position he plays everyday in 2014, with Will Middlebrooks back manning third. By all accounts, his defense will be at least average for the position, with his offense primed to set him apart from his shortstop peers. Dubbed by Keith Law to be “Troy Tulowitzki with a little less arm”, Fangraphs judged his approach to be advanced for age. Similarly, in their Top 100 Prospects write-up, MLB.com assessed of Bogaerts’ offensive skills “He uses his smooth, balanced swing to make hard contact and drive the ball to all fields. He has big raw power and already knows how to use it.” So while it may be hard for him to replicate the .893 OPS he put up during the postseason, it’s neither an unattainable target for the young star to strive for in his first full season. To put it plainly, such a mark will likely be the regulation mark for Bogaerts in the future should he continue adeptly handling the heightened competition – an adaptation he has made successfully at every stop of his professional career so far.
Projected to begin the season hitting seventh in a potent Red Sox lineup, and with no competition (yet) for his position, Bogaerts has a great opportunity to accrue the sort of counting stats (RBIzzzzzz!) ROY voters traditionally love. His being on a nationally recognized, winning team too will only further bolster his case, setting him apart from most of his fellow junior circuit rookies. The award is his to lose at this point, at least in my opinion. Now, if we had to choose where Bogaerts will rank among Boston’s best hitters by seasons end – that’s a question worth debating. For the record, give me somewhere among David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia on the Red Sox podium.
Did I mention this guy is 21?
You made it! After 4 weeks, 29 teams, and countless hours spent writing when I probably should have been paying attention in class, it’s finally Day 30 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. With Spring Training games well underway, I yesterday detailed the alternative options vying for a back-end spot in Texas’ already injury-riddled rotation. Today though, a team which suffered from more injuries than most in 2013 is on the clock; it’s (somewhat obviously via simple deduction) the last team of the alphabetical AL, the Toronto Blue Jays, who will be looking to rebound in 2014 behind healthier showings from their top talent.
Ask the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, 2012 Angels of Anaheim, or a host of other momentarily hyped, but ultimately disappointing teams. They’ll attest that a splashy offseason often doesn’t manifest itself in immediate on-field results, a cruel fact that last season the Toronto Blue Jays unfortunately learned the hard way. After seemingly taking advantage of Miami’s fire sale to acquire Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes, they parted with top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud in order to nab NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, and rounded out their offseason by inking NL batting champ and All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16-million contract. With a presumably wide open AL East ripe for the taking, and tipped for much more than simply a division crown, Toronto improved their lowly 2012 record by a measly one game, finishing 74-88 and in last place.
But as is often the case when considering lost seasons, injuries lay at the heart of Toronto’s struggles. Per Baseball Prospectus, the team ranked 29th in days lost to the DL (1449 in total), a figure only exacerbated by the quality of those players who went down; Franchise centerpiece Jose Bautista suffered a twisted ankle on just April 4th, and saw his season end in mid-August after being shut down with an ailing hip. Promising center fielder Colby Rasmus finally experienced a pseudo-breakout, but only garnered 417 at-bats, missing time with an oblique strain, and late in September, a case of takingaballtotheface-itis. New addition Josh Johnson made only 16 starts due to a variety of injuries, though probably helped the team by his getting so many splinters from the trainers table – in his 16 starts the righty went 2-8 with a brutal 6.20 ERA. Even Edwin Encarnacion put off putting up career numbers for 20 games. Perhaps no more statistic was more telling of the Jays’ fragility than the fact that no regular played more than designated hitter/first baseman Adam Lind, who himself only appeared in 143 games. No one absence however, hurt more than that of shortstop Jose Reyes.
The prized capture of the Marlins haul, Reyes started out strong in April, even as the rest of the team foundered; entering Game 10 against the Royals on April 12th, the Dominican Republic native was raking to the tune of .395/.465/.526, and had already racked up five stolen bases. In the sixth inning however, his feet got tangled up underneath him on a further steal attempt; Reyes severely sprained his left ankle, and would miss the next 2 1/2 months. Without him, the Jays became mired in a funk; after being tapped as pre-season contenders, by the end of April alone, the team was already 9 1/2 games back of the Red Sox for first place in the AL East.
Though his replacement Munenori Kawasaki made a noticeable impact on the fans, his lack of production only highlighted the powerful absence of Reyes – both at the dish and on the left side of the infield. R.A. Dickey perhaps voiced the powerful absence of Reyes to the team best, surmising ”Imagine a car trying to start without a spark plug, that’s what it was like.” Defying medical expectation by making it back before the All-Star break however, Reyes tried his best to play catalyst to the team, but was clearly still hobbled – his lingering injury robbing him of the trademark speed that led GM Alex Anthopoulos to call the shortstop in his introductory press conference, “my favorite guy in the league to watch.”
Despite his best efforts, Reyes just wasn’t the same post-injury. Though he finished with a more than respectable (especially so given his position) slash line of .296/.353/.427, his extra-base-hit percentage (7.2 percent) was the second-lowest rate of his career with a minimum of 300 PAs. As noted by ESPN‘s Jayson Stark too, after hitting 12 triples the year prior, Reyes failed to noth a single one in his 93 games in 2013, and was beten in the category by Dillon Gee and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And though Fangraphs still pegged him as a 2.2 WAR player, both his base running and fielding value dropped off a cliff from his usual standards; perennially amongst the lead leaders in the category, Reyes stole just 15 bases on the season and was 7-for-13 in attempted steals of second post-injury – his 0.9 BRR significantly below his 4.6 BRR in 2013. Similarly, his range in the field was noticeably limited, an observation borne out in the statistics. Fangraphs rated his 2013 fielding to be —8.0 UZR/150, a substantially worse return than the -3.1/150 mark of 2012.
When told of his numerical decline last week, Reyes remarked “That wasn’t me, that was somebody else playing.” Entering the third year of a six-year, $106 million contract, the Blue Jays will need him to make good on his promise to return to full-speed – after averaging just under 110 games played per season since 2009, the soon-to-be 31 year old Reyes has vowed to play in at least 150 games this year, Rogers Centre’s artificial turf be damned. With few expectations upon them heading into 2014 after lying low through the winter, the everyday presence of their spark plug atop the lineup would certainly go a long way towards Toronto surprising some folks in 2014.
The talent is there for the Jays to make a push. It just needs to stay on the field.
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.
Welcome to Week 2 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series! Needing to carefully word my dissertation thesis, yesterday’s look back on the train wreck also known as the 2013 Miami Marlins took on a somewhat lighter tone than usual. However, with the labeling of my exploration of counter-discursive nineteenth-century Cuban texts now complete, it’s time to plow on with all matters NL. The Milwaukee Brewers are on the clock today, as I focus on one of 2013’s breakout performers, at least during the first half of the season anyway; base running extraordinaire, Jean Segura.
I’ll get my bragging out of the way first. On April 11th last year, I picked up Jean Segura in my 14 team rotisserie fantasy league, eventually romping to the title in such a dominant manner that I can only assume the Karma Gods will smite my team down by early May this upcoming season. Not that I can say I knew what I’d be getting back then; with his ADP of 228.4, Segura was a speculative add – a player off to a hot start filling in for one of my injured middle infielders. Little did I know, I had picked up the eventual no. 1 SS per ESPN’s player rater for the 2013 season. Of course, fantasy baseball often ascribes value to players that are worth far less to their teams in reality, and vice versa. But even if Segura’s outrageous fantasy value wasn’t totally indicative of his on-field production for Milwaukee, it shouldn’t diminish what was still an outstanding season for the young Dominican. Aged 23, and in his first full season as a Brewer, Segura posted a .294/.329/.423 slash line over 623 PAs, demonstrating surprising power (12 HRs) to complement his signature speed (44 SBs). And while his final stats were certainly more than any sane Brewers fan would have predicted before the season, they were still somewhat of a disappointment come season’s end.
That’s because Segura’s performance simply fell off a cliff during the second half. Prior to the All-Star game – to which he was deservedly voted to – Segura owned a 325/.363/.487 slash line, including 11 HRs and 8 triples. With a wRC+ of 135, the Milwaukee shortstop also topped the NL in both hits (127) and stolen bases (27). From that point on however, he, well… posted the same OBP as Juan Francisco. After the break, Segura hit just .241/.268/.315, adding only 1 HR to his pre-break tally while also seeing his steal success rate plummet (27SB/5CS pre-break; 17/8 after). His wRC+ also plunged to merely 57, a mark far below the average for NL shortstops;
To what then, can we attribute such a precipitous drop-off in production? Quite probably, simple fatigue. After getting significant run in the second half of the 2012 season for Milwaukee after being the prize return in the Zack Greinke trade, Segura played – and dominated – winter ball back home in the Dominican Republic, before then accruing 620+ PAs last year. By then end of 2013 Segura’s power had all but disappeared accompanying the vanishing of his plate discipline, and weirdly, his speed – in addition to his lessened steal success rate, Segura was unable to leg out half as many infield hits despite hitting more ground balls (his IFH% fell from 16.2% down to 7.6%). Throw in the re-appearance of a nagging hamstring injury in September, and all the evidence points to Segura being run-down. Was it all that surprising then, to see the young star flame out?
By virtue of his dramatic first-half ascension, we tend to forget that 2013 was, aged just 23, Segura’s first full season in the majors. Aided by an unsustainable BABIP and power surge, Segura’s first half stats were unrealistically inflated to an extent that exaggerated his talent. His post-break line too, was unreliably skewed – just in the opposite direction – speaking more to his fatigue than simple regression. After such a Jekyll and Hyde performance in 2013, this season should hopefully bring a more consistent Jean Segura. Alongside the restored Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee’s climb back to relevancy will sit largely on their young shortstop’s shoulders, who – a year wiser and aided by an offseason of rest – seems set to bounce back from his second half slip in a big way.
You certainly won’t be picking him 228th overall again anyway.