Top 2014-2015 MLB Free Agents Who Do and Don’t Deserve the Hype



For baseball fans, one of the only things to do this time of year is talk about free agents. Especially the hyped free agents, who we talk about again and again...and again.

Question is: Which ones are actually, you know, worthy of the hype?

That's the question we're asking today, anyway. We're going to go through a list of 15 free agents who can be fairly considered to be "hyped" based on their names, track records and/or contract projections and determine if they're actually deserving of the hype.

And to achieve some semblance of a hype spectrum, so to speak, our 15 free agents are ranked in the order in which they appear on MLB Trade Rumors' list of the top 50 free agents on the market.

Take it away whenever you're ready.

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What Is Braves All-Star Justin Upton’s True Trade Value on Winter Market?



If you think the Atlanta Braves did well in the Jason Heyward trade, just wait until you see how they do in the Justin Upton trade.

Or so they hope, anyway.

Though the Braves no longer have a surplus of outfielders after dealing Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, word is they're shopping Upton anyway. A rival executive even went so far as to tell Joel Sherman of the New York Post“Justin Upton will be moved.”

This is apparently because they think their 27-year-old left fielder can net an impressive return:

The Braves are very much shopping Justin Upton and are requesting a higher return than they received earlier this week when they dealt their other corner outfielder, Jason Heyward.

The key words are "a higher return." In light of what the Braves got for Heyward, that's saying something.

For the 25-year-old right fielder and hard-throwing reliever Jordan Walden, the Braves snagged right-handed starter Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Like that, the Braves landed a solid mix of talent and controllability.

Though Miller comes to Atlanta with things to work out, he also comes with good stuff, a 3.41 ERA in two seasons as a full-time starter and four years of club control. Factor in the six years of club control Jenkins will have if/when he reaches the majors, and the Braves turned one year of the free-agent-to-be Heyward and two years of Walden into 10 years of pitching.

Of course, we don't know how the inclusion of Walden altered the deal. But if it's a fair guess that the trade was Heyward for Miller straight up with Walden and Jenkins as deal-sweeteners, then an Upton deal would have to net a player with more talent and/or more controllability than Miller has.

That, indeed, is asking a lot. So let's get to the big question: Is Upton worth that much?

One thing that's convenient is that, like Heyward, Upton also only has one year to go before free agency. We're not weighing two or three years of his services against one year of Heyward's.

But we do know that Upton is a couple years older than Heyward. We also know he's going to cost more in 2015. Where Heyward is owed $8.3 million, Upton is owed a little over $14.5 million. That's a $6 million difference, which is not small.

Which makes the big question a simple question: Is Upton that much better than Heyward?

Let's start with a look at what the two have done over the last two seasons, a sample size that includes only Upton's time with the Braves and neither his nor Heyward's best seasons.

All will be explained, but for now just note that this is enough to get a sense of how talented they are as offensive and defensive contributors. Courtesy of FanGraphs:

One's eyes drift to the WAR column, which is convinced that Heyward has been the better player over the last two seasons. This even despite the fact he missed a good chunk of action in 2013 with freak injuries—an appendectomy and a beanball to the face—which makes it even more impressive.

The main reason why is easy to spot. The "Def" column is for defensive value, and it's no surprise to see Heyward way ahead of Upton. He's probably not that bad, but Heyward really is that good.

But since this defensive component is based off defensive metrics, it can't be taken as gospel. The question of whether Heyward's defensive edge makes up for Upton's clear offensive edge is worth asking.

To this end, Upton's offensive edge is mainly a power-oriented edge, as he's slugged more homers and racked up a notably higher slugging percentage than Heyward. But his baserunning has also been a factor, as "BsR" (baserunning runs) favors him even despite Heyward's lead in stolen bases.

But at the same time, it's a stretch to say that Upton has a massive offensive edge over Heyward. 

Heyward's average and OBP say he's been right there with Upton from a consistency perspective. That's not a small deal, and one can also get picky and argue that Heyward's baserunning is better than his 2013-2014 BsR indicates. He's been easily Atlanta's top baserunner since 2011.

All told, it comes down to this: The one thing Upton really has on Heyward is a power advantage. And while it's big, it's not quite big enough to overrule Heyward's huge advantage as a defensive player.

So I agree with Dave Cameron of FanGraphs that Upton shouldn't be worth more than Heyward in a trade, as that would mean paying a bigger price for an older, more expensive and not clearly better player.

However, Cameron may be onto something with this:

If the Braves can turn Justin Upton into another version of the Shelby Miller package, they should be pretty happy about it.

In other words, maybe the Braves can turn Upton's seemingly lesser trade value into an equal trade package. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it could definitely happen.

Here's a hint why:

You just witnessed Upton's raw power. It's huge. Huger, even, than his power production indicates.

And that it comes from the right side of the plate is the kicker.

The lack of right-handed power in today's MLB has been referenced so much at this point that it's not really a dirty little secret anymore. And it's not overblown, either. The number of righty hitters with at least 25 homers dropped dramatically in 2013, and fell to its lowest point in 20 years in 2014.

Upton's brand of power is thus a rare brand of power. And while there's some potential 25-homer right-handed power available on the open market, it comes with strings attached:

  • Nelson Cruz: He hit 40 bombs in 2014, but he's headed for his age-34 season and is an inferior hitter, baserunner and defender next to Upton.
  • Hanley Ramirez: He owns a .500 career slugging percentage but is headed for his age-31 season and is a lesser defender and more injury-prone than Upton.
  • Yasmany Tomas: Ben Badler of Baseball America says the Cuban slugger has "70 raw power," but he's obviously unproven and also comes with hit tool and defense question marks.

None of these guys is going to come cheap, either. It's easy to imagine Cruz costing as much as $50 million, and Ramirez and Tomas could go for as much as $100 million.

Point being: If a team is looking for a right-handed power hitter, it makes sense to spring for Upton than for one of the free agents who can offer it.

Another thing worth mentioning as something that could force a team's hand with Upton: I'll wager he gives off more of a final-puzzle-piece vibe than Heyward does.

Whereas Heyward can strengthen a defense and deepen a lineup, Upton can complete a lineup without hurting a defense. That may not be as valuable on paper, but it's something that could push a team from "World Series contender" to "World Series favorite."

The argument that Upton isn't as good as Heyward is sound. Take that and combine it with his age and more expensive 2015 salary, and his trade value shouldn't be as high for the Braves as Heyward's was.

But if the Braves trade Upton, it would not be surprising if they got a package roughly equivalent to the one they got for Heyward. Though it would technically be an overpay, it would be the rare smart overpay.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Evan Gattis Would Be Winter-Trade-Market Steal for an AL Contender



Since Evan Gattis is an American League player trapped in a National League uniform, we may never know how good he can be as long as he remains the property of the Atlanta Braves.

But if the Braves were to trade Gattis to an American League team, on the other hand...

That's less of a real possibility now than it was a few days ago. With right fielder Jason Heyward having been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, Bob Nightengale of USA Today has reported Atlanta may make its slugging catcher into a slugging left fielder, with Justin Upton taking Heyward's place in right.

Word is, however, that a Gattis trade isn't totally off the table. Here's MLB.com's Mark Bowman:

The Braves darn well should still be open to trading Gattis, as his value on the trade market is arguably higher than the value of them keeping him.

As a trade chip, Gattis offers two valuable things: controllability and power. He's a pre-arbitration player with four years of club control left. And even with his hitting ceiling limited by an aggressive approach that produces, via FanGraphstoo few walks and too many strikeouts, his power has been good enough to produce 43 dingers over his first two seasons.

That isn't surprising given what we know about Gattis' power, which is that it looks more or less like this:

Obviously, Gattis' controllability and power appeal to the Braves, too. But if keeping him involves playing him in the outfield, the positives of keeping him will be weighed down by at least one big negative.

The last time the Braves played Gattis in left field was in 2013, and FanGraphs says he racked up minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved in only 342.1 innings. Knowing Gattis' body type—he's listed at 6'4" and 260 pounds and looks even bigger—it may not get any better than that.

Further, asking Gattis to patrol the outfield probably wouldn't help his durability. That's something he's had trouble with, as injuries have helped limit him to just 213 games in his two seasons.

If the Braves choose to hold on to Gattis even despite these red flags, it would admittedly be hard to blame them. They'd be putting limitations on his value, but his bat could make it worth their while.

But it would be equally hard to blame the Braves if they chose to trade Gattis instead. His defense and injury question marks would do their part to limit his value, but his controllability and power would ensure a respectable return.

With Russell Martin, the only good catcher on the open market, spoken for and prices for free-agent sluggers like Hanley Ramirez and Nelson Cruz sure to go through the roof, it would be worth it for a National League club to part with a "respectable" trade package for Gattis. Relative to open-market prices, "respectable" might as well mean "cheap."

But for an American League club, it would be even more worth it. 

The one thing American League clubs can offer Gattis that the Braves and other National League clubs can't is obvious: the designated hitter.

That much has been noted in all sorts of Gattis trade-speculation pieces, with some even going so far as to say that he's an ideal fit for the AL because he could serve strictly as a designated hitter.

For example, here's Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "He is young, cheap and can hit for power. He isn’t arbitration eligible until 2016 and free agency until 2019. He is an ideal candidate to be a designated hitter in the American League."

Gattis as a full-time DH is a possibility. But at a time when AL clubs seem wary of employing full-time DHs, it's more likely that Gattis' AL role would be akin to the one Mike Napoli occupied between 2009 and 2012: that of a part-time catcher, DH and, eventually, first baseman.

Gattis deserves his reputation as an iffy defensive catcher, but the 33 caught-stealing percentage he authored in 2013 and his solid framing in 2014 (at least according to Baseball Prospectus) are reminders that he's not a total liability. He also already has some major league experience at first base and definitely has the bat to be a DH.

If Napoli's history is any indication, Gattis becoming more of a versatile player would increase his durability rather than harm it. After injuries played a part in limiting Napoli to an average of 84 games as a full-time catcher between 2006 and 2008, he averaged 119 games as a catcher/DH/first baseman between 2009 and 2012. 

The benefit of Gattis transitioning from a full-time catcher to a Napoli-esque hybrid player could therefore be twofold: It would be easier for him to stay healthy, and his versatility would be a means to keep him in the lineup on a regular basis.

As a result, we'd get to see what Gattis could do in much larger sample sizes than the merely 100-odd games he was able to play in 2013 and 2014. And while we don't have a crystal ball to tell us exactly what he could do, we do have indications that his power production could get quite the boost.

One is Gattis' Steamer projection for 2015, which comes courtesy of FanGraphs. The other is the 162-game projection based on his career output, which comes from Baseball-Reference.com. Take a look:

Put Gattis in more games, and you're signing up to watch him go from a 20-homer hitter to more like a 25-30-homer hitter. And that he'd be doing this from the right side of the plate only adds to the intrigue.

Right-handed hitters who can hit upwards of 25 dingers have become rare. Whereas there were at least 24 righty swingers with 25 or more dingers every year between 1996 and 2012, there were only 19 in 2013 and only 17 in 2014.

“It’s hard to find power,” then-Braves general manager Frank Wren told Grantland's Joe Lemire in June, “and it’s really hard to find right-handed power in today’s game.”

So for American League clubs, here's the attraction of Gattis in a nutshell: trading for him would mean paying the price for a controllable slugger, but it would mean a chance to transform him from a mediocre catcher with durability question marks into a versatile player with increased durability and power.

Take that and combine it with the four years of club control Gattis has left, and we're talking about a potentially huge return on investment for any AL club willing to pay the price.

This is assuming the Braves are willing, of course. And after dealing Heyward, it bears repeating they might not be.

But if they are, it may not be long before Gattis finds himself in the right place for him.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Is Max Scherzer Worth Nationals Breaking Up Title-Level Rotation For?



Coming into the offseason, you could look at the Washington Nationals and conclude within, oh, three seconds that the last thing they needed to tinker with was their starting rotation.

But now it sounds like general manager Mike Rizzo might do that anyway. And if he does, he could do so in a big way.

First, one word around the campfire has the Nationals linked to free-agent right-hander Max Scherzer, otherwise known as the guy who won the 2013 American League Cy Young. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com had a conversation with a "prominent agent" about Scherzer's market, and that conversation led him to put the Nationals at the top of a list of teams that could be interested in him.

Where Rosenthal was only speculating, Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish has heard from sources that the Nationals may indeed be positioning themselves for a run at Scherzer.

...But also that there would have to be at least one corresponding move. If Scherzer comes to Washington, Jordan Zimmermann and/or Doug Fister may have to leave.

That helps explain these tweets from Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

If the Nationals are really a player for Scherzer, this makes sense. As much as they would probably prefer to simply add him to a collection of starters—Zimmermann, Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez—that posted an MLB-best 3.04 ERA in 2014, that's a tall task.

It's going to take a lot of money to sign Scherzer. Nobody knows how much just yet, but Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors' projection of $185 million over seven years sounds about right.

That would be an average of over $26 million per year, which would make Scherzer the highest-paid player on the Nationals by about $5 million over Jayson Werth. For a team already projected for close to $150 million in expenditures in 2015, we're talking about arguably too big of an addition.

And that's where dealing Zimmermann and/or Fister would come in.

Dealing Zimmermann would clear $16.5 million in payroll room for 2015. Going off of Dierkes' arbitration projections, dealing Fister would clear $11.4 million. As such, the Nationals may not be able to bring Scherzer aboard unless they deal both of them.

Whether Scherzer is worth so much trouble is a question that addresses several scenarios, but it starts with one big question:

Just how good is he relative to Zimmermann and Fister?

Let's keep this simple by looking at what these three guys did in 2014. And while there are dozens of stats we could look at to evaluate who's better than who, let's keep the simple motif by looking at the usual suspects plus a couple of ERA estimators in FIP and xFIP and Wins Above Replacement.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, we get:

By ERA, Fister was the best, Zimmermann was second-best, and Scherzer was the worst. But according to the ERA estimators, Scherzer and Zimmermann were essentially the same pitcher and Fister drastically overachieved.

There is something to that assessment of Fister. It's not too alarming that his strikeout rate suffered a drop-off in 2014, but you don't want to see ground-ball pitchers suddenly stop getting ground balls at their usual rates. That's something that could come back to bite him in 2015.

Based on that, the absolute best thing the Nationals can do is sign Scherzer and trade Fister. They'd basically be swapping out a faux ace for a real ace and could look forward to an otherworldly Scherzer-Zimmermann-Strasburg trio with which to chase a championship in 2015.

As for signing Scherzer and trading Zimmermann, that's where things get really interesting. 

That the two were essentially equals in the eyes of the advanced metrics in 2014 isn't misleading. It's not worth nothing that Scherzer did his thing with more strikeouts and in the American League, but Zimmermann did his own thing to transform into a legit ace.

Zimmermann's strikeouts experiencing a spike was overdue and not an accident. Brooks Baseball can show how he took to pitching up in the zone with his fastball more often, and how that bought him the whiffs he'd long deserved with his mid-90s velocity.

Take that adjustment and combine it with Zimmermann's superb command, and he's just as capable of overwhelming hitters using his stuff and pitching smarts as Scherzer does with his almost unfair collection of nasty stuff.

And that essentially means signing Scherzer and trading Zimmermann would result in the Nationals having basically the same pitcher for an extra $10 million or so per year. On the surface, that doesn't seem overly logical.

But you have to factor in what the Nationals would be getting back if they were to trade Zimmermann. And in the opinion of Drew Fairservice of FanGraphs, he "surely carries more trade value than any other walk-year National, given his dominant 2014 season."

Indeed. And knowing that the Atlanta Braves just turned one year of Jason Heyward into four years of Shelby Miller, it's not hard to imagine the Nationals getting a similar controllable young talent for Zimmermann. Perhaps the second baseman they need to round out their infield, for example.

As for the long-term aspect of signing Scherzer and trading Zimmermann, that would obviously be punting on the idea of signing Zimmermann to an extension. That's actually not the worst idea in light of what he told James Wagner of The Washington Post.

"If the deal is right, I’ll definitely sign a multi-year deal,” Zimmermann said. “I never once said I didn’t want to stay in D.C. But at the end of the day, the deal has to be right and the deal has to be fair and that’s all I’m asking for. Just pay me what I’m worth and I’ll be happy to stay. If we can’t come to common ground, I guess free agency is the next step.”

In other words: The Nationals need to give him market value. Knowing that Zimmermann is only 28 with a strong track record and one year to go until free agency, "market value" for him may mean something more like Cole Hamels' $144 million extension than Homer Bailey's $105 million extension.

As such, a choice between Scherzer or Zimmermann likely boils down to spending a whole lot of money on Scherzer and taking advantage of Zimmermann's considerable trade value or spending a whole lot of money on Zimmermann and taking advantage of Fister's lesser trade value.

It's a tough call, but yours truly thinks the needle tips slightly in favor of the sign-Scherzer, trade-Zimmermann idea.

That leaves just one last scenario: signing Scherzer and then trading Zimmermann and Fister. And compared to the other two, this idea isn't as easy to get behind.

What the Nationals would be doing is turning a very deep and very good rotation into a not as deep and not as good rotation. By far the club's biggest strength from 2014 would be gone, and conventional wisdom suggests they'd sorely miss their loaded rotation in the postseason.

However, we just saw conventional wisdom get turned on its head. The Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers all got bounced from October despite having elite starting pitching. The overarching message sent by their defeats was that a deep rotation is no longer a guarantee of success in October.

The Kansas City Royals stamped that home when they made it to Game 7 of the World Series without great starting pitching, riding a great bullpen and great overall team play instead. The San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, showed that merely having one great starting pitcher can be enough to win it all.

By signing Scherzer and dealing Zimmermann and Fister, the Nationals could conceivably follow either blueprint. The Zimmermann and Fister deals would presumably make them a deeper team around their rotation, and said rotation would still have at least two titans in Scherzer and Strasburg who could lead the way both in the regular season and in October.

So sign Scherzer and trade Fister? You can win.

Sign Scherzer and trade Zimmermann? You can win.

Sign Scherzer and trade Fister and Zimmermann? That's arguably the best way the Nationals can win.

If signing Scherzer and dealing Zimmermann and/or Fister is truly Rizzo's master plan, he has a lot of phone calls to make. But knowing what those calls could do for the Nationals, they're worth making.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Salary and payroll information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts unless otherwise noted/linked.

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MLB Should Make Bold Move to Juice Baseball to Combat Shrinking Offense



Major League Baseball did the right thing when it took juice out of the players. It must now do the right thing by putting juice into the ball.

Yeah, I know. The idea of a juiced ball is one that puts baseball fans on high alert. But it's the best way for MLB to revive something that's dying a slow death: offense.

Let's go back to 2006. That was the year MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy got a much tougher upgrade, and offense in baseball has progressed like so since then:

Down, down, down and down some more. And if the especially steep drop of 2014 is any indication, it may not be long before MLB approaches 1968 levels (3.42 runs per game) of offensive ineptitude.

Granted, baseball is still enjoyable. Where we once marveled at outrageous hitting feats, we now marvel at outrageous pitching and defensive feats. And with MLB's revenues going nowhere but up, it's apparent that fans aren't abandoning baseball en masse.

That's one reason why I didn't want to commit to the idea of MLB juicing the ball when I tackled the subject last year in response to a juiced-ball scandal that arose in Japan. Essentially: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

But a lot can change in a year. You can see how much the numbers fell in 2014, and the main reasons for that make for a compelling argument in favor of juicing the ball.

 

How Umpires Are Killing Offense

Taking bats out of hitters' hands isn't in the job description for umpires. They're there to do things like call out or safe and ball or strike.

That last task, however, is where umpires are increasingly going against hitters.

Jon Roegele recently published a must-read article about the expansion of the called strike zone at Hardball Times. Where the called strike zone was 436 square inches when the PITCHf/x era began in 2008, it's now 475 square inches. It's gone from being small to HUGE in less than a decade.

Obviously, this equals more strikes. More strikes means fewer hitters' counts, and the league's 2014 splits reveal that to basically be a death sentence:

  • Batter ahead: .935 OPS
  • Even count: .680 OPS
  • Pitcher ahead: .508 OPS

Now, you'd think that the easy solution would be for MLB to tell umpires to knock it off. But as data from BaseballSavant.com can show, the called strike zone is expanding not because umpires are getting worse but because they're getting better:

As the percentage of pitches outside the zone being called strikes has gotten smaller, the percentage of pitches inside the zone being called strikes has gotten bigger. This, friends, is how it should be.

OK, so, MLB can shrink the plate, right?

Sure it can. But that wouldn't solve this particular problem.

As Roegele found, the called strike zone isn't getting bigger because umpires are calling more wide strikes. It's getting bigger because umpires are calling more strikes at the knees. Since the knees are a handy reference point, raising the bottom of the zone would be...well, messy.

So this is an "it is what it is" situation. It favors pitchers more than hitters, but there's no practical fix.

Which stinks if you're a hitter because you're well aware that today's pitchers don't need help.

 

How Pitchers Are Killing Offense

Two things you'd expect with a bigger called strike zone are fewer walks and more strikeouts. Sure enough, pitchers are indeed enjoying the best of both worlds.

As FanGraphs can show, pitchers have set new records for strikeout rates every year since 2008. Meanwhile, their rate of 2.89 walks for every nine innings in 2014 is the best mark since 1966.

But of course, modern pitchers aren't awesome just because they have umpires on their side. 

We know they're throwing harder. The league's average fastball velocity just hit a high of 91.8 miles per hour in 2014. With velocity like that, hitters have never been at higher risk of being blown away.

Adding to their misery, though, is that they're also facing more movement.

The league's overall fastball percentage has fallen from 64.4 in 2002 to 57.7 in 2014. Also, the raw PITCHf/x data suggests pitchers aren't throwing as many straight fastballs. That helps explain not only the rise in strikeouts but why the league's ground-ball rate has been increasing.

Then there's the information advantage pitchers have. Scouting reports on all players have become more detailed, but pitchers benefit from this advancement more easily than hitters.

As Texas Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan told ESPN's Jayson Stark in 2012:

If you're a pitcher, you see an immediate result. You know a guy's got a hole. So you hit that spot, you expose the hole, and you get an out. But if you're a hitter...it takes hours and hours of working on it, and hitting off the tee, and doing soft-toss, and gradually working your way to where either you lay off the pitch or you find out how to hit it.

In short, pitchers have it all. The game has always been skewed in their favor, but it's now skewed ridiculously in their favor.

Those who know history will know about the solution MLB came up with the last time the dominance of pitchers got out of control. That was in 1968, and baseball's answer was to lower the mound.

But yeah, good luck selling today's players on that idea. A lower mound means more effort required to throw the ball. At a time when Tommy John surgeries are already being performed seemingly every day, MLB doesn't want to ask them to put more effort into pitching.

This puts modern pitchers in the same category as modern umpires: a little too good, but there's not much that can be done about it.

Here's one more for that category: defenses.

 

How Defenses Are Killing Offense

Up until the Kansas City Royals boggled minds with their play in October, the big defense-related storyline of 2014 was the rise of the defensive shift. Once restricted for only the elites, shifts suddenly became for everyone.

I haven't been able to find the final number of defensive shifts used in 2014. But it was about midway through the season that Doug Mittler of ESPN The Magazine projected there would be over 14,000 shifts by year's end. For perspective, there were well fewer than 10,000 in 2013.

And as Steve Moyer wrote in the The Wall Street Journal in September, the shifts worked:

Shifts have saved a net of 390 hits this season through [Sep. 8]. If we were to add those 390 hits back into the grand total, the overall MLB batting average would rise to .254 from .252—a significant increase considering we're talking about 146,785 at-bats.

This is yet another product of baseball's data-rich environment. Teams have batted-ball heat maps available for everyone, and it makes total sense to use them. If you know where a guy is most likely to hit the ball, why not put your defense in the way?

And since shifting works, the only way it's going away is if MLB outlaws it. That's an idea Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated famously rallied for, and even I have to admit that it's an intriguing one. 

But practical? Maybe not.

You'd have to come up with specific zones for fielders to be in before every pitch, and that could get messy. Umpires having to police fielders on a pitch-by-pitch basis could slow the game down significantly. Also, where do you draw the line between a shift and a fielder slightly adjusting his position?

So between how umpires, pitchers and defenses have changed, you're looking at three barriers in the way of the league enjoying an offensive revival. What's more, each barrier is trending toward getting more formidable. It would be nice if there were direct solutions for each, but there's not.

So let's talk about what juicing the ball could do.

 

On Juicing the Ball

For starters, I suppose the big question is this: How do we know the ball isn't already juiced?

We don't, but we have some strong indications that it's not.

Noted baseball physics expert Alan M. Nathan was part of a 2011 study that looked into whether contemporary baseballs were more lively than baseballs from the late 1970s. That study failed to find "any significant difference" between the two groups of baseballs. 

We can also return to BaseballSavant.com for a glimpse at how infrequent long drives—I set the bar at 375 feethave become:

The drop in 375-foot fly balls and line drives is eye-popping, and it definitely catches the eye that the percentage of 375-foot drives has been cut in half since 2008.

Part of this can be chalked up to how it's become harder to square pitchers up. Maybe the players themselves have gotten smaller. But the other thing that appears to be going on is indeed something that's not going on: The ball isn't more lively.

How hard would it be for baseball to juice the ball? Hypothetically, maybe not that hard at all.

Jay Jaffe, who writes for Sports Illustrated, wrote a chapter in Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus that addressed the possibility that baseball's steroid era was actually a juiced-ball era. An excerpt at Deadspin in 2012 includes some useful information.

One such fact is how MLB has pretty loose standards for how lively balls can be. MLB balls must have a coefficient of restitution ("bounciness" to you and me) between .514 and .578.

That may not seem like a large margin for error, but Jaffe referenced a 2000 study that found the following:

According to the study, 'two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further,' which breaks down to 8.4 feet attributable to being on the light side of the tolerance for weight (5.0 ounces, as opposed to 5.25 ounces) and another 40.4 feet attributable to being on the high end for the coefficient of restitution (.578).

So that seemingly small margin for error? It's actually pretty big.

As Nathan put it to Jaffe: "The specs on major league baseballs, they almost don't deserve to be called specs, they're so loose that the range of performance from the top end to the bottom end is so different."

Which leads us to ponder:

  1. Maybe MLB could tighten up the requirements for the coefficient of restitution of its balls.
  2. Hypothetically, that change could be skewed toward the more lively end of the spectrum, thereby increasing the flow of lively baseballs onto the diamond.

If this were to happen, we'd very likely see baseball's percentage of long fly balls rebound back and, thus, more dingers and extra-base hits. Presumably, we'd also see more good, old-fashioned hard-hit balls beating shifts. The result, naturally, would be more offense.

Worried about things getting way out of control like they were in the 1990s and early 2000s? Don't be.

For one, juiced baseballs wouldn't be combining with juiced players. We can assume that the league isn't 100 percent clean, but it's not as overwhelmingly dirty as it once was. If it was, offense would be alive and well, and players wouldn't be agreeing to even harsher PED penalties.

For two, juicing the balls isn't going to stop umpires from calling strikes, slow down pitchers' radar gun readings, convince pitchers to throw more fastballs or disallow both pitchers and defenses from benefiting from advanced scouting reports.

So while juicing the ball would help revive offense, there would still be checks and balances in place to keep it under control. The result would thus be a fairly balanced game: One that allows for dominant pitchers and stifling defense but also for dangerous hitters.

If I have a major concern, it's that a more lively ball wouldn't help the problem of pitchers being at risk of serious injuries inflicted by comebackers. But with protective headgear becoming available for the first time in 2014 and the research for more advanced solutions ongoing, a needed innovation might follow closely on the heels of a drastic measure. A fair trade, that.

It will still be possible to enjoy baseball even if it continues to become an increasingly low-scoring game. But juicing the ball is the best way for MLB to welcome offense back into the mix and create a game that, rather than a whole lot of run prevention, features a little bit of everything.

And that, to me, sounds like a good time.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Would Giants Be Wiser to Risk $100M Deal on Yasmany Tomas or Pablo Sandoval?



Let's play a game of "Spend the San Francisco Giants' Money!"

Today's contestants: Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. They're free agents that have been linked to the 2014 World Series champs, but the $100 million price tags on both players probably means it'll have to be one or the other.

Since we're the ones with all the answers, let's ask ourselves: Which one would be the wiser investment?

Well, first things first. Though we're talking about similar investments, we're likely not talking about identical investments.

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle says that Sandoval, San Francisco's everyday third baseman since 2009, is looking for a six-year deal. Assuming he's still clinging to the $100 million price tag he put on himself in April, MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes' projection of six years and $114 million sounds about right.

As for Tomas—whose first name is sometimes spelled "Yasmani"Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe floated a $100 million valuation in September. Knowing that fellow Cuban Rusney Castillo just got a seven-year deal, Tim Dierkes' projection of seven years and $105 million for Tomas is sensible.

If so, the Giants committing to Tomas rather than retaining Sandoval would likely require a slightly cheaper investment that would cover more years. That's one point in Tomas' favor, with another being his youth.

Whereas a six-year deal for Sandoval would cover his age-28-33 seasons, a seven-year deal for Tomas would cover his age-24-30 seasons. J.C. Bradbury concluded at Baseball Prospectus that modern hitters peak at 30, so a six-year deal for Sandoval may only cover half of his prime seasons. A seven-year deal for Tomas, on the other hand, would cover only prime seasons.

So on the surface, things favor Tomas. But the bigger question is what the Giants would be buying with their $100 million. On that front, we'll start with the bigger mystery of the two.

 

What Tomas Can Do for $100 Million

For starters, it sounds like the Giants' hope with Tomas is that he could at least take Sandoval's spot. This is from the great Peter Gammons:

Tomas as a third baseman isn't totally outside the realm of possibility. According to a subscriber-only scouting report by Ben Badler of Baseball America, Tomas has a plus arm and does have some past experience at third base.

But Tomas doesn't necessarily need to fit at third to fit on the Giants. He's generally thought of as a corner outfield candidate, and the Giants happen to have a need for one of those in left field. 

One thing that's for sure either way is that Tomas definitely has the power for either position. In Badler's words:

Power is the calling card for Tomas, a strong man with big lift in his swing. It’s 70 raw power on the 20-80 scale, with a chance to hit 25-plus home runs over a full season, possibly more depending on contact frequency in game situations. The power is evident in batting practice, where he generates loft and over-the-fence power from his pull side over to right-center field. 

Or, if you prefer moving pictures for evidence:

That's an awful lot of power, and that it comes from the right side is a bonus. Power is becoming increasingly rare in today's game, but right-handed power in particular is in perilously short supply.

As such, signing Tomas could mean getting seven years of one of the few great right-handed power hitters in the game. For a rare gem like that, $100 million is a fair price.

As for what else Tomas can do besides hit for power, though, let's just say that's where things get iffy.

Tomas' hit tool is a question mark. Badler argued that his uppercut swing isn't geared for making contact, and both he and FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel have questions about Tomas' plate discipline. In today's whiff-happy environment, these are legit concerns.

Then you can factor in how, according to McDaniel, Tomas' speed "plays more fringy to below average in games." And plus arm or no plus arm, Tomas doesn't get high marks for his defensive outlook. 

Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman summed it all up to Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today: "Tomas has a lot of physical tools, but there's a lot of downside to his game. I would put him a big notch below both [Yasiel] Puig and Rusney Castillo, and he is not in the same universe as [Jose] Abreu. He could learn and develop, but he is definitely a work in progress."

This is something for all teams to be wary of to a certain degree, but it's something the Giants have to be especially wary of.

Because of how much AT&T Park suppresses power—per ESPN.com, it's been no better than the 28th-most homer-friendly park in the majors in any of the last four seasons—they're more likely to be burned by investing in a power-only player than most teams.

Of course, the combination of Tomas' youth and the length of his likely contract means a good window to groom his non-power skills. But that's another complication for the Giants. They're a win-now team, and replacing Sandoval with a project player could hinder their win-now outlook.

The short version of this long story: Tomas' power is worth salivating over, but the Giants have less incentive to pay for it than most. For them, he's not a slam dunk.

 

What Sandoval Can Do for $100 Million

After getting in-depth with Tomas' questionable outlook as a Giant, Sandoval looks pretty good by default. In light of how we last saw him hitting .366 in the postseason, he looks even better.

But it's not hard to knock Sandoval down a few pegs too. As tempting as it is to buy into his postseason self as the "real" Sandoval, the real Sandoval just isn't that awesome.

Here's his progression over the last few seasons:

What you see for the most part are countdowns, and the OPS+ column is the one that says it all. Since a OPS+ of 100 denotes a league-average hitter, Sandoval's hitting is trending steadily toward mediocrity.

There are good reasons for this. As FanGraphs can show, Sandoval's trademark aggressive approach is only getting more aggressive. With his power refusing to increase, that means he's putting himself in the hands of the BABIP gods more regularly than any other player. They sometimes smile on players, but they're typically jerks.

The bright side, such as it is, is that there's seemingly a limit to how bad Sandoval can get.

Sandoval may swing way too much, but he's doing so while maintaining a consistently below-average strikeout rate and an acceptable average on balls in play. That's a good recipe for his batting average to stay in the .280 range.

His power refusing to get better, meanwhile, isn't exactly a problem. Whether you look at slugging percentage or isolated power, Sandoval's power is lingering right around average. Between this and his outlook for batting average, his solid hitting floor is a decent trade-off for his lack of a high hitting ceiling.

As for what else Sandoval can do, baserunning value is out of the question but defensive value isn't. The advanced metrics have been known to approve of his defense, and he sure passed the eye test in 2014:

The catch with Sandoval's defense has generally been that it's only good when he's been in shape. But this is something he arguably disproved in 2014.

Though Sandoval lost a bunch of weight leading into the season, a Giants official told Nick Cafardo that he gained at least 20 pounds throughout the season. This didn't seem to hurt his defense, which is a welcome suggestion that maybe his defense isn't necessarily going to be ruled by his weight.

This is not to say that Sandoval is worth $100 million, mind you. That's a big price to pay for a slightly above-average player. And with just an OK bat and no speed to go with good defense, that's likely the best Sandoval can be in his remaining prime. Which, as you'll recall, is close to being over.

All told, here's the choice before the Giants: They can pay $100 million for Tomas to be a limited player for seven or so years, or they can pay $100 million for Sandoval to be a solid player for a couple years before he declines.

So then...

 

So Then...

I'd go with Sandoval.

The Giants wouldn't be stupid to invest nine figures in Tomas, but it's hard to get around the notion that he's a bigger risk for them than he is for other teams. AT&T Park would make it tough for the Giants to get ideal power production out of him, and that's an issue knowing that it's his only MLB-ready skill.

A nine-figure contract for Sandoval wouldn't necessarily be a smarter investment, but it would be a safer investment. Even with the second half of the deal likely to be a bust, getting a couple more good years out of Sandoval fits with the team's desire to remain contenders. And no, it doesn't hurt that there's loads of familiarity between him and the organization.

Besides which, I'm assuming the Giants have plenty of panda paraphernalia sitting around. It would be a shame if that went to waste.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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With Jon Lester’s Suitors Lining Up, Where Is the Best Fit for Him?



Jon Lester hasn’t found a contract just yet, but it’s clear he has found one thing on the open market:

Options. Yes, lots and lots of options.

Last week, Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reported that there were six teams with “legitimate interest” in Lester. No surprise, given that the 30-year-old left-hander is coming off a career year and, unlike fellow free-agent aces Max Scherzer and James Shields, isn’t tied to draft-pick compensation.

Equally unsurprising is that the Boston Red Sox are among the six teams interested in Lester, according to Bradford. As for the other five, it seems those might be:

As for which is the best place for Lester, that’s where we can be so bold as to offer our opinion. Let’s run through Lester’s six rumored suitors one by one (in alphabetical order by city) and narrow down the best fit for him.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Payroll information courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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Hanley Ramirez to the Mariners Would Shift AL’s Balance of Power



When the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano last winter, a prevailing train of thought was that they were probably more than one star away from being a contender.

Except not, as it turned out. With Cano in tow, the Mariners improved from 71 wins to 87 wins and barely missed the postseason in 2014. Since one star was good enough to take them that far, you wonder what one more star could do.

So, let's talk about Hanley Ramirez and what he could do for the Mariners.

The word is that the Mariners are a candidate to sign the 30-year-old shortstop, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins. According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, they're at least a little interested:

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Mariners are more than just a little interested:

Signing Ramirez would require handing over the No. 21 pick in the 2015 MLB draft thanks to Ramirez's rejection of a qualifying offer, not to mention a whole bunch of money. Zach Links of MLB Trade Rumors has projected that Ramirez's next deal could be worth as much as $132 million over six years.

But the Mariners could do it. They're not in a position to worry about lost draft picks, and it was just last month that club president Kevin Mather said in an October 710 ESPN interview that the team isn't looking to scale back its spending after dishing out over $100 million in 2014.

That's one thing that helps explain Seattle's apparent interest in Ramirez. Beyond that, this would seem to be a case of the team's suits listening to the manager.

“I think we’re a club that’s built for the playoffs,” said Lloyd McClendon in September, via Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times. “Now we have to get ourselves to the point where we’re built for the regular season.”

McClendon's not wrong. The Mariners are set to return virtually everyone that had a hand in the team finishing tied for seventh in rotation ERA and first in bullpen ERA, according to FanGraphs. Per Baseball Prospectus, Seattle also finished first in park-adjusted defensive efficiency.

As per usual, what the Mariners weren't great at was scoring runs. At 3.91 per game, they finished under the league average of 4.07.

The good news, though, is the difference of 0.16 runs per game between Seattle's average and the league average was its best showing since being above average in 2007. As such, it's conceivable the Mariners really are just one good bat away from having an above-average offense.

And this, naturally, is where Ramirez could help.

Understand this: The Mariners probably wouldn't be getting the Ramirez of 2013, who had a 1.040 OPS and 20 homers in only 86 games. In the context of what he's done recently, that season looks like an outlier.

Thankfully, the Mariners wouldn't need to get the 2013 Ramirez for him to be an upgrade. The 2014 version that had an .817 OPS and 13 homers would suffice. Heck, even the 2011-2012 version that had a .742 OPS and an average of 17 homers would work.

Here's another McClendon quote that hits on why: “You look at really good offensive clubs, and you see what they have at spots 3, 4, 5 and 6 in the lineup. We were good at 3 and 5, or 3 and 4, depending on where we would put [Kyle] Seager to complement Cano."

Every single one of Cano's plate appearances in 2014 came in the No. 3 spot, from where he hit .314 with an .836 OPS. The bulk of Seager's plate appearances came in the No. 5 spot, where McClendon understandably views him as a "prototypical" fit.

That leaves the cleanup spot open for Ramirez, and the reason why even his 2011-2012 self would be an upgrade is simple: When you have the league's worst cleanup spot, the only way to go is up.

Such was the case with the Mariners in 2014. Their cleanup hitters produced only a .647 OPS, the lowest in baseball. If they sign Ramirez and put his right-handed thump in between the left-handed thump of Cano and Seager, what was a major weakness will become a solid strength.

Now, there is a counterargument here. Ramirez's bat may be just the bat they're looking for, but his defense at shortstop was so atrocious in 2014 that it limited his Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) to just 3.4. Knowing that, his total package could only be a marginal upgrade.

If that, even. FanGraphs' Carson Cistulli looked at what the Steamer projection system is predicting for 2015 and concluded the following:

Brad Miller and Chris Taylor are projected to record WARs of 3.2 and 2.9, respectively, per 600 plate appearances in 2015 — numbers which the reader will recognize as very similar to Ramirez’s, at a fraction of the cost. So...the Mariners actually appear to have a surplus of shortstops, and — according to reports, at least — are actively pursuing another one.

Steamer is currently projecting a 3.2 WAR for Ramirez in 2015, so Cistulli is right: The Mariners signing him to play shortstop would essentially cancel out the value of adding his bat.

However, it's not a given that the Mariners would sign Ramirez to play shortstop.

As Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported, Ramirez is being realistic about his defense. He's telling teams he'll play "wherever there's a need," including either corner outfield spot and even first base.

The Mariners have a good left fielder in Dustin Ackley, but they have potential homes for Ramirez in right field or at first base. Right field will be wide open if Michael Saunders is traded, something ESPN's Jerry Crasnick hinted the Mariners are looking to do. The only thing standing in Ramirez's way at first, meanwhile, is Logan Morrison.

Would Ramirez provide quality defense in right field or at first base? Likely not. But his bad defense would at least be tucked away at two of the least important positions on the defensive spectrum, and the Mariners would get to keep enjoying good defense at shortstop thanks to Miller and/or Taylor.

Given that, they would still have the goods to be a quality defensive team. Add in a deep and talented pitching staff and a lineup based around an enviable Cano-Ramirez-Seager trio, and the Mariners would have an extremely well-balanced team lined up for 2015 and beyond.

And with the way the American League is situated these days, that would change things.

At the least, Ramirez joining the Mariners would make an already strong AL West that much stronger.

Two of the American League's five playoff teams in 2014the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A's—came from the AL West. Factor in the 87-win Mariners, and the AL West accounted for three of the AL's six winningest teams. The power structure of the AL West will be changed if Seattle adds Ramirez, but the odds of it becoming even more entrenched as the AL's best division would be pretty good.

What might be even more likely, however, is the Mariners simply rising to the top of the entire league. 

That would mean surpassing all five of the teams that finished ahead of them in 2014, but that's hardly impossible. After all, each has its question marks:

  • Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout is superb, but Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are only getting older, and an injured Garrett Richards could miss a chunk of 2015.
  • Baltimore OriolesNelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller played big parts in getting the club to 96 wins in 2014, and it's a good bet that at least two of them will be lost to free agency.
  • Detroit TigersThey probably can't afford Max Scherzer after spending $68 million on Victor Martinez, and their other worries include their bullpen, Justin Verlander's decline and Miguel Cabrera's achy-breaky body.
  • Kansas City RoyalsThey'll probably lose James Shields and Nori Aoki to free agency, and the only way for their killer bullpen trio (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Greg Holland) to go after 2014 is down.
  • Oakland A's: Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie and Luke Gregerson are likely goners, and Billy Beane's biggest trades in 2014 sacrificed the club's best controllable assets.

Elsewhere in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays have lost the executive and the manager that presided over their rise to power. The old and feeble New York Yankees are stuck getting older and feebler. The Boston Red Sox are loaded with assets, but they're also loaded with work to be done.

With the door open this wide, the Mariners could make their move in 2015 even if they don't add Ramirez. Their offense would continue to be hit-or-miss, but their run prevention could be good enough if the competition does indeed diminish.

But if the Mariners do add Ramirez and make their offense whole, making their move would be nearly a certainty. He's not a perfect player, but he's just the bat they need to be able to beat teams any way they please.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Giancarlo Stanton Is Best Bet of MLB’s Contract Risks Thanks to Age, Opt-Out



Whenever Major League Baseball gets a new record-sized contract, it's tempting to get into hand-wringing and bellyaching about the league's eternally reckless spending.

But that's not what we're here to do with Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins. Rather, we're here to issue a well-deserved toast to both parties.

In case you just crawled out from under a rock, the Marlins have agreed to make Stanton a rich man. Andy Martino of the New York Daily News was first to report that the Marlins will announce a new contract extension for the 25-year-old slugging right fielder at a press conference at 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, and he and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com have the details:

  • 13 years.
  • $325 million.
  • A full no-trade clause.
  • An opt-out after the sixth season.

Stanton has yet to be heard from. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, however, had this to say to Jon Heyman:

If you want to be straightforward, Stanton's new deal has topped Miguel Cabrera's $292 million contract with the Detroit Tigers from 2014 as the largest in baseball history. If you want to get technical, it's topping Alex Rodriguez's $275 million contract from 2007.

Either way, you might be thinking this is absolutely, positively crazy. Sure, Stanton is good. But 13 years and $325 million for a guy who's only been in the league since 2010???

In reality, though, Stanton's contract isn't that nuts. In fact, it's arguably the least crazy mega-contract baseball has ever handed out.

Let's narrow things down to contracts that have been worth over $200 million, with an emphasis on the age range each was set to cover. With an assist from MLB Trade Rumors, we find:

The bulk of baseball's $200 million contracts have begun either in guys' late 20s or early 30s. That's smart in light of the size and quality of the track records they've rewarded but stupid in light of what we know about how players age.

There's been a lot of work done on that front, including by J.C. Bradbury for Baseball Prospectus in 2010. He found that players tend to peak around 29, or "possibly 30 for hitters in modern times." After that, it's all downhill.

As such, most of the $200 million contracts that have been handed out have been invested mainly in decline years. That's not the case with Stanton's.

From now until Stanton's age-30 season is a period of six years, so roughly half of his new contract is invested in what should be prime years. And in the end, he could be a huge enough value in those years to make the entire deal worthwhile.

When word came out that the Marlins were pushing a 12-year deal worth $325 million that would cover Stanton's two remaining arbitration years and 10 free-agent years, FanGraphs' Dave Cameron looked at Stanton's future from a Wins Above Replacement perspective and concluded:

That projection values his 10 free agent years at a total of $390 million...Toss in another $35 million for the two seasons before the 10 year extension kicks in, and this would suggest a value of $425 million, $100 million more than the Marlins are reportedly offering.

This conclusion isn't a consensus, but even more conservative projections have Stanton's contract being a reasonable payout. ESPN's Dan Szymborski, for example, used his ZiPS system to project the rest of Stanton's career and found he should be worth over $300 million in the end:

If you're not one to trust WAR, that's OK. There are other ways we can get a glimpse of how bright Stanton's future should be.

One thing to do is consider how Stanton possesses a career .903 OPS and 154 home runs through only his age-24 season. For an idea of what that means, check out who else has ever done that:

It's Stanton and then a collection of guys with Hall of Fame-level talent. That's high praise for what he's done in his first five years and a good omen for what's to come. 

And this is without even considering that Stanton's true offensive ceiling extends beyond a mere .900 OPS. In two of the last three seasons, he's done better than a .950 OPS with over 35 homers.

The only other player to do so is Miguel Cabrera. With his best days behind him, Stanton is essentially the best bet to carve out a place as the elite power hitter in baseball in the years to come. Locking up a player like that at a rate of $25 million per year is more than fair.

If there's a big concern, it's that the injury bug will ruin everything. This is, after all, a guy who suffered serious leg injuries in 2012 and 2013 and is coming off a brutal hit-by-pitch. Even if Stanton puts that behind him, you wonder if he'll be able to keep the injury bug away from his legs as long as his 6'6", 240-pound frame has to keep patrolling Marlins Park's big right field.

But there is a potential solution to this dilemma. If it becomes clear that Stanton's legs need to be preserved, the Marlins could always move him to first base. With only Garrett Jones there now and no young studs waiting to break through, there's nothing solid standing in the way.

There's the answer to the question of whether Stanton can actually be worth $325 million. Largely through being a gigantic value in his remaining prime years, that could indeed be money well spent.

Of course, the other question is whether this will actually end up being a $325 million investment in the long run.

In all likelihood, no, Stanton's contract probably won't cost the Marlins $325 million.

His opt-out clause will see to that. Stanton will have the option to exercise it after his age-30 season in 2020. If his prime goes as well as it should, his opt-out should therefore be an escape hatch to go score big on the open market.

And if Robinson Cano could get $240 million fresh off his age-30 season last winter, you can only imagine what Stanton could get six winters from now. Even knowing that he'd be sharing the market with Mike Trout, it's possible Stanton could find something as large as a second $300 million deal.

As for the Marlins, they probably wouldn't mind that too much.

They'd know they got their money's worth in the first six years of Stanton's contract before he did them the favor of backing out of the last seven years. The Marlins could take the money they would have owed him and invest it elsewhere.

Granted, it is possible that Stanton could choose to stick with the Marlins when his opt-out comes. Maybe his career will go off the rails between now and 2020, in which case he'd be a fool not to take the rest of the $325 million he's owed.

If that happens, the Marlins will have a heck of an albatross on their hands. It should, however, at least become easier for them to live with it. 

According to Craig Davis of The Sun-Sentinel, the Marlins' contract with Fox Sports Florida expires in 2020. Even if the downfall of Stanton's career were to make it difficult for them at the negotiating table, they could probably still upgrade over their $16-18 million-per-year deal to help them pay Stanton.

The other possibility is that Stanton decides to stick with the Marlins beyond 2020 because he simply doesn't want to leave. This is probably only happening if the Marlins develop into a powerhouse.

And that's not as unlikely as you might think.

It's easy to look at how the Marlins have only had Opening Day payrolls in the $50 million range in the last two years and conclude that there's just no way they can afford to build winning teams around Stanton going forward. But they just might be able to, as they have the benefit of having a whole lot of future payroll space and a whole lot of cheap talent around Stanton.

Per MLB Trade Rumors, the Marlins currently have $8 million on the books for 2016 and nothing else that year or beyond. There's plenty of room for Stanton's deal, and arbitration will help suppress the salaries of players like Jose Fernandez, Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich.

Sure, things will get to a point where the Marlins' home-grown players will start getting really expensive. But if the club's 77-85 record in 2014 proves to be the first step toward years of contention, the Marlins should become a hot ticket in Miami. They'll reap the benefits not only at the gate, but in negotiations for a new TV deal.

That Stanton's $325 million contract is a good deal for him goes without saying. Between the money, the no-trade protection and the opt-out, it has everything he could possibly ask for.

But it's really not such a bad deal for the Marlins either. They're likely going to get a steal for six years before Stanton opts out of the last seven years. If he doesn't, it's not a given that the deal will become an unbearable burden in the long run.

So grab the nearest glass and raise it high. Here's to a deal well struck.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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A.J. Burnett Takes Less Money to Return to Where Everything Clicked



Despite frequent insistence to the contrary, free-agent signings are almost always about the money. That's what it's all about, you know.

But not for A.J. Burnett. On Friday, he decided to be a very rare exception to the rule. And for good reasons, to boot.

As the Pittsburgh Pirates were all too glad to announce on Twitter, Burnett has signed a one-year contract with them for the 2015 season. And as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported, they were able to sign the 37-year-old right-hander for fairly cheap:

In light of how much starting pitchers are going for these days, that's not such a bad price to pay for a pitcher of Burnett's caliber. For perspective, his 2015 salary will be exactly the same as Jason Vargas'.

Of course, there is a funny side to Burnett signing for only $8.5 million. He could have made $12.75 million had he exercised his player option to stay with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. Here's Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports with a bit of math and snark:

Indeed.

But quips aside, that Burnett took less money to trade Philadelphia for Pittsburgh isn't too surprising.

While the Pirates have made the postseason two straight years, the Phillies have missed October three straight years and are now looking to rebuild. Burnett also didn't have such a great time in a Phillies uniform in 2014, posting a 4.59 ERA and finishing with a career-high 18 losses.

Burnett was considerably better in his two seasons with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013, racking up a 3.41 ERA across nearly 400 innings. Also, Joel Sherman of the New York Post has heard from Burnett's agent that he's legitimately fond of Pittsburgh:

Given how Burnett had a rough time in New York with the Yankees (4.79 ERA) before he had a rough time in Philadelphia, the easy narrative to point to here is that the more low-key environment of Pittsburgh is the right place for him.

And there might actually be something to that.

Early on in 2012, Burnett recalled to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News the story of the first inning of his first game at PNC Park. The first three batters reached, but the crowd didn't get anxious.

“I could imagine what (Yankee Stadium) would sound like, and there was about two words that came out of the crowd here,” he said. “So it’s just different. You’re a little less on edge. Some guys thrive in that.”

So, by all accounts, yes, Burnett is returning to a place where he's comfortable. Nothing wrong with that.

Also worth discussing, however, is that Burnett may have been motivated to return to Pittsburgh to cure what ailed his pitching in 2014.

When Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh, he was coming off back-to-back seasons with an ERA over 5.00 in 2010 and 2011. He had problems with both walks and home runs in those seasons. Meaning, yeah, a lot of work needed to be done.

And a lot of work was done. There are numbers that make that clear, as Burnett went from being a strikeout pitcher with walk and homer problems to a strikeout pitcher who was better at limiting walks, getting ground balls and keeping the ball in the yard.

Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Granted, you can point out that the move to the National League helped. So, too, did the move from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the league.

But the Pirates did make one major change with Burnett, and it's not hard to spot in this graph from Brooks Baseball:

Before Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh, his four-seam fastball was his primary heater. That changed once Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage got a hold of him, and that's no surprise. As Chris Cwik noted at Sports on Earth, the sinker is kind of Searage's thing.

For Burnett, de-emphasizing his four-seamer in favor of his sinker worked like a charm. The pitch got ground balls nearly 59 percent of the time it was put in play between 2012 and 2013, making it largely responsible for his improved ground-ball habit.

However, it is notable that Burnett didn't scrap his four-seamer entirely. It still played a big role in his arsenal. Searage will tell you there's a reason for that.

"I believe the two fastballs compliment each other," he told Cwik. "The hitter has to respect both unless you're primarily a heavy sinker pitcher. However, even then, you must keep them honest to both sides of the zone."

That part about the hitter having to respect both pitches unless you're a sinker-heavy pitcher? Take another look at the graph, and you can see how that's relevant to Burnett's 2014 season.

He got away from the balance between his sinker and four-seamer that he had in Pittsburgh, and he was hurt by it:

Based on appearances, the overuse of Burnett's sinker essentially watered it down in 2014. That's something that Searage should be able to correct in 2015.

If so, that should get Burnett's ground-ball habit back on track, as his ground-ball rate sunk to 50.9 with the Phillies in 2014. Even if that's all Searage is able to fix, he'll have done enough.

He'll have done more than enough, however, if he can also patch up Burnett's command. He went from a 3.0 BB/9 in Pittsburgh to a 4.0 BB/9 in Philadelphia. Per BaseballSavant.com, that was largely a function of fewer of his heaters finding the strike zone.

From the looks of things, the fix for that could be as simple as getting his release point a little lower:

Granted, we're talking about only a subtle change. But as the drop from where Burnett was in 2011 to where he was in 2012 and 2013 can vouch, a subtle change can make a huge difference.

All told, you're looking at a couple of makable changes that, if made, could easily wash away Burnett's lousy 2014 season and get him back to where he was with the Pirates. And even if the Pirates can't get him all the way back to being the guy he was in 2012 and 2013, at least getting him reasonably close would result in them having a solid No. 3/4-type starter.

If it comes to that, two things will be known for sure: The Pirates will know they made a good investment, and Burnett will know he made the right choice.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Jon Lester-Theo Epstein Reunion Is Must-Have Splash to Make Young Cubs a Threat



You'll know President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein finally has the Chicago Cubs ready to make a run at ending their 106-year championship drought when he strikes a deal with an old associate of his: Jon Lester.

Granted, we're technically in the realm of "if" rather than "when." The Cubs aren't any more assured to sign the 30-year-old left-hander than any other club eyeing him in free agency.

The Cubs are definitely in line for Lester, though; Bruce Levine of "670 The Score" says the two sides are ready to meet formally:

It was going to come to this eventually. The rumor mill has been linking Lester and the Cubs for months, with the connection between him and Epstein from their days with the Boston Red Sox often cited as a potential deal-maker.

For his part, Epstein hasn't been shy about his desire for a No. 1 starter. He told Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago the following in October:

You get aggressive and you try to find the right players. You don't put a deadline on it. You don't say: 'We have to come out of this offseason with a No. 1 starter' or you lock yourself into a bad deal. But over time, when the opportunity's there, you pounce on it.

Lester fits the bill of a guy for the Cubs to pounce on. In 32 starts for the Red Sox and Oakland A's in 2014, he posted a 2.46 ERA across 219.2 innings. Over his last 51 starts overall, his ERA is 2.50.

Now, Mooney acknowledged that the Cubs could wait until next winter—when David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Jeff Samardzija could be availableto pursue an ace. And even if they do go after an ace this winter, maybe they'll trade for Cole Hamels or sign Max Scherzer or James Shields instead of Lester.

Which leads us to two questions: Why now, and why Lester?

That first question is easy: Why wait when the Cubs are ready to break from their rebuilding phase now?

Sure, they only went 73-89 in 2014. But that involved a respectable 33-35 finish in the second half, a run that was largely characterized by the team's offensively focused rebuilding effort beginning to bear fruit.

Established cornerstones Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro both had excellent second halves, hitting over .300 with OPS's of .978 and .804, respectively. And while all three had their growing pains, top prospects Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler arrived to combine for 24 home runs.

Following in their footsteps in the near future should be Kris Bryant, who won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year Award for 2014 on the strength of a 1.098 OPS and 43 homers. When he takes his place at the hot corner, the Cubs are going to have young, high-ceiling hitters at six of eight spots.

You could see this Cubs-topian future forming during the team's strong second-half run, and Rany Jazayerli of Grantland nailed it when he wrote in August:

If they do sign a Max Scherzer or a Jon Lester this offseason, the Cubs won’t just be a sexy pick to make the playoffs in 2015—they might be a smart one. This franchise is a whole lot closer to being a contender than most people realize.

The missing link may indeed be that simple.

The Cubs recently picked up arguably baseball's best manager in Joe Maddon. They definitely have hitters. In Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, they have the foundations for a dangerous bullpen. With Jake Arrieta's 2014 breakout having established him as a top-of-the-rotation starter, the Cubs will have a 1-2 rotation punch as good as anyone's if they add an ace this winter.

To that end, Lester being a perfect fit for the Cubs goes beyond just the numbers he's put up recently.

For beginners, there's Lester's cost. He probably isn't going to come as cheap as Shields, but he's bound to cost less money than Scherzer. Given that acquiring Hamels would likely require a $100 million commitment and a sacrifice of several top prospects, Lester should be cheaper than him too.

Even more important, though, is how Lester comes off as a good bet to age well.

Obviously, there's a built-in injury risk with every pitcher. But Lester has never suffered a major arm or shoulder injury, and he has made at least 30 starts every year since 2008. The concern is of that workload catching up to him, but his 6'4", 240-pound frame and low-effort delivery help alleviate it somewhat.

As for how Lester's stuff will hold up, that's admittedly always more of a concern with power pitchers. Power stuff doesn't tend to age well, and some (see Verlander, Justin) have trouble adjusting to life without it.

But that's the hidden beauty of Lester's 2014 season. In it, he proved that he's already capable of being dominant without power stuff.

Per FanGraphs, check out Lester's velocity in 2014 compared to the three prior seasons:

Lester hit his age-30 season, and BAM! His velocity went south. That's ordinarily a recipe for the struggle becoming real, not a 9.0 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9 and, of course, a 2.46 ERA.

Success like that is either the product of a whole lot of luck or a transformation. In Lester's case, it was the latter.

Shane Ryan of Grantland did a fine job illustrating what Lester was all about in 2014. He was better than ever not just at spotting his fastball and cutter but at using the movement of the two pitches to toy with the edges of of the strike zone and, thus, with opposing hitters. Also, he only threw his curveball where hitters could do little except swing over it.

Here, these moving pictures can illustrate the point:

Lester's new-and-improved approach not only led to his best swinging-strike rate since 2010 but also much weaker contact. Which leads us to Ryan's conclusion:

And that, of course, comes down to location, particularly with the fastball and cutter that make up the bulk of his arsenal. He’s maximized his natural talent, achieved a kind of wisdom about how to use his pitches, and stands now at the apex of his career.

The gist is that Lester has evolved. He still has very good stuff, but it's made that much more dangerous by location and deception. Those are two talents that aren't necessarily as doomed by age as power is. This is also where Lester differs from Scherzer, Shields and Hamels.

They're in Lester's age range, but all three sat in the 92-93 level with their heat in 2014. That's above-average velocity, and they're going to continue to be excellent pitchers as long as it holds. Excellent enough, even, to outperform Lester in 2015.

But in the long run, that above-average velocity will inevitably go away. When it does, that could be the reason why their talent didn't age as well as Lester's.

Certainly, every team interested in signing Lester is going to be mindful of his long-term outlook, and here's guessing that I'm not the only one who's thinking it looks pretty darn good.

But for the Cubs, Lester's long-term future is doubly important.

The Cubs wouldn't just be signing Lester to go for it in the short term. The idea would be to have him atop their rotation for the long haul as the team looks to build an empire in the NL Central. That Lester's long-term performance projects as being equal to the task is reason enough to sign him. 

But it's easy to think about Lester also being something of a staff wizard in addition to a staff ace. As a guy who's turned himself into an ace pitcher with command and smarts, Lester could conceivably be a part-time pitching coach who teaches any young hurlers who come along valuable lessons.

The Cubs really aren't far off from being a contending team as they're situated now. If they sign Lester, they'll have taken care of the missing link and should reap the benefits for years to come.

Assuming Epstein already knows all this, he won't let Lester leave next week's meeting without an offer he can't refuse.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Mike Trout Finally Crowned with AL MVP Award He’s Deserved Since 2012



Mike Trout is the most valuable player in the American League.

Like, for real this time. Trout has been the class of the Junior Circuit since his call-up in 2012, but now he has an award that says so. With his name on it and everything.

That's Thursday's big news. After finishing second in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 2012 and 2013, Trout finished first on 2014's ballot. It was unanimous, too, as the 23-year-old Los Angeles Angels superstar center fielder took home all 30 of the first-place votes.

There's an argument to be had about whether Trout deserved to be a unanimous winner, but there's no arguing that he sure looked the part of an MVP in 2014.

Trout's .377 on-base percentage tied for seventh in the AL. He was third in slugging (.561) and home runs (36). His .939 OPS was also third, but by one measure—that being the kinda-sorta complicated Weighted Runs Created Plus—he was the American League's best hitter, according to FanGraphs.

Oh, and Trout also fulfilled the oh-so-important category of racking up a lot of RBI, totaling an AL-high 111. He was also clutch, posting the second-best OPS in the AL in high-leverage situations (1.240). 

Then there's how he played on a winning team for a change, as his Angels won the AL West title with an MLB-best 98-64 record. Trout had a hand in putting the finishing touches on that, posting a .969 OPS in the season's final month.

"There is no doubt, in talking to other managers, that Mike is not only the MVP of our league but the best player," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times in September. "I think he's gone out and captured that award."

Evidently, the 30 Baseball Writers Association of America members who voted for the AL MVP this year all looked at Trout did and agreed. I like to think there was a "Yup, that's an MVP" involved.

Which, you know, is something they could have said the last two seasons.

I'm guessing that last sentence will send a few people straight to the comments section for some Rabble! Rabble! Rabble! For those who remain, you might actually be surprised where we're headed with this thing.

But first, let's go for a brief trip down memory lane.

The 2012 season was Trout's big huge ginormous breakthrough. He hit .326 with the second-best OPS in the league at .963. He also hit 30 home runs and led the league with 49 stolen bases and 129 runs, and he rated as the seventh-best defender in the American League, per FanGraphs. He was, without even a shred of doubt, the league's best all-around player.

In 2013, Trout basically did it all over again. He hit .323 with a .988 OPS that was third in the AL, adding 27 homers, 33 stolen bases and an AL-high 109 runs. Though he didn't rate as highly on defense, he still managed to rate as above average. In all, the league's best all-around player remained, well, the league's best all-around player.

You see? You can gather enough items to support that claim without even using Wins Above Replacement. 

...But just in case anyone's curious, here's how FanGraphs saw things:

In both seasons, Trout was more than two wins more valuable than the next-best player in the AL. For perspective, the difference between Trout and the AL's No. 2 player was a Melky Cabrera-sized gap.

And yet Trout didn't win the AL MVP either year. He was very much deserving of the MVP. No question about it. But things got in the way.

Namely, Trout not playing on postseason teams in either 2012 or 2013 and having the misfortune of playing in the same league where Miguel Cabrera was terrorizing opposing pitchers.

A .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBI won Cabrera the heretofore fabled Triple Crown in 2012, and he hit another 44 homers while leading the league in average, OBP and slugging and finishing second in RBI in 2013. And of course, his Detroit Tigers went to the postseason both years. 

It's not like Trout was invisible either season. If he was, we would have been wondering where the hell all those awesome numbers in Anaheim were coming from, much less just who the heck was finishing second in the MVP voting

But the voters sent a clear message both years: The BBWAA's MVP voting guidelines may be vague, but we've long since translated them to mean that huge baseball card numbers and team success matter above all else.

Trout could have been the one to change things. Had the voters gone for him in 2012 and 2013, they would have signaled to the world that they finally understood:

  1. That there are other, more enlightening things in life than conventional baseball card stats.
  2. That really, really good players shouldn't be punished for being surrounded by lesser talent.

It could have happened. Oh, it could have happened. And oh, that would have been just swell.

But now that Trout has won the MVP, things have changed, right? In finally recognizing his greatness, this year's voters have taken a hammer to the MVP voting conventions, right?

See, that's the funny part.

In 2014, Trout succeeded in doing all the things that MVP voters traditionally go for. He hit for a ton of power and racked up a ton of RBI, and he was the centerpiece on a winning team. But there were also plenty of cracks in the parts of his game that made him such a huge WAR star in 2012 and 2013.

Trout's .377 OBP was very good but a step down from the .416 mark he posted across 2012 and 2013. This was largely a function of a hole in his swing, as it became increasingly clear as 2014 went along that Trout was suddenly vulnerable against high pitches (see Brooks Baseball).

Also:

Elsewhere, Trout only stole 16 bases and failed to rate well on defense. In fact, it's ironic that he barely rated better than Cabrera. Just as the knock on Cabrera in 2012 and 2013 was that he was a flawed player, well, that was Trout in 2014. Very good, but flawed.

And this flawed Trout could only manage a 7.8 WAR. That was still the best in the American League, but only by 0.3 points over Felix Hernandez. Given the imperfection—not to be confused with the uselessnessof WAR, there might as well have been no difference between the two.

Remember when I said that there was an argument to be had about whether Trout should have been a unanimous selection for the MVP? Well, this is it. Hypothetically, the 2014 AL MVP vote really shouldn't have ended in a landslide.

This is not to say that Trout winning the AL MVP should not be celebrated. Heck, he would have had my vote. And my colleague Scott Miller is right: the MVP has gone to a true gem of a ballplayer, and he should have more MVP seasons left in him before his career is over.

But if nothing else, we can help ourselves to a chuckle at the inherent irony of Trout's triumph:

Already an MVP-caliber player, he had to become an MVP to win the MVP.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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Should Braves Look to Trade Justin Upton, Jason Heyward Before It’s Too Late?



Never mind the Atlanta Braves trading Justin Upton or Jason Heyward.

Here's a much bolder idea: the Braves trading Upton and Heyward.

For now, the Braves don't appear set on doing that. The rumor mill has had plenty to say about Atlanta's 27-year-old left fielder and and 25-year-old right fielder, but Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com says the Braves are more in listening mode than active-shopping mode. 

Or, as new Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart put it to Mark Bowman of MLB.com: "We are coming in with the idea that we don't have to trade anybody. We haven't made a call saying, 'Are you interested in ...' regarding anybody. We've received calls and we haven't had any conversations. We are not looking to push anybody."

But there's the club's official stance, and there's what could be its realistic stance.

Bowman offered some thoughts on that. He granted that Upton, Heyward and slugging catcher Evan Gattis are easily the Braves' most attractive trade chips and that the club "might eventually be tempted" to trade two of the three.

The Braves don't need to, of course, and that's something we'll get into in a bit. But it's arguably the best thing they can do in their current situation:

  • Coming off a disappointing 79-83 record in 2014.
  • Having some big needs on the major league roster.
  • Having no easy in-house answers for those needs in a depleted farm system.
  • Having little payroll flexibility with which to play on the open market.
  • Needing to be mindful of arranging a team worthy of their new ballpark in 2017.

Even if it's less pressing at the moment, that last point needs to be on the Braves' mind just as much as the other four in regard to Upton and Heyward. With both slated for free agency after 2015, the only way the Braves will still have them in 2017 is if they can hammer out big-money extensions.

And that may be a long shot. The Braves already have quite a few big-money contracts on their hands, and it's essentially a given that neither Upton nor Heyward would accept a penny less than market value with youth and talent working for them with free agency so close.

In fact, it already sounds like Heyward's mind is made up. From Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal:

It would be understandable if Upton was operating on the same wavelength. If he is, then the Braves are facing a situation where they're only going to get ideal returns for Upton and Heyward if they act soon.

That each only has one year of control left means there's a limit to how much value they have on the trade market. But with right-handed power in short supply, Upton is unquestionably an attractive asset. Heyward's solid hitting, good baserunning and superb defense, meanwhile, make him arguably the game's best right fielder.

Maybe the Braves wouldn't get the world for Upton and Heyward thanks to their lack of controllability, but they'd get a lot. Take that with all the other elements of their current situation, and dealing the two of this winter them makes sense from a rebuilding perspective.

OK, fine. You got me. The word "rebuilding" is where the idea hits a snag. A 79-83 record isn't good, but it's not a record that signals a full rebuild is needed.

So let's consider a revised question: Can the Braves rebuild by dealing Upton and Heyward without also punting on 2015?

At first glance, the answer is no.

By FanGraphs WAR, Upton and Heyward were two of the Braves' five best players in 2014. By OPS+, a park- and league-adjusted version of OPS, they were two of only four above-average hitters the Braves had in their regular lineup.

And yeah. Given that the Braves just finished 14th in the National League in runs, them ditching half the good hitters they had seems awfully counterintuitive.

But the real question is if the Braves can keep Upton and Heyward and build a contending team around them for 2015. That won't be easy, as they'll be severely limited in team-building assets if they keep the two of them.

Gattis could be used to acquire talent in a trade, but his value doesn't come close to measuring up to that of Upton or Heyward. He may have right-handed thump and four years of club control left, but he's also older at 28 and comes with durability and defense question marks.

Meanwhile on the financial front, MLB Trade Rumors has Atlanta's 2015 payroll projected at a little over $101 million. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, that's only about $11 million off from their franchise-record $112 million Opening Day payroll in 2014.

And that's with Atlanta's roster far from complete. With Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the Braves need at least two starting pitchers. They also need some bench upgrades, which would ideally include a platoon partner for center fielder B.J. Upton.

Gattis as a trade asset and $10-11 million in payroll space isn't enough to cover these needs. The Braves would have to cut corners just to build a respectable final product, and "respectable" likely wouldn't cut it in an NL East that, as Hart admitted to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, is getting better.

On these notes, let's ask yet another question: How good could the Braves get if they traded Upton and Heyward?

Potentially...pretty good, actually.

For beginners, this tweet from David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is an indication the Braves could take care of their starting pitching needs by dealing Upton and Heyward:

O'Brien went on to tweet that he'd expect them to do so by dealing either Gattis or an outfielder. Change that to two outfielders, and you get two starting pitchers.

What kind of starting pitchers? Well, Jon Heyman has reported that the Seattle Mariners have their eye on Upton. It so happens they have Taijuan Walker, James Paxton or Roenis Elias to offer. The San Diego Padreswho Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports says are listening on Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner—are another possible match.

Possible landing spots for Heyward can be speculated to include right field-needy teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles if they can't re-sign Nick Markakis. The Cardinals and Orioles have some talented young arms, and Texas' glut of young middle infielders could be a doorway to a three- or four-team trade.

It's therefore reasonably plausible the Braves could use Upton and Heyward to round out their rotation with two very good pitchers. And while two big holes would be opened up elsewhere, the Braves would be able to patch them.

The in-house ripple effect would presumably involve Gattis moving to either left or right field and Christian Bethancourt becoming Atlanta's everyday catcher. That wouldn't completely make up for the losses of Upton and Heyward, but it would mitigate them somewhat. 

In Gattis, the Braves would still have some right-handed thump in their outfield. In Bethancourt, they'd be making up for the loss of Heyward's plus right field defense with plus catcher defense. As good as Heyward is, that's not a bad swap in light of the extreme value of catcher defense.

Then there's how dealing Upton and Heyward would clear their 2015 salaries. That's $14.7 million for Upton and $8.3 million for Heyward, or $23 million total.

Assuming they were to be deal for younger and, therefore, cheaper starting pitchers, the Braves would find themselves going from around $10-11 million in payroll flexibility to potentially close to $30 million in payroll flexibility.

That's plenty of money to invest in a bat or two, including any number of outfielders. Nelson Cruz. Melky Cabrera. Nick Markakis. Alex Rios. Maybe even Yasmani Tomas, the very powerful 23-year-old right-swinging Cuban outfielder.

Trading Upton and Heyward would be bold, no doubt about it. But it's the best means the Braves have to add some much-needed pieces to their starting rotation, and it would allow for a new-look lineup through new roles for Gattis and Bethancourt and financial flexibility to have some fun on the open market.

Again, this is all just an idea. Realistically, the smart money is on the Braves playing it safe by dealing Gattis or on only being so bold as to deal Upton or Heyward instead of both.

It doesn't appear to be out of the question that both could be moved, however. And given where they are and where they could go, it makes a surprising amount of sense for the Braves.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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After Historic Cy Young Season, Can Clayton Kershaw Possibly Get Any Better?



It's hard to climb any higher when you're already on top of the world.

And yet, that's what Clayton Kershaw must now try to do.

First things first, though. Kershaw has a new trophy to add to his collection. In a turn of events that surprised absolutely nobody, it was revealed on Wednesday that the Los Angeles Dodgers' ace left-hander won the National League Cy Young Award in a unanimous vote (h/t B/R's Adam Wells).

This is Kershaw's third Cy Young. That's a lot for a guy who's only 26. It's the most in history for a pitcher that young, in fact.

And the kind of pattern Kershaw is working on almost defies logic. His first Cy Young season in 2011 was good. But his second in 2013 was better, and his third in 2014 was even better.

Kershaw won his fourth straight National League ERA title with a career-best 1.77 ERA and also logged 198.1 innings despite missing April with an injury. In the middle of it came a 15-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter, and we can have a legit argument about it being the best no-hitter ever.

Just how good was Kershaw in relation to his peers? Dayn Perry at CBSSports.com decided to count how many categories Kershaw led all starting pitchers in this past season, and he found 44 of them. 

Forty-four? Forty four. Forty-freakin'-four.

Kershaw's season measures up pretty darn well historically too. His 1.77 ERA is the lowest since Pedro Martinez's 1.44 in 2000. His 197 ERA+, that being ERA adjusted for parks and leagues, is one of the top 20 marks in the Integration Era (since 1947).

Wins above replacement? Baseball-Reference.com puts Kershaw's 2014 WAR at 7.5, which isn't close to the top of the charts for all-time single seasons. But a WAR as high as 7.5 in only 27 starts? Kershaw's one of only nine pitchers to do that. 

When we last saw Kershaw, he was walking off the mound in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series after a go-ahead three-run home run by Matt Adams. That eventually won the game and the series for the St. Louis Cardinals and upped Kershaw's ERA for the series to 7.82 and his career postseason ERA to 5.12.

There's your reminder that Kershaw is, in fact, human. And since he's human in October, it's not impossible to come across those who think he's unworthy of all the praise heaped upon him. Otherwise known as "overrated."

Nonsense.

Kershaw's been among the pitching elite for several years now, and the season he just had cemented his status as the best of the bunch and is very much deserving of a spot among the greatest pitching seasons ever. The word "overrated" has no business being used anywhere near his name.

If you must be skeptical about Kershaw, however, there is something worth being skeptical about:

There's no way he can outdo himself in 2015, right?

Well, there's the obvious answer: Kershaw can pull a Madison Bumgarner next October and put the notion that he's not a big-game pitcher to rest.

There. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's exchange silly narratives for nuts and bolts.

It would be one thing if Kershaw simply posted his best ERA in 2014, but what's significant is that he legitimately earned it. The absolute best ways for a pitcher to be successful are to get strikeouts, limit walks and get ground balls, and Kershaw was better than ever at these three things.

Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Strikeout percentage was one of the 44 categories that Kershaw led in 2014. He finished eighth in walk rate and 15th in ground-ball rate. Thus, he was elite at each of the three things starting pitchers should strive to be elite at.

How Kershaw did this isn't some big mystery. He threw half his pitches in the strike zone, which is a darn good way to avoid walks and push hitters toward strikeouts. He threw his slider more and, according to Brooks Baseball, watched it get both swinging strikes and ground balls like never before. 

No wonder. When FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan looked at what was going on with Kershaw's slider, he found it was coming in faster than ever and being kept lower. Thus:

He’s had a slider for a while, but he’s never before had this slider, and he was already amazing with his last one. Now, the slider is sharper. Now, the slider is more consistently coming in on a different plane, staying down after approaching like a regular heater...Now they just drop to the bottom of the zone or below, yielding little opportunity to do damage even given contact, which has grown increasingly rare.

While Kershaw's slider got sharper, his curveball remained as dominant as always. Batters hit just .127 against it in the regular season with a .183 slugging percentage.

So in a nutshell, here's what Kershaw was in 2014: a guy with arguably the best slider and curveball in the game who excelled at throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground. Basically, the ideal pitcher.

This is the bad news as well as the good news. Never mind a hard act to follow. Kershaw's 2014 is arguably an impossible act to follow. From where he is now, he can only stay the same or get worse.

Unless...

The only thing I can think of is Kershaw possibly evening out his platoon splits. In three out of the last four years, the difference between his performance against left-handed batters and right-handed batters has been about the same:

There's no shame in how Kershaw has performed against right-handed batters. In fact, the .531 OPS righties had against him in 2014 was the lowest against any left-handed starter. Getting them out is just another thing he's better at than his peers.

Still, the platoon split is there. Perhaps it can be erased, and perhaps that's as simple as Kershaw adding a new pitch.

Namely, the one that's always eluded him: the changeup.

Kershaw knows this. When he was asked on MLB Network (see above video) what he wants to work on, he initially answered consistency. But then: "That and a changeup. I could always figure out how to throw more changeups. That's my goal every offseason, trying to figure that out. And I never do."

He's not kidding. Kershaw's awkward courtship with the pitch was even fodder for an article by Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports last spring, which chronicled how he just...can't...figure...it...out. And he wouldn't appear to be closer to doing so, as he only threw 29 all season in 2014.

If that continues to be the status quo, then Kershaw will have to find ways to make his four-seamer, slider and curveball combination even deadlier, which is the tallest of tall tasks after his 2014 season.

But if Kershaw can figure it out—and in light of his notorious hypercompetitiveness, it's likely he will indeed tryhe'll have acquired the one pitch that most left-handers use as a go-to offering for getting right-handed batters out. Even an average one can do the job, and then you have renowned lefty changeups like those of Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano and Chris Sale.

If Kershaw can add even an average changeup to his arsenal, it will be scary enough that a pitcher with the most lethal three-pitch mix in the game will have added a new weapon. If he adds an above-average changeup...well, let's just say we'll be talking about him in even loftier tones than we are now.

It's hard to improve on three Cy Youngs in four years. It's even harder to improve on a 1.77 ERA that was earned by everything working in perfect harmony. It's more than likely we've seen Kershaw's best.

But there is a way he can get better. And if he works hard enough, he just might.

You hitters out there? Yeah, that's a warning.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Which 2014-2015 MLB Free Agents Will Be This Year’s Surprise Steals?



Perhaps there was a time when it was easy to find cheap talent on the free-agent market, but it's certainly not now.

Player salaries are always going up. Then there's how the extension craze has turned star free agents into a rarity, how the qualifying-offer system has upped the ante of signing said rarities and how spending limits elsewhere essentially force teams to invest Major League Baseball's riches in mediocrity.

In times like these, it's never been harder to dig up surprise free-agent steals. What we're here to do, however, is make like Eli Cash and presuppose...maybe it's not impossible?

Some lesser-known/less-appreciated players will come cheap, after all. Surely some of them will go on to outperform expectations. The question is which ones, and there are five names I have in mind.

 

Chris Young, OF

This, sadly, is the only hitter you're going to find here. At a time nobody can hit, those with offensive potential just don't come cheap anymore.

Except for Chris Young. He's already been signed for cheap, re-upping with the New York Yankees for one year at $2.5 million guaranteed, and he'll easily earn that if he picks up where he left off in 2014.

Young started 2014 with the crosstown Mets and posted only a .630 OPS before they released him in mid-August. After the Yankees picked him up, he OPS'd .876 in 23 games.

You can see that small sample size and chalk Young's success up to luck, but there was an adjustment at play. As told to Daniel Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), then-Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long knew exactly how Young needed to be repaired when he joined the team.

"He's syncing up his lower half with his hands," Long said. "Plain and simple, he was coming up off his legs, and his backside wasn't working down and through, like a lot of good hitters do. So he's worked real hard on that, felt real comfortable with it."

You can get a sense of how much Young's mechanics calmed down in this video of a dinger he hit in September. Specifically, notice how calm his hands are before he unleashes an explosive cut.

That this dinger came against a fastball is significant. More than anything, hitting the hard stuff is where Young's mechanical adjustment helped the most. As Brooks Baseball can vouch:

What Young did with the Yankees was much more like him. He was many things before 2014, and one of them was a darn good fastball hitter.

Assuming Young can maintain the adjustment he made at the end of 2014, the bigger question is how much playing time he stands to get in 2015. With Brett Gardner in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran in right, Young signed up for a part-time job when he inked his modest deal.

But then again, maybe not. That Beltran shouldn't be an everyday right fielder at this point means Young should get his share of opportunities in right, and his career platoon splits should result in starts at designated hitter against left-handed pitching.

So don't try too hard to find the top bargain hitter on the free-agent market. The Yankees have already found him.

 

Brandon McCarthy, RH Starter

Speaking of Yankees reclamation projects, they fixed Brandon McCarthy, too. 

Like, really fixed him. After posting an ugly 5.01 ERA in 18 starts with the Arizona Diamondbacks, McCarthy improved to post a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts with the Yankees. 

The popular narrative is that the 31-year-old right-hander succeeded because the Yankees allowed him to use his cutter. In reality, his pitch selection got a larger renovation. From Brooks Baseball:

With Arizona, McCarthy was basically all sinker and curveball. With the Yankees, he was four-seamer, sinker, curveball and cutter, thereby giving hitters a wider assortment of looks.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs dug deeper and found that McCarthy's time with the Yankees also consisted of different locations, namely four-seamers high and pitching both in and out to lefties and righties instead of exclusively away from them.

This is one change McCarthy should be able to easily maintain, as he was one of the best spot-hitters around even before he joined the Yankees. If he continues to mix up his pitches as well, then he should be able to keep pitching like a No. 2 starter instead of a No. 5 starter.

That's the best part. McCarthy may have the goods to pitch like a No. 2, but Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors has the right idea in thinking that McCarthy will probably only find a three-year, $36 million deal.

Knowing that FanGraphs' WAR-based value system valued McCarthy at over $10 million in half a season with New York, the notion of his being worth $12 million per year is far, far from being, well, far-fetched.

 

Brandon Morrow, RH Starter

There are two injury-prone free-agent starters who stand out as high-reward reclamation projects. One is Brett Anderson, and the other is Brandon Morrow.

Yeah, guess which one of those guys I favor.

Morrow's recent injury history just isn't as rocky as Anderson's. Whereas Anderson hasn't made more than 20 starts since 2009, Morrow made over 20 starts as recently as 2012. 

Also, at least Morrow was healthy at the end of 2014. Whereas Anderson threw his last pitch on Aug. 5, Morrow threw his on Sep. 25. If nothing else, we can look at that as a jumping-off point for a normal offseason that may result in good health throughout 2015.

As for why Morrow's potentially good health is worth investing in, MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince nailed it: "But Morrow's raw stuff is tantalizing, as is the 2.96 ERA he posted in 21 starts in '12. In '10 and '11, he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings."

Indeed, and it's the stuff in particular that we're going to focus on.

In the six starts he made at the beginning of the season before he was sidelined for a long time with a finger injury, Morrow's four-seam fastball had its usual velocity, and his slider and splitter were both getting swings-and-misses. Once again, Brooks Baseball can vouch:

This, truly, is nasty stuff. And while Morrow's control problems (career 4.2 BB/9) are a concern, you can look to Francisco Liriano for an example of how nasty stuff without command can still work wonders.

And said stuff need not be deployed in a starting role. Morrow teased Wade Davis-like potential in a relief role at the end of 2014, getting his fastball as high as triple digits.

As for how much a roll of the dice on Morrow will cost, FanGraphs' crowd-sourcing project suggests a one-year, $6 million contract. That's no big loss on a mistake, and a small price to pay to gamble on a guy with elite stuff.

 

Carlos Villanueva, RH Starter/Reliever

Anybody need a good Yusmeiro Petit-like swingman?

If yes, here's Carlos Villanueva for your consideration.

Villanueva definitely fits the swingman mold, as he's made 111 relief appearances and 49 starts in the last four seasons. That's one reason he's on our radar, with the other being how something clicked for him midway through 2014.

In the first half, Villanueva had a 6.18 ERA. In the second half, he had a 1.69 ERA. And lest you think that was all luck in just a 26.2-inning sample size, it was actually more a case of Villanueva's listening to hitters telling him what wasn't working.

Through the end of the first half, Villanueva had allowed a .387 career average against his sinker. So he scrapped it in the second half, choosing instead to trust his four-seamer as his primary fastball.

And, boy, did that do the trick:

Note: PU/BIP stands for "pop-ups per palls in play."

With a release speed of just 90.5 miles per hour, Villanueva's four-seamer isn't overpowering. But it does have good rise with 10.4 inches of vertical movement, and attacking the zone with it allowed him to set hitters up for a slider-curveball combo that became quite deadly in 2014.

After making only $5 million in each of the last two seasons, Villanueva might actually be in line for a pay cut after producing generally modest returns for the Chicago Cubs. So yeah. There's a versatile pitcher who was last seen carving his way through opposing hitters out there on the open market.

Better get on that, guys.

 

Zach Duke, LH Reliever

The ideal reliever is one who can come in and miss bats, limit walks and keep batted balls on the ground.

Basically, Zach Duke.

Relative to the league averages for relievers, check out what he did for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014:

Since Duke was so much more effective than the average reliever in 2014, that raises the question:

Why isn't he being talked about as one of the top relievers on the market?

One reason likely has to do with his track record, but he's not the same pitcher who came into 2014 with a 4.57 career ERA. He's changed, most notably in how he now occasionally throws sidearm in addition to over-the-top. Hitters now really have no idea what kind of arm slot the ball will be coming from.

Another reason Duke is being overlooked likely has to do with his looking like a LOOGY—that's a "Lefty One-Out GuY"—on paper, but that's also a flawed perception. He actually faced more righties than lefties in 2014 and held them to a .586 OPS to go with a .569 OPS against lefties.

This is largely thanks to Duke's curveball. He threw it more than ever in 2014, drawing whiffs on nearly half the swings taken at it. Righties hit it at a .125 clip, and lefties hit it at a .188 clip.

Add in a sinker that got ground balls over 70 percent of the time it was put in play by lefties and righties, and you have a reliever with good deception, a go-to swing-and-miss pitch and a go-to ground-ball pitch.

As such, Duke isn't quite Randy Choate. He's more of a Jeremy Affeldt: a left-hander with deceptively good stuff that works against both lefties and righties.

The price to beat is the $850,000 salary Duke made in 2014. That's not a hard price to beat, and the promise of adding a shutdown reliever makes it well worth beating.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

B/R MLB Offseason 100: Top 100 Players Available in Free Agency, Trades



After looking at all the key positions individually, it's now time for the final stop on the B/R MLB Offseason 100.

The complete list.

If you're just joining us, the B/R MLB Offseason 100 has looked at the top free agents and trade targets available among starting pitchers, relief pitchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, catchers and outfielders. The idea was to narrow down which available players are the most desirable acquisitions based on how talented, durable and costly they are.

To do this, we devised the following scoring system:

  • Talent Outlook: Out of 70. This is where we looked at how guys have performed recently and considered the outlook on their skills going forward. Think of 35 as a league-average player and 70 as an all-world, Mike Trout-like talent.
  • Durability Outlook: Out of 20. This is where we probed track records and injury histories for a projection on how players' bodies are going to hold up. Think of 10 as a tossup as to whether guys will remain durable, with 20 out of 20 signaling no concerns whatsoever. But to keep things fair, we allowed a ceiling of 15 points for players in line for short-term commitments.
  • Value Outlook: Out of 10. This is where we tried to project what kind of contract or trade package it's going to take to acquire a guy and then determine if he'd be worth it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero being a megabust and 10 being a megasteal.

It all adds up to a possible total of 100 points, but please note that we used a slightly different system for relief pitchers. Whereas it's 70-20-10 for everyone else, we went 60-15-10 for relievers to account for the fact that they just don't spend much time on the field.

Informing the scoring was relevant data that came from Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphsBaseball SavantBrooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus, which was also a go-to source for injury records.

Now that you know how everything works, you can start the show whenever you're ready.

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Jacob deGrom’s NL ROY Win Highlights Increasingly Bright Future of Mets Rotation



You know, we really should get to work thinking of a good nickname for the New York Mets' starting rotation. 

Why? Well, put it this way: Now's a good time to realize it's going to need one before long.

In case you haven't heard, a member of said starting rotation was named the National League Rookie of the Year on Monday. Jacob deGrom claimed the award in a runaway vote over Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, becoming the first Met to win it since Dwight Gooden in 1984.

I'll sneak in my opinion that Hamilton's Rookie of the Year case deserved more respect, but you have to be some kind of silly not to be impressed by deGrom's debut campaign. In 21 starts, he racked up a 2.69 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 140.1 innings. He also provided a dandy of a finishing touch, posting a 1.32 ERA and striking out 43 in his last five starts.

As such, it should go without saying that deGrom earned his honor. But that's actually something that is worth saying, if for no other reason than it demonstrates how far deGrom has come in the last year.

And, in turn, just how much brighter the future of the Mets rotation has become.

If you go back and look where deGrom was this time last year, you won't be impressed. He was a 25-year-old who had started the 2013 season at High-A before managing just a 4.66 ERA in 24 starts at Double-A and Triple-A.

It's no surprise, then, that the prospect gurus didn't see anything particularly special. Baseball America, for example, had deGrom pegged as only the No. 10 prospect in the Mets' farm system. Their full scouting report (subscription required) projected him as a No. 4 starter.

Of course, the bright side of that projection is that the Mets didn't necessarily need him to be any better than a No. 4 starter down the line.

Matt Harvey's Tommy John operation at the end of 2013 was a huge downer, but the immediate future still consisted of a rotation with him at the top followed by two other young fire-balling right-handers with top-of-the-rotation talent: Zack Wheeler and top prospect Noah Syndergaard. If deGrom could even so much as hold his own as the No. 4 starter behind the three of them, the Mets would be dandy.

Obviously, things have changed. What we know about deGrom now is different from what we knew about him then:

He, too, has top-of-the-rotation talent.

The raw numbers make that obvious enough, but it's hard to overstate just how legit those numbers are. They're the product of an arsenal that got a whole lot more lethal in a hurry.

FanGraphs' Eno Sarris dedicated a whole article to deGrom's arsenal back in August. In it, he noted that the 26-year-old righty learned a two-seamer and changeup from the great Johan Santana in 2013 and then tightened up his breaking balls to arrive at the following:

What [his development] has given him is five pitches with different movement and different velocities: two 93 mph fastballs, an 87 mph slider, an 84 mph change and a 79 mph curve. Since his four seam (9.8% whiffs), curve and change are all above-average when it comes to swinging strikes, it’s (finally?) not surprising he has flashed a great strikeout rate...

In averaging more than a strikeout per inning in 2014, deGrom did indeed prove he's capable of overpowering major league hitters with the best of 'em. Throw in a respectable 2.8 BB/9 rate and a 45.4 ground-ball percentage, and you get a fine demonstration of how to go from being a No. 4 starter to being more like a No. 2 or No. 1.

Now that deGrom's pulled it off, the Mets can dream big. Their future rotation is no longer Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard, featuring deGrom. It's now arguably deGrom first and then Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard.

And yes, that rotation could be just as dangerous as it sounds.

Since it's already been over a year since Harvey underwent his Tommy John operation, he should be good to go for spring training in 2015. And even if he doesn't get back to his 2013 dominance, a less dominant version of a guy who had a 2.27 ERA is still going to be a dominant pitcher.

Wheeler, meanwhile, is another guy who has gone from an iffy future to a brighter future. He was inconsistent in his first 33 big league starts between 2013 and the start of 2014, but then settled down to post a 2.71 ERA and 9.0 K/9 in his final 16 starts of 2014.

Ask Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen, and he'll say that stretch was the result of better mechanics and better demeanor.

“I don’t know which came first but they both have showed up,” Warthen told Mike Vorkunov of NJ.com.

As for Syndergaard, the obvious catch with him is that he hasn't yet cracked the majors. He also had just a 4.60 ERA in 26 starts for Triple-A Las Vegas in 2014. But he's still regarded as one of the best prospects around. He checked in at No. 19 in Baseball America's midseason rankings and at No. 10 in B/R's Mike Rosenbaum's year-end rankings

"Syndergaard’s command needs further refinement, and he’ll likely begin 2015 back in Triple-A, but the stuff and durability still suggest impact starter once fully developed," wrote Rosenbaum.

Syndergaard should be along early in 2015. If all goes well, he'll immediately follow Harvey's, Wheeler's and deGrom's fine examples and prove he's ready to pitch at a high level in the big leagues.

This is to say it's a realistic scenario that the Mets could have four No. 1-type starters in their rotation as soon as next season, which is indeed is a scary thought for the rest of the NL East.

The merits of the two-year contract the Mets gave Michael Cuddyer on Monday are debatable, but adding him to a lineup that already had David Wright, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy and Travis d'Arnaud did make the club's offense better in 2015. That, coupled with a rotation full of flame-throwing right-handers, could turn the Mets into a nightmare opponent.

Even scarier is the thought that said rotation won't be going anywhere for a while. deGrom is only 26 and under club control through 2020. Harvey is 25 and under control through 2018. Wheeler is 24 and under control through 2019. Syndergaard is only 22 and would be under control through 2021.

This doesn't just mean that the Mets aren't far off from having a solid team built around a lethal rotation. It means they're set up to build solid teams around a lethal rotation for years to come.

This was a possibility even before deGrom came out of nowhere to win NL Rookie of the Year. Now that he's along for the ride, it no longer feels like a possibility. It feels like an inevitability.

So then. Anyone got a good nickname?

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.  

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

B/R MLB Offseason 100: Ranking Top 20 Outfielders Available This Winter



With corner and middle infielders and catchers all taken care of, the B/R MLB Offseason 100 has one last stop to make on the position-player circuit: outfielders.

We have a list of 20 outfielders available on the winter market. Most of them come from what's a fairly strong class of free agents. Others are intriguing trade candidates plucked from rumors and/or highly plausible speculation.

As for the scoring, the usual formula applies:

  • Talent Outlook: Out of 70. This is where we look at how guys have performed recently and consider the outlook on their skills going forward. Think of 35 as a league-average player and 70 as an all-world, Mike Trout-like talent.
  • Durability Outlook: Out of 20. This is where we probe track records and injury histories for a projection on how players' bodies are going to hold up. Think of 10 as a tossup as to whether guys will remain durable, with 20 out of 20 signaling no concerns whatsoever. But to keep things fair, we'll only allow a ceiling of 15 points for players in line for short-term commitments.
  • Value Outlook: Out of 10. This is where we try to project what kind of contract or trade package it's going to take to acquire a guy and then determine if he'd be worth it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero being a mega-bust and 10 being a mega-steal.

It all adds up to a possible total of 100 points. In the event of ties, the nod goes to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.

Along the way, you'll find plenty of links to relevant data at Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphsBaseball Savant and Brooks Baseball. Also, a shoutout is owed to Baseball Prospectus for keeping such detailed injury histories.

That's all you need to know, so feel free to start the show whenever you're ready.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB Offseason 100: Ranking Top 10 Catchers Available This Winter



With both corner and middle infielders taken care of, the B/R MLB Offseason 100 will now head behind the dish for a look at the top catchers available on the winter market.

Our list of catchers includes 10 names. Most come from a weak free-agent class of catchers, so it's a good thing there are some interesting names to be found in trade rumors and/or highly plausible speculation.

As for the scoring, the usual formula applies:

  • Talent Outlook: Out of 70. This is where we look at how guys have performed recently and consider the outlook of their skills going forward. Think of 35 out of 70 as a league-average player and 70 out of 70 as an all-world, Yadier Molina-like talent.
  • Durability Outlook: Out of 20. This is where we probe track records and injury histories for a projection about how guys' bodies will hold up. Think of 10 out of 20 as signaling a toss-up as to whether guys will remain durable, with 20 out of 20 signaling no concerns whatsoever. But to keep things fair, we'll only allow a ceiling of 15 points for players in line for short-term commitments.
  • Value Outlook: Out of 10. This is where we try to project what kind of contract or trade package it's going to take to acquire a guy and then determine if he'd be worth it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero being a mega-bust and 10 being a mega-steal.

It all adds up to a possible total of 100 points. In the event of ties, the nod goes to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.

Along the way, you'll find plenty of links to relevant data at Baseball-ReferenceFanGraphsBaseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball. Also, a shout-out is owed to Baseball Prospectus for keeping such detailed injury histories.

That's all you need to know, so feel free to start the show whenever you're ready.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB Offseason 100: Ranking Top 15 Middle Infielders Available This Winter



After checking in with the top corner infielders available this winter, the B/R MLB Offseason 100 will now turn its focus to the middle of the diamond.

We've arranged a list of 15 middle infielders who figure to be available. Some belong to an admittedly weak class of free agents, but there should be plenty of good options available on the trade market. The names we've included come from either legit rumors or highly plausible speculation.

As for the scoring, the same formula used for starting pitchers and corner infielders applies:

  • Talent Outlook: Out of 70. This is where we look at how guys have performed recently and consider the outlook on their skills going forward. Think of 35 as a league-average player and 70 as an all-world, Mike Trout-like talent.
  • Durability Outlook: Out of 20. This is where we probe track records and injury histories for a projection on how players' bodies are going to hold up. Think of 10 as a tossup as to whether guys will remain durable, with 20 out of 20 signaling no concerns whatsoever. But to keep things fair, we'll only allow a ceiling of 15 points for players in line for short-term commitments.
  • Value Outlook: Out of 10. This is where we try to project what kind of contract or trade package it's going to take to acquire a guy and then determine if he'd be worth it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero being a mega-bust and 10 being a mega-steal.

It all adds up to a possible total of 100 points. In the event of ties, the nod goes to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.

Along the way, you'll find plenty of links to relevant data at Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphsBaseball Savant and Brooks Baseball. Also, a shoutout is owed to Baseball Prospectus for keeping such detailed injury histories.

That's all you need to know, so feel free to start the show whenever you're ready.

Begin Slideshow