Month: January 2019

Brief thoughts on Sonny Gray

Image result for sonny gray
Sonny Gray hasn’t panned out. Might the future look nicer down by the Ohio River?

The Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees have been hammering out the specifics of a deal to send RHP Sonny Gray to the Reds for what seems like years now. We keep hearing it’s close:

Gray was a bit of a disaster for the Yankees. They acquired him in the summer of 2017 for three prospects, and ultimately neither the Bombers or Oakland Athletics came out looking great. The prospects mostly haven’t performed and Gray has certainly underperformed. In roughly 1.5 seasons in the pinstripes, Gray threw 195 innings to a 98 ERA+. Given that he was acquired as part of a triumvirate at the top of the Yankee rotation (with RHP Luis Severino and RHP Masahiro Tanaka) … yuck.

But the question is why? No, Sonny Gray was never a dominant pitcher in Oakland (career ERA+ of 114). But he was valuable. Gray in New York was in every possible way an inferior pitcher, allowing far more free passes and a crippling amount of home runs. The Yankees apparently ran through a series of changes to fix Gray, including tweaks to his delivery, his approach and having throw to a personal catcher (Austin Romine). None of it worked. I’m suspicious of what went on with Gray, especially given the Yankees’ tendency toward tweaking how pitchers work. But I don’t know.

Evidently, the Yankees don’t either. Unfortunately, there is history here of good-to-great pitchers falling apart in New York (Javier Vazquez). But Vazquez went on to be pretty good again after fleeing the Bronx; might the same be true for Gray?

I suspect so. The frustrating thing with Gray is the stuff. Visually it’s still there, as Michael Augustine of PitcherList demonstrated:

That looks pretty good, right? Alas, it never worked in New York, and even though I’m optimistic, it might not work anywhere else either.

The other side of the coin is the alleged return. Doug Gray, an expert on the Reds minor league system, had this to say about what Cincinnati might be shipping out to New York:

The Reds aren’t talking about spare parts here. Shed Long and Tyler Stephenson are valuable pieces, and frankly, Gray was terrible last year. Even as someone who thinks Gray might revert back into a mid-rotation starter again outside of New York, that’s kind of a lot to give up. Plus, Gray struggled with the long ball, remember? Um, Cincinnati’s ballpark isn’t the remedy to that problem.

Who else is bidding for Gray, especially after Yankees GM Brian Cashman bizarrely declared Gray was to be traded after the season ended? Not sure. Something doesn’t add up. Either the reports aren’t right, or the Reds are taking a gamble. Cincinnati has need of pitching, but parting with valuable pieces for someone as uneven as Gray is a risk.

I appreciate that Cincinnati wants to win — more teams should do this. It’s good for the sport. But man, this could be a rough one to swallow.

For the Yankees, getting anything of value back for a pitcher you’ve deemed unable to succeed with you is a victory. The question will be, how big of a victory?

The future for Mike Trout and the Angels

Image result for mike trout
Given what Mike Trout’s experienced as an Angel, this expression seems fitting.   Getty Images

The best baseball player in the world will be a free agent after the 2020 season. Those words reverberate through the hearts and minds of every Los Angeles Angels fan and executive. The clock is ticking.

Mike Trout, drafted by the Angels with the 26th pick in the 2010 draft, chose to sign away a few free agency seasons back in 2014 when he signed a 6-year, $144 million deal. It was a smart deal for both team and player.

For Trout, he made a lot of money. Injuries happen, even to the elite, and securing that much cash at a young age was wise. For the Angels, buying two of those free agency years (and thus keeping Trout off the market a smidge longer) was obviously wise.

And since then, he’s done nothing but be the unquestioned best player alive, a ridiculous combination of offensive explosiveness and efficiency at a premium defensive position.

I mean, just look at this:

Season wRC+ WAR
2015 171 9.3
2016 170 9.6
2017 181 6.9
2018 191 9.8

I promise I didn’t make those numbers up; Trout’s excellence is generational, if not something even bigger. Trout is so good that words fail me. We’ll be telling our grandkids about him.

By Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Trout sits right now at 64.7 after only 1065 games played. That’s ridiculous. He’s one normal Mike Trout season away from passing a bunch of Hall of Famers, including Tony Gwynn (65.0 WAR in 2440 games), Robin Yount (66.5 in 2856), Barry Larkin (67.0 in 2180) and Jim Thome (69.0 in 2543).

If he has two more normal Mike Trout seasons, he passes Reggie Jackson (72.7 in 2820), Derek Jeter (72.8 in 2747), Johnny Bench (74.8 in 2158) and Ken Griffey Jr. (77.7 in 2671). And, if by chance he goes nuclear and puts up 20 WAR in the next two seasons, suddenly he’s passed Joe DiMaggio (83.1 in 1736).

Think about that. Those are legends and Trout will likely cruise past so many of them in the next 24 months. Obviously, we can’t know how his thirties will play out. How could we? But as it stands now, Mike Trout has a  chance to be the best player who ever lived.

And he’s played exactly three playoff games. He’s won zero. Back in 2014, the Royals swept the Angels out of the playoffs unceremoniously, and that was that. The team has climbed over .500 only once since then.

How? Armed with Willie Mays reincarnate, how in the world have the Angels managed to be mediocre? To be fair, the 2018 AL West had three teams win at least 89 games. But, each year hasn’t been so stacked. Since 2016, the division has been roughly been Houston and everyone else.

The Angels have been pretty good offensively (I wonder why?) and generally not good at all on the mound:

Season wRC+ FIP
2018 100 (10th) 4.36 (21st)
2017 93 (29th) 4.43 (17th)
2016 99 (11th) 4.62 (29th)

You’ll never guess what happened in 2017; Trout missed a chunk of the season. Pull him off this team and they pick high in the draft, and that’s despite OF Justin Upton (okay-to-good) and SS Andrelton Simmons (great). One hopes that Shohei Ohtani comes back healthy after Tommy John surgery, but I have serious doubts about his future as a pitcher. (He’s probably a darn good DH, though. The power is legit.) 2B David Fletcher profiles as a solid regular and RF Kole Calhoun struggled through 2018 after an oblique strain and a spike in his strikeout rate.

Ultimately, the team is hurt by the complete collapse of 1B Albert Pujols (one wonders how the Trout era might look had Pujols declined more gracefully) and the return to normal of 3B Zack Cozart, who carries a solid glove but hasn’t hit a lick except for his contract year (and how he’s battling an injury).

The Angels boast fairly meh pitching — I mean, other than Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, just look at the depth chart — and a glance at their farm system suggests nothing of impact is coming on the mound. The bullpen looks rough but more moves could be coming.

So how can they fix it? The Angels face a reckoning. There’s little reason to believe Trout, a native of New Jersey, will choose to stay throughout his prime with the Angels unless they offer such an absurd amount of money that to refuse would be foolish. The Angels could do so — they aren’t afraid to spend money, with payrolls the last three seasons higher than $164 million — but would he stay?

Consequently, these are crucial days for the Angels. You’ve got this winter and next to leap into contention. Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this winter that the team was more active than expected, and made runs at RHPs Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi. Neither panned out. Overall, the Angels have signed RHP Matt Harvey, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Cody Allen, 1B Justin Bour and C Jonathon Lucroy.

Harvey still might have some above-average years in his arm — then again, he also might only have 50 innings left. It’s a lottery ticket. Cahill was pretty solid last year in Oakland, but he hasn’t thrown more than 150 innings since 2012. Allen is fresh off a rough year closing for the Indians, but was an above-average reliever for several years before. There were superior bullpen options available to the Angels earlier this offseason.

Bour has shown flashes at the plate (unsure exactly where he plays with Pujols clogging first and Ohtani likely occupying DH). Lucroy was once a valuable player but has fallen apart with the bat. These moves aren’t likely to move the needle.

How can the Angels squeeze into October? Regression from Oakland and Seattle is possible (maybe even likely), but the Angels played roughly .500 ball against them last year. Houston should remain Houston. Basically, this team needs the big boys to be as good or better and then a breakthrough or three on the mound to contend. Is it possible? Yes. Who knows, maybe Ohtani blasts 50 homers. Maybe Cozart gets healthy and hits again. Maybe Pujols scratches out a 115 OPS+.

The path is visible. It can happen — but there are only two Wild Card spots and one of them belongs to New York or Boston. Things are tight. Adding a top free agent like Corbin or even one of the Machado or Harper would close it. But it won’t be cheap. An injury to Trout or Simmons ends things abruptly.

A Ken Rosenthal report last fall suggested the Angels will make Trout a huge contract offer, perhaps this offseason. But on the other hand, Jon Heyman suggested a deal is unlikely. Take that for what you will, but if he doesn’t sign, the Angels might consider a trade, greedy at the notion of what the return could be. I get it. It makes sense. Given where the Angels are now, close-ish to contention and Trout’s free agency looming ahead … sure.

But is that how Trout’s tenure in Los Angeles will end? Zero playoff wins? Not what fans had in mind when he debuted. Not at all.

Baseball’s labor market is a mess

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado hits an RBI double during the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
Manny Machado has surprisingly few suitors this offseason.  Jennifer Stewart / USA Today Sports

There’s a labor storm brewing in Major League Baseball. When teams are scantly pursuing the market’s two generational free agents, something is wrong. It’s one thing to not break the bank for more mid-tier free agents — say, JA Happ for example. Terrible free agent decisions have certainly hurt teams in the past (oh, who else remembers the Gary Matthews Jr and Juan Pierre extravaganzas? What fun!) but rarely did those transactions involve truly great players.

The fact is, cash invested in great players is rarely wasted if the team wants to win. Unless you just flat out make a bad decision (Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t make sense at the time, for example) you’ll probably be fine. The first Alex Rodriguez contract (signed when he was 26 for 10-years, $252 million) was a reasonable deal for a player of A-Rod’s caliber. He was freaking awesome and at his peak. He contributed an absurd amount of value to the Rangers and Yankees.

But the second deal — signed as A-Rod was sailing past his peak — was a trainwreck and had no hope of being anything but. I probably wouldn’t have done the Giancarlo Stanton deal (13-years, $325 million). It’s just too long.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado fall into the first A-Rod contract territory. Those two aren’t iffy. The pedigree, history, and comparables make signing either a great baseball decision. Elite and young. Never a bad combination. If you want to win, these two are among the best in the world at getting you there.

You simply don’t stumble upon many better free agents than Harper or Machado.

Baseball is raking in the cash these days, to the tune of a record-setting $10.3 billion in 2018. So why aren’t teams willing to spend? Consider what Chris Cwik of Yahoo had to say:

The players are not blameless here. They agreed to a bad deal during the last collective-bargaining agreement negotiations in 2016. In their haste to strike down an international draft, the players agreed to a system that capped international spending, allowed luxury tax penalties to get stronger — giving teams more incentive to treat the luxury tax like a salary cap — and accepted a modified qualifying offer system that’s no better than the previous one.

The teams got a great deal during the last labor negotiations and are enjoying it. Teams like the Yankees and Chicago Cubs, hardly hurting for funds, have decided to stop pushing payrolls deep into the luxury tax. Can they push deeper? Absolutely. Will they? Not really.

The Yankees can certainly use Machado, for example. (Anyone can use an elite young shortstop, but alas.) But will they pursue?

And then we see this:

Seriously? That’s Ellsbury money. Do people not realize that Machado (and Harper) are awesome? What am I missing? These two aren’t Albert Pujols at the time he signed (north of 30, a first baseman) or the aforementioned Ellsbury. Robinson Cano, PED suspension aside, has been worth the big money he signed for and both of this market’s marquee names are vastly superior bets.

Age and awesomeness, folks. Age and awesomeness.

Look, the fact is, every single team should pursue Machado at that money. If the Yankees, a team with more money than they know what to do with, allow an elite young shortstop to slip away at that price tag, the fans should revolt. It’d be absurd. Same for any club wanting to win a championship without an obvious roadblock at shortstop and third base. This isn’t rocket science, guys.

It’s not just fans and analysts making noise about this, by the way. The players are aware and becoming vocal. Take note of what Phillies starter Jake Arrieta said:

Uh oh. Only one major free agent has signed, Patrick Corbin, who inked a fairly large contract with the Washington Nationals for six years, $140 million. Beyond that, it’s been a lot of small and middling deals. (By the way: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are undeniably better players now and better bets going forward than Corbin. Not in the same league.)

The era of massive contracts might be over in baseball, for better or worse. One wonders if the next round of collective bargaining might be quite a bit more heated than before. Rough waters might be ahead for the sport.

In the meantime, Harper and Machado will sign somewhere. Plenty of fans might be disappointed when the details are revealed.