Category: 2019 MLB Preview

2019 MLB Preview: Let’s try and predict the crazy NL Central

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Christian Yelich mashed his way to the 2018 NL MVP. IAN D’ANDREA

If you missed my breakdown of the AL East and NL East, click here.

What to do with the pesky NL Central? Oh, what to do … what to do. We’ve got last year’s division winners, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew are led by superstar outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and added an excellent catcher in Yasmani Grandal, but the pitching is a question.  The Chicago Cubs are no stranger to stars either; Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the like are still around. But perhaps injuries and the fatigue of constant contention has worn them down. And meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds added firepower and the Pittsburgh Pirates might have the best pitcher in the division. There isn’t an actual bad team to be found here.

The AL Central likely will have a familiar champion. But a slow recovery by superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor could open the door to a push from the Minnesota Twins, who could blossom into an exciting team if a few things go their way.

The bottom of the division is … well …

Let’s dig in.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Christian Yelich

The Brewers as currently constituted are a really good team. Yelich and Cain are about as good a pair of superstars as you’ll find. Grandal was a great addition. Travis Shaw is a heck of a player to have around. Josh Hader’s stuff threatens to violate the Geneva Convention and somehow Jeremy Jeffress was even better last year by bWAR.

And yet … I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy because you kinda need to squint to find a pretty good starting pitcher here. Yes, Jimmy Nelson — another gift to us pitcher-giffers — is healthy. Partnering with him Jhoulys Chacin makes a solid pair of starters, but the rest of this picture doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Brewers starting pitchers finished with a combined -2.2 bWAR last season, 22nd best in the world, amid such luminaries as the Los Angeles Angels. It worked because the bullpen usage was creative, plus the offense and defense were so good — the Brewers non-pitcher WAR ranked third-best in the sport. It might have to be that good again.

It can be.

2. Chicago Cubs

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Kris Bryant

Amazing how good the North Siders are despite the owners being broke. Silly ownership comments aside, isn’t it odd how gloomy the feeling is around the Cubbies? Sure, Kris Bryant didn’t continue his run of MVP-caliber seasons last year; okay, year one of the Yu Darvish experience was a disaster. These are indeed first world problems. They nearly won 100 games and the manufactured rules of the sport kept them from the NLDS.

The Cubs are really good. I’m not high on the rotation at Joe Maddon’s disposal either — as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his excellent newsletter, not a lot of strikeouts here — but much like the Brewers, the elite talent on the position player side is hard to ignore. That infield is incredible, and if Javier Baez finally figures out what walks are, watch out.

But, it’s really hard to keep pushing like this for years on end.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Paul Goldschmidt

Yet another NL Central team with excellent position player talent that you wish had just one more good arm, the St. Louis Cardinals added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to an offense that finished tied for second in the NL by OPS+. This team won’t struggle for runs.

Oh, how the Cards could benefit from having someone like JA Happ on this roster (or even Gio Gonzalez, also gobbled up by the Yankees on a — wait, what? — minor league deal). The Cardinals could really use 170 more quality innings somewhere to pair with Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty. In fairness, that’s true of basically everyone but the Indians; alas, the Birds must hope for health. Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright could all have 2+ WAR years; but if only two of them threw more than 130 innings, would you be shocked?

4. Cincinnati Reds

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Joey Votto

The Reds had an aggressive offseason. They acquired a bunch of outfielders — Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp — plus starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Alex Wood. At the time, I was supportive of the moves, even despite giving away a couple good prospects to get Puig. The Reds have been some frustrating combination of incompetent (the Zack Cozart debacle comes to mind) or immobile since they last made the playoffs. At least the team was trying, right?

It won’t be enough, but the future is bright. Here’s the first key; don’t screw up Nick Senzel. Play him in center field and leave him the hell alone. I’m sure they’ll dick around and leave him the minors for a while, whatever. Once he’s in Cincy, he plays center. Period. Whether he ever plays a full season might be a different — perhaps unanswerable — question.

The second key: can Luis Castillo be a top-end starter? He throws hard and that changeup produces plenty of whiffs, but the fastball is straight as a board and he serves up batting practice way too often. Of the options close to or in the majors, no one else has Castillo’s potential to lead a rotation. Ultimately, the fastball might be what it is, but could mechanical tweaks help him locate it more often? Could a revised approach — a la Masahiro Tanaka — exemplify his strengths?

Also: I guess you can prove yourself now, Sonny Gray.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Jameson Taillon

The Pittsburgh Pirates might boast the division’s two best starting pitchers. Chris Archer didn’t come cheap, but he’s a reliable strikeout machine. Jameson Taillon is rounding into form and is rightfully being pegged around the baseball internet as a Cy Young pick; the stuff is ridiculous and at 27, he could easily break into that conversation. Don’t be surprised if Taillon produces a +6 WAR kind of season.

Starling Marte is a pretty good player and the leader of a sneaky-good outfield. Gregory Polanco took some really promising steps last season and Corey Dickerson has some pop (can someone tell Corey that walks are not only acceptable but in fact encouraged?). Beyond them, this team has enough players to not suck but not enough players to win. Oh, how different this story could be if the Bucs had ponied up for Manny Machado. Alas.

Even if it delays the chances of serious contention, I understand a team and fan base just not wanting to repeat the dreaded years between Bonds and McCutchen again.

I’ll be honest; you can flip the bottom three in any way you want and I could believe it.

NL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jameson Taillon 1. Christian Yelich
2. Chris Archer 2. Lorenzo Cain
3. Miles Mikolas 3. Paul Goldschmidt

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Francisco Lindor

The Indians are winning the division again, but there are pathways to trouble for Terry Francona’s boys. The team is so top-heavy; Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the starting rotation are by and large all elite. But the outfield? Yuck. The bullpen? Shiver. That’s why the Lindor situation should send a chill up an Indians fan’s back. As long as the stars are all around, this team competes. Losing one exposes the flaws.

Chances are he’ll be fine and the Indians will cruise to the postseason. But the team didn’t address the bullpen situation and with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros (spoiler) all competing for the same pennant, one wonders if the window is beginning to slam shut.

2. Minnesota Twins

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Jose Berrios

A lot of things have to go right for the Twins to eclipse the Indians. Byron Buxton stays healthy and finds just enough production at the plate; Miguel Sano also stays healthy and mashes. Heck, even if both of those things occur I suspect the Twins would need trouble from the Indians to really compete.

So, instead, let’s talk about Jose Berrios. I love Jose Berrios. You should too. He’s 24, packs a ridiculous curveball and increased his strikeout rate a healthy amount from 2017-18. The challenge for Berrios is controlling that hammer. Somedays he can; that allows his fastball to live up in the zone. Somedays he can’t; hitters lay off the deuce and sit on the fastball.

As a fan of young, highly-giffable pitchers, I hope Berrios figures that out. The AL Central would be loaded with aces.

3. Chicago White Sox

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Eloy Jimenez

Look. If there was ever a team who should have just ponied up and added both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, it was the pale hose. The outfield situation in Chicago is a car crash. Alas, that didn’t happen.

Eloy Jimenez will surely rake once the team decides he’s saved enough service time. Yoan Moncada probably won’t be a star, but he’s a big league regular anyway. Michael Kopech’s injury really sucks. Losing a year of development at 22 isn’t a picnic for the pitcher, the team or the fans. Things could be so different for this club had a few things broken a different way.

4. Detroit Tigers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Jeimer Candelario

Look. For the big league team, the goal is pretty much to lose all the time. Sure, helping Michael Fulmer reclaim his former glory (Editor’s note: Not happening this season) and working with Jeimer Candelario to develop a bit at the plate are solid goals, but the main focus is to lose and continue to build the farm system. The future could be bright — Casey Mize is doing well in his first pro camp, for example. Sometimes rebuilds aren’t pretty. The Tigers should keep stockpiling high draft picks and pour money and manpower into turning those guys into stars.

Instead of dwelling on that, let’s appreciate Miggy. No one thought he’d age gracefully through the massive contract he signed in 2016, but the last two seasons haven’t been pretty. Sometimes aging sluggers collapse.

However, few batters have his plate discipline, even after age and injuries. The power might be gone for good; who knows. But if he can cobble together enough batting average, I bet Miggy can still be a valuable hitter on the walks alone. I’m hoping he hasn’t gone full Pujols on us.

5. Kansas City Royals

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Adalberto Mondesi

Flags fly forever. The Royals probably should have sold the farm awhile ago, cashing in the now-injured Salvador Perez and Merrifield for prospects. They didn’t. Okay. This team has no prayer of winning and holding onto any valuable, nearing-30 big leaguers only pushes the next contention window out further.

But hey — flags fly forever. The Royals won. It just so happens they might not do that again for a while.

AL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Trevor Bauer 1. Jose Ramirez
2. Corey Kluber 2. Francisco Lindor
3. Carlos Carrasco 3. Adalberto Mondesi

2019 MLB Preview: With Kershaw ailing, healthy Seager critical for Dodgers

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Corey Seager should be healthy for the 2019 season. ARTURO PARDAVILA III

The Dodgers have been Clayton Kershaw’s team for so long it’s hard to imagine a different player in such a role. (Matt Kemp? Manny Ramirez for a minute?) Kershaw’s claim is hard to argue; three Cy Young awards and a more than Hall of Fame worthy peak will do that for you. He’s probably the defining pitcher of the last 10 years. How many of us pitching nerds on the East Coast stayed up late to watch the lefty spin curveballs?

But his time as the most important Dodger is nearing an end. Time is undefeated, and it appears to be doing its unholy work on Kershaw’s left arm. That sucks not only for the Dodgers and their fans but for baseball overall. For all we know, Kershaw will be back in the regular season, back to his old tricks. But … there are reasons to be worried. Real worried. He’ll be getting an Ode to a Pitcher eventually, I promise.

However, a new face has emerged over the last few seasons, even if last year was unfortunate.

Corey Seager truly broke into the Major Leagues in 2016 and established himself as a star right away at the young age of 22, hitting to the tune of a 134 OPS+ and handling shortstop. There has been some concern whether Seager is too big for the position, and while he might eventually have to move, he’s been fine thus far in his young career.

Seager’s emergence came as no surprise, mind you — for example, he was MLB.com’s second-best prospect going into the 2015 season. That Dodger team went on to lose the curse-lifting Chicago Cubs.

Seager’s 2017 was roughly as good; 126 OPS+ and better defense if DRS is to be trusted. That Dodger team — led by Seager, Justin Turner and more — pushed all the way to the World Series but lost to the Houston Astros.

Going into 2018, Seager had established himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops, along with Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and a maybe a couple others, and had I written a Bill Simmons-esque “Trade Value” column a year ago, Seager could have cracked the top-10. Young shortstops with his kind of offensive capability are worth a lot. (Ask Manny Machado.)

He still would — even after a 2018 season marred by injuries, most notably Tommy John surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Neither should inhibit him going forward, but the Dodgers are wisely being careful with him. He hasn’t appeared in a Spring Training game yet, in part due to an illness that has kept him away from camp.

The Dodgers are optimistic their young middle infielder will be ready for Opening Day. I’m not as concerned about that — if it’s a week later, whatever — but I am concerned about how good Seager can be in 2019. The Dodgers can absorb injuries to just about anyone — their flexibility, powered in part by Kiké Hernandez, is world-class. But a healthy Seager playing back at form reunites a strong left-side of the Dodger infield (with third baseman Turner) and gives them a strong offense, especially if Max Muncy mashes again. Plus, AJ Pollack and Cody Bellinger will provide power.

They’ll need to. If my fears come true and Kershaw misses extended time, the Dodger offense will need to carry the day. I like the Dodger pitching beyond their erstwhile ace — Walker Buehler could blossom into a top starter, Hyun-jin Ryu is underrated if fragile and Kenta Maeda could shine if placed in the rotation and left alone. But no one shrugs the off the loss of a future Hall of Famer near his peak. The Dodger offense will need to be good.

Fortunately, they certainly can be that — the 2018 offense was tied for the best in the sport along with the New York Yankees, boasting a 111 wRC+. They can score runs. They might need to score even more in 2019.

Dan Szymborski’s wonderful ZiPS projections for the Dodgers is optimistic about Seager: 4.6 wins above replacement, 116 OPS+. No, that offensive output wouldn’t be quite as good as what he did before, but there aren’t a lot of 4+-win shortstops in the league either. My concern is whether the hip injury will sap him of some power in the upcoming season. The elbow doesn’t worry me — but the lower-body injury does, and while power hasn’t been critical to Seager’s value, it all counts.

The Dodgers should be back in October, even if Kershaw and Seager both have rough seasons. The NL West is bad, and while the San Diego Padres might be frisky eventually, I doubt that starts this summer. But for the Dodgers, merely winning the NL West isn’t enough. Heck, reaching the World Series isn’t enough. For the Kershaw-era Dodger teams, the sand in the hourglass is running out.

 

2019 MLB Preview: Trevor Bauer and his ever-changing arsenal

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Trevor Bauer had a fantastic 2018 for Cleveland.

Before we dig into what the future might hold for Cleveland Indians righty Trevor Bauer, a bit of housekeeping. I’ll be doing a lot of preview content for the 2019 Major League Baseball season, including division by division breakdowns as Spring Training rolls on. You’ll get award and playoff predictions, too.

Every Monday, I’m also going to spotlight some individual players I find interesting. The reasons will vary and each post will explain further, but I think this will make for a nice break from the usual stuff we all digest each spring. Baseball is fun, so let’s have fun.

Opening Day is on the way …

***

Oh, Trevor Bauer. When he’s not making waves for his Twitter … personality (Feel free to do your own Googling), he’s probably researching new ways to increase his spin rates or break ground in some other way. From a performance standpoint, Bauer is one of the game’s more intriguing creatures; deeply analytical, he spends each offseason tooling around with the Driveline guys in their magical cave.

The stuff is just incredible, as you surely already know.  His fastball is hard and comes with truly elite spin, ranking in the 83rd percentile last season. Give a pitcher a fastball this good and you’ve set him well onto the path of excellence. Last year, Bauer broke into that class of pitcher; he finished with 6.1 fWAR (sixth best in baseball) and struck out 30.8% (also sixth best) of the batters he faced.

Suddenly the Cleveland Indians had a triumvirate of aces, coupling Bauer with two-time AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and the incredibly underrated Carlos Carrasco. Plus, Mike Clevinger — another, shall we say, eccentric personality — developed into a really nice back of the rotation starter too.

But is Bauer’s growth sustainable or a blip?

I think it’s sustainable. Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and a highly-touted prospect as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Indians, so the pedigree is hardly an issue here. He’s been around and steadily improving, but in 2018 he became great.

There’s nothing terribly fluky about his 2018 season, either — the BABIP is normal and while he gave up fewer home runs, he also developed some of his other offerings enough to mitigate the bounce-back concern. He’ll give up more bombs in 2019, but it won’t kneecap his value. The strikeout rate saw a healthy bounce, but might that also be explained by improved pitches?

Year to year, the slider is what really changed. By Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, his slider was essentially average or right around that every year in his career except 2018 when it suddenly became a really good pitch. The story here is pretty amusing, by the way. Bauer decided last offseason he didn’t like his slider (and it shows — he barely threw it in 2017), so he spent a lot of time studying pitchers who did it better, namely Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bauer selected Stroman’s slider, because he considers it one of the elite breaking balls in baseball based on the pitch’s results on balls in play and in generating swings and misses. Although Bauer is listed as five inches taller than Stroman, he thought their arm angles were similar enough for it to work.

“I diagrammed that out in my head, how it has to spin in order to accomplish that,” Bauer said. “I went to video and checked to make sure I had a theory lined up with the actual [results]. I tried to get as much slow-mo video of [Stroman’s slider] as I could, there’s not a lot of it. I looked at what I could, and then I went in the lab and started using high-speed video of myself just iterating the axis that I wanted. Then it was pretty much about commanding it.”

First off, wow. See what I mean about Bauer and being analytical? It worked, by the way. Let’s have some fun with how hitters fared against Bauer’s new and improved slider last season:

  • Batters swung and missed 41.8% of the time against it
  • Batters produced a paltry .123 wOBA and a .171 xSLG, which for you non-stats folks means they did nothing against it

And, of course, the visual evidence:

Bauer slider

Pretty nasty. Bauer relied on the fastball (36.9%) and curve (26.7%) more, but perhaps that will change. Both remain above-average pitches, and the rising tide lifts all boats.

We’d be doing him a disservice to not mention the growth in his changeup, too. While perhaps not as dramatic as the slider, the changeup improved by leaps and bounds:

Stat 2017 2018
Pitch % 7.7 7.0
wOBA .370 .153
Whiff % 25.4 36.0
Avg Spin Rate 1646 1852
Pitch Value -4.6 4.0

So he used it a bit less — remember, the slider stole reps from most of Bauer’s arsenal — but it was a considerably better pitch year over year. That difference in wOBA is incredible. Whether he continues to develop it or not, I can’t say, but again considering Bauer’s aptitude I suspect he’s well aware.

If Bauer, 29, expands upon the improvements he made in 2018, I think he’s certainly capable of establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the world. He’s young enough to still be considered in his peak and injuries aren’t a major concern (he’s thrown at least 175 innings the last four seasons — a good example of how times have changed when that’s considered more than acceptable).

Then again, if the slider and changeup don’t hold their newfound performance, maybe that leads to a strikeout and home run rate more in line with his 2017 record. He’d still be valuable, but not necessarily excellent. Maybe he ends up throwing less than 150 innings. There’s certainly some volatility with Bauer — that’s kind of why he’s so interesting to me.