Saturday, August 4, 2018

Is the Tigers’ Rebuild Already Stuck in Neutral?

(Before we begin, just a couple housekeeping items.  For those of you looking for some fun summer reading, please check out my new novel "Curving Foul" that takes a unique look at baseball's infamous PED era.  Here's the Amazon link: Also, you can follow me on Twitter: @H_Frommer.)

It was supposed to be easy.  Take all the young talent acquired from the trades of established veterans, combine it with an infusion of several years’ worth of premium picks (the result of multiple consecutive 100-loss seasons, of course), fill in any remaining holes with strategic free agent signings, and then, finally, plan the World Series parade.  This was the exact blueprint the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros used en route to respective 2016 and 2017 World Series victories, and the Detroit Tigers would employ the same plan to build juggernaut from scratch.  Or so they thought.

Given that it’s been barely a year since Tigers GM Al Avila publicly set the Tigers on their new course, it’s far too early to panic.  However, a number of serious issues have surfaced that have led more than one analyst to question whether this iteration of the reconstruction will be the one that comes to fruition.

The biggest problem with Detroit’s rebuild—and the way in which it completely differs from what happened in Chicago and Houston—is that it is based almost entirely around young pitching, a risky proposition given the alarmingly high attrition rate of baby-faced hurlers. 

From the onset of their tenure in Chicago, Theo Epstein & Co understood the potential pitfalls surrounding young pitchers and therefore opted to instead select the likes of OF Albert Almora, 3B Kris Bryant, and OF Kyle Schwarber with the Cubs’ first-round picks.  And the Astros followed a similar route, adding SS Carlos Correa and 3B Alex Bregman to a young positional corps that already featured 2B Jose Altuve and OF George Springer (though, in fairness, it must be noted that Houston failed miserably with the selections of pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken). 

All of the aforementioned young hitters played a big role in the Cubs and Astros’ championship runs, while the pitching chores for both clubs were for the most part handled by guys who were mid-career acquisitions and thus not susceptible to the high attrition rates that plague young pitchers.

Think about this:  12 of the 17 postseason starts made by Cubs pitchers in 2016 were made by guys Chicago acquired after their age 23 season.  Similarly, only seven of Houston’s 18 postseason games in 2017 were started by pitchers acquired by the ‘Stros prior to their 24th birthday.

The Tigers, apparently, haven’t read the memo and are already beginning to experience the risks associated with their strategy of building around arms as opposed to bats.  

Franklin Perez, 20, the headliner of last August’s trade which sent long-time ace Justin Verlander to Houston, boasts three above-average pitches and has been viewed by many as a future #2 starter.  However, the young Venezuelan missed the first half of this season with a lat strain before getting lit up to the tune of a 6.52 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 19.1 rehab innings.  And this week Detroit shut Perez down for the remainder of the season with shoulder inflammation.  Though Perez is still extremely young and boasts excellent stuff, his struggles this year have raised doubts surrounding his long-term durability.

Alex Faedo, Detroit’s first-round selection last year, has had a decent season if you look at the numbers.  But if you talk to scouts, they’ll say that Faedo’s fastball has fallen several ticks to the 90-91 MPH range and his changeup is a 45 on the standard 20-80 scouting scale.  This is a recipe for bullpen arm, assuming nothing changes.

With some of Detroit’s best pitching prospects taking their lumps, the onus has fallen to the organization’s young hitters to pick up the slack.  The problem is, however, that the team simply does not boast the high-end positional talent necessary to kickstart a successful rebuild.

Christin Stewart is the Tigers’ “premier” power prospect and supposed left fielder of the future, but his mediocre .256/.340/.470 slash line entering play on Friday as a 24-year-old at Triple A Toledo does not bode well for the future.  In addition, the lead-footed, defensively-challenged Stewart will likely be a liability in the vast pasture that is Comerica Park’s outfield.

Stewart’s teammate, Dawel Lugo, was the key return piece in the J.D. Martinez trade to Arizona.  Detroit’s front office was hopeful that Lugo would step into the 2019 lineup at second base, but the 23-year-old’s .268/.280/.349 effort this season has sparked fears that he may be nothing more than Dixon Machado in disguise.

Daz Cameron was another player Detroit obtained in exchange for Verlander.  After two rough years following his signing by Houston in 2015, Cameron enjoyed a renaissance last season.  What followed was a subpar .259/.346/.370 performance in 246 plate appearances at High A Lakeland until he was unexpectedly promoted to AA Erie.  Although Cameron’s .301/.385/.510 at Double A represents a drastic improvement over his performance at Lakeland, beware of a red herring.  Not only is his .376 BABIP unsustainable in the long run, but his total numbers have been greatly inflated by the fact that he plays half his games within the very cozy confines of UPMC Park—his road numbers (.790 OPS, no home runs) pale in comparison with what he’s done at home (.977 OPS, five home runs).  However, Cameron should receive credit for improving his strikeout rate from 28.6 percent to 22.5 percent since the promotion.

Jake Rogers, 23, was the final piece to the Verlander trade.  Always regarded as a defense-first catcher, there was optimism after a 2017 campaign that saw him hit .261 with 18 homers spread out across 422 at bats between Low and High A ball.  Unfortunately, Rogers has experienced a serious regression this year, hitting just .201 with 90 strikeouts in approximately 300 plate appearances. 

Of all the Tigers’ positional prospects in full-season ball, Isaac Paredes is the best bet to eventually make an impact at the big-league level.  Just 19, Paredes has already been promoted to Erie, where’s he’s continued to show the uncanny ability to barrel the baseball while keeping his strikeouts to a minimum.  However, at 5-11 and 225 pounds, conditioning is Paredes’ biggest problem.  It’s a near certainty that he’ll have to move off of shortstop, and if he’s not careful his propensity to add bad weight will prohibit him from reaching his lofty ceiling.

Detroit’s second-round selection of 1B Reynaldo Rivera last year was viewed as an aggressive overdraft, with many Tigers’ followers concerned that Rivera would evolve into a left-handed hitting version of Ryan Strieby.  Rivera’s performance this season has done nothing to assuage those fears.  The 6-06, 250-pound Rivera’s a one-dimensional player, and his .750 OPS combined with a K-rate in excess of 26 percent while being old for Low A ball makes it unlikely that he’ll develop into a major contributor for the parent club.

With Detroit’s main prospects having a down year, the disappointment that emanated from Tigerland when the organization failed to complete a major deal prior to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline was understandable.  Although many fans blamed Avila for Detroit’s inactivity, it was not Avila’s fault—the Tigers have simply run out of good players to trade.  Despite an excellent first two seasons, untapped potential, and multiple years of team control remaining, righthander Michael Fulmer has regressed this season and has an injury history to go along with a violent delivery.  And OF Nick Castellanos, his well-honed offensive game notwithstanding, is barely a 2.5-bWAR player because of shoddy defense and poor speed.  Going forward, Castellanos’ trade value will be further hindered by the fact that he’ll be a free agent following the 2019 season thus be viewed as a mere rental. 

Ironically, the frustrations the Tigers experienced at during this week’s trade deadline have been compounded by Detroit’s unexpected “success” this season.  You read that correctly—instead of taking a nosedive and again securing the first pick in next year’s draft, the Tigers have been semi-competitive and would be awarded the eighth selection in the 2019 draft if this season ended Thursday night.  And while the difference between the first and eighth pick may seem like semantics to some baseball fans, those seven picks in between could mean the difference between Bobby Witt Jr. (a potential franchise-chasing, five-tool shortstop) and Shea Langeliers (a projected above-average big-league regular behind the dish).

Despite all the negatives cited in this column, there is still a glimmer of hope—albeit, just a glimmer—that this version of a rebuild will produce a consistent contender. 

Maybe this year’s first overall draft pick, Casey Mize, will beat the odds and enjoy a long, fruitful career as a splitter-firing Masahiro Tanaka clone. 

Maybe this year’s second-round pick, Parker Meadows, will fulfill his vast potential and one day become a 30-30 center fielder. 

Maybe righthander Matt Manning will continue his impressive ascent up the minor league ladder and team with Mize to give Detroit a two-headed monster at the front of its rotation in several years.  
Maybe Paredes will shed 35 pounds and be the A.L.’s next great two-way shortstop. 

Maybe Fulmer will return fully recovered in 2019 and be the centerpiece of a blockbuster at next year’s deadline that brings in a bounty of top prospects. 

Maybe Detroit will lose 108 games next season and select Arkansas slugger Heston Kjerstad with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll have to plan a World Series parade down Woodward. 

Or maybe you’ll read a column five years from now urging Detroit to trade Mize for a haul of prospects.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Lessons from the Indians-Padres Blockbuster

(Before we begin, just a couple housekeeping items.  For those of you looking for some fun summer reading, please check out my new novel "Curving Foul" that takes a unique look at baseball's infamous PED era.  Here's the Amazon link: Also, you can follow me on Twitter: @H_Frommer.)

In the June 21st edition of Infield Chatter, we recommended that the Cleveland Indians, in an effort to plug their leaky bullpen, should should acquire reliever Kirby Yates from the San Diego Padres.  On Thursday, the Indians agreed to a swap with the Padres, but instead of picking up Yates, they went for the gusto and landed southpaw closer Brad Hand and lefty setup man Adam Cimber in exchange for catching prospect Francisco Mejia. 

This blockbuster has four fascinating subplots with reverberations that will be felt throughout baseball for the remainder of the season as well as in subsequent years.  

1) The Big Three in the A.L. are now the Big Four.

Prior to this trade, the Indians bullpen was the team’s Achilles heel and prevented the Tribe from being included in the conversation with the A.L.’s three “super teams,” the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox.  In the season’s first half, Cleveland’s bullpen had a 5.28 ERA, good for second-worst in all of baseball and better only than the lowly Royals. 

In Hand, Cleveland now has a Swiss Army knife for its beleaguered pen—he’s capable of multi-inning stints (10 of his 41 appearances have gone longer than an inning), he can close, and most importantly, he’s nails against both right-handed and left-handed hitters (he's held lefties to a .148 batting average while limiting righties to a .229 mark).

Indians fans should be excited about Cimber as well.  Though Cimber’s not as sexy as Hand, he’s been money in 2018 and will provide Indians skipper Terry Francona with a viable late-inning setup option.  Cimber is not an enforcer with a supersonic fastball; instead, he deploys his high-80’s sinker and high-70’s slider with immaculate precision to generate plenty of swings-and-misses as well as ground ball outs.  The 27-year-old Cimber also doesn’t walk anyone, as indicated by his pristine 5.1 K/BB ratio, and keeps the ball in the yard (just two long balls allowed).

Combine Cleveland’s postseason rotation quartet of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger, with a drastically improved bullpen (that would also be bolstered by the edition of #5 starter Shane Bieber), and you’ve got a pitching corps that will be able to shut down the Astros, Red Sox, or anyone else come October.

2) They're celebrating in the streets of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and South Beach.

With the Indians forced to cede a consensus top-25 prospect in Mejia, expect the Reds, Pirates, and Marlins to extract a bounty for Raisel Iglesias, FelipeVazquez, and Kyle Barraclough, respectively.
Look, as starters exit games earlier than ever—especially in the postseason—the value of relievers has skyrocketed, especially those who can erase both lefties and righties in late-inning, high-leverage situations and those under club control for multiple seasons.  And Iglesias, Vazquez, and Barraclough check both of those boxes.

Currently, the Cubs, who just placed closer Brandon Morrow on the DL, Red Sox, Braves, and Dodgers all have sizable holes in their bullpens that must be plugged.  And, as economics teaches us, when supply is less than demand…

3) The Indians’ window just got a little bigger.

Cleveland president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff made this trade with more than just 2018 in mind.  Injured setup man extraordinaire Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen can both walk as free agents after this season, and, due to the escalating salaries of relievers, will likely leave small-market Cleveland.  But with Hand owed a reasonable $16.5 million thru 2020 with a $10 million option for 2021 and Cimber not even arbitration eligible, the Indians’ brain trust already has two future bullpen pieces in place.

Now combine all this with the fact that the Indians’ two best players, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, are still under control for years to come—including two team options, Ramirez’ contract runs through 2023 and Lindor will not become a free agent until after 2021—while all of Cleveland’s vaunted starters have nowhere to go until at least 2021.  In other words, don’t expect the Indians to go away anytime soon.

4) The Dodgers will have some stiff competition in 2021.

It’s quite possible that LA, owned by investment titan Guggenheim Partners, buoyed by billions in TV revenue, and run by arguably the sport’s sharpest front office, will continue to have a choke hold over the N.L. West much like the Yankees have dominated the A.L. for the last quarter century. 

But it’s also possible that the Padres, owners of baseball’s deepest farm system, will one day put a dent in the Dodgers’ plans. 

It wasn’t enough for the Friars to have a 19-year-old who’s evoked Manny Machado comparisons in Fernando Tatis Jr, a 21-year-old who scouts swear will win a batting title in Luis Urias, or an 18-year-old in Tirso Ornelas who’s already posting a higher-than-league-average OPS in full-season ball.  Nor were the Padres content with about a dozen high-ceiling pitching prospects dispersed throughout all levels of the minors.  Nah, Padres GM A.J. Preller felt compelled to add Mejia.  And all Mejia has done in his brief minor-league career is notch a 50-game hitting streak while batting just shy of .300 and flashing an arm that rates as at least 70 on the standard 20-80 scale.

While the Dodgers are the Best of the West in 2018, 2021 may be a far different story.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Drew Waters: The Braves’ next Mega Prospect?

(Before we begin, just a couple housekeeping items.  For those of you looking for some fun summer reading, please check out my new novel "Curving Foul" that takes a unique look at baseball's infamous PED era.  Here's the Amazon link: Also, you can follow me on Twitter: @H_Frommer.)

Things have not been this good in the Atlanta Braves’ player development ranks in decades.  Uber phenom Ronald Acuna has made a significant contribution to the playoff-contending big-league club.  3B Austin Riley has hit with power while displaying Scott Rolenesque qualities on defense at AA and AAA.  And RHPs Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Ian Anderson, and a host of other minor league hurlers have made huge strides in 2018 as they position themselves to propel a burgeoning juggernaut into the 2020’s.

But the most overlooked development in the system so far this season has been the emergence of CF Drew Waters into one of the most exciting five-tool prospects in the minors.  Waters, Atlanta’s second-round pick last year, has made enormous progress in his first stab at full-season ball and positioned himself as the Braves’ next superstar in waiting.

Although Waters’ speed, athleticism, and switch-hitting ability catapulted him into the first-round conversation last year, questions surrounding his power and overall ceiling pushed him down to the second round, where the Braves selected him with the 41st overall pick. 

There have been two keys to Waters’ breakout in 2018.  First, and most importantly, has been his improved ability to make contact.  In 165 plate appearances at Danville in the Appalachian League last year (following a successful introductory stint in the Gulf Coast League), Waters’ K rate was a staggering 36 percent.  This season, in 304 PAs at Rome in the more challenging South Atlantic League—where, at 19, he’s more than two years younger than the average player—Waters has almost cut his K rate in half to 19 percent. 

Such drastic improvement is almost unheard of and portends well for Waters as he climbs the developmental ladder and faces more advanced pitching.

The second key to Waters’ emergence has been his growing power.  Once again, Waters has exhibited dramatic improvement in such a condensed time period.  After posting an isolated power of .128 at Danville, Waters has run his ISO all the way up to .220 at Rome.  Although the native Georgian has just 8 home runs after not quite two-thirds of the way through the 2018 campaign, his 26 doubles and six triples suggest that the balls Waters is now driving to the gaps will wind up over the fence in several years.

Assuming Waters continues to hone his offensive game in coming seasons, the rest of his skills portfolio should allow him to evolve into a budding superstar.  His 60 speed (on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale) means that he’ll be able to stick in center field, but his strong, accurate arm would permit a shift to right field in deference to Acuna. 

Waters’ speed has also been an asset on the basepaths, where he’s 15 for 18 in stolen bases.  And the 6-02, 185-pound Waters’ lithe physique should enable him to add strength without losing a step, thus making 20 steals a season probable and 30 thefts not out of the question.

Although Waters still has facets of his game that need improvement—namely his performance against southpaws, against whom he’s slashing only .202/.230/.286—his broad tool set combined with the substantial progress he’s made in such a short time could mean the Braves have yet another future star in their pipeline.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Trade Fair: Fulmer and Castellanos Leave Motown for Disney

With MLB’s customary mid-summer trade winds starting to gust as we approach the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, playoff contenders are once again scouring the market for pitching reinforcements that they hope will turn World Series dreams into reality come October.  Although the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim open play on Friday a distant 13.5 games behind the A.L. West-leading Houston Astros and 12 games in back of the Mariners, who are in pole position for the second wild card, don’t be shocked if the Halos aggressively pursue a headline pitching addition as well as other roster enhancements.   

At 38-51, the Detroit Tigers are buried in the standings and in the middle of a lengthy rebuild.  Thus, as Crazy Eddie used to say in the 1980’s, everything must go.  “Everything” in this case includes Michael Fulmer, Detroit’s ace, and Nick Castellanos, its third-place hitter and right fielder.

The Trade:  The Tigers trade Fulmer and Castellanos to the Angels for 1B Matt Thaiss, OF Brandon Marsh, and RHP Griffin Canning.

What the Angels are getting:  A frontline starter to aid a beleaguered rotation and a #3 hitter to slot behind Mike Trout.  While Fulmer’s 2018 numbers suggest that he hasn’t enjoyed the same success as his 2016 Rookie of the Year effort or last year, he still ranks 36th in Fangraphs WAR among MLB starting pitchers (thanks, Kurt Mensching), and he’s been posting career-high velocities on both his four seamer and sinker.  The 25-year-old would instantly become the ace of the Angels’ rotation and bolster a pitching corps that has been ravaged by injuries—six Angel pitchers have already underwent arm surgeries so far this year. 

Castellanos would give Angels Manager Mike Scioscia a lethal bat in the 3-hole.  His .305/.356/.519 slash line and 3.0 oWAR ensure that he’d be a massive upgrade over incumbent RF Kole Calhoun, whose .497 OPS ranks last in the A.L. at the position. 

Even if the Angels are unable to catch the Astros or Mariners this season, this trade would satisfy GM Billy Eppler’s main objective, which is to put the Halos in the best possible position to win before Trout’s contract expires after 2020.  Castellanos won’t become a free agent until after next season, while Fulmer will not be eligible to leave until after 2022.

What the Tigers are getting:  Detroit GM Al Avila is ssensible enough to realize that he’d never be able to pry OF Jo Adell, the crown jewel of the Angels system, away from southern California.  However, Thaiss, Marsh, and Canning are all highly-coveted prospects and their arrival in Detroit would greatly accelerate the Tigers’ rebuild.
Thaiss, 23, is a hitting machine who’s delivered at every minor league level and is now adding power to his game, as evidenced by his .223 isolated power (ISO) at AA and AAA this season.  With Victor Martinez likely retiring in October and Miguel Cabrera probably relegated to DH next year, Thaiss would enjoy a clear path to Comerica Park.

Marsh is the dynamo of the deal.  Just 20, he’s still more projection over performance but that gap has closed considerably in 2018.  A left-handed hitter, the 6-04 Marsh still has holes in his swing, but scouts are almost unanimous in the belief that Marsh could be a perennial .280 hitter who belts at least 20 home runs a season.  On defense, Marsh has a center fielder’s range but enough arm to play right field.

Canning, a second rounder in the 2017 draft, fell because of injury concerns that proved to be unfounded.  He’s shot up three levels this season as a velocity spike has enabled him to throw his fastball into the mid-90’s and his three other offerings all rate as at least major-league average.  Canning’s build, stuff, and superb command have evoked some comparisons to Zack Greinke; however, other evaluators view him as a solid #3 starter.  Nonetheless, he’d be a great add to Detroit’s already bountiful collection of pitching prospects.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Cleveland Indians are far from a Finished Product

Despite its relatively comfortable five-game divisional lead in the A.L. Central (the largest margin in baseball) heading into Friday’s action, the Cleveland Indians are a flawed club, plagued by holes in the lineup and bullpen that will spark an early exit from the Oktoberfest if they’re not addressed by the July 31st trade deadline. 

Much like last season, Manager Terry Francona’s squad has reaped the benefits of playing in MLB’s least competitive division, where the Twins have been maddeningly inconsistent, and the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox are in various stages of lengthy rebuilds.  However, the Indians’ grace period will end in the postseason when they’ll have to face juggernauts like the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees. 

The first order of business for Indians’ President Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff should be to plug the club’s leaky bullpen, which is second-to-last in the A.L. with a 5.42 ERA and has been especially taxed since stud reliever Andrew Miller went on the DL with a knee injury.  In drawing up possible solutions to Cleveland’s bullpen woes, it’s vital to acknowledge the organization’s payroll limitations in addition to the fact that the club will also need to save some powder to bolster its lineup.

The first move the Cleveland brain trust should consider is one that doesn’t cost anything in terms of talent or money—shifting starter Mike Clevinger to the bullpen, where he’d eventually team up with Miller to give Francona two shutdown setup guys capable of multi-inning stints.  Clevinger could also become the successor to closer Cody Allen or Miller, both of whom are set to depart as free agents after this season.

Clevinger’s already-filthy stuff should transition well to the pen, where the velocity on his fourseamer will likely tick up from its current average of 93.9 MPH and he’ll be able to rely more on his effective curveball. Also, as Clevinger’s reverse-platoon splits indicate, Francona would be able to count on him against both lefties and righties in late-inning, high-leverage situations.   

Cleveland’s replacement for Clevinger in the rotation should also come from within.  23-year-old Shane Bieber has cruised through the minors in just two years, displaying pinpoint control and an effective four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that scrapes the mid-90’s.  Just how good has Bieber been?  In 274 minor league innings, he’s posted a ridiculous 2.20 ERA and an equally-outrageous 255/18 K/BB ratio. 

As much as we like Clevinger as a multi-inning power reliever, adding him to the bullpen would not be enough to end the Tribe’s late inning misery.  Cleveland should target another reliever, and, if possible, do so without substantially increasing payroll.  So, while the Indians should fix their gaze in the direction of San Diego, they shouldn’t do so with the intention of landing Brad Hand, everyone’s favorite trade target.  Instead, Cleveland should set its sights on righthander Kirby Yates, who won’t demand nearly the prospect haul that Hand would and whose $1.1 million salary would easily fit into the Tribe’s budget.

Though he doesn’t carry the same cache as Hand, Yates could still emerge as a difference maker for Cleveland.  He’s been murder on right-handed hitters, who’ve posted a miniscule .263 OPS against the native Hawaiian without even delivering an extra-base hit in 59 plate appearances.  In addition, his FIP of 2.43 is a harbinger of more good things to come.

Unfortunately, Cleveland’s deficiencies are not limited to its bullpen.  Although the Indians rank third in the A.L. in home runs and fourth in slugging and runs scored, the Tribe’s offense is unbalanced with a disproportionate amount of production generated by the Francisco Lindor-Michael Brantley-Jose Ramirez troika.  That threesome has put up a .297/.363/.550 slash line while the Indians’ other hitters have slashed a paltry .233/.311/.383.  If Cleveland is to have any chance against lethal playoff pitching, it will have to lengthen the sweet spot of its lineup.

The Orioles will attract the attention of every team looking to add some punch at the deadline.  Not only do the O’s boast Manny Machado, arguably the best hitter ever available at the mid-season trade bazaar, but also Adam Jones.  No longer a viable option in center field, Jones can still adequately man a corner and is on pace for his seventh boWAR of at least 3.0 in the last nine seasons.  Cleveland should pursue both in a trade.

Plugging Machado into the Indians lineup at the hot corner would enable Francona to shift Ramirez to second base, where he rates as excellent, and move Jason Kipnis and his .611 OPS to the bench.  This would not only give Cleveland the best all-round infield in baseball, but also an unparalleled top of its lineup.

While Jones wouldn’t have the same impact as Machado, he’d be a substantial upgrade over the cast of characters Francona has penciled into the lineup in the corner outfield.  Jones’ OPS+ of 114 easily exceeds the 56 posted by Brandon Guyer, the 55 put up by Rajai Davis, and the 43 Melky Cabrera delivered before he was released.

Even though they’d be just half-season rentals, acquiring Machado and Jones would cost the Indians a hefty prospect package that would probably include at least one of catcher Francisco Mejia, righthander Triston McKenzie, and outfielder Conner Capel.  But the Indians’ most recent draft class, assessed by many insiders to be among the best in MLB, and the organization’s strong presence in Latin America would help offset the loss of some of the organization’s best minor league talent. 

The acquisition of Machado and Jones would come at a substantial monetary cost, with approximately $20 million being added to the books on a pro rata basis (assuming the trade was made tomorrow).  This hefty amount would be in stark contrast to the $4 million the Indians took on when they added Jay Bruce last year and $4 million the team assumed when it traded for Miller and Guyer in 2016.

Before ruling out the Tribe’s acquisition of Machado and Jones due to its prohibitive cost, it’s important to realize that this small market club’s window won’t be open forever.  In fact, rotation stalwarts Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco will be eligible to leave as free agents after the 2020 season, while ace Corey Kluber and Lindor’s contracts expire after 2021.  And don’t forget about Miller and Allen’s likely departure after this year. 

It’s been 70 years since a World Series flag was last hoisted on the banks of Lake Erie.  And if the Indians don’t make the necessary changes in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, that unfortunate streak will continue indefinitely.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Trade Fair: Gomez Goes to Cleveland

Ensconced in last place in the AL Central with a 10-16 record, it's safe to say the Indians' 2015 season has not gone according to plan.  The Tribe was the chic pick by many pundits to end the Tigers' run of four consecutive division titles and post its first first-place finish since 2007.   Heck, even Sports Illustrated picked Cleveland to advance to the World Series.  But a leaky bullpen, an anemic offense, and porous defense have all played major roles in the Indians' poor start.

The Brewers, on the other hand, entered this season with far more modest expectations, with almost all national writers picking Milwaukee to finish in the middle of the pack or lower in the suddenly-competitive NL Central.  However, the Brew Crew's NL-worst 9-19 start has been far worse than anyone could have imagined, leading to the May 4th ouster of Manager Ron Roenicke as well as sparking talk that the team will start to auction veterans as part of a full-scale rebuild.

As we discussed last week, what makes Milwaukee's situation even more precarious is the fact that three of the teams ahead of it in the standings -- St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh -- have stockpiled tremendous young talent and are currently much better positioned for the future. 

Given the Indians' need to strengthen multiple weaknesses before this season spirals out of control and the good sense it would make for the Brewers to gear up for 2017 and beyond, we've thought up a trade that would satisfy both team's objectives.

The Trade:  The Brewers trade CF Carlos Gomez to the Indians for the Tribe's top OF prospect, Bradley Zimmer, and their best minor league pitcher, Justus Sheffield.

What the Indians are getting:  A legitimate 5-tool player.  Period.  The  29-year-old Gomez is a 2-time All Star and former Gold Glove winner whose WAR of 13.7 in 2013-14 lags only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen among center fielders.  Equally as important, Gomez is under contract through next year, when he will earn a measly $9 million.  Gomez' broad offensive skill set would be an excellent fit in Cleveland's predominantly left-handed lineup and his sterling  glovework would be a welcome addition for the defensively-challenged Tribe, whose Zone Rating, as measured by Baseball Reference ranks as the 2nd-worst in the American League.

Michael Bourn, Cleveland's incumbent center fielder, is on the books thru next year, when he will earn $14 million and has a $12 million vesting option for 2017.  However, it's evident that his best days are behind him and he should be replaced.  From 2012-14, the Houston native's OPS declined from .739 to .674 and is at a measly .499 on the young season.  His steals during the 3-year period also fell from 42 to just ten (while his success rate declined from 76% to 62%).  And if that's not enough, Bourn's defense has also taken a dramatic turn for the worse -- his range factor has dropped from 2.52 in 2012 to 1.86 this season, nearly a full run lower than the league average of 2.73.

What the Brewers are getting:  SS Francisco Lindor is easily Cleveland's best prospect, and it's doubtful GM Chris Antonetti would let the 21-year-old stud be a part of any trade.  However, Zimmer and Sheffield would make excellent consolation prizes.  Zimmer, 22, swings a high-octane lefty bat and as his .474 slugging percentage in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League and 14 steals suggest, he would offer Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin a dynamic talent to pair with RF Clint Coulter in the Brewers' outfield of the future.

Despite his smallish 5-10, 190-pound stature, Sheffield has big stuff, including a fastball that routinely hits 97 mph and devastating slider.  18-year-old pitching prospects are always lottery tickets, but Sheffield's sterling 3.7 K/BB ratio demonstrates that he already has an excellent idea of how to pitch and his learning curve shouldn't be as steep as most other pitching prospects in Low A.  The arrival of Sheffield would give Milwaukee another precocious arm to team with fellow left-handed fireballer Kodi Medeiros, their top pick in last year's draft.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Brewers Should Start Selling, Build for the Future

While few pundits picked the Brewers to make the playoffs this year, Milwaukee's 4-15 record following Sunday's game has the Brew Crew poised for its worst record since going 56-106 in 2002.  Worse yet, the organization's fall from grace has come at a time when three of the four teams ahead of it in the suddenly ultra-competitive NL Central could remain juggernauts for years to come.

The 1st-place Cardinals have long been baseball's premier franchise.  In the 15 seasons since the turn of the century, St. Louis has played in the postseason an astounding 11 times, including winning four National League titles and hoisting the World Series trophy twice.  And through astute drafting, strong trades, and prudent forays into the free agent market, the Cards don't look like they'll go away anytime soon.

After 20 years of futility, the Pirates, NL Wild Card contestants the last two seasons, have built a winner with staying power.  Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen are two of the division's best 28-and-under talents, while minor leaguers like Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Reese McGuire will help ensure this winning tradition continues.

When Theo Epstein took over as the Cubs' president in 2011, he promised to turn baseball's perpetual doormats into a "player development machine."  Well,  he wasn't lying.  In less than four years, Epstein & Co. have added the likes of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and others to form the game's most impressive stable of young, high-end talent.

Simply put, the Brewers picked the wrong time to enter baseball's abyss.  However, there is a silver lining.  Unlike most cellar-dwelling teams, Milwaukee actually has a decent number of star-caliber, cost-controllable players who would command a sizeable return if traded.  This potential bounty would combine with the high-end prospects the Brewers have already accumulated to put the club on a sharp upward trajectory.

Brewers' GM Doug Melvin's sexiest trade piece is CF CarlosGomez.  The  29-year-old Gomez is a 2-time All Star and former Gold Glove winner whose WAR of 13.7 in 2013-14 lags only Mike Trout and McCutchen among center fielders.  Equally as important, Gomez is under contract through next year, when he will earn a measly $9 million.  Gomez' broad skill set and affordability would easily net the Brewers at least one A-rated prospect and two complementary pieces in a trade.  Top suitors at this early date could be the Indians and Mariners, whose incumbent center fielders Michael Bourn and Austin Jackson have been trending down for several years.  The Blue Jays could also enter the mix, especially if GM Alex Anthopoulos thinks rookie CF Dalton Pompey needs more seasoning in the minors.

C Jonathan Lucroy, just 28, is another trade chip who would bring back a bonanza in a trade.  Not only is Lucroy one of MLB's best-hitting backstops, but he's also outstanding at pitch framing, a skill that's received increased scrutiny as more sophisticated methods of statistical analysis within the sport have emerged.  And like Gomez, Lucroy's contract--including an affordable $5.25 million team option for 2017, he's due to earn just $9.25 million in 2016-17--ensures he can fit into any team's budget.  The Astros, Marlins, Nationals, Red Sox, and White Sox are all teams with aspirations of October baseball who could be seeking an upgrade behind the plate.  The return for Lucroy should approximate the prospect treasure that a trade of Gomez would fetch.

SS Jean Segura, 25, has appeared to bounce back nicely from a down 2014, a year wracked by personal tragedy.  In 2013, Segura posted a robust .423 slugging percentage and 44 steals to produce a solid WAR of 3.5.  Not arbitration eligible until after this season, Segura's upside and low price tag would likely translate into a package of two solid prospects in a trade. 

Those worried about who would replace the departed Segura need to look no further than Triple A Colorado Springs, where 21-year-old defensive wizard Luis Sardinas is holding his own with the bat.  However, Segura's ultimate replacement will be 20-year-old wunderkind Orlando Arcia, who's currently slashing to the tune of .423/.492/.596 at Double AA Biloxi.  Arcia's glove is already big-league ready and once he fills out his 6-00, 170-pound frame he could project as a poor man's Nomar Garciaparra, but with more steals and better defense.  He's that good.

Arcia forms one-third of a troika of talented Brewers prospects.  RF Clint Coulter is the second guy fans in Milwaukee should be excited about.  Coulter, 21, is a converted catcher, who in his first full season in the outfield has evidently enjoyed being liberated from the physical rigors of catching.  The Washington native has started off the year on fire, slashing .338/.434/.708 with 6 home runs in just 17 games at High A Brevard County.  Rock solid at 6-03 and 220 pounds, Coulter's power and patience at the plate mesh nicely with his cannon arm in the outfield and evoke memories of long-time Angels great Tim Salmon.

Southpaw Kodi Medeiros is still just 18, which means that the word "caution" is the first word that should be used when describing his potential.  However, his 97 mph fastball and dynamite breaking stuff could enable him to move quickly through the Brewers' chain.  He's also off to a hot start, posting nearly a K/IP of nearly 12 and WHIP of .78 at Low A Wisconson.

Any discussion about Milwaukee's future fortunes would be incomplete if it didn't mention upcoming drafts.  The Brewers under new Scouting Director Ray Montgomery pick 15th this year in a draft that may be short on historical, franchise-changing talent at the top but is still considered deep by most insiders.  And next year, assuming its horrid start is not an aberration, the club will have a top-3 pick in a draft looks like it will be loaded with premium talent.

Throwing in the towel on this season, and most likely 2016 and 2017 as well, certainly won't be easy for Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, one of baseball's best front men.  Despite drawing from MLB's smallest metropolitan areas, Milwaukee's payroll has consistently been in the middle of the pack as Attanasio has made winning a priority since purchasing the team in 2005.  However, Attanasio should realize that taking a step back to regroup now will put his club in a better position going forward to achieve sustained success in dog-eat-dog world of the NL Central.