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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New York Mets: Another Big Mistake

The Mets' recent firing of the vice president of ticket sales is just the latest in a long line of mistakes the organization has made, cementing its status as New York's second team.  Apparently, the dismissed executive is to blame for the Mets' woeful attendance -- 27,036 per game this season, a 31 percent drop from the club's Citifield high water mark of 38,941 in 2009 -- despite a poor 65-74 record.

This dismissal is just the latest in what has been a long line of mishaps by the Amazing Mess, but from a pure baseball standpoint it pales in comparison to the team's decision to keep first round pick Michael Conforto at short season Brooklyn despite the former Oregon State and Team USA star being far too advanced for the league.  Conforto, a left-handed hitting left fielder, slashed .331/.403/.448 in 179 plate appearances and proved early on that he was ready for a stiffer challenge than the one offered by the mediocre pitching in the New York-Penn League.

The Mets' justification for keeping Conforto confined to Brooklyn was they believed the 21-year-old's presence would help the Cyclones reach the playoffs (which it didn't).  We should also mention that the Cyclones are Mets owner Fred Wilpon's baby.  He hails from Brooklyn and owns the franchise, a set up that is uncustomary as most minor league franchises are owned and operated by independent parties.  So, it's evident that the Mets owner has once again placed his personal agenda above that of the big league club.

The Mets' refusal to move Conforto up the chain this summer will clearly hurt both the club and the young slugger's development.  In Kevin Plawecki (Triple A), Brandon Nimmo and Dilson Herrera (Double A), and Gavin Cecchini (High A), New York has a slew of exciting position prospects that will all be ready to join the parent club's young pitchers at the big league level by early 2016, at the latest.  Promoting Conforto to High A a month ago would have made it easier for him to catch up with his organizational peers and accelerated the Mets' much-needed rebuilding effort.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Why Justin Verlander is the Key to the Tigers' Playoff Run

Poised to win the American League Central for the fourth consecutive year, the Detroit Tigers' fortunes this October will rest squarely on the right arm of one Justin Brooks Verlander.  Admittedly, that's a bold statement, especially when you consider that Detroit's $164 million roster includes the likes of 2012-13 MVP Miguel Cabrera, 2013 Cy Young Max Scherzer, 2013 A.L. ERA leader Annibal Sanchez, and 5-time All Star Victor Martinez.  But Verlander is the Tigers' #1 starter.  Their Big Dawg.  Their hombre. Their bouncer.  Their ace.  And to win in October you need an ace.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, Verlander has done everything this season but pitch like an ace.  In fact, his 4.84 ERA this season is more than a full run higher than any of the Tigers' other starters, and his WHIP of 1.45 also ranks as the worst among his rotation mates.   Definitely not results the Tigers' front office envisioned when it gave Verlander a 7-year/$180 million extension last year in the hope that he would be the horse that the organization could ride to its first world championship since 1984.

It's imperative that Verlander right the ship before the start of the playoffs for three reasons.  First, the rest of the Tigers' rotation does not eat enough innings to compensate for the team's weak, overworked bullpen, which will leave Detroit vulnerable in the late innings against playoff-caliber offenses like the A's, Angels and Orioles. 

In Scherzer, Sanchez, and Rick Porcello (we'll assume that #5 starter Drew Smyly will head to the bullpen in the playoffs), manager Brad Ausmus has three capable starters, but they've averaged only 6.1 innings per start since the beginning of last season.  This means that Ausmus will be relying on the bullpen to get eight highly-leveraged outs in what will likely be razor-tight pitching duels where one misplaced fastball or hanging curve could have disastrous results.

Let's look at Detroit's bullpen for a second.  Closer Joe Nathan has enjoyed s stellar career with 360 saves and a 2.89 ERA, but this year he's already blown five saves in just 25 attempts and his ERA is a bloated 5.89. 

Setup man Joba Chamberlain has had an excellent season, but he's just two years removed from Tommy John surgery and on pace to equal his personal best of 73 appearances in a season. 

Right hander Al Albuquerque has also posted good numbers this season, however, his heavy workload may already be affecting his dynamite stuff.  His FIP of 4.19 suggests that his current ERA of 3.31 will rise and his K/9 of 10.2 is his worst mark by almost two full strikeouts.   

Finally, left-handed specialists Ian Krol and Phil Coke's aggregate ERA and WHIP of 4.70 and 1.60, respectively, have caused Ausmus to reach for the Rolaids on more than one occasion this season.

Newly-acquired Joakim Soria is a stud, but even after his arrival from Texas  Detroit's bullpen will still be a little short.  This is where Verlander comes in.  Vintage Verlander--assume the 2012 model when he had a 2.64 ERA to go along with a 1.06 WHIP and averaged 7.1 innings per start--would give his manager  the luxury of saving his beleaguered bullpen for other games when an 8-out effort will be necessary to achieve a win.

The second reason why Detroit needs Verlander to return to form is that he and his fellow starters must mask an inconsistent offense.  Although Detroit's 468 runs scored ranks third in the A.L., and its OPS of .773 paces the junior circuit, the Tigers' offense has gone in the tank for extended stretches this season and has been particularly susceptible to power pitching.  For example, during a 9-17 stretch from May 19th-June 18th, Detroit faced hard throwers like Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Drew Hutchison and Chris Sale and hit only .258, or 20 points below their full-season average.

It will only get tougher in October, when the Tigers will probably have to face the likes of Gray (remember his eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the AL Division Series last year?), Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija, Felix Hernandez, and Garrett Richards multiple times in a series.  Detroit will need their starters to bring their "A" games for such matchups, meaning Verlander pitching like he has for most of this year simply won't cut it.

The Tigers' poor defense is the final reason why Verlander will need to regain his old magic once the leaves start to change color.  Although second baseman Ian Kinsler and rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez make a solid double play combination, Cabrera and Nick Castellanos offer below average range at the corners.  And Torii Hunter and JD Martinez, who has earned a starting job because of his hot bat, are among the A.L.'s worst outfielder's according to UZR rankings.

Simply put, Detroit's starters will need as many strikeouts as possible to negate the team's porous defense.  While Scherzer, with 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings, has maintained his pace from last season, Porcello, Sanchez, and Verlander's K/9 are down significantly.  Verlander's drop--from 8.9 in 2012 to a pedestrian 6.7 this year--is particularly alarming and will have to be improved.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Random Thoughts: Shortstops galore and a great Friday for the Mets

With the emergence of Eugenio Suarez, it's safe to say that the Tigers will not be in the market for a starting shortstop as the trade deadline nears.  Suarez has put up a strong .274/.355/.442 slash line in 111 plate appearances while paying stellar defense.  The 22-year-old Venezuelan is yet another example of the Tigers' tremendous Latin scouting operations.

Speaking of the Tigers' Latin pipeline, keep an eye on 18-year-old shortstop Willy Adames at Low A West Michigan.  In just his first season stateside, the 6-01, 180 pound Dominican, who is three-and-a-half years younger than the average Midwest Leaguer, has a healthy .810 OPS with 12 (that's right, TWELVE) triples.  Still inconsistent at times on defense, Adames has more than enough of arm and range to stay at the position.

The Yankees' recent signing of ninth rounder Vince Conde, a shortstop from Vanderbilt, paves the way for rising junior Dansby Swanson to shift back to his original position, where his exceptional range should wow scouts.  However, Swanson is more than just a one-trick pony -- since arriving in Nashville he's demonstrated remarkable improvement at the plate and currently profiles as an ideal #2 hitter with enough pop to belt 12-15 home runs annually.  Expect Swanson to be a top 15 pick in next June's draft.

And last but not least, Friday was the best day the Mets have had in a long time.  Although not a shortstop, the signing of first round pick Michael Conforto will finally give the organization an element it sorely lacks: a bona fide left-handed power hitter with excellent pitch recognition skills.  Conforto, a left fielder from PAC-12 power Oregon State, profiles as "rich man's" Geoff Jenkins -- a guy with legit 30-home run power who might also walk 100 times.  Though he'll make his professional debut for the Brooklyn Cyclones in Short Season A-Ball, he's expected to move fast and could be in the majors by Opening Day 2016.

The 2015 Draft: An Early Look at the top 10 High School Players

Earlier this week we gave you a sneak peak at the top 10 college players for an early look at next year's draft.  Today, we'll give you the inside scoop on these 10 best high school prospects:

1) Daz Cameron, OF, Florida State commitment -- Mike's son has been on the scouting radar for two years and is an explosive five-tool talent.

2) Brendan Rodgers, SS, Florida State commitment -- A true shortstop who will be able to stay at the position, he has a better hit tool and power than Nick Gordon, the fifth overall selection this past June.

3) Justin Hooper, LHP, UCLA commitment -- Physical 6-06 southpaw with three above average pitches, including an electric fastball he already throws in the mid-90's.

4) Beau Burrows, RHP, Texas A&M commitment -- Complements a low-to-mid-90's fastball that he commands well with two excellent breaking pitches.

5)  Chris Betts, C, Tennessee commitment -- Tremendous raw power from the left side and has improved his catching enough to give him a decent shot to remain behind the plate as he advances.

6) Mike Nikorak, RHP, Alabama commitment -- The Pennsylvania native wasn't as high profile as some of the other 2015 draft eligibles, but that all changed early in the showcase season when he hit 97 mph with his heater.

7) Greg Pickett, OF, Mississippi State commitment -- Another guy who has really helped his stock this summer.  Put on a laser light show at a Perfect Game tournament in Georgia last week and now has many scouts believing he may have the best power/hit tool package in the entire 2015 draft class.

8) Kyle Molnar, RHP, UCLA commitment -- Athletic righty has an exceptional track record against high profile competition.  Good 91-93 mph fastball and his changeup is his best secondary offering.

9) Ryan Johnson, OF, TCU commitment -- Left-handed slugger could always mash, but has only recently begun to demonstrate more speed and a strong, accurate arm in the outfield.

10) John Aiello, 3B, Wake Forest commitment -- Switch hitter with an advanced approach from both sides of the plate.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The 2015 Draft: An Early Look at the Top 10 College Players

With the various college summer leagues and high school showcases in full swing, it's a good time to give a lightning quick preview of the players already on scouts' radar for next year's draft, which is "only" 330 days away. 

At this early juncture, it appears as if college pitchers and high school position players will dominate the first round.  However, keep in mind how early it is and that we'll probably see a lot of volatility over the next 11 months.

Today we'll feature the top ten college players -- eight of whom are pitchers -- and later in the week you'll be able to check out the top ten guys from the high school ranks.  And tune in to Infield Chatter throughout the summer to receive periodic updates as the summer leagues and showcases continue.

Here are the top ten rising college juniors at the start of the summer:

1) Mike Matuella, RHP, Duke University -- Physical specimen at 6-06, 225 pounds with ace-type stuff, including a 95-97 mph fastball that doesn't lose velocity or movement in the last innings.  Perhaps the best college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg.

2) James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA -- Big kid with quality four-pitch mix, including a heater than hits 94 mph and two above-average breaking pitches.  Thinking man pitcher who's able to execute his game plan every time out.

3) Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville -- A near carbon copy of Tigers' ace Max Scherzer at the same stage of development.  Funky delivery, but he can dial his fastball up to 96 mph, and his vicious mid-80's slider makes him nearly unhittable against righties.

4) Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt -- The frontman for Vandy's heralded troika going into 2015, his 94-96 mph fastball darts all over the strike zone and is virtually impossible to square up.  He complements his heater with an equally devastating slider that sits 84-87 mph.  His changeup is his weakest offering.

5) Nate Kirby, LHP, Virginia -- Has a picture perfect motion, which results in exceptional command of three above-average pitches, a 91-93 mph fastball, tight curveball, and circle change.  The young southpaw also has an exceptional pick-off move and fields his position well.

6) Alex Bregman, 2B/SS, LSU -- A fine shortstop but could evolve into a Craig Biggio clone on the other side of the keystone.  At the plate, he's got a short, compact swing with enough juice to one day produce a .300 average and 15 home runs.  Also boasts exceptional plate discipline.

7) Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston -- At 6-05, 220 lbs, hehas a major league body but still needs to work on his stuff.  He can dial his fastball up to 94 mph, but the offering has a lot more movement when it's 90-92.  He can throw his slider in the mid-80's, but the pitch tends to flatten out. 

8) Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt -- Not a huge guy at 6-01, 170 lbs, but his stuff is electric.  His 92-94 mph fastball has exceptional tailing action, and his 12-to-6 curveball could be the best in college baseball next year.

9) Dansby Swanson, SS-2B, Vanderbilt -- Better known for his fantastic defense when he showed up in Nashville, he's improved his offensive game dramatically and now projects as a bona fide two-hole hitter in the major leagues.  Exceptional range and arm at shortstop.

10) Brett Lilek, LHP, Arizona State -- This projectable lefty has a loose arm and the makings of four quality pitches, including a fastball he can run up to 94 mph.  He displayed a much smoother delivery this past season.