As the Braves enter the 2015 season, the roster is expected to be extremely pitching-heavy. In John Hart’s first offseason as the Braves’ President of Baseball Operations, he has made two huge moves by sending outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward to the Padres and the Cardinals, respectively. While the return in the Upton trade was primarily made up of lower level prospects at least a few years away from helping the big club, the Braves did land RHP Shelby Miller in the Heyward/Cardinals trade. Although the Braves lost two key pieces to the offense, the pitching staff could be very strong, especially if Miller can bounce back to 2013 form (3.06 ERA, 3.67 FIP). Miller will join a rotation that returns three starters in Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, and Alex Wood.
Minor enters the 2015 season in a very similar situation to Miller’s. After a breakout year in 2013 (3.21 ERA, 3.5 WAR), Minor was worth just 0.2 wins in 25 starts in 2014. While Teheran is considered to be the budding star ($32M contract extension and a 3.2 WAR for his age 23 season), Wood could be the pitcher that steals the show.
Following a three-year stint at the University of Georgia (one of which shortened by Tommy John surgery), the Braves drafted Wood in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft. Wood would go on to make his MLB debut less than one year later, after starting just 23 minor league games. Wood would appear in 16 games as a reliever, before transitioning into a starting role in the second half of the 2013 season. Wood’s final numbers for his age-22 season looked very similar to those numbers of another funky-delivering 22-year-old southpaw, Chris Sale:
Pitcher Inn K/9 BB/9 GB% FIP
Sale 71 10.01 3.42 49.7% 3.12
Wood 77.2 8.92 3.13 49.1% 2.65
Unlike Wood, Sale spent the entire 2011 season working out of the bullpen, and had even pitched in 23 innings in the 2010 season, joining Chicago’s bullpen less than two months after signing with the White Sox. Following Sale’s strong 2011 season, the White Sox decided it was time to move Sale to the rotation. The Braves had similar plans for Wood in 2014, although the club planned to limit his innings in his first full year with Atlanta, and Wood would only make 24 starts for the season, along with 11 more relief appearances. For the age-23 seasons, the numbers look very similar, yet again:
Pitcher Inn K/9 BB/9 GB% FIP
Sale 192 9.0 2.39 44.9% 3.27
Wood 171.2 8.91 2.36 45.9% 3.25
Another key factor for both pitchers is the durability later in the season. While many young pitchers wear down later in the year, both pitchers got stronger as the year went on. Sale’s strikeout numbers increased (9.41 to 10.64), and his walks and FIP saw a significant decrease as well. The same would hold true for Wood, as his K/9 rate went from a first half 8.61 to a second half 9.21, with a decrease in walks and a 3.05 second half FIP. The midseason move to the pen (to help limit innings) could have given Wood a fresher arm for his full-time return to the rotation in the second half, but whatever the reason may be, he was one of the top NL starters down the stretch.
As for Sale, his improving performance went well beyond the second half of the 2012 season, as the lefty would go on to post back-to-back 5+ WARs over the next two seasons, as well as finishing in the top 5 for the AL Cy Young Award in both 2013 and 2014. The key for Sale was his ability to continue to improve his strikeout numbers, while also cutting down on his walks. Sale’s 1.97 BB/9 over the last two years has been good for 7th among all American League starters. During that same time frame, Sale’s 10.06 K/9 rate trailed only Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer. Only 14 pitchers were able to top Wood’s 3.25 FIP as well as his his 3.78 K/BB in 2014. If he can push the FIP closer to 3.00, as well as the K/BB over 4.00, we could be looking at another Chris Sale.
With Wil Myers headed to San Diego, and only a clean bill of health keeping Matt Kemp from joining him (which may or may not magically appear of LA is willing to pay a larger portion of Kemp’s remaining $105 million on his contract…), the San Diego Padres find themselves with an opportunity to move 2014 right fielder Seth Smith. Kemp’s days as an everyday center fielder have long passed, and Myers is likely better suited for a corner outfield spot as well. This leaves nowhere to play Smith, and the Padres could deal Smith to acquire some help at a spot other than the corner outfield.
The biggest issue with Smith has always been his splits. No matter how you slice it, Smith should relegated to a platoon role.
wRC+ 123 63
wOBA .362 .274
ISO .204 .109
A team that has been in the hunt for a corner outfielder this offseason is the Seattle Mariners. So far we’ve seen Seattle add Nelson Cruz to serve as the everyday DH, and over the past month we’ve seen the Mariners linked to names like Melky Cabrera, Dayan Viciedo, Justin Upton, and Kemp. The big hangup with Kemp, as well as Upton, was the issue with teams trying to pry away young pitchers like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Fortunately for the M’s, a player like Seth Smith would not cost them these young arms.
With Kemp and even more cash expected to head to San Diego, Upton will likely become the top corner outfielder available this offseason. Upton has just one year remaining on his current contract, and will make nearly $15 million in 2015. Meanwhile, Smith will make nearly $13 million over the next two years, and his contract contains a club option for the 2017 as well. Now we all know that Justin Upton is a better baseball player than Seth Smith, but is one year of Upton (and no Walker or Paxton for the next 6 years) better than two years of Smith and Justin Ruggiano (with Walker and Paxton still in Seattle for the next 6 years)?
Earlier this week, the Mariners acquired Ruggiano from the Cubs for minor league reliever Matt Brazis. Ruggiano is two years removed from a career year in Miami, in which he posted a 2.6 WAR in just 91 games. Even though his WAR over the last two seasons combined for just 1.3, he still profiles as an excellent platoon player. In 2013, Ruggiano posted a 130 wRC+ vs LHP, as well as a .362 wOBA. For 2014, Ruggiano’s numbers were nearly identical, posting a 129 wRC+ and a .362 wOBA vs LHP. Take a look at the career numbers below, with Smith and Ruggiano’s being their career splits:
Upton Smith Ruggiano
wRC+ 121 123 128
wOBA .359 .362 .360
ISO .202 .204 .241
Whether or not the Mariners add Justin Upton, or Seth Smith, or go with some sort of Brad Miller/Ruggiano platoon that we’ve seen rumored, they will get solid production from that right field spot. Smith would cost them some value, and the Smith/Ruggiano platoon may not be the sexiest, but Smith would not cost them a Walker or Paxton.
It seems that every MLB season, we witness a failed starter turn into a great reliever. The 2014 season was no different, and one of the biggest transformations came from the arm of Orioles RHP Zach Britton. Britton, a former 3rd round pick by the O’s in 2006, was twice named to Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list during his time as an Orioles’ minor leaguer. Britton would go on to join the Orioles’ rotation in 2011, posting a 4.86 ERA and a 4.23 xFIP over 46 starts from ’11-’13, while splitting time at AAA Nofolk. Due to Britton’s inconsistencies, the Orioles decided to try his hand in the bullpen for the 2014 season, and the results speak for themselves:
76.1 IP, 1.65 ERA, 2.82 xFIP, 75.3% GB rate
The ridiculous 75.3% GB rate comes after Britton posted a 55.5% rate over the previous three years. The key difference was Britton relying heavily on his sinking fastball, going from using it 69.6% of the time as a starter, to 91.5% as a reliever. As with most converted starters, Britton also saw a jump in his fastball velocity, going from an average of 92 MPH from ’11-’13, to 95.1 as a reliever. Is there another pitcher out there that could go from being a very average starter to a top notch closer? There is, and he also resides in the AL East.
Joe Kelly and Allen Craig were shipped to Boston in a 2014 trade-deadline deal that sent veteran John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals. In his seven starts with the Cards in 2014, St. Louis witnessed a regression from Kelly that was expected by anyone that had kept up with his peripheral statistics in the previous two seasons. Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Kelly posted a 3.08 ERA, which tied Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Strasburg, as well as topped teammate Adam Wainwright’s 3.39 ERA during that time frame. But when you look deeper, you see more numbers that don’t belong next to names like Bumgarner, Strasburg and Wainwright: 6.0 K/9, 4.12 xFIP, and 4.22 SIERA. Despite a fastball velocity that tied Jeff Samardzija’s 94.7, and only finished behind Strasburg and Matt Harvey’s 95.5, Kelly’s results were very mixed. In fact, they showed a great resemblance to someone else’s numbers:
Kelly Britton (starter)
FIP 4.11 4.25
xFIP 4.14 4.23
K/9 6.05 5.94
BB/9 3.35 4.00
GB% 52.4% 54.9%
While the numbers are not exactly identical, the results are very similar: two pitchers that had very good stuff, but were very inconsistent. As noted earlier, Britton’s move to the ‘pen was also a move to a primarily two-seam/sinking fastball that induced tons of ground balls. While it is unlikely that Kelly’s move to the ‘pen would turn him into a ground ball machine like Britton, it should be noted that Kelly already possesses an average fastball of 94.7 MPH as a starter, while Britton saw his jump from 91.6 as a 2013 starter to an average of 95.1 as reliever in 2014. A few other notable velocity spikes we’ve seen from pitchers with a history of working as a starter, as compared to fastball velocity as a reliever:
Tommy Hunter 91.6 to 96.0
Andrew Miller 92.5 to 94.9
Wade Davis 91.8 to 93.7
Joba Chamberlain 92.5 to 94.6
Maybe Kelly puts it together as a starter this season. After all, Boston thought very highly of him if they were willing to give up John Lackey last season. Maybe we see Kelly cut down on his walk rates, and finally put together some peripheral stats that match his strong ERA numbers in 2012 and 2013. But what if he doesn’t? What if he continues to be a bottom-of-the-rotation type pitcher? Boston could move him to the ‘pen, see that 95 MPH fastball bump up to the 97-98 range, and reap similar rewards that the O’s received from Britton in 2014.
When the Red Sox locked up Pablo Sandoval a few weeks ago, Giants fans immediately began to wonder who San Francisco would turn to at third base. After all, Sandoval had just wrapped up his seventh season with the Giants, and the Panda had become a fan favorite for his postseason success. With a free agent market saturated with several bench pieces and only one legitimate option in Chase Headley, the Giants began to focus on Headley as a potential replacement. With Headley seeking a four-year deal, worth close to $50 million, the Giants have to ask themselves, is this the best option?
While Sandoval will always be a beloved figure in the Bay Area, let’s not overestimate his value with the club. From 2009-2011, the Panda was worth 12 wins. His WAR over the next three years? 7.9.
Sandoval from 2009-2011:
.857 OPS, .198 ISO, 129 wRC+
Sandoval from 2012-2014:
.759 OPS, .144 ISO, 115 wRC+
Whether or not the Red Sox overpaid on Sandoval is a discussion for another day, so let’s focus on the Giants’ potential options here. If Opening Day was tomorrow, Bruce Bochy would have to decide between Marco Scutaro and Joaquin Arias as his starter at third base. Scutaro, entering his age 39 season, is coming off a major back injury that limited him to just 5 games in 2014. On top of that, Scutaro has made just 15 starts at third base since 2008, and all 15 of those came in 2012. Arias adds some intriguing value in more of a platoon role, but we’ll get to that later. Now let’s take a look at the Giants’ top option on the free agent market, Chase Headley.
Defensively, Headley is widely regarded as one of the top performers in all of baseball. For his career, Headley boasts a 10.8 UZR/150, along with a 2014 season that included 13 DRS, second only to Josh Donaldson’s 20 DRS among AL third basemen. Everyone knows of Headley’s breakout season in 2012: .874 OPS, 31 HR, 145 wRC+, 7.2 (!!!) WAR, and everyone is just as quick to point out the downfall in the next two seasons. But Headley hasn’t been that bad.
Headley in 2013 and 2014:
.725 OPS, 26 HR, 109 wRC+, 8.0 WAR
As we have always known with Headley, his defense increases his value. In 2012, it was merely an afterthought to a career season at the plate. Headley would add solid production the Giants’ lineup, but could they get similar production at a cheaper cost? One step towards that would involve a trade with a team that will break in a top prospect at third base at some point in 2015. Enter the Chicago Cubs and Luis Valbuena.
Valbuena, who will soon be replaced by top prospect Kris Bryant, is projected to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million in 2015. He would make an excellent platoon partner with Arias, for a total of $5 million, or half the price of Chase Headley. But why go with these platoon players when you can add a proven everyday guy in Headley? Because the Giants could use the money to help pay for improvements elsewhere, such as left field, or the starting rotation. They could even save the Headley money for the 2016 season, when the Giants lose over $40 million in annual salaries to the likes of Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Jeremy Affeldt and Scutaro. But a platoon of Valbuena and Arias is not just half the price, it’s equal the production. Let’s take a look:
vs RHP in 2014:
Headley .690 OPS, 99 wRC+
Valbuena .811 OPS, 124 wRC+
vs LHP in 2014:
Headley .721 OPS, 110 wRC+
Arias .720 OPS, 107 wRC+
Now it is worth noting that Headley’s ISO was very consistent from both sides, posting a .130 vs RHP and a .132 vs LHP. Valbuena posted a .208 ISO vs RHP, while Arias was just .076 vs LHP. If the Giants did choose this platoon, the power would be limited from Arias. But what about the defense from each player?
Headley 10.8 (6,366.2 innings)
Valbuena 10.2 (2438.2 innings)
Arias 15.6 (800.1 innings)
Even when you combine Valbuena and Arias, the total time at third base is roughly half the time Headley has seen at the MLB level. With that being said, both are very good defenders at third base.
Would a platoon of Valbuena and Arias produce better results than Chase Headley in 2015? Maybe, maybe not. But it is very possible that the Giants get equal the production, at half the price, and spend some of that extra money elsewhere. Maybe the extra $5-6 million lands them a pitcher they couldn’t quite afford if they had Headley under contract? Maybe it helps them make space for a Justin Upton in left field in 2015? Either way, the Giants would be wise to find a cheaper option at third base.