Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sox Won't Miss Middlebrooks

Middlebrooks seems unlikely to resurrect his career in San Diego (RantSports)
The rapidly improving Padres made another move yesterday, trading catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. In Hanigan, the Red Sox get a veteran catcher to replace David Ross and back up Christian Vazquez. Middlebrooks fills San Diego's third base hole left by Chase Headley, adding another righthanded power bat to a lineup that already includes righties Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Derek Norris, and Jedd Gyorko.

If the Padres are counting on Middlbebrooks to be their starting third sacker, they're going to be sorely disappointed. Given his recent struggles and injury woes, he's simply not a major league caliber third baseman, much less an everyday player. He's not the solution.

It's been a long fall from grace for Middlebrooks, who burst on the scene with a rip-roaring start to his big league career in 2012. Called up to replace an injured Kevin Youkilis, the 23 year-old hit so well that Boston traded Youkilis so he could be their everyday third baseman. One of the few bright spots in an otherwise miserable Red Sox season, Middlebrooks was hitting .288/.325/.509 when an errant Esmil Rogers fastball shattered a bone in his right hand on August 10th, ending Middlebrooks season Jim Rice-style and bid for Rookie of the Year (not that he would have won in the year of Mike Trout).

It's tempting to blame his subsequent struggles on that injury and call it a career-altering event the same way Nomar Garciaparra's 2001 wrist injury was. But a closer look reveals Middlebrooks was already in the midst of a prolonged slump, having batted just .240/.276/.416 over his previous 35 games when his season was cut short.

Middlebrooks has yet to reach the heights of his rookie season, much less deliver on the enormous promise he displayed in the first few months of his career. It didn't take long for pitchers to figure him out, and he hasn't been able to make the necessary adjustments. Middlebrooks appears to be a player, like Kevin Maas or former Red Sox Walt Dropo, who peaked as a rookie and was incapable of replicating his early success.

One of the few weak links on the 2013 World Series champs, Middlebrooks batted just .227/.271/.425 and spent much of the summer in Pawtucket following a terrible start to the season, which was compounded by a strained back. Boston's trade of Jose Iglesias gave him back the third base job, and he hit better upon his return to the big leagues (.805 OPS after the demotion compared to .617 before), only to disappear during the playoffs (.490 OPS and one RBI in 10 games), leading John Farrell to bench him in the World Series in favor of rookie phenom Xander Bogaerts.

One would have thought Middlebrooks could only improve upon his ugly sophomore campaign, but in 2014 he somehow regressed even further. He played just four games before being sidelined by a strained calf. He returned in late April, only to land back on the Disabled List three weeks later with a broken finger. When he finally made his way back at the beginning of August, he was given every opportunity to redeem himself and prove he deserved to be Boston's starting third baseman in 2015. He bombed, batting .188/.230/.236 without a home run the rest of the way (42 games).

That led the Red Sox to go out and sign Pablo Sandoval this winter, a huge upgrade over their floundering incumbent. Given Boston's ensuing logjam on the left side of the infield (they signed shortstop Hanley Ramirez despite still having Bogaerts at short), Middlebrooks became expendable. It was only a matter of time before he was dealt, and the Red Sox were lucky to find a suitor for their 26 year-old project in San Diego.

Middlebrooks's career, like many of the fly balls he hits next year, seems destined to die in Petco Park, which is even more unkind to hitters than Fenway is to pitchers. Middlebrooks has hit a mere .226/.269/.406 away from Fenway, which doesn't bode well for him or the Padres. The one thing Middlebrooks does well--hit for power--is going to be nullified by his home ballpark. As such, he's going to be a liability to a Padres club that needs all the firepower it can get in order to overcome the Dodgers and reigning World Series champs in their own division.

So if the Padres think they're going to get anything above a replacement level player out of Middlebrooks, they're terribly mistaken.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Peavy Stays with San Francisco

Peavy will return to the Giants (NESN)
Shortly after re-signing reliever Sergio Romo to a two-year deal, the San Francisco Giants did the same thing with starting pitcher Jake Peavy.

Peavy, who went 7-13 with a 3.73 ERA between the Red Sox and Giants last year, will make $24 million from the deal, which breaks down into a $4 million signing bonus, $7 million salary for 2015, and $13 million salary for 2016. The contract includes a full no-trade clause for the 33 year-old righthander, who was traded in each of the past two summers.

Peavy pitched well in his return to the National League, bouncing back from a miserable start with Boston to post a 2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 3.41 K/BB ratio in his dozen regular season starts with San Francisco. After helping pitch the Giants into the postseason, though, he bombed in the playoffs. He was particularly awful in the World Series, surrendering nine earned runs to a mediocre Royals offense in six and a third innings over two starts. The Giants won their third title in five years in spite of him, not because of him. Ditto last year's Red Sox.

And while there's no way Peavy could sustain his second half of 2014 for a full season, the Giants aren't betting on a dozen great starts from someone who's going to be 34 next year. They're betting on a three-time All-Star with a proven track record of success, a guy who's topped 200 innings in two of the past three years and five times overall. For Peavy to be worth the money, he'll need to provide three or four wins above replacement over the next two years combined. That shouldn't be too difficult for someone who's been worth no less than 1.7 fWAR in each of the past 11 seasons, several of which were shortened by injury.

Then again, maybe the Giants should be worried. Peavy's FIP, xFIP, and SIERA have gone up every year since 2011, and so has his walk rate. Meanwhile, his average velocity has steadily declined, with his average fastball falling below 90 miles per hour for the first time last year. Not surprisingly, he posted the worst strikeout rate of his career in 2014, barely cracking the 7 whiffs per 9 innings mark. Steamer says he'll be worth just one fWAR next year, and that's working under the assumption he makes 29 starts, something he's done only twice in the past seven seasons. At his absolute best he'll be a league average starter going forward, which means San Francisco, in all likelihood, just forked over $24 million to a below average one in his mid-30s.

But the Giants have the most recent data on Peavy, so one has to think they know him best. He did pitch really well for them last year, even if it was in a small sample size. In that ballpark and against weaker National League competition, who's to say he won't remain effective for at least another year or two? He rounds out the rotation beyond Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Tim Hudson. He also provides plenty of veteran leadership, experience, grit, and a great clubhouse presence, whatever that's worth.

So is Peavy money well-spent? Probably not, but few free agents are these days.

Yes, the Padres Will be Good

Upton rounds out a formidable San Diego outfield (SI)
In the three years I've been writing this blog, I could probably count the number of posts dedicated to the San Diego Padres on one hand. Welcome back to baseball relevance, San Diego.

Piggybacking off yesterday's post and my suggestion that San Diego still needed another big bat before I could call them contenders, the Padres got one in Justin Upton. San Diego swapped out four players for B.J. Upton's little brother and another player from the rapidly dismantling Braves, who appear to be punting on 2015 after trading Jason Heyward (replacing him with the perfectly average Nick Markakis) and Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.

The Padres, who recently traded for All-Star catcher Derek Norris as well, now have one of the best-hitting outfields in baseball in Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers (though they all bat from the right side and project to be terrible defensively). That leaves them with an entire outfield's worth of reserves--Seth Smith, Will Venable, and Carlos Quentin--from which to trade, though it might be worth keeping one or two around given Kemp's age and injury history as well as Myers's inexperience.

More importantly, the Padres revamped their lineup without sacrificing much of their dynamite rotation of Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Odrisamer Despaigne. That they were able to acquire four big bats via trade while giving up just one of their major league-ready arms (Jesse Hahn) is remarkable, but perhaps also speaks to the stupidity of the teams they were dealing with. Given what the Dodgers, Rays, and Braves just gave up, they were well within their right to demand at least one of the aforementioned hurlers, and yet not a single one was moved. Billy Beane, who offered the worst player of San Diego's new quartet, got Hahn in return. Incredible.

I think that says something about how teams treat prospects, that simply stockpiling them is the way to go because the law of averages, right? Well the minor league washout rate is something like 83 percent, which means five out of every six prospects don't pan out. Hording prospects doesn't improve those odds. Rather than collecting players who are still in the midst of their development (guys with "upside," which is really just the "downside" of likely washing out), teams should be targeting players who have already reached the majors or are about to. They should be aiming for nearly-finished products instead of projects, quality over quantity.

Anyways, kudos to the Padres for not just keeping their rotation mostly intact, but coming out of nowhere to gear up for a playoff run in 2015. Just four wins below .500 last year in spite of a historically anemic offense, they were wise to go for it when it makes sense for most teams with a fighting chance at October to do so (thanks to improved parity and the second wild card). I think they're probably even with the Giants now, maybe even a little bit better, which means I'm putting them down for their first winning season since 2010. The division still belongs to the star-studded Dodgers, but the Padres are well-positioned to win upwards of 85 games and contend for one of the two wild card spots.

Because for the first time in a long time, the Padres are going to hit.

Will the Padres be Any Good?

Myers (pictured) and Kemp make the Padres considerably better (UTSanDiego)
Offensively, the 2014 San Diego Padres were pathetic. Among all 30 major league teams, they ranked dead last in hits, batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and, not surprisingly, runs scored. Nobody in their lineup hit more than 15 home runs, and only one player (Seth Smith) surpassed 20 doubles. Nobody who logged more than 70 plate appearances for last year's Padres batted over .270, just as nobody reached the modest totals of 60 runs or 60 RBI. And for a team with such dreadful power, San Diego did not run nearly enough, stealing just 91 bases (ninth in the NL). Unlike the Royals, they failed to overcome their lack of power by manufacturing runs.

And yet, thanks to a sneaky-good pitching staff that ranked second in the National League (and fourth in baseball) with a 3.27 ERA, San Diego finished third in the NL West at 77-85, just four wins shy of a .500 season. With a few lineup upgrades to complement their talented rotation, the Padres would be legitimate postseason contenders in 2015.

Ladies and gentlemen, enter Matt Kemp and Wil Myers, two middle-of-the-order mashers who bring some much-needed thump to San Diego's anemic lineup. Better yet, both are under team control for the next five years. Kemp, dealt by the Dodgers last week, was the 2011 NL MVP runner-up to Ryan Braun, hit 25 home runs last year, and has put up a 140 OPS+ or higher in three of the past four seasons. He's making boatloads of money, but the Dodgers are covering enough so that he'll only cost San Diego around $15 million per year.

And then there's Myers, recently netted through a blockbuster 11 player, three team swap. A product of the Royals farm system, Myers has already been traded once before, going to the Rays (for James Shields and Wade Davis), with whom he earned 2013 AL Rookie of the Year honors despite playing just 88 games. He struggled mightily in his sophomore season, losing more than 200 points off his OPS has he battled injuries and a slow start. He's yet to play more than 90 games in a big league season and must prove he's capable of holding up over a full season, but there's no denying his superstar potential.

PetCo Park is notoriously tough on hitters, but both are coming from sever pitcher's parks in Tampa Bay and Los Angeles. Kemp's numbers should be expected to decline with age (he's already 30), but one would expect Myers to match or exceed his rookie production. Their monster power plays anywhere, so 81 games at PetCo shouldn't murder their numbers (though it definitely won't help). Between them they should be good for five or six additional wins next year, maybe more if Myers really takes off.

So where does that leave the Padres? With an abundance of outfielders (I hear the Red Sox have a similar problem) and a lineup still rife with question marks (do Jedd Gyorko and Will Venable bounce back? Can Carlos Quentin stay healthy? Will Seth Smith replicate his success). They'll score more runs with Kemp and Myers aboard, but perhaps not significantly more given Kemp's age and injury history and Myers's recent struggles.

Assuming the pitching holds steady, San Diego could easily improve to .500 next year, 85 wins if everything goes right. The Dodgers and Giants are still heavy favorites to take first and second place in the division, but both have gotten weaker this offseason and could be ore vulnerable next year. The Padres aren't quite ready to overtake them, but they're definitely going in the right direction. Another big bat or proven starter would go a long way, but they've already improved considerably and it's not even Christmas.

Then again, it's not like the Padres lineup could have gotten any worse.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hot Stove Roundup

Quick recap of some of the major moves made yesterday and today.

Alex Rios to Royals for 1 year, $11 million
Rios fits the Royals mold to a T: .280 hitter with good speed but zero pop. Has declined pretty steadily over the past two years and will be 34 on Opening Day, but I buy him being a league average bat for at least one more year.

Brad Penny to White Sox for minor league deal
I wasn't even aware that Penny (36) was still in the majors (as of last year). Shows how much I know.

Brandon Morrow to Padres for 1 year, $2.5 million (+5 for starting, +1 for relieving)
The once-promising starter is now 30 and has been abysmal the past two years (5.65 ERA), but at that price it's worth seeing if he can recapture his form at PetCo.

Brett Anderson to Dodgers for 1 year, $10 million
Five years ago Anderson was considered one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, but a slew of injuries have prevented him from pitching 85 innings in each of the past four years. He has pitched well when healthy, though, and should benefit from Dodger Stadium. Plus he's only going to be 27 next year. I like his bounce back chances a lot, but there's a good chance he won't even make double-digit starts.

Chris Capuano to Yankees for 1 year, $5 million
New York re-signed Capuano, who pitched not-terribly out of their rotation last year with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia out. Is a solid backup option and can come out of the bullpen if needed, but at 36 he may be nearing the end of the line.

Edinson Volquez to Royals for 2 years, $20 million
Enjoyed a nice rebound with the Pirates last year, but I wouldn't bet on it happening again in the American League. Volquez was horrible and often-injured in the five seasons before last, which makes me inclined to think he'll revert to his previous struggles with KC.

Jed Lowrie to Astros for 3 years, $23 million
Lowrie returns to Houston, where he played in 2012 before being traded to Oakland. Similar to J.D. Drew offensively, but his glove isn't nearly as good. A fair price for a solid shortstop.

Mike Morse to Marlins for 2 years, $16 million
Solid move by the Marlins, adding a player who, when healthy, has been one of the best hitters in the game over the past five years. His 125 wRC+ during that time ties him with Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton, and Bryce Harper. Morse is a risk given his age (he'll be 33 next year) and injury history (has averaged just 113 games player per year over the past five), but affordable impact bats are hard to come by these days.

Sergio Romo to Giants for 2 years, $15 million
Classic Giants overpaying to retain one of their own. His FIP and ERA have risen in each of the past three seasons while his ERA+ and BBrate has fallen, a troubling trend for someone who's going to be 32 next year. Don't get me wrong, he's a solid reliever who got a little unlucky last year with his home run/fly ball rate, and he'll be worth the money if he pitches like he did from 2010 to 2013, but I wouldn't pay $15 million to see if last year was really an aberration.