Monday, March 27, 2017

Will Wright Recover?

Another devastating injury has placed Wright's future in doubt (Sporting News)
Spring Training is supposed to be a time for optimism, especially for baseball's fallen stars. Players are in the best shape of their lives, eager to prove they can still hack it. Last year's slumps are in the past. There's hope that Jason Heyward and Pablo Sandoval will hit again, that Matt Harvey and Sonny Gray will rediscover their dominance. Everyone has a clean slate, and even the most unlikely comebacks seem possible (remember Grady Sizemore?).

For David Wright, however, this spring has brought only more pain and misery. He hasn't been able to throw since being diagnosed with a right shoulder impingement in late February, and likely won't be able to until the Mets break camp. Wright will stay behind in Florida, where he'll once again set down the road to recovery.

But as the 34-year-old works his way back from yet another injury, scribes have called his future into question while simultaneously reminding us how great he used to be. When the news was first announced, ESPN wondered if Wright was finished. SI lamented how his body began falling apart just as the Mets started coming together.

Wright's career arc has been tragic, marked by late-season collapses, poor supporting casts, and debilitating injuries that have prevented him from logging a full season since 2012 and derailed what was shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career. They've caused him to age more like Scott Rolen than Adrian Beltre, limiting him to a .266/.339/.396 (107 OPS+) slash line and 3.0 bWAR over the past three seasons combined. He can no longer play the field, doesn't contribute on the bases and is merely average at the plate, which are all problems for a guy earning $20 million a year.

Still, all this talk of Wright's demise seems premature. He still has three years remaining on his contract beyond 2017 and is closer to 30 than 40. Even if he sits the entire year out, he could still conceivably return next year and be productive at 35. While most of his skills have deteriorated, his pop and patience are still intact (as evidenced by his .212 ISO and 15.9 percent walk rate last year), so he's not totally useless. He'd have more value to an American League team as a DH, but this winter revealed the demand for his skill set to be at an all-time low.

It wasn't too long ago that Wright was one of the most desirable players in baseball, a five-tool third basemen seemingly destined for Cooperstown. Now he's on the sidelines again, and one has to wonder how much suffering he'll go through before deciding to stay there.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017 MLB Award Predictions

Can anyone challenge Mike Trout? (LA Times)
Seeing that Chris Sale was tabbed as the Cy Young frontrunner in the American League while researching my last post got me thinking about who will take home the hardware this fall. Here are my picks:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
Trout has never been better, coming off his second 10-win season and about to enter a player's traditional prime at age 25. He led the majors in walks (116), runs (123), OBP (.441), and OPS+ (174) last year while smacking 29 homers, stealing 30 bases and driving in 100. As always, the biggest obstacle to Trout winning the award will be his teammates, who project to be not very good and will inevitably open the door for a lesser player on a contender to challenge Trout. Of the mere mortals, Josh Donaldson probably has the best chance after averaging 7.8 bWAR over the past four seasons, but his team may also struggle to stay above .500. Same goes for Manny Machado, who's not quite Donaldson's equal as a hitter but is a superior fielder and is still improving. Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve will give Trout a run, too, though I'm not convinced either will duplicate last year's power spikes. If Trout wins he'll become the youngest three-time winner in baseball history.

AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber
As noted above, Sale is the early favorite, and I could see him winning if he pitches as well as he did last year and wins 22 games instead of 17 thanks to Boston's better, well, everything. But he's a lefty in Fenway, so it wouldn't surprise me if he winds up with the highest ERA of his career (which is currently 3.41), especially if his strikeout rate doesn't rebound. New rotation-mate David Price could bounce back if his elbow holds up, although Rick Porcello is bound to regress along with several other top finishers from last year, including J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Zach Britton, and Justin Verlander (don't hate me, Kate Upton). My money's on Kluber, the 2014 recipient who placed third last year after leading the league in FIP (3.26), ERA+ (149) and shutouts (2). Cleveland looks poised to run away with the division this year, which should help him win a healthy number of games. And while he turns 31 ten days into April, his arm has a lot less mileage (887 1/3 innings) than most hurlers his age.

AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi
It's been a decade since the Red Sox had continuity in left field (miss you, Manny Ramirez), but that's about to change real soon. Benintendi dazzled during last year's call-up, proving he's the real deal by slashing .295/.359/.476 with 14 extra-base hits in 34 games. Recently named baseball's top prospect, he appears ready to set the league on fire this year at the age of 22. There's been talk of batting him third in Boston's lineup, which could result in some impressive counting stats if he sticks there all season. He'll likely lose some playing time to Chris Young if he doesn't improve against lefties, however, after batting just .179 with no extra-base knocks against them last year.

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Michael Brantley
Brantley suited up for just 11 games in a lost 2016 and was notably absent from Cleveland's World Series run, making it easy to forget the guy who batted .319/.382/.494 over the previous two seasons. Look for the nearly-30-year-old to get back on track this year and spark the Indians to another division title.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
Harper looked well on his way to a second straight MVP last April, slugging nine home runs with 24 RBIs and a 1.274 OPS over his first 19 games before a shoulder injury reduced him to a league-average hitter the rest of the way. Now fully healthy, expect the 24-year-old to mimic his Ted Williams-esque production from two years ago for a Nationals team seeking its fourth division title in six years. If he's unable to stay on the field, however, reigning winner Kris Bryant is looming and Corey Seager could be even better as a sophomore. Don't sleep on Nolan Arenado either if the Rockies compete this year.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
If Kershaw's healthy, he's pretty much a lock. He missed a third of the season last year and still finished fifth. Nobody was better on a per-inning basis, and he was every bit as dominant when he returned from his back injury in September. If Kershaw wins again this will be his fourth, putting him in elite company with Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only hurlers with more than three. If the injury bug bites again, however, the race becomes crowded by the likes of Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, and Noah Syndergaard.

NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson
Swanson shined in his 38-game debut last year, batting .302/.361/.442 for an Atlanta team that fell out of contention on Opening Day. They project to be better in 2017, however, and getting a full season from 2015's first overall draft pick can only help. The 23-year-old may have a Francisco Lindor-type season in store.

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Kyle Schwarber
After missing all but two regular season games along with the NLDS and NLCS, Schwarber returned for the World Series and didn't skip a beat, batting .412 with a .500 OBP against Cleveland's stingy staff. The 24-year-old should be all-systems-go for 2017 and will look to build off the .842 OPS he flashed as a rookie in 2015.

Sale Already a Savior

Sale was solid in Monday's Spring Training debut (Chowder and Champions)
It's been a little more than three months since the Red Sox rocked the sports world by trading for Chris Sale, and I'm still having trouble eating solid food. That's because my jaw is still unhinged from when I first heard the news of baseball's biggest offseason maneuver, a stunning blockbuster that altered the courses of both franchises for years to come. Four months after courting Sale at the trade deadline, Boston finally got its man -- at an exorbitant price.

Only now is it starting to sink in. Sale made his first appearance with his new team in Spring Training this week, and it went reasonably well. He didn't dominate, but he "felt strong," which is all anyone cares about this time of year. The rust will dissipate, the command will come.

Of course, any other news would have been worrisome. It was Sale's first start -- he should feel strong. But with the aftershocks from last week's David Price scare still reverberating throughout New England, a positive update on his co-ace was highly encouraging for Red Sox Nation. At least one of Boston's elite arms is healthy.

Most teams don't even have a pitcher like Price to begin with, and the ones that do could hardly afford to lose him. The Red Sox can, however, because they are in a unique position. They have a younger, better version of Price in Sale -- a poor man's Clayton Kershaw. If the whitecoats pronounced Price out for the season tomorrow, Boston could still be reasonably expected to win 90 games and the AL East. That speaks to how good the rest of their roster is, as well as Sale's ability to carry a staff.

That's what the Red Sox envisioned when they mortgaged their future for him. Boston failed to land Sale at the deadline, settling for Drew Pomeranz instead, but upped the ante when Chicago made him available again during baseball's winter meetings. Once Dave Dombrowski fixates on a player, he'll do whatever it takes to acquire him, whether that's shell out over $200 million for Prince Fielder (and Price) or strip his franchise of its most coveted prospects.

Given that Boston already runs one of the highest payrolls in professional sports, Dombrowski's resorted to cannibalizing its once-bright farm system in a series of trades for Pomeranz, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, and now Sale. No team had ever traded the number one prospect before, until Dealin' Dave flipped Yoan Moncada to the White Sox along with Michael Kopech -- a flamethrower who's been clocked at 105 -- and a pair of decent throw-ins (Victor Diaz and Luis Alexander Basabe, both of whom have big league potential). Boston boasted the sport's best farm system when Dombrowski took over in August, 2015. Eighteen months later, they have one of the worst.

The transformation at the Major League level has been equally swift, however, as Dombrowski's wheeling and dealing paid immediate dividends. A last place team when Dombrowski arrived on the scene, the Red Sox won the division in their first full year under his watch and enter 2017 as favorites to make the World Series. Not since 2011 have the Sox been so star-studded.

Their loaded roster is a byproduct of Dombrowski's eternal commitment to winning now, future be damned. Whereas his predecessor, Ben Cherington, was a conservative prospect-hugger who preferred to open his checkbook for players he wanted, Dombrowski never met a prospect he wouldn't trade (not even Andrew Benintendi, baseball's new number one prospect and already a fan favorite, was safe). Their wildly different approaches manifested in the players they pursued; Cherington sought mid-tier, impact veterans such as Shane Victorino, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval, whereas Dombrowski reaches for the stars. Cherington didn't acquire a true superstar during his four years at the helm, while Dombrowski has already acquired two future Hall of Fame starters and the decade's best closer in half the time. Cherington's 2015 club didn't have an ace; Dombrowski obtained two in the span of 12 months.

There's a new sheriff in town, and a trigger-happy gunslinger at that.
Price has struggled with his health and performance in Boston (CBS Boston)
It was this sweeping shift in philosophy that made the Sale swap possible, because Cherington never would have had the stomach for it. To get a lot you need to give a lot in return, and Dombrowski was willing to pony up. Boston got another ace to pair with Price, giving them their best 1-2 pitching punch since Curt Schilling joined Pedro Martinez in 2004. Chicago netted a budding superstar and a potential ace in return, accelerating its rebuild with what Dave Cameron hailed as the winter's best transaction.

Indeed, the future is bright for both sides. The Red Sox are the prohibitive favorites in the AL East and a top-five team despite losing David Ortiz -- the best hitter in baseball last year -- to retirement. The White Sox now have the foundation for a winning team and should emerge as contenders by decade's end. On paper, the trade was a classic win-win.

And yet, I was admittedly lukewarm about the Sale acquisition when it was announced back in December. I felt then, and still feel now, that Boston overpaid for Sale's services. They gave up six years of Moncada for three years of Sale, plus whatever Kopech and co. provide (which could be substantial, given how hard Kopech and Diaz throw and the tools Basabe displayed as a teenager). If Moncada and Kopech realize their potential, this trade is a clear win for Chicago. If all four do, it will be disgustingly lopsided.

What bothered me most about the trade, however, was that the Red Sox didn't need Sale. They already had an ace and one of the best rotations in baseball, finishing top-10 in ERA and fWAR last year. Their stable featured two Cy Young winners (Price and Rick Porcello) at the top, two 2016 All-Stars (Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz), and a likely future All-Star in Eduardo Rodriguez. They still had Clay Buchholz at the time too, another former All-Star and occasional Cy Young contender when healthy, but quickly dumped him on Philadelphia after Sale made him expendable.

For all of Buchholz's struggles last year, he was a meaningful contributor in a variety of roles and was a dominant starter as recently as 2015. He still provided value last year despite posting the
second-worst ERA (4.78) and highest FIP (5.06) of his career, and almost certainly would have pitched better this year, especially if used exclusively in relief. He could have given this year's outfit something if not depth, but obviously Dombrowski felt differently. Gaining Sale meant losing Buchholz along with the aforementioned prospects -- too much, in my estimation.

And so I did not feel the ecstasy that baseball fans are supposed to feel when their team scores an ace, the way I felt when the Sox got Schilling and Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Too much had been sacrificed to fill a void that did not exist, to make an already great team marginally better. It did nothing to address the gaping hole in the middle of Boston's lineup, which most agreed was the team's most pressing issue entering the offseason and one that could have been readily filled by any number of inexpensive right-handed sluggers (Mike Napoli, Chris Carter, Mark Trumbo, et. all) who would have fit perfectly in Fenway. If Dombrowski wanted to make a splash, he could have wooed Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista a moderate sum. Instead, he paid a king's ransom for Sale and signed Mitch Moreland to man first.

Circumstances have changed since December, however, and now Sale appears even more valuable. With Price's 31-year-old elbow in question and his future uncertain, it's comforting to know that Boston still has someone to lead the rotation. Were it not for Sale that would have been Porcello, who's had one great year in his eight-year career and is more of a number two at best. The pressure on him would have been enormous, and we all remember how well (or rather, how poorly) he performed the last time he faced sustained pressure after signing his huge contract extension early in 2015. His postseason numbers (0-3, 5.66 ERA) tell a similar story.

Sale has never pitched in October, but he has fronted a staff for the past half-decade. All he's done during that time is make five straight All-Star teams and finish in the top six of Cy Young voting every year. Last year he focused on pitching deeper into games and recorded a career-high 226 2/3 innings -- just 10 outs shy of Price's ML-leading 230 -- and won 17 games for a losing team. He could easily win 20 on the Sox and possibly the Cy which has eluded him. Sale can be counted on for over 200 quality innings, a similar number of strikeouts and an ERA around three -- the same steady production for which Boston made Price the highest-paid pitcher in history. If both stay healthy, the Red Sox should have one of the best rotations in baseball and will be difficult to beat come playoff time.

Dombrowski drew a fair amount of criticism for going all-in on Sale. After investing nearly a quarter-billion dollars in Price the previous winter, it was hard for him to justify doubling down on another ace. Sale was a luxury Boston didn't need. But when you splurge on a sports car the warranty becomes an afterthought, and whether they knew it or not the Red Sox were essentially getting an insurance policy on Price in Sale. And like all insurance policies, you never truly appreciate it until you need it.