Trades have dominated the hot stove season so far, and why should that stop in Las Vegas?
Before the winter meetings begin in Sin City, we identified another wave of big-name players who could be on the move and asked ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle to play general manager in finding a trade fit for every player while also giving you a chance to weigh in on their proposed deals.
The San Francisco Giants should trade Madison Bumgarner to the …
Atlanta Braves for LHP Luiz Gohara and RHP Tristan Beck: The Braves had a solid rotation in 2018 and have a slew of other highly rated pitching prospects on the brink of contributing in the majors, including Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Gohara. What the Braves need is that guy you have supreme confidence in for the first game of a playoff series to take the pressure off Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Kevin Gausman.
Bumgarner’s trade value isn’t extraordinarily high right now, as his numbers from 2018 indicate some loss of stuff — a decline in velocity, less movement, lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate — and the San Francisco Giants might decide to keep the franchise icon rather than trade him for a less-than-stellar prospect package. While the stuff might be down, Bumgarner’s rep as a big-game pitcher still makes him an intriguing trade option.
Gohara is a big Brazilian who is still just 22 years old. He looked good in five late-season starts for the Braves in 2017, but his 2018 was a lost season as he pitched just 19 ⅔ innings for the Braves and posted a 4.94 ERA in 12 Triple-A starts. He has a boom-or-bust element to him, but if everything comes together he has top-of-the-rotation potential. The Braves have the depth to deal Gohara, and the San Francisco Giants should take the risk of hitting the lottery with a high-ceiling lefty. Beck was the Braves’ fourth-round pick in 2018 out of Stanford. — Schoenfield
Los Angeles Dodgers … yes, those Los Angeles Dodgers: Valuewise, if you give extra weight to the Dodgers’ win-now mandate, it works out just right for L.A. to ship Alex Verdugo north to be a cornerstone of the Giants’ transition to a younger, more athletic club, while San Francisco sends their long-time ace to ply his trade in rival territory. Sure, the Dodgers have a good deal of rotation depth, but is there ever too much starting pitching?
Anyway, the Dodgers have advanced to the World Series the past two years running; for a team trying desperately to make that last step, who better to acquire than the best postseason pitcher of the past decade? A couple of months ago, I probably wouldn’t even suggest that the Giants would trade Bumgarner to the Dodgers. But then San Francisco hired former Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi to run their baseball ops, so all bets are off. — Doolittle
The Cleveland Indians should trade Corey Kluber to the …
Atlanta Braves for Cristian Pache and Touki Toussaint: What, we’re not counting on comebacks from Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood? I think the Indians can aim higher than Schwarber, who now has over 1,200 plate appearances in the majors and a .228 career average. They should not trade him to one of their AL rivals like the Astros or Yankees. The Braves have seen the Nationals and Mets make big moves, and while Atlanta signed Josh Donaldson, adding a veteran ace to upgrade an already solid rotation makes sense. They can deal from their wealth of young pitchers, and the Indians also get a defense-first center fielder in Pache who is close to the majors. — Schoenfield
Chicago Cubs for Kyle Schwarber (and more): With Jon Lester easing into a new chapter of his career, the Cubs need a No. 1 starter and have a deep roster of big-league position players. The Indians have a surplus of top-end starters but are thin at other positions. This is a good match.
From the Cubs’ perspective, you get three years of Kluber’s deal (three years, $40.5 million remaining including a couple of club options) which should have all sorts of surplus value. Kluber is as consistent as any pitcher in the big leagues. While he’s working on a streak of five straight seasons with over 200 innings pitched, I view that as a proof of durability rather than a red flag. His velocity dropped off a little last season, but as he has increasingly worked in his cutter — and given up his dynamic curveball — I’m confident he’ll have the arsenal to head up the Chicago rotation for at least the duration of his contract. He’s just a special pitcher. Kluber’s deal is cheap enough that the Cubs should still be able to bolster their depth via free agency as the winter progresses.
The Indians’ end of this deal begins with Schwarber, but of course, that would just be a jumping off point, especially because the Indians can leverage all of the Kluber suitors against each other. Schwarber at the very least can be counted on to be a three-win player, such as he was last season, with the potential for a lot more. His left-handed power bat is a great fit for Progressive Field, and in the American League the Indians can find work for him in left field, first base and at designated hitter. In addition to Schwarber, the Cubs could add either Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr., with my presumption being that Cleveland would place a premium on Happ’s versatility.
In cold, hard numbers, this is a fair-value trade, with Cleveland coming out ahead in the long run because they’d be trading Kluber’s three controllable years for the combined eight of Schwarber and Happ. But because of the crowded cast of teams that would love to add Kluber, the Cubs might have to add a third piece. — Doolittle
Or should the Chicago Cubs instead trade Schwarber to the … ?
Houston Astros for a young pitcher: The Astros need a left-handed hitter. They need a DH. Schwarber can play left field if they want to give Kyle Tucker more time in the minors. The Cubs can trade Schwarber — opening a spot in left field for Bryce Harper. The Cubs should ask for Cionel Perez or Framber Valdez, both of whom reached the majors last year and could help out in the bullpen or as rotation depth. — Schoenfield
The Arizona Diamondbacks should trade Zack Greinke to the …
Atlanta Braves: According to the Athletic, Greinke has the ability to block trades to half of the teams in the majors, including most of the contending teams that could use him. However, reportedly that list does not include the Braves, and Atlanta could use some additional veteran stability for its rotation. In Greinke’s case, all it would cost is a heap of cash. Now that Arizona has traded Paul Goldschmidt, there doesn’t seem to be much hope to attach Greinke to another player, unless the D-backs want to eat into their limited roster of good controllable players. So to move Greinke’s contract, it’ll mean parting with some serious money while lowering their asking price in terms of prospects.
A team giving extra weight to short-term wins can justify an expectation of getting above-water value from Greinke, provided he maintains around a 3-WAR pace over the duration of his massive contract. However, to make it palatable, I’d want the D-backs to eat around $40 million of Greinke’s remaining deal. I’d even throw in a lower-tier prospect for the trouble. — Doolittle
Houston Astros: Brad is right; the Diamondbacks are going to have eat a large of the $100 million-plus remaining on the final three years of his contract if they want to trade Greinke and get something back in return. The Astros are another team not on Greinke’s reported no-trade list, and they need to replace Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and the injured Lance McCullers Jr. in the rotation (assuming they don’t re-sign Keuchel or Morton).
The Astros have some interesting young starter prospects like Josh James, Forrest Whitley and Framber Valdez, but I don’t think they’ll want three rookies in the rotation. Greinke would give them some veteran certainty and also hedge against losing Justin Verlander, a free agent after 2019. — Schoenfield
The Miami Marlins should trade J.T. Realmuto to the …
Los Angeles Dodgers for a catching prospect and more: Realmuto wants out of the Miami rebuild, and after watching former teammates like Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna play in meaningful late-season games for their new teams, who can blame him? The Marlins will need a replacement behind the plate, which is why they match up so well with the Dodgers. Los Angeles has both a short-term need behind the plate because of Yasmani Grandal’s free agency and excellent depth at the position in their system, with Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz both rating among the top 50 prospects in the majors. Obviously a deal between the two clubs begins there, probably with Smith, with the Dodgers adding a lower-tier prospect and a lottery-pick guy from the low minors. — Doolittle
New York Mets for a top prospect and more: Sending Realmuto to the Dodgers makes the most sense — Dodgers catchers have hit .144/.250/.231 the past two postseasons (and .132/.190/.158 in the World Series) — but almost every team could use Realmuto, so the Marlins will be flooded with offers. New GM Brodie Van Wagenen has made it clear the Mets are all-in for the immediate future, but somehow, they’re still counting on some combo of Kevin Plawecki and Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate. A deal would probably have to start with shortstop Andres Gimenez, now the Mets’ top prospect, with a couple secondary pieces (the Mets can throw in Plawecki as well). Trades within the division are rare, but Van Wagenen has already proven he likes the action to make this happen. — Schoenfield
The Kansas City Royals should trade Whit Merrifield to the …
Los Angeles Dodgers for OF Alex Verdugo, LHP Caleb Ferguson and RHP Mitchell White: Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore has said he’s not going to trade Merrifield, but the second baseman’s trade value will never be higher. He’s coming off a season in which he hit .304/.367/.438 while leading the AL with 45 steals and 192 hits. He’s also entering his age-30 season, however, and by the time Royals are hopefully competitive again he might be 32 or 33. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have had a revolving door at second base, with nine different regulars over the past 11 seasons — and that doesn’t even include Brian Dozier, their 2018 in-season acquisition. Merrifield is under team control for four more seasons and isn’t even arbitration-eligible until 2020, so the Dodgers get a player who was worth 5.1 WAR in 2018, won’t eat into the payroll and adds an exciting element to their lineup.
Verdugo would be the key to the trade for the Royals. The young outfielder is regarded as the Dodgers’ top prospect, but there isn’t an obvious fit for him right now in Los Angeles — especially with the team also potentially pursuing Bryce Harper in free agency. Verdugo projects as a high-average, line-drive hitter, a perfect fit for the big alleys in Kansas City. Ferguson is a 22-year-old lefty who pitched well out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2018 but flashed starter potential in 2017 at Class A when he fanned 140 in 122 ⅓ innings. White is a hard-throwing righty who pitched in Double-A in 2018 and at least projects as a good bullpen arm if he doesn’t make it as a starter. — Schoenfield
New York Yankees as part of a six-player deal: It’s true that there are a lot of second basemen on the free-agent market, and it’s true that Merrifield will be playing his age-30 season next year. But this is a guy coming off a five-WAR season who still has another season left before he even becomes arbitration-eligible. Even more than that, Merrifield would help add diversity to the New York attack with his ability to steal bases and make contact. The Yankees could move him around some, but I’d envision him as their everyday second baseman. New York could then move Didi Gregorius to a utility role or trade him once he comes back from his Tommy John rehab, or slide Miguel Andujar to first base and Gleyber Torres to third.
What the Yankees can offer the Royals is both cash relief and the kind of controllable, MLB-ready young players Kansas City would favor given Moore’s preference for a short timeline on his rebuilding effort. The Royals could attach Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy to Merrifield, along with some cash. The Yankees could send back Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade and pitching prospect Albert Abreu, who has been dropping a bit on the prospect lists but has the upside to entice K.C. to fold some cash into the transaction. Kennedy would be an expensive depth piece, of course, but he did post 1.0 WAR last season and came up through the Yankee system, so he has some familiarity going for him. Duffy is an excellent bounce-back candidate who could deepen the New York rotation.
The Yanks would be taking on some cash, but Merrifield is a bargain, and Duffy could end up providing surplus value as well for a team angling to keep pace with the Red Sox. Plus, they’re the Yankees, and it’s only cash. — Doolittle
The shift, 100 mph heat, near impossible odds — How hitters are fighting back
LAS VEGAS — From within, the conversation is less about evening the playing field and more about overcoming the odds. It isn’t about taking things back to the way they used to be; it’s about uncovering something new. While most of the baseball community has debated the merits of eliminating the shift — a possibility brought to light in a recent article by The Athletic — teams have become proactive about ways to neutralize it.
Creative thinking has become paramount.
“Since I can remember being around advanced process in the major leagues, and player development at the major league level, the advancements on the run-prevention side have dwarfed what’s going on in the run-scoring side,” Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “If we’re setting records for strikeouts as an industry, let’s think about this differently — let’s ask different questions, let’s be open-minded to ways we can possibly combat that.”
The Dodgers put themselves at the forefront by going unconventional with their hitting coach, taking a chance on a 32-year-old specialist named Robert Van Scoyoc, who barely even played in high school.
Van Scoyoc helped turn J.D. Martinez into a power-hitting dynamo and was influenced by Craig Wallenbrock, the popular private hitting instructor who was among the early advocates of launch angle. Van Scoyoc is the third Wallenbrock pupil to become the main hitting coach this offseason, along with Johnny Washington (San Diego Padres) and Tim Laker (Seattle Mariners). A fourth, Brant Brown, was recently installed as the Dodgers’ hitting strategist.
Van Scoyoc, Brown and Aaron Bates are the three hitting coaches for a Dodgers organization that will scrap the traditional hierarchy and implement what Friedman calls “a collaborative environment.” The only other team with three hitting coaches on its major league staff is the crosstown Los Angeles Angels, who have Jeremy Reed as hitting coach, Paul Sorrento as hitting instructor and Shawn Wooten as assistant hitting coach.
The amount of information available and the amount of cage time required necessitated three men for essentially one job, a concept that is sure to catch on throughout the industry. Angels first-year manager Brad Ausmus called hitting coach “the most time-intensive coaching job on the staff.”
The reason: Hitting is damn near impossible these days.
Major league players combined to strike out 41,207 times in 2018, making it the 11th consecutive season to set a new record. Pitchers are throwing harder, with more movement, than ever before, and defenses have become increasingly more adept at situating themselves in the right places.
Chris Woodward, the new Texas Rangers manager who was previously the Dodgers’ third-base coach, is among those now instructing their hitters to go against the shift.
One of Woodward’s biggest run producers, Joey Gallo, faced a shift on 84.2 percent of his plate appearance last season, second in the majors only to Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis. Gallo’s strength, like that of most left-handed power hitters, is to pull pitches in the inner third of the strike zone. Woodward doesn’t want Gallo to stray from that. But if it’s a two-strike count with two outs and a runner in scoring position, a ground ball to a vacant left side might not be such a bad idea.
“But he’s got to have a physical way of doing it,” Woodward said. “It’s something that he actually has to practice.”
The Rangers will get to work on that this spring.
The Dodgers will too.
“Since I can remember being around advanced process in the major leagues, and player development at the major league level, the advancements on the run-prevention side have dwarfed what’s going on in the run-scoring side. If we’re setting records for strikeouts as an industry, let’s think about this differently — let’s ask different questions, let’s be open-minded to ways we can possibly combat that.”
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman
Last year, 133 left-handed hitters saw at least 100 pitches with a shift. Only 27 of those hitters bunted more than once to try beating it, and only seven bunted more than three times. (The leader, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor, executed 14 bunts against the shift, getting a hit on six of them.) The Dodgers didn’t record a single bunt for a hit against the shift in 2018.
“It should be important enough to get on base to be able to manipulate the bat and hit the ball the other way or to lay a bunt down,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’re going to get better at that. When you see one player on the left side of the infield and you’re down a run — we’re going to challenge our guys to find a way to hit it over there. But you’ve got to do that by practicing. It’s going to be a priority for us to get better at that.”
There were 2,350 shifts on balls in play in 2011, according to Sports Info Solutions. By 2018, that number rose all the way to 34,671. The percentage of plate appearances with a shift went from 12.1 in 2017 to 17.4 in 2018. During that two-year stretch, there were eight instances of a qualified left-handed hitter finishing a season batting .215 or lower. In the 96 years prior, there were a total of 14, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
But it isn’t just how the defense is situated — it’s what the pitchers are throwing.
The average fastball velocity was 91.8 mph as recently as 2008 and sat at 93.6 mph in 2018, according to FanGraphs. The average spin rate — the number of revolutions per minute that a baseball travels after leaving the pitcher’s hand, as measured by Doppler radar — increased every year from 2015 to 2018, from 2,127 RPMs to 2,226, per Statcast.
The information on all of this is exhaustive, which makes simplifying it so crucial.
“I think there’s more in terms of how you prepare for a game,” Friedman said. “It’s always been the exact same, and it’s the same in 30 clubhouses. ‘This guy throws 91 to 94, his slider is 85, he throws the slider 37 percent of the time; when he’s ahead in the count, he throws it 52 percent of the time. Go get him.’ Like, I think there’s more potentially in there on how to prepare hitters to compete for that night’s game. What that means, exactly, I’m not sure yet.”
For the Dodgers, it’ll start with Van Scoyoc, who received 10 at-bats as a high school senior in Southern California and hardly played at a nearby community college called Cuesta. Shortly after a playing career he called “very mediocre,” Van Scoyoc began working with Wallenbrock out of a warehouse in Santa Clarita, California, located about 30 miles northwest of Dodger Stadium.
They preached the importance of launch angle before it became vogue throughout the sport, teaching hitters to keep their swing paths through the strike zone as long as possible and to lift pitches into the air.
Van Scoyoc helped utilityman Chris Taylor and middle-infield prospect Gavin Lux make big statistical leaps during his time as a Dodgers consultant in 2016 and 2017. He parlayed that into a job as hitting strategist with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, a role he called “very broad.” Now Van Scoyoc will help a Dodgers offense that led the National League in runs but went through maddening highs and lows, while serving as one of only three hitting coaches without so much as a minor league at-bat on his résumé.
“I know that it can be notable when a coach gets hired to look at their playing résumé and things like that, but if you take a step back, don’t a lot of the hitters and pitchers go see specialists in the wintertime?” Angels general manager Billy Eppler asked. “So aren’t you just doing the same thing if you’re hiring them to your organization? So it must not be that important to the player, right? So who is it important to?”
“I think players will listen to people that they think can help them, and pretty quickly they judge your intellect, what your base of knowledge is,” Van Scoyoc said. “I had a lot of confidence in the things I believed from all the time I spent studying it and the information I had. I believed when I spoke to people I could convey that. And I think they had confidence to listen to me.”
Jason Ochart — the director of hitting at Driveline Baseball, an innovative, data-driven development program located about 20 miles south of Seattle — has noticed an acceleration in innovative thinking from teams this offseason.
He sees a need for more of it.
Ochart believes that traditional batting practice, which consists of soft tosses from 40 feet away, is basically useless for hitters. He thinks teams should instead utilize high-velocity pitching machines, some of which can now be programmed to replicate major league pitches.
He sees room for growth with regards to game-planning, perhaps by cross-referencing hitter heat maps with pitcher tendencies to carve out specific attack plans for each plate appearance. He called vision training, a form of perceptual learning intended to improve the ability to process what is seen, “the next frontier” in run creation.
Ochart also predicts that more value will once again be placed on hitters who don’t strike out and can’t be shifted on, citing Michael Brantley, who recently signed a two-year, $32 million contract with the Houston Astros.
The modern-day approach, of selling out with two strikes and lifting every pitch, might be fading.
“Hitting shifted and guys started to do that, and they started to swing up and try to hit the ball high and far and got rid of two-strike approaches and lengthened their swings and stuff like that, and then pitching combated by throwing harder, throwing higher fastballs, and getting more swing and misses,” said Ochart, who recently accepted a job as a consultant for a major league team.
“I think maybe the pendulum swung a little too far, and it might swing back in the other direction.”
Is it really that crazy to think the Mets can win the NL East?
Hey, the New York Mets didn’t hire Brodie Van Wagenen to be just another conventional general manager. They could have gone with the latest 30-something prodigy from Harvard or Yale if they wanted to do that.
(OK, Van Wagenen went to Stanford, the “Harvard of the West” except with a prettier campus.)
The longtime player agent was an out-of-the-box hire by Jeff Wilpon, the much-criticized COO of the Mets (dad Fred is the majority owner), and the new 44-year-old general manager has proved in less than two months on the job that he’s not afraid of the big move and not afraid to act quickly. In one sense, that already separates him from most of his peers.
Van Wagenen engineered the blockbuster deal with the Mariners that brought in Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, he signed free-agent reliever Jeurys Familia, he may or may not have discussed a trade or trades involving Noah Syndergaard for J.T. Realmuto, and after ditching that idea, signed free-agent catcher Wilson Ramos. The Mets have shored up three of their biggest holes from 2018: the bullpen, catcher and infield depth.
Now throw in a little smack talk.
“Internally, we would argue that we’re the favorites in the division right now,” Van Wagenen told SNY network.
Get the tabloid headlines ready!
I love it.
I mean, the New York media is going to have a field day with this. That’s OK. Stealing some attention away from the Yankees is always a good thing. Yes, “internally” is a little vague. Did Van Wagenen mean This is just our collective feeling right now in the front office? Did he mean No, seriously, we’ve run the analysis through 10,000 simulations on our propriety projection system and it says we’re the best team in the NL East? Or did he mean Jeff Wilpon told me to say this? Or maybe he just accidentally spoke out loud in his quiet voice.
Here’s the thing: It’s not that crazy of a thing to say. He didn’t predict a division title. He didn’t refer to any of the Mets’ rivals as an Evil Empire or refer to the Red Sox as the Golden State Warriors of baseball as Brian Cashman did during the 2017 offseason when Boston got Chris Sale. In the annals of ridiculous things people in a front office might say, this isn’t so outrageous.
Like I said, it’s not even that silly. According to the latest projections at FanGraphs, the Mets are the second-best team in the division:
Of course, it’s early in the offseason. The Phillies are certainly not done and the Braves may have a couple of moves on the margins (or maybe they’ll surprise us and trade for Realmuto or Corey Kluber) and maybe that projection is a little soft. The Nationals have signed Patrick Corbin and upgraded their bullpen and catcher, but may still sign a second baseman and you never know what will happen with Bryce Harper. In other words, the rosters are far from set, so let’s not print any playoff tickets just yet.
I also like what Van Wagenen has done. Yes, the Cano/Diaz trade has a chance to backfire if Jarred Kelenic, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, develops into a star and Diaz blows out his elbow and Cano gets old overnight. Everyone trashed the Cano part of the trade, ignoring the fact that he’s actually still a good player and hit very well (.317/.363/.497) after he returned from his 80-game suspension for taking a banned substance. Even playing just half the season, he was worth 3.2 WAR and while he’s 36, he has those quick hands and baseball instincts that suggest he should remain productive for at least two or three more seasons. Yes, the last couple of years of the contract may not look good, but in dumping Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, the Mets’ payroll wasn’t adversely affected for the first couple of years.
Plus, roster flexibility is so important these days and now the Mets can slide Jeff McNeil into a utility role or maybe he takes over at third base if Todd Frazier continues to decline. Or maybe Cano slides over to first base if Peter Alonso isn’t ready. The Mets were 28th in the majors in bullpen ERA and now should have one of the best combos in the game in Familia and Diaz. (On the strength of those two additions, FanGraphs currently rates the Mets’ bullpen third best in the majors.) Ramos has been one of the best-hitting catchers and provides a significant upgrade over what the Mets received in 2018 (.208/.297/.355).
All this is to say that Van Wagenen hasn’t acted irrationally or tried to do too much too soon, like A.J. Preller did a few years ago in his first year with the Padres, when he foolishly traded for Matt Kemp, traded away Trea Turner and overpaid for James Shields. The Padres went from 77 wins to 74 wins.
While most GMs worry about trading away the wrong prospect, or giving one year too many for a free agent, or are hamstrung by restrictive payroll constraints, they are often paralyzed into non-action. Van Wagenen’s boldness has been a welcome change of pace.
Still: 85 wins isn’t going to win the division. What’s your next move, Brodie?
Brewers, Rays, Twins know how to play the winter waiting game
The Tampa Bay Rays don’t know where they will play in a decade. The Milwaukee Brewers spent about $150 million less in payroll than the champion Red Sox. The Minnesota Twins just announced they will retire the number of their most prominent 2018 star, Joe Mauer, who is headed into retirement.
These three franchises face perpetual challenges in payroll and resource management, working with the knowledge that one big personnel mistake — paying too much money to the wrong guy — could devastate their franchise, a concern the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and other superpowers don’t bear. For the Rays, Brewers and Twins, two significant mistakes could require a recovery period of five to eight years, and (probably) front office turnover.
Because of that ledge the Rays, Brewers and Twins must carefully creep along, they will never be the envy of other franchises. But they seem to be some of the best current examples of how teams are carefully sorting through their choices, and aggressively working to avoid risk and extract the full power of dollars spent.
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