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The 30: deGreat Debate

Have the Mets, Nats, Royals, and Twins positioned themselves for success following relatively quiet trade deadline showings?

Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline has passed, and the winners and losers have been toasted and chided.

Much to the Phillies’ chagrin, however, not every team that stood pat joined Ruben Amaro’s squad in earning the “loser” label. Today, I’ll look at four teams that avoided our ridicule despite failing to make major moves, and assess how well positioned they are — either for the stretch run or the future.

So pop your head in:

Don’t wander too far:

And embrace your wolflike tendencies:

It’s Week 18 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

Recently, Welington Castillo summed up Cubs fandom in one Vine. In the 10th inning of Wednesday’s game against the Rockies, with the score knotted at 3 and a runner on second, the Chicago catcher got a pitch he could handle and clubbed it to right-center field. It was a mighty wallop, and Castillo promptly executed a glorious bat flip, flinging his timber well clear of home plate, presumably to make way for his teammates to run onto the field in celebration. The ball drifted, drifted, and drifted. Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon tracked it, tracked it, and tracked it, and …

Rest assured, Cubs fans: The future is still very bright.

Look at It This Way …

The 2014 playoff-hopeful Brewers and Jays were bottom-tier teams a year ago.

30. Texas Rangers (43-68, -130 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (44-67, -66, LW: 28)
28. Houston Astros (47-65, -87, LW: 29)
27. Arizona Diamondbacks (49-63, -78, LW: 26)
26. Chicago Cubs (47-63, -39, LW: 27)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (49-63, -76, LW: 25)
24. Minnesota Twins (50-60, -32, LW: 24)
23. Boston Red Sox (49-62, -57, LW: 22)
22. San Diego Padres (51-60, -21, LW: 23)

It’s not quite fair to say that the Twins did nothing at the trade deadline. But it is fair to say they did nothing major.

First, they sent Kendrys Morales to the Mariners for relief pitcher Stephen Pryor on July 24. Then, they dealt Sam Fuld to the A’s for pitcher Tommy Milone on deadline day, giving Oakland a valuable fourth outfielder1 but getting a back-of-the-rotation starter who’s five years younger than Fuld and who’s under team control through 2017. Finally, they signed catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $12 million extension (with a $6 million vesting option for 2017), locking up one of their two 2014 All-Stars.

At first glance, the Suzuki deal looks like a decent move. After all, he’s hitting .308 with a .371 on-base percentage, making him one of the most productive offensive catchers in the league this season. Still, this feels a lot like the two-year extension the Padres gave Seth Smith: Though the price tag isn’t prohibitive, it’s still a multiyear deal for an over-30 player enjoying a career year that looks out of place compared with his past production. In Suzuki’s case, he’s managed his numbers thanks in large part to a .328 batting average on balls in play that’s 54 points above his career average and looks like a fluke. He’s hit two home runs all year, and according to pitch-framing data, he’s been terrible this season at converting borderline pitches into strikes. Oh, and he turns 31 in October.

If at all possible, the Twins should have tried to sell high on Suzuki, especially with the contending Cardinals and Orioles having lost their starting catchers to injuries. If, however, doing so was impossible — the Orioles were reportedly never in on Suzuki, and the Cardinals signed free agent A.J. Pierzynski instead — that helps explain the Twins’ inaction.

Still, combine the lack of a Suzuki trade with the team’s inability to convert a couple of other useful veterans into younger talent, and it’s tough to feel great about the Twins’ deadline results. Outfielder Josh Willingham and reliever Brian Duensing are still Twins, and given how many teams need outfield/power/OBP and/or bullpen help (and, as stated, catching help) it was surprising to see Minnesota stop after two minor deals. Maybe the Twins, who have less quality major league talent than almost any other team, didn’t see the point in swapping those guys for C-level prospects.

So, as before, Twins fans’ hope will rest with the farm system. And on that front, there’s real reason for optimism, especially now that Kennys Vargas has arrived. Though he hasn’t received the same hype as fellow prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, Vargas has immense potential … which is no surprise, considering he’s 6-foot-5, 275 pounds:

kennys-vargas

Vargas, a switch-hitter, batted .288/.367/.486 in six minor league seasons, hinting at his on-base ability and power. He immediately channeled that promise into production in his major league debut, driving in a two-run double against Chris Sale on Friday night:

kennys-varags

Scouts see the potential for even more, noting some similarities to David Ortiz due to Vargas’s size and familiar swing from the left side of the plate. Comparing Vargas to one of the greatest hitters of a generation might be a bit premature, but there’s reason to be excited: Vargas is 24, he offers six years of team control, and he’s got undeniable pop.2 For a talent-starved team that ranks 25th in homers this season, that’ll play.

2015’s the Charm?

These teams will likely fall short in 2014, but look dangerous for next season.

21. Chicago White Sox (54-58, -25, LW: 21)
20. New York Mets (53-58, +3, LW: 20)
19. Miami Marlins (54-57, -26, LW: 19)
18. Cleveland Indians (56-55, +17, LW: 18)
17. Tampa Bay Rays (54-57, -1, LW: 15)
16. Cincinnati Reds (56-55, +17, LW: 17)

Here’s a fun futures bet for you: Which Mets starter will lead the majors in ERA in 2015? Consider where the team’s rotation stands at the moment, and how it’s shaping up for next season, and that’s not as crazy as it might seem.

Matt Harvey, the linchpin of next year’s rotation, threw off a mound on Friday for the first time since Tommy John surgery and appears to be on track to go through a normal winter and spring regimen. Before injuring his elbow last season, Harvey posted a 2.27 ERA and totaled more strikeouts (191) than baserunners allowed (170), so if he’s back to 100 percent by Opening Day 2015, he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the league. Maybe someday, someone might even recognize him.

Zack Wheeler, meanwhile, is constantly enhancing Mets fans’ appreciation for the 2011 trade that sent two months of Carlos Beltran to the Giants for the young hurler. Another power right-hander, Wheeler has improved across the board this season after showing occasional flashes of brilliance last year. He’s boosted his strikeout rate (to about one per inning), trimmed his walk rate (by about half a walk per nine innings), and hiked his ground ball rate (to 52.7 percent, ninth among qualified NL starters). He’s still got work to do, as he’s carrying the sixth-highest NL walk rate despite his year-over-year improvement, and has generally struggled with his command at times. Still, his fastball-slider combination has been devastating against right-handed hitters from day one, as they’ve hit just .217/.287/.327 against Wheeler during his brief MLB career. He’s an improved changeup away from rising into the NL’s top pitching tier.

Jon Niese has struggled with injuries, making only 44 starts since Opening Day 2013. However, the 27-year-old lefty has been a steady performer when healthy, doing a particularly good job of limiting extra-base hits, with just 19 homers allowed in 265.1 innings during that span. That’s helped suppress his ERA — which sits at a tidy 3.24 this year — despite mediocre strikeout rates. Niese is signed cheaply through 2016, with club options that could keep him in town through 2018.

Noah Syndergaard has yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues, but he’s shined in the minors, punching out 436 batters in 395.2 innings during his five-year minor league career and putting up shiny surface stats prior to playing in the preposterous home environment of Las Vegas this year. He’s 6-6 and 240 pounds. He can dial his fastball into the high 90s and has a curveball that’s going to give major league hitters nightmares. And he doesn’t turn 22 until the end of this month. Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com rated him as baseball’s 11th-best prospect entering this season, and he’s widely expected to be big league–ready next spring, if not sooner.

And then there’s Jacob deGrom, the biggest surprise of the bunch.

The ninth-round 2010 draft pick arrived in the big leagues with a modest pedigree and even more modest numbers: a 3.62 ERA, 333 hits in 323.1 innings, and a so-so 267 strikeouts over that span (though with parts of two seasons spent in the aforementioned Vegas League). Despite not boasting the blazing fastball that Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard possess, deGrom’s early MLB returns have been terrific. Though he didn’t make his big league debut until May 15, deGrom has inserted himself into the NL Rookie of the Year discussion, fanning 90 batters and allowing just five long balls in 94.1 innings while flashing a 2.77 ERA and 2.97 FIP.

Back in early June, ESPN’s Mark Simon wrote about deGrom’s pinpoint fastball control and his ability to change speeds and fool hitters with his secondary pitches. The 26-year-old righty has improved since then, and actually seems to be getting better with every start. In his last eight starts, he’s posted a 1.52 ERA and has limited opposing hitters to a .212/.269/.249 line, and on Saturday he was perfect through six before losing his no-hit bid with two outs in the seventh. He held on for the win, becoming the first Mets rookie to win five consecutive starts since Dillon Gee did so in 2011.

That Gee and veteran Bartolo Colon aren’t even worth mentioning among the projected top five for 2015 speaks volumes about the Mets possessing something every other team longs to have: too much starting pitching. And that brings us back to trades: The Mets failed to convert any of that young pitching talent into hitting help at this year’s deadline, but some have speculated that the team could pursue a deal in the offseason, perhaps even targeting Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki. Acquiring Tulo probably isn’t going to happen, because the Mets would likely need to include peak Seaver, Strawberry, and Gooden in the deal to pull it off, but whether or not the Mets look to make a move, one thing is clear: They’ll be well armed in 2015.

Bank on it:

It’s Anybody’s Ballgame

The jumbled-up NL Central race and fierce AL wild-card chase could go down to the wire.

15. Kansas City Royals (57-53, 0, LW: 16)
14. New York Yankees (57-53, -28, LW: 14)
13. Seattle Mariners (57-54, +54, LW: 11)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (60-53, +31, LW: 12)
11. Atlanta Braves (58-54, +9, LW: 9)
10. Pittsburgh Pirates (59-52, +9, LW: 13)
9. San Francisco Giants (60-51, +32, LW: 9)
8. St. Louis Cardinals (59-51, +2, LW: 10)
7. Milwaukee Brewers (61-51, +29, LW: 6)

Sometimes, the Royals make us want to love them. We see their promising rotation, bolstered by the emergent Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy; their lockdown bullpen, headed by Greg Holland and Wade Davis; their excellent defense, which features Gold Glove–caliber players at multiple positions; and their elite baserunning. We see them march into Oakland and take two out of three from the best and highest-scoring team in baseball, and we start to believe that, between their run prevention abilities and a few favorable breaks, they could finally end baseball’s longest playoff drought.

And then we’re reminded, painfully, that not all the breaks will be favorable.

Kansas City’s latest setback is the broken hand that could keep first baseman Eric Hosmer out of the lineup for up to six weeks. The injury came at a miserable time, and not just because the pennant race is starting to heat up. After a brutal start to the season, Hosmer had a huge July, batting .366/.425/.535. With Hosmer out, Billy Butler will likely shift from DH to first, with Raul Ibanez earning the bulk of the vacated at-bats against right-handed pitching. That means a lot of action at the plate for a 42-year-old who’s hitting .172/.257/.307 on the year, and a lot of action in the field for a guy who usually plays DH for a reason.

While the Royals couldn’t have predicted Hosmer’s injury and shouldn’t be blamed too severely for what’s ultimately bad luck, it’s worth noting that year after year, they do a lousy job of taking care of the little things, and that’s costing them again this season. Though they remain in the mix for the AL’s second wild-card spot, sitting 1.5 games back, they’re once again battling poor roster construction. When an A’s position player faces a tough same-handed matchup on a given day or gets hurt, manager Bob Melvin has multiple options he can turn to in that player’s stead. When Hosmer gets hurt, the Royals’ best option is a player who no longer belongs in the majors, let alone in a starting lineup.

Though Hosmer went on the DL after the trade deadline, the team wouldn’t be in such bad shape if it had managed to upgrade its offense last week. Aside from sending Danny Valencia to Toronto for backup catcher Erik Kratz and pitcher Liam Hendriks, the Royals kept quiet at the deadline because ownership didn’t want to spend any money. They failed to add an arm, and they failed to address their outfield or offensive depth concerns. When Hosmer hit the DL, the Royals activated injured starting pitcher Jason Vargas, leaving KC with eight relievers and a bench that consisted of a backup catcher (Kratz), a quadruple-A caliber rookie infielder (Christian Colon), and Jarrod Dyson (who offers great speed and defense, though he’s a career .257/.324/.337 hitter). “We’re fine right now,” said Royals skipper Ned Yost. “I don’t need the extra bench player.” Yost added that all eight Royals relievers are out of options, and he doesn’t want to lose any of them. That seems reasonable … until one remembers that Scott Downs is 38 years old, looks to be on his last legs, and likely wouldn’t be missed if some team did decide to claim him.

Those comments were indicative of Yost’s larger puzzling tendencies. While the shots Yost frequently takes for his poor in-game decision-making aren’t always justified,3 he undeniably botches certain things that most managers don’t. To wit, consider the July 19 piece titled “The Gomes Affair” that NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski published on his blog. Long story short: After running into a patch of trouble in the sixth inning against the Red Sox, KC staff ace James Shields got the second out, bringing the light-hitting Jackie Bradley Jr. to the plate. There was no earthly reason for Yost to do anything in that spot, for the reasons Posnanski noted:

1. You don’t match-up with Jackie Bradley Jr.
2. While Bradley Jr., so far in his young career, hasn’t really hit anybody, he’s been better against lefties than righties.
3. There was NO CHANCE IN THE WORLD Bradley was going to hit once Yost brought a lefty.

Well, Yost pulled his ace and brought in a reliever anyway. With the past-his-expiration-date lefty Downs on the mound, Boston manager John Farrell countered with Jonny Gomes. Gomes homered. And the Royals went on to lose the game.

Yost’s lack of interest in carrying a viable bench and his lack of care in making smart batter-pitcher decisions are little things, but over the course of a season, those little things add up to big disappointment. That’s especially true for a team that is cash-strapped when it comes to trades and free agency and is fighting to stay in a wild-card race that could go down to the final days of the season. The most likely scenario for the Royals is that they win 80-some games and maintain a shot at making the playoffs, but ultimately extend their drought to 29 consecutive seasons. That might be enough to keep those in charge around for another year. And that probably means more botched opportunities in 2015.

Movers and Shakers

The Dodgers (!) are the only top-six team that stood pat at the deadline.

6. Baltimore Orioles (62-48, +29, LW: 7)
5. Washington Nationals (60-49, +80, LW: 4)
4. Detroit Tigers (61-47, +50, LW: 5)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (63-49, +53, LW: 3)
2. Los Angeles Angels (66-44, +87, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (67-43, +164, LW: 1)

The Nationals can’t claim to be the best team in baseball by record, run differential, component stats, or any other metric. But they can claim to have fewer weaknesses than any other National League team, and possibly any other club in baseball.

Asdrubal Cabrera had turned into an afterthought in Cleveland, so acquiring him on deadline day can’t be considered a “major” move. Still, by adding the veteran shortstop and shifting him over one position, the Nats shored up a second-base spot that was their biggest, and possibly only, weakness. With Ryan Zimmerman serving his second DL stint of the season and likely out for a sizable chunk of time, starting second baseman Anthony Rendon slid over to third and bench bat Danny Espinosa took over at second. This wasn’t a tenable solution for the Nats, though, as Espinosa was playing worse than nearly any other starter on a contending team, batting just .221/.287/.354 on the year.

Cabrera has struggled in his own right this year, batting .243/.301/.384. Still, his track record points to better results ahead, and at the very least better ones than Espinosa was likely to produce. Add in the ripple effect of Zimmerman’s sharp decline at third base — caused mostly by a shoulder injury that gave him throwing yips — and the Nats’ infield dominoes could mean multifaceted upgrades. Plus, while Espinosa doesn’t belong in the starting lineup, he’s an above-average fielder and a decent runner, making him a valuable asset on an already strong and diversified bench.

Go on, try to pick nits with this team. Though no one other than Denard Span has more than 11 steals, the lineup is speedy and savvy, making the Nats the top baserunning team in the National League. If they were putting up flukishly strong stats with runners in scoring position, one might argue they were due for some offensive regression, but no: The Nats actually rank 19th in OPS in those situations.

There’s more. Nats starting pitchers rank second in the majors in park-adjusted ERA and first in park-adjusted FIP. Their relievers? Sixth and first. They’re above average defensively, by whichever advanced metric you check. If they do make the playoffs, they’ll field a quartet of starters (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister) that might trail only the Dodgers’ front four, and they’ll add a battle-tested closer in Rafael Soriano, a strong setup man in Tyler Clippard, and a bullpen boost when breakout right-hander Tanner Roark joins the relief corps.

Though the Braves have lost six in a row to fall 3.5 games out in the NL East, history says not to put the final nail in Atlanta’s coffin prematurely. If the Nats do hang on to win the East, however, watch out. There might not be a Kershaw or a McCutchen on this roster, but 1 through 25, Washington will be tough to beat.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, 2014 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, Baseball, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals, Jacob deGrom, Eric Hosmer, Pitchers, MLB Stats, MLB Prospects, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri