For as specific and down-to-the-decimal as the preseason projections have become, no team’s season ever goes exactly as planned. Letdowns abound: Star players underachieve. Bad luck gets in the way. And, of course, injuries can torpedo everything.
This week, we look at four teams that have felt the pangs of disappointment and what can be done to assuage their woes. The Red Sox have seen their two big offseason investments turn sour, and they might be headed to consecutive last-place finishes. The Tigers’ streak of four straight division titles will likely end this year thanks to terrible pitching, and they now face a tough call ahead of the trade deadline. The Blue Jays are outscoring the rest of the league by a mile, but their own lousy pitching has kept a mediocre win-loss number from matching a gaudy run differential. And the Royals own the best record in the American League and a devastating bullpen, but they had to shoot the moon and acquire an ace in order to address a shaky rotation.
As Alexander Pope once said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” He sure was a downer, but right now, his words are apt.
It’s Week 16 of The 30.
Best (and Stickiest) Reaction to a Bat Flip of the Week
Things were already going terribly for the Padres when Giants catcher Hector Sanchez strode to the plate in the sixth inning of last Tuesday’s game. San Diego trailed, 5-0, and Padres righty Dale Thayer had just walked Gregor Blanco intentionally to load the bases. Then, Sanchez got a pitch he liked and hammered it 429 feet for a grand slam.
When Sanchez decided to punctuate his smash with a bat flip, Thayer was not impressed. As the backup backstop started his trot around the bases, the San Diego reliever chucked a chewed wad of gum at him. And after Sanchez’s next at-bat, three innings later, the benches cleared:
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The 30 makes an effort to serve as the Internet’s home for bat-flip appreciation, so we would normally be against anti-flip protests. That said, Thayer’s gum flip was impressive in its own right, and it’s certainly preferable to Brian McCann’s attempts to declare himself the sheriff of unwritten baseball rules. Since no one got hurt, our verdict is thus: It was a harmless, delightful exchange.
Sellers With Little to Sell
The also-ran Red Sox head into the deadline with not much to offer other clubs.
30. Philadelphia Phillies (37-63 record, minus-139 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (42-55, minus-60, LW: 28)
28. Miami Marlins (41-58, minus-28, LW: 29)
27. Boston Red Sox (44-56, minus-64, LW: 22)
26. Seattle Mariners (46-54, minus-51, LW: 26)
25. Cincinnati Reds (43-54, minus-54, LW: 25)
24. Milwaukee Brewers (43-57, minus-44, LW: 27)
23. Chicago White Sox (47-50, minus-58, LW: 21)
22. Arizona Diamondbacks (47-51, plus-1, LW: 19)
21. Oakland A’s (44-56, plus-37, LW: 24)
20. Atlanta Braves (46-53, minus-45, LW: 23)
19. San Diego Padres (47-52, minus-54, LW: 20)
The rotation’s a mess. The bullpen, aside from a couple of steady performers, is a disaster. The offense, expected to be one of the most potent in the league, has flopped. They have lost 10 of their previous 12 and are staring down their third last-place finish in four years. With three days to go until the trade deadline, this team would seem to have an obvious course of action: Sell every high-priced player playing below elite level who’s not bolted to the floor, collect prospects, and build for the future.
For the plummeting Red Sox, though, it’s not nearly that simple. After trading Shane Victorino and cash to the Angels for journeyman infielder Josh Rutledge, Boston’s remaining collection of healthy-salaried veterans still doesn’t look all that movable. Consider:
• Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz: Two legends who are not going anywhere. Obviously.
• Pablo Sandoval: In Year 1 of a five-year, $95 million deal, he’s batting .260/.305/.372. He stopped remembering how to catch the ball. And he ranks last in the American League in Wins Above Replacement, actually costing his team nearly one full win compared to the typical 25th man or Quadruple-A veteran.
• Hanley Ramirez: After signing a massive four-year deal of his own, he’s second only to Sandoval in Wins Above Replacement futility. His defense can best be described as “utterly terrifying.”
• Mike Napoli: Hitting .208/.306/.376, he’s owed the remainder of his $16 million 2015 salary.
• Rick Porcello: He’s sporting a 5.51 ERA, and his four-year, $82.5 million contract extension doesn’t even kick in until next season.
• Justin Masterson: Currently on a 5.64 ERA, he’s owed the remainder of his $9.5 million 2015 salary. He’s pitching so poorly that he got dropped from the rotation with the third-highest ERA in baseball.
In sum: Yikes.
After that list, the realistic trade options are few and far between. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that teams have expressed interest in relievers Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. Both Japanese imports have pitched well this season, but Uehara is 40 years old, and Tazawa is regarded more as a functional bullpen piece rather than a shutdown reliever in the mold of potentially available stars Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel.
With 22-year-old bookends Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, the Sox employ two of the top young stars in baseball. There’s more talent percolating on the farm, as Boston’s shrewd drafting and international spending keeps bearing fruit. But as the Sox look ahead to 2016 and beyond, they shouldn’t expect this year’s trade deadline to provide much of a return. Unless Boston plans to dip into its stash of young blue-chippers, there are few trade commodities here that anyone would want.
The Tigers have shoved in too many chips to fold now.
18. Texas Rangers (47-51, minus-32, LW: 18)
17. Cleveland Indians (45-53, minus-48, LW: 17)
16. Tampa Bay Rays (50-51, minus-20, LW: 16)
15. Detroit Tigers (48-51, minus-27, LW: 15)
14. Baltimore Orioles (49-49, plus-42, LW: 14)
The rumors have been flying for about a week: The Tigers plan to trade David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, presumably along with fellow free-agents-to-be Joakim Soria, Alfredo Simon, and Alex Avila. But even though the team’s been struggling for weeks and now sits below .500, a fire sale would be a mistake.
Consider where the Tigers sit. They’re 4.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.1 And while three other teams sit between them and the final postseason place, the crowded field is hardly a formidable one. The Twins currently occupy the spot, and they’ve recently shown signs of slipping, something we figured might happen given how much of their first-half success was driven by happenstance rather than strong underlying numbers. If the Twins do come back to the pack, you’re left with a mishmash of .500-ish teams — the Jays, the Orioles, maybe the Rays, Rangers, and White Sox — all with some talent but also some major flaws.
FanGraphs gives Detroit a 15.0 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Tigers’ biggest flaw, by far, is their pitching. The bullpen is 29th in Wins Above Replacement, which is actually an improvement on last year’s finish. The bigger disappointment has been the reeling rotation. Justin Verlander spent the first nine weeks on the disabled list and has ceded six runs or more in three of his seven starts since returning. Anibal Sanchez’s ERA is up two full runs compared to the 2013 season that netted a fourth-place Cy Young finish. As for the back of the rotation … not great, Bob. Alfredo Simon posted a 2.58 ERA in his first 12 starts of the season. Since then? An 8.65 ERA, including a stretch in which he gave up five runs or more in five straight starts. Shane Greene got sent to the minors in mid-June, and he’s coughed up 17 runs in his three starts since coming back up.
If there’s one commodity that’s abundantly available this week, though, it’s pitching. Even with Scott Kazmir and Johnny Cueto already dealt, Cole Hamels and Jeff Samardzija are still out there, as are less flashy options like Matt Garza, Mike Leake, and others who could still represent solid upgrades over Greene and Simon. And while we don’t yet know all the relievers who’ll be dealt, the list will likely extend far beyond the rumored trio of Jonathan Papelbon, Kimbrel, and Chapman.
To put it simply: There’s a good chance the Tigers become the Phillies in the next two or three seasons, and it won’t matter if they’ve traded off this year’s pending free agents. As we’ve seen over the past few years, teams are no longer willing to give up blue-chip prospects for two-month rentals — even if they’re as good as Price, Cespedes, or Soria. Getting rid of those three might be a symbol of long-term thinking, but it’d be an empty and misguided one.
Although the injury to Miguel Cabrera is a big hit — he’s not expected back until at least mid-August — Detroit’s offense has been producing at a top-five clip since he’s been out. If they can find a couple of cheap upgrades to the rotation and the bullpen — and they should be able to — then the playoffs would still be within reach. With tons of money locked up in aging stars like Cabrera, Verlander, and Victor Martinez, the Tigers are already all in. They might as well stay there.
Hungry for Pitching
The Jays look for arms to go with their bats.
13. Toronto Blue Jays (50-50, plus-95, LW: 13)
12. New York Mets (51-48, minus-6, LW: 12)
11. Minnesota Twins (52-46, plus-8, LW: 9)
10. San Francisco Giants (55-44, plus-52, LW: 11)
9. Chicago Cubs (52-46, plus-2, LW: 10)
8. Washington Nationals (52-45, plus-30, LW: 8)
7. New York Yankees (56-42, plus-38, LW: 7)
6. Houston Astros (55-45, plus-67, LW: 6)
Six weeks ago, we asked a simple question: Can the Blue Jays’ terrific offense make up for the team’s horrible starting pitching and lead Toronto to its first playoff berth in 22 years? Despite last night’s acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, the answer remains the same today: Maybe, but the offense could sure use some help.
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Jays starters rank 22nd in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. Among the staff’s disappointments, Drew Hutchison stands above all others. After a monster second half last season, Hutchison looked like a good bet to break out in 2015. Instead, he’s been the most mercurial pitcher in the league, posting a sparkling 2.21 ERA at home and a horrific 9.00 mark on the road. That’s a bizarre, almost unfathomable split, especially since Hutchison fared much better on the road than at home last year. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation — including a replacement-level R.A. Dickey and a scrap-heaper in Felix Doubront — hasn’t done much to counteract Hutchison’s ups and downs.
The Jays, however, are in luck: As you already know, there’s plenty of pitching to be traded for over the next few days. Among all the pitchers who’ve been linked with Toronto,2 here are the four best options:
We’re not including Hamels, who looks likely to be headed elsewhere.
4. Jonathan Papelbon: Toronto’s pen, which is 12th in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching, hasn’t actually been that bad, and GM Alex Anthopoulos has said repeatedly that he’s more focused on acquiring a starter right now. Still, bringing in one more effective high-leverage reliever would fill a need. In 2015, Papelbon has posted numbers worthy of his pedigree: a strikeout-to-walk ratio of exactly five to one and a career-best 51.9 percent ground ball rate.
3. Jeff Samardzija: With an 18.7 percent K rate, he’s striking out fewer batters this year than in any full season of his career, but Samardzija has found the life of a finesse pitcher to be a successful one, too. He’s chopped his walk rate to a career-low 4.5 percent, while keeping his pitch counts down and averaging a full seven innings per start. Although he’s a free agent at season’s end, he’d cost way less to acquire than Hamels or a number of slightly lesser pitchers who can be kept for longer.
2. Tyson Ross: The Jays were linked to walk-year pitchers such as Kazmir, but the rumors surrounding multiple twentysomething pitchers who offer extended control suggest that could be Anthopoulos’s bigger goal here. The 28-year-old Ross can’t test the open market until after the 2017 season. And while he’s been an enigma for San Diego this year — a top-10 strikeout guy who also owns the worst walk rate in the National League — Ross might have turned a corner recently, as he’s posted a 2.57 ERA and allowed a measly .200/.284/.262 line over his past seven starts. Even if he does struggle at times to find the plate, Ross would immediately bump Doubront from the rotation. He’d be a smart buy-low acquisition for the next two-plus seasons.
1. Carlos Carrasco: This one’s a more distant rumor, but Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that the Indians have at least spoken to the Jays about Carrasco. If Anthopoulos can somehow pull this deal off, it would be a huge coup for Toronto — almost regardless of who the Jays give up. Carrasco ranks fifth among AL starters in strikeout rate and fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s also 28 years old and is owed just $21.3 million through 2018, with club options for just $9 million and $9.5 million in 2019 and 2020. The Jays haven’t had great luck in emptying their farm system to acquire starting pitchers, but with Carrasco’s combination of youth, ability, and favorable contract, he’d be worth giving it one more try.
The Other Ace
After acquiring Johnny Cueto, the Royals hope Yordano Ventura can be an able rotation wingman.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (57-41, plus-52, LW: 4)
4. Kansas City Royals (60-38, plus-75, LW: 3)
3. Los Angeles Angels (55-43, plus-61, LW: 5)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (56-44, plus-60, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (64-35, plus-110, LW: 1)
As has seemingly been the case since the beginning of the season, the Royals are great, but their starting pitching stinks. Or at least, it stunk.
While Kansas City ranks just 20th in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching, the Royals have an eight-game lead in the AL Central and the best record in the American League. But as we found out Sunday, that disconnect didn’t breed any complacency. Royals GM Dayton Moore flipped Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed to the Reds for Johnny Cueto. It was a true blockbuster, one that Rany Jazayerli described as unlike any previous deal in franchise history.
Aside from the sheer audacity of the deal and what a boost a top arm like Cueto will provide to an already-very-good Royals team, the most interesting secondary angle might be the the past and future roles of Yordano Ventura.
After a strong 2014 season and the departure of James Shields, the 24-year-old right-hander was expected to be the Royals’ ace. Instead, he pitched poorly enough to earn a demotion on July 21 — only to get called back up a day later when Jason Vargas suffered a torn UCL. If Ventura doesn’t disappoint over the first half of the season, Cueto probably never ends up in Kansas City.
Ventura’s struggles are easy to explain: His trademark fastball, the one that’s been graded as an 80 out of 80 on the scouting scale, deserted him this year. Per ESPN Stats & Info, here are his two-year results on fastballs before Sunday’s start:
On Sunday, though, Ventura looked like his 2014 self. He fired seven innings of one-run, six-hit ball and struck out five batters while walking none. The fastball was back — it averaged 97.5 mph on the day — and his curveball, which generated 16 whiffs on 29 pitches, might’ve been even more impressive.
Of course, one start doesn’t guarantee future results. But it’s possible that Ventura is simply due for some better luck, too: While his ERA has ballooned from 3.20 last year to 4.86 this year, his fielding-independent numbers are essentially identical, his strikeout rate’s held firm, and his walk rate has actually improved. If the lingering elbow concerns don’t bother Cueto, and if Ventura’s bounceback is nigh, the original ace’s struggles might end up being a blessing in disguise.