It seems like just last night we were parsing through the details of the Craig Kimbrel deal, which put a last-second exclamation point on the 2015 offseason. And now we’re less than six weeks away from the nonwaiver trade deadline.
Plenty of teams will be weighing moves to bring in new faces to aid an ailing offense or shore up a shaky bullpen — and the rumors have already begun to fly. Other clubs, though, won’t have to give up anything to get better. We’re talking about the teams welcoming key players back from the DL. In some cases, the internal healing could even outweigh the haul from a blockbuster trade.
Thanks to their recovered and recovering stars, this week’s four featured teams all look stronger now — or will soon. The cellar-dwelling A’s are finally getting big production out of a veteran super-utility guy who spent a month on the shelf, but he’s likely headed elsewhere with Oakland’s disappointing start shifting the team into sell mode. The Nationals have already gotten several injured stars back from the DL, but they’re still not at full strength, struggling to create separation in a division they were expected to dominate. The Rays have suffered more major pitching injuries than nearly any other team, yet they’re still in first place and figure to get a boost with a couple of big arms expected back soon. As for the Pirates, they’ve had a previously injured starter back for a few weeks now, and they’d been getting career-best results since his return — and then yesterday happened.
À votre santé! It’s Week 11 of The 30.
Best One-Man Show of the Week
Chris Sale is on one of the most dominant starting-pitching runs in major league history. On Friday night against the Rangers, the White Sox ace was untouchable, firing eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks, and striking out 14 batters.
Here’s the kind of company Sale is keeping:
• He’s the fourth pitcher in major league history with at least 10 strikeouts in six straight starts. The other three: peak Nolan Ryan, peak Randy Johnson, and peak Pedro Martinez.
• He’s the third pitcher in major league history with at least 12 strikeouts in five straight starts. The other two: peak Johnson and peak Martinez.
• He has struck out at least one batter in 35 straight innings. That’s the highest total since Johan Santana did it for 39 straight innings with the Twins in 2002.
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Despite all of that, poor Sale couldn’t even get his team a win Friday night. After eight innings, manager Robin Ventura pulled his star lefty, who’d averaged 119 pitches in his previous four starts, and brought in David Robertson, the $46 million closer who’s been one of the best short relievers in the AL this year. Two hits and two walks later, Texas took a 2-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish, and the Sox lost their eighth straight.
In his past five starts, Sale has built a line of 37.1 innings pitched, 65 strikeouts, six walks, 17 hits, and a 0.72 ERA. The White Sox might be the worst team in the AL, and that’s a disappointing result for a team that came into this season with high hopes, but those clubwide struggles don’t make their ace’s hot streak any less incredible.
Feeling All Right? Good, You’re Traded.
The A’s cross their fingers for good health … so they can trade away Ben Zobrist and other veterans.
30. Philadelphia Phillies (24-47 record, minus-122 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Milwaukee Brewers (25-46, minus-87, LW: 29)
28. Chicago White Sox (30-38, minus-68, LW: 22)
27. Miami Marlins (30-41, minus-20, LW: 26)
26. Colorado Rockies (30-39, minus-43, LW: 24)
25. Boston Red Sox (31-40, minus-45, LW: 27)
24. Oakland A’s (31-41, plus-35, LW: 28)
23. Seattle Mariners (32-38, minus-48, LW: 25)
22. Cincinnati Reds (32-36, minus-13, LW: 23)
You’d have a tough time finding any player better suited to the Oakland A’s than Ben Zobrist. For a team obsessed with platoon advantages, Zobrist brings rare switch-hitting skills. For a team that loves versatile players, Zobrist offers solid defense at an array of positions. And for a team that hasn’t forgotten its Moneyball roots, Zobrist can still work a walk with the best of them. After all the major offseason changes the A’s made, you could close your eyes and still imagine them being competitive. Acquiring Zobrist from the Rays in January was a big reason why.
Of course, the A’s season hasn’t resembled anything close to their preseason hopes, as they own the worst record in the American League. What makes the first 11 weeks so frustrating is that much of Oakland’s struggles can be chalked up to terrible luck. At plus-35, the A’s have the second-best run differential in their division and the fifth-best in the AL. Yet with league-worst marks of 6-18 in one-run games and 0-6 in extra-inning games, they’ve been unthinkably unfortunate in high-leverage situations. Some of that can be attributed to a terrible bullpen, but not to this degree. According to FanGraphs’s BaseRuns-adjusted standings, which strips out luck and focuses on a team’s hitting, pitching, and fielding skills, the A’s would have won 12 more games if they’d merely had league-average luck. Add those 12 wins and they would have the second-best record in MLB.
Unfortunately for the A’s, hypotheticals don’t show up in real-life standings, and all of those losses are already banked. Even if their luck starts to catch up to their talent, it’s probably too late to make up enough ground to get back to the playoffs — even with six wins in their past eight games, and 17 in their past 28. (FanGraphs gives them a 7.3 percent chance of making the postseason.) Expect always-aggressive GM Billy Beane to start recasting his roster again soon, trading away valuable veterans before the deadline. And expect that group to include Zobrist.
Before making his return on May 26, the veteran super-utilityman missed more than a month with a knee injury. In his first 17 games back from the DL, Zobrist didn’t hit a lick, batting just .169/.258/.271, but he’s caught fire since then, going 11-for-27 in his past eight games, with five walks and seven extra-base hits.
For all the boxes he checks on the “Ideal Oakland Athletic” evaluation, Zobrist’s return to health and return to form give the A’s a prime trade chip that Beane will be eager to cash in. The 34-year-old Zobrist is in the final year of a bargain-basement contract and is owed just over $4 million for the rest of this season. Given the scarcity of quality position players on the trade market and Zobrist’s unique skill set, Beane might be able to fetch someone not far off the talent level of Daniel Robertson, the excellent shortstop prospect the A’s sent to Tampa Bay as the linchpin of last winter’s five-player deal.
It’s a sad state of affairs when you’re in late June and the most exciting part of your season figures to be the prospect haul you get for some of your best players. But that’s where the A’s are right now: hoping that Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, Tyler Clippard, and other vets can stay healthy for the next few weeks so that construction of the 2016 A’s roster can begin.
Imperfect in Many Ways
Max Scherzer’s near perfecto encapsulates an injury-plagued season that’s been good but still disappointing.
21. San Diego Padres (34-38, minus-27, LW: 18)
20. Atlanta Braves (35-35, minus-13, LW: 21)
19. Cleveland Indians (32-36, minus-25, LW: 19)
18. Arizona Diamondbacks (34-35, plus-1, LW: 20)
17. New York Mets (36-35, minus-16, LW: 15)
16. Minnesota Twins (37-32, minus-3, LW: 16)
15. Los Angeles Angels (35-35, plus-3, LW: 13)
14. Washington Nationals (37-33, plus-18, LW: 14)
Fourteen starts into Max Scherzer’s Nationals career, you won’t hear many Nats fans complain about the $210 million the Lerners gave their new ace. Over his last two starts, Scherzer has posted two complete games, allowing zero runs, one hit, and one walk, while striking out a whopping 26 batters. And, of course, Saturday’s no-hitter would’ve been a perfect game if plate umpire Mike Muchlinski had bothered to use some judgment and rule that Jose Tabata leaned into the pitch.
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Given Scherzer’s monster season, and the near unanimity with which baseball pundits picked the loaded Nats to pulverize the rest of the division, you’d figure that Saturday’s no-no would’ve merely extended a big NL East lead. Instead, the Nationals are just 1.5 games up on the mediocre Mets, with the also mediocre Braves just two behind. For that, Washington can thank disappointing performances by several key players and a slew of injuries.
The season started with three of the team’s best players — Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth — on the disabled list. And things haven’t improved much on the health front since. Span has been one of the team’s best offensive players since returning in mid-April, but Werth reinjured himself in mid-May and has been out ever since. Rendon returned June 4, but he’s been a shadow of his 2014 MVP-candidate form, hitting just .230/.333/.311. Doug Fister sat for five weeks, then returned to get whacked for five runs and nine hits by the Rays on Thursday. And while Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman have been on the shelf since late May and early June, respectively, you can’t call either one a big loss based on 2015 form: Before their injuries, Strasburg had melted down into one of baseball’s worst pitchers with a 6.55 ERA, and Zimmerman had hit for a paltry .209/.265/.346.
Combine all of those injuries and lackluster performances, and a team can make a writer who told us to “Prepare for Washington’s 162-Game Victory Tour” look awfully dumb. However, given the Mets’ huge struggles after a hot start, the lack of talent in Atlanta, the Marlins’ disappointing season, and the Phillies being one of the worst teams we’ve seen in years, Washington could soon begin its victory tour in earnest anyway. But despite the crapshoot that is October baseball, winning MLB’s worst division with 80-something victories and being a viable World Series contender are two very different things.
So, with a championship as the final goal, here’s a rest-of-season wish list for the capital club:
Figure out first base: Zimmerman was one of the worst everyday players in baseball before hitting the DL. Once one of the game’s best young players, Zimmerman will turn 31 in September, and his damaged arm has relegated him from third base to first. Oh, and he’s owed $14 million a year through 2018, plus another $18 million in 2019 and a $2 million buyout to get out of another $18 million outlay in 2020, making him a prime candidate to shoot up the Worst Contract rankings next offseason.
Whether we want to chalk up this year’s swoon to a painful bout of plantar fasciitis or see a larger downtrend, Zimmerman has no timetable for his return, and the Nats don’t have any great internal options to replace him. Even if it’s too soon to give up on Zimmerman long-term, Washington should look into acquiring a replacement to provide some short-term sock. The Nats would seem a prime candidate for an Adam Lind rental.1
Lind is playing on a $7.5 million club option this year. He also has an $8 million club option for 2016, but the Nats could always trade him this winter if Zimmerman looks back at full strength.
Do enough to mask a bad defense: Only the dreadful Phillies have been worse defensively than the ham-handed Nats, according to Defensive Runs Saved.2 One of the worst glovemen on the team, per DRS, has been Span, and he’s probably not going anywhere because of his bat, his speed, and his reputation for being a better defender than he’s shown this year. Werth could be back in a few weeks to play left, but at age 36 he’s not the fly-chaser he once was, so the Nationals might be stuck with a subpar defense until at least season’s end. If there’s a bright spot, it’s that Ian Desmond isn’t committing defensive atrocities at nearly the same rate we saw earlier this season.
All DRS stats come from Baseball Info Solutions.
Have faith in the starting pitching after Scherzer: Here’s where the Nats could benefit from some simple regression toward the mean and some health. Gio Gonzalez has been one of the league’s most inconsistent starters this year, but that’s largely due to a flukishly high .354 BABIP; his seven shutout innings yesterday against the Pirates bode well for his ERA (4.41) starting to hew closer to his FIP (3.18). Jordan Zimmermann’s ERA is up more than a full run compared to last year, and a sharp drop in his strikeout rate is not a great sign, but he, too, has been victimized by uncharacteristically bad luck on balls in play (career-high .337 BABIP). The recovering Fister and injured Strasburg both have more serious black marks on their 2015 résumés, with Fister’s K rate among the worst in baseball and Strasburg struggling with a combination of bad batted-ball results, low strand rate, and also just giving up more hard-hit balls.
Despite the struggles, the Nats came into this season with what looked like the deepest rotation in the majors, and it recently got deeper with the emergence of rookie Joe Ross, who’s been dealing (23 strikeouts and two walks in 20.1 innings). If Washington can get most of its wounded position players back to full health, make one or two upgrades at the deadline (another high-leverage reliever would help, too), and keep the great Bryce Harper from scaring us to death again, the underlying numbers suggest this might be a good enough team to go deep into the playoffs — even if Fister and Strasburg can’t return to form.
Amid a slew of injuries, a cast of no-names has kept the Rays rotation humming.
13. Detroit Tigers (35-34, minus-5, LW: 9)
12. Texas Rangers (37-33, plus-15, LW: 12)
11. Baltimore Orioles (36-33, plus-41, LW: 17)
10. Toronto Blue Jays (37-34, plus-78, LW: 7)
9. New York Yankees (38-31, plus-26, LW: 11)
8. San Francisco Giants (38-33, plus-11, LW: 8)
7. Tampa Bay Rays (40-31, plus-19, LW: 10)
6. Chicago Cubs (37-30, plus-22, LW: 6)
Of all the unlikely events that have transpired for the Rays this season, Alex Colome — he of the 5.14 ERA and nine homers allowed in his first 10 starts — taking a perfect game into the sixth inning yesterday against the Indians might’ve been the unlikeliest. While the Rays still managed to lose, 1-0, despite Colome allowing just three baserunners in seven innings, the broader takeaway remains: In a season racked by pitching injuries, Tampa Bay has found a way to consistently coax remarkable results out of some unlikely suspects.
The Rays came into the season with what, on paper, looked like the best rotation in the AL East. Then the injury bug attacked. Alex Cobb fell prey to Tommy John. Drew Smyly made three starts and then tore his labrum. Jake Odorizzi was having the best season of his career until an oblique injury put him on the shelf. The bullpen wasn’t immune either, as Jake McGee was lost for the first month and a half of the season and a handful of other relievers got hurt too. With a heavily depleted pitching staff and a batting order that lost Zobrist, Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, and Yunel Escobar over the offseason, you’d figure the Rays would be floating somewhere around last place.
Instead, they lead the AL East by a game and are neck-and-neck with the perplexing A’s for best results among all AL rotations.
It starts with the one guy who hasn’t been hurt: Chris Archer, who’s blossomed into one of the league’s five best starters. For that, he can thank an unhittable slider — one that regularly clocks in above 90 mph, has the kind of curveball action that righties need to neutralize lefty hitters, and elicits sky-high praise from no less an authority than Archer’s predecessor as Rays ace, David Price. But even if you could see an Archer breakout coming, the performances turned in by the Rays’ no-name hurlers have been borderline shocking.
Overloaded with starters after the 2013 season, the Nationals shipped a lightly regarded righty named Nate Karns to Tampa Bay for backup catcher Jose Lobaton. Karns struck out more than a batter an inning last year (mostly at Triple-A), but he struggled with command and looked like little more than a depth option if one of the big club’s starters went down for a week or two. However, since being forced to become a more permanent rotation fixture because of the team’s many injuries, Karns has delivered: In his past 10 starts, he has fired 55.1 innings, struck out 52 batters against just 17 walks and four homers, and flashed a 2.77 ERA.
Erasmo Ramirez also came from humble origins. Acquired from the Mariners right before the start of the season for B-level pitching prospect Mike Montgomery, Ramirez has become a strike-zone pounder, posting the best strikeout-to-walk rate since his rookie season. As with Karns, Ramirez’s performance has gained steam lately: In his past five starts, Ramirez has struck out 22 batters and walked just five, posting a tiny 1.03 ERA over 26.1 innings.
There have been other reasons for the Rays’ success, including big performances from unheralded rookie Joey Butler and fellow freshman Steven Souza, and a better-than-average defense backed by Gold Glove–caliber center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and the highest number of shifts in baseball. But at some point, the baseball world should probably take a close look at Tampa Bay’s history of developing quality pitchers and realize that while Joe Maddon deserves his reputation as one of baseball’s best managers, the Rays’ combination of a top player-development staff, statistically informed scouting, and the excellent and forever-underrated work of pitching coach Jim Hickey deserves plenty of recognition too.
Despite all the institutional success, the Rays still have a ways to go if they hope to buck the long preseason odds and get back to the postseason. Warning signs are already quietly flashing, with an overworked bullpen logging more innings than any other team’s relief corps, as manager Kevin Cash has made sure to keep Karns, Ramirez, and other functional starters from facing opposing lineups a third time in a game. But the cavalry’s bugle could soon start blaring. Odorizzi could be back before the All-Star break. Matt Moore, the talented lefty recovering from Tommy John surgery, could also return by early July.3 Smyly has a shot to return before the season is over. First baseman James Loney could be back in a few days, catcher/DH John Jaso could return after the break, and Desmond Jennings could add outfield depth sometime in August.
Both returns would be especially welcome given that Ramirez hurt his groin on Saturday, thrusting the status of his next start into doubt.
The AL East looks like it will likely be four contenders deep,4 and every other team in the division has a much deeper war chest than the Rays to acquire high-priced talent between now and the deadline. But if Hickey & Co. can keep coaxing quality results out of lightly regarded pitchers and the disabled list can start popping players back into action soon, the Rays might be able to hang with their well-heeled rivals deep into the season.
That Sinking Feeling
A ground-ball-generating rotation has thrust the Pirates into the top five.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (39-30, plus-45, LW: 5)
4. Houston Astros (41-30, plus-39, LW: 4)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (39-31, plus-55, LW: 2)
2. Kansas City Royals (39-27, plus-50, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (45-24, plus-77, LW: 1)
If you want to trace the Pirates’ rebound to elite status, you can start with their starting pitching. Buccos starters rank third in the majors in park-adjusted ERA and are tied for the MLB lead in park-adjusted FIP. If you want to find the secret of the Pirates rotation’s success, you can start with its cruel treatment of worms, as evidenced by its second-in-MLB ground ball rate of 53.1 percent. And if you want to highlight the pitcher who’s burning up the Pittsburgh infield, you can start with one of the league’s most extreme sinkerballers, Charlie Morton.
Before yesterday’s start against the Nats, Morton had generated an astounding 67 percent ground ball rate, trailing only Astros ace Dallas Keuchel among all starting pitchers. Long a prolific user of the sinker, Morton had expanded the use of that pitch this year, throwing it more often than any other starter, 71 percent of the time. Take one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers of his generation, make his reliance on grounders even more extreme, and you apparently get magnificent results: Despite striking out just 15 batters in 33.1 innings, before yesterday Morton had delivered a sparkling 1.62 ERA, best among all NL starters with as many innings pitched.
About yesterday: Those magnificent results went up in smoke, as the Nationals strafed Morton for nine runs in two-thirds of an inning, hiking his ERA all the way to 3.97. For a pitcher who misses as few bats as Morton does, that kind of occasional blowup is bound to happen. Yet, the rough outing against the Nats is reason to proceed with caution when considering Morton going forward. Before yesterday, it looked like the Pirates might have the best rotation in the big leagues. That still might be the case, as one horrific outing does not a starter make. But with one Tommy John and two hip surgeries already in the bank, Morton is no sure thing to stay upright and productive.
The good news for the Pirates is that they still might have the best trio of starters in the league — even without Morton. Gerrit Cole has grown into a bona fide Cy Young contender, fanning more than a batter an inning and trailing only Scherzer among qualified MLB starters in the ERA race. Francisco Liriano ranks third among qualified NL starters in K rate, with a nasty changeup that hitters have found impossible to hit with any authority. And 38-year-old A.J. Burnett has been the crown jewel of a productive hot stove season that also brought OBP-hound Francisco Cervelli and potent rookie Jung-Ho Kang into the fold. Cole, Liriano, Burnett, and fifth starter Jeff Locke have all joined Morton in the ground ball parade, too, with everyone currently in Pittsburgh’s rotation producing ground ball rates of better than 50 percent.
Still, if he can even approach his numbers from those first five outings, Morton — whose ground ball proficiency pairs well with the most shift-happy (and shift-savvy) team in the National League — could be a difference-maker for the Pirates. With Josh Harrison predictably coming back to earth after an out-of-character 2014 campaign and Gregory Polanco not yet ready to fulfill his big offensive potential, the Bucs offense has been below average this season. So, if the Pirates can trot out four good-to-great starters from here on out, that would go a long way toward negating any continued downdraft from their hitters. Teams that go four deep in quality starters are exceedingly rare, and that depth has the knock-on effect of keeping the bullpen fresh. As the Pirates look set to taste champagne for the third season running, those two things would certainly be useful come October.