Looking for Relief

Veteran or former closers were in the headlines as Brad Boxberger was dealt to Arizona and Jim Johnson moved to the Los Angeles Angels, both in exchange for minor league arms.

The Rays closer in 2015, Boxberger spent much of 2016 either ineffective or on the disabled list or both and then missed most of 2 017 due to a back injury. Though only a small 29.1 inning sample, once healthy, the righty re-established his dominance with a 12.3 K/9 and improved his control to a 3.4 BB/9 mark. Long-balls continue to be a problem for him, however, his career home runs on fly balls rate standing at 14%. As an arbitration candidate, a not insignificant pay raise is coming his way which may have been expedited the move. Archie Bradley has been penciled in to close for the Diamondbacks despite just a single career save and Boxberger will give them another option to consider this spring. Worst case he is poised to be the number one closer insurance policy.

He still works with a plus fastball, nasty slider, and changeup combination and his layoff have not resulted in any decline in velocity. However, he has shown to be somewhat injury prone and volatile in terms of control and as mentioned, home run allowance. Even if he wins the closer job outright, an aggressive investment is not recommended.

Jim Johnson, meanwhile returns to his AL roots after two years with the Braves and at this point in time may be utilized more in a setup or middle relief role with the emergence of Blake Parker and Cam Bedrosian, but as a pitcher with 176 career saves, he could easily end up back in the role if others falter. Earlier in his career, Johnson was known as a pitch to contact, extreme groundball pitcher type with above average command a mid-nineties fastball. In recent seasons, however, his curveball has become a more effective weapon and his strikeout rates have climbed to more than a batter per inning even though he does not throw quite as hard as he did at his peak. This season his command crumbled from a 2.8 to a 4.0 BB/9 awhile his groundball rates dropped to under 50% for the first time in his career. The result, despite a career-high 9.7 K/9, was terrible across the board. The 34-year old has been written off before, only to rise from the dead. It would be unwise to write him off a second time, but still should only be considered as an endgame option or not all on draft day if he doesn’t claim the closer’s role.

Moving on to the minor leagues, the Rays acquired Curtis Taylor from the Diamondbacks. Taylor is a projectable, 6’6” right-hander who pitched in A-ball last year, posting a 9.8 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. He was being used as a starter, but his upper nineties fastball and slider may lend themselves better to a relief role in the long run. He’ll move up to A+ ball next year, but a change in roles could move him through the system at a much faster rate.

Justin Kelly was acquired along with pool money from the Angels for Johnson. The 24-year old started in rookie ball and proceeded to then pitch at 4 subsequent levels, ultimately ending up in AAA before the season ended. Just because he moved that many levels do not mean he is any good. A former 33rd round pick, drafted just four shy of being drafted 1000th overall, tops out in the eighties and works with average at best pitches. Expect him to spend almost the entirety of 2018, if not his career, in AAA.

Free Agency Outlook: The New York Mets

While a few teams remain in the post-season it is time, for most teams, to start looking at 2018. With that in mind, I am kicking off a series that looks at each team’s potential free agents and their associated fantasy baseball impacts starting with my hometown Mets. The Mets will not have many, if any, free agent departures of note this off-season primarily due to the fact their most attractive pending free agents were already dealt amidst the season.

Free Agents
Tom Gorzelanny: Gorzelanny never actually suited up for the Mets in 2017 and spent much of the season dealing with shoulder injuries. He pitched a combined 7.2 innings at three different levels of minor league ball. The 35-year old will likely sign a minor league deal this off-season in an effort to come back as a long reliever or left-handed specialist.  Sadly he has not been relevant for fantasy sports purposes since 2013.

Travis Snider: A much-traveled former first-round pick has not touched the Major Leagues since 2017. He performed solidly, but unspectacularly, at two hitter-friendly PCL Triple-A franchises this past season, but showed only modest power (10 combined home runs), but respectable plate discipline skills. He will be thirty on opening day and will try again to win a backup role with an MLB club and will most likely find himself as organizational filler at the Triple-A level.

Desmond Jennings: Former Rays’ starting outfielder Desmond Jennings spent some time with the Mets in a minor league capacity failing to do much of anything of note, despite the friendly hitting confines that can be found in Las Vegas (.237/.301/.415). Technically the Mets released him in June and he has been a free agent since that time. He has now been released in two successive seasons after earlier in his career being one of the most highly-coveted young players in the game given his power/speed combination and minor league plate discipline skills none of which really fully materialized at the MLB level and then injuries started to rear their ugly head. Jennings will be 31 on opening day and it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll even try to sign with a club. If healthy, there is a chance there is something left in the tank as the skills he showed as a Ray are still lurking, but that is a significant “if”.

Team Options: The Mets have only two players with options on their contracts and both of them are team contracts of “reasonable” amounts in baseball terms and are likely to be picked up.

From an offensive standpoint, Asdrubal Cabrera, has been a generally successful addition on the offensive side of things in each of his two seasons with the club, showing solid power for a middle infielder. 2017 was one of the more useful seasons of his career, in fact, as he showed improved plate discipline, making contact about 85% of the time while walking 9% and posting a career-high .351 OBP along with 14 home runs. This is a very acceptable production level for a middle infielder, but mediocre at best should the Mets opt to shift him to third base in 2018. Given the context of his career, his overall fantasy stat line should remain similar, but a regression in his OBP should be expected. Defensively it is about time the Mets accepted that despite the fact that he has played a number of positions over his career, that does not mean he should be as he continues to be one of the least effective defenders according to advanced fielding metrics on the left side of the infield. In fantasy terms, he is still a fairly valuable player, but in terms of real baseball, we are talking about a player who had a lower WAR (Wins above replacement) than Jose Iglesias who had a .288 OBP in 2017. He showed an ability to be at least adequate at second base and capable at first, is blocked thereby Dominic Smith who will be given every chance to hold down the everyday job in 2018.

Loogy Jeremy Blevins has pitched in now fewer than 73 games each of the last two seasons for the Mets, posting a sub 3.00 ERA and striking out batters at 11.1 and 12.7 K/9 respectively. On the open market his services would be highly contested and his salary, even at 34 years of age, could easily be higher heading into 2018 ($7 M) if allowed to enter the open market. Last year he allowed a .195 batting average against left-handed batters along with a .250 OBP with 48 strikeouts in 34 innings. Righties, unsurprisingly, smoked him with a .288/.447/.545. line and his career numbers against him of .242/.343/.400 contrasted against his .206/.264/.304 against lefties make his role quite clearly defined. His real utility is in leagues that count holds as he nailed down 16 and 19 the past two seasons.

Non-Tender Candidates
Despite the fact that he will be 36 years old come opening day Norichika Aoki is still arbitration eligible, albeit for the final time, this year. He has earned the same contract ($5.5 M) each of the past two years and continues to display the same tools and skills that obtained him those contracts. The Mets could conceivably keep him as a semi-regular especially considering Michael Conforto may not be ready to return on opening day or could let him walk while simply let him walk and take their chances in the free agent and trade markets instead. That aside, Aoki remains a tweener with consistent plate discipline skills and above average speed that allow him to hit for a solid batting average and respectable OBP while stealing a few bags. His extreme ground-ball tendencies and limited power will keep him from ever being more than a low single-digits homerun hitter. It should be noted that the lefty is having an increasing spread in his platoon splits, failing to muster much of anything against his left-handed counterparts the last two seasons. His defense also appears to be in decline the last few seasons as well upon a closer look. Aoki still has value as a fourth outfielder for contending teams. If the Mets bring him back, similar playing time and production levels as a platoon player should be expected.

Tommy Milone was awful for the Mets and has always been considered a back end of the rotation starter, but at least having bone spurs to blame for his 7-plus ERA makes some sense. It remains to be seen whether or not he will undergo surgery for the issue which typically has no long-term effect on a pitchers’ career. When at his best, Milone is a fairly soft-tossing lefty known for allowing fly-balls and subsequently home runs at fairly high rates. He owns a career 12.3 HR/FB and a FIP well over 4.00 making him a non-recommended option on draft day in all formats.

It’s All About the Glove: Breaking Down the Adeiny Hechavarria Deal

Trade Background: It’s all about the glove, at least from the Rays’ point of view. The Rays dealt minor leaguers Braxton Lee and Ethan Clark for Adeiny Hechavarria. From the Marlins, it was about getting rid of the remainder of Hechavarria’s $4.4 M dollar salary. Long term that makes him a non-tender candidate as he’ll head to arbitration once again this Fall, but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Roster Ramifications: Hechavarria was on the DL with the Marlins and will be activated later this week, so a corresponding move has yet to be made. He’ll take over as the primary shortstop with Tim Beckham and Daniel Robertson splitting time at second base. Taylor Featherston could end up the roster casualty though it could possibly be Robertson being sent down too since he has options remaining. The returns of Brad Miller and Matt Duffy, both not until the second half for Duffy for certain and possibly for Miller, will shuffle up this whole middle infield situation again in time.

For the Marlins, since Hechavarria was already on the DL, the deal does not result in any MLB-level roster changes. What it does is lock in J.T. Riddle as their primary shortstop. The Marlins do not have any other shortstop prospects close to MLB ready and so it is sink or swim time for Riddle. They do, however, have an array of journeyman/veterans with plenty of MLB experience in Triple-A to fill in should the need arise.

As for the minors, Braxton Lee will head to Double-A Jacksonville and Ethan Clark is moving to Low-A Greensboro.

Player Analysis: Without his plus glove Hechavarria would not have much of an MLB career. The 28-year old makes a reasonable amount of contact but lacks power, patience, and though he runs well, is not much of a stolen base threat. At best, the righty may provide a .270s to .280s batting average and single digit HR and SB totals.

Braxton Lee, 23, was a 2014 12th round draft pick by the Rays. A 5’10” centerfielder with well above average speed, Lee brings a decent approach to the plate, combining moderate selectivity and some contact making skills in an effort to put the ball on the ground and leg it out as much as possible. Not surprisingly the result is an almost complete lack of a power-hitting game. In fact, his first two professional home runs came this year in his fourth season of pro ball. He was having a nice season with a .318/.387/.391 slash along with 12 steals, but still barely surfaces on the prospect radar. Expect him to be on the journeyman/fifth outfielder career path.

Ethan Clark is not a high-pedigree prospect either. The 22-year old was a 2015 15th round draft pick and has worked in both starting and relief since signing with the Rays. Despite standing about 6’6”, Clark is not a power pitcher per se, but he has good command and his primary pitch is a heavy sinker that he mixes with a changeup and curve. In 55 innings Clark has posted an 8.2 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. At best, he projects as a back-end of the rotation starter or middle reliever. The development of a secondary pitch as a true swing and miss offering is the key here.

Conclusions: The Rays were determined to upgrade their defense and they accomplished that goal though it is uncertain whether or not Hechevarria will eventually fade into a defensive replacement role once Duffy and Miller both return to the scene. The Marlins meanwhile managed to shed some salary and acquire two prospects, though neither has a high ceiling, both have their utility and could contribute at the MLB level in time.

Matt Chapman Takes Over at the Hot Corner

So, the A’s have decided to cut bait on off-season signee Trevor Plouffe as he struggled to produce and are ready to hand off the job to Matt Chapman. The move, from the beginning, was intended to serve as a stop-gap move, but the A’s perhaps didn’t expect it to the end this early and perhaps hoped Plouffe would at least play well enough to draw trade interest in mid-season. That didn’t happen so they jettisoned his remaining salary as a sunk cost.

So, Chapman will be a primary FAAB or waiver target in most league formats as soon as he becomes available depending on whether you play in weekly or daily play. The first thing you need to know is “yes, he is going to hurt your batting average” if you play in a standard 5×5 or other batting average related leagues. The righty has struggled to his keep his strikeout rate under 30% at the Double-A and Triple-A levels and is already an established .250s hitter in the minors. To expect improvement in that area, barring a change in approach is unlikely and it is entirely possible that he could struggle as much as his predecessor.

On the upside, Chapman at least has power upside, slugging over .500 with isolated power’s over .200 for much of his minor league career. His patience and all or nothing approach at least also serve to keep his OBP respectable and somewhat valuable even if he hits in the .210s to .220s in OBP based leagues. Owners of Oakland pitchers will be happy as well as he should represent an improvement in defense over Plouffe. Chapman has been long well regarded for his throwing arm, agility, and range. Like most all or nothing power hitters, however, Chapman is not a significant threat on the base paths.

If available in most AL-only leagues, starters do not come along every day so you will likely need to open your FAAB budget a bit to acquire him, despite the risk of potential failure he carries. He is unlikely to be available in AL-only keeper or dynasty leagues with minor league drafts, but mixed leaguers may be afforded the luxury of waiting and seeing depending upon the depth of the corner infield market and free agent pool of your league.