Trade Market For Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels is coming off one of the best seasons of his career at the age of 30 years old. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Phillies are looking to trade their ace for a substantial haul. After finishing last in their division with a 73-89 record, the Phillies plan to undergo a rebuilding phase in order to restock their talent supply. The Phillies current roster is full of veterans signed to poor contracts, but Hamels is one of the few players who could bring back a significant return in a trade. Hamels is signed to a reasonable 6-year contract worth $144 Million through 2018, which is just about what he is worth, leaving little surplus value. While the Phillies appear willing to deal Hamels and expedite their rebuilding process, it appears they are expecting a significant haul in return for their ace. According to Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com, the Phillies are seeking “at least three top prospects”. They are looking for 2 of those players to be Major League ready. This is essentially the same asking price reported at the 2014 Trade Deadline when the Phillies were unable to make a trade. While the Phillies certainly have the right to ask for whatever they want, the market is unlikely to meet their demands, if only because few teams have this level of talent that they are willing to trade.

For the 5th straight season, Hamels eclipsed the 200 inning plateau with better than an 8.0 K/9. In 2014, he also posted the best ERA of his career at 2.46, which was supported by 3.07 FIP. For his career, Hamels has been very consistent with a career ERA of 3.27 and FIP of 3.48, in route to a career fWAR of 34.4 over his 9 seasons in the league. While Hamels is an outstanding talent and will certainly garner a great amount of interest on the trade market, there are still plenty of obstacles to any trade. For starters, Hamels has a 21-team “no trade” clause, which was recently updated, so it is unclear who is on the list. While Hamels will likely approve a deal to any contender he will have leverage to demand more money or some other compensation in order to waive his “no trade” clause. Another challenge for the Phillies in trading Hamels will be finding a team that is willing to meet their asking price, rather than signing one of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or James Shields and not sacrificing any talent, except the draft pick. Hamels has only 4 guaranteed years remaining on his deal and will likely earn less average annual value (AAV) than each of the above, except Shields. Teams will likely prefer signing one of the free agents and retaining their prospects, rather than pay Hamels similar money and lose 3 top prospects. Despite the fact that many teams are interested in acquiring a true ace like Hamels, the market for his services will be relatively thin because few teams can come close to the Phillies’ demands.

There are seven teams that both have the financial will power and prospect depth to make a deal for Hamels.

Dodgers: They were linked to Hamels at the Trade Deadline because of their incredible financial flexibility and elite Minor League talent. With the possibility of Zack Greinke opting out of his deal after next season, the Dodgers could pursue Hamels to go for it in 2015 and also give them an option if Greinke departs. In terms of Minor League talent, the Dodgers have shortstop Corey Seager, outfielder Joc Pederson and left-handed pitcher Julio Urias. Each of these players are consensus Top 50 prospects, but there is no chance the Phillies land all three for Hamels, and would likely only receive one added with lesser prospects in any deal.

Cubs: The Cubs seem poised to go for it as early as 2015 and if they miss on the Free Agent aces, they could turn to the Phillies. They have an unmatched pool of offensive talent in the upper minors, so they could afford to deal a few of their prospects and still be among the top systems. Some players the Cubs could offer include shortstop Javier Baez, shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Albert Almora, catcher Kyle Schwarber, right-hander CJ Edwards, and outfielder Billy McKinney. A deal involving either Baez or Russell would likely only include them and a couple lesser prospects. Deals starting with the other players above would likely involve two of the names, as they are lesser prospects, but still very valuable.

Cardinals: The Cardinals have 7 candidates to be above average starters 2015, but they are still among the few teams that have the finances and Minor League depth to acquire an ace like Hamels. They are the least likely team to acquire Hamels, but were linked to him at the Deadline, so those talks could resurface. Trade talks would likely center around one or two of right-handed Carlos Martinez, left-handed Marco Gonzalez, and Rightfielder Stephen Piscotty with other lesser prospects added in.

Red Sox: The Red Sox were interested in Hamels at the Trade Deadline, but because they were not in contention decided against paying the steep price, in the hopes that it would go down in the offseason. The Red Sox have plenty of prospects in the upper minors, but many scouts differ in their assessments of each. One of utility man Mookie Betts, catcher Blake Swihart or left-hander Henry Owens plus some of the more advanced but lower ceiling players would likely get the deal done. However, the Red Sox will be very reluctant to part with either Betts or Swihart as they are both elite talents that will have good opportunities with the club.

Yankees: The Yankees obviously have the financial capacity to take on his contract and are in the market for an ace to anchor their rotation, but they lack the Minor League talent in the upper minors to match the current asking price. The Yankees do, however, have enough high upside talent to entice the Phillies. Prospects they could offer include right-hander Luis Severino, outfielder Aaron Judge, and catcher Gary Sanchez, along with a few other lower level players.

Mariners: The Mariners may not necessarily need an ace, since they have both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but they have the financial room and prospect depth to get Hamels and push them over the cusp of the playoffs. A deal would center around one of left-hander James Paxton or right-hander Taijuan Walker. The Mariners would likely have to include shortstop Brad Miller and another talented prospect.

Rangers: Texas’s interest in Hamels depends entirely on whether they feel they can be competitive in 2015, after finishing last in the AL during an injury-plagued season. If they feel Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will be healthy and productive then Hamels could be a possible addition, especially with all the injury concerns associated with their current rotation. Jurickson Profar could be the centerpiece of a deal, if the Phillies believe the injuries are behind him. Otherwise a deal could center around Joey Gallo and some lesser prospects.

The Cardinals and Rangers are the least likely of the above teams to swing a deal for Hamels, but they do have the necessary pieces to pull off a trade. The best move for the Phillies is likely to wait until the three Free Agent aces sign with teams and then try to deal Hamels to the teams that were unable to land one of the Free Agents. The Red Sox or Cubs seem like the most likely destinations, assuming they cannot sign a Free Agent. Either way, it is unlikely the Phillies will receive the steep price they are demanding, but nevertheless, will receive an impressive haul if they do trade Cole Hamels.

Anthony Cacchione

Significant Off-Season Ahead for Reds

The Cincinnati Reds just completed a disastrous season, in which they fell from just 1.5 games back at the All-Star Break to 14 games back by the end of the season. They have experienced more than their fair share of injuries, but even without all the injuries, this probably is not a playoff team. The Reds’ offense has multiple holes it will need to fill in order to contend in the competitive NL Central. Defensively, the Reds excelled, ranking as the best defensive team in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Offensively, however, they were among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 30th in wRC+. That means when removing context from events, the Reds were the worst offensive team this season. Even when considering all the injuries they suffered, this is not a good offensive team. They also have a pitching staff that ranks 27th in baseball in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), meaning their pitchers are near the bottom of the league in what they can control. Recently extended General Manager, Walt Jocketty, will need a very effective off-season to return the Reds to contention, but he’ll need to do it without much financial flexibility.

In 2013, the Reds’ posted a wRC+ of 97, which was slightly below average, but still 13 points higher than the figure they posted in 2014. It is easy to attribute most of this difference to the injuries suffered by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, however, neither of them were having particularly strong seasons offensively. Votto slashed .255/.390/.409 (avg/obp/slg), which is partly due to his injuries, but even prior to his first DL stint, Votto’s numbers were down. While I certainly expect Votto to return to his prototypical form in 2015, there are no guarantees that his knee injuries will be behind him, as he also had knee issues in 2011. Brandon Phillips on the other hand has provided little offensive value for the last two seasons. While his defense is still among the best at 2nd base, Phillips’s offense has been declining for a few years and I do not believe his struggles are due to his thumb injury. His OBP and SLG% have declined in each of the last 3 seasons. The Reds also have significant offensive holes in Leftfield, Centerfield and Shortstop. Leftfield will be their biggest area of need this offseason, as they ranked 29th in WAR from their Leftfielders. Billy Hamilton will again be their centerfielder in 2015, but he will need to make substantial improvements on offense, where he often looked overmatched. Their shortstop position seems to be set, as well, with Zach Cozart providing enough defensive value to overcome his shortcomings on offense. Cozart posted the worst wRC+ of any qualified hitter this season, but rated as one of the best defenders in the game, so he will likely remain entrenched at short for the Reds. Their offense has three glaring holes, and that is assuming that Jay Bruce returns to his normal form, after an abysmal 2014. They will likely be able to find an upgrade in Leftfield, but will likely receive little offensive production from the Centerfield and Shortstop positions.

The Reds experienced some more injuries on the pitching side, as Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman all landed on the DL. However, even with each pitcher healthy, their staff is not all that imposing. They ranked 16th in ERA, but 27th in FIP, which is more evidence as to how good their defense is, but also a result of a good amount of luck. The pitching staff ranked 26th in BB/9, but also posted the 3rd lowest BABIP, which will be difficult to repeat, even with their strong defense. If they are going to improve their offense this off-season, it will likely happen by trading away one of the starters, which will further weaken their rotation. While their rotation is considered one of their strengths, it is not deep enough to sustain trading away one of its top members. Assuming everyone is healthy they have 5 quality starters that appear ready for the rotation in 2015, with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Alfredo Simon under control for next year. However, Bailey just had surgery on his forearm and this is Simon’s first season as a starter and he has far outperformed his peripherals. If one of these starters is dealt, the Reds do not have many internal candidates to fill the void. Tony Cingrani struggled in his sophomore season, David Holmberg has been hit hard in his debut season and top prospect Robert Stephenson struggled mightily in Double-A this season. There is plenty of uncertainty in their rotation and their bullpen was a complete disaster this season, ranking 24th in ERA and FIP.

Unfortunately, the Reds do not have much financial flexibility in order to add top talent through Free Agency. Their 2014 payroll of $112 Million was the highest in franchise highest and does not appear to be a very sustainable figure, considering their payroll increased by $25 Million from 2012 to 2013. Their payroll for 2015 will likely be in a similar range to this past year, which does not leave them much room for outside personnel. They already have $71 Million committed to their 2015 roster, and that covers only 10 players. This leaves them with around $45 Million left to sign their arbitration eligible players, as well as their $10 Million club option on Johnny Cueto. With at least $20 Million going to arbitration eligible players, the Reds will only have around $15 million to allocate to free agents. With such little flexibility, the Reds are certainly out of the running for the top free agents, which means they will likely fill smaller holes through free agency and trade one of their starters to improve one of the more significant weaknesses, such as Leftfield. While the Reds would love to trade Brandon Phillips and his remaining $39 Million over the next 3 years, not many teams will be interested, unless the Reds eat a chunk of his salary. The most likely player to be dealt is Johnny Cueto, as his value has reached it peak, following a Cy Young-type season. If Cueto is the starter to go, the Reds will need someone like Latos to step up as the Ace, but Cueto will bring back a significant haul.

While the Reds can argue that they would have been able to compete without so many injuries, injuries happen to every team, and this team was not all that good even with a healthy roster. They have far too many holes on offense and a pitching staff that far outperformed their peripherals. With such little financial flexibility, the Reds will need to find improvements from within their organization that can add around 15 wins. Otherwise, the Reds will need to trade one of their top starters in order to bring in an offensive upgrade at an affordable price. With so much money allocated to such few players, the Reds need to improve this roster, while those players are still performing up to their contracts. That makes this offseason that much more important, as their window to contend with this core will not be open much longer.

Anthony Cacchione

Should We Be Concerned With Oscar Taveras?

Oscar+Taveras+Milwaukee+Brewers+v+St+Louis+YzJuqF9lmG8l Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Oscar Taveras entered this season as a unanimous Top 5 prospect in baseball, and many scouting outlets felt he was already Major League ready. He tore up every stop in the Minors, even winning the Texas League MVP award in 2012, while in Double-A. If not for an injury plagued 2013 campaign, Taveras may have made his MLB debut last year. Instead, he began this season in Triple-A, where he continued to dominate. Finally, after what seemed to be too long of a wait, Taveras made his MLB debut on May 31, and did it in grand fashion, as he hit a towering home run in his 2nd at bat. However, the Cardinals Rightfielder has struggled to dominate the Majors in the same way he did the Minors. In 205 Big League plate appearances (PA), the 22-year-old has slashed just .224/.268/.292 (avg/obp/slg) with only 2 home runs. It isn’t too surprising to see a young prospect struggle in his first taste of Big League action, but there are some red flags in Taveras’s performance thus far.

As I said, there are some concerning trends in Taveras’s production thus far, but there are also some very promising things. The first thing in Oscar’s favor is that he is still very young at just 22 years old. This is not Oscar at his peak, as he is going to get stronger and will make adjustments to help his chances of competing at this level. Along with his youth, just about every scouting outlet agrees on Taveras’s ability and overall potential, with all of them believing that his elite bat speed and exceptional plate coverage will make him an outstanding regular in the Majors. And to a certain extent, those outlets have all been correct, as his bat speed and plate coverage have helped him post a far better than league average K%. Another good sign for Oscar Taveras is that he does not seem entirely overmatched, as he is swinging and missing just 5.1%, which is 4.3% below league average. Oscar’s ability to make contact bodes well for him being able to keep his K% well below league average. Even as the other statistics like his slash line have not matched the hype quite yet, we are dealing with only 200 PA and Taveras has a strong track record in Minor Leagues that suggests he is much better than this. One last reason for optimism is it seems Taveras is getting quite unlucky, as he has posted just a .256 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The league average for BABIP is .298, and there does not appear to be any strong correlation for BABIP from season to season, which suggests Taveras should be able to rebound in the future.

Now that we have looked at the positives for Oscar Taveras, it is time to point out some red flags in his performance. Starting with where we finished in the positives, his BABIP. As I explained, Taveras is likely to see his BABIP rise just due to regression to the mean, but BABIP is also affected by certain types of batted balls, as some balls in play go for hits more often than others. For example, Infield Flyballs (IFFBs) go for outs almost as often as strikeouts, Line Drives on the other hand go for hits the most frequently. Taveras, unfortunately, has a very poor batted ball profile thus far in his career. Among the 320 hitters with at least 200 PA, Taveras ranks 40th in Groundball% (GB%). This may not seem overly concerning, but the majority of the players ahead of him are speed first, low power guys. Taveras is not fast and he is supposed to at least have 20 HR power, so this is not a good trend for him. Even more concerning, however, is the fact that he ranks 13th with a 17.6% IFFB%. As I stated above, IFFBs go for outs nearly every time. Taveras also sits 4% below league average in LD%, so he is not hitting enough balls that go for hits most frequently. Taveras’s poor batted ball profile culminates in him posting a very poor BABIP. His BABIP is still likely to rise just by regression, but if he continues to hit balls in play like he has, then he will continue to post a below league average BABIP. Further reason for concern is Taveras’s inability to hit Major League fastballs. Against hard pitches, as classified by Brooksbaseball.net, Taveras has hit just .218 and slugged a disappointing .242. It seems Taveras has been unable to catch up to Major League velocity, as he has yet to pull a fastball in the air. Unfortunately for Taveras, he is not much better against breaking and off-speed pitches, but he has managed a .333 slugging percentage against both pitch types. Taveras’s struggles against breaking and off-speed pitches stems mostly from his poor plate discipline, which was well documented throughout his Minor League career. In the Minors he was able to make solid contact, whereas he has not been able to do so thus far in his brief MLB career. There is no doubt that Major League pitching is much better than even Triple-A pitching, and right now it seems that Taveras’s aggressive approach is overmatched in the Majors.

Taveras is still just 22 years old and has ranked among the top prospects in the game for years, but he is really struggling at the highest level. Every young player has to make adjustments when they first come up and there is no doubt Taveras will improve. Yet, it is worth asking whether we should be concerned. Taveras’s ability to make contact at a much better than league average rate, bodes well for his future, but right now his contact has not been good contact. With too many GBs and IFFBs, Taveras will need to improve his batted ball profile in order to develop into the All-Star hitter many scouts predict him to be. And for Taveras, his bat is his only way to help his team, as he is a below average defender and base runner. With just about all his value coming from his offense, Taveras will need to make many adjustments at the plate in order to develop into the solid regular that experts expect him to be. Many of his issues thus far can be attributed to poor timing, resulting in too many GBs and IFFBs, but 200 PA is a long time to have poor timing. This off-season will be vital for Taveras, as he has plenty of adjustments to make in order to compete at this level.

Anthony Cacchione

It Is Time To Appreciate Stephen Strasburg

Source: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images North America

Source: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images North America

Just a few days ago, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote why Stephen Strasburg is not an ace. Schoenfield is not alone with this claim, as many fans and pundits alike have argued that Strasburg has failed to develop into the ace that many thought he would become when he was selected 1st overall by the Washington Nationals in the 2009 Amateur Draft. When looking at his career, Strasburg has been one of the best starters of all-time in rate statistics (K/9, ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), etc.). However, the largest knock on Strasburg has always been his inability to pitch deep into games. For his career, Strasburg has averaged just 5.9 innings per start, which is not ace-caliber production. When Strasburg is on the mound, however, he is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Aside from Strasburg’s lack of deep outings, many people look towards his ERA and see that he has yet to post a sub-3.00 ERA in a season with at least 150 IP and conclude that he is not a front of the rotation starter. His ERA of 3.39 in 2014 is a career high and much more than respectable. The flamethrower is still criticized for not being among the league leaders in run prevention, but other starters, such as David Price, James Shields and Jered Weaver, are considered to be undisputed aces, despite posting similar ERAs. These three starters certainly have longer track records, but Strasburg has actually been better than each of them, although Price does have a better ERA this season. Likewise, few people would argue that pitchers like Alfredo Simon or Henderson Alvarez are aces, but they both have sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014. Relying on any one statistic for evaluation is a very risky proposition and often leads to rather poor conclusions. Strasburg, however, excels in many categories and is certainly among the most elite pitchers in the MLB.

During his nearly 4 full seasons of MLB service time, Strasburg has made 99 starts and compiled 585 2/3 IP, which equates to 5.9 IP/start, certainly validating the claim that he does not work deep into games. While this is due to his own shortcomings, it is also due to the Nationals attempting to protect their prized investment. Strasburg actually underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, his first year of professional baseball, despite being on strict pitch counts and innings limits. The Nationals have remained incredibly cautious with their 26 year-old ace, as they imposed an innings limit on him in 2012, his first full season after surgery, that forced them to shut him down before their brief trip to the Postseason. The Nationals have since lifted Strasburg’s restrictions and he has averaged over 6 inn/start each of the past two seasons, still not among the elite, but he is improving. Even as he has averaged more innings per start, Strasburg is still lacking in complete games, as he has just one career CG. Strasburg is not among the top pitchers in the game in terms of innings pitched, but he does excel in just about every other facet of the game.

Criticisms of Strasburg are nothing new, as he entered the league as one of the most-hyped players in the history of the game. He had a fastball that could reach 100 mph with a devastating curveball and changeup. He breezed through the minors and then dominated MLB hitters in his 68 innings before going down to Tommy John. After just two Major League starts, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “National Treasure”. At that time, Strasburg’s fate was sealed; it would be almost impossible for him to ever live up to the otherworldly expectations that many had placed on him. While these expectations have always been there, they are leading to even louder critics this season, as Strasburg has posted the worst ERA of his career. The worst ERA of his career is 3.39, which is more than respectable, maybe not an ERA you would want from an ace, but there are plenty of flaws with using ERA. Strasburg has been hurt by an unsustainable Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), which sits at .341. It is not always bad luck that contributes to a high BABIP, and David Schoenfield does point out that Strasburg has been hit hard when he has fallen behind in the count. It is still not realistic to expect Strasburg’s BABIP to remain this high when his career mark is .302, which is right around league average. Despite these unspectacular numbers, Strasburg has excelled in the statistics he has the most control over, such as K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. Strasburg has a K/9 of 10.53, which ranks 3rd in the MLB. He has also been fantastic at limiting walks and home runs, as his 1.96 BB/9 is far better than league average and his HR/9 of .83 is also better than league average. All of these statistics culminate in Strasburg posting the 11th best FIP in baseball, ahead of bona fide aces Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, David Price and Max Scherzer, to name a few. Even in the midst of a down season in terms of run prevention, Strasburg is among the elite pitchers in the game when isolating his performance from his defense and luck.

However, looking at one season’s worth of data is not nearly enough data to substantiate a claim that any starter is an ace. Strasburg’s career numbers help to further strengthen his case as an MLB ace. Looking at pitcher’s career statistics for all starters with at least 550 career IP, Strasburg ranks among the best starters in the history of the game. There are 812 starters that have reached this benchmark and Strasburg has posted the best FIP of any of them. This is largely due to his ability to generate strikeouts, while also limiting walks and home runs. He ranks 2nd in K/9, but 1st in K% and K-BB%. His ranking as the best pitcher in terms of FIP shows how effective Strasburg is at all the things he has the most control over. But, even in terms of ERA, Strasburg has ranked among the top starters of all-time. He ranks 17th all-time in ERA, with a 3.07 mark. It may not be entirely accurate to compare Strasburg’s first 585 2/3 IP to other starters that have compiled more than 1500 IP. However, that is the only sample that we can look at and all of his advanced metrics point to this being a sustainable performance. He excels at the three statistics that are most under his control, which will help him to sustain this high level of performance. The real challenge for Strasburg will come when he begins to lose velocity, but with his ability to limit walks and generate so many strikeouts, he should continue to succeed at the level of an ace.

While Strasburg entered the league with unrealistic expectations, that does not mean that he should need to do more than others to be considered an ace. In statistics that he has the greatest control over, he ranks among the best starters in the MLB, not just in 2014, but also for his entire career. Even in terms of run prevention, Strasburg has matched the level of other elite pitchers. Despite what seems to be a disappointing season for Strasburg, he has remained among the best starters in the game. It is time to accept that Strasburg is never going to match the hype that was put on him when he was drafted, and realize that he has still developed into the ace that many would expect of a #1 overall pick. He has also done all of this by the age of 26, which leaves him plenty of time to continue to improve as an ace. He certainly needs to improve his ability to pitch deep into games, but now that he has graduated from the Nationals’ overprotective period, he will be free to throw more pitches per outing and more innings per season.

*All statistics as of August 7, 2014

Anthony Cacchione

Chris Young’s Surprising Comeback

Chris Young is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career; depending on which metrics you prefer to look at. His numbers may not seem all that impressive at first glance, as his ERA and opponents’ batting average are his only statistics that are even slightly better than league average. Many of Young’s other numbers are rather pedestrian, if not entirely poor. Yet, the veteran has still managed to prevent runs as well as some of the biggest names in the game. While his run-prevention has been impressive, Young has received little recognition for his accomplishments this season, which is understandable. The Mariners signed the 35-year-old to a non-guaranteed contract just before the season, hoping that he would hold down a rotation spot until one of the Mariners’ young prospects, Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, returned from their injuries. Instead, Young has maintained his position in the clubs rotation and actually served as their 3rd best starter. It has been a long time since Young has pitched this consistently, as he has battled shoulder injuries for the last few seasons and struggled to return full-time to the big leagues. Prior to this season, Young last pitched in the Majors during the second half of the 2012 season. From 2009 to 2011, the righty threw just 120 innings across the three seasons. Due to continuing shoulder problems, Young failed to pitch in the MLB last season. However, last June, a doctor realized his shoulder pain was not due to his shoulder, but from a nerve issue known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. With this new diagnosis, Young was able to properly treat the injury and return ready to pitch this season. More impressive than his successful return from constant shoulder issues, is the way that Young has come back better than before. He is pitching with reduced stuff, having aged and been injured, yet he is still performing better than plenty of star pitchers, in terms of runs allowed.

Despite his 6’10” frame, Young was never much of a hard thrower, as he averaged just 90.3 mph on his fastball in 2007, which was slightly below average for qualified starters. Even with average velocity, Young was able to maintain a K/9 above league average each year until his shoulder problems began in 2009. The righty’s ability to strikeout hitters helped him succeed, despite his extreme fly ball tendencies. That is no longer the case, however, as Young no longer has a better than league average strikeout rate. A low strikeout rate coupled with extreme fly ball tendencies is not a great recipe for success. Nevertheless, Young has still been very effective at preventing runs this season, which is due in part to a very low BABIP of .218 and a much better than league average strand rate of 83.6%. These statistics along with Young’s poor strikeout numbers and league average walk rate account for the large discrepancy between his ERA and FIP. Young has certainly prevented runs effectively, yet he has managed the 3rd worst FIP in the Majors. This shows how heavily he has relied on his defense and may be getting quite lucky with his low BABIP and high stand rate. Unlike most pitchers that rely on a low BABIP, Young’s BABIP is less likely to regress too far. For his career, the veteran has a .250 BABIP, so this season’s .218 mark is not too out of line. It is also important to note that fly balls have the lowest BABIP of any batted ball type and Young has the highest FB% of any qualified starter at 57.5% fly balls. Young also has the benefit of pitching in front of a very good outfield defense, as Mariners’ outfielders have compiled a UZR of 9.4. I certainly expect that Young’s BABIP will regress towards the mean, not necessarily towards league average, but more likely towards his career average of .250.

Just how rare is it that Young has been able to succeed as a starter with such a low GB% and low K/9? This season, he is among just 3 qualified starters to have a GB% lower than 40% and a K/9 lower than 6.00. The other two starters in the group are Josh Collmenter and Shelby Miller and of the group, Young has both the lowest GB% and lowest K/9. His GB% is nearly 15 points less than the other two starters, but he still has the best ERA of the group, albeit with the worst FIP and xFIP. Collmenter has also posted a better than league average ERA with a much better than league average BB/9. The final member of the group, Shelby Miller, has struggled to a 4.25 ERA, due in large part to compounding his low strikeout and groundball numbers with a high walk rate. There is no doubt this is a small sample and certainly with some survivor bias, as the pitchers that do not succeed with this formula are unlikely to amass enough innings to qualify. However, that goes to show how rare it is for a pitcher to succeed with low strikeout numbers and low groundball rate. There were no qualified starters that met the benchmarks of such a low K/9 and low GB% in 2012 or in 2013. Further demonstrating how few pitchers are able to succeed with such a low GB% and K rate.

It seems Young realizes the difficulty of succeeding with poor strikeout and groundball numbers, as the veteran has completely changed his approach since the end of May. He is now working with fewer fastballs than ever before in his career. For his career, Young has thrown 73.2% fastballs and he kept that pace, during April and May, as he threw 72.5% fastballs. Through the season’s first two months, Young carried a 3.27 ERA, but without average velocity, Young’s fastball heavy approach generated a meager 4.26 K/9. Young must have realized he could no longer rely so heavily on his subpar fastball because, in June and July, he cut his fastball% to fewer than 60%. His new approach has improved his numbers across the board. Not only has Young improved his ERA, but also his strikeout and walk rates. He has struck out nearly 2.5 more batters per 9 innings after reducing his fastball usage. There is no denying that two months worth of data is too small of a sample to draw many conclusions, but the results that Young has had with his new method are much more sustainable than the results of his previous two months.

Young is among a very small group of starters that have managed to succeed, despite striking out so few batters and managing such a meager groundball rate. His ability to outperform his peripherals may certainly be unsustainable, but this is a trend that has persisted his entire career, as his ERA has only been higher than his FIP in one season. There is no arguing that Young is highly dependent upon his defense to help him succeed, but with his fly ball tendencies and strong outfield defense behind him, there is no reason to believe this will not continue. His production looks even more sustainable after his improvements to his pitch selection, as he has improved his K/9 and BB/9. The league will certainly try to adjust to Young’s new approach, but they never made much progress before and Young has only improved his game plan.

Anthony Cacchione

The Cardinals’ Approach Without Molina

It is not an exaggeration to include Yadier Molina among the few MLB players that are irreplaceable to their team. He is an offensive threat at a defense-first position, while maintaining his status as the best defensive catcher in baseball. However, the Cardinals are now searching for a way to overcome the loss of Molina for an extended period of time. As Molina slid into third base in a game against the Pirates on Thursday, he tore a ligament in his thumb. The injury will require surgery and a recovery time between 8-12 weeks, which would keep Molina out until at least Mid-September. Even in the midst of a down season offensively, Molina registered a 112 wRC+, while still providing his elite defense. The Cardinals have claimed George Kottaras off waivers from the Indians, and he will presumably serve as Cruz’s backup. While he is an improvement upon Audry Perez, who would have been the Cards backup, he is not the answer. There are no acquisitions that GM John Mozeliak can make that will replicate anywhere near Molina’s level of production. However, that should not keep Mozeliak from pursuing upgrades over their current catchers. He has previously said that the trade market is currently too expensive, but with this loss, he can no longer afford to wait for the offense to come around and Michael Wacha to rehab from a rare shoulder injury.

For now, the Cardinals shift backup catcher Tony Cruz to their everyday starter, with recently acquired George Kottaras serving the role as the club’s backup catcher. Cruz is certainly an adequate reserve catcher, but he is not a reliable option as a starter with far below average offensive production and average-to-slightly above average defense over the course of his career. For his career Cruz has slashed .236/.280/.323, leading to a career wRC+ of 67 (100 wRC+ is average). Defensively, Cruz has compiled negative 6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). While it is certainly possible Cruz performs better with regular playing time, it is equally likely that he struggles even more as the league gets a better scouting report on him. There is also nothing in Cruz’s Minor League career to suggest that he will suddenly become a productive offensive player. Kottaras is a journeyman, who is known for his keen eye and impressive pop for a reserve catcher. He has slashed .216/.326/.415 for his career with a 101 wRC+. Kottaras’s defense is comparable to that of Tony Cruz, as he has negative 9 DRS across nearly 5 Major League seasons. The Cardinals may plan to use the left-handed-hitting Kottaras in a platoon with Cruz, who bats from the right side. However, for his career, Cruz has hit much better against RHPs than LHPs. For his part, Kottaras has a 106 wRC+ against RHP, which would fit with a platoon. These internal options will not leave the Cardinals with much room for error, especially since they sit 2 games back in the division and a 0.5 game back of the second Wild Card spot.

In order to push past the Brewers for the division or at least claim the second Wild Card spot, the Cardinals will need to add another catcher that can provide more offensive value than the three options mentioned above. The Cardinals were already struggling mightily offensively, even before Molina’s injury, so they cannot afford for too much fall-off from Molina’s production without receiving more production from other areas. However, there are few easy areas to improve, so the Cardinals have decided to wait for the offense to return to its form of the past two seasons. With this injury, they now have a position that they can upgrade through the trade market without displacing a key contributor, who is slumping. The trade market for catchers is lacking impact talent, but there are still upgrades available. One catcher that may fit the Cardinals’ needs is David Ross, who his known for great leadership of a pitching staff, but has also dominated LHP this season and for his career. He has struggled mightily this season with a 60 wRC+, but against LHP, Ross owns a wRC+ of 128 with a .855 OPS. The Red Sox will likely be sellers this season and with Ross an impending Free Agent, he should be available at a reasonable price, especially with his overall offensive production being so poor. If the Cardinals do acquire Ross, they could choose to keep either Cruz or Kottaras or both on the Big League club to serve in the platoon. If both are kept on the roster, the Cardinals would likely designate either Daniel Descalso or Mark Ellis for assignment and put Cruz’s versatility to use, as he can play 3rd. The best trade possibility for the Cardinals is Kurt Suzuki, but it is not clear whether the Twins will make him available or attempt to reach an extension with him. He is in the midst of a resurgent season offensively and would be the outright starter if acquired. Suzuki has a .759 OPS and a 114 wRC+, while also providing strong defense behind the plate, so far this season. Suzuki would likely require a strong prospect in order to convince the Twins to trade him rather than extend him. The Cardinals could likely deal from the deep pool of outfield prospects, with James Ramsey or Randal Grichuk and another lesser prospect possibly going to Minnesota in a deal. Suzuki is the best catcher available on the market and would come the closest to Molina’s production offensively and defensively.

The Cardinals will not use the loss of Molina as an excuse if they fall out of contention, nor should they, as every team deals with injuries. The other two teams chasing the Brewers for 1st place in the NL Central have dealt with similarly devastating injuries. The Reds have lost Joey Votto to the DL, only to have him return before he was fully healthy and have to go back on the DL. They also just lost Brandon Phillips to the same injury that Molina suffered. The Reds also dealt with injuries to their Closer, Aroldis Chapman, and key Starting Pitcher, Mat Latos, to begin the season. The Pirates have dealt with injuries to young flamethrower Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. The fact is every team has injuries, but the Cardinals are fortunate that this injury occurred with weeks remaining before the July 31st Trade Deadline, as they will have an opportunity to address their new need. The Cardinals may not like the price of the trade market, but they can no longer wait for the offense to recover, especially after losing a key contributor. This injury will hurt the Cardinals, there is not much doubt about that, but the club does have an opportunity to limit the damage by adding outside help. My approach would be to go aggressively after Kurt Suzuki, but resisting the urge to include an elite player, rather trying to trade from the Cardinals depth in the outfield and young pitchers. If the Twins rebuke them, they should then turn to the Red Sox regarding David Ross. If the Cardinals decide they are happy with adding George Kottaras, then they will need to receive better offensive production from other offensive positions, which has yet to happen.

Anthony Cacchione

15 Trade Targets for the St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals currently sit 6.5 games behind the Brewers for the NL Central lead, but do hold the 2nd Wild Card slot by ½ a game. The Cardinals’ starting pitchers rank 2nd in the Majors in ERA, yet the club will likely be in the market for a starter, after 3 starters have gone down with injuries. Joe Kelly has missed more time than expected with a hamstring injury, but just began his rehab assignment. Both Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia have gone down with shoulder injuries and the club is not sure how long both will be on the DL. The real question for the Cardinals is whether they will go for an ace-like starter (i.e. David Price) or a cheaper rental/middle rotation arm (i.e. Jason Hammel). Despite their interest in pitching, the Cardinals are more in need of offensive help, especially at 2nd base. Their targets will consist of 3rd basemen, who could move Carpenter back to 2nd base, and 2nd basemen.

Starting Pitchers:

Jason Hammel – RHP, Chicago Cubs:

Hammel is in the midst of a very productive season for the Cubs, but is still a near lock to be traded, as the Cubs struggle through another poor season. The righty has a 2.98 ERA, which is supported by his 3.11 FIP and an 18.8 K-BB%. Hammel is a Free Agent after this season, so he is just a rental player, which should limit the price for the Cardinals to acquire him. The Cards will likely have to give up a prospect or two that rank between 10 and 20 in their system.

Ian Kennedy – RHP, San Diego Padres:

Kennedy has posted a rather pedestrian 4.01 ERA with the Padres this season, but he has a career high K/9 of 9.67 and a FIP of 2.92. Because Kennedy has another year of team control, he may cost a little more in terms of talent for the Cardinals to acquire him. Kennedy should command a Top 10 prospect from the Cardinals’ system, but no one that is in the top 5.

Justin Masterson – RHP, Cleveland Indians:

The 29-year-old righty has struggled to a 5.03 ERA through his first 17 starts, so even if the Indians are in contention they may be willing to move him because he is a Free Agent following the season. Despite his high ERA, the Cardinals may take this opportunity to buy-low on a guy with 3.90 FIP and a high GB%. If Masterson begins pitching better, he may require a prospect between Top 10 and Top 15.

Brandon McCarthy – RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks:

McCarthy is almost a lock to be traded, as he is being paid over $9 Million this season and the Diamondbacks are struggling through a very disappointing season. His 5.11 ERA is not truly indicative of his skill level, as he has a 55.6 GB% and a 20.3 HR/FB%, which is unsustainable. His xFIP, which normalizes his HR/FB rate, is 2.92. McCarthy is another buy-low candidate for a Cardinals team that should be more focused on offensive upgrades rather than starting pitchers. McCarthy will likely command a prospect between the Cardinals’ Top 15 and 20.

David Price – LHP, Tampa Bay Rays:

Easily the best player on the market and would be the ace of most teams in the league. The Rays hold all the leverage, as they can wait until the off-season to deal him because he has another season of team control, so he is not a rental player. Nevertheless, the Rays are eager to trade him now, as they battle through a disappointing season. Price already has a Cy Young award under his belt and is in the midst of arguably his best season. He has a career-high K/9 of 10.45 and a career-low BB/9 of 1.02. Price also has a xFIP of 2.54, which is much better than his 3.63 ERA. Price will likely command a package of 3-4 quality players with at least 1 elite prospect (Oscar Taveras) or 2 plus-plus talents (Carlos Martinez, Matt Adams, Shelby Miller, Stephen Piscotty, or Marco Gonzalez). If the Cardinals do acquire Price, they will likely sign him long-term for somewhere around $25 Million dollars per year for 6 or 7 years.

Jeff Samardzija – RHP, Chicago Cubs:

Samardzija is a solid #2/3 starter for most clubs and has really come into his own this season. The 29-year-old righty has a 2.83 ERA and a 3.06 FIP through his first 17 starts. He should not be as expensive as Price because he is not a true ace, but he is also controllable beyond this season. This move is a little less likely than the above trades because the Cubs are within the Cardinals’ division and both teams may be reluctant to make a move of such magnitude with another team in their division.

Relief Pitchers:

Jason Frasor – RHP, Texas Rangers:

Frasor has been outstanding as the Rangers’ primary setup man and could serve in a similar role for the Cardinals. He has compiled a 2.13 ERA through his first 25 1/3 innings out of the pen. Since he is a Free Agent following the season and the Rangers are open to dealing, he should not be too expensive for the Cardinals to acquire, maybe a Top 10-15 prospect.

Joakim Soria – RHP, Texas Rangers:

Soria has served as the Rangers closer this season and dominated to the tune of a 0.85 FIP and 15 saves. He would likely serve as the Cardinals primary 8th inning man if acquired, but may be too expensive for the Cardinals’ needs, as they will not want to pay the price for a closer. They should still consider the righty because he is easily the best reliever available on the market. However, since the Cardinals’ system is so strong, he may command one of their Top 10 prospects.

Dale Thayer – RHP, San Diego Padres:

The Padres are in the midst of Front Office turnover, so it is unclear who is available, but Thayer will likely be available as he is 33 years old and enjoying a career best season. Even though Thayer is controllable beyond this season, he should be made available because the Padres will not be competitive for a few years, as they undergo a rebuild. His 1.85 ERA is a career best, but not supported by his peripherals as he has a 3.72 FIP. This difference between FIP and ERA should drop his price enough for the Cardinals to be interested.

Brad Ziegler – RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks:

Ziegler is signed through 2015 with a club option for 2016, so he is not a lock to be traded, but with the Diamondbacks struggling through another disappointing season, they should look to deal him while his value is high. Ziegler is in the midst of his fourth straight season with an ERA below 2.50. The 34-year-old is a great fit for the Cardinals as he has consistently had a GB% around 70% and despite his submarine delivery, Ziegler has no apparent splits between lefties and righties. The righty’s price may be higher than Soria’s because he is controllable beyond this season, so he should bring a Top 10 prospect to the Diamondbacks.

Position Players:

Gordon Beckham – 2nd Baseman, Chicago White Sox:

Beckham is controllable beyond this season, but the White Sox will still look to trade him in the right deal if they continue to fall out of contention. Beckham has yet to duplicate his impressive rookie campaign, which is the only season he has been above average offensively in terms of wRC+. Nevertheless, his 99 wRC+ this season would be a huge improvement for the Cardinals who have received just a 55 wRC+ from their 2nd basemen. Beckham may cost the Cardinals one of their lesser Top 10 prospects because he is controllable.

Asdrubal Cabrera – Shortstop, Cleveland Indians:

The Cardinals have been connected to Cabrera for a few years now, and even though they now have a reliable shortstop, Cabrera could still be a good fit. He could slot in at 2nd, 3rd or short and see Peralta slide to 3rd and Carpenter return to 2nd base. Cabrera has been inconsistent over the last few years, but has been above average offensively this season and would be a substantial upgrade for the Cardinals’ infield. The Indians are still contending for a playoff spot, but if they fall out of contention, they will likely look to trade Cabrera, who will be a Free Agent following the season. I’d expect Cabrera to require the Cardinals to part with a prospect ranked between 8 and 15 in their system.

Martin Prado – 3rd Baseman, Arizona Diamondbacks:

Prado has served as the Diamondbacks’ 3rd baseman, but has experience in the outfield and at 2nd base. He is signed through 2016 at about $10 Million per year, but the Diamondbacks are looking to sell and have said they are open to dealing Prado. The 30-year-old is struggling through his worst offensive season in some time, but he would still be an offensive upgrade for the Cardinals. Also, if the Diamondbacks cover some of his remaining salary, the Cardinals will not need to worry too much about the years left on his deal. An acquisition of Prado would likely block Wong from 2nd base, so any deal could center on him with a lesser prospect.

Chase Utley – 2nd baseman, Philadelphia Phillies:

I included Utley merely because the Cardinals are searching for 2nd base help, but Utley insists he will not waive his no-trade clause. If he changes his stance, the Cardinals will be among the teams calling.

Ben Zobrist – 2nd Baseman, Tampa Bay Rays:

Zobrist is the definition of a super-utility player, as he can player anywhere on field and do it well. The 33-year-old is also a plus hitter, even in a down season like this year. Zobrist has a very inexpensive club option for next season at just $7.5 Million. The Rays may not want to trade Zobrist because they expect to be competitive next season, but they will be willing to move him in the right deal and the Cardinals have the pieces to convince them. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs recently speculated that the Cardinals could try to land both Price and Zobrist by trading Oscar Taveras and a few lesser prospects or players. Personally, I do not think the Rays would accept such a deal, as they will want more than just one top prospect. I do think the Cardinals could realistically trade for both Price and Zobrist, but it will not be cheap, as the Rays covet both players.

Anthony Cacchione