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

What is Wrong with Trevor Rosenthal?

This title is slightly misleading, and may be best put as “What is Not Quite Right with Trevor Rosenthal?”  His ERA is below 4.00 and his FIP is much better than his ERA, thanks in large part to his high strikeout rate and low home run rate. Yet, Rosenthal is not dominating in the same way that he did last year when he struck out 108 batters in 75 1/3 innings and compiled a miniscule 1.91 FIP. So, what is different about Rosenthal that has led to a 1.36 increase in ERA and .83 spike in FIP? As I said, Rosenthal is in the midst of a very respectable season, by many metrics, but he is not supposed to be “just” respectable. Rosenthal should be able to dominate the league, just as he did last year when he ranked 5th among relievers in FIP and WAR. Naturally, I turned to the numbers to determine what is holding Rosenthal back from being one of the best closer’s in the league.

With such a significant jump in his ERA, I expected to see that Rosenthal was being hit much harder, but that is not what I found. Not only is his opponents’ SLG% down, but so is his opponents’ AVG. So, Rosenthal is allowing fewer hits compared to last year and also fewer extra base hits, which certainly seems like a great formula for success. However, based on the type of contact Rosenthal is letting up this year, I would expect to see the opposite trend. For the second straight season, Rosenthal’s GB% has decreased, and this year, his Line Drive % (LD%) ballooned 10% up to 29.6%. Despite allowing more hard contact, Rosenthal has decreased his BABIP, which suggests he has actually been lucky to this point in the season. Rosenthal has also done a nice job limiting home runs, even while allowing more balls to be put in the air. His GB/FB ratio has dropped all the way to .85 from 1.23 just a year ago. Fortunately, he has still managed to drop his HR/9 to .29 thanks to a miniscule HR/FB ratio of .037.

In an attempt to understand why he was letting up more solid contact, I looked at his fastball velocity, but it was right where it was last year. Rosenthal has not lost any velocity from where he was last year, which means it his stuff is not to blame for his increased FB and LD rates this year. Yet, even with his upper-90s heat, Rosenthal has struggled to get ahead in the count. He has thrown the first pitch of the at-bat for a strike just 57.1% of the time this year, which is a 6% drop from last season. Anytime you fall behind a hitter, you give them a much better chance to make solid contact, even when you can touch triple digits. As a pitcher with as much stuff as he has, Rosenthal must be aggressive and work ahead in the count in order to maximize his lights out repertoire.

More concerning than the fact that he is falling behind more hitters than last year, is where Rosenthal is missing. Of all the pitches Rosenthal has thrown outside the strike zone, 44% have missed up above the zone, compared to just 28% below the zone. This is compared to last year when he missed above the zone just 34.3% of the time and below the zone with 35.4% of his pitches outside the zone. While this may not seem significant since these balls are outside the zone, so they are unlikely to be hit, it is always concerning to see a pitcher consistently throwing up in the zone. Rosenthal’s propensity to miss with pitches up has certainly contributed to his increased LD% and FB%, as it is easier to elevate a pitch that is already up. This could be a strategy for Rosenthal, as it is harder to catch up to fastballs up in the zone, but it has yet to materialize into positive results, as his performance is worse than in 2013. Also, based off the times I have seen him throw, this does not seem to be a strategy, as he has also missed up in the zone with his changeup, which is never intended by any pitcher. Despite some issues keeping it down in the zone, Rosenthal’s changeup has been his best pitch by far this season. This is particularly surprising for a pitcher that throws as hard as he does, but his changeup has compiled an astounding 5.71 runs above average per every 100 pitches, which has likely contributed to his increased use of the pitch (up to 14.6% from 6% in 2013). On a more concerning note though, his fastball is registering a career low .21 runs above average per every 100 pitches, down .77 runs from last year. It isn’t surprising the fastball is not worth as much as the changeup on average because the changeup is often used in higher leverage situations and also with less frequency. However, with Rosenthal’s struggles to get ahead in the count, it is not shocking that his fastball is less effective this year.

While Rosenthal has allowed harder contact this year, it has yet to materialize into better statistics for his opponents, in terms of batting average and slugging percentage. Where Rosenthal has been hurt this season is with his walks, which is among the few things he can fully control. He has already walked 17 batters this season, after walking just 20 all of last season in 45 more innings. Rosenthal’s BB/9 has actually more than doubled from it 2.39 mark in 2013, as it sits at 4.99 thus far in 2014. As a result of his lost control, Rosenthal’s opponent’s OBP has shot up from .289 last year to .321 this season, despite a lower opponent’s batting average. Rosenthal also tends to lose his control at the wrong times, as he has walked 10 of his 17 batters in high leverage situations, while pitching just 2/3 of an inning more in those situations than low and medium leverage situations. Even more concerning, he has walked 11 batters with men on base, leading to an opponent’s OBP of .409 with men already on base. Rosenthal’s struggles from the stretch seem to be related to his rushing to the plate. Based purely on the times I have seen him throw, he has a propensity to rush to the plate when pitching from the stretch, which does not give his throwing arm time to get up into position. This tendency for his arm to lag leaves him susceptible to throw the ball up, which is where most of his pitches are missing. With his struggles from the stretch, it is no wonder Rosenthal’s Left on Base% has dropped 5.3% from last season.

This is not an article to criticize Rosenthal and call for his removal from the closer’s role, but rather to point out where Rosenthal needs to improve. His ERA is certainly high for a closer, but because he is not allowing many hits, he can easily improve his season by being more aggressive in the strike zone. A pitcher with as much stuff as Rosenthal should not be afraid to pitch within the zone. Working ahead in the count will also work to prevent the solid contact that has increased this year. Rosenthal shows the importance of throwing strikes, as he has gone from one of the premier late-inning arms in the game to a pitcher with the 114th best ERA of qualified relievers. Even in terms of FIP, Rosenthal ranks 51st among qualified relievers. While these are certainly discouraging trends, if he can return to throwing strikes the way he did in his previous two opportunities in the Majors, he will be able to reverse these trends.

Anthony Cacchione

What has happened to the Red Sox?

In 2013, the Boston Red Sox rebounded from a disastrous 2012 season to become the best team in all of baseball. Yet, in 2014, they have looked much more like the 2012 Red Sox than the 2013 Red Sox. Last year, many pundits praised their offseason strategy to acquire multiple mid-tier Free Agents, instead of signing one expensive star player. While this was certainly an effective strategy, the Red Sox received career years from many new players and many of those performances have not carried over to 2014. They began the 2014 season with a very similar roster, just missing Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox let all three of these players walk via Free Agency because they believed they had capable replacements within the organization. However, the Red Sox have yet to find a capable leadoff hitter and still have a huge hole at both 3rd base and in the outfield.

The 2013 team was carried by the fact that multiple players experienced career years. To this point in 2014, most of those players have not enjoyed the same level of success. The loss of Ellsbury has certainly hurt their outfield, but the poor performances of Shane Victorino, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava have been the real issues for the Red Sox. While Victorino did not set any career highs in 2013, he did hit better than his career triple-slash line in every category with a  .294/.351/.451 line and accumulated a 5.6 WAR. So far this season, Victorino has battled hamstring issues, but in his limited opportunities (21 gms) he has a OBP of just .275 and 67 wRC+. Carp was able to set career highs in both his SLG% and WAR during 2013, but has been unable to sustain his newfound power, as his SLG has dropped .237 pts. Maybe the biggest surprise of 2013 was Daniel Nava, who put up career highs with a slash-line of .303/.385/.445 and a WAR of 1.8. However, Nava has struggled to replicate his career-year, as he has slashed just .134/.224/.232 and accumulated a minus-0.6 WAR, while going back and forth between Triple-A and the MLB. This lack of production from some of their top outfielders in 2013 has contributed to a glaring hole in their outfield. After ranking as the best outfield in 2013, the Red Sox have the worst outfield thus far in 2014.

Beyond just these outfielders struggling to replicate their 2013 performances, the Red Sox also lost three key contributors to Free Agency. The Red Sox were unwilling to match the Yankees’ offer of 7-years, $153 Million to Jacoby Ellsbury. It is certainly understandable why they would not match such an offer for the oft-injured Ellsbury, but they did lose their best player from 2013, in terms of WAR. While Ellsbury was off to a slow start, he has been hot of late and has still managed a WAR greater than the entire Red Sox outfield combined. In the long run it may have been a good decision not to match the Yankees’ offer, but that does not change the fact that the Red Sox are greatly missing his production. The Red Sox also chose not to re-sign shortstop Stephen Drew during the offseason, although realizing they would not recuperate a draft pick if he signed after the draft, they recently re-signed him. While his replacement at shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, has been phenomenal, Bogaerts’ replacement at 3rd base has not been as effective. This has left a substantial hole on the left side of their infield, both in terms of defense and offense. As I said, the Red Sox did recently sign Drew; however, in his first 3 games he is still looking for his timing at the plate. They also let Jarrod Saltalamacchia sign with the Miami Marlins, and the Red Sox instead chose to sign AJ Pierzynski, who has not been quite as productive, but even more worrisome he has caused some issues in the clubhouse.

The problem is not that the Red Sox let these players leave, as they were all defensible decisions, but the real problem is the way that the Red Sox tried to replace their production. In Centerfield, the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore to compete with Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting job. They essentially chose to replace one of the best Centerfielders with two unknowns, as Sizemore had not played in the Majors since 2011 and Bradley Jr. struggled in his first big league action last year. So far this year the pair has combined for a WAR of minus-0.2, as each has struggled mightily at the plate. Their struggles combined with the regression by the rest of the outfielders have contributed to the Red Sox having the worst outfield in the Majors. The Red Sox also failed to adequately replace Stephen Drew, although the issue has not been with their new shortstop. When they let Drew walk, they chose to move 3rd baseman Xander Bogaerts to his natural position of shortstop and put Will Middlebrooks at 3rd base, in the hopes that he would return to his 2012 form (.288/.325/.509). However, Middlebrooks has failed to be a productive option at the 3rd base, as he has just a 74 wRC+ and has a batting average under .200 with little power. While they have brought Drew back, it will take time for him to get his timing back, so the problem is not necessarily solved.

Bringing Drew back was a step in the right direction, as they realized his replacement was not getting the job done; however, they still must improve in the outfield. While they may wait for Victorino to return from his hamstring injury, even if he returns to form, they will be left with just one above-average outfielder. This post has been directed towards the team’s offensive struggles, which is understandable since their team wRC+ is just 92 (100 wRC+ is average). Nevertheless, the Red Sox will need to get more from Clay Buchholz upon his return from his knee injury. Buchholz was one of the best starters in the Majors in 2013, when he was healthy, as he posted a 1.78 ERA across 108 1/3 innings. However, in 50 innings this season, his ERA has ballooned to 7.02 with a much higher walk rate. The Red Sox great off-season strategy prior to the 2013 season had a huge impact on their success, and likewise, their poor off-season strategy before this season has had a substantial effect on their struggles thus far. A 10 game deficit at this point in the season is not insurmountable, but they will need to realize that they are not going to get similar production from many of their key contributors of just a year ago.

They are going to need to acquire more offensive talent to bolster their lineup and the easiest position to add to is the outfield. The Dodgers have a logjam in the outfield and would likely be willing to move one of their outfielders to Boston at the right price, but right now neither Matt Kemp nor Andre Eithier is having a strong campaign. The Red Sox would likely not be willing to pay the price the Dodgers would demand, but there are likely to be plenty of other outfielders available. Another contender with surplus outfielders is the St. Louis Cardinals, who could trade Allen Craig, Jon Jay, or Peter Bourjos. If the Padres fall further out of contention, the Red Sox would have the prospects to acquire any of their outfielders: Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin or Seth Smith. Smith would likely be the main target as he is playing the best and is not under contract beyond this year, so he should not cost as much as Cameron Maybin. Another target, if the Phillies decide to undergo a fire sale, could be Marlon Byrd, who is under contract through the 2015 season. If the White Sox, fall behind in the standings, they could look to trade Dayan Viciedo or Alejandro De Aza. Another potential trade target is Michael Cuddyer, if the Rockies decide to sell. Cuddyer is in the final year of a 3-year deal and is in the midst of his second strong season in a row.

Anthony Cacchione

Memorial Day Scouting Report – Wilmington Blue Rocks and Frederick Keys

Today, I was fortunate enough to spend my Memorial Day on a scouting trip to Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who are the High Single-A affiliate for the Kansas City Royals. The 34th pick from the 2013 Amateur Draft, Sean Manaea, was the starting pitcher for the Blue Rocks. The Frederick Keys countered with Joe Van Meter.

  • Coming into today’s game, I had heard the Left-handed pitching Manaea was sitting 92-93 mph and could get all the way up to 96. However, today his velocity was down a little from those numbers, as he sat 89-91 with his fastball, but did hit 94. The 6‘5” LHP had a very smooth and repeatable delivery, as he gathered himself nicely over the rubber. As he lifts his leg, he turns his hips in slightly, which helps him stay closed, as he remains slightly closed at foot strike. He doesn’t throw across his body too much, so that should not be an issue. His arm action is pretty long in back, as he nearly straightens his left arm. However, he is able to get his arm up by foot strike because he is able to gather himself over the rubber; as the game went on, though, he was not always able to get his arm up by foot strike, which caused him to miss up in the zone. Now that we’ve analyzed Manaea’s delivery, we can look at his performance. He worked with 3 pitches today: Fastball (FB), Slider (SL) and Changeup (CH). As I mentioned before, his FB was a little below where it has been this season, as he sat right around 90 mph. Early in the game he commanded the FB to both sides of the plate. In his first two innings, Manaea showed very strong command for both his FB and his SL. However, in his third inning, Manaea started leaving his FB up in the zone, which made him much more hittable. The real issue I saw that inning was that once Manaea had to pitch from the stretch with men on base, he began to rush through his delivery. From the stretch, he works with a knee-to-knee leg kick, which did not allow him to get his arm up by foot strike, consequently, he began leaving his pitches up in the zone.  In that inning, the Keys’ players also did a nice job hitting Manaea’s SL, even though that was the one pitch he was able to keep down in the zone. The SL ranged from 79-83 mph and while it did not have a ton of horizontal movement, it did drop to a second plane, and it was still effective because its movement came late. What really impressed me about Manaea was his confidence in the pitch, as he was willing to throw it to both lefties and righties and used it as both a strike pitch and out-pitch. He did not throw too many CHs, but the few I did see were 83-84 mph with a little arm-side fade. As I said, Manaea was hit hard in the 3rd inning, allowing 6 runs (1 ER). However, he went on to throw two more scoreless innings, as he found the bottom half of the zone again. Manaea did not have his best stuff for today’s outing, but excluding one inning, he executed his pitches well. He needs to work on his delivery from the stretch, so that he is not rushing to the plate. It is not hard to tell why he was selected 34th overall. Right now he has two plus pitches with his FB and SL and a third pitch, in the CH, that could become plus. His feel for pitching was very polished for a 22-year-old, and I could see him moving quickly through the Royals system. Right now he projects as just a middle of the rotation pitcher, but he is likely to reach that level.
  • Another 2013 Royals’ draft pick playing in this game was Hunter Dozier, who was selected 8th overall. The 3rd baseman was 0-5 on the day, but showed a pretty patient approach at the plate. He also had a very simple load with a small toe-tap and not too much activity with his hands. In his second at-bat, he dropped his bat head well on a FB down and in resulting in a deep flyout to centerfield. In the bottom of the 9th, Dozier put up a good at-bat before striking out on a great slider from Matt Hobgood. As a 22-year-old, he should be moving passed Single-A soon, even though his power has yet to develop.
  • Also playing in today’s game was Bubba Starling, who was the 5th overall pick of the Royals in the 2011 draft. He was considered one of the best athletes in the draft, but that athleticism has yet to contribute to production on the field, as he is still in Single-A. In today’s game, he did go 1-4 with a single in the 9th, but his swing did not look good. His swing was very long and he had a very funky load, with a lot of movement of his hands. Also, as he starts his swing, Starling leans out over his front side, which takes away any chance of him hitting for power. To me, he does not project as much of a prospect until he fixes his swing, but he did show that he still has his athleticism by running down a deep fly ball in right center.
  • The Blue Rocks’ catcher for today’s game was Cam Gallagher, who has not been much of an offensive force this year, but the former 2nd round pick is a good receiver with a strong arm. Gallagher had a strong day at the plate today, as he went 2-4 with a double and an RBI. His double was on an inside FB, where he just turned and drove it down the 3rd baseline. In his four ABs, the 22-year-old showed a good ability to keep his hands inside the ball, but he did not show much power in his stroke. Gallagher may be able to reach the Big Leagues in a few years as a backup catcher, due to his defense, but if he has any chance of becoming a starting catcher, he will need to improve the offensive side of his game.
  • Manaea’s counterpart, Joe Van Meter, had a nice outing going 6 innings allowing just one run on 5 hits. Van Meter had an interesting delivery, as he leans back when he begins driving towards the plate, which makes it that much more impressive that he is able to get over his front side as well as he does. He creates a good downward plane with a more drastic hip tilt than Manaea. He worked with a FB that got up to 94 and sat 90-92 mph. He also had an effective cutter at 84 mph. His best pitch on the afternoon, however, was his curveball, which had sharp 11-5 break and sat 75-77 mph. he was able to throw it for strikes, but also for swings and misses out of the zone. Van Meter is 25 years old, so he is old for this level, but this is his first year in the Baltimore organization so he could move up the minors more than he did with the Rangers’ organization, where he made it to Double-A.
  • The next pitcher for the Keys was Matt Hobgood, who was also the hardest thrower on the day. He was the 5th overall selection by the Orioles in the 2009 amateur draft, but has yet to move past High-A ball at the age of 23. The Right-handed pitcher, touched 97 and worked 3 innings sitting comfortably at 94-96 mph. They shifted him to bullpen this year after he struggled as a starter in previous seasons. He worked with a starter’s repertoire, throwing a FB, SL (85 mph) and a Curveball at 75 mph. In his 3 innings of work, Hobgood allowed 5 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 2. However, both the runs and most of the hits came in his 3rd inning of work, when he may have been tired. His first two innings were much more effective. With his FB-SL combination, I can see Hobgood moving through the Orioles system quickly and potentially reaching the Majors by 2015 if he stays healthy and improves his command.

The Keys’ standout offensive performer for the day was Shortstop Adrian Marin. The Orioles selected Marin, who is just 20 years old, in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft. Marin went 2-3 with 2 doubles. Marin showed a very quick, compact stroke on both his doubles. He looked very comfortable at shortstop with good footwork and a strong arm. He could move up through the Orioles system, likely ending in Double-A this season, but could reach the Majors within a few years. He is also likely to stick at shortstop because his defense is his real strength.