Pitchers and Catchers report is finally upon us. As the major sprees of the off-season are behind us, and arbitration settlements slowly shrinking within every clubhouse, now is the time we recap the big moves and questionable calls that have etched the foundations of an exciting 2015 regular season. Edward Overend wrote a stellar piece recently upon the Top 20 moves of the baseball off-season; I follow up this write up with an outlook of all 30 teams’ individual off-season performances.
Big contract signings, key arbitration agreements, crushing departures via free agency and monumental trades shall all be summarised within a single grade. Who do I think struck gold and orchestrated the A-grade winter; who succumbed to the pressure and withered in the corner for a D-grade disaster; we break down each team by division, offering an early look at the state of each division heading into Spring training. (Note: statistics in brackets denotes 2014 regular season; batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage; pitching win-loss record, earned run average)
Atlanta Braves: C Jon Hart was introduced as the Braves’ full-time replacement for recently dismissed GM Frank Wren in October, as the newly-created President of Baseball Operations. Hart was the interim GM for the final month of the baseball season in 2014. Coincidentally, this was when a wave personnel changes hit the Braves, and the majority of them left an odd taste looking back at them.
Atlanta’s outfield personifies this more than any other area of the roster. Farm-grown OF Jason Heyward was shipped to St Louis in November through a blockbuster trade that bought in stellar SP Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74 ERA). Justin Upton was traded to San Diego for a trio of right-handed batting prospects and a pitcher. In a bold attempt to shred down their money-bloated outfield from last year, they failed miserably in attempting to offload streaky OF B.J. Upton. Acquiring OF Zoilo Almonte as a rotational player was a very nice pick-up, but almost wasted by the idea of having Jonny Gomes start in LF.
But the monumental pick-up in the outfield was the signing of RF Nick Markakis (276/342/386) from Baltimore, on a 4-year $44 million deal. Arguably behind legendary SS Derek Jeter, Markakis was the most consistent, stellar contact hitter in the AL East since his arrival to Camden Yards back in 2006. The left-hander has hit very well off both right handed (.274) and left handed pitchers (.280), and has been the lead-off hitter for the Orioles since 2012. Despite undergoing neck surgery earlier in the winter, Markakis should have no issues hindering his ability come the start of Spring Training, and will be the sure-fire lead-off for the Braves’ batting order.
The Braves’ infield experienced one major change-up in personnel this winter. In an odd trade, 2B Tommy La Stella was shipped out to the Cubs in exchange for RP and former pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Atlanta loses a very solid player in regards to getting on base, and while many will immediately criticize his woeful power statistics, La Stella still clubbed 16 doubles in his 360 plate appearances in 2014. Vizcaino is a power-arm pitcher; a future closer, but still marred by a slow recovery from Tommy John Surgery back in early-2012. Once in the Braves organization and once a shoe-in to be the future set-up man for current Closer Craig Kimbrel, Vizcaino will once again attempt to accelerate his progression and make up for lost time.
But what caps off this sour move is Stella’s replacement at second-base. Former DH for the Athletics in 2014, 2B Alberto Callaspo (223/290/290) will take the reigns in what is certainly a step down in overall talent. Despite signing the 31-year old to the decent wage of a $3 million, 1-year deal; Callapso struggled immensely in getting on base, and his power numbers are only marginally better than the former in La Stella (4 HR and no differential between his OBP and Slugging). This personnel change has all the makings of 2B Phil Gosselin (266/304/320) competing for the full-time position and become a bigger contributor in the line-up and at the plate after a solid 2014 campaign.
Vizcaino’s arrival in Atlanta may signal some hope of a revival to the now-bruised and thinning bullpen. Both Jason Grilli (1-5, 4.00 ERA) and Jim Johnson (5-2, 7.09 ERA) – former closers in 2014, now struggling relievers- were signed this winter to occupy both the short reliever roles (7th and 8th innings), serving as Craig Kimbrel’s set-up men. Another real head-scratcher for a team that doesn’t seem too sure on whether they are rebuilding or competing in the short-term. Johnson mightily struggled in 2014 (35 BB in 53.1 innings), while Grilli signalled his decline from his peak years of 2011-13 (5 blown saves from 17 opportunities in 2014). Grilli will no doubt prove some value, but Johnson has a ways to go to reinsert the trust in his arm that helped offer the opportunities that culminated in 101 saves between 2012 and 2013 in Baltimore.
The only full-time reliever beyond Kimbrel from 2014 who was retained by the Braves was lefty Luis Avilan (4-1, 4.57 ERA). Even then, his ERA and lack of strike-outs (25 in 43.1 innings) would surely make many of the Atlanta faithful miss A’s lefty Eric O’Flaherty even more. The addition of lefty James Russell (0-2, 2.97 ERA) from the Cubs last summer proved a big help as the season closed (2.22 ERA in 22 games for the Braves), providing a hopeful, eventual set-up man for Kimbrel in 2015 despite being left-handed.
To make matters worse for the bullpen, 24-year old RP Shae Simmons was hit with the injury bug in almost familiar Braves fashion in early February (from the likes of Kris Medlin and Brandon Beachy before him). Tommy John surgery now awaits the up-and-coming reliever following his UCL injury, and his 2015 campaign has been completely scrapped. Thus, the Braves bullpen has noticeable gaps regarding talent and in depth entering Spring Training, as former 2014 relievers David Carpenter (Yankees), Jordan Walden (Cardinals) and Anthony Varvaro (Red Sox) have all departed, leaving major holes behind.
The starting rotation, however, has received a few additions to help bolster the overall talent as well as provide enough depth for competition for so-few starting roles. As with many areas of the Braves’ 25-man roster, key contributors and solid performers departed the rotation in the winter. Ervin Santana (3.95 ERA) is the most notable, as well as resurrected starter Aaron Harang (3.57 ERA). But the huge addition of Shelby Miller in the trade with St Louis gives Atlanta a very stellar top-end to their rotation; complete with Julio Teheran (2.89 ERA) and Alex Wood (2.78 ERA) to create a fine trio heading into the Spring. And despite a rough 2014 season, Mike Minor (4.77 ERA) is still a decent option at the #4 spot. Veterans Wandy Rodriguez (0-2, 6.75 ERA) and Eric Stults (8-17, 4.30 ERA) were signed to compete for the final spot on the rotation, along with recently-traded prospect Mike Foltynewicz (0-1, 5.30 ERA) from the Astros.
Complimenting the refreshed, rejuvenated rotation are the signings of back-stops C A.J. Pierzynski (251/288/337) and John Buck (225/289/281). As with the bullpen scenario, two former starters who have past their prime were signed merely as depth behind promising youth (Christian Bethancourt). Both catchers can, however, lead a young rotation as seen in previous seasons in Miami, New York (Mets; Buck) and Texas (A.J). Both from a tangible and intangible perspective, the veteran signings will only serve to benefit the pitching in Atlanta, as well as potential power bats coming off the bench.
It’s been an up-and-down winter in Atlanta. Plenty of hopeful editions, but almost marred by some very odd personnel decisions, and costly departures consisting of talented, key contributors. As previously mentioned, and offseason that has produced such wild outcomes and changes only raises the concern as to where exactly this team is heading in 2015.
Miami Marlins: A
2014 was a big year for Miami, even without its new-found superstar SP Jose Fernandez for almost its entirety. And despite his absence and the major effect it had on their pitching, Miami surprised many by pulling out 77 wins last season. Their offseason was designed to compliment their crop of young talent with personnel who could spearhead the franchise towards postseason contention. How about pennant contention? The Miami winter was absolutely scorching hot.
How to open up your offseason? Take the best overall hitter in the National League- and arguably the best in the majors- and sign him to the biggest contract, not only in baseball history but in North American sports history. RF Giancarlo Stanton (288/395/555) became a complete power hitter in 2014, and was rewarded to the astounding 13-year, $325 million contract in November. By complete power hitter, I refer to his career highs that he set last year in Hits (155), Total Bases (299), Doubles (31), RBI (105), Walks (94) and OBP (395). And even with his career-high setting 37 Home Runs, he still displayed the athletic ability to nab 13 stolen bases in 2014. Stanton also displayed his abilties in the clutch, evident by his 6.47 WAR rating, which ranked 3rd amongst all Outfielders last season (behind Alex Gordon and Michael Brantley). Face mask and all heading into Spring Training, due to the horrifying facial injury last September in Milwaukee; regardless of the sea of big splashes that occurred this winter, Stanton will be the big fish gathering a lot of the media spotlight inside the tank.
When Jose Fernandez was forced to undergo season-ending surgery early last season, many immediately feared the worse for Miami’s pitching. Even though their pitching staff regressed to 674 runs allowed in 2014 (11th in National League) as compared to 646 in 2013. It was the main factor in the Marlins not being able to turn out even more wins against expectation: they simply lacked that ace to move their pitching into greater prospers. But not only does Fernandez return this year, although be it he will start Opening Day on the DL, GM Mike Hill pulled off some great trades to bolster the rotation in Marlins Park.
SP Matt Latos is the biggest catch of the winter on the mound, traded by Cincinnati in a three-way deal involving Detroit. Miami gave up young SP Anthony DeSclafani (2-2, 6.27 ERA) and minor-league C Chad Wallach to Cincinnati as part of the trade. Despite an injury-prone start to 2014 (elbow and knee surgery), Latos continued to produce stellar outings upon his return from the DL in June with a WHIP of 1.15, although be it with a career-low strikeout rate of 6.5 (SO/9). He immediately becomes the favourite to be the temporary ace with Fernandez on the DL, but will have to compete with current ace Henderson Alvarez (12-7, 2.65 ERA).
But as one veteran pitcher was swiftly traded to the fish tank, another was somewhat reluctant. Veteran SP Dan Haren (13-11, 4.02 ERA) was traded to Miami as part of the multi-player trade that featured the acquiring of 2B Dee Gordon, and sent top prospect SP Andrew Heaney to the Dodgers (and then shipped off to Anaheim shortly after). Even on a $10 million salary, Haren was very reluctant to pitch in Miami due to the location. A Californian native of Monterey Park, Haren originally hinted at retiring if not traded to a West-coast team shortly after the Dodgers’ trade was announced. Luckily for the Marlins, his stance has changed since and will indeed be pitching in Florida this Spring Training.
Haren will most likely settle into the #4 spot of the rotation behind Jared Cosart; begging the question, who’s the last man in? The #5 spot on the rotation will be arguably the most exciting Spring Training competition for the Marlins, as it will feature youngster Tom Koehler, left-hander Brad Hand, and recently acquired SP David Phelps. Koehler (10-10, 3.81 ERA) stands as the favourite on paper after his solid 2014 campaign, which featured his aggressive approach on the mound: forcing a good ratio of strikeouts (2.15 SO/BB), but still a little prone to walking batters (3.3 BB/9). Koehler is also the smart choice in the rotation, be it for how Hand and Phelps were utilised in 2014.
Hand (3-8, 4.38 ERA) was used as a relief pitcher to start last season, and was then introduced within the rotation in the second half of the season. Both roles had mixed results. As a starter (3-8, 4.33 ERA), he struggled in producing an adequate strikeout rate (4.9 SO/9), although his walk rate (2.5 BB9) helped in generating a decent WHIP of 1.32. His 16 games in relief saw his ERA increase to 4.57, featured more aggression (7.5 SO/9) yet allowed more batters to get on base (1.52 WHIP).
David Phelps (5-5, 4.38 ERA) is a more consistent pitcher in regards to strikeouts as opposed to Hand, holding a lifetime rate of 8.0 SO/9. While a flurry of starting pitchers (Sabathia, Tanaka, Pineda) were injured during the mid-season, Phelps took the reigns as ace for three months (May-July). An ugly month of June (5.25 ERA) bloated his stats as a starter (4.28 ERA), despite having strong outings in May (3.18 ERA) and July (2.97 ERA). Phelps as a reliever is very much a hit-and-miss, more aggressive version of the starting pitcher. A 10.5 strikeout rate, but seriously bloated numbers in ERA (4.96 ERA), Walks (7.1 BB/9), WHIP (1.65) and Home Run ratio (1.65 HR/9). Pitching in a more pitcher-friendly home in Marlins Park (essentially any ballpark is compared to Yankees Stadium) may reduce those swelled up numbers, but I would seriously consider moving Phelps into a role that could see more time out of the rotation at some point, in order to utilise his abilities to their maximum.
The plus side for the Marlins in their amount of depth in the rotation is that starters like Hand and Phelps can easily play into the bullpen. Miami’s bullpen (30-25, 3.33 ERA) ranked 5th in the major leagues with an impressive WAR of 4.6. Their Home Run ratio of 0.56 HR/9 (2nd) and Home Run-to-Fly Ball rate of 6.7% (2nd) speak loudly for their winning formula out of the bullpen: cut out the long ball. All 7 full-time contributors out of the bullpen compiled individual ERA’s of lower than 3.5. Two of those contributors departed during the winter; lefty Dan Jennings (1.34 ERA, White Sox) and Chris Hatcher (3.38 ERA, Dodgers) were strong elements to the bullpen last season.
Having overlapped starters enter the bullpen will help somewhat in long relief, but to ensure a strong set of relievers remained for the latter innings, Aaron Crow (6-1, 4.12 ERA) was acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. Now a full-time reliever, Crow is very prone to the long ball (1.5 HR/9) and has slowed down in striking out batters (5.2 SO/9, but his WHIP (1.28) still holds up despite his inability to go after guys at the plate. The Marlins are hoping that the former All-star can utilise his new, pitcher-friendly surroundings, as well as take advantage of Bullpen Coach Reid Cornelius, who has done an outstanding job orchestrating a predominantly farmed bullpen through recent years.
Miami’s big offseason was not without its departures, most notably with 3B Casey McGehee (287/355/357) continuing his journeyman ways and trekking all the way to San Francisco after resurrecting himself with a great comeback campaign in 2014 that featured 76 RBI. The other notable departure is 1B Garrett Jones (246/309/411) to the Yankees.
Both McGehee’s and Jones’s departures opened a big hole at first base, and Michael Morse (279/336/475) is a great addition to the starting line-up on a 2-year, $16 million deal. A clear upgrade in power compared to the two exiting veterans before him, Morse (16 HR) immediately becomes an impact bat in the middle of the batting order. Signings like Morse offer a greater veteran presence amongst a predominantly young 2014 squad, as well as recent experience playing in the postseason.
Another addition who has recent postseason experience is 2B Dee Gordon. The super-speed second-baseman is arguably the biggest risk/reward player arriving to the Marlins, after being the centre-piece of the multi-player trade with the Dodgers that also bought in SP Dan Haren. Gordon had an outstanding 2014 campaign as the full-time lead-off hitter in Los Angeles, tallying 176 hits and tallying a league-leading 64 stolen bases. However, this was Gordon’s only full year in the majors, as issues with plate discipline and defense capped his 2013 season to just 94 AB in 38 games, in which he spend the remainder of that year in the minor leagues. Plate discipline is still the major concern for Gordon, especially considering the lack of power that he presents at the plate (power ISO of just .089). He struck out a whopping 107 times, which seriously hindered his OBP, and ultimately kept him away from running the bases; Gordon’s biggest strength taken away from him. There is a big risk-reward stigma surrounding the young second-basemen, which he will hopefully take as a big chip on his shoulder and start Spring Training in exciting fashion.
Alongside the arrivals of Morse and Gordon is the extremely versatile infielder 3B Martin Prado (282/321/412), who was acquired in a big trade with the Yankees that also acquired SP David Phelps. Prado had a stellar season between Arizona and New York in 2014, and becomes an important cog of the lower-end of the batting order for the Marlins. The arrivals of Prado and Gordon in particular will reduce the roles of youngsters 2B Donovan Solano and 3B Miguel Rojas (another addition from the Dodgers’ trade) to either bench players or platoon personnel in the infield. The big winner of the huge shake-up of the Marlins’ infield is the sole-surviving starter from 2014: SS Adeiny Hechavarria (276/308/356). With the 2010 All-Star in Prado by his side on the hot-corner, Adeiny will undoubtedly learn a few valuable lessons from the stellar veteran that will only see him develop from his impressive 2014 season.
The final big addition to Miami’s revamped roster is in the outfield is 10-time All-Star RF Ichiro Suzuki (284/324/340), when he signed a 1-year, $2 million deal on January 23rd. Slowly transitioning into a platoon outfielder in 2014 with the Yankees (359 AB), Ichiro saw most of his numbers increase from 2013 through playing in a slightly less-than-full-time role. The decline in at-bats will likely continue in Miami, for each of the OF positions are locked by soaring young talents in LF Christian Yelich, CF Marcel Ozuna, and MVP-calibre RF Giancarlo Stanton. It is worth noting that Ichiro has batted a .440 average within the last two seasons as a pinch hitter, and held an 83% stolen-base conversion rate in 2014: a possible case for some pinch running duties. His occasional experience at playing both LF (53 games since 2012) and CF (25 games since 2012; 263 games between 2006 and 2008) would be enough for the Marlins’ to utilise him as the ultimate OF back-up for each position, thereby keeping him in the line-up enough for him to be effective.
Miami’s sea of big splashes this winter is right on par with their big spending spree back in 2012. The only difference is, the amount of money shelled out on potential key contributors is way lower than a few years ago. The art of trading from the Marlins’ front office has a huge factor in acquiring great talent without overloading the budget. They are now stacked with both veteran presence and a flurry of aspiring youngsters ready to light a fire amongst their fellow NL East rivals. The Marlins’ status as contenders for 2015 was fully solidified this offseason, and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the MLB realizes their capabilities.
New York Mets: C
Whilst other teams in the division went all out to make a bid to contend in 2015; with personnel flying left, right and centre, the Mets kept their winter relatively low-key, a clear sign of having faith in their current potential youth after finishing just 4 games under .500 last year. Yet, it feels as if the Mets kept themselves a little too much to themselves, especially after GM Sandy Alderson has been very bold about the team’s postseason aspirations.
But one area in which they did reach out and sign personnel was in the Outfield, which at more points than one last year was rather crowded. With Chris Young and Eric Young Jr. now out of MetLife Stadium, arriving are former All-Star Michael Cuddyer (332/376/579) and John Mayberry Jr (212/310/425). Cuddyer signed a 2-year, $21 million deal in November, coming off of an injury-marred 2014 and a career year in 2013. While his numbers were strong in his limited showing last year (190 AB), many were not too fond of the big-dollar signing early on in the offseason. Indeed, he is an injury-prone player, and his age (35) is undoubtedly expressed in his lack of agility as a corner-Outfielder. Nonetheless, what makes this move exciting for Mets fans is his bat, and right now that should be the only matter in this signing. Batting Average (.307) and OPS (.886) have soared since his three-year tenure in Colorado, and Cuddyer has proven consistently that it is not because of the thin air in Coors Field. He is guaranteed to hit between 2nd to 5th in the batting order. If it weren’t for 1B Lucas Duda’s monster season with 30 Home Runs and 92 RBI, then Cuddyer could have moved back to 1B, but that seems very unlikely. Though it is worth mentioning now that Alderson is now positioned as a very smart man for trading Ike Davis to Pittsburgh over Duda last summer.
Mayberry is a more low-key signing, but proves again and again throughout his inconsistent career that he can become a dangerous power hitter. in 2014 he hit 7 home runs in only 146 AB’s, which converts to 25 home runs in a 525 AB season (roughly 150 games as a starter). His talent is there, yet still very raw and undeveloped in certain departments. Mayberry’s career strikeout percentage is over 24%, which is not ideal, and his batting average has been below .250 since 2011. Clearly a signing to maintain depth in the outfield, he will most likely play behind Cuddyer in RF, or possibly a platoon player in LF is Curtis Granderson struggles to reduce his strikeouts and rev up his batting average from 2014.
In perhaps their biggest storyline during this winter, the recovery of former ace SP Matt Harvey. After being shut down from bullpen throwing back in September- in order to follow a regular offseason workout- reports do suggest Harvey will be ready for Opening Day. One catch: just not on every 5th day. Be it 18 months from his Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2014 campaign; even if it is not a regular full-time Matt Harvey, it is still Matt Harvey. His status to pitch, yet skip starts and have an innings cap through the midseason, is a very positive sign. As if the Mets needed more stellar pitching talents.
Even with Washington stacking out all 5 of their starting roles on the mound, the pitching staff in New York ranks amongst the top groups in the National League in regards to current talent, and future potential. Outside of Harvey’s return, Bartolo Colon (15-13, 4.09 ERA) and Jon Niese (9-11, 3.40 ERA) will pioneer the rotation behind extremely-high prospect sophmores Zack Wheeler (11-11, 3.54 ERA) and Jacob de Grom (9-6, 2.89 ERA). Both Wheeler and DeGrom tallied over 9.1 in strikeouts over 9 innings (SO/9), and kept the long-ball to a good minimum (0.4 and 0.7 HR/9 respectively). Dillon Gee (7-8, 4.00 ERA) rounds up the rotation after a solid 2014, but was rumoured to be a key trade chip this winter that has yet to have been fully utilised. Harvey’s return will open up starts, most likely for top prospect SP Noah Syndergaard who will start 2015 in Triple AAA, probably alongside fellow young prospect Rafael Montero. Left-handed prospect Steven Matz is another youngster about the break the glass ceiling into the major leagues, boasting an extremely low home-run rate in the minor leagues (0.26 HR/9).
Alderson retained nearly his entire full-time bullpen staff, and for good reason, recording a combined 3.14 ERA that ranks 8th in the major leagues. Clutch, however, lacked severely in the bullpen. Their -1.6 WAR is one of the worst in the league from their bullpen, as well a their 22-28 record; their -6 win differential is another low ranked stat within the majors. Very little was done in regards to personnel coming in to bolster the bullpen. With only Josh Ledgin as the only starting left-handed reliever- and a brilliant one at that- veterans such as Phil Coke, Neal Cotts and Craig Breslow were signed, but none really stand out as a legitimate figure in the current bullpen. The big factor is the eventual return of former closer Bobby Parnell, who underwent Tommy John Surgery last year. Apparently the closer role is for Parnell to lose upon his return, which may be a little awkward considering the success 25-year old Jenrry Mejia (3.65 ERA, 28 SV) has been experiencing since his presence in the bullpen. The return of Parnell, like Harvey, is another reason as to why the Mets were not as spectacular and extravagant in their approach to contend in 2015.
But the one area in which the Mets should have been extravagant towards was the Shortstop position, which is still up in the air between Ruben Tejada (237/342/310) and Wilmer Flores (251/286/378). Flores’ only struggle in his brief 2014 season was his defense, particularly in arm accuracy. The glove is there, and the arm strength, but the finishing touch in accuracy is still two steps behind. This, rather unfortunately, does open the position back to Tejada, who has a big problem in generating any kind of consistent power off his bat (.310 slugging). Neither UT Eric Campbell (agility) or 2B David Herrera (150 lb frame) have the physical skill-set to play at shortstop over their current positions. Shortstop is unfortunately the only dark spot on the Mets’ winter, and it raises the question as to why Dillon Gee was not utilised more as a trade chip in order to fill that need in the infield?
Beyond the murky situation at Shortstop, the offseason at MetLife Stadium was very much quiet after the big arrival of Cuddyer. Personnel returning from long injury spells can be seen equally as valuable as any big-time free agent signing. But what’s more, they have kept their chemistry from 2014 very strong heading into 2015. They finished 2014 looking like a potential contending team through their excellent pitching. You’ve got to wonder how far the Mets can go in the NL East with even bigger, prosperous talent waiting in the wings heading into Spring Training.
Philadelphia Phillies: F
“One of the more difficult thing to do in professional sports – and not only baseball but all sports – is to be patient. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult for the fans to be patient, it’s difficult for the media to be patient, it’s difficult for ownership to be patient. But sometimes when you get challenges . . . Right now, we’re in a situation where we know where we’re headed, and it’s going to take some time to get us where we want to go.” Phillies’ President Pat Gillick spoke those words on September 2nd, and since that statement the path of this franchise has been a colossal catastrophe.
It wasn’t 6 weeks after Gillick uttered that infamous statement before being the first man under the Phillies’ clubhouse to declare that the team was entering a full-blown, rebuilding process.
In what way have they rebuilt this winter? GM Ruben Amaro Jr had, and still has, six legitimate trade chips to dispose of. And I mean literally dispose of. Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Johnathon Papelbon, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz. Trade these guys away for something, anything! Mid-level prospects were the asking price for any of those chips. The only player of the six that should deservedly be dealt for something of high value, such as a top prospect or a duo/trio of youngsters breaking through, is Cole Hamels. But it didn’t happen.
Failed attempts personify the offseason in Philadelphia, because all six players are still on the roster. The rebuilding process has started off in disastrous fashion.
To make matters worse, the projected rotation for the Phillies sees the likes of Aaron Harang (36-years old, 12-12, 3.57 ERA), Jerome Williams (33-years old, 6-7, 4.77 ERA) and Chad Billingsley filling the back-end. Happy to see the rebuilding process at its finest. Insert the sarcasm wherever you want, but that is not a rebuilding rotation, especially with the latter not pitching as a full-time starter since 2012 (Billingsley).
Hole-filling signings like this nearly ruin some of the farmed prospects that are beginning to make their name on the major league scene. Their only hope of salvaging some form of prosperous talent towards rebuilding their pitching staff is within SP David Buchanon (6-8, 3.75 ERA), who had an outstanding rookie campaign after spending the previous 5 seasons in the minor leagues. Cuban SP Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (0-1, 6.75 ERA) is another late-blooming hopeful of making the rotation this Spring, after making his major league debut for the Phillies last September.
The Phillies did, however, dispose of one of their former trade chips in legendary SS Jimmy Rollins, who was traded in December to the Dodgers; ending a 15-year career in Philadelphia as he was exchanged for pitching prospects LHP Tom Windle and RHP Zach Eflin. Windle (4.26 ERA) has been somewhat flat out of the blocks upon his tenure in High-A Rancho, and was prone to the long ball also (0.9 HR/9). Eflin (3.80 ERA) held his own more so than Windle in High-A last year with Lake Elsinore, and kept the long ball to a solid rate (0.6 HR/9). At only 20, Eflin is clearly the more eye-catching prospect to follow; a former 2012 first-round draft pick out of Oviedo, FL, his 6ft 4 frame gives him good potential going forward.
There is just one tiny issue regarding the Rollins trade: who exactly did they sign to replace him? No one. Clearly they see something legitimate in SS Freddy Galvis (176/227/319) as their full-time starter. Whether it’s his batting average (.176) or his declining OPS (.546), or possibly the fact that he’s simply a switch-hitting infielder (just like the former starter in Rollins), it is almost spectacular how there is no competition nor depth surrounding Galvis heading into Spring Training. Youngsters around Galvis lack either the fielding abilities (2B Cesar Hernandez) nor the athleticism (3B Maikel Franco) required to challenge for the dried up Shortstop position.
For an attempted rebuilding clinic in Philly, this winter has been a complete failure. There are players to watch out for, like CF Ben Revere and RF Domonic Brown, as well as in the minor leagues. But any momentum from their potential prospects is immediately ruined by the continuous mass of wastage still on the 25-man roster. Constant lack of success to ship the highest-paid, highest-value, yet under-performing and overpaid players- best suited for a contender- will always derail any real attempt to drastically right the ship in Philadelphia so that the Phillies indeed shift to a full rebuild.
Washington Nationals: A-
The Nationals had nearly as quiet an offseason as the Mets in regards to the quantity of free agency signings. Unlike their rivals from New York, this offseason from the nation’s capital was a very loud one.
A seven-year, $210 million contract is one thing, but the fact that the Nationals will be paying SP Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA) a bloated $15 million per year until 2028 (not a typo), does show the faint scratches within the top of the range sports car. Queue the Bobby Bonilla joke! But this isn’t the first time that the Nationals have pulled off such a ludicrously large, overly-long term contract style towards free agents. Remember OF Jason Werth and his $126 million deal in 2011? As well as the two-year $28 million deal for former closer Rafael Soriano in 2012, which the Nats’ are still paying him for!
Outside of the forever-frustrating aspect of baseball that is essentially “money”, Scherzer is coming off an immensely hot tenure in Detroit within the last two seasons. Tallying over 200 innings in both 2013 and 2014- the only years in which he’s done so- Max solidified his status as a top-10 pitcher in the majors. 2013 was his pinnacle year, turning in a career-low 0.97 WHIP and an ice-cold .198 batting average against him, en route to a 21-3 record and 2.90 ERA. To give you a bigger picture as to how good the Nationals’ rotation is now with Scherzer in the fold; comparing 2014 stats, he would be the #3 starter on the mound. $210 million, for a #3 starter? Their rotation was stellar to start off the winter, and now it has rocketed into arguably the best rotation in the major leagues.
Max Scherzer in the rotation does also raise the issue of having 6 rather stellar starters trying to fit into just 5 starting roles. As off-pace as he was compared to the unfortunate 6th starter Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85 ERA), left-hander Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57 ERA) has to be 5th starter, for he is the only left-handed starter. It is a buzz-kill for Roark, who is now in no-man’s land after a great 2014 season. And with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman locking up the front two spots in the rotation, as well as Doug Fister being the #4 starter, it will be very difficult for Roark to get as much time on the mound as he did last year. Look for him to be a sure trade chip for the Nationals as the season progresses.
Regarding the starting line-up, only 1B Adam Laroche was the team’s sole significant departure, which finally opens a full-time spot for Ryan Zimmerman, who flew around from 3B to the OF last year following the rise of 3B Anthony Rendon. Zimmerman will finally get full-time reps after a very limited 2014 season (214 AB), as well as open up opportunities for UT Kevin Frandsen to rotate amongst 1B, 3B and the corner-Outfielders.
Danny Espinosa was the sole disappointment in 2014 and struggled as the starter at 2B. Yunel Escobar (258/324/340) was traded from Oakland for set-up man Tyler Clippard and immediately becomes a big addition to the line-up, despite being a natural SS. With these few but very effective moves, Washington’s batting order is essentially complete, with the capability of putting plenty of men on base, and attempting to solidify their power-hitting potential towards racking up big offensive numbers in 2015.
Mentioning Clippard’s departure to Oakland via trade, and the departure of former closer Soriano, the Nationals’ bullpen will look very different for many on the surface, yet too familiar from a few years ago. After being one of the best relievers in the league in 2014, RP Drew Storen (1.12 ERA in 56 1/3 innings) will return as the closer for the first time since early 2012 and his elbow surgery. Behind him will be the former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Janssen saw his ERA bloat to 3.94 in 2014 after back-to-back years of it being below 2.60 during his time in Toronto. And blowing 5 saves in 2014, the decision to delegate Janssen to set-up duties is a smart move on the Nationals’ part. Many of the contributors from 2014’s bullpen return this year, such as Aaron Barrett and Craig Stammen.
Money can taint the most beautiful of things. Scherzer’s hefty, long-term price tag for Washington will be on many minds heading into Spring Training. They made little moves, but their moves were efficient in covering their primary needs. Essentially mission accomplished for Washington using as little amount of work as needed. Their batting order is arguably a league-best waiting to happen, and they hold the best rotation right now. Postseason bound? A definite favourite for the National League pennant. Only when they achieve that feat will all the dollars they throw be truly worth it.
Up Next: National League Central