Moving Robert Gsellman to the Rotation

After starting the season 11-1, the New York Mets have hit a bit of a skid in the road. They still sit atop a surprisingly robust NL East at a record of 16-9, but are running a 5-8 record since mid-April and are ranked substantially worse by expected record measures, generally seeing their performance as worthy of around a 13-12 record and fourth place in the East.

Still, they are where they are and where they are is pretty good. Talent-wise, the Nationals still look like the best team in the division – and should remain that way once more than half of their starters are in the lineup instead of on the DL – but there are two extremely promising up-and-comers in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Suffice to say, whatever window exists for the Mets to contend is small and immediate; they have a reasonably talented roster right now and need to win in the years between the Nationals’ post-2018 exodus of talent and the Phillies’ and Braves’ incoming deluge of prospects…if such an opening will even exist, and odds are it won’t.

This combination of unexpected opportunity, and the faint-but-growing sound of hooves on the horizon makes the relegation of top pitching prospect Robert Gsellman to the bullpen extraordinarily curious. Like other members of a surprisingly strong Mets‘ bullpen, Gsellman is off to an excellent start in 2018; he’s top 10 in WAR among relievers at 0.6 and boasts an excellent 32.8% strikeout rate, more than doubling last year’s 14.9%. In fact, despite throwing only 14 innings, he’s nearly equaled last season’s WAR output (0.7), which came across 119 innings and 22 starts.

Normally, we’d be looking at a Wade Davis situation: a mediocre-at-best starter gets moved to the bullpen, where he’s able to transition to a shutdown reliever, and shifting him back to the rotation actually causes him to produce less total value despite having many more opportunities. Davis’ 1.4 WAR in 135 innings his first season in Kansas City was the encore to a 2.43 ERA, 1.1-win campaign in his first season in the ‘pen and final season in Tampa. The Royals realized their mistake and ended up with a couple pennants and some nice rings.

The Mets, though, aren’t in quite the same situation. Let’s start with their current distribution of resources: they are 9th in SP WAR at 2.5 and 12th in RP WAR at 0.8, so they are generally getting more help than harm from their staff. But from that distribution, it seems like keeping Gsellman in the ‘pen is a better option, as it’s weaker relative to the rest of the league.

Thing is, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have combined for 2.6 of that 2.5 WAR, which you’ll notice is actually a higher number. That means positions 3-5 in the Mets’ staff have combined for -0.1 WAR:

The Back of the Mets’ Rotation

Innings K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
Matt Harvey 21 18.1% 4.3% 6.00 4.75 0.1
Zack Wheeler 17 32.9% 3.6% 4.24 4.53 0.1
Steven Matz 21.2 27.4% 10.5% 4.98 5.44 -0.1
Jason Vargas 3.2 16.7% 8.3% 22.09 10.00 -0.2

There isn’t a lot of confidence to be had in those names. Wheeler (28) and Matz (27) aren’t as young as they once were, and they represent the options still possessing some upside. But we’re now more than three years removed from Wheeler being a good MLB pitcher – 2.6 WAR in 2014 – with a major injury in-between, and it’s difficult to suggest that he’s going to suddenly re-emerge as a rotation anchor. Matz was solidly above-average back in 2016, but didn’t pitch much last year and certainly didn’t pitch well when he did. Vargas is an innings-eater, at best.

Now that Vargas is off the DL, Harvey’s been moved to the bullpen, which is only where he belongs if you assume he belongs on a major league roster. Even if Harvey doesn’t take well to a relief role, the other side of the coin is whether the Mets’ bullpen can weather the loss of Gsellman, and the answer is likely yes. Closer Jeurys Familia is once again pitching like a top-five closer, but there’s more help than in years past. Paul Sewald has emerged as a viable setup guy, boasting a 1.55 FIP and 11.9% swinging strike rate despite throwing nearly half of his pitches in the zone. His slider-heavy approach means there will likely be more homers in his future than the zero he’s presently allowed, but his minor-league K/BB’s are sparkling and he only ever encountered home run troubles in the hitter’s paradise that is Las Vegas.

Former Marlins closer A.J. Ramos has had serious walk issues, but his 42.1% Zone% is higher than his career mark of 41.7%, and he’s really the veteran option in terms of depth. Because the Mets have a closer-in-waiting who was recently optioned to AAA in Jacob Rhame. Rhame’s stuff – a 95 MPH fastball, 87 MPH slider, and 86 MPH curve, all of which he throws at least fifteen percent of the time – is legit. Despite a 7.36 ERA and 10.00 FIP in his 3.2 innings this year, he generated a whopping 14.1% swinging strike rate off of a 53.1% Zone% – the guy lives in the zone and hitters still can’t make contact.

This is nothing new. Rhame’s minor league strikeout percentages have hovered between 25-30%, while he’s generally kept his walk rate under 10%. The numbers say he limits walks and gets strikeouts, and the other numbers say that’s sustainable. Rhame’s likely waiting for an opening now that Harvey has been moved out of the rotation, so he gives us a good fallback option in case there’s a need for right-handed relief help with the departure of Gsellman.

That means our boy can replace either Wheeler or Matz. Which one isn’t that difficult of a decision to make, actually, as the Mets’ bullpen currently features only one lefty in Jerry Blevins. He’s sporting an 88 MPH fastball and five walks against three strikeouts in five innings. Not good.

Serendipitously, Matz is likely more suited for bullpen work than Wheeler anyway. In five starts, he’s thrown only 21 ⅔ innings, making it into the sixth just once. Let’s check out his results in his third time through the order this year:

April 7th: BB, K

April 13th: K, E, HR, K

April 25th: HBP, BB

It’s a terribly small sample, but it includes three strikeouts, two walks, a hit batsman, and a home run spread across eight PA. The really significant numbers are the ones that aren’t there, namely all the batters the bullpen had to retire because Matz couldn’t get more than five innings into a game.

Just as importantly, Matz’ repertoire is likely more suited for relief than Wheeler’s. He’s got three pitches and really only has one effective pitch in the curve:

2018 Per-100 Pitch Values

FB

SL

CB

CH

Zack Wheeler

-0.02

5.6

-0.96

-4.66

Steven Matz

-1.5

0.38

-1.65

So Wheeler can likely get away with his three-pitch mix, while Matz should be a far more effective pitcher when he can use his fastball to set up his curve. And now there’s a legitimate lefty relief option, leaving a spot open for a guy that hasn’t been discussed much, considering this whole thing is about him.

Let’s dig into Gsellman’s numbers by adding his line to the above table:

FB

SL

CB

CH

Robert Gsellman

1.20

2.12

-0.29

5.64

Gsellman’s changeup has been murderous, a continuation of last year’s results when it was his best pitch. But he’s got two useful offerings in the fastball and slider, as well, putting him generally above both Wheeler and Matz in terms of pitch effectiveness. Seems like a thing you’d want to take advantage of by using it more often.

It also seems like the sort of thing that would help him against opposite-handed hitters, helping his effectiveness whether he has the platoon advantage or not. So there’s no great reason to manage his appearances by the situation and artificially limit his exposure to lefties, another significant reason some pitchers end up in relief.

Which, to be fair, is part of the reason why Gsellman’s stuff is playing up. His strikeout and swinging strike rates have doubled as he’s being selectively deployed and allowed to lean more heavily into his stuff, so we shouldn’t expect his gains to carry back over. While that’s true, it’s not like he’s added two MPH to his fastball; it’s up only 0.8 MPH over 2017, and all three of his offspeed pitches are up less than 1 MPH over their 2016 figures. A season in which Gsellman rocked a 2.42 ERA and 1.4 WAR in 44 innings.

So he’s been able to sustain this sort of performance as a starter before, and right now his stuff looks a lot more like it did when he was pitching effectively. Hitters are reacting to it very poorly – much like they did then – and the Mets are better for it.

It seems like the bases are covered pretty well here. Messing with a good thing is often a very bad idea, but the Mets aren’t really in a position to be embracing the status quo. Their rotation is more of a weakness than it appears, and the bullpen has a bit more behind it than one would initially think, so taking from one to give to the other likely isn’t disastrous. There’s a lefty-shaped hole and a strong candidate to fill it in Steven Matz, with no worries about diminishing the role of an effective starter because he really isn’t one. And the guy who’s best suited to take his place doesn’t have any obvious red flags when it comes to estimating his performance in the rotation.

At this point, the question moves from why to why not to why hasn’t this happened already?

To which we shake our heads sadly, and say with a catch in the throat: this is the Mets we’re talking about, after all.

The Curse of .500

“Tanking” has become a dirty little open secret in professional sports over the last decade or so – perhaps now as much in the NBA as in baseball – with last winter’s lack of proceedings becoming a frequent discussion point between teams, players, fans, and pundits.

The origins of mainstream modern tanking lie with the reigning World Champions, which likely means the strategy is going to be around for quite some time. In 2010, the Houston Astros were a bad-not-terrible team, sporting a 76-86 record and coming off a very similar 2009 season. In fact, they were on quite the little run of mediocrity, having finished within 10 games of .500 each of the last five years and failing to make the playoffs each time.

It was the Curse of .500, we said. The worst thing you can be. Not good enough to make the postseason, where if the bounces go your way you get a parade, and not good enough to get the assets that would get you there. The teams picking in the 20s in the draft are the ones that are happy now. The teams picking in the single-digits are the ones that will be happy later. The teams picking in the teens are Sisyphus. So the Astros left the boulder at the bottom of Tal’s Hill and basically forfeit.

With a farm system bereft of talent thanks to failed attempts to win now, soon-to-be-deposed GM Ed Wade presided over a 106-loss team that met all its goals; specifically, to obtain the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. And who could blame the Astros? In 2009 and 2010, the Nationals held the first overall pick and selected two of the greatest draft prospects in history, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (though Mike Trout lurked in ‘09). As the 2011 Astros lost 106 games, the Nationals went 80-81 as a prelude to the call-up of Harper (for a 98-64 NL East championship in 2012) and Bud Selig stepping to the podium to announce the Astros number one pick. The Nats’ proof-of-concept gave way to the most earnest tank job anyone’s ever seen.

The Astros slightly reached by taking Carlos Correa first overall, giving them the bonus pool money to give an overslot deal to Lance McCullers. Correa and McCullers were key members of the team that just won the World Series and might be in line for a few more rings. Open auditions during the rough years led to players like future MVP Jose Altuve getting long looks. From back here, it certainly looks like three straight seasons of some of the worst baseball in MLB history was worth it.

If that wasn’t enough, the Cubs’ 2016 championship – modeled very much after the Astros’ rebuild process – came together so well and so quickly that it’s frankly no surprise most MLB teams have no interest in free agents. Young players win games. Young players are cheap. Young players can only be acquired with early draft picks and big international bonus pool allotments, gifted as recompense for losing seasons. This was always where we were headed.

And yet…the Yankees. Were the Yankees ever really bad? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. And now they’ve got this young, cost-controlled core of top prospects, some of whom have hardware already. How’d that happen?

Maybe the Curse of .500 is a lie. Sure, the Yanks have big-market muscles and an incredible front office, but so do the Cubs, and they still tanked. Like the Cubs, the Yankees had legitimate MLB assets they could move for premium players (a complete lack of inventory really delayed the Astros’ plans at least a couple of years). Still, they never sniffed 100 losses. They never even hit 90! They never finished below .500.

In fact, they were mired in dreaded purgatory for four years, with 84 to 87 wins from 2013-2016. They picked 16th, 18th, and 16th again. You might have noticed that’s one too few – well, signing Brian McCann and the mission-critical Jacoby Ellsbury after the disappointing 2013 season left them without a first-rounder in 2014. Not only are they picking in the late teens, they’re not even keeping all their selections!

Are the Yankees an outlier or is this real? If you can have your cake and eat it too, why not hang around and be okay while you’re building the next big thing?

Let’s look at two comparisons, comparing both franchise records and season records to see if there’s something to this whole curse. The first is a check against longer-term competition and whether losing actually does lead to winning. Looking at the period 2003-2012 (because ten is a round number) compared to the 2013-17 seasons (because five is also a round number), can we say that teams that lost a lot of games ended up coming out all right?

Worst Teams, 2003-2012

Team 2003-12 W 2013-17 W

Per-162 Change

Royals

678 431 18.4
Pirates 686 433

18

Orioles

722 426 13
Mariners 740 398

5.6

Nationals

740 457 17.4
Rockies 761 370

-2.1

Diamondbacks

770 386 0.2
Astros 770 392

1.4

Indians

778 454 13
Rays 785 397

0.9

Oh. Oh yes, they did. Of the five worst teams in our random-ish sample, four of them improved their per-162 win total by double digits. Parity is alive and well, all hail parity! The Rays aren’t even driving this result, considering it includes both their winning and losing phases, and the Pirates and Nationals are actually two of the five best teams from 2013-17. With the Indians at #9, three of the top five teams by wins over the last five years were in the bottom 10 from 2003-12.

This implies – but does not necessitate – that winning also leads to losing. It’s slightly possible that this isn’t true; if the bad teams are becoming just decent (which is certainly the case for some) and the decent teams are becoming bad, then the elite can hold their position while the middle and bottom tiers trade places.

That’s not really what’s happening, though:

Best Teams, 2003-2012

Team

2003-12 W 2013-17 W Per-162 Change

Yankees

967 431 -10.5
Red Sox 908 432

-4.4

Angels 899 415

-6.9

Phillies

899 346 -20.7
Cardinals 892 456

2

Braves

882 382 -11.8
White Sox 850 357

-13.6

Dodgers

846 473 10
Giants 845 399

-4.7

Athletics

843 396

-5.1

The Cardinals got a bit better, the Dodgers got much better, everyone else got worse, to varying degrees. The Phillies, Braves, and White Sox, in particular, had mini-dynasties come to an end.

Instead of looking at individual franchises, let’s expand the scope a little bit and start bucketing. There are five “states” that seem to be readily identifiable from the last fifteen years of baseball:

  1. Top 3 (under 67 wins, 43 seasons): A bit of a misnomer if you’re of a particular bent, these are the teams which end up in the range where they would expect a top 3 pick in the draft. No team with more than 69 wins finished with one of the bottom three records in the league over those fifteen seasons, leaving 43 team-seasons in 15 years, or just about three per year.
  2. Top 10 (67-75 wins, 111 seasons): Teams that would generally finish with a top 10 pick. This is significant not only because again, round number, but also because draft pick forfeiture applies to teams past the 10th pick.
  3. Cursed (76-85 wins, 105 seasons): The real problem area. You’re outside the top 10, so no qualified free agents for you. But you probably didn’t make the playoffs, either. Sad times.
  4. Semi-Contenders (86-91 wins, 101 seasons): Primarily to break up the otherwise large number of “contender” seasons, this also separates fluke years from lasting or legitimately talented teams. Most of the time, you’re going to the playoffs if you’re in this range, but not always.
  5. Contenders (92+ wins, 90 seasons): Don’t make any plans for October.

With teams grouped together, we can average the number of wins each saw in subsequent seasons. The following graph includes each bucket in their +1, +2, etc. years:

 

nullThis leads us to the ultimate conclusion of this article:

Regression is everything. It is coming for you, and it cannot be stopped. You and everything you know will be regressed until the universe is naught but a bowl of bland gray oatmeal, weep if you must.

Before we embrace the void, however, it’s pretty hard to escape the suggestion above that the Curse of .500 is not real. Teams that finish in the Top 3 position take their sweet time, not crossing the 81-win barrier until the third year after their Top 3 season. That means the 2011 Astros should have taken until 2014 to go over .500, which…is exactly what they did. A curious thing happened after that, though: they’ve stayed good. They have become the best. By Year 5, the former top 3 teams have the highest average win total among the five groups.

The most interesting thing, though, is that it’s not like everyone switches places, as the above tables would imply. The best teams, who finished with an average of 95 wins and above, are still averaging 81 wins five years on. They’re the second-best group, likely because if you have that much talent it takes more than five years to rid yourself of it completely.

The Top 10 teams and the Semi-Contenders merge into each other, meanwhile, leaving the .500 teams at .500. They don’t get worse, really, they just don’t get any better. For those who prefer their data in tabular format:

Year 0 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Count

Top3

62 71 76 81 82 82 43
Top10 71 77 77 79 80 81

111

Cursed

80 81 80 80 80 80 105
SemiContender 88 84 84 83 81 81

101

Contender 96 88 86 83 83 82

90

You can see the Top 3 and Top 10 getting better every year. You can see the Contenders getting worse each year. By the end, it’s a lesson in trying to predict the future; you can’t really tell what a team is going to look like even three years from now, much less four or five.

But wait! Doesn’t that work in both directions? If teams generally head towards .500 baseball no matter where they start, we can’t say the Contenders didn’t start out Cursed. That is the one grain of hope fans of perpetually mediocre franchises can consume, except:

(Semi)Contender Seasons, Years 3-5

Bottom 10 Cursed Contender

Top3

32.4% 24.5% 43.1%
Top10 37.8% 26.1%

36.1%

Cursed

37.1% 25.8% 37.1%
SemiContenders 32.2% 29.1%

38.7%

Contenders 31.2% 22.6%

46.2%

There’s a real separation between being a Top 3 pick or having just started your dynasty. If you want to have a contending team three years from now, you should either be very, very bad or very, very good, and there isn’t a ton of wiggle room.

So it would seem the Curse of .500 is real after all. If anything, there should actually be an expansion in the name. Teams that finish in any of the 15 positions from 11th place to 25th in the overall MLB standings have a significantly lower chance of becoming a long-term contender. Meanwhile, teams in the 5th-10th positions tend to be slightly better than their lower-seeded competition, and, though the playoffs are a reward unto themselves, these teams are generally destined only for slightly more than abject failure, not any kind of lasting greatness. That’s reserved for the teams that started out great.

And finally, we land on the truest of conclusions, that baseball is the American sport. Where the poorest can achieve their wildest dreams, and mediocrity is the worst insult. The surest path to success is to have already succeeded.

2018 Season Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

83-79

87-75

88-73

761

705

Last season was an oddity for the Cardinals in a number of ways. They didn’t make the playoffs for the second straight year following five consecutive October appearances. That matches their longest stretch of futility since the turn of the millennium, and there are another twenty fanbases who think the word “futility” is more than a little misplaced.

St. Louis has a different standard, though, considering they’ve been .500 or better in 18 of the previous 20 seasons and missed the playoffs just eight times during that period, including the last two years. But after the completion of one major trade and another that seemed to be in the works, plus highly volatile competition in the Central and the chips to survive injuries or make upgrades, the Cardinals will be strong contenders in 2018.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas, Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone

Much like their division rivals the Brewers, the Cardinals made the slightly curious decision to take a strength and make it stronger. St. Louis ranked 6th in OF WAR in 2017, making the acquisition of Ozuna a bit odd…until you realize that half of that product was the result of a breakout year by Tommy Pham and another 1.6 came from actual first baseman Jose Martinez. In reality, the Cardinals’ outfield corps was a bit questionable, with more depth than strength, and they wisely chose to consolidate their talent into a 27-year-old coming off a five-win campaign. Mikolas put up great numbers in Japan and should help mitigate the loss of Lynn, as Holland, Gregerson, and Leone form a new closer/setup/setup trio for a surprisingly weak bullpen.

Key Losses – Lance Lynn, Stephen Piscotty, Juan Nicasio, Randal Grichuk, Seung-Hwan Oh, Aledmys Diaz

The vast majority of this is the pruning of players who are merely useful. Grichuk and Diaz are likely solid bench pieces, but the Cardinals are overflowing with those. Nicasio and Oh have both had their moments of glory, but neither should be counted on as core pieces of a team with a short bullpen. That leaves Lynn, who has had a rough couple of seasons. He lost 2016 to TJ surgery, following that with a 4.82 FIP in 2017, the worst of his career by more than a run.

It also leaves Piscotty, whom the club handed a six-year extension just last April and seemed to be a part of the future. In what isn’t completely a baseball move, though, the Cardinals swapped him to the A’s for two solid prospects including SABR-darling Max Schrock. Piscotty’s originally from the Bay Area and wanted to return so he could spend more time with his mother, who was recently diagnosed with ALS. Oakland can certainly use him, and the Cardinals didn’t just give him away, but it’s pretty clear external forces weighed heavy in the swap, which is nice to see.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

87-75

85-77

85-77

The Cardinals are definitely one of the NL’s middle-class teams, not at the Dodgers/Cubs/Nationals level and a fair bit above the small-market rebuilders. A win total in the mid-to-high 80s should keep them in the race all season, but it would be a bit surprising if 85 wins were enough to secure the second wild card considering the number of legitimate contenders there are.

Key Players:

Much like the 2017 edition’s outfield, the 2018 Cardinals have a ton of pitching depth and not a lot of star power; former ace Adam Wainwright is looking to finally stay healthy and effective for the first time since 2014, which means that probably won’t happen and it will be up to top youngster Luke Weaver to provide stable run prevention behind staff ace Carlos Martinez. It seems like every season a different unheralded Cardinals infielder breaks out before fading; Allen Craig, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, even Jedd Gyorko and the up-and-down Matt Carpenter. So will Paul DeJong finally be the Cards’ long-term answer at short? Will Jose Martinez provide some post-Pujols stability at first base? Probably not!

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

It’s always hard to say who’s going to impact the Cardinals from the minor leagues, as they tend to call up 26-year-old rookies who put up 2.5 WAR in 110 games and then effectively retire. But with at least four question marks in the rotation, top prospect Jack Flaherty should shove his way in at some point. Depending on how good his arm feels, former top five overall arm Alex Reyes should have his post-TJ action help stabilize either that shaky rotation or a questionable bullpen with some sweet triple digits. Kolten Wong doesn’t seem like a starting 2B on a contender no matter how many years are left on his contract, so Max Schrock will likely make St. Louis ask him if he can keep hitting .320, just do it in the majors this time.

Future Outlook:

Everyone on the Cardinals is always 27. The entire team exists in a bubble between hype and decline – when you’re pretty sure this guy isn’t going to get any better than he already is, but he probably won’t be much worse either. And then every so often Yadier Molina starts hitting .300 instead of .220 and oh look, it’s the Cardinals winning 83 games and a World Series. This is immediately followed by Allen Craig being released and a 105-win team meeting the Red Sox again. For every yin, there is a yang. For every season there is a Cardinals team above .500. That’s just how things are.

2018 Season Preview: Chicago Cubs

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

92-70

94-68

96-66

822

695

Is it an overreaction to say it didn’t matter how the Cubs fared in 2017? Fresh off winning the first championship in over a century, it’s not like the city was going to disown them more or less no matter what they did. They’ve likely sold out Wrigley for the next half-decade at least, and at this point, all they have to do is show up.

Some of the returnees from the defending champs seemed to take that to heart. While they were no doubt one of the NL’s best teams, they weren’t the best team, and it wasn’t especially close. The Cubs weren’t much better than average on either side of the ball, a surprising result considering the youth and promise of their lineup and the veteran leadership of the staff.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Drew Smyly

There’s a pattern in the acquisitions made by Chicago over the winter: pitching. Lots and lots of pitching. A flurry of activity in early December netted Chatwood, Morrow, Smyly, and Cishek – Smyly won’t pitch in 2018 due to Tommy John surgery – but the rest fall somewhere between “useful” and “reliable”. Not the sexiest acquisitions, though maybe some of the most effective.

Chicago saved their bullet for February, though, adding the compensation-pick–free Darvish on a six-year deal that should give them one of the majors’ more formidable rotations again. The midseason deal for Jose Quintana plus Darvish makes a Lester/Hendricks middle much more palatable, and maybe Darvish can get back to the World Series and get some of that stink off of him.

Key Losses – Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Alex Avila

The worm turns. Arms come in, arms go away. Losing their No. 1 starter and closer means that the additions aren’t quite as additive as one would assume. Think what you might about Arrieta’s future and the general risks of giving 32-year-olds multiple year contracts, but he still averaged 4.5 WAR per season over his four years in Chicago. At least in the short term, that’s a loss, especially for a team that was always short on pitching prospects and has generally emptied the farm over the last few years. Davis’ departure is obviously an issue, though the loss of Rondon may hurt just as badly. Focusing on a poor 2017 ignores three strong previous years, and his strikeout potential makes for a strong bounce-back candidate if he can keep his HR/FB closer to 10% instead of the 20% he posted from 2016-17.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

98-64

92-70

91-71

Some discrepancy here, as ZiPS is much higher on the Cubs than anyone else. This is primarily due to strong projections from the lineup – no position comes in under 3 WAR and the corner infielders combine for 11 – plus a bounce-back for Jon Lester. Having the utility of Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez to cover for injuries will be critical for an organization that suddenly doesn’t have a ton of prospect depth. If they stay relatively close to full strength and Lester can stave off the demons of age, a 100 win season is in play.

Key Players:

Third baseman Kris Bryant has put up back-to-back-to-back six-win campaigns, combining health with excellent defense, power, patience, and average. Whatever tools are, he’s got ‘em, and the Cubs should probably extend him now before he eats their city whole. You’d never believe it now, but there was a time when Jose Quintana vs. Sale was a legitimate question. The lefty massively increased his K% in 2017, jumping from 21.6% to 26.2% year-over-year, but a middling 4.15 ERA against Sale’s Cy Young bid put the comparison to bed. If he’s more of the quiet ace we saw on the South Side, that makes the Cubs more than dangerous. A bounceback from Yu Darvish would accomplish much the same thing; it may be impossible to redefine his career after his two meltdowns in the 2017 World Series, as one could easily argue he single-handedly lost it for the Dodgers, so if he does it’ll be thanks to something truly incredible. If that incredible thing is good, the Cubs’ rotation worries may not be realized.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Oh, the curse of having all your top prospect pan out and litter your MLB team with young stars: there isn’t much left in the minors. Outfielder Mark Zagunis is possibly the most likely to impact the 2018 squad, considering both the left and right field positions have the less-than-entrenched Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward. Righties Adbert Alzolay and Oscar de la Cruz both reached AA last year and should factor into the MLB mix at some point, whether that’s in the back of the rotation or middle relief. De la Cruz is more likely to end up in the bullpen considering his health issues, but with the lineup and rotation likely set it’s really about the first position to suffer a couple of significant injuries.

Future Outlook:

With most of their core around 25 years old and money to burn, it’s more or less impossible to imagine Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer aren’t going to repeatedly produce winning teams for the next several years at least. It’s usually silly to think beyond that, and Chicago is not overflowing with premium minor-league talent, but there’s enough help and incumbent youth to ignore those problems for a few years yet. And by that point, they may not be worries anymore. In a division with the perennially-good Cardinals and three small-market teams, ousting the Cubs from the postseason is going to be incredibly tough.

2018 Season Preview: Cleveland Indians

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

102-60

108-54

107-55

818

564

The 2017 Indians were possibly the best team we’ve seen in a decade, maybe longer. With 102 wins apparently the result of bad luck, words like “led the AL in runs allowed” aren’t that surprising. “Led MLB in runs allowed” is pretty impressive, considering the league they play in, and “beat third place by nearly 100” is frankly somewhat terrifying.

So let’s run down the single-season records they set:

  1. Pitching WAR
  2. Strikeouts (first team to 1600 in a season)
  3. K%
  4. K/9 (first team over 10 K/9)
  5. K-BB% (first team over 20%)
  6. FIP- (beat 1996 Braves by five percent)
  7. xFIP-

Also, they were third in wRC+.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Yonder Alonso

Hmm. That’s a bit of a letdown, considering how much buildup there was. Kind of like the postseason for the Indians, actually. Alonso is possibly the poster boy for the fly-ball revolution, considering how incredibly mediocre he was prior to 2017. Last season he broke out with the A’s and nearly doubled his career HR and WAR totals. He’ll serve to replace one of the players the Indians lost, which is a much longer list.

Key Losses – Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw, Austin Jackson, Joe Smith, Boone Logan

While Alonso likely won’t replace Santana’s incredibly consistent production (2-4 WAR and 140-155 games for each of the last seven years), it likely won’t be a significant dropoff. Bruce’s 2017 was a serious return to form, as 2.7 WAR was his best year since 2013. Either the Indians saw through him and Jackson’s elevated BABIP or they believe in the health of Michael Brantley as a nominal replacement. Or, like Santana, they didn’t have the money to compete with other offers even if they would have liked a reunion.

The bullpen took serious hits as Shaw, Smith, and Logan were obviously useful members of that awesome staff, and while Cody Allen and Andrew Miller keep the ‘pen formidable, depth is certainly a bit more of a question mark.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

96-66

93-69

96-66

Strong agreement that not only are the Indians one of the AL’s better teams, they should win their division by anywhere from fifteen to twenty games. With the Tigers in full tank mode and the Royals losing whether they want to or not, the Central should include three of the sport’s worst teams and the Twins, who likely are decent at best. Cleveland might clinch by mid-August.

Key Players:

After sticking in a utility role until 2016, Jose Ramirez continued his breakout and finished 8th among position players in WAR. Not only is he a generally strong defender who can play multiple positions, there was a two-pronged power breakout with 29 dingers accompanying a league-leading 56 doubles. If that’s who he really is – or the still-great 2016 version appears – it will go a long way to helping a merely good Indians lineup. On the pitching side, Corey Kluber is obviously the big gun, with 200+ innings and 5+ WAR each of the last four seasons, including two Cy Youngs. Turning 32 just a few days into the 2018 season, there are certainly long-term questions but no immediate worries. Fellow starter Trevor Bauer’s constant tweaking may be paying dividends, as he posted his first three-win season. Something happened at the end of July, as Bauer allowed only a 2.42 ERA and struck out 10.2 per nine from 7/27 through the end of the year. If that continues, the Indians won’t just have two of the best pitchers in baseball, they’ll have at least three.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

As much as can be said about the Indians’ pitching staff, their offense does leave something to be desired. Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are the humming engines, soon to be joined by Bradley Zimmer’s incredible power/speed combination. Contact is another question, though not for Francisco Mejia and wherever he plays, be it catcher or right field (third base seems to have been nixed). Like most of baseball, Mejia boosted his power in 2017 while carrying a sub-14% strikeout rate in AA; if he’s a catcher, that’s a future star, and he should be a key member of the offense sooner than later no matter what. Supplementing the pitching staff should be Triston McKenzie and his hilarious 6’5”, 165-pound build; Cleveland’s 4 and 5 starters are currently Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin, which is completely fine, but McKenzie could be that elusive fourth ace they’ve been needing all these years.

Future Outlook:

There are two questions surrounding the Indians’ future: how long will the rest of the A.L. Central be horrible, and how will Kluber and Carlos Carrasco age? Both pitchers are nearing 32, and with considerable mileage and a couple injuries under them, there could be a hard, quick fall in the near future. But there is a good amount of help coming from the farm in the next couple of years, and much of the core is already signed to team-friendly long-term extensions. If they can sort out the bullpen after the departure of Miller and Allen this winter – or even if they can’t – Cleveland shouldn’t be challenged until 2020 at the earliest.

2018 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

 

2017 Review

Record Pythag Record BaseRuns Record Runs Scored

Runs Against

80-82

80-82 87-75 694

704

Stuck in a perennial holding pattern after a shocking leap into contention followed by six strong seasons and no movie (yet), the Rays left 2017 as they entered: an okay team without any particularly good reason to believe something more or less is coming in the near future.

Despite numerous question marks in the lineup, the Rays’ pitching staff seems to be getting younger. Top prospects Blake Snell and Jake Faria showed they don’t really need more time in the minors, and fellow arms Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon should be right behind them. With staff ace Chris Archer leading the charge and solid vet Jake Odorizzi behind him, a few upgrades or strong debuts for an Evan Longoria/Steven Souza/Corey Dickerson-led offense might let Tampa Bay ride a strong staff to their first playoff appearance since 2013.

Oh, dammit, Rays.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron, Christian Arroyo, Anthony Banda, Daniel Hudson

That’s a fine list of players. Not really great, but you can see where the Rays could use a decent outfielder, a bench bat, a couple MLB-ready young guys, and a solid middle reliever. Especially considering the combined 2018 salary of these players is around $12 million, they are fine supplements to a strong core of players. Good thing the Rays have that.

Key Losses – Evan Longoria, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Brad Boxberger, Tommy Hunter, Denard Span

Well, shit. The Rays hit 228 homers last year, sixth in MLB, and their top four sources of power will be playing elsewhere next year. Morrison, Souza, Dickerson, and Longoria were their only 20+ HR bats, combining for 115 of those bombs. You’ll notice that’s more than half! Don’t worry, though, they’ve also lost another four of their top ten that aren’t even listed up there. Yes, eight of the top 10 power threats from Tampa are gone. Next season’s team leader is a tie between Cron and Kevin Kiermaier.

As much as it’s worth continuing to complain about incredibly light returns for Souza, Dickerson, and Odorizzi, Longoria deserves his own paragraph considering what he means to Tampa. The first of two franchise icons that would eventually reach San Francisco, Longo’s 49.6 career WAR is tops in Tampa Bay franchise history with thirteen wins. He won the rookie of the year in 2008, the franchise’s first postseason appearance, and an extension on top of an extension that ran until 2022 at least suggested he might be a lifelong Ray. While the return for him wasn’t terrible – you will notice Span is listed amongst the losses because he is a negative value player – in retrospect, it was a pretty clear sign that the Rays were about to blow up. They probably need to, but it doesn’t make Longoria’s departure any less frustrating. Sometimes it’s okay to make a bad decision for good reasons.

2018 Projections

ZiPS Steamer

Pecota

79-83

80-82

83-79

The Rays are what they are. A good pitching staff will be crippled by the AL’s worst offense, and like hell if reinforcements are coming to save the day. Strong transitions by a few top prospects might let Tampa stick in the race for a little while until the heft of their perennial bullies in New York and Boston is inevitably brought to bear.

Key Players:

There is a surprising amount of individual talent in Tampa Bay, starting with staff ace Chris Archer, who broke out in 2014, burned down the house he broke out of in 2015 and has been rebuilding that safe hidey-hole for two years since. Archer’s a true No. 1 when he’s right, he just needs to return to an era with an 11% HR/FB, and it seems likely a strong start to 2018 leads to him getting moved. That will put youngster Blake Snell in the pole position, and which is completely fine even if he doesn’t use the potential he’s got left. Defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier leads a moribund offense, with only five players projected for at least 1 WAR – he’s arguably the best hitter on this team despite a career .324 wOBA and 106 wRC+.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Middle infielder Willy Adames is the short- and middle-term solution for the Rays at SS  (because long doesn’t exist), and will be in the majors for most of 2018. Almost exactly the same thing could be said of outfielder Jake Bauers, and good debuts from the two of them could suddenly manifest a reasonably productive offensive core alongside Kiermaier. With the Rays going to a four-man rotation through April and possibly well beyond, Yonny Chirinos could be a surprisingly valuable piece, contributing multiple innings out of the bullpen on a regular basis.

Future Outlook:

There are three highly valuable prospects in Tampa’s pipeline, with Adames and Bauers likely joined by possible two-way player Brendan McKay in the somewhat near future. Considering their wealth of MLB-ready arms, even after Honeywell and De Leon were lost to Tommy John, you would think the Rays have the pieces in place for a legitimate run as soon as 2019. It’s just hard to love again.

2018 Season Preview: Kansas City Royals

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

80-82

72-90

72-90

702

791

Two years removed from what might be the densest dynasty ever (the Royals have two championships and four pennants in nine total playoff appearances), the Royals entered 2017 with vague hopes of competitiveness and left the year a clear rebuilding team. Their record masked a bottom-10 collection of talent that was staring down the barrel of free agency for more than a few of its best players.

It’s a good thing flags fly forever.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Lucas Duda, Trevor Oaks, Wily Peralta

Things aren’t going well when Duda is your biggest free agent acquisition, but that was true before he came to town. Both he and Peralta are bounce-back candidates, though Duda’s reasonably consistent offense will likely make him a better bet than the oft-injured and kinda-bad-anyway starter. Peralta will be used out of the bullpen, where his intense stuff will play up further, and the Royals do have Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, and Mike Minor as recent post-conversion success stories. Oaks was the main piece coming back for lefty Scott Alexander and should be in the majors for a questionable rotation.

Key Losses – Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Jason Vargas, Mike Minor, Scott Alexander

Welcome to Reasons for the Rebuild, Lessons A-E. The Royals had an incredible exodus of talent thanks to free agency, and while the cumulative 2017 production of that talent wasn’t necessarily great, the top five names snagged nearly $275 million in combined contracts this offseason. That’s especially significant considering the remaining unsigned free agents, and while nobody will ever explain why the Padres signed Hosmer, stripping three of the seven 2+ WAR players from a bad team isn’t going to help anything. Alexander was the first domino to fall as a result, heading to the Dodgers for Oaks.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

65-96

66-96

66-96

There’s very little chance the Royals don’t end up with a top three pick in the 2019 draft, as the projections uniformly see them tying for the second-worst record in even optimal scenarios. If anything, it’s a bit surprising they aren’t projected lower considering they beat their expected record by eight games in 2017 and lost a huge portion of that team. Projections are notoriously conservative, of course, so it’s forgivable to take the under here.

Key Players:

The Royals are looking at everyone on their roster through trade-colored eyes for the next several seasons, and that starts with catcher Sal Perez, whose terrible plate discipline is made up for by back-to-back-to-back 20-homer seasons and a very team-friendly contract. He’s 28 in May and staring down multiple contenders who could use an upgrade behind the plate. Starter Danny Duffy is also affordably locked up through 2021, though he typically plateaus at about 25 starts a season, and could be a solid mid-rotation option for a team like Milwaukee. In the current relief market,  Kelvin Herrera represents a legitimate closing option, which has a ton of value. He’ll need to bounce back from a rough 2017, and as yet another pending free agent,  perhaps Kansas City can get more than compensation picks this time.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

The main piece in the Alexander trade, Trevor Oaks cannot be kept in the minors long with names like Jason Hammel, Ian Kennedy, and Nate Karns expected to occupy slots in the rotation. Oaks’ projections make him the second-best pitcher on the team after Duffy with something close to a full season. 3B/1B/OF Hunter Dozier was a borderline top 100 prospect after 2016, reaching AAA and combining solid power with acceptable K/BB rates, but spent most of 2017 injured and has no positional home, particularly after the signing of Duda. Legacy Adalberto Mondesi (née Raul) is toolsy and probably a middle infielder, though slightly blocked with Alcides Escobar returning to short and Whit Merrifield entrenched at second.

Future Outlook:

The Royals’ 2011 best-farm-system-in-history resulted in only two playoff appearances, but they sure made ‘em count. Trouble is, there were quite a few 90-loss seasons (and for a while those were the good years) before that, and at the moment Kansas City is a franchise captured as it flies off the embankment but hasn’t started falling into the ravine below. They’ll get there.

2018 Season Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

93-69

97-65

96-66

812

659

Say hello to the 2016 Diamondbacks, who missed their bus a year ago and didn’t arrive at Chase Field until the 2017 season. Arizona flipped their record from a season ago, turning 93 losses into 93 wins as the rotation they expected to lead them did even more than expected. Five starters began at least 25 games, pitched at least 150 innings, and no team received more innings from their nominal starting rotation than the D’backs total of 861.

Also, they have Paul Goldschmidt.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Steven Souza, Brad Boxberger, Jarrod Dyson, Alex Avila

Avila replaces Chris Iannetta in a swap of decent catchers, while Dyson’s $7.5 million over two years is a steal considering his utility and history of production. Two late-inning arms in Fernando Rodney and David Hernandez are in new uniforms for 2018, a void partially filled with the acquisition of Boxberger, especially considering Rodney, in particular, isn’t actually good. Arizona continued fleecing the cheapskate Rays with the acquisition of Souza, more than solidifying their outfield alongside Dyson, A.J. Pollock, and David Peralta. We won’t talk about Yasmany Tomas.

Key Losses – J.D. Martinez, Chris Iannetta, Fernando Rodney, David Hernandez

Martinez is probably the single biggest free agent loss of the winter, considering other high-money players like Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lorenzo Cain were either capably replaced or leaving non-competitive teams. But Martinez’ heir apparent in the desert is apparently Souza, and that won’t please fans who watched Martinez lead baseball in wRC+ for the second half of the season. Their only consolation might be that Souza is possibly a better player, coming in at 3.7 WAR to Martinez’ 3.8 last season while also being two years younger.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

82-80

81-81

87-75

Welcome to Competing Through Pitching, A Public Service Announcement. Even though the 2017 version underperformed their expected record by three or four games and still finished with the third-best record in the NL, none of the projection systems are huge fans. Pecota is the biggest advocate, but in general, it’s worrying when so much of your value comes from arms. Goldschmidt and Pollock are joined by Jake Lamb to form the whole of the above-average position players, and while the entire rotation is projected to be worth two wins or more yet again, well, we’ve seen this play before. One or two injuries and suddenly Shelby Miller is your third starter.

Key Players:

There are two completely unambiguous leaders on this team, and they are Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke, both of whom need to be healthy and productive for the D’backs to be successful. We saw what it looks like when one of them is hurt and/or underperforming, and it looks a lot like the 2016 season. One day I’ll get over the fact that Max Scherzer was traded for Robbie Ray and judge him on his own merits, which are pretty good. 2017 was likely a career year as he outperformed his FIP by nearly a full run, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be crucial to Arizona’s 2018 record. Career resurrections are always worth celebrating, and Archie Bradley’s move the bullpen should be permanent considering he was utterly dominant there and should serve as a shutdown closer next season.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

There are concerns with the middle infield and corner outfield situations, so a player like Domingo Leyba, who is listed as 2B/SS and finished last year in AA, will always have a shot. Leyba was hurt for much of 2017 – a season that included a shoulder surgery – so he may be treated with kid gloves in 2018. His high-contact, low-walk game is mirrored by AAA counterpart Ildemaro Vargas and it’s difficult to see Vargas not getting extended playing time in 2018 considering his positional flexibility and hitting ability. Pitching depth is at a worrying low, and the farm may only provide relief in the literal sense, as lefty Jared Miller and righty Jimmie Sherfy both have stuff to pile up strikeouts and possible setup futures.

Future Outlook:

When you’re a mid-market team that hands $200 million to a 32-year-old pitcher, people are going to ask some questions. And you can ignore them, except they’re kind of right. Whether Arizona wanted to retain J.D. Martinez at his market price, they sort of couldn’t. Add the sinkhole that is Yasmany Tomas, and anywhere from half to a third of the Diamondbacks’ payroll is already consumed. There will be a franchise-high payroll of nearly $130 million this season, and with free agency looming for Pollock after 2018 and Goldschmidt after 2019, there will be tough choices facing the team. Unless they can stay healthy and beat some projections this year, the D’backs may not be in the playoffs again for some time.

2018 Season Preview: Colorado Rockies

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

87-75

88-74

82-80

824

757

After their sixth-straight season with 85 or more losses, the 2017 Rockies were an interesting team, just not interesting enough to be considered a real threat to perennial winners in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the NL West went haywire last season and the Rockies were the secondary beneficiary, nabbing the second Wild Card spot by a single game.

Colorado does not lack for star power, employing two of the best all-around players in the game at third base and center field. It was a strong starting rotation and dominant relief corps that was primarily responsible for the uptick in wins, however, as the team ranked 29th in pitching WAR from 2011-2016 before climbing to 8th in 2017.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, Chris Iannetta

No doubt the Rockies know where their bread is already buttered, and are trying pretty hard to make sure both sides stay that way. Re-signing Jake McGee and bringing in Davis and Shaw to replace Greg Holland and Pat Neshek keep the relief options pretty well in line with 2017 when they were a key to Colorado’s pitching strength – four relievers were worth at least one win last season, including Neshek’s impressive 22 post-deadline innings. Iannetta suffered through two years of depressed BABIPs in 2015 and ‘16 but rebounded in a big way last year with the Diamondbacks and is consistently useful at worst. With the underperforming Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy as the primary catching options following the departure of Jonathan Lucroy, upgrading at C was a must.

Key Losses – Jonathan Lucroy, Greg Holland, Pat Neshek, Tyler Chatwood

The rotation boasted strength in numbers last year, as seven pitchers started at least fifteen games, and that depth will take a small hit after the departure of Chatwood. Among those seven starters were four 2017 rookies and two more 2016 rookies – Chatwood being the odd man out – so one could certainly argue that having “been there” will prevent the need for more help. As noted above, Holland, Neshek, and Lucroy have been capably replaced by Davis, Shaw, and Iannetta, probably a slight upgrade collectively in terms of overall talent.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

81-81

80-82

78-84

The projections don’t much like the Rockies to ride the upswing from last season, though. The primary worry here is on the pitching side, as the offense should be about as productive, though depth is a major concern. Outside of Jon Gray, though, Colorado has no 150-inning arms or above-average starters; German Marquez and Tyler Anderson should be good, and after that things get worrying. The bullpen is headlined by three great options in Davis, McGee, and Shaw, then Chris Rusin and pretty much nothing else. There is, oddly enough, too much depth in the rotation to use it all and not quite enough in the ‘pen – a problem that may solve itself.

Key Players:

As the only two above-average members of the lineup, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have quite a burden to bear. That may sound ridiculous considering the stat lines of some Rockies hitters, but outside of the perpetually underrated fantasy stud DJ LeMahieu, there are holes all over the place. The rotation has the opposite problem, with a ton of options and no obvious answers, leaving German Marquez to step up and become a legit No. 2 behind staff ace Gray. With low walk rates and a downright reasonable 15.4% HR/FB in 2017, he has the ability to survive Coors and make the rotation the true strength of the Rockies.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

The timing of Brendan Rodgers’ 2018 debut will depend on both his performance and that of incumbent SS Trevor Story. If Rodgers is struggling, or Story hits another 20 homers in April, the kid is likely to stay down until September. A strong debut by Rodgers and question marks at short could see the top prospect in a Rockies uniform by midseason, however, as he split 2017 fairly evenly between A+ and AA. Similarly blocked is Ryan McMahon, who was never going to debut at 3B with Arenado on the team and now has Ian Desmond, Gerardo Parra, Raimel Tapia, and Carlos Gonzalez also vying for time between the corner outfield spots and first base. McMahon likely has the best bat of the five but may get squeezed back to AAA.

Future Outlook:

For the last two decades, the Rockies have either been off or on, though it’s mostly been off. 2017 was only the third season since the mid-’90s with a loss total between 75 to 85; even last year they were 13 games over .500 through the first half of the season and one game under in the second. Unlike previous iterations, they should be able to assemble a strong core of pitchers, particularly in the rotation, but with free agency looming on stars Blackmon and Arenado with no real heirs apparent, the team may not have the bats to win long-term. Baseball, she is a fickle mistress.

2018 Season Preview: Milwakee Brewers

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

86-76

85-77

84-78

732

697

Christmas came early in Milwaukee, and not just because it started snowing in September. A bountiful collection of young talent broke out left and right across the Brewers’ roster, especially in a pitching staff that rose to 9th in WAR and featured four pitchers in the 3+ win range last year.

The Brewers managed to stay in contention all season – thanks mostly to a hot start – and while some of their gains may not be entirely sustainable, it’s clear that the intention is to win now.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Boone Logan

Despite a strong record, there is no shortage of concerns on the Brewers’ roster. Coming into the offseason, it was generally believed that the team could use another reliable starter or two in the wake of Jimmy Nelson’s injury, with help in the lineup being focused on the middle infield positions as Jonathan Villar and Orlando Arcia combined for 0.7 WAR in nearly a thousand PAs in 2017. Instead, they elected to massively upgrade a deep (but possibly not strong) outfield core with Yelich and old friend Cain, leaving limited time for cogs Domingo Santana, Ryan Braun, and Eric Thames. Chacin and Logan represent needed upgrades to the staff, though at $17.5 million combined, Milwaukee would likely have been better served to wait out the free-agent market.

Key Losses – Lewis Brinson, Neil Walker, Anthony Swarzak

Evidently, nobody thought Walker’s ability to put up at least two WAR per season, every season, was worth anything. His departure puts additional pressure on Villar to go out and steal another 60 bases, but replacement level is likely about all that should be hoped. Brinson was sent to Miami for Yelich and represents a potentially huge loss if he can develop into his potential, though ample depth in the outfield and Yelich more than mitigate that risk. Swarzak threw 29 strong innings after coming in from the White Sox, and likely wasn’t a long-term fit with a young team that has quite a few starting prospects who will likely end up in relief.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 78-84

78-84

84-78

Pecota is optimistic, thinking the Brewers will once again fall a single game short of a wild-card berth, which maybe isn’t so optimistic when you think about it. ZiPS generally agrees, seeing one of the majors’ deeper rosters, though no one stands out as a superstar-caliber player. Yet there is a real reason to be worried that the 2017 Brewers will take a significant step back, even with the additions of Yelich and Cain; Steamer projects only three above-average hitters between two and Travis Shaw, with Zach Davies the sole two-win starting pitcher.

Key Players:

No doubt the hired guns of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain will be critical to the Brewers’ success both now and in the future – no small amount of resources were spent in acquiring the two, and they both bring strong overall packages that should age reasonably well. Good defense, high on-base numbers, and occasional power are certainly useful qualities. Lineup mate Travis Shaw was stolen from the 3B-needy Red Sox for a song, leading the offense in value last year, nearly doubling his previous high in home runs with 31. A repeat performance would go a long way to beating the naysaying projections, though they think new ace Zach Davies will do just that as he takes over the reins from the injured Nelson. The Brewers may yet trade for that extra starter everyone seems to think they need, but in either case, Davies will need to be a rotation cog.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

If he can find any playing time – which would likely only come from a litany of injuries – Brett Phillips is probably the biggest impact option in the minor leagues, highlighting the amount of depth available in the Brewers’ outfield. Starter Brandon Woodruff might open 2018 in the majors if no additional starter is acquired, though he and Luis Ortiz are more valuable because of their proximity to the majors than their potential, as neither is likely to be more than a fine mid-rotation arm.

Future Outlook:

The future of the Brewers hinges on a single trade they haven’t made yet. This is a team with a deep lineup and offensive prospects who will shortly be major-league ready, held back by the lack of a dominant starter. Perhaps not surprising given the hitter-friendliness of the lovely Miller Park, still a weakness that needs to be addressed. Nelson likely isn’t the ace they’re looking for, especially considering he’s coming off a significant injury – if they are able to pick up a rotation leader on a cheap contract and pick the right bevy of prospects to send in return, Milwaukee could end up a top team for some years.