Archive for July, 2015

Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter today, the third in baseball this season. His game score was 98, tied for the second best pitching performance in baseball this year behind only Max Scherzer’s one-hit, one-walk, 16-strikeout masterpiece. Hamels walked two and struck out 13, washing away the bitter taste of his two previous starts, in which he had allowed 20 hits and 14 runs in 6.1 innings. The game also came against the Cubs, who were no-hit for the first time since 1965. All of that is impressive and interesting by itself. You know what makes it even more intriguing? The fact that Hamels threw this no-hitter, the second one he’s been a part of (he started a combined no-no last year) in what might end up being his last start in a long, storied Phillies career.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly been seven years since the now-bearded Cole Hamels, then the team’s 24-year old ace, won World Series MVP. The road for Hamels has been long and windy, but he’s surely locked in his place among the all-time great Phillies. Easy to forget is the fact that, as a young pitcher, Hamels was fiery and whiny, to the point that, in the middle of the 2009 World Series, he said he was drained and “couldn’t wait for it to end.” Hamels, the classic Southern Californian Surfer Dude-looking guy, was far from a team favorite, and that remained the case even after the 2008 WS MVP. Here’s an example of the way some fans thought about Hamels, albeit a poorly-written and curse-laden one. But after his down 2009 season, Hamels started to change. Whether it was natural progression or some effect the team’s new, more experienced aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee had on him, Hamels became calmer on the mound and also more effective. His career ERA through 2009 was 3.67; since, it’s 3.07. He’s never been one of the very best pitchers in baseball, as he has four top-eight Cy Young finishes but none in the top-five. But the 31-year old is on pace to start at least 30 games for the eighth consecutive season, and in that time he’s seventh among pitchers in WAR, seventh in starts, fourth in innings, and even 20th in wins despite rarely getting any run support. And the most impressive thing? Besides Clayton Kershaw’s fastball and Cliff Lee’s fastball, Hamels’s changeup has added more value than any other pitch in baseball since the start of the 2008 season.

There are also few signs of decline when it comes to Hamels besides his artificially high ERA (3.65) this season. He’s throwing his fastball as fast as he ever has, and he has three plus pitches to go along with his elite changeup. Once a fly-ball pitcher, he’s forcing more grounders than ever before, and his FIP has hovered in the low 3s for five straight years. This is still a consistently-great pitcher, and one who, more than Ryan Howard or Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins, should be remembered as the foundational piece on the successful 2007-2011 Phillies teams, although Utley has a strong case since he had the best peak of the quartet.

Ok, so we know that Hamels is a great pitcher and a Phillies legend. Now let’s talk about the trade aspect. It can be argued that the Phillies should have traded Hamels last year or even the year before, but, without the benefit of seeing the offers they received, I’m not going to make that argument. I am going to assert that they have to trade him now, because the market will be saturated with top arms come free agency and Hamels will be less valuable next July. Right now, plenty of teams should want Hamels. The Cubs, unsurprisingly after what happened today, are interested in Hamels, as well as the Dodgers, Rangers, and Astros. Those seem to be the four most likely destinations for the ace, but other teams are surely calling the Phillies and making improved offers.

What can the Phillies get in return? Well, when Hamels signed his six-year, $144 million extension, he looked overpriced, but that’s not the case anymore. Assuming the Phillies take no money on, the team that trades for Hamels will owe him at least $76.5 million, but only at a three or four year commitment. Considering that he’s just 31, that’s not too bad, especially considering the long-term deals contemporaries like Zack Greinke have recently signed (yes, Greinke is probably better, but not by enough that they aren’t comparable). Considering that WAR is valued around $8-9 million in today’s market and that Hamels added between 4.6-6.6 Baseball-Reference WAR from 2010-2014, his deal seems like enough of a bargain that a team would be willing to give up a blue-chip prospect even if the Phillies refuse to take any money on.

But what if the Phils take on, say, $15 million, making Hamels a $18 million a year investment? Then they can really start to ask for something that will jump-start the long rebuild they have in front of them. The leaders in the Hamels sweepstakes seem to be the Dodgers and Cubs. From LA, the Phillies have been asking for Corey Seager and Julio Urias, but they won’t be able to get those future studs. Instead, they should focus on getting more depth. Could a couple of young MLB-ready players (like Alex Guerrero) and a few decent prospects do the job? I think any deal not featuring a top prospect probably has to have between three and five very solid pieces in it, and the Dodgers have the depth to get that kind of a deal done.

And the Cubs are probably very willing to pay up for King Cole following his masterpiece today. Could the Phillies pry both Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, young, established players without a big role in Chicago, from the Cubs? I think they could, and it would be a heck of a coup. Castro has been one of the worst players in baseball this year, but he’s a cheap 25-year old shortstop who’s under team control for five more years and is probably a 2-4 WAR player. Buying him would be the kind of smart, buy-low deal that the Phillies wouldn’t normally consider. Meanwhile, Baez has put up huge numbers at every minor league stop but struggled mightily in his first taste of Major League Baseball last season. Now 22, the outfielder has 30+ homer power and is hitting .314/.386/.536 in AAA this year. He strikes out a ton, but he’s the type of middle-of-the-order power bat that few teams have and that the Phillies have lacked since before Ryan Howard tore his Achilles’. I really like the Baez+Castro trade package for the Phillies, especially if they can also get a third decent piece.

How special would it be if Cole Hamels were to end his Phillies career with a no-hitter? I haven’t done the research, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be the only one in baseball history to be traded immediately after a no-no, especially since only two pitchers have been traded in the same season as the one in which they threw a no-hitter. The eventual trade of Hamels will be sad for Phillies fans, but it’s something that has to happen and a decision that will pay off in the long run as long as Ruben Amaro Jr. makes the right decision. I’m not holding my breath.

Advertisements

Over the last few years, the Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most talked-about teams in the NBA. That has nothing to do with their record, which is 37-127 in the last two seasons. They’ve generated so much buzz because they have a GM, Sam Hinkie, who’s been willing to do what few leaders in sports do; try something different. We always hear about how “X” sports league is a copycat league, and that generally holds true across all of the major sports leagues. The Chicago Blackhawks started winning, and the emphasis shifted from big players to skilled players (that’s a little oversimplified, but that’s not the point). The Golden State Warriors had one of the most successful seasons of all time, and already we’ve heard about how teams are trying to get smaller and make their lineups more flexible. That’s why Hinkie’s plan, which has been to lose as many games as possible, is notable. It’s fair to say that, especially outside of the Philadelphia market, the general consensus has been that Hinkie is failing. People taunt and make fun of Sixers fans and write off the team’s hope of contending at any point. I know this from experience, and I often get tired of defending Hinkie. It’s pretty hard to defend something that’s borne no fruit (at least in terms of wins), right? Well, yes, but I’m attempting to do just that here.

The cynical and negative views of Hinkie’s rebuild is manyfold and was even before Joel Embiid’s re-injury. The main reason is probably that, in intentionally making his team worse, Hinkie’s going against the very fabric of professional sports. This isn’t to say that teams haven’t tanked before, because they have; it’s just that this tanking is much more obvious and seems set to go on for much longer. Since the very goal in sports is to win games, people don’t take kindly to the intentional losing, and they blame Hinkie personally, nevermind the fact that he’s not doing anything against the rules. This argument, though, only holds true if the real goal is to win any specific game. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think most sports fans would agree with me. The main goal for a GM is not to win as many games as possible in any given season but rather to give his team as much of a chance of winning a championship as possible. And there’s no reasonable way you could argue that the Sixers would have more of a chance of winning a championship in the future with a perennial eight seed than with a tanking team. Sure, what Hinkie’s doing isn’t ideal from the NBA’s standpoint, but he is doing what’s best for the team he inherited.

Another common sentiment among NBA fans is that, in convincing ownership that a long-term tank is necessary, Hinkie’s just buying time for himself. How can ownership fire a guy for losing when they hired him with the knowledge that he would be trying to lose? It’s undeniable that, at this moment, Hinkie has more job security than just about any other GM in basketball. But do you really think Hinkie’s trying to pull a fast one over the owners, thus buying him at least four years of good pay? He doesn’t seem like that kind of a guy to me. This dude works extremely hard, and it feels undeniable that he thinks he’s doing what’s right for the franchise. I don’t think the argument that he’s just trying to buy himself time holds much weight.

You know what happens when you have a really, really crappy team? Ratings go down. But the extent of the decline in Philadelphia viewers is pretty shocking. The team’s average TV viewership has dropped 72% since 2011 and is now at just 23,000 a game. Pair that with the worst attendance in basketball and you have a real problem and something that doubters can point to when they criticize the strategy. If even the hometown fans are losing hope, there’s no reason to “Trust the Process,” right? Well, no. As soon as the Sixers get good again, the ratings will go back up. The poor viewership numbers indicate that the team isn’t playing well, but we already knew that. I don’t think the bad ratings indicate that Hinkie’s strategy is a poor one, especially since the Sixers have been a profitable team even with the decreased attendance.

And then there’s Joel Embiid. This is the most common anti-Hinkie argument right now, for good reason. The Sixers drafted Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 draft with the knowledge that he’d probably have to sit out his first season with a broken foot. I doubt they anticipated that he’d re-break the foot and miss his second season, too. What are the chances that Embiid never plays? 35%? And even if he does play, how likely is it that he ever can play at full strength for an entire season, let alone multiple seasons? Getting a top-three pick wrong can set a franchise back years, and it could be that Hinkie got this pick wrong. Sixers fans hoping to see a Jahlil Okafor-Embiid combination should probably put those hopes on the back burner. It’s fine to criticize Hinkie for the Embiid pick, and I have done just that. I’m not one of the Hinkie lovers who supports every decision he makes. But the GM never said he’d be perfect, and his strategy specifically enables him to make a few mistakes like the Embiid one and still succeed in the end. Most teams only have one or two shots at a game-changing player; the Sixers are going to have many.

Let’s take a look at the Sixers’ major assets right now. Putting Embiid aside, they have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, two very talented big men. They have Robert Covington and Tony Wroten, young, cheap players who have shown they can score points in bunches. They have Dario Saric, perhaps the best prospect currently playing in Europe. They have Nik Stauskas, the #8 pick in the draft a season ago. They don’t have any great guards, which is why many people were upset with the Okafor pick, but the guards will come. As for the pick situation? Well, Philly has its own picks as well as the Lakers’ top-three protected pick (a great pick), Miami’s first round pick, OKC’s first round pick, a future Sacramento first round pick, and the rights to swap picks with the Kings in one or both of the next two seasons. Pretty solid, especially since the team Hinkie inherited consisted of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, no extra picks, and a bunch of veterans. You’d rather have these assets than those, right?

Hinkie’s also proven himself as a great trader. The Stauskas trade, which netted the shooting guard, the Sacramento picks, and two overpaid big men in Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, was absolutely incredible since the Sixers traded nothing of value for the four assets (Stauskas, two pick swaps, one first round pick). That trade was universally lauded around the league. So to was the trade of Young and the trade for JaVale McGee, each of which netted a first round pick. And while fans hated it at first, the trade of Holiday for Noel and Saric was fantastic. The only move Hinkie’s made that is still at all controversial was the Michael Carter-Williams deal. The GM dealt MCW, one of his supposed cornerstones and the reigning ROY at the time, for a future first round pick. People hated the trade, because Hinkie dealt a known quantity (a decent player whose numbers were aided heavily by playing on a bad team) and fan favorite for an unknown asset. What if the Lakers win it all and the Sixers end up getting just the 30th pick for MCW? It was definitely a risky trade, but it’s also looking pretty darn good right now. Los Angeles whiffed on all the big free agents and could now finish with a pick in the 4-6 range. Every team in the NBA would trade MCW for a pick in the 4-6 range, and most would do it for a 7-10 overall pick. Hinkie makes risky moves, but that’s part of what makes him such a good GM.

The 76ers are going to be bad against this year. They might crack 20 wins for the first time in the Hinkie era, but they won’t win many more than that. The team doesn’t have a real point guard, and their supposed cornerstone will have missed the first two seasons of his career. Free agents won’t want to come to such a bad team, and the poor play will continue. But the Sixers have the current and future assets to make any trade they want within reason. The very second the next superstar becomes available in a trade (Kevin Durant, anyone?), the Sixers will become the favorites to get that star if they want him. And once they trade for that superstar, they’ll have plenty of cap room to sign one or two more and will supplement them with any combination of the guys they’ve already picked or will pick in the next few years. So stay hopeful, Sixers fans, and keep arguing with the doubters. The team is going to be fun to watch this year and good in not too long, and Sam Hinkie’s going to be the guy who brings success back to the 76ers after a long period in purgatory.

Zack Greinke!

Posted: 07/20/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

If you had asked me before the season to name the top 10 pitchers in baseball, I might have named Zack Greinke, or I might not have. At best, he was in the 9-10 range, as evidenced by his ESPN average draft position (he was the 10th pitcher taken in the average draft). And it could be argued, probably correctly, that even guys drafted below him, including Jordan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels, and Matt Harvey, were more well known and/or more likely to leap into the top five. By the way, ADP has been a pretty good indicator of the best pitchers in baseball; the top four pitchers drafted were Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale. Considering that we’re talking about an established ace pitching in a big market, the lack of preseason hype is, in retrospect, bizarre. But Greinke also has the misfortune (fortune?) of being the #2 starter on his own team. When you are pitching behind Clayton Kershaw, a guy who is in the midst of an all-time great run, you are going to get overlooked.

Well, Greinke still isn’t the best pitcher on his own team, but he also is holding a fair share of the limelight. After starting the All-Star Game (perhaps because Scherzer was unavailable), Greinke threw eight brilliant, shutout innings against the Nationals, allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out 11. His scoreless innings streak now stands at 43.2 innings, and he’s making a run at 60+, a streak which would eclipse the record set by ex-Dodger Orel Hershiser (59). But you know the even crazier thing? Greinke’s ERA was below 2.00 before he started his streak of six consecutive scoreless starts. It now stands at 1.30, an ERA four fifths of a run lower than Scherzer’s. He’s been extremely consistent, with 18 quality starts in 19 total appearances, and he boasts a 9-2 record while giving up just 19 earned runs (yes, that’s one per start). If that isn’t a Cy Young resume, I don’t know what is.

Why didn’t we see this coming from Greinke, a former Cy Young winner with the Kansas City Royals? Well, we knew he was a good pitcher, but his career ERA even after his start to this season is just 3.41. He’s not a Kershaw or Sale type strikeout pitcher, and he’s nearly 32-years old. Even putting aside the fact that you can’t expect anyone to post a 1.30 ERA (Kershaw’s last year, in one of the best-pitched seasons ever, was 1.77), Greinke wouldn’t have been the first name to come to mind if I had told you before the season that someone was going to challenge Bob Gibson’s 1.12.

Here comes the inevitable question: what’s changed? Well, some of it is, of course, luck. Entering today, Greinke had stranded 89.5% of baserunners, and hitters were hitting just .233 on balls in play. His career numbers? A 74.7% strand rate, and a .301 BABIP. If you were puzzled as to how a pitcher was striking out markedly fewer batters (his K rate is below his 8.09/nine innings average) and still more dominant than ever, this is a big reason why. Before today, his FIP was 2.64, just ninth in baseball. But it isn’t all luck, and sometimes a pitcher makes his own luck anyway.

Greinke’s control was always good, but now it’s Cliff Lee-in-his-prime good; he’s walking fewer than a batter and a half per nine innings. On a more micro level, the ace is forcing softer contact and fewer line drives. His stuff hasn’t changed much, although he is throwing his changeup, his best pitch, a bit more. Greinke’s slider, once one of the most dominant pitches in baseball, has rebounded from a few off years (going from a combined 1.7 runs below average over the past three years to +6.1 this season), probably because he’s throwing it two ticks harder than he did last season and it’s now in the same speed range as it was in its best seasons. So he’s throwing the change more, he’s throwing the slider more effectively, and he’s also scrapped his cutter, which he used for a couple of seasons. But that and luck can’t fully explain his 1.30 ERA, right?

The one other factor I can think of is the schedule. It’s no coincidence that Greinke’s worst start came at Coors Field, a brutal park for pitchers. But his other two starts against Colorado have come at home, and outside of Coors, he’s only faced one top tier offense by runs per game in Arizona’s. He’s also pitched against a bunch of the worst offenses in baseball. I might be nitpicking here, but when you are looking at a pitcher with a 1.30 ERA who hasn’t really changed that much, that’s what you have to do.

Is Greinke going to keep this up? The answer is a clear, unequivocal no. I would bet against him coming much closer to the scoreless innings record, and I think his ERA ends up much closer to 2 than 1. But he’s an extremely good pitcher, and the season he’s had should boost him into top-five discussions. I’d still take Kershaw, Hernandez, etc. (you get the point) over him in the future, but he’s elevated himself into that tier and out of the Hamels-Zimmermann area. So the verdict is that the 1.30 ERA is largely driven by luck, but Greinke’s still shown enough to prove that he’s one of the very best pitchers in baseball.

A ton has happened since the last time I wrote about basketball on the day of the draft. All of free agency, including a day that was considered one of the craziest in basketball history, has passed, as well as a few trades and some devastating move (the Joel Embiid news yesterday). But instead of going step by step through all of it and determining whether or not we should blame DeAndre Jordan for changing his mind and/or feel sorry for Mark Cuban, I’m going to take a big-picture view. The Eastern Conference, the inferior conference, didn’t really change that much; DeMarre Carroll heading to the Raptors, Monta Ellis going to the Pacers, and Greg Monroe joining the Bucks were the three biggest moves that involved a player switching teams. But the far more interesting conference had some major shakeups, with LaMarcus Aldridge joining the Spurs and a couple of playoffs teams suffering through sub-par weeks. Here are a couple of thoughts I have on the Western Conference:

First and foremost, it’s looking like there’s a clear top tier, featuring six teams who with Cleveland are probably the league’s seven most talented teams. Why are those six the class of the conference (and the NBA)? Let’s start at the top:

The Golden State Warriors are the reigning champs, are coming off a 67-win season, and, most importantly, barely lost anything. Usually, as soon as teams win championships, they start to decline because of money problems. Good players win championships, and when they win, they want new, bigger contracts. But although the Warriors are deep into the luxury tax, they’ve been able to keep their core together. Trading David Lee, a rarely-used big who will be paid $15.5 million next season, will save the Warriors a lot of money without hurting their team much. And with the resigning of Draymond Green, Golden State has ensured that the core of Steph Curry (the biggest bargain among superstars in the NBA), Klay Thompson, Green, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, and Andre Iguodala will return. They’re the champs, and they’re going to be pretty darn good again next year. I wouldn’t expect another 67-15 season, but they aren’t going anywhere.

The Warriors’ WCF opponents, the Houston Rockets, seem set to be pretty good, too, albeit probably near the bottom of this top six. The Rockets tried to get Aldridge, but that was always a long shot, and in retaining Patrick Beverley and Corey Brewer, Houston has ensured that they will have a ton of depth next season. Assuming the Rockets can resign Josh Smith, which seems pretty likely (although the Kings are making a serious attempt to steal Smith), they’ll have perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA. When guys like Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, both pretty solid prospects, are just depth picks, you know you have a good roster. James Harden and Dwight Howard are still the headliners, and the Rockets haven’t found a third star to pair with those two, but it’s important to note that Houston is basically adding Beverley (injured last playoffs), Donatas Motiejunas (injured), Dekker, and Harrell to a team that was one of the last four standing last season. And even if Smith leaves, the Rockets will have a multitude of athletic wings and power forwards that should give them the most depth in the NBA.

The Memphis Grizzlies, forever overlooked, continued to be overlooked. Aside from Marc Gasol’s max deal, very little that the Grizzlies did was noteworthy to the average fan. But there’s no doubt that Memphis, a 55-win team last season, got better. Branden Wright, a valuable rotation big, was a steal, as the Grizzlies got him for a deal less expensive than Kosta Koufos, the backup big he’s replacing and a clear step down from Wright, got. Wright can play with either Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and his pick-and-roll prowess will work well in this offense. The Grizzlies also managed to trade for Matt Barnes, the former Clipper who played big minutes as a starter for LA last season. Barnes is experienced, and can take over when Jeff Green is having one of his many cold streaks. He’s also tough as nails, and will (I assume) be an important figure both on and off the court, especially come playoff time. The Grizzlies lost nobody, so their offseason, like Houston’s, was more about retention. They didn’t make many headlines, but they’ll be very good again.

For about a week, it seemed like the Los Angeles Clippers would become an afterthought. Not only was DeAndre Jordan leaving, but the Clippers also didn’t have the cap space to sign a replacement. They were without any big men and were facing the real possibility of starting the season with Paul Pierce at power forward and Blake Griffin at center. But Jordan changed his mind and will return to the Clippers, who all of a sudden look like one of the best teams in the NBA. It remains to be seen how this team reacts to blowing a 3-1 series lead against Houston in the second round last season, but given that it has guys like Chris Paul, Griffin, and now Pierce, I think they’ll be just fine. And while I didn’t like the Lance Stephenson trade, Stephenson does give the Clippers some more oomph off the bench. It’s still not a deep team, but the Pierce signing was a bargain and huge for a team who had just traded away their gritty wing (Matt Barnes). And having Jordan back is obviously huge; DeAndre doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but he’s the best rebounder in the NBA and a pretty darn good defender. I think the relationship problems between he and Paul are overstated, and I think this team will enter the playoffs with a top-three seed. Will that lead to more postseason success? That remains to be seen.

Somehow, the Spurs managed to keep Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Danny Green, while adding LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. The Duncan and Green signings were among the biggest bargains in the NBA, and the frontcourt of Leonard, Aldridge, and Duncan ranks among the best in the NBA. But everyone thinks San Antonio is the favorite to win the Western Conference now, so I won’t harp on that. Instead, I’m going to preach caution when it comes to the Spurs. Tony Parker is still a key, because he’s the team’s only above-average point guard (Patty Mills and Ray McCallum are fine but shouldn’t be running the point as starters for winning teams). And since Parker seems to be in the midst of a swift decline, this season is a crucial one for him. Will he stay healthy and help the team secure a top-two seed, or will he play poorly or get injured again? Given that Manu Ginobili is also on his last legs, the backcourt is actually pretty thin. Then again, that might not matter when you have starting wings like Green and Leonard and an extremely deep stable of bigs, including Duncan, Aldridge, West, and Boris Diaw. The Spurs will obviously be a factor in the playoffs, but I expect Coach Pop to limit his stars’ minutes, leading to a slightly depressed win total.

The team who’s made the biggest jump is the Oklahoma City Thunder, and this has nothing to do with free agency. The Thunder will be back in the top tier because they are getting the second or third best player in the NBA back from a foot injury. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can mask a boatload of weaknesses. I expect Durant to have a huge year this season, and I think Westbrook’s going to play as well as he ever has. I’m also bullish about the frontcourt duo of Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter. I think they fit well together because Ibaka is a good shooter and tremendous defender while Kanter is a very skilled big man offensively. It’s the type of pair that you don’t see very often, and I expect the two to perform very well together. The Thunder did add Cameron Payne, a suitable backup point guard, in the draft, and they should expect improvements from Mitch McGary and Kyle Singler off the bench. Four starting spots are locked up, and the shooting guard spot will likely be filled based on who has the hot hand. In Anthony Morrow, Singler, D.J. Augustin, and Andre Roberson, the Thunder have a bunch of guys who can start alongside Westbrook. I think OKC is going to have a huge year, finishing with a top-two seed and performing very well in the playoffs.

(Early) Projected West Standings:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. Houston Rockets
6. Memphis Grizzlies
I think all six will finish 55-63 wins. After that…
7. New Orleans Pelicans
8. Utah Jazz
9. Dallas Mavericks
10. Phoenix Suns
11. Denver Nuggets
12. Sacramento Kings
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
14. Portland Trailblazers
15. Los Angeles Lakers

Darkhorse Trade Candidates: Carlos Gomez

Posted: 07/08/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

While the ideas are exciting, there’s very little chance that either Chris Sale, the AL Cy Young favorite, or Todd Frazier, the Reds’ best player and a guy who has said he wants to stay in Cincinnati, will be traded. Carlos Gomez, though, is a star player who could actually be traded. His team, the Brewers, were even fairly recently the worst team in baseball. Even after a nice winning streak, they are just 37-50, in the cellar of the tough NL Central and holding the fourth worst record in baseball. They are clearly in “sell” mode, but they’ll soon find that guys like Adam Lind, Aramis Ramirez, and Kyle Lohse hold little to no value. If they really want to get some talent back in a trade, Gomez is the guy they should trade.

Carlos Gomez (signed thru 2016 at 8 mill a year): In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Mike Trout posted a cumulative Fangraphs WAR of 18.5. Andrew McCutchen came second with 15.2, Clayton Kershaw third with 14.7, and Josh Donaldson fourth with 14.1. Fourth place? A guy named Carlos Gomez, who posted 13.3 WAR in the two seasons. He hit 47 homers and racked up 74 steals in the two seasons and slashed .284/.347/.491. He added more defensive value than anyone not named Andrelton Simmons or Manny Machado. He was truly a stud. This year? After a two homer game tonight, he’s hitting .274/.323/.451 with peripheral numbers nearly identical to the 2012 season, when he was “just” a 3 WAR player. He’s striking out five times more than he walks, and he’s only stolen seven bases after averaging 37 steals the past three years. Even his defense has been just average this year.

So what’s happened? Well, he’s just 29-years old, so I don’t think it’s an age-related decline. It’s more likely that he’s been plagued by a variety of maladies this season. Gomez has racked up hamstring (he hit the DL in April), face, hip, and wrist injuries this season. But it seems like he’s turning the corner now, which is great news for both the Brewers and the teams that wish to trade for a difference-making center fielder.

It’s been rumored that CarGo, after signing a cheap deal with the Brewers, wants to leave when he becomes a free agent after 2016. He’s not a guy the Brewers should feel any special affinity towards, since Milwaukee is Gomez’s third team. And again, he’s also the player who could get Milwaukee the most in return. I said that cheap power hitters were hard to find, but cheap two-way center fielders might be just as difficult. It’s very rare that you find a guy who can hit for average, power, is fast, and plays excellent center field. Gomez checks all of those boxes, and the Brewers have had a shallow farm system for ages.

A trade really makes sense for the Brewers and would for a bunch of contenders. In particular, the Astros and (again) the Mets make sense, given that both are a piece or two away from true World Series contention and that both have a need in the outfield. Both of those teams also have a deep stable of prospects; the Astros could give close-to-the-bigs guys in Preston Tucker, Domingo Santana, and/or Jon Singleton, while the Mets could trade one of their many pitching prospects (maybe Zack Wheeler?) in order to ensure the return of Gomez, who broke into the big leagues with New York. The Brewers need to make a move, and plenty of teams would love Carlos Gomez.

Of the three players I’ve written about, Gomez is the most likely to be traded. His contract expires sooner than either Sale’s or Frazier’s, and the Brewers seem less connected to him than either of the other teams are to their stars. He’s a really good player who is a good bet to put up 2+ WAR over the remainder of the season and another 4+ next season, great value considering the fact that he’s basically making pennies in today’s market. And if things go well for whomever trades for him, he can get a nice big extension around this time next season.

Likely landing spots: Mets, Astros
Expected return: One A prospect and a few depth pieces or two B+ prospects
Chance of being traded: Moderate

Darkhorse Trade Candidates: Todd Frazier

Posted: 07/05/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

It’s hard to find a trade candidate more exciting than Chris Sale, but Todd Frazier, the Reds’ third baseman, certainly comes close. He’s the second of the three darkhorse trade candidates, and he plays for a team that’s near-certain to sell. Although the Reds had a small winning streak a little while back, they just got swept by the Brewers and are sitting at 36-44, 16.5 games behind the Cardinals and eight out of a playoff spot. There have long been rumblings about who and when the Reds are going to sell. For some reason, since the All-Star game is in Cincinnati, the common belief is that they’ll hold off on moving their top players until after the game. But with the ASG ever-approaching, the Reds will probably start looking to sell in a couple of weeks. We know Johnny Cueto will be on the trade block, but Cincinnati, a team that seems pretty far away from getting back into contention, should consider selling guys who would get bigger returns than the free agency-bound Cueto. Their most valuable player is probably..

Todd Frazier (signed through 2016 at 6 mill per year, Arb 3 in 2017): You know what’s becoming increasingly uncommon in baseball’s new, pitching-dominant era? Power hitters, especially ones who can also hit for a solid average. And guess what’s even less common? Cheap, controllable power hitters. Todd Frazier is one of the few who falls in that category and could also be traded. He’s already hit 25 homers in 349 plate appearances and is tied with Bryce Harper for second best in that category. The 29-year old is also slashing .285/.344/.602, is a good fielder at third, and ranks fifth among hitters in WAR behind only Harper, Jason Kipnis, Paul Goldschmidt, and Mike Trout. The guy’s a stud. The fact that he’s already 29, though, means he probably won’t be in his prime when the Reds are finally ready to make another run. He’s also in the midst of by far his best career season, and it remains to be seen whether he can keep this up. It’s a classic sell-high opportunity for the Reds, especially in a market so starved for good power bats. And Cincinnati, as a small-market team with long and expensive contracts already on the books, is not in a great position to sign Frazier to the long-term deal he’ll surely ask for.

If you look around the league, many contenders (or aspiring contenders) could use a guy like Frazier. In particular, the Mets have been mentioned as a team that needs a ton of offense, and small market teams like the Rays could also be in the market for the cheap stud. It’s easy to imagine a team putting together a fairly big package to net Frazier, although the third baseman won’t be as expensive as Sale. One A-list prospect and a couple of B-listers could probably keep the Reds from hanging up the phone, and anything more than that might be an overpay. Again, now is the time the Reds will get the biggest return for Frazier, because he’s in the sweet spot of being not-to-expensive and pretty darn good. If this is a career year, which I expect it to be, Cincinnati might in a few years time be regretting the decision to hold onto Frazier.

Just like a Sale trade, a Frazier deal would kick-start a rebuild that might take some time. The third baseman has been one of the best players in baseball this year, which is probably why the Reds will hold onto him. But the smart decision would be to sell high to a needy team like the Mets, who would probably give a top pitching prospect in return. I don’t think Frazier will be dealt, especially since he seems t0 like playing in Cincinnati, but that’s why I’ve named him a darkhorse trade candidate.

Likely landing spots: Mets, Rays
Expected return: One top prospect and a few depth pieces
Chance of being traded: Slim

Next up: Carlos Gomez

Darkhorse Trade Candidates: Chris Sale

Posted: 07/03/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

It’s July, which means baseball’s trade deadline is less than a month away. The rumors have already started, and they are sure to multiply in the coming weeks. There are a number of players who are widely thought of as being available, with the top of that group including Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, Jonathan Papelbon, and even Troy Tulowitzki. I’m not here to talk about those players, although I might in the next few weeks. Instead, I’m on a mission to unearth a few more intriguing, less talked-about trade options.

My quest was not made simpler by MLB’s recent playoff changes. One of the consequences (intended or not) of the addition of the second wild card is that almost every team feels like they are in the hunt. Indeed, most of them are right; only six teams are more than six games out of a playoff spot. This means that, barring a few big losing streaks in the next few weeks, there will be a limited number of sellers. On the bright side for those few, that makes this a seller’s market. I limited my search for the intriguing trade targets to the six teams more than six games out while also including the Reds because they are pretty much known to be looking to sell. I obviously excluded guys like Sonny Gray, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jose Abreu, players who are very unlikely to be traded. The result? Three very good, very valuable players who could conceivably be traded from one of the cellar-dwellars to a contender.

Note: the players’ contract details are the figures listed after their names. I’ll start with Chris Sale today and move on to the others in the coming days.

Chris Sale (signed through 2019 at ~11 mill per year): I’m starting off with the biggest name, and this sounds even crazier given the timing. Two nights ago, Sale became the second pitcher ever (Pedro Martinez was the first) to post eight consecutive double-digit strikeout games. By every metric, he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s second in Fangraphs WAR at 3.7, first in strikeouts with 141 (in just 103.1 innings), and sixth in WHIP at .99. The 26-year old has somehow flown under the radar despite being one of the best pitchers in baseball since he joined the rotation in 2012. Maybe that’s because of his unorthodox style, which has led scouts to predict arm injuries for years. Maybe it’s because he plays for the White Sox, a team that’s been out of contention for the last few years. But it’s time for people to face the fact that he is perhaps the best pitcher in baseball.

Sale is also signed to a ridiculously team-friendly deal. In an era in which the top pitchers are paid top dollar, he is making a third as much as Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer on a per-year basis. Given all that and the fact that he’s signed through his age-30 season and it’s clear that, even if Sale isn’t the best pitcher in baseball, he’s certainly the most valuable one.

Given all of that, why on earth would the White Sox trade him? It seems like he should be the team’s key building block, not the guy they should trade come the end of July. But it’s his immense value that should make Chicago consider a trade. The White Sox are very shallow both at the big league level and in the minors. They were a sexy pick to make a run, but that clearly isn’t happening. The best way to replenish the roster is by dealing Sale.

What could the White Sox get for Sale? Well, because he’s cheap, controllable, and amazing, he’s an unique asset to put on the market. The Sox could expect to get multiple blue chip prospects and/or big-league ready youth. They could probably get both Corey Seager and Julio Urias, both of whom are top-five prospects and future stars, from the Dodgers. They might not be able to get Kris Bryant, another of the most valuable commodities in baseball, from the Cubs, but they could certainly get guys like Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. And players like Joc Pederson, Bryant, and Carlos Correa, bright young stars whose teams would surely laugh off nearly any trade offer, just might be on the table. Sale is attractive to win-now big market teams and he’s attractive to win-now small market teams thanks to his low salary. The White Sox could get a few blue-chippers or four or five top 100 prospects. It might not seem like the best idea to trade away the hottest pitcher in baseball, but it would make sense in the longterm because it would give the White Sox valuable depth or a young stud hitter to build around.

Likely landing spots: Dodgers, Cubs, Astros
Expected return: Two top-20 prospects or four+ top-150 prospects
Chance of being traded: Slim

Next up: Todd Frazier