The official baseball shopping season has begun as general managers gather this week in Boca Raton, Fla. Gentlemen, start your checkbooks.
This figures to be a wild, free-spending, free-wheeling season of acquisition. Why? The parity in baseball, coupled with the second wild card, allows for losing teams to upgrade in a hurry; the Mets, Cubs, Astros and Rangers all made the postseason the year after losing between 83 and 95 games, with the Twins falling three wins short of pulling the same trick. For another reason, the free agent class after the 2016 season doesn’t have nearly the available talent as this one, so there's no reason for any club to wait 'til next year.
The trades and signings figure to come early and often. But just winning the winter guarantees nothing. Just ask the Padres, White Sox, and Red Sox, teams that made plenty of headlines last off-season and went on to finish under .500. Teams need to be active and smart. And one place to gather intelligence is from what we just learned in the World Series.
The Fall Classic held some clues about how to proceed with building the next world champion. Here are four lessons from the World Series and how they can be applied to this shopping season.
1. Matt Harvey pushed the envelope of Tommy John recovery.
In his first year back from Tommy John surgery, Harvey logged 216 innings and pitched into November, showing little signs of fatigue. The Mets did an outstanding job nursing him through a seven-month season, especially when contrasted with how the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg in a 2012 pennant race. (One glaring difference: Strasburg threw his first competitive pitch 11 months after surgery. Harvey had 17 months of recovery.)
The 6'4", 215-pound Harvey turns 27 late next March. Given his age, size and long recovery, he may be on his way to becoming the Roger Clemens-like pitcher to which he aspires.
"Getting through the middle of the season was kind of a struggle,” Harvey said during the World Series. “Then, after about 130, 150 innings, I started getting things back on track. What I look forward to now is pitching without innings limits. I want to throw 230, 240 innings. That’s something I’ve always aspired to do: to be that guy who throws seven, eight innings every time out and at the end of the year you’re up to about 240 innings.”
It’s not that simple. Forget that nobody in baseball threw 240 innings last season. The Mets know they pushed their young starters, and they will map out a reduced regimen for them in spring training and early into next season. Noah Syndergaard, who added 65 2/3 innings on his 23-year-old arm, will get special attention. Steven Matz, 24, will be limited to about 180 innings. And Zack Wheeler, 25, will be coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Wheeler and Matz all had that operation between ages 19 and 24. They represent this new generation of pitchers, who are willing to throw harder and more often as amateurs even if the result is needing Tommy John surgery before their bodies are fully mature. What we don’t know about this generation of pitchers is how long these re-built ulnar collateral ligaments will hold up. There is general speculation in the industry (but not enough reliable data) that these repaired ligaments are good for about seven or eight years—which leads us to the fascinating free agent case of Jordan Zimmermann.
No Tommy John survivor has ever signed a contract worth more than $100 million. Zimmermann, who underwent his surgery at age 23 in 2009, is likely to be the first. The key question: Would you risk more than $20 million a year that his elbow is going to hold up for another seven years—13 years past the original surgery? A second Tommy John surgery looms as a potential career-killer. And Zimmermann is getting on the market after the worst of his five major league seasons, posting carer-lows in batting average against (.264), slugging (.394), home runs allowed (24), FIP (3.75) and WHIP (1.205).
"Zimmermann is a key guy to watch,” said one scout. “I think he goes to the Cubs as a perfect number three behind [Jon] Lester and [Jake] Arrieta.”
That sounds good for 2016, but Chicago is already on the hook for the decline years of Lester, and its preference is to trade from its surplus of young position players to add a young starting pitcher who can give the Cubs his prime years. For instance, the team coveted Syndergaard when he was in the minors, but his success upon his promotion makes a deal highly unlikely. The Mets are firmly committed to seeing at least one year of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz and Wheeler together. Chicago may have to see if it can pry loose a young arm such as Oakland's Sonny Gray, Seattle's Taijuan Walker or Washington prospect Lucas Giolito, the latter of whom underwent Tommy John surgery himself in 2012, the same year the Nationals made him the 16th pick in the draft.
2. Defense wins championships
The Royals’ advance scouting reports on the Mets found many holes to exploit: run on catcher Travis d’Arnaud, third baseman David Wright and rightfielder Curtis Granderson; make first baseman Lucas Duda throw the baseball; and take advantage of the lack of range of second baseman Daniel Murphy and shortstop Wilmer Flores.
That’s six obvious places to exploit in the New York defense—or six more than you could find anywhere in the Kansas City defense.
Many of the biggest plays in the World Series could be traced to the Royals’ advance reports about exploiting the Mets’ defense. Wright made a key error in Game 1 that allowed Alcides Escobar to reach base leading off the bottom of the 14th. Escobar then went to third easily on a single to Granderson in right and scored the winning run on a flyball to right. Murphy made key errors in Games 4 and 5. In the latter game, Wright's his slow-motion, slingshot way of throwing gave Eric Hosmer added incentive to dare to score the tying run in in the ninth on a routine grounder. Duda threw the ball away trying to get Hosmer at the plate, when a decent throw would have closed out the game and sent the series to a Game 6. And the title-winning run moved into scoring position in the 12th inning after pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson comfortably stole Kansas City's seventh base of the Series without being caught by d'Arnaud.
Teams may understand the importance of defense in winning championships, but traditionally they have not paid for it, which leads us to Jason Heyward.
"My call is that Jason Heyward is going to get at least $180 million,” said one NL general manager. “He’s going to get more than Justin Upton, even though Upton has more power.”
Heyward never has driven in 90 runs, never scored 100 runs, has made one All-Star team and has started only 22% of his career games in the third or fourth spots in a batting order and, because he has trouble with velocity on his hands, has a much worse split against relief pitching (-66 points on his 2015 batting average; -39 points in over his career) than your typical hitter (-14). He is a good bat, but not an impact bat.
The 26-year-old Heyward (.268, 97 home runs, 352 RBIs) has posted about the same career triple crown numbers as 33-year-old journeyman Seth Smith (.263, 97, 363). That’s an intended twist of numbers because Heyward’s value is heavily weighted toward his age and his superlative defense. Even though defensive metrics are notoriously inexact and feed into the approximation known as WAR, a new breed of general managers has grown up in the catechism of analytics, which is to say they will have no problem paying Heyward for his youth and his defense.
Heyward will become the highest-paid corner outfielder without an impact bat, surpassing the $142 million over eight years the Red Sox gave Carl Crawford, his closest comparison, after the 2010 season. Crawford was two years older heading into free agency than Heyward, had a similar career OPS (.781, .784), had more value in baserunning than defense and, like Heyward, hit with an unorthodox lefthanded swing. Crawford has since been plagued by injuries (averaging just 90 games per year) and been ordinary when he has been on the field (an OPS+ of 101).
Heyward began this season with a re-tooled hitting approach. He hit with a more neutral stance, a more crouched position and he held the bat flatter. But he scrapped the approach early in the season and wound up looking a lot like teammate Matt Carpenter: open stance, raised barrel and a more upright posture. He still opens his front hip early and spins off his front foot. The net effect was that Heyward became an extreme groundball hitter. He hit just four home runs after June 25, but did hit .304 with a .389 on-base percentage in that time. A team buying Heyward’s prime should be happy with his defense, his abilities to make contact and get on base, and his high-energy style—all the ingredients that helped make Kansas City world champions. That’s more than enough to justify the investment.
3. Contact matters
The Royals were the first team since the 1971-74 Yankees to be the toughest team to strike out in baseball for four years running. Those Horace Clarke Yankees were non-contenders. These Royals became world champions.
The difference? In 1974 major league hitters struck out in 13.1% of their plate appearances. In 2015 that percentage was 20.4. The more strikeouts we get in the game, the more value is accrued by the ability to put the ball in play.
Here’s a test of whether teams still value power over contact: Colby Rasmus vs. Gerardo Parra. Both are free agent lefthanded-hitting outfielders who can play centerfield as plus defenders. Most projections have Rasmus getting more money than Parra, even though Parra is younger than Rasmus (28 vs. 29) and gets on base more often in his career (.326 vs. .313). Why is Ramus worth more? Rasmus out-homered Parra last season, 25-14. (Nevermind that Parra actually had more extra-base hits.)
Rasmus has old-school skills: he is a flyball, pull hitter who trades strikeouts for home runs. Parra, if you want to borrow from the Royals, has new-school skills: he puts the ball in play and uses the whole field, making him more difficult to defend. Which one do you want? It depends on your team’s need and its culture, but if you value what Kansas City does, you want Parra. Check out this comparison from last year:
4. Is Yoenis Cespedes a difference maker?
Cespedes turned around the Mets’ season more than any other player. In his first 41 games with New York after being acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Tigers, he hit .309 with 17 home runs and 42 RBIs.
But in his next 30 games, including the postseason, Cespedes hit .220 with two homers and 10 RBIs.
So which hitter is he?
First you must understand Cespedes is going to get paid, regardless of what happened in the postseason. If you held a showcase of major league baseball players, Cespedes would stand out because of his body, his power, his speed and his throwing arm. His physical tools are crazy good.
He also is reliable. You can bat him in the middle of your order and he will pile up numbers. Cespedes is one of only five players with at least 20 home runs and 80 RBIs in each of the past four years. The others are Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones and Edwin Encarnacion.
But look what the Royals did to him. They neutralized him by attacking his two greatest weaknesses: fastballs up and pitches out of the strike zone. In pitches in the top third of the strike zone this year, Cespedes had only nine hits against 42 swings and misses. In 14 postseason games this year—often seeing the power arms of the Dodgers, Cubs and Royals—Cespedes had one walk and 17 strikeouts. No weakness is hidden in the postseason; it gets pounded until a hitter proves otherwise.
His vulnerability was especially exposed in the late innings. From the seventh inning on in postseason games, Cespedes hit .188 with no extra-base hits and no walks in 18 plate appearances.
Cespedes is a great low-ball hitter who destroys starting pitchers and finesse pitchers. But he’s not the guy you want up there in the late innings against the back of the other team’s bullpen. In his career Cespedes hits .237 against relievers with a .716 OPS, compared to .289 and .854, respectively, against starters.