- In the final iteration of The 30, the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies earn spots in the top 10 as they gear up for October.
There’s one week left in the regular season, and most of the playoff scenarios are set. Still, many stories remain to be told.
How will this year’s postseason combatants fare in October? What does the future hold for this year’s also-rans? What kind of changes will we see between now and Opening Day 2018?
It’s the final edition of The 30 for 2017. Let’s end this season with a bang.
The offense was the problem, of course. You can’t finish dead last in the majors in multiple offensive categories and not acknowledge that a completely punchless attack was the reason for one of the most disappointing, dreary seasons in franchise history. But you can’t ask about the future of the Giants offense without figuring out the plan for the team’s rotation.
At the end of the 2015 season, the Giants spent $220 million to sign Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to massive contracts. Neither has panned out as hoped.
The investment in Cueto looked like a sound one last season; he flashed a 2.76 ERA and had the top-notch fielding-independent numbers to match. He’s had no such luck this season, watching his ERA balloon by nearly two runs, and fighting injuries.
Cueto’s situation could resolve itself. He has an opt-out clause in his contract which could allow him to test free agency at season’s end. But by doing that, he’d forego the final four years and $89 million remaining on his deal—and it’s not clear that he could do better than that on the open market, nearing his 32nd birthday, after the worst season of his career. If he stays put, the Giants would need to hope that Cueto could rebound. If he can’t, he won’t offer the kind of trade value that could allow the team to restock its weak farm system, nor acquire the kind of major league-ready offensive talent the Giants sorely need.
The Samardzija decision might come down to nothing more complex than the eye of the beholder. On one hand, he’s carrying the fifth-worst park-adjusted ERA among all qualified NL pitchers. On the other, he leads all NL pitchers (including Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and every other ace) in strikeout-to-walk rate, normally a telltale sign of skill and success. The reason for the disconnect is simple. When Samardzija locates his slider well, he pounds the strike zone, and also induces lots of outs. When Samardzija locates his slider poorly, he still pounds the strike zone, but hitters tee off on him as a result. If potential suitors see the elite strikeout-to-walk rate and see a slider that can be fixed, the Giants could conceivably deal Samardzija for a younger bat or two—especially if they’re willing to eat some of the $58.5 million they owe him over the next three years.
If not, then as with Cueto, they could be stuck, at least until both big right-handers start faring better. And if the Giants end up stuck, then rebuilding the team with the oldest group of position players in the National League might become even more difficult.
29. Detroit Tigers (62-94, minus-152, LT: 22)
Last time, I raved about Rhys Hoskins, who’d started his career hitting for more power than any other rookie in the history of baseball. We have to keep talking about him, because it hasn’t stopped.
After becoming the fastest rookie ever to reach 10, and then 15 home runs, Hoskins is now up to 18, in just 44 games. Dig a little deeper and you discover some remarkable stats that speak to Hoskins’ swing-for-the-moon approach, and results. He ranks second behind only human fireball J.D. Martinez in hard-hit rate and has pulled balls more often than all but six other NL hitters. Overall, he’s hitting .278/.409/.682, the best numbers for any hitter in all of baseball with as many times at bat.
And now my favorite Rhys Hoskins stat of all: his line against left-handed pitchers. Granting that you’ll only ever see this type of lunacy in a small sample size ... but this is still a gem:
Rhys Hoskins vs. LHP, 2017: 46 PA, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 14 BB, .184/.415/.658, .026 BABIP
When you’re in the midst of a season that could set new all-time records for both home runs and strikeouts, you can forgive certain sluggers for racking up the whiffs. Aaron Judge has already cleared 200 strikeouts, and Khris Davis could soon join him—and you live with it, because both have also topped 40 homers for the year.
So here’s the problem with the Padres: They’re striking out a ton, and they’re not hitting all that many home runs. They’re whiffing in more than 25% of their at-bats, one of only three teams in the majors to make that ignominious claim. And they’re tied for 20th in MLB in long balls. Granted, Petco Park perennially plays as one of the league’s harshest environments for hitters. But at a certain point you have to hope for better than dead last in the majors in both batting average (.234) and on-base percentage (.300).
The thing to remember here is that not every rookie splashes onto the scene the way Judge, Cody Bellinger, Matt Olson, and Rhys Hoskins have. Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot have both shown flashes of brilliance, with Renfroe second on the club to Wil Myers in homers and Margot turning into an all-around threat who leads all Padres position players in Wins Above Replacement. Those are the building blocks. Now GM A.J. Preller and company just need to figure out how to rake in more talent the way they did in the Craig Kimbrel trade, whether it’s by trading away other established assets (Brad Hand? Myers?) for more high-upside prospects, or by knocking draft picks out of the park.
The Padres have been one of the least successful franchises in baseball for most of their most of their near-half century of existence. The hope is to not only find the right blend of young talent that can fuel a contender, but hopefully a sustainable contender.
Pitching health comes first. The Mets of the next couple years likely won’t go anywhere unless their best young pitchers hold up amid the rigors of a long season. But the second plank of any bounce-back plan must see the young hitters now making their way to the majors continue to develop. Mets management has made no secret of how it plans to nurture that young hitting talent: by preaching plate discipline every step of the way.
Ace Mets beat writer Marc Carig recently dove deep into the development of one of those young hitters, rookie outfielder Brandon Nimmo. As Carig detailed, Nimmo’s commitment to spitting on balls half an inch off the plate and hammering those that make it over borders on obsessive. He’s a dedicated, detail-obsessed player, a video-room junkie, or as General Manager Sandy Alderson called Nimmo in reference to his focus on disciplined hitting: “He’s the poster boy.”
Nimmo’s overall numbers might pale in comparison to phenoms like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Matt Olson, and Rhys Hoskins. But 184 plate appearances into his own rookie campaign, there’s no denying the quality of his batting eye. Only three other NL hitters with as many times at bat have walked at a higher clip than his 16.3% base-on-ball rate, and only 15 can top his .388 on-base percentage.
As Atlanta dissects a letdown season in which many things went wrong, one setback in particular has put the team in a quandary for 2018 and beyond. More than almost any other question, the team will need to ask this: Is Dansby Swanson a good major league player?
His 2017 numbers suggest otherwise. Swanson’s batted just .233/.315/.330 this season, the third-worst mark among all NL hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. If you’re looking for a saving grace in his defense ... well, there hasn’t been much to celebrate on that front either. Per Baseball Info Solutions, Swanson’s defense checks in at five runs worse than league average by Defensive Runs Saved, the 29th-worst mark among all MLB shortstops this year. For a rebuilding franchise pushing hard to develop impact young players, those aren’t good signs.
So you look for signs of optimism. Like Swanson hoisting his on-base percentage to a healthy .350 since the All-Star break, paced by him hitting .309 with a .422 OBP in August—raising hope within the organization that he’s learning how to make adjustments at the big league level. Or that both his walk and strikeout rates have improved compared to his 38-game cameo in 2016, when he batted a robust .302/.361/.442 but did so in large part due to a fluky .383 batting average on balls in play. Or that he’s just 23 years old, expectations were through the roof for a top prospect traded to his hometown team, and that Atlanta still gets five more years of Swanson service time for improvements to happen.
Not every No. 1 overall pick becomes a star, and Swanson’s lack of power at both the minor- and major-league levels will likely limit his upside, even if he starts to harness his other tools. The good news is that those are other tools are legion, with scouts grading his ability to hit for average and especially his glove as pluses for the future. That convergence of skills might hew closer to Tony Fernandez than Cal Ripken, but a good, cost-controlled player for the next half a decade would certainly help the cause, even if we need to tap the brakes on the early Cooperstown campaign.
In The Year of the Home Run, The Year of the Rookie Sluggers, and The Year of Rookie Home-Run Records, Josh Bell’s got something fun brewing.
The Pirates rookie first baseman has been a terrific bright spot for an otherwise moribund Buccos squad. With a week to go in the season, he also has a chance to reach the all-time record for most home runs ever hit by a rookie switch-hitter. The record, currently held by now-MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, and Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray, is 27. Bell has 24.
Three homers in six games would be a tough task, of course. But Bell is already a card-carrying member of the Yonder Alonso Club of Sluggers, the group of hitters with solid plate discipline and line-drive power who’d never shown a ton of over-the-fence pop until now. His 17 homers across Triple-A and a short cup of coffee with the Pirates last year represented a big leap from his previous power threshold, after managing just nine long balls in 2014 and five in 2015 across multiple minor league levels.
With one of the highest groundball rates in the league, you wonder how he’ll be able to sustain his power surge in 2018 and beyond, without making adjustments. But with nearly one of every five flyballs he’s hit this year leaving the yard, maybe Bell has a little more good fortune left to chase down one more record before his year comes to an end.
21. Toronto Blue Jays (73-83, minus-91, LT: 21)
20. Oakland A’s (72-83, minus-79, LT: 25)
When it comes to rebuilding a franchise, there’s no single right answer. You could build around your popular franchise player, or trade him for a truckload of great prospects. You could attack the free-agent market, or patiently build from the ground up, and refrain from opening the checkbook until the conditions for spending are perfect. You could hire an old-hand manager, or seek out new blood to lead a new generation of players.
Whatever Derek Jeter decides to do now that he’s likely to soon assume control of the Marlins, you can usually make an argument for why it might end up being the right course of action. But ordering David Samson to fire special advisers Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, Jack McKeon, and Andre Dawson, because Jeter reportedly didn’t want to do it himself, is a helluva way to start. Giving that order after Jeter’s told Samson that he too is being fired? That’s a new one.
18. Baltimore Orioles (75-82, minus-73, LT 17)
17. Seattle Mariners (75-81, minus-27, LT: 14)
16. Tampa Bay Rays (76-80, minus-17, LT: 18)
15. Kansas City Royals (76-79, minus-72, LT: 16)
14. Texas Rangers (76-79, plus-13, LT: 15)
13. Los Angeles Angels (77-78, minus-3, LT: 13)
Here’s a last-minute player to watch and (if you’re a fantasy baseball player) a last-minute roster add for you to consider: Brett Phillips.
The lefty-swinging rookie has been drawing the more active side of the platoon in center field for the Brewers over the past few days, banging out five hits, a homer, and two stolen bases in the first three games of the weekend series against the Cubs. He’s batting a solid .273/.351/.439 in 31 games, and Milwaukee’s lined up to face right-handed starters in each of the team’s six games this week—starting with the trio of Homer Bailey (6.96 ERA), Sal Romano (opponents hitting .272/.347/.453 against him), and 28-year-old journeyman Deck McGuire, making his first major league start.
Facing the Reds and that dubious trio to start the week (before a potentially huge weekend battle with fellow contender St. Louis), the Brewers have a golden opportunity to slice into their two-game deficit in the race for the second NL wild-card spot. And Phillips has a golden opportunity to continue to make a name for himself as a part of the Brewers’ future, and maybe even help a few savvy fantasy folks savor some Yoo-hoo showers.
Luke Weaver since sticking in the Cardinals rotation on Aug. 23: 36 1/3 innings, 49 strikeouts, four walks, two home runs, and a 1.49 ERA.
Weaver gets two starts this week as the Cards try to make up their 2 1/2-game deficit against the Rockies in the battle for the NL’s final playoff berth ... but really, he should make all seven. If any enterprising young scientist out there can somehow harness the power of provel-cheese pizza into cloning technology, John Mozeliak would like to see you ASAP.
10. Minnesota Twins (82-74, plus-24, LT: 12)
To be fair, this is a bit of a cheat. Those nine games all came against the Padres and Giants, the two worst offenses in baseball, even after adjusting for their pitcher-friendly home parks (seven of those nine games were at Petco and AT&T). And the Rockies didn’t exactly dominate that stretch despite that impressive starting pitching run, going just 4-5 against two of the worst teams in the league.
So yes, the Rockies could get another schedule break in the final week of the season, with all six games at home—three against the sub-.500 Marlins and three against a Dodgers team that might rest a bunch of regulars, since they’ve already clinched the NL West and are about to lock up home-field advantage through the NL playoffs too.
But Colorado stumbling against two other seemingly lightweight opponents doesn’t inspire confidence. Big-time pitching performances are great. But for the Rockies to finally lock down this final NL playoff spot, they’re going to have to find a way to actually hit the ball too—something they haven’t done much of for a while now. This would be a perfect time for some Coors Field magic.
8 New York Yankees (86-69, plus-179, LT: 8)
With Jon Lester struggling and nerves still a little jangled over Jake Arrieta’s recent hamstring injury, the Cubs needed a jolt from another member of their rotation to inspire confidence and give Joe Maddon more options in the playoffs.
On Sunday, Jose Quintana answered the call...in the process all but salting away the Cubs’ second straight division title.
As excited as we tend to get for hotshot rookies and long-shot underdogs, there’s something to be said for sustained excellence.
When the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract after the 2014 season, it marked (at the time) the second-biggest contract ever given to a pitcher. For a hurler who’d only truly harnessed his powers for two seasons, with just those two All-Star berths to his credit, that seemed like a gigantic risk. Sign a player through his 37th birthday for an amount topped only by Clayton Kershaw, when Kershaw was already establishing himself as an all-time great and Scherzer’s resume was well below that level? This seemed like an overspend, with the potential to become an albatross.
So much for that. Since the start of the 2015 season, Scherzer leads the majors in innings pitched and strikeouts per nine innings, ranks third in ERA and third in Wins Above Replacement, trailing only Kershaw, and another possible future Hall of Famer in Chris Sale. With one more start this year, he’ll have racked up 30 or more starts in each of his nine full big league seasons. He’s on track to post the lowest ERA and highest strikeout rate of his career the year he turns 33. And he’s the favorite to win his second straight Cy Young award, the third of his career. Plus the $105 million he’s owed in 2019-2021 (the final three years of his contract) is all deferred without interest, to be paid from 2022 through 2028, a boon to the Nats as anyone with cursory knowledge of the present vs. future value of money can tell you. Whatever the opposite of an albatross is, that’s Scherzer now.
All that, and the guy is doing everything he can to help the Commissioner with one of his biggest initiatives.
3. Houston Astros (95-60, plus-157, LT: 4)
Standing just a few feet away from a room full of baseball writers at Gaylord National Resort in Nashville last December, Rich Hill got emotional.
The now-37-year-old lefty reflected on a star-crossed career, one that had seen him harness his electric curveball into an excellent 2007 season with the Cubs, only to nearly fall off the baseball map. From 2008 through 2015, Hill made only 22 starts, including none from 2010-2014, as he battled a litany of injuries, settled mostly for relief work when he could crack a big league roster, and journeyed so far he even pitched in indie ball for a short time as part of his long road back. But after a dynamic (if still injury-, and blister-prone) 2016 campaign in which he flashed a microscopic 2.12 ERA, Hill had earned a three-year, $48 million deal from the Dodgers, by far the biggest contract of his career.
So far, that investment looks pretty good. Yet another round of blisters tamped down his innings count this year, and Hill has allowed home runs at his fastest rate in more than a decade. But he’s also rounding into form at just the right time, striking out 30 batters in his four September starts, while holding opponents to a .158 batting average, and producing a 2.45 ERA.
After a season spent using the 10-day disabled list as both a not-very-subtle way to manipulate roster rules and as a legitimate place to stash multiple actually injured pitchers (at times), the Dodgers can now roll with a loaded playoff rotation, one that has twin aces in Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish at the top. But when your number-three starter is the fourth-most prolific strikeout artist in the league (and an incredible perseverance story to boot), that’s pretty damn good.