MLB Preview Part II: The National League

Wild Card Game - Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates

ICYMI, I previewed the American League in Part I here. On to the NL!

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Hot Stove Shuffle

While things may have cooled down at the moment, the Red Sox certainly have had a busy offseason so far, busy enough at least to prompt an email chain between Greg and Pat. Here’s what we had to say about the Sox winter so far:

Greg: STUFF HAPPENED. Also, let me be the first to welcome you to the blog!

Pat: I KNOW (and thank you).  Well, sort of. I was working full time last semester, and apparently checking Twitter and doing research on baseball-reference is frowned upon in the corporate world. Wanna fill me in on the latest Sox moves?

Greg: Ah, the joys of Co-op, Anyways you’ve only missed a few major moves, and by a few I mean three. The Red Sox shored up their pitching staff by first shipping Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster off to Arizona for starter Wade Miley (a move I really liked) in mid-December before turning around around the next day and finally trading Yoenis Cespedes along with Alex Wilson and minor league right hander Gabe Speier for Rick Porcello (a move I REALLY liked). Oh and they picked up Justin Masterson by inking him to a one year, incentive laden deal. It was a busy few days to say the least.

Pat: Nooooooo Rubby! Loved that guy, thought he was going to be mini-Pedro. Solid pickups, though, so maybe it was worth it.
I was really worried about the rotation -never mind the bullpen, which is too frightening to think about- going into this offseason, especially after the losing out on Lester. But those moves were a huge step forward. Porcello can be dominant at times, Miley is a workhorse, and Masterson has had some sneaky good stretches over the past couple years.
Though the moves last month helped, I still don’t think the rotation is where it needs to be. You can’t win in October with just a solid rotation. You need at least one, preferably two, elite blue-chip starters on your staff. Is Clay Buchholz really going to be our elite guy? Can Porcello take a big leap? I doubt it. If only there was an ace lefty on the market who loved Boston, was loved by Boston, and publicly said he’d love to be here…

Greg: We’d offer him the same amount that we offered Josh Beckett four years ago!I agree that the bullpen could use some work. Koji looked tired at the end of last season and as he hits 40 he isn’t getting any younger or more effective. Tazawa is still here, but Breslow is gone (though he never recovered from his World Series meltdown anyway), Miller is gone, even Wilson gave some solid innings out of the ‘pen. I guess it’s going to be Burke Badenhop time! Get excited!

Seriously though, while Miley and Porcello  aren’t #1 starters, their peripheral stats indicate they could have success in Boston. Both guys are sinkerball, grounder inducing types who pitch to contact. Both were in the top 25 among qualifying starters last season for groundball to flyball ratio, with Miley (16) posting a 1.99 mark and Porcello (T-25) posting a 1.80 mark.
Although Miley’s ERA went up nearly a full run from 2013 to 2014, he duplicated his 3.98 FIP, meaning he might have just had some poor luck. He also posted a career best in K/9. Hell, Fangraphs pointed out that his stats since 2012 aren’t that far off from Jeff Samardzija. If nothing else, he’s a solid #3 starter who’s ability to keep the ball on the ground is going to be useful with Hanley Ramirez patrolling left field.
As for Porcello, he’s coming off a career year and is only 25, so needless to say I’m pretty psyched about that. But you’re right, unless Clay Buchholz decides to A) pitch 200 innings this year (if you believe that I have several bridges to sell you) and B) look like the guy from the first few months of 2013 and not whatever the heck that was that took the mound last season, the Sox seem like they might be a pitcher short.

Pat: No matter what happens with Buchholz, I still am pretty content with the current state of the rotation. For as long as I can remember, depth and consistency have been the Sox’ biggest issues when it comes to their starting five. This was more evident than ever last year. The Sox had nine pitchers start ten or more games. Now, trading away 3/5 of their starting rotation certainly had a lot to do with that, but the lack of reliable arms was frightening. Of those nine pitchers, all but Lester and Lackey had an ERA well above 4.00. Four of them had an ERA over 5.00. Yikes.

To put that putrid pitching into perspective, their AL East counterparts featured rotations such as the Orioles (six starters with over ten starts, only one with an ERA over 4.00), the Rays (six starters over ten starts, only three with an ERA above 4.00), and the Blue Jays (five starters over ten games, only two with an ERA above 4.00). The Yanks similarly had nine pitchers with 10 or more starts, but when looking at their top 7 pitchers in regards to amount of starts, only two had an ERA over 4.00, and three of them had a sub-3.00 mark. You just can’t compete in a division with that type of pitching when you’re counting on guys like Allen Webster and Brandon Workman to be pillars of your rotation.

Barring any injuries, they now have a solid core of pitchers with proven track records to build around. Yes, they are in desperate need of an ace, but at least we won’t have to flip to NESN at 7:00 each night without having the slightest clue whose turn it is to give up 4 runs and 7 hits in 5 innings. They still have some work to do, but there are plenty of big names available on the free agent/trade market (see: Hamels, Cole or Shields, James “Big Game”). Even if they strike out in free agency, the Sox have a surplus of offense to trade away this offseason or sometime before the trade deadline. With a stable of both young and veteran position players, the Sox should have a few viable options to find their head of the rotation and shore up their pitching staff.
Greg: I’m glad you brought up the Orioles, because that’s a rotation that I actually point to with regards to the way this Red Sox staff could potentially perform next season. Who was the “ace” of that staff last season? Chris Tillman? Wei Yin-Chen? Bud Norris? Kevin Gausman was great in his 20 starts, but he didn’t exactly carry the staff. Generally speaking,Orioles starters outperformed their peripherals by a wide margin, and that solid performance coupled with an offense that led the American League in runs scored despite injuries to Machado and Wieters and a no show year from Chris Davis was enough to push them to the ALCS.

I know I might be being a little bit pessimistic here, but even with the acquisitions of Ramirez and Sandoval I’m worried about the offensive side of things. Ortiz is pushing 40, Pedroia’s OPS has been steadily declining since 2011, Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy (and isn’t exactly the best guy to have around in the clubhouse),  Castillo is a huge question mark…it feels like a lot is riding on Mookie Betts to improve on what we saw from him last year (which, granted, was impressive) and Xander Bogaerts to improve on a disappointing rookie season.

Pat: The Sox offense has A LOT of variables, but plenty of upside. Given Ortiz’s age, the only hitter we can safely say for sure will produce is newly acquired Sandoval. Even if Papi does what he usually does, that leaves 7 big question marks in their lineup. Not great.
Good news is, though, just like the rotation, the Sox have plenty of options in their lineup. Just take the outfield for example. Hanley, Castillo, Craig, Nava, Betts, Bradley Jr., Victorino. That’s six, SIX, major league capable players. The veterans have injury issues and the young guys are unproven, but that’s a really solid mix of veteran and young talent that I’m hopeful Farrell can figure out how to use. I’m thinking the opening day lineup will be Hanley-Castillo-Victorino, but given age and performance, I think all 3 positions are up for grabs throughout the year.
I’ll let you tackle the infield and catchers, but one quick word about Pedroia. I’m terrified. He looked straight up below average last year, and the sad thing is, it doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. As you pointed out, he’s been trending steadily in that direction. If this was Mike Napoli, I’d say whatever, replace him with Nava or someone and we’ll be fine. But this is our de facto captain and the heart and soul of our club. Our Jeter. With Betts waiting in the wings and not much room for him in the outfield, how much time does Pedey have left? Does he make through this season as an everyday starter? I honestly don’t know.

Greg: I’d be shocked if Pedroia isn’t the starting second baseman by season’s end as long as he’s not injured. I think what Betts gives the Sox is flexibility, because he can not only play the outfield (and I believe he should start over Victorino, who’s coming off back surgery), but he can also sub in for Pedey when the latter is feeling banged up, which is especially useful considering Pedroia’s tendency to play through injuries whether doing so is actually helping the team or not.

Other than that, the infield will likely look similar to last year except for third where Sandoval’s slightly above average production and solid glove will be a massive upgrade over what the Sox got from that position last year. Holtmania is looking like an odd man out, Bogaerts will hopefully be manning shortstop full time after being inexplicably usurped by Stephen Drew in the middle of last season, and Middlebrooks has been exiled to San Diego for veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan (playing the David Ross role this year) after another lost season at the plate.
Losing Middlebrooks for nothing hurts, not only because of the potential he flashed in 2012 before suffering a wrist injury or because of the constant butting heads with Red Sox coaching, but because now this means we lost Jenny Dell for nothing.

Pat: At this point, all we can do is speculate how this team is going to piece together. Are guys like Pedroia and Ortiz going to start REALLY showing their age? Can young studs Mookie and Xander take a leap forward? Can you compete in October with just a “solid” rotation? Or are the Sox still looking to land an ace? Who knows.

We’ll obviously tackle these questions and much more as the offseason progresses, but for now, I think it’s safe to say we’re a lot better off than we were in September after a disastrous title defense. I’m excited to see where this team can go. We certainly have the major league talent and minor league trade bait to field a legit contender. And if the baseball gods conspire against us once again, at least it can’t be as bad as last year, right? Right?
Greg: Right. And even with Scherzer off the market as of yesterday, there are still a plethora of pitching options to be had, either on Scherzer’s new team or elsewhere. Like you said, the pieces are in place for a solid foundation, and if nothing else it’s good to see that the team is at least being proactive this offseason. We’ll have to wait and see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one more move to come before pitchers and catchers report.

The Prodigal Son Returns

Last night news broke that former Dodgers shortstop/third baseman Hanley Ramirez had agreed to terms with the Red Sox, and that all that was left was a finalizing of the offer sheet. The proposed contract was reported to be in the 5 year, $90 million range, slightly less than the offer reportedly tendered by the Sox to former Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who was also reported to have been signed by the team earlier this morning according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, though Sandoval’s agent has refuted those claims. (UPDATE: About five minutes after I posted this ESPN reported that Sandoval and the Red Sox do have an agreement in place, so there’s that).

These are the facts we have so far. While Ramirez’ deal hasn’t been finalized yet and while I have the incredible propensity to jinx everything I talk/write/tweet about, I’m willing to take a risk here and talk about what’s going on here because let’s face it, this is a megadeal that I don’t think many people saw coming. While most of Red Sox nation had zeroed in on Sandoval for the last month or so, the Ramirez talk had emerged and ultimately crystalized much faster. Stories began to break over the weekend of a potential match between Hanley and the Red Sox, and faster than the blink of an eye (or a Jarrod Dyson stolen base), here we are.

So what do we know about Hanley Ramirez? Well for starters, he was once a highly touted prospect in the Red Sox organization, and even managed to see a couple of plate appearances during a cup of coffee as a 21 year old in 2005.

The Red Sox traded Ramirez to the Marlins as part of a package which brought Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston, which last time I checked worked out pretty well for the Sox. In Florida, Hanley bloomed at the plate, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2006 and a batting title in 2009 when he hit .342 (!) and finished second in the NL MVP race. While Ramirez has generally struggled in the field (he’s posted a -4.0 dWAR for his career), he’s been an excellent hitter in 10 seasons, putting up a career line of .300/.373/.500.

However, its important to keep those numbers in context just a bit. This won’t be the second coming of 1999 Nomar at short. As a matter of fact, with Bogaerts currently manning the position and Sandoval almost certainly on the way, it’s more than likely that  Ramirez, who has stated being open to a position change, will be making his way to the outfield. This would probably lead to a trade of Yoenis Cespedes, meaning we can say goodbye to throws like these. Ramirez will be learning a new position, which could be a problem considering his past defensive woes and considering his offensive numbers have dipped considerably from the height of his Marlins prowess in the late aughts. His career has literally been a tale of two halves. Look at these season averages:

First Half: 2006-2010 (5 seasons), 674 PA, .313/.385/.521, 25 HR, 39 SB, 5.5 WAR per 650 PA
Second Half: 2011-2014 (4 seasons) 475 PA, .277/.351/.464 17 HR 16 SB, 4.1 WAR per 650 PA

Injuries may have affected those averages a bit (he played only 178 games combined in 2011 and 2013), but even so those numbers show a serious decline. Ramirez in many respects might be the poster boy for the revamped aging curve we are seeing in the MLB, where players, as Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs indicates, no longer peak, only decline. With Ramirez on the wrong side of 30, it’s highly unlikely he will ever reach the heights he touched in 2009.

However, should Ramirez manage to stay healthy and put together a full season, there is still plenty of reason to believe he can be a productive player at the plate. Steamer’s projections for next season have him at  .277/.352/.450 with 24 HR, numbers which would be a massive upgrade over the wasteland that was the Red Sox outfield/third base positions last year. Ramirez also tinkered with his swing towards the end of last season, dropping the high leg kick which he had recently adopted and reverting back to a step much more like the one featured during his 2009 batting championship season. The results? Hanley got hot, hitting .352 in 80 plate appearances in the final month-plus of the regular season. He stayed hot in the postseason, hitting .429 in the NLDS. If the Sox are getting the Ramirez we saw at season’s end, this could be a huge signing.

Again, the deal isn’t finalized yet (and neither is Sandoval’s), but after last year’s offseason of inaction led to a miserable World Series defense, it’s been interesting to see the Red Sox return to the wheeling and dealing which has often characterized the last decade.