Getting Real About the Trade Deadline

The month of July starts this up coming Saturday, which means that we are right at the halfway point in the MLB season. The trade deadline is 36 days away, and it’s time for everybody to get serious. There’s no more time to ‘wait things out’ or ‘see what you have’, it’s time to make a decision about buying or selling.

Now, if you go read other people’s trade deadline articles, they’ll talk about teams that need to buy, sell, or hold. Having been a fan of a team that has “held” now for umpteen straight trade deadlines, the idea of standing pat during this time period is stupid to me.

That being said, I believe that every team in Major League Baseball either needs to buy or sell, no in between. So let’s get real about things, and I’ll start with a team that I know needs to get serious about winning.

The Houston Astros.

It’s time for the Astros to stop planning for the future because the future is here. Houston is 52-25, unequivocally the best team in baseball right now, and their time has come. The prospects have arrived, and Houston’s winning window is wide open.

The thing that a lot of teams don’t seem to understand about winning windows is that they don’t stay open. In 2012, the Nationals won 98 games and then decided to sit Stephen Strasburg for the entirety of the playoffs because they figured they’d be right back there next year and wanted Strasburg healthy for that run.

Those 98 win Nationals were bounced in the first round of the playoffs and missed the playoffs the next year. World Series opportunities don’t grow on trees, and it’s time for everyone to realize that.

That being said, Houston needs to go all in. Don’t protect your top prospects like Francis Martes and Kyle Tucker and continue planning for the future. Your future is staring you in the face, and a guy like Sonny Gray or Jose Quintana is out there just waiting to be the missing piece in a World Series run.

If Houston holds onto their top prospects and doesn’t push to improve the team by trading for a young, controllable starting pitcher, they’ve failed the deadline and only have themselves to blame when their World Series run doesn’t come to fruition.

Next up is a team that a lot of people think needs to hold, but I think needs to commit to a clear direction. The New York Mets need to sell, and they need to sell hard.

I’m not talking about giving up expendable pieces like Asdrubal Cabrera or Neil Walker, get crazy. The Mets are stuck in between right now, they’re a team with a lot of potential that has yet to truly crack it after a 2015 World Series run. So, move on from the core of players that has failed you.

Take some of that starting pitching wealth and move it for future position player studs. Take advantage of Houston’s presumed desire for a young starting pitcher and offer them Steven Matz or even Jacob DeGrom for a hefty haul of position player prospects.

Commit to a direction, and make that direction ‘winning in the future.’

I’m not interested in going over a plan for every single team this trade deadline, but the point of this article is that I’m sick of MLB teams ‘standing pat’ at the deadline.

The Chicago Cubs stormed their way to a World Series title last year and appeared set up for one of the most dominant stretches of baseball in the league’s history. This year, their pitching has collapsed, Kyle Schwarber has seemingly forgot how to hit, and the team is barely floating above the .500 mark.

The Mets appeared ready to rule over the National League with an iron fist when they marched their way to the World Series in 2015. 2 years later, they can’t stay healthy and are sitting in a distant 4th place in the NL East.

Consistent winning baseball is something that takes a tricky balance of luck, circumstance, and the intentional building of a winning team. Winning can happen suddenly, and a collapse of that same winning team can happen just as quickly.

Baseball is a fickle beast, and that’s the way the game goes.

For teams that appear set up to ‘hold’ at the deadline, this is my plea to your front office to reconsider that approach. Let’s take the Milwaukee Brewers as an example.

The Brewers are a surprise leader in the NL Central thus far, and they show no signs of slowing back down to the rest of the division. Now, it seems like the most sensible thing for the Brewers to do would be to sit pat, let this year’s team play things out, and then still hold onto your prospects and then plan to win in the future.

However, take a look at the landscape of the league. The Chicago Cubs, a dynasty in the making, are having a down year. The NL Central appears as winnable as it might be for the next decade. It’s sitting there just waiting for the Brewers to take it and nobody knows how things will look in the future. The Brewers could collapse, none of their prospects could pan out, and they could have to rebuild again.

This might be their best shot to win the Central, so why not go for it?

The Rockies are in a similar situation. The Rockies haven’t had a winning season since 2007, and they have proven to be as unstable a team as any in Major League Baseball, so why not go for it while you have the team?

Same with the Diamondbacks. Arizona seemed like they had a winning team last year, and then lost AJ Pollock to a preseason elbow injury and watched their season turn into a 96 loss fiasco. So, again, while your team is in prime playoff position, why not go for it?

The goal of the game is to win the World Series. The trade deadline is a prime time to make or break that goal. Making a positive trade could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. The playoffs are a crapshoot, and once you’re in there, anything can happen.

I firmly believe that every team in position to seriously challenge for a playoff spot absolutely needs to go for it and buy at the deadline. Not stupidly buy and totally mortgage the future, but just don’t sit pat and let your current team be the one that you head into the final few months with.

And, for every team not in a playoff contending position, why sit around with the same team and just keep losing? Why not commit to building for the future and plan on winning in the next years?

The idea of it just seems so simple to me after watching years of fickle baseball. If you can win, go for it and win. If you can’t win, make moves so that you can win in the future. If you’re stuck in between, commit to a direction and make moves that fit that direction.

Just, enough of this ‘standing pat’ stuff.

MAKE MOVES.

Thanks for reading.

Getting Real About the Trade Deadline

The Michael Wacha Solution

In 2013, he was the future of the franchise. He went from ‘fast rising prospect’ to ‘late season revelation’ and ended the year as a postseason hero with possibly the brightest future of any Cardinal pitching prospect in a stacked system.

In the first half of 2014, he was dominant. Over the first 2 months of the season, he posted a 2.77 FIP with a 75-19 K/BB ratio and 1.07 WHIP in 77.1 IP. Then, a unique injury bug bit Michael Wacha and left him on the sidelines until his infamous flameout in the NLCS, which ended the Cardinals’ 2014 season with him on the mound watching Travis Ishikawa circle the bases after hitting a pennant clinching home run for the San Francisco Giants.

Ever since the injury, Wacha hasn’t been the same. There have been flashes of previous brilliance, but no real consistent stretches of 2013 Wacha. Rock bottom came last year, when Wacha’s full season ERA sat at 5.09 over 138 IP.

However, during April of 2017, Wacha showed some promise and reinvigoration. In 24 IP, he posted a 2.55 ERA with 24 K’s and 6 BB’s. But, over the last 35.1 IP, Wacha has slogged his way to a 5.88 ERA with 32 K’s and a frighteningly high 11.6 BB%.

So, what gives?

Diving into Wacha’s velocity numbers, I couldn’t find anything substantial that would point towards his recent struggles. Month to month, the velocity has held steady on each one of his 4 pitches throughout a game, so it’s not that. His heat maps are all similar, his pitch locations are all similar; I just couldn’t find anything.

With no statistic to point to as a reason for Wacha’s struggles, we just kind of have to assume one unfortunate thing. Until further notice, Michael Wacha is not cut out to be a starting pitcher; for one reason or another, whether we can quantify it or not.

That leaves the Cardinals with quite a predicament.

Wacha can clearly still be effective at the Major League level, as his great start to the season showed. However, as his recent track record has showed, that success, as a starter, is not consistent and can’t be counted on.

I can’t be the only one to think of this before, but the solution here seems simple.

The Cardinals shouldn’t just give up with Wacha and sell low on him right now (see: Matt Adams, and look how that’s turning out). Wacha also shouldn’t be sent down because he’ll just dominate the minors.

Michael Wacha should be sent to the bullpen and turned into a super reliever.

Now, I understand that transitioning from being a starter to being a reliever is difficult, no matter how simple anyone may try to make it seem. But the numbers that make me think Wacha’s transition could be simple are his splits each time he goes through a lineup.

As a starter, Wacha’s first time through the order is sparkling. This season, he sports a 1.95 ERA, 9.59 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, and a 0.95 WHIP. Further, for his career, Wacha has a 2.73 ERA with 200 K’s and 66 BB’s in 207.2 IP.

Essentially, over the course of a full season’s worth of innings pitched, Wacha has been worth 6.8 WAR according to FanSided’s WAR calculator. In case you don’t know, that is outstanding value.

The second time through the order? Yikes.

In 2017, Wacha’s second-time-through ERA balloons to 7.54, his K/9 drops to 6.08 and his walk rate also balloons up to 10.3%. Third time through the order is a similar story, (6.08 ERA, 9 K’s, 6 BB’s in 13.1 IP).

And, again, these numbers bear out over the course of his career. In 191 IP while going through the order a second time, Wacha’s ERA is a decent 3.91, but the K/9 goes down to 7.45 and the BB/9 goes up to 3.39. Third time through, his ERA balloons to 5.16 in 134.1 IP with a rather paltry 6.35 K/9.

Michael Wacha has electric stuff. He sports a 4 pitch mix with a fastball that can still touch the upper 90’s and a changeup that’s produced a career K% of 34.1%. This is a guy who definitely belongs in the Major Leagues, but as a reliever right now.

And, although limited, Wacha’s career numbers as a reliever are incredibly promising. In 16.1 career IP as a reliever, Wacha has a 12.6 K/9, 1.1 BB/9 and a heartening 2.10 xFIP. Personally, I rely on these numbers a lot more than Wacha’s 7.16 ERA in those 16.1 reliever innings.

For the Cardinals, the solution here seems pretty simple. With a guy like Luke Weaver currently tearing up Triple-A, Wacha’s transition to the bullpen doesn’t have to leave the Cardinals without a 5th starter.

Further, the Cardinals need bullpen help right now. So why not discover that help internally, like GM John Mozeliak just loves to do.

All the pieces here seem to perfectly fit, and if Wacha continues to struggle as a starter, you’ll only hear me harp on this point more.

Thanks for reading.

The Michael Wacha Solution

Evaluating a Potential Carlos Martinez Extension

The St. Louis Cardinals have a long tradition of outstanding starting pitching. It extends all the way back to the inception of the franchise and has continued to present day.

This tradition is highlighted by names such as Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang teams of the 1930’s, Bob Gibson – the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, John Tudor – the best Cardinals pitcher of a golden era, and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Without fail, every single time one Cardinal ace begins to slip down the aging curve and lose his touch, the torch is passed onto a younger pitcher to become the ace of the staff. Most recently, when Chris Carpenter was in the twilight of his career he passed the metaphorical torch on to Adam Wainwright after the 2011 season, symbolizing the franchise’s full commitment to Waino as the ace of the staff.

Adam Wainwright is now 35 years old and coming off a 2016 season in which he posted career highs in ERA and FIP (4.62 and 3.93) while posting a career low in strikeouts. Not to really emphasize his age because Waino could come back and have a tremendous season in 2017, but at 35 years old, it’s hard to realistically see Wainwright re-discovering his peak form that lasted from 2009-2014.

And what a peak form it was, might I add.

But, getting back to the point, Wainwright’s time as the ace of the Cardinal staff is coming to a close. We are in the twilight years of his time holding the metaphorical torch, and it’s time to pass it on. It’s time for the Cardinals to designate a new torch-bearer.

And I can’t think of a better player to both fulfill this metaphor and become the next Cardinal ace than 25-year-old fireballer, Carlos Martinez.

In 2016, his second year on full-time starting pitcher duty, Martinez threw a career high 195.1 innings, while posting an ERA of 3.04, xFIP of 3.28, and a new career high in bWAR at 5.4.

Now, Martinez is entering his first year of arbitration this offseason, and will be predictably due a fairly hefty sum due to his excellent performance as a starter over these past two seasons. But, the Cardinals shouldn’t even allow him to reach arbitration and sign him to an extension as soon as possible, cutting all of the deadlock and riffraff that comes with arbitration hearings and negotiations.

In signing Martinez to an extension, the Cardinals are pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table and betting on El Gallo, thus passing the torch on to him from Adam Wainwright.

Before we get into what a Martinez extension would potentially look like, I want to quickly review why Martinez deserves this extension and the moniker of ‘Cardinal Ace’.

Taking a quick glance at his first two seasons, it’s a very impressive performance from a young pitcher, but it isn’t quite what you want to see from a guy that you’re gambling the franchise on. The numbers are good, but they don’t necessarily scream ‘ACE’.

Over his first two seasons as a starter, Martinez has posted a cumulative ERA of 3.02, FIP of 3.36, K/9 of 8.5, bWAR of 9.5 and 87 RAR – this is a stat that is like WAR, but measures how many runs above replacement level a pitcher is.

Among starters during that span, Martinez ranks 9th in all of baseball in bWAR, is tied for 10th in ERA, 21st in FIP, 20th in xFIP and 21st in K/9. So, judging solely off of these numbers, Carlos Martinez is a good pitcher who is teetering on the verge of becoming elite.

And, might I remind you, he is entering his age 25 season.

But, the most interesting thing about Martinez’s peripherals so far that points towards him really taking the reigns as the ace of the St. Louis staff came when I compared his career numbers to those of incumbent Cardinal ace, Adam Wainwright.

Like Martinez, Wainwright began his career as a reliever, exceeding his rookie limits during the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series run as the closer. Like Martinez, Wainwright spent the first two seasons of his career as a very good reliever for the Cardinals, having a cumulative FIP during his 2005 and 2006 seasons as a reliever of 2.91. And, like Martinez, Wainwright then transitioned into a starting pitcher role, having mild success.

During his first two years as a starter, Wainwright posted an ERA+ of 119 in 2007 and 132 in 2008. During his first two years as a starter, Martinez posted an ERA+ of 130 in 2015 and 135 in 2016.

Anyone else starting to see this parallel?

Wainwright then exploded into his prime years during the 2009 season, during which he posted a 2.63 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 155 ERA+ and 7.2 bWAR in 233 innings. Wainwright’s respective ERA+’s over the 4 seasons during which he was a starter after 2008: 155, 160, 147 and 153.

Again, Carlos Martinez is 25 years old, his career nearly mirrors Adam Wainwright’s, and Martinez’s first two seasons as a starter were better than Wainwright’s. Do you see why this gets me excited, now?

But, the question of this article was not, ‘Should Carlos Martinez get an extension?’

The question of this article was, ‘What would a Carlos Martinez extension look like?’

The crux of figuring out what a potential Carlos Martinez extensions will look like is all based off of Martinez’s projected WAR, and the market value for a win. Currently, market dollar value for one win is $8.0 million. Meaning that a player with 1.0 WAR would be worth – in a perfect world – $8 million.

Trying to project out Martinez’s WAR in the future can be a tricky exercise because, first off, his 2017 projections have not been released yet. Alas, trying to figure out how much Carlos Martinez will be worth through future seasons is very rough around the edges.

So what I did do is take an unofficial Fangraphs aging chart for pitchers and attempt to make Martinez’s career mirror this graph as closely as possible while adding on a 5% inflation to the market dollar value of a win every year.

pitcher-age-graph

So, roughly judging this graph, the total WAR for pitchers in their age 24 season – which Martinez was during 2016 – was 850. That number then roughly jumped to 1,000 during the age 25 season, 117.6% increase.

Applying this same math to Martinez bWAR, his 2017 value will be 6.35 WAR according to Ryan’s rough projections. If we also take into account the Adam Wainwright career trajectory that Martinez appears to be mirroring, this 6.3 WAR appears even more reasonable, as Wainwright posted a 6.2 WAR in his 3rd season as a starter.

Now, going back to the graph, the jump in collective WAR from age 25 seasons to age 26 seasons is approximately 107.5% – roughly 1,000 WAR to roughly 1,075 WAR. Increasing Martinez’s Ryan projected 2017 bWAR of 6.35 by 107.5% yields a Ryan-projected 2018 bWAR of 6.82.

As we can see in the graph above, the bWAR line peaks at the age-26 season and then begins to decline down towards zero. From age-26 to age-27, the decline is approximately 3.3%. From age-27 to age-28, the decline is approximately 6.8%. The age-28 to age-29 decline is approximately 15.5%, and the age-29 to age-30 decline is approximately 8.6%.

I’m stopping at the age-30 season on this graph because my ideal extension length for Carlos Martinez – both for team and player – is 6 years. This would buy out all three of his arbitration years as well as three free agent years while paying him during his prime years, thus maximizing his value.

So, applying this unofficial pitcher age chart graph thing as well as my super unofficial percentages, Carlos Martinez’s Ryan-projected WAR during the 6 potential seasons of this extension would be as follows.

2017: 6.35

2018: 6.82

2019: 6.66

2020: 6.20

2021: 5.24

2022: 4.79

Overall, during the 6 years on this potential extension, Martinez would deliver – according to my extremely rough projections – a total of 36.06 WAR. That is absolutely astounding value.

So, how would this look when calculating Martinez’s Ryan-projected WAR in combination with the dollar market value for a win?

As I mentioned earlier, the current market value for one win is $8 million. For the sake of this exercise, I will add on a 5% inflation to that $8 million number every year. Martinez’s value comes out as follows.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-1-08-54-am

So, according to the market value for wins and my rough projections, the Cardinals should offer Carlos Martinez a 6 year extension somewhere in the range of $320 million to match his value.

Is that realistic? Absolutely not. As much as I love Martinez, $320 million over 6 years is insane and should not even be considered by the Cardinals.

Market value is absolutely outrageous these days, and I knew that this exercise would yield an incredibly high answer to the question, “What is Carlos Martinez’s projected value?” So how do we try to figure out what his potential extension should look like?

Martinez is a unique case. He is a pitcher that has hit arbitration at the ripe age of 25, having two full and very productive seasons of being a starting pitcher under his belt. At 25, it’s both reasonable and viable to expect his value to only increase over the next few years as he ages into his peak years.

Right now, his value is high enough to reasonably warrant a pricy extension on its own, but when you consider that he should only get better? His value only increases. Thus, it’s basically impossible to find another player in the history of baseball that was in this situation and then compare the contract that nonexistent player signed and point to that as the blueprint for what Martinez should be extended for.

So bear with me here because this could be a bit of a stretch, but I have found a player that seems comparable to Martinez in the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka.

When signed in the winter of 2014, Tanaka was entering his age 25 season, like Martinez. The only difference between the two is that Tanaka had been pitching in the Japanese professional league since his age-18 season in 2007, giving him a much longer track record.

Anyway, the contract that the Yankees signed Tanaka to was a 7 year, $155 million deal; an average annual value of $22 million complete with a full no trade clause and an opt-out after the 2017 season.

Applying this AAV down to the ideal 6 year extension that I have in mind for Martinez, the potential extension total comes to 6 years and $132 million. And let’s throw the full no-trade clause and opt-out after the 4th year into the deal as well just for the sake of mirroring Tanaka’s deal.

To the naked eye, this seems a bit steep to pay Martinez. But when you project out his value, he could – according to my numbers – out-perform the value of this contract by nearly $200 million. So you tell me if it’s a good or bad deal.

Personally, I really like the framework of a 6 year, $132 million extension with full no-trade and an opt out. I believe this deal checks all of the boxes.

Fully committing to Martinez as the future ace? Check, this would be the biggest deal in Cardinals history both from an AAV and total dollar value standpoint.

Allowing Martinez stability and some control? Check, the full no-trade guarantees that he’ll be in St. Louis for the duration of the deal while the opt-out gives him the option of going back onto the free agent market after his age-28 season in 2020.

Not over-committing with too many years? Check, the 6 years all come during the supposed prime of Martinez’s career, which maximizes his value while not paying him too much during the downturn that his early to mid-30’s could potentially be.

All of these numbers are extremely raw and very rough around the edges so please don’t take them as fact or guarantee, but this has still been a worthwhile exercise in attempting to define and project Carlos Martinez’s value going forward.

Both sides are supposedly interested in an extension, the entirety of the Cardinal fan base is interested in an extension, so what’s not to love?

Go make it happen, Mo.

Evaluating a Potential Carlos Martinez Extension

A Center Field Solution for the Cardinals

What can I say about the Cardinals center field situation that hasn’t already been said? Randal Grichuk, while not as bad as you might think, played just above the replacement level by crushing baseballs after his August recall from Triple-A to make up for ‘blah’ defense.

Look, you know the deal by now, Grichuk is not a center fielder, as badly as you and I both might want him to be. For Grichuk, this season can be viewed one of two ways.

You can be disappointed in his center field defense, porous ability to get on base, high strikeout rate, and view Randal Grichuk’s 2016 season as a lost cause that will only hurt his development as a quality player. Or, as I see things, you can view his season as a positive.

See, in 2016 we learned what Randal Grichuk isn’t, which can often be more important than knowing what someone is. We learned that Randal Grichuk is not a center fielder, and he is not a hitter who gets on base at a high clip.

Right now, we’re in a situation where he had to take one step back in order to take a big leap forward, which I believe will happen in 2017 when he likely takes over the full time left field job. Grichuk is a plus defender in left field – tallying 5 DRS in just under 370 innings while playing left field in St. Louis. And he can, and will, hit 40 home runs while slugging .500 and driving in over 100 runs if the Cardinals simply leave him be in the lineup and don’t nag him about getting on base all the time.

Did we not go over this already?

Anyway, this article isn’t about Grichuk, nor is it about Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals everyday right fielder. This article is about the hole that is left by Grichuk’s evacuation of Busch Stadium’s center field.

While not officially confirming that Grichuk will be moving to left field, Cardinals General Manager, John Mozeliak, emphasized that two of his priorities during the 2016 offseason are upgrading the porous St. Louis defense and finding a solution in center field.

Many names have been floated around as a potential solution to the Cardinals central issue of the offseason. Charlie Blackmon, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Carlos Gomez, Adam Eaton, Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler are just a few of the names that have been tossed into the magic hat of potential options for the Cardinals. However, I want to zero in on one guy that wasn’t listed above.

Kevin Kiermaier.

Kiermaier.jpg
Photo by Will Vragovic for the Tampa Bay Times

John Mozeliak’s two main focuses for the offseason, as he stated, are center field and defense. So why not kill a ton of birds with just one stone?

I don’t think anyone really needs an introduction to Kiermaier’s defense, but just in case you do, here are the things you need to know.

In two seasons and just under 2,000 innings played in center field, Kiermaier has an astonishing 68 defensive runs saved and a UZR/150 of 35.4. No one has ever posted a higher single season DRS in center field than the 42 DRS that Kiermaier posted during his gold glove season in 2015.

The man is the greatest defensive center fielder of all time, not even remotely kidding with that statement. While playing nearly 500 less innings than 2nd place Kevin Pillar, Kiermaier led all center fielders with 25 defensive runs saved and a 26.9 UZR/150 during the 2016 season. 

So, let’s say that the Cardinals make a deal for Kiermaier. Not only does this solve the problem of center field defense by nabbing the greatest center field defender of all time, but left field defense is made stronger by the simple subtraction of Matt Holliday and addition of Randal Grichuk.

And just imagine all of the extra base hits that the outfield trio of Kevin Kiermaier, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty could potentially take away from opposing hitters. It’s mesmerizing just to dream about it.

Now, I know that there are much better offensive options available, and Kiermaier’s career WRC+ of 105 isn’t ideal offense from a franchise center fielder, but with the offensive talent that the Cardinals can trot out in 2016, they do have the ability to pull Kiermaier’s potentially league average offense.

Just as I have pointed out that Randal Grichuk does not need to be an on-base maestro, Kevin Kiermaier – in a potential sense – would not need to carry the Cardinal offense. The 2017 Cardinals must be a puzzle in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, what does Kevin Kiermaier do well that could fit into a puzzle?

Kevin.jpg
This. He does this very well. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

I already touched on his defense, but his other plus quality is base running. If you had no prior knowledge of Kiermaier, but knew that he was an outstanding defender in center field, you might have been able to guess that he was a pretty darn good baserunner too; which he most definitely is.

In 2016, Kiermaier’s 6.5 BsR – “an all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays into runs above and below average” – ranked 7th in all of baseball, just ahead of Starling Marte.

The highest Cardinal on that list? Stephen Piscotty in a tie for 114th with Chris Carter of the Milwaukee Brewers at -2.8 BsR. Yikes.

Our findings conclude that Kevin Kiermaier’s strengths are running the bases and defense. And what were the Cardinals primary weaknesses in 2016? Running the bases and defense; it’s almost too perfect of a fit.

And even further, Kiermaier plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, a notoriously low budget team that must maximize the talent they have by trading it for young, controllable players before the current roster gets too expensive for them to keep.

Kiermaier fits this bill. Although he is still several years away from free agency, it continues to seem more and more likely that, even with his league average offense, Kiermaier will be able to command a hefty contract that Tampa Bay will not be able to afford. Considering what we all saw Jason Heyward sign for this past offseason, defense and base running can command massive contracts, and that’s what Kiermaier has.

And with a restocked farm system, the Cardinals now have the depth and young, controllable talent to be able to reasonably make this deal happen. So, not only does this appear to be an absolutely perfect fit, but the deal doesn’t seem outlandish to accomplish, as a potential trade for Andrew Mccutcheon or A.J. Pollock currently feels, as great as those would be.

Look, everyone needs to get over the fact that the Cardinals don’t have a bona fide, all encompassing superstar player that can garner MVP votes and put up 7 WAR seasons. That means, as I said, that the whole of the 2017 Cardinals must be greater than the sum of its parts.

If we include Kiermaier into this puzzle, all of the pieces are there for the Cardinals to be successful.

Power? Yup, even with the assumption that Jedd Gyorko regresses back to his career norms, the Cardinals still have Randal Grichuk and Matt Carpenter as power sources; and if Gyorko doesn’t regress, that’s even more power.

Speed? Kiermaier takes the reigns here and joins up with Kolten Wong to spearhead a much improved St. Louis Cardinals team on the base paths.

On base ability? Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz, step right up and show off your shiny on base percentages that set the table for the run producers behind you like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty.

Defense? Kiermaier takes the reigns here as well, covering acres of ground in center field, while having Kolten Wong as the – supposed – primary second baseman in 2017 also will definitely help in this area.

From a position player standpoint, the Cardinals have every ingredient to field a very successful team in 2017 – provided that my theoretical Kevin Kiermaier addition does occur. All of those ingredients may not come from one player, but that’s the beauty of this team. All of the pieces of the puzzle fit together to produce a winning ball club.

All we need is Kevin Kiermaier to fit into those last few tricky spots.

A Center Field Solution for the Cardinals

MLB Playoffs: The 2-0 Panic Index

Welp, so much for baseball’s issue with too much parity, I guess.

Excluding the Game 2 that has yet to happen between the Dodgers and Nationals because of an untimely rainout this afternoon, every single Division Series so far is two games to zero in favor of one team. Some results have been surprising – Toronto over Texas, anyone? – while others have been rather predictable – the Cubs are winning and the sky is blue, things are still normal.

When a team is down 2-0 in a best of 5 series, panic mode should be fully activated because one more loss means the season is over – something Buck Showalter apparently didn’t fully understand on Tuesday night.

However, some teams should be panicking much more than other teams should be panicking. So, without further adieu, I present you with Ryan’s 2-0 panic index. I don’t have a scientific system here so just bear with me, it might be rough.

San Francisco Giants Panic Meter: 4 out of 10

Look, the Giants knew what they were getting into before this series even started. The Cubs won 103 games, have the motivation of breaking a 108 year curse, and have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting 3rd and 4th in their lineup.

If we excluded the fact that this was an even year and these were the Giants, San Francisco would be hopelessly doomed in this series before it even started. But, alas, these are the Giants and this is an even year so, call me crazy, but I think the Giants still have some magic left in them.

Kontos - Scott Strazzante - SF Chronicle.jpg
Photo by Scott Strazzante for the San Francisco Chronicle

Madison Bumgarner is pitching game 3 at home. This is as close to an automatic postseason win as you can possibly get during the MLB Playoffs. The man has a 1.94 ERA in his playoff career and has thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings during the postseason.  Put him in front of a raucous San Francisco crowd and you might as well just chalk up a game 3 win for San Francisco.

If Bumgarner loses on Monday night and the Cubs sweep the Giants, we all just have to admit that it really wasn’t the Giants year this year. However, if you’re wondering why I have the Giants at a lowly 4 out of 10 on the panic index, let me ask you this. Do you remember 2012?

Down 2-0 to the Cincinnati Reds, the Giants won a momentum shifting, 2-1 game in 10 innings to pull themselves right back into the series before winning the next two games to advance to the next round.

If the Giants of the past have taught me anything, all it takes is one win to snatch momentum and confidence to your side, and the series becomes up for grabs. And, with Bumgarner pitching in the postseason at AT&T Park, it’s hard to not like the Giants chances of grabbing that momentum changing win.

The reason the panic meter isn’t any lower right here is because we have to look beyond game 3, and it looks really rough for San Francisco.

Should there need to be a game 4, Chicago has their own postseason stud, in John Lackey, toeing the slab. The Giants will counter with left handed Matt Moore, and the Cubs sport a team OPS of .807 against left handed pitching this season.

Do I understand that Madison Bumgarner is also left handed and thus has an equal chance of succumbing to the Cubs’ crushing of lefties? Yes, I do, but do you also understand that he is Madison Bumgarner and this is the postseason?

I rest my case.

To me, this series breaks down into how the cookie of game 4 crumbles. Bumgarner will win game 3, but how will the Cubs respond? Will they be the Cubs and crush a lefty in game 4? Or will the Giants continue to sell their souls to the baseball gods and continue this crazy run?

Either way, after game 3 on Monday night, we’ll have ourselves a series.

Boston Red Sox Panic Meter: 7 out of 10

Well, this certainly isn’t how Boston had the final playoffs of David Ortiz’s career being scripted. Not only are they down 0-2 to the Cleveland Indians, but David Ortiz, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are a combined 3-25.

Ouch.

And, on top of everything, Cleveland has beaten Boston aces Rick Porcello and David Price, whose postseason demons have apparently followed him to Boston after Friday’s outing in which he gave up 5 runs while only recording 10 outs.

Things look pretty rough for Boston right now. Their two best pitchers have been tagged by Cleveland, the bullpen as thrown 10.1 innings over the past two days, the three best hitters in the lineup are hitting .120, and Boston’s game 3 starter, Clay Buchholz, posted a 7.20 ERA in two starts against Cleveland this season.

Tons of things to get excited about right there.

Red Sox - John Wilcox - Boston Herald.jpg
Photo by John Wilcox for the Boston Globe

But, the fact remains that Boston’s lineup can break out at any point in time. The Red Sox led the league in runs scored and OPS during the regular season by a wide margin. As generalized as it may be, this is an offense capable of breaking out at any point in time and putting up double digits in the run column.

Also, take a look at the back end of both rotations and what do you see? It’s a total crapshoot. Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez vs Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer on 3 days rest. And, considering that Porcello only threw 4.1 innings in game 1, he could be available as a tandem option should Rodriguez get into trouble during his potential game 4 start.

Does it look dire? Yeah, it sure does, but baseball is weird and Boston can score. Until that offense has no more chance to score, Boston will be dangerous.

Texas Rangers Panic Index: 9.9999999 out of 10

Is Texas Toast still a thing? If it is, the Blue Jays will be eating a lot of it on Sunday afternoon.

The pieces were all there for a good pun and I just didn’t execute it. Shame on me.

Anyway, down 2 games to 0, Texas is toast.

Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, Texas’ only two quality starters, got tagged in the first two games, while the vaunted Texas offense could only muster up 3 combined runs against Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. Everything in Arlington is dark clouds and football right now, and the Rangers are dead.

Mitch Moreland.jpg
Photo by Louis DeLuca for the Dallas Morning News

Toronto has won two games, rather easily, with Marco Estrada and J.A. Happy pitching. Aaron Sanchez, the American League ERA leader at 3.00, is pitching game 3 for Toronto in front of the loudest crowd in baseball. And Texas will try to shut down a Toronto offense that has posted 20 runs in 3 games and a .866 OPS by trotting out……Colby Lewis.

Everything is self-explanatory in this series. Toronto has smashed Texas’ two best starters, shut down Texas’ offense without even using Aaron Sanchez yet, and is headed back home with a 2-0 lead.

Really, the only reason that this isn’t a 10 out of 10 on the panic meter is because baseball is weird and anything can happen.

But, I don’t buy that in this series. Texas is dead, bag it and tag it.

……….

There’s absolutely no way that I ever would have bought into the idea that three out of the four division series would include the first two games being won by one team – with the possibility of that fourth series being 2-0 as well.

Baseball has seemingly had a parity issue for the past few years, but these playoffs are doing their absolute best to dispel that notion. For context, in 2015, 3 out of the 4 division series were tied 1-1 after two games, and the same thing happened in 2014.

With as weird and random as the baseball playoffs can be, to have three teams winning the first two games of a Division Series is just strange; especially considering how tightly matched it appeared as though all of the match-ups would be.

Baseball is a weird and wonderful thing, and that’s why we love it.

MLB Playoffs: The 2-0 Panic Index

Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s

October baseball is just the best, isn’t it?

After two fever-pitch Wild Card games that already had the blood of baseball fans everywhere pumping, the real meat and potatoes of the MLB playoffs began today with the two American League Division Series matches beginning.

First up, in the 3:08 CT time slot was the juicy rematch of last season’s ALDS between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. And Toronto wasted absolutely no time announcing their presence with authority and making it known that they are not about to be pushed over by their now bitter rivals.

Texas’ one problem entering this series was their starting pitching. It’s held up very well all season long despite a rash of injuries to Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, A.J. Griffin, Derek Holland, and a bunch of others. But, entering the division series, there remains a massive drop-off in talent level after the duo of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

Plenty of teams have shown that it’s entirely possible – not just possible, but viable – to win a World Series while riding two horses at the front end of a playoff rotation. If you think about it, in the Championship Series and World Series you need to win 4 games to advance. If those two horses that you rely on at the top of your rotation each pitch 2 games and win both, you’re through.

So, Texas really had no reason to not feel confident in the work that Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish would be able to do. It all feels completely different now, though.

After seeing Hamels get absolutely blown up by Toronto, the Rangers have some serious issues. If, quite possibly, the most important cog in the Texas pitching machine is as ineffective as he was on Thursday afternoon, it’s hard to not think Texas is doomed for another crushing series loss at the hands of the Blue Jays.

However, what could have been an absolute disastrous situation was somewhat salvaged by Jeff Banister’s brilliant maneuvering and a herculean effort from Alex Claudio.

After giving up an RBI single to Josh Donaldson with only one out in the top of the 4th inning, Banister opted to pull a clearly ineffective Cole Hamels in favor of Claudio, and it appeared as though Texas was in for a long afternoon.

What Texas needed from Claudio was exactly what they got and then some; innings. Claudio came in and delivered 3 and 2/3 scoreless innings that got Texas all the way through the 7th inning only having used two pitchers. Considering the quick turnaround – Game 2 is a 12:08 start the next day – the fact that Texas only ended up using 4 pitchers on a day where their best starter was obliterated and could only record 10 outs is absolutely massive.

Game 2 is a must-win for Texas.

They absolutely cannot go to Toronto down 2 games to zero with both Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish having picked up the losses and realistically expect a comeback. So, with Darvish on the mound for Game 2 and Sam Dyson, Matt Bush and Tony Barnette all fresh and available out of the bullpen, Texas is surprisingly set up pretty nicely for a bounce back win.

What could have been an absolute disaster was salvaged by a terrific long-relief performance from Alex Claudio, and if the Rangers can manage to get back into this series they will have him to primarily thank.

As for Toronto? Man, can those boys hit.

The offense that Baltimore was able to mostly suppress before a certain managerial move blew everything up showed up in Arlington on Thursday afternoon ready to mash.

As lauded as last year’s Blue Jay offense was, this year’s is exponentially better, in my opinion. Out of the leadoff spot is the .693 OPS of Ben Revere and into the leadoff spot is the .859 OPS of Devon Travis.

Every spot in the lineup is dangerous and serves as a legitimate home run threat. The most dangerous Toronto offensive player in the Wild Card game on Tuesday night was Ezequiel Carrera, the Jays’ number 9 hitter that went 3-4 and warranted Buck Showalter using 4% of his roster just to get out.

I understand that it’s just one game, and one game does not a good team make, but I severely underestimated the Jays. I figured J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada’s cinderella regular season runs would end in the playoffs and Toronto wouldn’t be able to slug their way through the American League. So far, I’ve been wrong about both. Estrada was brilliant today, throwing 8 and a third innings of 1 run baseball and completely stifling a potent Texas lineup, and the Jays posted 10 runs.

With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all but guaranteed to leave the team in free agency during this offseason, this postseason is shaping up to be the Blue Jays’ last hurrah for a while. And they seem to be making the most of it so far.

……….

Terry Francona is a genius.

Last Sunday night on a local radio show, I took some heat for picking the Cleveland Indians as my World Series champions. It seems completely insane, but what Terry Francona showed during game 1 of the Indians Division Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox is exactly why I picked Cleveland.

Andrew Miller is the perfect bullpen weapon. Left handed, can dominate a hitter on either side of the plate, and doesn’t have a designated role. When Miller was acquired from the New York Yankees in a midseason trade, it was the idea of Indians GM Mike Antonetti that Francona would be able to deploy Miller in any given situation and have a dominating bullpen arm to put out fires at any point in the game.

And in game 1, with two outs in the 5th inning and the Indians protecting a one run lead, Francona made the surprising move to replace Trevor Bauer with Miller. After wiggling his way out a self-made jam in the 5th inning, Miller proceeded to throw two innings of dominant baseball, shutting down the Red Sox and striking out 4 batters before handing off the torch to Bryan Shaw in the 7th inning.

Sensing a high leverage situation, Francona made a quick move to his best reliever, not saving Miller for a theoretical save situation while leaving an ineffective Bauer in or putting in a lesser reliever. And it was completely refreshing.

Miller was brilliant, posting a +.132 WPA in an average leverage index of 1.36, and spanning over the potentially sketchy innings between the end of Bauer’s start and the dominant back end of Cleveland’s bullpen.

And then, in the 8th inning, after Miller’s replacement, Bryan Shaw, gave up a leadoff home run to Andrew Benintendi to cut the Cleveland lead to 5-4, Francona made the move to his closer, Cody Allen, for a 5 out save.

Again, in the highest leverage situation of a playoff game, Francona went to the best reliever he had available to maximize run prevention and make a one run lead stand tall.

Allen was brilliant, pitching 5 outs of scoreless ball to pick up the save, striking out four and posting a +.220 WPA while working in an average leverage index of a bullet sweat inducing 2.43.

This, right here, is what a bullpen is supposed to be.

Francine pushed all of the right buttons, and it wasn’t luck. He used his best relievers in the optimal spots to maximize run prevention and win a very tight game. It was absolute perfection and only served to further emphasize my reasoning for picking Cleveland to win the World Series.

In tight postseason games, bullpens mean more than ever, and if Cleveland’s continues to get managed as brilliantly as it was in game 1, they can and will ride it all the way to the shiniest trophy in sports.

Also, with Cory Kluber on the mound for game 2, and a much weaker starter in Trevor Bauer toeing the slab for game 1, Francona’s trigger finger was probably much quicker in this game due to the fact that his confidence is higher in Kluber’s ability to pitch a more effective game than Trevor Bauer.

Cleveland, up 1-0 in the series and with their ace pitching tomorrow afternoon in game 2, are in a terrific position, which only furthers Francona’s brilliance in his usage of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen tonight. As is generally the case when down 1-0 in a best of 5 series, tomorrow’s game is a near must-win for Boston, as the back end of both rotations are very weak and Cleveland showed tonight who the superior will be if this series breaks down into a battle of the bullpens.

……….

Today’s action felt so refreshing to me.

There were so many ‘new’ teams that it felt good to see on the postseason stage. Instead of more Kansas City or Detroit or Houston or New York, we got to see Cleveland and Texas and Toronto. The storylines and intrigue within the American League series are fascinating and have very effectively pulled me into the action so far.

I really wish I could say the same about the National League, but I can’t.

Dodgers-Nationals? No, thanks. The Dodgers are as stale as moldy bread, having made the playoffs in each of the past 4 seasons, and Washington is, quite possibly, the most dry team in baseball, with no storylines or intrigue backing them. This series is so ‘blah’ that I almost don’t want to watch it. But I will anyway because I love baseball and I know I’ll miss it desperately over the winter.

As for the Cubs-Giants series, I’m beyond sick of San Francisco. If you can’t already tell, I like seeing fresh, new faces on the playoff scene, and the Giants – much to their organization’s credit – are the exact opposite of a fresh, new face.

I’m sick of all this “even year magic” stuff and I think it’s about time the Cubs did something productive during the playoffs. So, while the American League playoffs draw me in and really get me excited, the National League is a snoozefest and I almost couldn’t be less excited for it.

But, baseball is baseball, and it will all likely be absolutely brilliant.

Buckle up.

Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s

The Zach Britton Debacle: Why and How

First of all, what a game that was last night.

When you look at the idea behind a Wild Card game, what last night’s contest between the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles should be the blueprint that all future Wild Card games follow. Seriously, could it have been any better? You had absolutely all of the ingredients.

Two incredibly evenly matched teams that were definitely deserving of a playoff spot, yet lost a tough division battle? Check. A sellout crowd that was red hot right from the first pitch? Definite check. A tightly contested game between those two evenly matched squads? Check. An extra inning tactics battle? Check. One incredible moment that will linger in baseball memories for a lifetime? Check.

But, before we could get to Edwin Encarnacion’s memory making moment, an incredibly tight bullpen battle was waged. And, considering that they threw 5 innings of shutout baseball, you might assume that Toronto won the battle of the bullpens. And, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but Baltimore lost the bullpen battle more than Toronto won it.

Purely based on rhetoric and generalization, Buck Showalter is one of the greatest bullpen-managing managers that has ever lived. He is known for squeezing every ounce of talent and success out of any given bullpen.

For 8 innings of the American League Wild Card game, all of this proved undeniably true.

I was lauding Showalter’s masterful usage of his bullpen during the game last night. Through 8 innings, he had used only 3 pitchers, and still had the three best bullets of his bullpen gun locked in the chamber. Brad Brach – who pitched the 8th, but was economical enough to be stretched out for another inning – Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton were all available for Showalter to deploy as the game rolled into the 9th inning.

In a tied game entering the 9th inning, having your three best relievers all available is the work of a magician, and Showalter was set up about as close to perfectly as he could have drawn up.

But then, the fire nation attacked.

As perfectly as Showalter was set up entering the 9th inning, he canceled all of it out with his abhorrent extra-inning management of the bullpen, which ultimately led to the worst managerial decision that I have ever seen.

As I said, entering the bottom half of the 9th inning, Showalter had Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton all available to use. So, what was the actual decision and what was the correct one?

Coming up for Toronto was Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista, all of whom are right handed batters. Brad Brach was coming off of a 13 pitch 8th inning, and the Orioles offense had not scored since the 4th inning.

At this point, I break this decision down to one question; how much faith do you have in your offense? If you believe in your offense’s ability to score against the Jays’ bullpen and end the game soon, then the decision leans towards using Britton or O’Day because – again, hinging on the belief in your offense’s ability – the thinking is that you would want to put your best pitchers in during this high leverage situation.

However, the thing about high leverage situations is that there is no way to know, in the heat of the moment, whether or not a higher leverage situation will arise later on down the line. So, if you believe that the game will be over soon, you theoretically use Britton and O’Day in order to maximize run prevention now in hopes that the game will be over soon and you won’t need those two later on in an even higher leverage situation.

If you’re still with me, you deserve an award.

Showalter stuck with Brach to pitch the 9th inning. The thought process behind this decision – from Ryan’s point of view, I can’t speak for Showalter – is that you don’t believe your offense will score anytime soon, so you want to save O’Day and Britton for potential higher leverage situations later on in the game.

Is this the correct decision?

To me, it 100% is and I would have done the exact same thing. The thing that all the hardcore Twitter sabermetricians were harping on is that Britton is your best reliever, and if you don’t use your best reliever against the heart of the Toronto order there won’t be any more baseball to play because any other pitcher will lose the game.

Britton is not guaranteed to put up a scoreless frame. Neither is Brach, and neither is O’Day, but all three of them are really good options, but I still want to save O’Day and Britton for later innings, and I believe in Brach’s ability to get through the 9th without giving up a run.

What I would have done – and what was only partly done – is get both Britton and O’Day up and warming lightly. Because if Brach gets in trouble, I have a back-up plan readily available and don’t get caught with my pants down.

Well, sure enough, Brach gave up a leadoff double to Josh Donaldson, followed by an intentional walk to Encarnacion, setting up Jose Bautista with men on first and second and nobody out. Only O’Day was warming up in the Orioles bullpen, so with Brach sitting at 23 pitches, Showalter stuck with his man.

Whether or not this is the correct decision is irrelevant because O’Day wasn’t up and warm yet, and no amount of gamesmanship would have been able to get him ready in time to face Bautista, so Showalter’s hand was forced and he had to stick with Brach.

Brach responded with a strikeout of Bautista to bring up Russell Martin with men on first and second but one out. With one out, the Orioles smelled a double play – Toronto led all of baseball with 153 double plays grounded into during the 2016 regular season – and Showalter made the move to O’Day, who he clearly felt was more likely to induce the aforementioned double play out of Russell Martin.

Sure enough, on the first pitch, Martin grounded into a double play, and the Orioles were out of the 9th inning and coming to bat in the top of the 10th. Unsurprisingly, they went in order against Toronto closer Roberto Osuna and Francisco Liriano.

In the bottom of the 10th, Showalter’s easiest bullpen decision confronted him, as O’Day had only thrown one pitch in the bottom of the 9th, so he goes back out, and that’s exactly what happened. Easy.

O’Day responded with a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th to send the game to the 11th. And, of course, Baltimore went silently in the top of the 11th because what else is new?

Now we get into the real controversy of Buck Showalter’s bullpen management.

Top of the 11th, Darren O’Day is sitting on 14 pitches, and Zach Britton is still available out of the bullpen. Due up for Toronto is Ezequiel Carrera, Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson.

Showalter warmed up left hander Brian Duensing and right hander Ubaldo Jimenez during the top half of the 11th, and he went with the left handed Duensing to get out the left handed Carrera.

This is where I started scratching my head.

At this point, I was curious as to why Britton had not even begun to warm up at any point yet, but it was all excusable, even when you exclude the results. But, when Showalter went to Duensing, a different lefty, to start the 11th, I wondered if Britton was legitimately hurt.

Following Duensing’s 5 pitch strikeout of Carrera, Showalter made the move to Ubaldo Jimenez to face Travis and, presumably, Donaldson and Encarnacion if needed. Travis and Donaldson knocked back to back singles to give Encarnacion a first and third situation with one out.

And we all know what happened after that.

Showalter held a team meeting on the mound, decided to stick with Jimenez to pitch to Encarnacion, and the Jays’ first basemen destroyed the first pitch he saw to send Toronto through to the Division Series against Texas.

Edwin Encarnacion.jpg
Photo by Nick Turchiaro for USA Today Sports

Zach Britton did not throw a single pitch.

Let me say that again. Zach Britton – who set a Major League record for lowest single season ERA by a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched, 0.54 – did not throw a single pitch during a winner take all postseason game.

It’s absolutely ludicrous to try and wrap your thought around. But, why was Britton not used?

The first sketchy decision of the 11th inning was using Duensing for only 5 pitches to get Ezequiel Carrera – the Jays’ number 9 hitter. In such a tight extra inning game, where Showalter has refused to use his best reliever with the mindset that there will be more high leverage situations later on in the game, why would he use a reliever to only get one out?

At this point in the game, every viable relief arm is an extremely valuable commodity, and using 4% of your roster for the sole purpose of getting Ezequiel Carrera out is just not wise. Furthermore, when you consider that the Baltimore offense had not scored in 7 innings and the game was beginning to feel like it would be extending for quite a while, it only further emphasizes the need to maximize every available bullpen arm.

Considering the way that Ubaldo Jimenez had pitched coming into the playoffs – 2.31 ERA over 35 innings in the month of September – having him available to pitch out of the bullpen is a very good idea. But bringing him into the game before Zach Britton? No….just no.

Immediately, it became impossible to ignore that Jimenez was not having a good night at the office. On his third pitch of the outing, Jimenez gave up a sharp single to Devon Travis, which was followed by another sharp single off the bat of Josh Donaldson. The ball was slightly mis-played in left, allowing Travis to go to third. Encarnacion stepped in with first and third and one out.

The situation was literally screaming for Zach Britton to enter the game.

ubaldo-jimenez
Photo by Vaughn Ridley for Getty Images

If Travis scores from third, the Orioles’ season is over and there will be no save situation for Zach Britton to enter into. Also, with a double play in order – need I remind you that the Jays led baseball by grounding into 153 double plays – and Britton being the filthiest sinker-baller on planet earth with a 2016 ground ball rate of 80.1%, (!!!!!!!), it would only make sense to bring him in, right? RIGHT?!?!?!

Showalter had literally been saving his prized toy for that situation, and then he didn’t use him. By leaving Ubaldo Jimenez in to face Edwin Encarnacion in a situation where allowing a single run would have literally ended Baltimore’s season, Showalter effectively said that he believed there was nobody else in his bullpen that could protect a potential save situation down the road.

This rigidity ended Baltimore’s season and Showalter will never be able to live it down. It’s one thing to put your bullpen in what you believe to be the best positions to succeed and then not having them come through, but it’s a completely different thing TO NOT USE THE GREATEST RELIEVER IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL DURING A TIED ELIMINATION GAME just because it isn’t a save situation and he’s your “closer.”

So, what would Ryan have done?

As I think back on it, I have a remarkably simple solution to this otherwise extremely complicated situation. Having only thrown 14 pitches, I let O’Day go back out to start the 11th and get Britton up and warming lightly. If O’Day gets into trouble – such as first and third with only 1 out – I have Britton on speed dial and bring him in to put out the fire. If he fails, so be it, but I used my best reliever in the highest leverage situation of a do-or-die game, as a manager should.

Look, I understand Showalter’s hesitation to use Britton because he felt that he needed to save his greatest weapon for a later situation. As much as he’s been torn apart, I understand it. I wouldn’t have used Britton in the 9th, 10th, or even to start the 11th.

But when the situation literally slaps Buck Showalter in the face by saying, “Hey, use Zach Britton here” it’s still vexing why he wasn’t brought it. And it points back to a bigger issue that most managers still subscribe to.

It points back to the notion that you cannot use your closer in any spot that isn’t a save situation, and this fault continues to be exploited in high leverage situations year in and year out.

The most egregious example I had seen up until last night was in game 5 of the 2014 NLCS. With the Cardinals and Giants tied at 3, Mike Matheny refused to let his prized closer, Trevor Rosenthal, pitch in a tied game on the road and opted to throw Michael Wacha into the fire. Even if we exclude the fact that Wacha was coming off of a serious shoulder injury and had not pitched in over a month, the decision was still just awful.

Predictably, Wacha didn’t record an out and gave up a memorable walk-off home run to Travis Ishikawa to send the Giants to the World Series. When asked why Rosenthal didn’t pitch the 9th inning, Matheny stated that he needed to save his closer for a save situation and that he couldn’t shoot his best bullet during a tied game on the road.

Michael Wacha.jpg
Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The thing that managers don’t seem to understand is that there won’t be any save situations to bring your prized closer into if you don’t handle the fire that’s currently burning down the building. It’s a do-or-die situation, and your best relief options cannot be saved for a theoretical situation that isn’t guaranteed while the season crumbles with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound.

Sabermetricians have long been calling for Major League Baseball to get rid of the ‘save’ statistic in the name of removing the mantra of ‘closer’ from bullpens. This would give way to the idea of having a ‘relief ace.’ Your relief ace would be the best reliever in your bullpen, wouldn’t be tied down to any one inning by a predetermined role, and would be available to put out a fire during what the manager deems to be the highest leverage situation of a game.

When Mike Matheny spectacularly botches his bullpen management – as he did on that fateful night in 2014 and tons of times since – everyone shrugs and looks the other way because it’s commonplace to see Mike Matheny mess up a bullpen. But when Buck Showalter does it? It might be time to start paying attention to this ‘relief ace’ idea.

The ghosts of the 2016 Orioles will probably thank you.

The Zach Britton Debacle: Why and How