How Active Teams Won the Trade Deadline

You don’t choose the window, the window chooses you.

Apparently, only 11 MLB general managers understand the most important concept of front office-ing. Out of all 30 teams at the deadline, only 11 seemed to truly know what they were doing and only 11 teams truly improved.

The Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Rays, Diamondbacks and Indians all sensed an opportunity to win in 2017 and acted on it. The Rangers and A’s sensed that they needed to build for the future and acted on it. The White Sox continued a fire sale that will pay off soon.

Every other team? Yikes.

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote about how the idea of ‘standing pat’ at the deadline is stupid and useless. You either feel you have a team that can make a playoff run or you feel you don’t. And based on that feeling, you act accordingly at the trade deadline. Standing pat and doing nothing creates mediocrity and irrelevancy.

And, out of the 29 teams that won’t be celebrating a World Series in 2017, 21 of them – excluding intentional sellers Oakland, Texas and the White Sox – just solidified that status with an apathetic trade deadline approach. Yeah, I’m primarily looking at you, Houston Astros. Enjoy 2017 as your ‘what could have been’ season.

But I’m not here to talk about the teams that failed the deadline, I’ll get to them some other time. I’m here to talk about the teams that won the deadline and the common approach that they all shared.

Activity won the trade deadline, and I will personally guarantee that one of the 7 buyers I listed above will be standing alone at the end of the season as 2017 World Series champions.

In the National League, the 3 best teams have clearly separated themselves. The Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers all understand that they have both pressure and rosters ready to make a deep playoff run in 2017, and they all acted like it in July, operating with the precision and aggression conducive to a World Series winning approach.

The Cubs, experiencing a World Series hangover that saw them enter the All Star break under .500, were able to stay afloat for the first 3 and a half months of the season due to a weak NL Central. However, instead of trusting the team already in place to get things going, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer bolstered what few roster holes they had and have kick-started a sleeping giant.

Since acquiring Jose Quintana on July 14th, the Cubs are 14-3 and have leapfrogged the Brewers to take control of the NL Central. Having filled the three discernible roster holes that they had – left handed reliever, backup catcher, starting pitcher – with micro-precision trades, Chicago appears set for another playoff run and has put itself back on track for more future success after appearing unsteady.

Out in Washington, the bullpen appears to be the only problem. The Nationals are 63-42 and hold a commanding 13 game lead over the second place Marlins in the NL East. However, with 14 blown saves and a 4.38 ERA entering the All-Star break, some clear help was needed in the bullpen.

GM Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals’ front office acted accordingly, making trades for A’s relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen along with Twins’ closer Brandon Kintzler. By adding 3 back end arms and addressing the dire bullpen need, Washington has secured itself a more stable playoff position and can feel good about their chances of finally making good on the promise of a World Series run that they have teased their fans with for so long.

Since the break, the Nationals haven’t blown a save and hold a much improved 3.05 team bullpen ERA. Problem solved thus far.

With a 75-31 record on August 2nd, the Dodgers have something seriously special going on. That .708 winning percentage has them on pace for 114 wins, just 3 shy of setting a Major League record. Clearly, this is a tremendous team having a tremendous season.

With an approach reflecting that, the Dodgers didn’t mess around at the deadline. They tried and failed to acquire Zach Britton from the Orioles. However, when that fell through, Andrew Freidman, Farhan Zaidi and the rest of the Los Angeles brass launched into plan B.

Plan B consisted of power relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani along with Texas Rangers’ ace Yu Darvish.

The Dodgers have a sparkling farm system that has been carefully built by a patient and stingy front office. Their traditional refusal to trade prospects has yielded them Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger’s respective 2016 and 2017 breakouts. However, understanding that 114 win teams don’t come around very often, Los Angeles rightly decided it was time to bite the bullet on their traditional mold and deal away some future talent.

Instead of cuddling up in a corner with their precious prospects, the best team in baseball sacked up, dealt some away and got better because of it. The Dodgers’ are now easily in pole position to win their first World Series since 1988 because of a superb trade deadline and it was beautiful to watch.

I also have to give props to the Diamondbacks for going and getting JD Martinez. Arizona is currently in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and although they don’t appear good enough to take down the Cubs, Nationals, or Dodgers, they have separated as the best of the rest.

Their move for Martinez showed a clear approach. Arizona believes that they just have to make the playoffs to have a shot. The Diamondbacks didn’t deplete the farm system chasing after rentals, they made a calculated move in order to smartly capitalize on a winning team without mortgaging their future.

Those 4 teams all guaranteed themselves a playoff spot by simply having a clear plan and being active at the deadline.

In the American League, the story wasn’t so much about separating the gap between playoff teams as it was closing the gap.

The Astros, to this point, have made themselves a clear front runner in the junior circuit. Sports Illustrated, 3 years ago, declared them the 2017 World Series champions and Houston has apparently taken that to heart.

However, some chinks in the armor have shown through over the course of the past month or so and Houston is only 8-8 since the All Star break with a disturbing 5.64 team ERA.  Sensing an opportunity to close ground on the previously invincible looking Astros, the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians all pounced.

New York reeled in the most prized possession of the trade deadline in Sonny Gray. Boston nabbed themselves Eduardo Nunez and Addison Reed, thus far solving their 3rd base issue and adding another power arm to an already stacked bullpen. And Cleveland moved for strikeout machine Joe Smith from Toronto, further solidifying a bullpen that has already shown itself as a dynamic October weapon.

Hell, even the plucky Tampa Bay Rays acquired Lucas Duda and Steve Cishek to fortify their troops for a possible Wild Card run.

The gap that Houston had previously created between themselves and the rest of the American League is now all but gone. Old fashioned aggressive dealing by Dave Dombrowski, Brian Cashman and Chris Antonetti closed it and just made the junior circuit playoff picture a whole lot more interesting.

And on the selling side, Texas and Oakland nailed it.

Instead of waiting until the offseason and possibly only getting a compensatory draft pick, the Texas Rangers opted to pull back 3 prospects for walk year ace Yu Darvish. Prospects are already one of the most volatile commodities in baseball, but prospects that haven’t even been drafted yet take it to another level. Texas secured themselves a much more comfortable return by trading Darvish to Los Angeles, even if they didn’t get back the ideal package of prospects they were looking for.

Oakland did similarly with their trades of Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen. Knowing they aren’t ready to win right now, the A’s have no use for those 3 players. Instead of letting their value waste away on a losing team, Oakland acquired high quality future talent from the Yankees for Gray, and also got prospects back for Doolittle and Madsen.

With 2 more years of control, could Oakland have easily held onto Sonny Gray in hopes of having him ready to lead a winning team soon? Absolutely, but Billy Beane isn’t stupid enough to think that his team is going to need a player like Gray right now or even in the immediate future because he knows that the A’s won’t be ready to win during Sonny Gray’s contracted tenure.

So, he planned for the future.

It boggled my mind while watching the trade deadline unfold that only 11 out of 30 teams seemed to have a clear plan and know what they were doing. In a seller’s market, only Oakland and Texas truly took advantage of a seemingly voracious appetite for pitching.

Understanding that playoff opportunities aren’t to be taken for granted, Tampa Bay and Arizona (and Kansas City in a way, but that’s a more unique situation) made calculated deals to maximize the teams they have now without selling away their futures.

And with pressure to win now and rosters conducive to that plan, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago and Washington went all in and have essentially set the playoff picture.

When October rolls around and the teams playing include the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Indians, Cubs, Nationals and Diamondbacks, everyone will see that activity and aggression won the trade deadline. No team has ever won the World Series by sitting pat in July, and no team that isn’t listed above will be raising a trophy this year either.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

How Active Teams Won the Trade Deadline

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

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

It is Officially Time for the Cardinals to Sell

It is July 6th, and the St. Louis Cardinals are 43-41. That record places them 9.5 games back of the 52-32 Chicago Cubs and sitting in 3rd place in the National League Central division. Normally, still being 3 months away from the playoffs, Cardinals fans would have reason to be patient and optimistic – particularly considering that St. Louis is only 3 games shy of the second wild card spot.

This year is very different.

Following a dreadful 7-5 home loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight, St. Louis sits in a very precarious position. With the trade deadline coming up, General Manager John Mozeliak has a potentially franchise altering decision to make. Do the Cardinals buy or sell?

In this writer’s opinion, for the first time in my recent memory, the Cardinals should sell.

There are a lot of factors to this decision, but let’s start with the things that tonight’s 7-5 loss to Pittsburgh taught us.

The Pirates, despite their underwhelming start, are still very good and will only get better. Having won 6 straight games, Pittsburgh has now surpassed St. Louis for 2nd place in the division. Gerrit Cole just made his first start of an injury rehab assignment on Tuesday, striking out 6 in 3 innings of work for Triple-A Indianapolis, and is due back very soon. His return, combined with the arrival of top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow and the impending returns of Francisco Cervelli and, eventually, Jameson Taillon can lead Pittsburgh to believe that they will only get stronger in the second half.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are trending in the very opposite direction. The team’s leading home run hitter, Brandon Moss, was put on the 15 day disabled list on Tuesday with a sprained left ankle, and that news came following the news that ace reliever Kevin Siegrist would be placed on the disabled list with mononucleosis – basically, extreme fatigue.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the Cardinals’ only All-Star, Matt Carpenter, left tonight’s game in the 2nd inning with what the club called, “a strained right oblique.” Carpenter – 1.001 OPS / 164 WRC+ / 3.5 WAR – has dealt with said injury before, and we could be looking at possibly a month long stay on the shelf. Carpenter potentially being out for a month would be a devastating blow to St. Louis, and the fact that the Cardinals haven’t been able to win with Carpenter doesn’t remotely give me any belief that they can win without him.

Following Carpenter’s exit, the Cardinals took a 5-1 lead and looked poised to snatch a crucial win from Pittsburgh. That was all before Jaime Garcia and the sieve-like Cardinal bullpen decided to have another breakdown and change the script. With no Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton inherited the 7th inning tonight, and promptly gave up the 3 runs which would give Pittsburgh a lead that their lights out bullpen would not relinquish.

The Cardinals’ bullpen has been a problem all season long, and there isn’t a reason to believe that improvement will occur. The Cardinals’ collective 3.73 bullpen ERA ranks 10th in baseball, and the 9 losses surrendered is tied for 4th best in baseball. So the fact that the Cardinal bullpen has still felt extremely inconsistent and vulnerable despite the seemingly solid numbers is worrisome.

Yeah, I know, how brilliant to base my opinion on a bullpen off of a gut feeling that I get while watching them every night, but it’s true. No team can win in the playoffs with a bullpen like the Cardinals have. With Siegrist’s injury being as unpredictable as it is, Trevor Rosenthal’s meltdown – 5.28 ERA, 22 walks in 29 innings – and Jonathan Broxton’s inconsistency – 1.80 ERA in April, 9.31 ERA in May, 0.77 ERA in June – the Cardinal bullpen doesn’t really point towards improvement.

But, let’s assume that the Cardinals decide to become buyers at the July trade deadline, they would presumably be shopping for bullpen arms and/or a position player. So what kind of bullpen help is out there on the market?

Looking to New York, the names of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman have been thrown all over the trade rumor mill. Miller is likely out of the Cardinals price range, as the Yankees’ have reportedly asked for Kyle Schwarber in return for Miller from the Cubs; the Cardinals do not have a player comparable to Schwarber that should be dealt for two and a half years of an 8th inning reliever, that’s completely unreasonable for a transitioning club like St. Louis.

Moving along to Chapman – who will be a free agent at the end of the season – his asking price will likely be in the range of either a young, MLB ready position player – a la Kolten Wong or Randal Grichuk – or a B+ position player prospect – a la Carson Kelly or Harrison Bader. Neither of those scenarios should be attractive to St. Louis, as Chapman’s price tag at the end of the season will be too high to re-sign him, and giving up any of those four names for three months of Aroldis Chapman should be a big red light.

In an almost identical scenario to Chapman is Arizona closer Brad Ziegler. He is a free agent at the end of the 2016 season, and would likely carry a high price tag due to his sparkling 1.85 ERA and 18/19 save record. Milwaukee closer Jeremy Jeffress – he of a 2.45 ERA and a 23/24 save record – will carry a heavy price tag due to the 3 years of control a club will have over him following the 2016 season, and it’s highly unlikely that Milwaukee would be willing to part ways with their top reliever to a team in the same division.

In looking at the possible bullpen trade market, none of the Cardinals’ options really make sense at this point in the season, and ever since the 2nd wild card was added into the mix by Major League Baseball, the trade deadline has become a sellers’ market.

The injury to Matt Carpenter – on top of the already existing injuries to Brandon Moss, Kevin Siegrist, and now Jhonny Peralta – combined with an inconsistent bullpen and the recent and expected continual resurgence of the Pirates put the Cardinals in a position to sell; a position they must take advantage of…

…which brings us to a different question. If the Cardinals are to sell, who do they put out on the market?

In no particular order, here are the players that St. Louis should look to sell before the July 31st trade deadline.

Matt Adams – With the injury to Brandon Moss, Adams should get the bulk of the playing time over at 1st base for the next few weeks. But, with Mike Matheny being the manager that he is, Jedd Gyorko has started both of the games that Moss has been unavailable for. As Adams showed earlier in the season, he is a very productive first baseman when he gets consistent playing time. When given 22 starts during the month of May, Adams posted a 1.064 OPS and drove in 19 runs. He will have two years of arbitration control beyond this one, so to a team looking to buy, such as the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, or Houston Astros, Adams could present very good value.

Seung-hwan Oh – By far, Oh has been the Cardinals best reliever. Sporting a 1.67 FIP, 12.2 K/9 rate and racking up 1.4 WAR so far this season, Oh represents a very dependable and very versatile reliever, as he has pitched anywhere from the 6th to the 9th inning for the Cardinals this year. In a reliever market that seems very top-heavy, Oh could be a mid-level option for any team looking for reliever help. Being on a one year deal, the Cardinals’ asking price couldn’t necessarily be particularly high, but Oh is still a valuable piece that could fetch a solid return in a somewhat sparse reliever market.

Brandon Moss – Depending on how long his DL stint is, Moss could be unavailable at the July deadline due to nobody wanting to trade for an injured player. But, with a .566 slugging percentage, a .910 OPS, 17 home runs, and the ability to play both corner outfield positions and first base, Moss presents tremendous value. He is a free agent at the end of the season, but plenty of teams could use a player like Moss, and if the Cardinals decide to sell him, he would be in high demand among relatively offensively challenged teams such as Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Jaime Garcia – This is the Cardinals’ big ticket to a truly successful trade deadline, in my eyes. The starting pitching market at this year’s trade deadline is pretty low on talent, with the biggest potential names out there being Rich Hill and Hector Santiago. Julio Teheran’s name has been thrown around, but the Braves are adamant that they will hang onto their ace and keep him around through their rebuild. With many contending teams in dire need of starting pitching – Kansas City, Boston, Baltimore, Texas – Garcia would be in high demand. He has proven his health over the past season and a half, and his 162 ERA+ and 4.1 WAR during the 2015 season show that Garcia can be a frontline left-handed starter. On top of that, Garcia has a very reasonably priced $12 million team option in 2017, so there is control beyond this season. For a pitching-needy club making a postseason push, the Cardinals could really pull in some pieces for Garcia.

This article could be interpreted as Ryan panicking and giving up on the Cardinals after just one frustrating July game, but I don’t view it that way. I viewed tonight, July 6th, 2016, as a reality check.

The Cardinals are in a very precarious position. The team’s core is finally showing signs of slowing down and breaking down. Yadier Molina got off to hot start, but has since struggled his way to a .671 OPS and a startling -1 defensive runs saved. Adam Wainwright has somewhat turned things around following his dreadful start, but still sits with a 4.70 ERA and a career low 6.1 K/9 rate, suggesting that his stuff just simply isn’t fooling hitters like it normally has. And while Matt Holliday has hit 15 home runs, his OBP is a career low .319 and his defensive metrics are atrocious.

The 2012 Phillies are often used as an example of how not to deal with an aging core, as that front office simply held on too long and the team’s core aged and sent the team into a rebuilding abyss. If the Cardinals decide to be patient and make one last run with this core, they will have to give up valuable young pieces to do so and thus could be looking at a similar situation; a gutted farm system, a bunch of aging veterans, and no success to show for it.

The Cardinals have plenty of young talent spread throughout their minor league system and are not far away from being a very good team. But this is just not their year, and giving up valuable young farm system talent for short term rentals would only set them back further.

This one month could decide the future of one of the greatest franchises that baseball has ever known. Let us all hope and pray that John Mozeliak makes the moves that help us look back upon this month as the time that the Cardinals began their next great dynasty, not the time that the Cardinals began their descent into baseball hell.

It is Officially Time for the Cardinals to Sell

Why is Everyone Overlooking the Pittsburgh Pirates?

The NFL makes me sick. It’s product has been diluted by the cartel-esque nature of its business dealings, slow replay, annoying announcers, too many flags, and the all-too-prevalent knowledge that just about everyone on the field is risking their lives for a game and an organization that only cares about the money they subconsciously produce.

Watching football just makes me sad and it makes me miss baseball even more than I already do. With all of this so eloquently being said, let’s talk baseball.

The Cubs. You’re scared of them, I’m scared of them, and we’re all scared of them. Their stockpile of superstar position players and top end starting pitching talent has them poised to end the famous 108 year World Series drought. The questions have stopped being, “can the Cubs do it?” and have turned towards, “Who in the wide world of sports is going to stop them?”

Amid all this talk of the Cubs meteoric rise to world dominance and the Cardinals’ seeming fall from grace we’ve forgotten about something.

The Pirates are still really good at baseball.

Pirates 1
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Like I said, all the National League talk has been about Cardinals-Cubs, the Giants’ even year devil magic, the Diamondbacks’ rise to prominence, the Braves’ terrific rebuild, and whether the Mets can sustain last year’s run to the Fall Classic. Lost amid all this shuffle is the fact that the Pirates were a 98 win team last year. 98 wins is something that only 3 other teams have achieved in the past 5 seasons.

So why is everyone overlooking Pittsburgh?

This is most definitely a product of my St. Louis-based bias, but I believe that both the Cardinals and the Pirates will thrive in the underdog roles they have been placed in. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has always been known as a terrific motivator and his usage of an ‘us against the world’ mentality carried his team all the way to the World Series in 2013. Same thing with Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle minus the World Series appearance.

You can take that last paragraph with a grain of salt as it is a byproduct of my own estimation of the two teams’ respective dugout mindsets and has no real facts behind it. But the mental aspect of baseball is so important, and a talented team that has a chip placed on its shoulder suddenly becomes astronomically more dangerous in my estimation.

In 2013, ZiPS had the Red Sox projected for 82 wins. Instead, following an April tragedy, the Red Sox reeled off 97 wins and a world title. If you think this had nothing to do with the extra motivation and chip that was a derivative of the Boston Marathon bombing you’re just kidding yourself.

The aforementioned ZiPS has the Pirates projected to win 83 games in 2016, a far cry from the 98 they won just a season ago. This came as a surprise to me, considering the team they fielded just last year is the one they will largely put out on the field again this upcoming season.

In the field, the only noticeable weakness is 1st base, which Michael Morse will presumably occupy. Other than that, everything is set, and room for improvement is to be expected.

Coming into 2015, Korean import Jung-ho Kang didn’t have a set role and thus had to scrap for at-bats. Even with a late season injury that cost him the final few weeks of 2015, Kang posted a 4.0 WAR in just 467 plate appearances. With Neil Walker now in New York, Kang is the opening day 2nd baseman and can expect a full season’s worth of plate appearances barring another unforeseen injury. According to my rudimentary math skills, increasing Kang’s at-bats to 600 – combined with the same type of 2015 production – would produce 5.14 WAR, a +1.4 increase.

After a breakout 2014 campaign in which he produced 5.3 WAR and finished 9th in MVP voting, 3rd baseman Josh Harrison spent much of 2015 on the shelf with various injuries. In 449 PA, Harrison logged 1.8 WAR. For whatever reason, ZiPS only projects Harrison to have 480 PA in 2016, yet produce 2.4 WAR in those 480 PA. Give him 600 PA on that pace and he produces 3.0 WAR on that pace.

And about the 1st base situation, in 89 PA with Pittsburgh in 2015 Morse produced 0.2 WAR, outpacing Pedro Alvarez’s 0.1 WAR in 491 PA. So if Morse even produces a simple 1.0 WAR in 2016 the Pirates will be improving at 1st base instead of declining.

The pitching staff remains wholly intact, only losing AJ Burnett and J.A. Happ, who have been replaced by the free agent signing of Ryan Vogelsong and the acquisition of Jon Niese from the New York Mets. In 2015, the starting staff of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke produced a combined WAR of 10.8. ZiPS has the Pirates 2016 starting staff of Gerrit Cole, Jon Niese, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke projected to produce a combined WAR of 11.6.

11.6 is more than 10.8 in case your math is off and again, the Pirates are projected to improve, not decline.

The Pirates still have star power in the outfield between Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. That trio produced 12.8 WAR in 2015 and ZiPS has them projected at 12.7 WAR this season.

Behind the plate, Francisco Cervelli remains the primary catcher with Chris Stewart serving as the backup, however ZiPS only has Cervelli projected to get 326 PA. As I have done before, I’m going to use my brilliant math skills to see what kind of production Cervelli would deliver if given 600 PA. On his projected pace Cervelli would produce 4.6 WAR in 600 PA, an increase of his 2015 output of 3.1 WAR in 510 PA.

For the sake of saving my brain cells I’m only going to look at the top 4 relievers in the Pittsburgh bullpen. In 2015, the quartet of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo and Jared Hughes produced 6.5 WAR in 276.1 IP. The 2016 estimated quartet of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Radhames Liz and Juan Nicasio are projected to produce 4.1 WAR in 285.1 IP.

The bullpen is the only significant drop-off in WAR that I found between the Pirates’ 2015 squad and their 2016 projected squad. Granted, these are all projections, but even still I don’t understand how Pittsburgh factors as an 83 win team while fielding virtually the same team that won 98 games just a year ago.

Miami Marlins v Pittsburgh Pirates
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

It caught my eye and made me raise an eyebrow when I looked at it, but that’s just the thing; I looked at it.

As I brought up earlier, Pittsburgh has been severely overlooked throughout the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry talk and other things. A 98 win team is not one to overlook, and with the team they’ll be putting out on the field in 2016, the Pirates could make some serious noise.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

All credit to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for data used in this post

Why is Everyone Overlooking the Pittsburgh Pirates?