Archive for the ‘Oakland A’s’ category

NC Dinos Add a Couple of New Foreign Players

July 3, 2019

I was interested to see yesterday that the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO have swapped out two of their three foreign players for new ones.  Christian Bethancourt and Eddie Butler got the ax, and Jake Smolinski and Christian Friedrich got the opportunity.

Bethancourt hadn’t hit the way the Dinos had hoped, and I’m not sure how much use the Dinos got out of him at his principal position (catcher) because of the language barrier.  Butler wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t good in KBO either (at least relative to his salary), and he was experiencing shoulder problems.

One thing is certain: Smolinski and Friedrich will be making a helluva lot less for the Dinos’ final 62 games than Bethancourt and Butler made for the Dino’s first approximately 82 games.  As an expansion team, the Dinos probably play in a secondary South Korean market, and the big contracts go to the players brought in at the beginning of the season.  Both Betancourt and Butler received $200,000 signing bonuses to come to South Korea at the start of 2019 and earned more than half of the total $1.3 million in salaries they had been promised before getting cut.  I very much doubt that either Smolinski or Friedrich will be earning more than $150,000 for the remainder of the 2019 KBO season, and each could be earning as little as about $90,000.

The small replacement salaries are in line with the players selected.  Smolinski was hitting fairly well in the AAA International League, but with newly introduced baseballs adding more power-hitting to what had been a pitchers’ league, his .864 OPS wasn’t quite in the top 20 among players with at least 200 IL plate appearances this year.

Christian Friedrich was pitching in the Independent-A Atlantic League for what I would guess was $2,500 a month, after missing most of 2017 and all of 2018 with elbow problems.  He was pitching well in the Atlantic League, but I can’t remember the last Atlantic League player signed by a KBO team.  Friedrich does have 296.2 career major league innings pitched, so that and his likely very cheap cost were presumably the main attractions for the Dinos.

In recent years, numerous foreign players have had success in the KBO in spite of being brought in as cheap, late-season replacements.  Jamie Romak, Michael Choice and Jerry Sands have all taken advantage of the opportunity as mid-season replacements to stick around and make some real money for at least one more season after the ones in which they were brought over.  The quality of KBO play is close enough to AAA that any successful AAA player has a shot at making in the KBO if he can get off to a hot start.

It’s worth noting that in the KBO’s salary scale, if your first contract amount is small, it tends to stay smaller even after a few months of successful performance have been established.  Even so, coming back the next season for a $500,000 salary sure beats AAA pay, and a full season’s strong performance in Year 2 can mean a $1 million salary for a third KBO season.  None too shabby for playing baseball.

Advertisements

Mr. Inconsistent

June 10, 2019

I just noticed that 33 year old Eric Sogard has a .799 OPS for the Toronto Blue Jays and has hit a career high five home runs so far in the still young 2019 season. He’s set his personal long-ball best in only 159 plate appearances.

I remember Sogard from when he was a glove-tree middle infielder and semi-regular for the A’s a few years ago.  He played in between 117 and 130 games three years in a row for the A’s, but the Oakland Coliseum is a tough place to hit, and two years with OPS totals below .600 and a knee injury in 2016 drummed him out of the major leagues.

He caught on with the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization in 2017 and a fast start at AAA Colorado Springs got him another shot in the Show.  He got off to an extremely hot start with the Brewers, as the team went from losing 89 the year before to winning 86 in 2017.

Sogard had a .900 OPS as late as July 23rd that season, but cooled off considerably in the second half and finished with a .770 OPS.  Along with Eric Thames, Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana, Sogard was one of the real offensive surprises and/or bright spots in the Brewers’ line-up that year.

Alas, in 2018 Sogard came crashing back down to earth.  In fact, he was absolutely horrible, slashing an awful .134/.241/.165 in 113 plate appearance, before the Brewers released him on July 10th.  The organization re-signed him, but when he didn’t play better in the minors, the Brewers released him again on September 1st.

At the time, I thought that Sogard’s 2018 was an extreme case of the law of averages coming back to take its revenge on Sogard’s fine 2017 season.  Also, Sogard was 32 in 2018, an age at which performance drops sharply for a lot of players, and I expected that we’d probably never see Sogard in the majors again.

Instead, the Blue Jays signed Sogard to a minor league contract, he got off to a reasonably good start at AAA Buffalo and got a call up on April 15th when the Jays decided that Lourdes Gurriel needed more minor league seasoning.

As in Milwaukee in 2017, Sogard got off to a hot start with the Jays and has been cooling off since the start of May.  Even so, he’s been a relative bright spot on a very bad 2019 Blue Jays team, which is mainly in the process of developing some young stars so that the team can be better in the not too distant future.

At some point soon enough one would expect that Lourdes Gurriel will go back to being the Jays’ every day 2Bman, and Sogard will move back into a bench role.  However, the Jays’ outfield has hit so poorly this season that right now Gurriel is playing in left field, and Sogard may remain at second so long as he can continue to provide more offense than the Jays’ outfielders.

My Favorite Minor League Stars 2019

June 8, 2019

Every year I like to write about current or former minor league stars who have particularly captured my attention and/or imagination.  Here is this season’s edition:

Mike Loree and Josh Lowey.  Two pitchers who never reached the major leagues (or even got close), but have carved out professional success because they can pitch.  Both are 34 this year.

Mike Loree is currently in his seventh CPBL season and continues to be the best pitcher in Taiwan, although another former SF Giants farm hand, Henry Sosa, gave Loree a run for his money this season until having his contract purchased for a return to South Korea’s KBO last week.  I wrote about Mike Loree yesterday.

Josh Lowey is in his sixth season in LMB and he is to the Mexican League what Loree is to the CPBL.  Lowey is also 33.  Lowey has started the 2019 LMB season 8-0, and his 3.91, while on its face high, is actually the ninth best in a 16-team circuit known for its offense.  Lowey is now an incredible 63-24 in LMB play, a .724 winning percentage.  Unfortunately, Lowey has missed his last two starts.  He’s on the reserved list, rather than the Injured List, so maybe he’s dealing with a family emergency.

Cyle Hankerd and Blake Gailen.  Two more 34 year oldss who have never reached the MLB majors (or come particularly close) but who can play.  Hankerd, who was once a 3rd Round draft pick out of USC, is in his sixth season in LMB.  He has a 1.011 OPS so far in 2019, although he’s only played in 30 games.

A strong season in the Atlantic League last year got Blake Gailen a job playing for the Dodger’s AAA team in Oklahoma City.  I suspect he’s doing double duty as a coach, whether officially or not, based on the fact that he’s spent a lot of time on the Injured List and is only 3 for 19 when he’s played.  He won’t last much longer on the roster hitting like that, but I expect he’ll go into coaching when they tell him he can’t play any more.

Chris Roberson.  Now in his age 39 season, he’s still the undisputed American King of Mexican baseball.  He’s played nine seasons in LMB and at least 14 seasons in Mexico’s even better winter league (MXPW or LMP).  However, his current .893 OPS isn’t even in the LMB’s top 40 in what has been a great season for hitters south of the border.  If any American is making a good living playing baseball in Mexico, it’s Chris Roberson.

Another Mexican Leaguer who has captured my attention in the last year is Jose Vargas.  Once a 22nd round draft pick out of Ventura College, a JC in Ventura, California, Vargas quickly washed out of the White Sox’ system, after which he spent six (!) playing for the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Indy-A Frontier League.  Traverse City is by most accounts a great place to spend one’s summers; however, it’s hard to imagine being able to have a whole lot of fun on $1,600 a month, which is about where Frontier League salaries max out.

Vargas is big, has power and is able to play 3B, 1B and LF.  After paying his dues in the Frontier League, he was able to catch on with an LMB team in 2017, possibly due to the fact that LMB began treating Mexican American players as “domestic,” rather than “foreign” players for roster purposes around that time.

In his age 31 season, he’s leading LMB with 27 HRs in only 222 plate appearances, and his 1.220 OPS is third best in the league in spite of the fact that he doesn’t walk much.  I’m somewhat doubtful that Vargas is currently making the LMB’s $10,000 salary cap, because his team’s attendance is terrible (just below 2,200 per game), but the odds are good that if he isn’t earning it this year, he’ll get it next year in light of how well he’s now playing.

Karl Galinas .  A 35 year old Can-Am League pitcher, Galinas is the modern day equivalent of Lefty George.  George was a marginal major leaguer who pitched nearly forever in his adopted home town of York, Pennsylvania, where he also ran a bar.

Orlando Roman‘s baseball odyssey may not yet be over.  He’s made nine starts in the Puerto Rico Winter League over the last three winter seasons, so you can’t completely count him from making one or more in 2019-2020.  He pitched professionally for about 20 years in just about every league except the MLB majors.  He’s another pitcher like Mike Loree and Josh Lowey who has leveraged a not quite major league talent into the most successful professional career possible.

A couple of guys in the MLB minors I’m following are Tyler Alexander and John Nogowski.  Tyler Alexander got his start in Brewers’ system but was effectively banished from MLB after testing positive for pot a couple of times while he was having some personal problems.  He spent three years pitching great for Fargo-Moorhead in the American Association and wintering a couple of season in the LMP.

Last year, Alexander pitched effectively in LMB in the summer and in the Dominican League in the winter.  That got him a minor league contract with the A’s, who sent him to AAA Las Vegas.  So far, the results have not been encouraging.  Alexander has a 6.85 ERA after 11 start.  Although he’s struck out 46 batters in 47.1 innings pitched, the long ball has killed him.  I suspect the A’s haven’t yet moved him to the bullpen because they don’t have anyone they reasonably expect to pitch better as a starter in what is probably a terrific hitters’ park.

Last off-season, I thought that Alexander would be a great prospect for Taiwan’s CPBL.  It could still happen, since Alexander will be 28 next season, and isn’t going to last long with a 6.85 ERA at AAA, even in a hitters’ park.

I wrote about John Nogowski two years ago when, after getting bounced out of the A’s system, I noticed he was batting over .400 in the American Association at the still young age of 24.  I “predicted” he’d get signed by another MLB organization soon, and he was within about a week by the Cardinals’ organization.  More importantly, John wrote a comment on my article, becoming the first and so far only active professional player ever to comment on one of my articles.  Needless to say, I’ll be a fan of John’s for life.

Nogowski played well at AA Springfield in in 2018 and is playing fairly well this season at AAA Memphis at age 26.  He’s currently slashing .267/.402/.400.  He’s got major league get-on-base skills, but doesn’t have the power he needs for the position he plays (1B).  His talents might be more suited to Japan’s NPB, where the outfield fences are a little shorter.

At any rate, there’s still a chance that Nogowski could get a major league look this year, if things break right for him.  Unfortunately, he’s not currently on the Cards’ 40-man roster, which means he’ll have to get truly hot at AAA Memphis to bump somebody else off.

AAA Defense

April 27, 2019

I was wondering yesterday what the level of defense is like in AAA ball compared to the Show.  In 2018, major league teams combined for a .984 fielding percentage.  In the International League last year, the league fielding percentage was .982 and in the Pacific Coast League .981.  So MLB is clearly just a little bit better, to the tune of two or three fewer errors put 1,000 chances by this relatively objective metric.

One thing I noticed about looking at AAA fielding statistics from last year was the degree to which AAA players still play multiple positions each year.  By my count only 12 players out of 30 AAA teams managed to play even 100 games (out of a 140 game schedule) at the same position in 2018.

Not one outfielder managed to play 100 games at any of the three outfield positions.  Just about every AAA outfielder splits time between the corners or all three outfield positions.  Obviously, since it’s a developmental league, teams want as many of their players to be able to play multiple positions in a pinch if they are called up to the majors.

I was also wondering about the degree to which NPB and KBO teams are valuing defense among their foreign position players.  Both leagues still seem to prefer the best hitters they can find.  Unfortunately, baseball reference doesn’t provide fielding stats for NPB and the KBO, so there’s no way for me to compare defensive numbers between the three levels of play.

However, if some foreign players are good enough to star as hitters and pitchers, there must be some that could star in Asia based on their defense.  Particularly in this age of defensive metrics, there have to be some.  The fact that AAA players bounce around the diamond defensively must make it more difficult to project defense as it is offense.

One position I thought might be rich for defensive defensive value to Asian teams is 3B.  Most above major league average defensive shortstops, 2Bmen and CFs, even if they are not major league hitters, have a successful major league career path as bench infielders.  3B, however, is a position that is both difficult to play defensively, but has to be a major league hitter to keep a major league job.  Good glove, not quite major league hitting 3Bmen would seem to be especially good candidates for Asian major league success.

To my surprise, I found about 15 AAA 3Bman in 2018 who looked like they could play the hot corner at a major league level based on the raw numbers (fielding percentage; double plays and chances per 9/IP) who weren’t so young or good with the bat to be sure-fire prospects, but hit well enough in 2018 at the AAA level.

One I particularly like for Asian baseball next off-season is Albuquerque Isotope Josh Fuentes.  He batted .329 with an .871 OPS last year, and has a higher OPS (.924) so far this year.  On defense, Fuentes turned 25 DPs while making only 10 errors in 110 games and making 2.70 plays per 9/IP, so he’s likely a plus-major league defensive 3Bman.

However, Fuentes is 26 this year, and he is stuck behind Nolan Arenado in Denver, so unless he gets traded or Arenado gets hurt, Fuentes won’t much of a chance at the major league level this year.  Fuentes has all of 18 major league plate appearances to date, but that would be enough to entice an NPB or KBO team if Fuentes can keep his OPS this year at or near .900.

Another AAA 3Bman I’ll be keeping an eye on is the Las Vegas 51’s Sheldon Neuse.  He has the raw tools to be a plus major league defensive third-sacker and can play shortstop in a pinch, but he made a lot of errors last year and didn’t hit well in the Pacific Coast League (.661 OPS) in his age 23 season.  He’s slashing .308/.372/.474 so far this season.

Neuse is stuck behind Matt Chapman in Oakland, so he has to keep hitting in Las Vegas this summer and hope the A’s are buyers at the trade deadline, so he can get a shot at establishing himself as a major leaguer somewhere else while he’s still young enough to be considered a legitimate prospect.

Catcher Defense

April 16, 2019

One of the biggest breakthroughs of the recent analytics revolution of the last generation is the degree to which catcher defense can now be analyzed and quantified.  Specifically, pitch framing has turned out to be far more valuable than teams realized only two decades ago.  Teams, of course, knew that pitch framing was important, but until complete filming, saving and replay of every pitch thrown in MLB was accomplished it wasn’t really possible to quantify which catchers were good at and which ones weren’t and just how many runs are saved or lost as a result.

I was looking at fangraphs.com’s defensive leaders for 2018 today and the importance of catcher defense completely jumped out at me.  18 of the top 30 players in terms of runs saved over replacement were catchers.  Six of these 18 catchers caught fewer than 540 innings in 2018, meaning they played less than 60 full games at the position but were still among the most valuable defensive players in MLB.  The only other defenders of roughly or nearly equal value were the seven best everyday shortstops.

Three 2Bman, 3Bman Matt Chapman and CF Kevin Kiermaier round out the top 30.  Aside from being the only center fielder, Kiermaier played only 747.1 innings there in 2018, which gives you a pretty good idea of just how good his center field defense is.

MLB teams have known just about forever how importance catching defense is.  How else to explain the fact that Bill Bergen played 11 major league seasons more than 100 years ago in which he compiled an astounding .395 career OPS (even worse than today’s best hitting pitchers and a lot worse than the best hitting pitchers of his own era)?  Bergen played in the deadball era when catchers had to be good defensively, at least insofar as controlling the running game and fielding bunts.

What we have now is a better idea of which good-field, no-hit catchers are worth keeping around solely for their gloves and which ones aren’t.  By the same token, there are still intangibles like pitch-calling (particularly because on many teams the manager or coaches call the pitches and clubhouse/on-field presence which are hard to quantify.  Obviously, we can now quantify whether catchers of the same team have higher or lower ERAs when they are behind the dish, but it’s hard to quantify the value of pitch-calling or the ability to keep a pitcher calm and focused.

I definitely think that some catchers — at least based on fangraphs’ evaluations — are still seen as major league catchers simply because they have been major league catchers.  For example, Drew Butera just got the call to come up with Rockies in spite of the fact that he is now 35 years old and has been worth $21.4M less to his major league teams than a replacement level catcher would have been across his nine year major league career.

An Off-Season of Contract Extensions

March 26, 2019

As we approach the start of the 2019 season, it was a notable off-season for the way in which big money contract extensions eclipsed all but the top three free agent signings.  As Spring Training started, it seemed like every single team was determined to lock in their best players for many years at big money, bigger money it sure seems than the free agents got at least in grand total.

A couple of things seem to be in play here.  First, it seems like the owners have finally figured out what Charlie Finley had realized around 1975, which is essentially that only the superstars are worth the really big contracts and that more average players and aging stars are fungible enough that teams shouldn’t go around overpaying them.

When the players won the Andy Messersmith free agency arbitration, Finley suggested that all players should be allowed to be free agents every year.  That way, the biggest stars would get huge salaries, but all the other players would be competing with each other for contracts, which would drive their prices down.

However, the other owners thought Finley was a kook and wanted to hold on to their best players as long as they could.  Thus, the owners negotiated a six-year service requirement for free agency, which meant that there would always be more demand for free agents than there were actual players who satisfied the six year service requirement and were still playing well.  As a result, for a very long time, free agents received enormous contracts, and the players’ association used those contract amounts to get higher contracts for younger players through the salary arbitration process they had successfully negotiated for a few years earlier.

The pendulum back towards a freer market began when teams began to non-tender an increasingly large share of their arbitration eligible players as arbitration salaries also got enormous.  More available players each off-season meant more competition for second-tier free agents, and the non-tendered players were and are more likely to sign one-year contracts for less money just to guarantee themselves major league jobs.  That surely drove down the market for second-tier free agents.

Also, teams may be realizing that their own superstars are worth more to them than anyone else.  While it is certainly exciting to bring in a high profile free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, there is probably just as much good will to be gained from the fan base when a Mike Trout or Nolan Arenado is locked into play all or nearly all of his professional career for the team that developed him into a superstar.

Given how much more generous the recent spate of extensions feels compared to the free agent signings this winter, I would if teams aren’t acting collusively to send a message to players: sign with the team that developed you for big money, or test an increasingly uncertain free agent market.

Of course, if more superstars sign long-term extensions covering their prime and declining years, the superstars who do elect to become free agents will find even less competition for their services.  In short, the Bryce Harpers of the baseball world who elect free agency will continue to set contract records.  Instead, it’s the second-tier free agents who will be feeling greater pressure to accept any extension offers their current teams are willing to offer them.

Bruce Maxwell Signs with Mexican League’s Acereros del Norte

March 7, 2019

It sure is unusual to see a 28 year old once promising major league catcher sign with a Mexican League team, but Bruce Maxwell has done it, due to conduct the last two seasons that has made him unappealing to all 30 major league organizations.

Maxwell is the only major league player to have taken a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial discrimination in America back in 2017.  My first thought in reading that he had signed with a Mexican League team is that he has been unfairly black-listed because of the National Anthem issue.  However, I resisted my gut reaction, because Maxwell’s situation is a lot more complicated than that.

He was arrested during the 2017-2018 off-season for allegedly pulling a gun on a fast-food delivery person and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct.  He ultimately pleaded out to disorderly conduct, which mlbtraderumors.com describes as a “class 6 undesignated offense,” which I assume means not very serious, and received probation and community service.  Presumably, the probation period has expired, or he wouldn’t be able to play in Mexico.

Also, Maxwell was absolutely horrible in 2018, both for the A’s and also at their AAA affiliate in Nashville.  The A’s also reportedly had concerns about his conditioning (he’s currently listed at 6’1″, 250 lbs — conditioning is always going to be an issue for someone with those dimensions).

As such, teams could legitimately believe that Maxwell is a head-case and would prefer that he work out his issues some place else before signing him.  It certainly raises issues when a player his age and on the verge of major league stardom engages in crazy behavior and doesn’t keep himself in shape.  Add to that the fact that as a major league veteran, Maxwell couldn’t be signed to play at the minor league level for less than about $90,000, it is not entirely surprising that all 30 major league teams would take a pass on him.

The Acereros de Monclova (the city in which the team plays) are one of the top Mexican League teams and routinely collect the best foreign players (which in this case includes Americans) to play for them, so it’s no surprise that they would jump at the chance to sign a player of Maxwell’s talents.  Obviously, NPB and KBO teams will be keeping an eye on how Maxwell performs in Mexico, although neither league likes to sign foreign catchers because of worries about foreign catchers’ ability to communicate with domestic pitchers — although the ability of foreign pitchers to communicate with domestic catchers is not considered an issue at all, as both leagues routinely sign foreign pitchers.

If nothing else, playing in Mexico should determine pretty quickly whether Maxwell now has his head on straight.  It’s a big let-down playing in Mexico under Mexican League conditions for Mexican League money (probably no more than $5,000 or $6,000 a month for rookie foreigners), and it takes a certain determination to move past that and put in the work to succeed even in what is probably a AA class league.  If Maxwell plays up to his abilities, MLB teams (or NPB or KBO teams) will come calling soon enough.  If not, then maybe we’ll see Maxwell playing next in the Indy-A Atlantic League or American Association.