Archive for the ‘St. Louis Cardinals’ category

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.

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Three True Outcomes Make for Boring Baseball

May 20, 2019

Bryce Harper hit a home run for the second consecutive game on Sunday, but he’s batting .235 and he’s on pace for 218 strikeouts this year.  He’s a better player than this, but he seems to have convinced himself that singles have no value in today’s game.

Harper hit .330 in 2015 and .319 in 2017, but he seems to have convinced himself that somehow 450 foot home runs put more runs on the scoreboard than 400 home runs.  What is he thinking?

Long home runs are sexy, but Harper is now married, so what good does it do him, unless he’s one unfaithful Mormon.

I want to see the superstars who can hit for power, draw walks, and hit for averageChristian Yelich hit .326 last year and is batting .325 so far this year.  He’s on pace for 99 walks this year.  Mike Trout has a .306 batting average.  Cody Bellinger is still hitting .405 and is second in the Senior Circuit behind Yelich with 17 home runs.  Players with superstar talent can still have it all.

I’m beginning to think that Bryce Harper has a $330 million body and a 10 cent head.  Hell, even Joey Gallo is batting .277 this year.  There is just no reason that I can think of that Harper can’t hit .275, draw 100+ walks and hit 30 or 40 or 50 home runs and not strike out 150 times in a season.

There is a once famous story about Stan Musial that is worth retelling here.  The story goes more or less as follows: Musial had a huge year coming back from WWII in 1946.  He batted a league leading .365 with a league leading 50 doubles and 20 triples.  He also hit 16 HRs.  Musial thought that hitting like that without trying to hit home runs, what could he do if he really tried to hit them out.  He hit 19 dingers in 1947, but all his other numbers dropped off dramatically.

In 1948, Musial went back to just trying to put a good swing on the ball while squaring it up.  He batted a league leading .376 and lead the league again in hits, doubles and triples while hitting a career high 39 HRs.  As the story goes, he hit more home runs not trying to hit home runs.

The point of the story, which is probably more true today, given how strong the best hitters are, is that trying to hit home runs is foolish.  Just swing hard and try to hit the ball squarely, and let the outcomes be what they may.  You can’t tell me that a player with Harper’s talent and strength couldn’t hit 50 home runs in a season (to all fields) merely by putting a good swing on the ball and trying to square the ball up by hitting it where it’s pitched.

The largest share of HRs, even for Harper, come on 2-0 and 3-1 pitches when the hitter can look for a specific pitch to crush.  The modern game would be so much more exciting if players didn’t try to hit every single pitch to the wall.

Bryce Harper is setting himself up for a disappointing 13 years in front of Philthy’s notoriously fickle sports fans if he tries to hit a home run every single time he comes up to the plate.

Christian Walker Is NL’s Biggest Surprise So Far

April 24, 2019

The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Christian Walker is the Senior Circuit’s biggest surprise so far in 2019.  The 28 year old 1Bman was stuck behind Paul Goldschmidt until Big Paul got traded away to the Cardinals this past off-season.  Walker is taking full advantage, batting .347 with a 1.135 OPS through his first 21 games of the season.

How long Walker can keep the hitting up remains to be seen.  Not many players who establish themselves as major league regulars at age 28 have long major league careers.

Walker proved that he could hit when he posted a .980 OPS at AAA Reno in 2017, and he has the advantage of playing his home games in one of MLB’s better hitters’ parks.

Walker had very limited playing time in four major league seasons prior to 2019, and he was often pinch-hitting, which is tough for a young player to do.  One thing that may work in his favor is that he has shown a pronounced reverse-platoon advantage in his career.  As an exclusively right-handed batter, he has an MLB career .975 OPS against righties and a career .789 OPS against lefties.  He’s had fewer than 200 major league career plate appearances, so the platoon splits will probably change significantly over time.

Even so, it’s got to be easier for a right-handed hitter to hit better against lefties with more experience than to learn how to hit righties.  While Walker’s career OPS against righties is certain to regress toward the mean the more he plays, it can only be a good thing for him if he hits well against righties to begin with.

For a player like Walker to have any kind of major league career, he needs to do what he’s doing right now — hit a ton right off the bat when he finally gets a chance to play every day.  I don’t think that Walker will make them forget about Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona, but I will be rooting for him to at least be the next Garrett Jones.

San Francisco Giants Back in on the Hunt for Bryce Harper

February 27, 2019

The Giants are reportedly back in on the hunt for Bryce Harper and now willing to offer him the record-setting ten year deal he has been seeking.  It is not particularly surprising that the first few games of spring training action have made the Giants worried about the apparently sorry bunch of outfielders they have on hand.  The Dodgers are also reportedly considering meeting Harper’s and Scott Boras’ ten-year contract demand, but the fact remains that the Gints sorely need Harper in their 2019 outfield a lot more than either the Phillies or the Bums do.

Even with the Giants seemingly starting to move toward true rebuild mode, a ten-year deal would keep Harper around long enough to be a part of any rebuilt team come 2022 or 2023 while Harper is still in his prime.  Even with Harper, I am doubtful that the Giants would be anything better than a .500 team in 2019, so I expect the rebuilding to begin in earnest around the 2019 trade deadline.

I think the Giants will hold onto Buster Posey (and they’re stuck with Evan Longoria), but any of Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt or Joe Panik who is playing well in the first half will get traded, unless, of course, they are all playing well and the Giants are in contention.

Harper and Boras have been holding out for at least a $330 million guarantee and it now looks like they are going to get it.  The seven year contract extension with $234 million of new money the Rockies just gave Nolan Arenado, not to mention Manny Machado‘s $300 million ten-year deal with the Padres, suggest strongly that one of the three remaining pursuers will set a new salary guarantee record with Harper.  While teams seem more reticent about signing free agents, the contract extensions of Arenado, Mile Mikolas and Aaron Hicks this past week all suggest that teams will still spend big money to hold onto their best players through their age 34 or 35 seasons.

The Mikolas four-year contract extension is particularly eye-opening, given Mikolas’ short major league track record plus the fact that it reportedly includes a complete no-trade clause in addition to the $68M guarantee.  The Hicks’ contract extension is notable more for the length (seven years) than the amount guaranteed ($70M).  However, because Hicks runs well and has improved dramatically at the plate the last two seasons, it looks like a great risk for the Bombers to take, even if Hicks can’t be expected to stick in center field for more than three or four more seasons.

Is Corey Kluber a Legitimate Hall of Fame Candidate?

February 12, 2019

I was looking at Corey Kluber‘s career stats the other day, and I wondered if what he has accomplished in the last five years has made him a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate.  The short answer is no, not yet.

The player Kluber currently looks most like is Johan Santana.  Santana was MLB’s best pitcher for the five seasons between 2004 and 2008.  However, arm problems then ruined his career, and he finished 139-78.

Santana appeared on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, but he received only 10 votes and was dropped from the 2019 ballot.  I definitely think that in 25 or 30 years, the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee (or whatever they call it now or then) will notice that Santana’s career record looks an awful lot like Dizzy Dean‘s and maybe even Sandy Koufax‘s.  However, Santana might be hurt by pitching in the heart of the PEDs ERA.

Corey Kluber will be 33 this upcoming season, but he’s bigger than Santana, so maybe his arm will hold out better.  He’s probably only one more CY Young caliber season (i.e., on a par with four of his last five seasons) and another 55 career wins from what it would require for him to be a sure thing to reach the Hall of Fame eventually.

Maybe Free Agents Just Aren’t Worth It

February 3, 2019

On February 1st, I was planning to write a post about how strange it is that four of the top five free agents (at least according to mlbtraderumors.com) are still unsigned.  Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post beat me to it.  However, the title of his article got me thinking whether not signing free agents means not trying to win.

Analytics are showing that free agents aren’t worth the money they are getting in terms of actual performance on the free agent contracts they sign and that MLB teams are finally catching up, although it has taken them a long time to do so.

I thought it might be interesting to look at what last year’s top 50 free agents (according to mlbtraderumors.com) did in  2018, the first year of their free agent deals, when everyone expects free agents to be worth the most.  Everyone basically understands that signing a free agent is a win-now strategy and that players are overpaid in the latter years of their free agent deals to provide big value in the first year or two of their contracts.

So what were free agents worth in the first year of the new contracts they signed during the 2017-2018 off-season, which was the off-season when free agent contracts dramatically tightened up in terms of guaranteed seasons?  As it turns out, not what they were paid.

I used the average salary over the years of multi-year contracts, rather than the actual first year salaries, which are in many cases lower, because it was less work to calculate.  It also gives a more accurate value, in a sense, of what the team will end up paying annually for the term of the contract.

By my calculation, teams committed $441.9 million in first year salaries, and got total production value, according to fangraphs.com, of only $356.6 million in return.  Of the 47 free agents I included, only 12 players performed in 2018 at a level greater than their average annual average salary over the lengths of their contracts, while 34 performed worse, 10 of whom cost their new teams money by playing at a level below replacement level.  The 47 players have a remaining 62 seasons on their combined contracts, when as a group they will almost certainly perform at a lower level than they did in 2018, since free agents as a group do not age well at all.

Free agent contracts look like a lottery gamble for teams.  A team might hit it big with the kind of performance J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Miles Mikolas and Mike Moustakas gave their teams in 2018, but teams were more likely to get the the underwhelming and overpaid performances Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Zack Cozart and Jay Bruce gave their 2018 teams.

There are a lot of reasons why teams would continue to sign free agents, even if they are overpaid even in their first seasons with their new clubs.  It’s good public relations to sign free agents, particularly if you have lost one or more of your own players to free agency.  The cost in talent, compared to trades, of signing a free agent is very low (although the current collective bargaining rules make it more expensive in terms of talent for the wealthiest, highest spending teams to spend big on free agents, which has always been the driver of the free agent market).  It might be worth overpaying a free agent in order to plug a glaring hole in your line-up.

However, what I take from this information is that it makes little sense to sign a free agent, particularly one in the bottom half of the top 50, unless you are fairly certain one or two performances is all that is separating your team from making or returning to the post-season.  Rebuilding teams shouldn’t be signing free agents until they are truly ready to compete.  Even if you don’t have a replacement level player in your organization at the position you are looking to improve at, a replacement level player can probably be obtained cheaply from another organization, particularly when compared to the financial cost of free agents, even with the sharp tightening in the market the last two off-seasons.

While I still suspect that teams are engaging in some kind of soft collusion — maybe MLB is holding meetings where MLB’s analysts are lecturing teams on the actual value of free agents each November — in-house analytics departments for each team are probably telling teams the one thing they need to do with respect to free agents is sign them for fewer seasons than they did in the past.

mlbtraderumors.com predicted that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would get respectively 14 and 13 season contracts at $30M per.  The reason they may not yet be signed is that, while teams are willing to pay the $30M per, they aren’t willing to guarantee more than eight or 10 seasons, even for free agents so young and so good.  The only rumors I have heard for either is that the White Sox may have offered Machado somewhere between $175M and $1250M for seven or eight seasons only.

The current collective bargaining agreement terms are devastating the free agent market, because the ten richest teams can’t spend like they once did.  The talent bite that comes from overspending the salary cap for three seasons in a row, in terms of draft picks and international amateur spending, is steep enough that the richest teams are all trying to keep close enough to the cap amount that they can dip under at least once every three seasons in order to avoid the most severe penalties.  It is the richest teams that drive the upper limits of free agent contracts, so the current rules are bound to effect free agent contracts in a big way.

KT Wiz Re-Sign Mel Rojas Jr. for $1.5 Million

December 28, 2018

The KBO’s KT Wiz re-signed slugging outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. to a deal that will pay Rojas a $500,000 signing bonus, $1 million in salary (likely not guaranteed) and an additional $100,000 in performance bonuses.  Rojas fills the last of 30 KBO major league roster spaces reserved for foreign players, and his contract is potentially the third largest for a foreigner this off-season, after the possible $1.92M that pitcher Josh Lindblom could earn and the possible $1.7M slugger Darin Ruf could earn — all three contracts include performance bonuses which will presumably require the players to remain productive and healthy for the full 2019 KBO season.

I wouldn’t normally write a post just on a single, non-record setting contract to play for a KBO team, but I found this signing interesting because there was a lot of talk this off-season that after a huge 2018 KBO season in which Rojas set a Wiz franchise record with 43 home runs and slashed .305/.389/.590, both scoring and driving in 114 runs, Rojas was hoping for a return to MLB.  Most of the time such expressions of desire to return to MLB turn out to be a negotiating ploy with the player’s KBO or NPB team, as no MLB organization is willing to match what the KBO or NPB team is willing to pay the player for the next season.

Nevertheless, it is a tried and true negotiating position, and with more foreign KBO and NPB players making triumphant returns to MLB in recent seasons, it is a negotiating strategy that’s likely to be better today than it ever was.  In fairness to Rojas and other foreign players who have made noises about returning to MLB, they probably do wish they could return to MLB for roughly same money they made the previous year in Asia.  I don’t think it is easy for foreign players to adjust to living and playing in Japan or South Korea.

The reality, of course, is that the players (with the exceptions of the very best foreigners like Eric Thames and Miles Mikolas) typically can’t get an acceptable MLB deal for precisely the same reasons that sent them to Asia to play in the first place.  They went to Asia to make major league money when no MLB team thought they were worth a major league contract.

If Rojas is truly serious about returning to MLB, he needs to have a 2019 season in the KBO even better than his 2018 season.  That might be what it takes to convince at least one MLB organization that Rojas has really gotten better since he joined the KBO in 2017.

Most of the 4-A players who find success and earn major league money to play in Asia ought to stick to playing in Asia.  As I like to say, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a minnow in the ocean.  That said, a foreigner’s expressions of desire to keep playing for his current KBO or NPB team don’t generally carry a whole lot of weight with these teams.  The Asian teams want on-field production from their foreigners first, second and last and typically dump their foreign players as soon as they believe that their future on-field production won’t justify their substantial salaries.  Just ask Dustin Nippert, who was forced into what increasingly looks like an earlier KBO retirement than Nippert wanted or deserved.

In light of the lack of loyalty Asian teams show their foreign “mercenaries,” foreign players are certainly justified in using whatever leverage they have to obtain the best contracts they can.  In short, for as long as foreign players have successful seasons in the KBO or NPB, they will be threatening, or at least leaking the possibility, that they will return to MLB unless their Asian team makes it worth their while to stay.