The Closing Bell, 2018: National League

Here is a review of all of the action from the final weeks in 2018 for National League teams.

New York Mets

While neither the Braves nor Marlins made any moves to close out 2018, the Mets made a few upgrades to their outfield depth, as veterans Rajai Davis and Gregor Blanco were given minor-league deals. Also headed to Queens is former top prospect Zach Lee, the left-handed pitcher who was involved in the Chris Taylor deal.

I, personally, was surprised that Davis had to settle for a minor league contract as an XX-B free agent. Typically, players like Davis don’t sign until closer to Spring Training, to hold out for a big league deal. Seeing as how Terrance Gore was able to secure guaranteed money with a watered down version of Davis’ skill set, the Mets may have gotten themselves something of a bargain. As it stands, Davis is the favorite for the Mets’ fourth outfielder.

Fellow signee Gregor Blanco will join Davis in camp to compete for the fourth outfielder spot. While the veteran outfielder as never been much of a producer offensively, his speed and base running abilities as well as a strong glove have made him a viable fourth outfielder over the better part of the last decade. While his stolen base numbers have fallen off over the past few seasons, he’s a lefty, which is an advantage that he has over Davis. While I would imagine he begins the season in Triple-A, assuming he doesn’t opt-out, he could make it to the majors in no time with injuries.

As for Lee, the 27-year-old righty spent the 2018 season with the Rays’ organization. He split the season between Double-A and Triple-A. His control was excellent, as it always has been, and while his bottom line 5.02 ERA in Triple-A was rough, it should be noted that he posted a 3.75 FIP. His Double-A numbers were much better overall, as he posted a 2.31 ERA with a 3.32 FIP. While I don’t expect him to break camp with the major league team, with success he could serve in a swing capacity. He’s currently fourth out of healthy starters in the minor leagues with Drew Gagnon, Corey Oswalt, Chris Flexen and P.J. Conlon ranking above him out of the gate.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies announced a group of non-roster players who will join them in Clearwater, FL this spring. Among them are Philly native, Philip Gosselin, former top prospect catcher Rob Brantly, outfielder Shane Robinson, utility guys Matt McBride and Gregorio Petit and relievers Jeremy Bleich and Josh Martin.

The Phillies are a deep organization with a lack of clear roster spots coming out of the gate, which doesn’t bode well for these guys. That being said, injuries happen, and this list of guys is very similar to the projected Triple-A starting line-up.

The National League saw a plethora of changes as 2018 came to a close. @OrsattiJoe has the recap of the NL's hectic final weeks of the calendar year.Click To Tweet

Brantly will serve as the left-handed side of a platoon behind the plate with Deivi Grullon. The 29-year-old really struggled offensively between the Braves’ and Indians’ Triple-A affiliates, showing his noted struggles in plate discipline while barely hitting for any average. While some of that could be chalked up to low BABIP, as he posted a .171 average with the Indians, .214 BABIP with a .218 average with the Braves, .261 BABIP, he shouldn’t really be expected to do a lot of damage offensively. While it has been reported that the Phillies are seeking help behind the plate, his performance compared to his platoon mate would determine the emergency catcher, as it currently stands.

The 33-year-old Matt McBride seems likely to slot in either the designated hitter role, or at first. It really all depends on where the Phillies see Austin Listi playing defensively. McBride spent the 2018 season in the Phillies organization slashing .242/.333/.479 with a .257 BABIP and ten homers. He showed an improved approach last year walking 11.4% of the time, up from 7.4%, while keeping strikeouts at a rather low 18.8%, which is slightly up from 16.5%, still representing a positive trade-off.

The 30-year-old Gosselin will probably slot at the cornerstone in Lehigh this season. Born at the same hospital that I was and playing high school ball for my high school’s rival team, this signing represents a homecoming for the infielder. He spent last season between the Reds and Braves’ organizations, he slashed a paltry .125/.250/.250 in the majors and a better, but still mediocre .253/.318/.381, but continued to play excellent defense around the horn in the infield. For his career, while he has always played average second base and slightly below average at third, his numbers at first and shortstop are impeccable. He has a shot to see some time in the majors over the 2019 season.

Gregorio Petit, 34, will start at shortstop for the Iron Pigs to begin the season. Since his debut in 2008, Petit has slashed .249/.294/.343 over 197 games while playing excellent defense across the diamond.  I would consider Petit to have the best chance to see major league time with the Phillies based on his versatility and exquisite glove.

The 34-year-old Robinson will fill one of the three outfield spots with the Iron Pigs. Never much of an offensive contributor, Robinson has been something of a late season staple based on his excellent glove at all three outfield positions and speed. Robinson has seen the majors in each of the past eight seasons slashing a cumulative .221/.288/.292 with 19 stolen bases and borderline elite numbers in the outfield, defensively. He has posted career range factors per nine innings of 2.51 (right field), 2.45 (center field) and 2.4 (left field) with an overall “outfield” RF/9 coming in at 2.44, which is about 13% above the league average over that time period.

The 31-year-old lefty Jeremy Bleich spent 2018 with the A’s making his major league debut allowing a run over one-third of an inning. Luckily for him, however, his Pacific Coast League numbers were very strong, as he posted an excellent 2.63 ERA and a 3.90 FIP to go with an 8.42 K/9, a 2.28 BB/9 and a 53.1% ground ball rate. I don’t love the fit for the lefty, as the Phillies are among the deepest teams in regard to the bullpen, and don’t foresee many innings available for Bleich barring an injury streak rampant enough to warrant the dismissal of the entire medical staff. As it currently stands, Bleich is seventh among relievers in Triple-A and third among lefties. This doesn’t even factor in guys seen as starters who could be used in a relief capacity such as Ranger Suarez and Drew Anderson, the former being left-handed as well.

The same is true for the 29-year-old righty Josh Martin. In an injury shortened season, Martin posted a very strong 2.91 ERA with a 2.96 FIP over 21.2 innings for the Columbus Clippers. On top of those numbers, he posted a 9.97 K/9 and a 3.32 BB/9.  He also posted a strong  0.42 HR/9, but here lies a problem. Martin, a fly ball pitcher (26.3% GB-rate in 2018) had a HR/FB ratio of 3.6%, where as he usually sits around 7%. Expect that to normalize and bring his numbers up closer to 3.50-4.00. I don’t expect him to reach the majors this season.

Washington Nationals

After trading Tanner Roark to the Reds to clear a rotation spot and payroll space, the Nationals were expected to add another starter to their juggernaut of a rotation. Expectations became reality when Anibal Sanchez signed a two-year deal worth $19 million with a club option. The contract is broken down as follows: Sanchez will earn $6 million in 2019 and $7 million in 2020 with the club option valued at $12 million. As with all other Nationals’ contracts, there is a reasonably large deferral of $6 million in 2021 and an additional $4 million available in incentives.

I don’t mind this move for the 2019 Nationals, but am a bit trepidatious going forward. All statistics suggest Sanchez’s resurgence was sustainable, as he posted a 2.83 ERA with a 3.62 FIP and a HR/FB rate of 11.2%, which is higher than his 10.3% career number. The thing that gets me is the fact that he’s 35 years old and has gradually lost velocity every season since 2012, which suggests that this isn’t a Charlie Morton rerun. I certainly believe that he can be effective in 2019, but he seems like a ticking time bomb based on his age and injury history.

I love the yearly salaries, but the deferrals are going to handcuff this ball club. While Juan Soto and Victor Robles are excellent young players, they don’t have a farm system and have a roster full of aging veterans and stars who will be free agents in the near future. I expect them to be in a similar situation that the Giants are in by 2021, and the extra money on the books will make it difficult to patch any holes with free agents.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs made a pair of excellent major league signings alongside a pair of minor moves. The first move was to grab Tommy La Stella‘s replacement in Daniel Descalso. The veteran utility player inked a two-year contract worth a palatable $5 million. He will earn $1.5 million in 2019 and $2.5 million in 2020 with a club option worth $3.5 million for 2021 that includes a $1 million buyout. He can also earn $250,000 in additional incentives based on plate appearances.

I absolutely love this signing for the Cubs. While he’s never going to hit for much in terms of average, Descalso has elite plate discipline (15.1% walk rate in 2018) while sporting double-digit homer power. He should function as one of the Cubs’ primary bench guys and an excellent veteran presence in the locker room.

Somehow, however, I like the other signing by the Cubs even better, as they brought in the A’s 2017 opening day starter in Kendall Graveman. I published an article a few weeks ago detailing certain statistics that indicate Graveman could benefit in a move to the bullpen following his return from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though that is the Cubs’ plan based on an incentive package revolving around games started.

The contract is complex. Graveman will earn $575k straight up right out of the gate, but that will rise to $2 million if he pitches in at least one game in 2019. The aforementioned incentive package tops out at a whopping $500k. There is also a club option with no buyout, and if it isn’t exercised, he will become an article XX-B free agent. Based on his team control,I believe this clause means that he will enter Cubs’ camp as a non-roster article XX-B free agent, meaning he would receive an automatic opt-out or retention bonus if he did not make the team.

Infielder Phillip Evans and lefty Mike Zagurski will join the Cubs in major league camp to compete for a spot on the roster. Evans has been with the Mets throughout his career and profiles as a standard utility infielder. He has a decent glove and can play multiple infield positions,doesn’t carry a lot of offensive value. Over his career, he has slashed a rather paltry .241/.328/.278 over 61 major league plate appearances. While he won the Eastern League batting title in 2016, it was the product of a rather high BABIP. This is a favorable situation for the 26-year-old, as Addison Russell will miss the first 40 games due to his suspension, which could work in Evans’ favor.

As for Zagurski, the nearly 36-year-old lefty has managed to stick around the league despite a career 7.78 ERA over 76.1 innings pitched. He has always struggled with control, and while he made it back to the majors in 2018 with the Brewers, it didn’t go particularly well, as allowed seven runs in an inning, logging an ERA+ of 9 (100 is average). At that point, you have to place some blame on the manager for leaving him in there to get beat up as badly, but that has largely been the story of Zagurski’s career. I doubt we see him in Chicago this season.

Cincinnati Reds

I will cover the massive trade with the Dodgers in its own section. That wasn’t the only move made by the Reds prior to New Years’ Day, as righty reliever Anthony Bass joined the Reds on a minor league deal. While many would consider this to be a depth signing, I believe it could be a lot more promising. I had Bass ranked among my top 25 minor league free agents. First of all, he threw his fastball 20.6% more in 2018 than in 2017 while adding a full 1.4 mph on it. Furthermore, while he decreased the usage of his sinker by 16%, its velocity peaked at 94.7 mph, which is a full 2.4 mph up from 2017. These changes led to legitimate success in the Pacific Coast League, and could translate to the NL Central.

While they haven’t announced any details regarding any opt-out opportunities, my initial expectation is that while Bass may not make the roster out of the gate, he will join the major league team early in the season following promising results in Triple-A, and quietly cement himself among the Reds middle relief corps which could lead to him turning into a prospect or two for the Reds at the deadline.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers made a trade and a signing to bolster their roster. The big move was the acquisition of Ben Gamel and righty Noah Zavolas from the Mariners for Domingo Santana.

The move makes sense for the Brewers, as Santana was just wasting away in the organization. At least they can say that they received something in return for the young outfielder. Zavolas was a day three selection out of Harvard last June. Pitching strictly in relief, he reached Class A Advanced Modesto, where he should begin the 2019 season. He was rather solid in his first year of professional action posting a 3.03 ERA over 38.2 innings pitched while exhibiting strong control (2.6 BB/9) and decent strikeout numbers (9.5 K/9). His peripherals support those strong bottom line numbers, and at his pace, he could reach the majors by the end of 2019 or early 2020 depending on how aggressive the Brewers decide to be with him. I don’t see him as a closer, based on his low 90’s heater, but I could see him pitching in a set-up capacity, as a ceiling, and in a mainstay middle relief role as a most likely outcome.

As for Gamel, the 27-year-old had been a very solid outfielder for the Mariners slashing a career .270/.333/.395 with 13 home runs and 11 stolen bases over 890 plate appearances. While Gamel will have a shot to compete for the fourth outfielder job in camp, he’s currently at a disadvantage to Keon Broxton, as he has an option remaining, while Broxton does not. Nevertheless, I fully expect Gamel to see some legitimate major league at bats.

The Brewers also brought in Cory Spangenberg on a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $1.2 million with $250k in incentives. As it stands, the nearly 28-year-old infielder will function as the left-handed hitting portion of a platoon at second base with Hernan Perez. I was not a fan of this move for the Brewers. Based on the absolute glut of middle infielders available on the market, there was no reason to have to give Spanenberg a guaranteed deal, let alone more than double the league minimum when you will be able to get a much more talented player for slightly more money in a month.

Here are my projections of the top ten remaining second base options that do not have a qualifying offer attached compared to Spangenberg:

These projections are created by normalizing offensive statistics, taking defensive ratings and comparing them to the league average with 0% being league average. While Spandenberg has shown to be an above average second baseman defensively, my projections are not very high on his expected offensive output. I would be willing to wager that maybe one of these guys will make more than $10 million average annual salary on their expected contract. After saving all of that money dumping Schoop, Cedeno and Jennings, it makes no sense to pinch pennies here. For a team competing in one of the better divisions in the league, you have to make more concrete decisions. You can’t go into the season using a pair of utility players at second base when all of these options are available to you, representing much better value (in a production to cost sense).

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates brought in righty catcher Steven Baron on a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training. As it currently stands, Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz will make up the primary catching tandem with Jacob Stallings serving as the first guy up in case of emergency, based on 40-man roster status. If the Pirates trade Cervelli, Baron could compete for a back-up job. Unfortunately, Baron has never been much of a hitter. Last season, in the PCL, he slashed a horrible .213/.262/.250 with just eight walks over 145 plate appearances. That being said, he has always been known for his well above average glove.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cards made a rather big signing bringing in Andrew Miller on a two-year deal worth $25 million right before Christmas. The veteran reliever will make $11 million in 2019, $11.5 million in 2020 and a vesting option worth $12 million for 2021 that carries a $2.5 million buyout. The option will vest if he pitches a combined 110 games over the life of the career. There is also a no-trade clause included in the deal.

I will say, I am a fan of Miller’s, but last season was scary and if that was any indication of where he’s headed, then it’s going to be a long two-years for this contract. He was hurt for the majority of the year, his control suffered mightily and his velocity dropped by a full mph (from 94 to 93). Based on the Cardinals’ history with signing relievers, I don’t understand why they considered this to be a worthwhile risk. I think they would have been better off giving Dan Jennings or Xavier Cedeno inexpensive deals. The success rate for relievers with big contracts isn’t great, and especially with all of those red flags from 2018, this could be a disaster. That being said, Miller has been among the best relievers in the league over the better part of the last decade. If he’s healthy and can regain some velocity, he could make the deal worthwhile. That’s a gigantic if, though.

The Cardinals also made a lower profile move bringing back Francisco Pena on a minor league contract. With the departure of Carson Kelly, Pena is the favorite to fill the role of back-up catcher once again for St. Louis. His main competition will be fellow non-roster-invitee Joe Hudson and prospect Andrew Knizer. The 29-year-old backstop is known for being a rather strong defensive catcher, but doesn’t bring much to the table offensively. Nevertheless, the fact that he is familiar with the pitching staff is a huge bonus for the Cardinals that will pay dividends, regardless of his offensive production.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Snakes made a low-profile trade prior to the New Year bringing in lefty Robby Scott via trade from the Reds in exchange for cash. Scott was designated for assignment after the massive Dodgers-Reds deal that I will cover later in the article. He has minor league options and looks like a legitimate candidate to be a strong middle relief lefty. The biggest issue, as it is for most other relievers, is his control. The fact that he’s left-handed, however, certainly works in his favor.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies made an excellent move signing Daniel Murphy to a two-year deal worth $24 million.While I would bet against the veteran playing second base, replacing D.J. LeMahieu, I have very high expectations for his bat.

Despite the age and injuries, Murphy has continued to be a well above average source of offensive production. Moving him to the stereotypical hitters’ haven Coors Field will do wonders for his power and help his average remain rather steady. Furthermore, he will be in a line-up where he is protected by guys like Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and David Dahl, meaning he stands a decent chance of seeing some more hittable pitches. This is especially true, as he’s one of three lefties in the Rockies projected line-up and Arenado is heading into his walk year. I would imagine he could top 30 home runs in 2019 while hitting anywhere from .270 to .300. While he’s never been much of a plate discipline guy, playing at Coors will help his longevity out to an extent.

San Diego Padres

Allen Craig will rejoin the Padres on a minor league contract. At this point, the 34-year-old first baseman is essentially organization depth. While he hit a rather solid .293/.375/.479 last season with 13 home runs, he did so in the Pacific Coast League while riding a .342 BABIP. At this point in his career, signing with a National League team wasn’t the best move. He could have had a shot to make it back to the majors had he signed on with a team like the Royals or the Orioles who are running out skeleton crews and could benefit in having a veteran power hitter as their designated hitter a few times a week.

The Padres also brought in outfielder Connor Panas from the Blue Jays in exchange for Clayton Richard. The 25-year-old outfielder is essentially an organizational depth piece received in return for $1.5 million in salary relief for Richard, who was designated for assignment following the Ian Kinsler signing. I don’t expect him to serve as any more than depth.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants decided to take a gamble on the famous switch pitcher Pat Venditte on a one-year contract worth $585k. While he’s intriguing, he’s 33 years old and hasn’t done anything in the major leagues to warrant a guaranteed 40-man roster spot. Over 64.2 innings pitched in the major leagues, he has posted a mediocre 4.45 ERA with a 4.77 FIP. While there’s nothing wrong with this move, as there’s very little risk, I expect him to serve as a minor league depth reliever who serves on the taxi-squad. He has one minor league option remaining.

Also joining the Giant’s organization is high-octane reliever Jamie Callahan. The 24-year-old righty is such a promising reliever.  The kid has three pitches that are considered to be above average to plus: a mid-90’s fastball, a slider that is considered “55” or above average and a change that has a “55” future value, meaning it is expected to become an above average pitch. The problem is that his control grade is 30 with a 40 future value. Both of which are well-below average and will limit him to a high-octane taxi reliever. If he can somehow work his control out, however, watch out. Finding a reliever with three potentially above average pitches is on the same level as finding a catcher who can play five positions, or a first baseman who can steal 20 bases. He’s a rare commodity, but his value is drowned by his lack of control.

The Dodgers-Reds Trade

I thought that this move warranted its own section. The deal involved Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray going to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer and $7 million.

This trade is a classic example of a multi-faceted deal that will not be “decided” for a while and will result in rather extensive roster trees stemming from it.

Starting with the Dodgers, on the surface, they acquired Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray. While Bailey seems likely to be cut loose in the coming weeks, the two prospects have a lot of potential to be above average major leaguers. Gray was a competitive balance pick by the Reds in the 2018 draft. He typically sits in the low to mid 90’s with his fastball while sporting a well above average slider that drops at an 11-6 angle. I’m not sure whether Gray will be used in the bullpen or the rotation. If he sticks in the rotation, he’s going to need to work on his change-up, which is really just a slow fastball, and could have an ETA of 2022 or even 2023 with the ceiling of a two or a three. If he’s converted to a reliever, many believe he would drop the change entirely. It is also widely believed that the fastball could play up in shorter stints reaching up to 98 mph. In this scenario, he could reach the bigs by late 2020 or 2021 and could serve as a closer based on his strong slider/fastball mix as well as his control.

Jeter Downs is something of an anomaly. While his numbers haven’t been off the charts since he was drafted as a competitive balance pick in 2017, he’s noted for having an elite make-up, a very high baseball IQ and a skill set that could make him an all-star. It is also likely that he moves to second base where his arm would fit better. At the very least, we’re looking at a very solid utility infielder who works in a platoon, as he crushes lefties, doesn’t strike out and walks a lot, and the ceiling I would give is a lesser version of Chase Utley.

Another added bonus for the Dodgers is the extra spending room opened up and the opportunities for at bats for some of the younger guys like Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles and Alex Verdugo. Assuming the Dodgers make an addition or two, that player will have to be taken into consideration when weighing this deal.

As for the Reds, they brought in three above average major leaguers and a promising catcher in Kyle Farmer.

First of all, Kemp and Puig should mash at Great American Ballpark, as it’s essentially a bandbox. Meanwhile, Alex Wood looks as though he will be the staff ace. It remains to be seen how he will adjust to the Reds’ ballpark and the role of “the guy”, but he gives the Reds’ a stable veteran presence and currently represents the only left-handed option. I expect Farmer to begin the season in the minor leagues, as Connor Joe, who is essentially a younger, but somewhat lesser clone of Farmer, is slated to open the season on the bench as he’s a rule five player.

Essentially, what you’re getting with Farmer is a guy who could be able to hit for decent average, once he gets a bit comfortable with the major league level. While he doesn’t strike out a lot, he doesn’t walk much either and lacks homer power and stolen base speed. He’s a borderline elite defensive first baseman with an average to above average glove at third. He has a very nice arm from behind the plate, but he’s an average to slightly below average framer. If he can get his batting average up to around .270, he could be a solid second division starter, but based on his age, lack of power for his position and lack of plate discipline, I don’t expect his ceiling to be much higher. It should also be noted that the Dodgers tried him out in the middle infield last season in Triple-A. While the sample size wasn’t very large, it didn’t go terribly and if he could adopt that uber-utility role, he could have a rather long career. Utility guys who can catch are rare, and with his contact ability, he could become a valuable commodity if he can prove to be a palatable middle infielder as well.

As for the trio of major leaguers, on the surface it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Why would a team in one of the most competitive divisions in the game spend all of that money and give up two legitimate prospects for three guys on expiring contracts?

Well, first of all, it puts butts in the seats. Revenue brought in from those three guys will offset the costs of acquisition to an extent. The big thing here, however, is the belief that they can get more out of them than they gave up. While they gave up two decent prospects who were drafted in the competitive balance rounds over the past two years, all three players acquired have been successful over the past year and could attract interest in mid-season trades assuming the Reds aren’t competing. While Kemp might not draw a ton in return based on his salary, Puig and Wood are both young, and relatively inexpensive financially. Furthermore, the Reds have more leverage in trade talks surrounding the pair as they both seem to be legitimate qualifying offer candidates.

My initial opinion of this deal is that the Dodgers  got the better end. That being said, this deal can’t be judged based on the surface terms. In order to accurately judge this deal we also need to take into consideration the Dodgers spending over the coming months, the play of the replacements of Puig, Wood and Kemp and future trade or compensation returns for Kemp, Puig, Wood and even Bailey, if for some reason the Dodgers are able to trade him. This trade will be fun to look back on this time next year.

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