Ranking the worst off-seasons so far

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Following up the ranking of the five best off-seasons thus far, let’s take a look at the five worst.

26. Minnesota Twins — The Twins won 66 games in 2013 but help is on the horizon. They have one of the best Minor League systems around and it’s only a matter of time before the Twins are fielding a lineup with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. But this off-season, the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey to multi-year deals totaling $84 million. Years ago, the trio might have been deemed underrated, but each has been in the league long enough to establish a track record, and each has failed to live up to expectations. The Twins are essentially gambling $84 million for them to, at once, realize their potential. The Twins could have instead used this money to try to get Masahiro Tanaka and more cheaply gamble on players like Josh Johnson (now with the Padres).

27. Philadelphia Phillies — The Phillies have been trying to unload their albatross contracts — Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Howard — but have only been the subject of derision. They also added Marlon Byrd on a questionable two-year deal and re-signed Carlos Ruiz to a questionable three-year deal. They are not expected to compete for much in 2014, so it doesn’t make any sense for them to sign free agents closer to 40 years old than 30 years old to multi-year deals.

28. Cincinnati Reds — The Reds won 90 games in 2013 and were a legitimate contender for the NL Wild Card. This off-season, they lost one of their best hitters in Shin-Soo Choo and haven’t done much else. With the defending NL champion Cardinals and the surprising Pirates, the NL Central is the toughest in baseball at the moment. Their options are dwindling and they seem resigned to having a quiet off-season.

29. Baltimore Orioles — The Orioles made headlines for all the wrong reasons recently when they reneged on a two-year, $15 million deal with free agent reliever Grant Balfour. They said that his shoulder problems concerned them even though Balfour has been healthy for six years and got the thumbs-up from two different doctors. This was after a questionable trade in which they sent closer Jim Johnson to the Athletics for the light-hitting Jemile Weeks. While the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays all made strides during the off-season, the Orioles have had perhaps the most embarrassing off-season in recent memory and haven’t done much in the way of improving the team, either.

30. Seattle Mariners — The ten-year, $240 million deal given to second baseman Robinson Cano isn’t by itself a bad move, but the Mariners needed to do a lot more. They were 71-91 in 2013. Even if you give Cano a lot more credit than WAR does, the Mariners haven’t done enough to be considered a .500 team. There is still time, of course, as Nelson Cruz is still available and the Mariners could get involved in the Masahiro Tanaka bidding. But right now, they’re a fringe .500 team that tied itself up with a gargantuan contract.

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.