Chicago Cubs

Jeff Banister

2015 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Will this get worse before it gets better?

After five consecutive winning seasons, including back-to-back trips to the World Series, the Rangers’ run of success came to screeching halt last season as injuries decimated the roster. Texas players combined to spend 2,116 days on the disabled list, which is the highest total by any team since DL data started being tracked in 2002. And just one other team during that time, the Diamondbacks in 2004, was above 2,000 days lost.

It was a horror show and not surprisingly the Rangers fell from 91-72 in 2013 to an AL-worst 67-95. Ron Washington stepped down after eight seasons as manager and the Rangers fired interim manager Tim Bogar despite his success down the stretch, giving the job to Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister. When a consistent contender suffers a ridiculous number of injuries and loses 95 games the easy assumption is that they’ll bounce back in a huge way the next season. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely for the Rangers.

They couldn’t even get out of spring training unscathed by the injury bug, as ace Yu Darvish was lost for the season before it began with Tommy John elbow surgery and former stud prospect Jurickson Profar was ruled out for a second straight season with shoulder problems. Left-hander Martin Perez isn’t unexpected back from Tommy John surgery until midseason and left-hander Matt Harrison is a question mark after spinal fusion surgery. It’s safe to assume the Rangers won’t have another 2,000-plus days of DL time, because it’s safe to assume that about any team, but this is hardly a healthy bunch and losing Darvish is a massive blow.

The good news on the health front is that Prince Fielder looks recovered from the neck injury that ended his season in May and Shin-Soo Choo is one season removed from being good enough that the Rangers gave him $130 million, so if they can get back on track and should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre can continue to hold off father time at age 36 the middle of the lineup can definitely do some damage. Their supporting cast (Ryan Rua, Robinson Chirinos, Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland) looks iffy in a lot of spots, though, especially without the promise of Profar emerging as a building block player.

As for the Darvish-less pitching staff … well, FanGraphs projects the Rangers to allow more runs than every MLB team but the Rockies this season and Baseball Prospectus is only slightly less pessimistic in projecting they’ll rank 24th in runs allowed. Derek Holland was injured for most of last season and offseason trade pickup Yovani Gallardo has seen his strikeout rate plummet–and they’re the two best bets in a rotation that’s also home to Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler, and Nick Tepesch. And the bullpen is relying an awful lot on a post-surgery Neftali Feliz returning to form.

What else is going on?

  • Allow me to double-back on the “should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre” thing. Most people may not think of him as bound for Cooperstown, but Beltre is a four-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman with a .285 career batting average, 395 homers, and 2,604 hits. And he’s still an elite player, batting .324 with an .879 OPS last season to put 450 homers and 3,000 hits within reach. Among all third basemen in MLB history Beltre ranks seventh in Wins Above Replacement, behind only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones, and Brooks Robinson. All of those guys are in the Hall of Fame or will be very soon. As if the third baseman one spot behind Adrian in eighth place, Ron Santo. Adrian Beltre should be a Hall of Famer.
  • Profar was the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball two years ago, so having to wait until 2016 to see what remains of his upside is sad. Texas still has a really good, really young middle infielder with tons of upside in Rougned Odor, who debuted last season at age 20 and held his own with a .700 OPS in 114 games as the youngest regular in the entire league. Odor’s approach at the plate is very raw and his K/BB ratios aren’t pretty, but he was one of just eight 20-year-old middle infielders in MLB history to play 100-plus games and post an adjusted OPS+ of at least 95. The last four to do so? Starlin Castro in 2010, Alex Rodriguez in 1996, Roberto Alomar in 1988, and Bill Mazeroski in 1957.
  • Gallardo was a really good, durable, and generally underrated starter for the Brewers, but his annual strikeout rate has dipped from 9.0 to 7.2 to 6.8 and his average fastball now clocks in at 91 miles per hour. He induces enough ground balls to avoid being totally wrecked by calling the Rangers’ power-inflating ballpark home, but switching from the NL to the AL may shine a light on the 29-year-old impending free agent’s deteriorating skills.
  • Fielder is owed $24 million per season through 2020, Choo is owed $20 million per season through 2020, and Andrus is owed $15 million per season through 2022. Those are the three players around which general manager Jon Daniels has decided to build and if they don’t start making good on those long-term investments it’s going to be extremely difficult to turn things around quickly.

Prediction: Fewer disabled list stints and slightly fewer losses, but another last-place finish in the AL West.

Blue Jays sign left-hander Felix Doubront

Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs
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Released by the Cubs earlier this week, left-hander Felix Doubront has signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays according to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com.

Doubront had agreed to a one-year, $1.925 million contract with the Cubs to avoid arbitration in January, but because those deals are only partially guaranteed they owed him just $473,000 upon the release.

He had a rough spring training and in general hasn’t lived up to the potential he showed early on with the Red Sox a few years ago, but Doubront is capable of being a decent back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever.

No progress in extension talks between Reds, Johnny Cueto

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Johnny Cueto is due to become a free agent five days after the 2015 World Series and he has said that he will not allow in-season extension negotiations. So the countdown clock is on in Cincinnati’s front office, and it sure looks like time is going to run out.

FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi tweeted Wednesday that there has been “no progress” toward a long-term deal between Cueto and the Reds. It’s April 1, and Opening Day for Cincinnati is Monday, April 6.

Cueto finished second in the National League Cy Young balloting last season after posting a 2.25 ERA (160 ERA+), 0.96 WHIP, and 242/65 K/BB ratio in 243 2/3 innings. The 29-year-old right-hander owns a 2.48 ERA (155 ERA+) in 102 starts since the beginning of the 2011 campaign. He’s probably looking for a Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) or Jon Lester (six years, $155 million) type of deal.

And that’s probably way too rich of a commitment for the Reds.

You can read HardballTalk’s 2015 Reds preview here.

2015 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Hamels
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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball?s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Just how bad will the Phillies be?

Phillies upper management has officially begun the rebuilding process after years of hemming and hawing about it. GM Ruben Amaro traded franchise icon and shortstop Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers, as well as outfielder Marlon Byrd to the Reds and reliever Antonio Bastardo to the Pirates. While there are still some old vets on the team, like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies are nowhere close to being competitive and won’t be for at least another couple of seasons.

The goal in 2015 is to finish with the worst record in baseball, which would give the Phillies the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. The Phillies haven’t had the first overall draft pick since 1998 when they selected outfielder Pat Burrell out of the University of Miami. That, combined with last year’s first-round selection of Aaron Nola plus another expected high draft pick in the 2017 draft, should help the Phillies bring in the next generation of players for a new era of competitive baseball. Ideally, the Phillies will also get a useful player or two in trading Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley (if he waives his 10-and-5 rights), and Ryan Howard (assuming they eat nearly all of his salary).

The other large influence in their rebuilding process is starter Cole Hamels. He’s 31 years old and has at least $96 million over four years remaining on his contract, which includes a $6 million buyout for the 2019 season in which his club could choose to pay him $20 million. If the Phillies decide to trade Hamels, the lefty could demand his new team to guarantee that option, making it more like $110 million over five years. Still, compared to recent contracts given to free agent starters like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, Hamels is a bargain.

Hamels has been among baseball’s best starting pitchers over the last five seasons. Among starters who have accrued at least 700 innings since the start of the 2010 season, only five pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and teammate Cliff Lee — have bested Hamels’ aggregate 2.99 ERA. He features a mid-90’s fastball and arguably baseball’s best change-up, as well as two other above-average pitches in his cut fastball and curve. It’s no surprise, then, that Amaro has reportedly been asking for the moon and the stars for Hamels in trade discussions. The Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers had the most interest in him over the winter, but the Cubs went on to sign Jon Lester and the Padres went on to sign James Shields, leaving just the Rangers and the Red Sox at the moment. During the season, however, as teams suffer injuries or poor performances in their starting rotations, they may be more willing to submit to Amaro’s demands.

If this preview has been any indication so far, the play on the field is almost irrelevant. No one will attend a Phillies game or tune in on TV this year expecting to see a victory. But there are a few interesting things to watch…

What else is going on?

  • Manager Ryne Sandberg decided to permanently move Ben Revere over to left field from center in favor of Odubel Herrera, who was the Phillies’ Rule 5 pick from the Rangers. During spring training, Herrera has hit .328 (19-for-58) with six stolen bases in as many opportunities. Herrera is a second baseman by trade, but as Chase Utley owns that position for the time being, the Phillies decided to let Herrera try his hand in center field and it’s worked out so far. Herrera profiles similarly to Revere: lots of singles and stolen bases, but very little of anything else. His defense is, based on a small sample of spring innings, a bit better and his arm is stronger, so he is a slight upgrade in that regard.
  • The Phillies got a slight amount of interest in closer Jonathan Papelbon over the winter from the Brewers and the Blue Jays, but they have a reason to keep him around despite their rebuild. Somewhat along the lines of the Kris Bryant situation with the Cubs, the Phillies would like to pay current set-up man Ken Giles as little as possible for the foreseeable future. They can help limit his leverage in arbitration negotiations by keeping him out of save situations. If the Phillies trade Papelbon, Giles would almost certainly assume the closer’s role after his performance in his rookie campaign last season. Over 45 2/3 innings, the right-hander featured a 100-MPH fastball which helped him strike out 64 batters and post a 1.18 ERA. As @CespedesBBQ pointed out on Twitter last month, going by FIP, Giles posted the sixth-best season by a reliever ever (min. 40 innings).
  • The Phillies will keep the phone lines open on first baseman Ryan Howard. They’re reportedly willing to eat up to $50 million of the $60 million remaining on his contract. Of course, due to Howard’s defensive limitations, his market is almost entirely limited to American League teams. The Orioles are one team that could eventually take interest during the season. He hit 23 home runs and knocked in 95 runs last year, but he posted a below-average .690 OPS. He may generously be a replacement-level player at this point in his career.
  • Cliff Lee is expected to miss most of the 2015 season after elbow issues flared up again early in spring training. Lee went on the disabled list in mid-May last season with elbow inflammation, returned on July 21 and made three starts before going back on the disabled list. He avoided surgery, choosing instead to choose the route of rest and rehab. He’s again choosing the R&R route, hoping to return for a few starts in September before becoming a free agent at the age of 37. The Phillies had hoped he would be healthy and productive enough for them to trade him at some point during the season, but that is obviously out the window.
  • Domonic Brown finished as one of the worst hitters in baseball last season, batting .235/.285/.349 with 10 home runs and 63 RBI in 512 plate appearances. He’ll start the 2015 season on the disabled list due to an Achilles injury. Once a top prospect in the Phillies’ system — at one point, Amaro refused to include him in a trade with the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay — Brown’s star has fallen hard and he’s essentially on his last legs with the Phillies. He’ll enter his second year of arbitration eligibility after the season and as such will be a trade or even a non-tender candidate.
  • Almost all of the Phillies-related intrigue will come from the minor leagues. For instance, the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils starting rotation will likely include Aaron Nola, Jesse Biddle, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, and Tom Windle. MLB.com recently rated Nola as the Phillies’ second-best prospect, Biddle ninth, Lively seventh, Eflin fifth, and Windle sixth. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, the Phillies’ best prospect who is also sidelined at the moment with an oblique injury, will also rack up playing time in Reading eventually.

Prediction: The Phillies will finish with the worst record in baseball at 65-97, earning themselves that glorious #1 overall draft pick.

Phil Coke wins spot on Cubs’ Opening Day roster

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This day has mostly been about who will not be on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster, but it was announced this evening that veteran reliever Phil Coke has earned a spot on the team.

Coke, a non-roster invitee this spring, has been unscored upon in nine Cactus League appearances while posting a 6/2 K/BB ratio over 8 1/3 innings. Carrie Muskat of MLB.com notes that he will receive a $2.25 million base salary now that he has made the team.

Coke is coming off a 3.88 ERA and 41/20 K/BB ratio in 58 innings over 62 appearances last season with Detroit. He has held left-handed batters to a .243/.297/.352 batting line in the majors and will likely be used in a specialist role with Chicago.