Five Breakthrough First Half Performers

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This Fourth of July weekend I’ll take stock of a few breakout
performers and duds of the first half and possible breakthrough
performers for the second half.

First, five breakthrough stars of the first half:

Edwin Jackson: Doesn’t It feel
like we have been talking about this guy forever? Blessed with a
mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, it’s remarkable that it took
three organizations for Jackson to finally break through as a top of
the rotation starter. Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Matt Joyce
last December, he entered the season with a 25-30 career record and a
5.09 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 77 career starts. But so far in 2009, it
looks like the Tigers may have pulled off the best trade of the winter,
as he is currently 6-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his first 16
starts. Jackson has already pitched seven innings or more while
allowing three runs or less nine times this season. The big difference?
Jackson finally has his control in check, averaging 2.41 BB/9 as
opposed to a 4.11 rate for his career. Jackson, Justin Verlander and
rookie Rick Porcello combined for 14 wins in May. How good is that?
Nationals starters have combined for just 15 wins all season.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist showed
promise with a .318/.429/.459 line in the minors, but he went deep just
23 times in 1336 at-bats. As a result, he was never viewed as anything
more than a utility player when the Astros dealt him to Rays as part of
the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006. But finally handed an every day
role this season, the man dubbed “Zorillia” is hitting a surprising
.292/.412/.620 with 16 bombs and 46 RBI. The power looks to be for
real, as the 28-year-old has homered 28 times in his last 407 major
league at-bats dating back to last season. Only Albert Pujols, Joe
Mauer and Prince Fielder have hit at a higher OPS this season. If you
managed to pluck Zobrist off the waiver wire in your fantasy league,
chances are your fellow owners hate you right now.

Andrew Bailey: The 25-year-old
Bailey was an unlikely source for saves as the season began, but
injuries to Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler have opened the door for the
rookie right-hander. While not yet officially named the closer by
manager Bob Geren, the former Wagner Seahawk has run with his
opportunities thus far, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .173 BAA and
eight saves in 12 chances. Aided by a fastball that touches the
upper-90s, a traditional 12-to-6 curve and a biting slider, Bailey has
an impressive 57/19 K/BB ratio in his first 47 1/3 career innings. And
standing at a sturdy 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, he has the durability to
handle the job. In fact, 13 of his 36 appearances this season have been
for at least one inning. Bailey fits the profile of a dominant closer.

Pablo Sandoval: Okay,
maybe this one is unfair. After all, Sandoval hit .345 in 145 at-bats
last season. The fact that he has a .329 batting average over the first
74 games of 2009 comes as no huge surprise, but he is notable here
because of his rapid progression in the power department. “Kung-Fu
Panda” has already homered 12 times in 277 at-bats this season after
going deep just three times last season. He lead the majors with an
insane 1.207 OPS in June. Granted, only his teammate Bengie Molina
swings more often than he does (58.1%), but he balances that with a
pretty decent contact rate (81.8%) and low strikeout rate (15.5% as
opposed to a 20% league average). He’ll likely never be known for his
glove and just where he fits in long-term — he was groomed as a
catcher/first baseman in the minors — remains to be seen, but he’s
gone a long way towards proving that his minor league totals were not a
fluke.

Aaron Hill: The power was never
a question for a Hill — he hit 17 homers in 2007 — but he was a
largely forgotten man after suffering a concussion last May. Naturally,
he entered the season as a huge question mark, but through just 348
at-bats this season, Hill has already established a new career high
with 19 home runs. Among second basemen, Hill leads in hits, homers,
RBI and total bases. He’s currently third in the majors with 32
multi-hit games and trails only Ichiro in hits (104). It’s easy to say
he’s getting lucky with the homers — roughly 16 percent of his
flyballs have left the yard– but he has a .307 BABIP this season,
actually nine points below his career average. Ian Kinsler and Dustin
Pedroia get a lot of the pub, and rightfully so, but Hill has matched
or outproduced them in most categories.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.