Nearly five years ago, the Padres and Braves shocked the baseball world with a trade of star closer Craig Kimbrel. MLBTR’s Jeff Todd looks back at the blockbuster deal and its many tentacles in today’s video.
Max Fried ranked among the Braves’ top prospects from the time they acquired him as the headlining young piece in a trade that sent Justin Upton to the Padres until he exhausted his rookie status in 2018. From 2015-17, Fried was considered among the best in a deep system,but he never entered the club’s top five prospects (at either MLB.com or Baseball America) and was at times outranked by Sean Newcomb, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint, Tyrell Jenkins, Manny Banuelos, Aaron Blair, Joey Wentz, Luiz Gohara and current teammate Mike Soroka. Fried’s outlook is now considerably brighter than most of that bunch, and it’s possible that by the end of the next season — whenever that is — he’ll even have surpassed Soroka as Atlanta’s top arm.
Fried recently turned 26, and although it’s been nearly eight years since San Diego took him with the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft and more than five years since Atlanta acquired him, he has just 225 1/3 MLB innings under his belt. Fried underwent Tommy John surgery as a prospect, slowing his march to the big leagues, and some of the names ranked ahead of him got earlier looks when rotation spots did open up. To this point in his young career, he has a 3.83 ERA and an FIP that’s an exact match. He’s been a quality arm, but the 2019 season was his first full year in the rotation. He produced a 4.02 ERA through 165 2/3 frames.
If you want to argue that Fried has, to an extent, already broken out — that’s defensible. Last year’s ERA, after all, was better than the league average when considering the juiced ball’s impact around the league (and especially given Fried’s hitter-friendly home park). Park- and league-adjusted metrics like ERA- and ERA+ had him anywhere from nine to 16 percent better than the average pitcher. Last year’s 3.72 FIP was 15 percent better than the league average, per FIP-. In all, Fried was worth about three wins above replacement (3.0 rWAR, 2.7 fWAR). He’s clearly already a good pitcher.
The question is whether there’s another gear for Fried to reach. The left-hander ranked 22nd among 75 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings with a solid but not elite K-BB% (18.0). More impressively, he tied for eighth-best with a 3.32 xFIP. Fried’s blend of high-end strikeout rates (9.4 K/9, 24.6 percent of the hitters he faced), walk rates (2.6 BB/9, 6.7 percent) and ground-ball rate (53.6%) all contribute to him faring well in terms of fielding-independent pitching metrics.
Looking at his individual pitches, Fried upped his four-seam velocity to a career-best 93.8 mph average in 2019. That’s particularly strong for a lefty, as southpaws tend to have lower average velocities than their right-handed peers. It’s a low-spin offering, however, and Fried’s pedestrian swinging-strike rate on that four-seamer reflects that. He does locate the pitch well, and his improved ability to work ahead in the count — his first-pitch strike rate jumped from 57.8 percent in 2018 to 63.7 percent in 2019 — allowed him to use his curveball more often. Fried’s curveball was lauded as his best pitch during his prospect days (one of the best curves in all of minor league baseball, for that matter), and he demonstrated why in 2019.
Only eight pitchers in the game garnered more swinging-strikes on their curves in 2019, and while it’s true that Fried threw more hooks than the average pitcher, his 15.5 percent swinging-strike rate topped quality curveballs like those of Jose Berrios and Sonny Gray, aligning more closely with the whiff rates of Stephen Strasburg (15.3 percent) and Charlie Morton (16.4 percent). Fried also generated a called strike on 18 percent of his curveballs; just over one third of the time that he threw the pitch, it resulted in a strike without the ball being put into play.
The curveball was always supposed to be Fried’s bread and butter, but he broke out a slider in 2019 that looks to be equally effective — if not even better. Hitters whiffed on the new pitch at a 15.3 percent clip that nearly matched his curve, and they chased it out of the strike zone at a 41 percent rate — the best of all his offerings. Fried’s spin on the slider isn’t at the elite levels of his curve, but it ranked in the 76th percentile. Opponents batted .212/.241/.327 when putting his curve into play and .200/.230/.331 when putting his slider into play. Not bad for a pitch he’d literally never thrown in a big league game until March 28, 2019.
When hitters did make contact against Fried, the quality of said contact wasn’t particularly impressive. Per Statcast, Fried allowed hitters to barrel just 4.4 percent of the pitches put into play against him, ranking 16th of 242 pitchers. Opponents batted .270/.324/.419 against Fried in 2019, which translated to a .315 wOBA. But based on the quality of contact he allowed and his strong K/BB numbers, Statcast projected a .297 expected wOBA for Fried. That 18-point gap between his actual wOBA and his xwOBA was the 34th-largest among 242 big league pitchers (with most who ranked ahead of him being pitchers who were shelled at an unsustainable rate in the first place — not quality performers).
The pitching-rich Braves still have more arms on the way. Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright highlight their current crop of minor league arms. Soroka, of course, is a highly talented pitcher in his own right — evidenced by a runner-up finish in NL Rookie of the Year voting a sixth-place nod in 2019 Cy Young balloting. It’s easy for Fried to get a little lost in the shuffle after Soroka’s electric debut and the constant hype surrounding their rich farm system. But it seems very possible that we’ve yet to see the best Fried has to offer, and there’s reason to think that his best will be enough to push him into the upper echelon of NL starters.
MLBTR’s Jeff Todd has recently taken a look at some potential impact rookies throughout the AL Central and AL West. Steve Adams handled the NL West. Now let’s move on to the NL East, which was one of the strongest divisions in baseball in 2019, with four teams finishing .500 or above. 2020 figures to be just as competitive. Perhaps a strong rookie season could be a difference-maker for one of these teams. Who could it be? Let’s take a look at some of the contenders.
The Braves already have a crowded outfield at the big league level. But if any kind of opportunity should present itself, Cristian Pache is going to be waiting in the wings. The 21-year-old has received more praise for his defense and speed than for his offense. But his bat seemed to turn a corner in 2019. Over 433 plate appearances at Double-A, he put up a slash line of .278/.340/.474, good enough for a wRC+ of 134. His Triple-A numbers aren’t as strong, with a line of .274/.337/.411 and a wRC+ of 92. That was over a smaller sample of 105 plate appearances, though, and he was only 20 years old.
Pache could have competition in the form of fellow outfield prospect Drew Waters, who is following a similar trajectory. Waters was also 20 last year and spent the bulk of the season at Double-A, where he managed a lofty 144 wRC+. He also had a cup of coffee at Triple-A, where his wRC+ dropped to 84 at Triple-A. While both Pache and Waters while played 26 games at Triple-A, Waters dwarfed Pache in the strikeout column, 43 to 18.
On the pitching side, the Braves have a pile of young arms who are slated to be in Triple-A to start the year, fighting to be the first one to get the call. The 24-year-old Kyle Wright has electric stuff but hasn’t been able to translate it into success at the big league level yet. It’s a similar story for 22-year-old Bryse Wilson. Ian Anderson is only 21 and isn’t on the 40-man, but he has already been bumped up to Triple-A after dominating in Double-A.
The rebuilding Marlins already have lots of promising youngsters on the roster right now, and there are more on the way. Sixto Sanchez hasn’t reached Triple-A yet, but after dominating in Double-A with a 2.53 ERA over 103 innings, it’s possible he won’t need too much time there. Same goes for Edward Cabrera, whose Double-A ERA was just a smidge higher at 2.56, though in a smaller sample of 38 2/3 innings. Evaluators are split as to which of the two should be ranked higher. If you’re the Marlins, that’s a good problem to have.
In terms of position players, the most exciting options are outfielders. Jesus Sanchez has a tremendous bat but lacks plate discipline. Monte Harrison’s defensive skills give him a decent floor. But the bat will need to take another step for him to reach his ceiling. He put up a decent line of .274/.357/.451 in Triple-A in 2019, good enough for a wRC+ of 97, just below league average.
The Mets’ rotation took a big hit when it was announced that Noah Syndergaard will undergo Tommy John Surgery. And while they may turn to veterans like Michael Wacha or Seth Lugo to pick up the slack, they could also look to some of the rookies they have in the minors. David Peterson hasn’t reached Triple-A just yet, but he threw 116 Double-A innings in 2019, with an ERA of 4.19 and 9.47 K/9. Franklyn Kilome missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, but he was the Mets’ fifth-best prospect at that point. Stephen Gonsalves was once a highly-touted prospect in the Twins’ system, though an injury-plagued 2019 led to them losing him to the Mets on waivers. He’s still 25 and could be a wild-card factor if he can get healthy and regain his form.
As far as position players go, shortstop Andres Gimenez is an exciting prospect (mostly because of his speed and defense). The 21-year-old swiped 66 bags from 2018-19, so the big question is how he’ll do with the bat. Gimenez spent 2019 at Double-A, slashing a mediocre .250/.309/.387, but he’s still young. And since the Mets have plenty of middle infield options such as Amed Rosario, Robinson Cano, Jeff McNeil and maybe even Jed Lowrie, it will be difficult for Gimenez to contribute as soon as 2020.
For the Nats, the most important rookie is definitely Carter Kieboom, one of the best prospects in baseball. The infielder had an excellent 2019 at the Triple-A level, slashing .303/.409/.493 for a wRC+ of 123. The 22-year-old wasn’t able to carry those numbers into his MLB debut last season, but it was only an 11-game sample size.
With Anthony Rendon moving to California, there’s an opening for Kieboom to be the everyday third baseman. He’ll have to earn it because the Nats brought back Asdrubal Cabrera as a fallback option, but they’d surely prefer for the 22-year-old Kieboom to take the job. That would enable the Nats to use Cabrera in a utility role.
Alec Bohm’s calling card is his bat. As a 22-year-old in 2019, he played 22 games in A-ball and produced a wRC+ of 196. In A+, he played 40 games with a wRC+ of 165. In 63 games at Double-A, the wRC+ was 146. If he can keep hitting in Triple-A, the question will be where to put him. Bohm mostly plays third, but many evaluators feel that his defense is too weak for the hot corner and suggest a move to first. The Phillies would surely love for Bohm to prove those evaluators wrong because they have Rhys Hoskins entrenched at first. Their current plan for the rest of the infield is to deploy Jean Segura at third, Didi Gregorius at short and Scott Kingery at second. But since Segura can also play shortstop or second, Bohm could nudge his way into the picture if any one of them goes down with an injury.
On the mound, the big name to watch is Spencer Howard. Despite injuries limiting his total output in 2019, he still put up great numbers when healthy. In 30 2/3 innings at Double-A, his ERA was 2.35. And Howard, 23, capped off his season with 21 1/3 innings of 2.11 ERA ball in the Arizona Fall League. The Philly rotation is a bit flimsy, with guys like Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin keeping a tenuous hold on back-end spots, so a healthy Howard could shove his way into the equation.
- Baseball America’s Ben Badler (subscription required) looks at five prospects who are lined up to join Major League teams when the international signing window opens on July 2. The Padres, Brewers, Braves, Indians, and Rangers have already been respectively connected to each of the five youngsters, with Atlanta and Cleveland each prepared to give out bonuses in the $1MM range.
The Braves optioned right-hander Touki Toussaint to Triple-A Gwinnett, per the league transactions log at MLB.com. He’d pitched well during spring before the league shutdown. Over 8 2/3 frames, he yielded a pair of runs on two hits and three walks with eight strikeouts.
Toussaint, 23, was a consensus top 100 prospect entering the ’19 season but had a miserable year in Triple-A, where he yielded 33 earned runs in 39 2/3 innings over the life of 10 starts (7.49 ERA). Toussaint was clobbered in his lone big league start as well — seven runs in 1 1/3 innings — but he also turned in 4o 1/3 innings of respectable work out of the ’pen, including a scoreless six-inning relief appearance in April. Overall as a reliever, Toussaint notched a 4.24 ERA with better than a strikeout per inning, although the 25 free passes he issued in those 40 1/3 frames were still too high a number.
This’ll be the second of three option years for Toussaint, a former No. 16 overall pick whom the Braves effectively purchased from the D-backs by taking on the remainder of Bronson Arroyo’s contract after the right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery. With Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz and (eventually) Cole Hamels locked into rotation spots plus several veteran additions in the bullpen since last July (Will Smith, Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day), Toussaint’s path back to the big leagues is a bit muddied. He’ll likely be a key piece of depth in the event of injuries, though, and if the league resumes with expanded rosters early in the season (as some have speculated), he could be a name the club considers as well.
Who is the best extension candidate for the Mets, Nationals, Braves, Marlins, and Phillies? Jeff Todd suggests the Polar Bear, Childish Bambino, and a few players you might not expect in today’s video.
Jump to a team:
- Braves – 1:23
- Marlins – 3:17
- Mets – 4:57
- Nationals – 7:07
- Phillies – 9:36
It was a busy offseason for the Braves, the back-to-back National League East champions, but maybe not an ideal one. While the Braves signed nine players to major league contracts, they lost their top free agent, third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Major League Signings
- Will Smith, LHP: Three years, $40MM
- Marcell Ozuna, OF: One year, $18MM
- Cole Hamels, LHP: One year, $18MM
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: Two years, $16MM
- Chris Martin, RHP: Two years, $14MM
- Nick Markakis, OF: One year, $4MM
- Tyler Flowers, C: One year, $4MM
- Darren O’Day, RHP: One year, $2.25MM
- Adeiny Hechavarria, INF: One year, $1MM
- Total spend: $117.25MM
Trades And Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
- Felix Hernandez, Josh Tomlin, Charlie Culberson, Yonder Alonso, Chris Rusin, Yangervis Solarte, Peter O’Brien, Rafael Ortega
- Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran, Matt Joyce, Jerry Blevins, Billy Hamilton, Francisco Cervelli, Anthony Swarzak, John Ryan Murphy
Led by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves made it no secret that they were interested in retaining Donaldson, who flourished in their uniform in 2019 after signing a one-year, $23MM contract. For his part, the 34-year-old Donaldson expressed a desire to remain in Atlanta. Ultimately, though, the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, leading Donaldson to join the Twins on a four-year, $92MM contract. The Braves reportedly matched the Twins’ offer in years, but they weren’t willing to approach the $92MM mark.
Donaldson and Anthony Rendon, who was never a Braves target, were the best third basemen in free agency, though the market fell off after those two. There were rumors connecting the Braves to the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, but those players haven’t changed homes to this point. Atlanta could circle back to those two in future trade talks, but as of now, the club appears as if it’ll ride with in-house options to start the season (because of the coronavirus, no one knows when that will occur). Johan Camargo and Austin Riley have been competing for the No. 1 job in recent weeks, but it’s possible the Braves will end up platooning them.
While Camargo was a quality contributor for the Braves two years ago, his production cratered last season. Riley was a top-50 prospect in baseball when the Braves promoted him last May, and with the presence of Donaldson, most of his reps came in the outfield. Although Riley did fare well in the grass, his high-strikeout ways helped prevent him from making a significant impact at the plate as a rookie.
It’s obviously not yet clear who will garner the majority of time at third for the Braves this year. That player will have a hard time replacing Donaldson, and his loss should damage the Braves’ chances of winning the division again. That said, the Braves did work to fill his offensive void during the offseason with the signing of former Marlin and Cardinal outfielder Marcell Ozuna.
Even though he had a qualifying offer from St. Louis weighing him down, it was still a surprise that Ozuna settled for a one-year, $18MM offer, barely edging out the $17.8MM value of the QO. Ozuna’s no Donaldson, but as someone who can typically be counted on for somewhere in the vicinity of three wins above replacement, he looks like a nice short-term addition. With Ozuna in left, superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. in right, Ender Inciarte in center, the re-signed Nick Markakis as an affordable fourth outfielder and Adam Duvall as a No. 5, the Braves seem to be in better shape than most teams in the grass (and don’t forget that exciting prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are looming).
Similarly, despite their uncertainty at third base, the Braves are doing well in the infield. Most clubs would sign up for a first base/second base/shortstop alignment of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, after all. They’ll have a bit of a different catching group looking out at them, though. Tyler Flowers, a Brave since 2016, is back for a reasonable salary. He had his worst offensive year as a Brave in 2019, but Flowers is at least a pitch-framing darling on the defensive side. He was joined last year by Brian McCann as the Braves’ duo behind the dish, but McCann retired. The Braves went the free-agency route to replace him, signing former Met and Ray Travis d’Arnaud after the 31-year-old’s solid showing in Tampa Bay last season. For $16MM over two years, it’s a bit of a risky deal for Atlanta – not only has the former top prospect had an up-and-down career in terms of production, but he has had difficulty staying healthy.
The Braves clearly experienced some position player turnover in the offseason, but a large portion of their attention went to their pitching staff. The team’s bullpen was something of a sore spot last season, and Anthopoulos acted early and often to address it over the winter. His biggest move was to strike a three-year, $40MM guarantee with southpaw Will Smith, who’s coming off a pair of great seasons with the Giants. Smith, 30, thrived as San Francisco’s closer a season ago, but the plan for now is for him to set up ex-Giants teammate Mark Melancon in Atlanta. He’ll have company there in, among others, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day – two righties the Braves re-signed for fair value in the offseason. With Smith, Melancon, Martin, O’Day and the righty duo of Shane Greene and Luke Jackson as the Braves’ most prominent relievers, they look to be in pretty good shape for late-game situations.
Meanwhile, there is some uncertainty in the Braves’ rotation, a group that waved goodbye to Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran in the offseason. There is no shortage of confidence in Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz (who rebounded after a terrible start in 2019). However, it’s anyone’s guess what the Braves will get from the other two spots in their rotation. They signed longtime stalwart Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18MM pact with the hope that the lefty would provide a stabilizing veteran force this season. It’s entirely possible he will, especially with the delayed start to the season, but shoulder troubles have weighed him down over the past month or so. As of about two weeks ago, Hamels didn’t even have a timeline to return. That’s the risk you run when you pin your hopes on a 36-year-old coming off an injury-shortened campaign; in fairness to the Braves, though, it’s tough to bash them for signing an accomplished, still-effective hurler (when healthy) to a one-year deal.
Assuming the season starts sometime fairly soon, Hamels is all but guaranteed to miss a portion of it. That should leave the Braves with Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez as the last two starters in their rotation. The 26-year-old Newcomb is a former well-regarded prospect who – despite a high number of walks – held his own as a starter in 2018. Newcomb then spent most of last season as a reliever, and he also did fine in that role. Meantime, as one of the most successful starters of the past couple decades, Hernandez needs no introduction. The problem is that the longtime Mariner and former Cy Young winner, 33, has floundered over the past few years. Hernandez impressed this spring before the league shut down, and he seems likely to make the Braves’ roster, but you’d be right to be skeptical about a bounce-back effort.
If Newcomb and/or Hernandez don’t provide the answer for the Braves, they do have some other interesting in-house possibilities. To name a few examples, righties Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint – all still in their lower 20s – were each recent top 100-prospects. No one from that trio has lived up to the billing in the majors yet, but perhaps one, two or even all three of them will emerge this season. If not, the rotation may be an area the Braves look to bolster when the trade deadline comes.
2020 Season Outlook
The Liberty Media-owned Braves are projected to start 2020 with a franchise-record Opening Day payroll of $157MM. It’s money well spent overall, as – despite questions at third and in the rotation – this continues to look like a team capable of challenging just about anyone in the National League. However, it’ll be tougher for the Braves to continue their reign atop the NL East with the defending World Series champion Nationals, the Mets and the Phillies all set to field strong rosters that could push for the top spot in the division.
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We took a look Tuesday at 10 position players from the National League East who are hoping 2020 goes better than last year did. Let’s now explore an even larger selection of pitchers seeking rebound efforts this season…
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, Braves:
Foltynewicz was an indispensable part of the Braves’ rotation two years ago, but the beginning of last season went so poorly for him that the team optioned him to Triple-A in late June. Upon his return in August, Foltynewicz was a much better pitcher, his horrid performance in the Braves’ NLDS elimination game against the Cardinals notwithstanding. The two-time defending division champion Braves will need his August-September to carry over, as their rotation’s dealing with some uncertainty because of Cole Hamels’ shoulder problems.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets:
To be clear, last season was not a poor one for Syndergaard by any means. He amassed a personal-high 197 1/3 innings, continued to average upward of 97 mph on his fastball and posted 9.2 K/9 against 2.28 BB/9. Moreover, Syndergaard was a Statcast darling, ranking near the top of the majors in average exit velocity against, expected weighted on-base average and hard-hit percentage, among other categories. On the other hand, his normally stellar run prevention hit career-worst levels. Syndergaard wound up with a 4.28 ERA/3.60 FIP. That’s fine, but it’s not the front-of-the-rotation type of production we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him log.
We’ll lump these two together because they’re both offseason signings who could factor into the back of the Mets’ rotation. Porcello, a former Cy Young winner with the Red Sox, continued to chew up innings last year (174 1/3), but he couldn’t keep runs off the board. His ERA (5.52) was dead last among qualified starters, while his 4.76 FIP checked in as the game’s seventh-worst figure. But the Mets took a $10MM gamble on the durable 31-year-old. That came after they spent $3MM on Wacha, a former Cardinal who – contrary to Porcello – has not been the picture of durability. Wacha has typically stopped runs at a quality clip, but that wasn’t the case last season – a year in which he shuffled between the Cardinals’ rotation and bullpen and concluded with a 4.76 ERA/5.61 FIP over 126 2/3 frames. Career-worst walk and home run-to-fly ball rates of 3.91 and 22 percent, respectively, dragged him down.
Lots of Mets on this list, aren’t there? Diaz was supposed to be the team’s end-of-game savior last season after coming over in a blockbuster trade with the Mariners. He turned in one of the greatest seasons in the history of relievers the year prior, so you can’t blame the Mets for expecting his excellence to continue. Instead, opposing hitters tattooed the 25-year-old for a 5.59 ERA/4.51 FIP and 2.33 home runs per nine across 58 innings, leading to seven blown saves in 33 attempts (Diaz went 57-of-61 in those situations in 2018). But if the HR rate and the .377 batting average on balls in play return to earth in 2020, Diaz should be OK. He did, after all, strike out 15.36 hitters per nine (against 3.41 walks) and average almost 98 mph on his fastball last year.
Like Familia, Diaz came to the Mets as a ballyhooed offseason pickup a year ago. As someone who pitched well for the Mets in his prior stint with the team, Familia was already a known commodity to the club. However, New York didn’t get the version of Familia it expected in 2019. He continued to throw hard (in the 96 mph range), but a bloated walk rate of 6.3 per nine contributed to an awful 5.70 ERA/4.88 FIP in 60 frames. Like Diaz, an inflated BABIP (.346) was among the contributors to Familia’s struggles, though he earned that to some degree with a 7 percent increase in hard-hit rate.
Betances is the lone member of this trio who’s not coming off a poor season. The longtime Yankee, whom the Mets signed to a $10.5MM guarantee on Christmas Eve, is just trying to bounce back from an injury-wrecked year. Betances only made one appearance last year after battling shoulder troubles. And when he was leaving the mound following that September outing, the four-time All-Star suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon.
Doolittle was incredibly dominant for the Nationals two years ago, and though he helped the team to a World Series last fall, his regular season wasn’t as productive. His ERA and FIP (4.05/4.25) each increased by more than two runs, while his strikeout, walk and groundball rates (9.9 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 25.3 percent) were also markedly worse than they were during the previous season. Elias experienced a similar drop-off, and injuries limited him to four appearances for the Nats after they acquired him from the Mariners at the July 31 trade deadline. But he and Doolittle will head into the new season as the top two southpaws in Washington’s bullpen.
The hard-throwing Conley was a fairly solid piece out of the Marlins’ bullpen in 2018. That wasn’t the case last season – a 60 2/3-inning campaign in which he pitched to a 6.53 ERA/5.19 FIP with 7.86 K/9, 4.3 BB/9 and a 37.9 percent grounder rate. Conley also saw his swinging-strike rate fall by more than 4 percent, though he did give up fewer hard-hit balls, and a .351 BABIP didn’t help matters.
Steckenrider joined Conley two seasons ago in seemingly emerging as a respectable late-game arm for Miami. However, thanks in part to elbow troubles, he never really got off the ground last year. Steckenrider only tossed 14 1/3 innings, in which he yielded 10 earned runs on nine hits – including six home runs.
Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies:
Arrieta’s a former Cy Young winner with the Cubs who hasn’t performed as hoped since the Phillies signed him to a three-year, $75MM guarantee entering 2018. The 34-year-old dealt with a serious elbow injury last season, holding him to 135 2/3 innings (his fewest since 2013) and a 4.64 ERA/4.89 FIP.
These two relievers were terrific out of the Phillies’ bullpen in 2018, but their health failed them last year. They combined for just 29 1/3 innings, most of which came from Dominguez. Whether they rebound this season will obviously depend in part on whether they’re actually able to take the mound with consistency. Arano, whom elbow surgery largely kept off the hill in 2019, does look as if he’s trending toward Opening Day readiness. That’s not the case for Dominguez, who just suffered a setback in his own recovery from elbow woes.
David O’Brien of The Athletic (subscription link) spoke to Félix Hernández, who appears poised to crack Atlanta’s rotation to start the year. With his 34th birthday coming up on April 8th, the Braves righty is aware that success on the hill will look much different than it did as a youngster. “Command all the corners. Command of my fastball and a good breaking ball, and with my changeup, I think I’m going to be fine,” said Hernandez, who acknowledges he has lost velocity from his younger days. The key now, according to Hernandez, is to “control all my pitches, mix my changeup, breaking ball, sliders and my two-seamer, I’ll be fine.”
Hernández is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Aníbal Sánchez, who signed a minor-league pact with Atlanta ahead of his age-34 season. Sanchez didn’t make the Opening Day squad that year (2018). However, he did have his contract selected a few days later and wind up throwing 136 2/3 innings of 2.83 ERA ball for the Braves, before going on to sign a two-year, $19MM contract with the Nationals and helping them win the 2019 World Series. Hernández has a 1.98 ERA through 13 2/3 innings this spring, which the Braves hope is the beginning of a similar renaissance. King Felix is coming off a great overall run in Seattle, but his ERA climbed for five consecutive seasons, finally landing at 6.40 in 2019.
- Mark Bowman of MLB.com spoke to Tyler Matzek, who is attempting a comeback after some time in the proverbial wilderness. The 29-year-old lefty is a former first-round pick of the Rockies, having been selected 11th overall in 2009. After climbing the ranks and making his MLB debut in 2014, things went downhill for him because of what Bowman calls “the yips.” (For those unfamiliar, “the yips” is a slang term for a pitcher’s sudden inability to throw strikes, usually chalked up to psychological causes.) Speaking about his struggles, Matzek said, “When you’re throwing it behind hitters and have no idea where the ball is going as a lefty, that’s usually a pretty good indicator something is wrong.” Matzek, who spent parts of the past two seasons pitching for the unaffiliated Texas AirHogs, is in Braves camp and opening some eyes with his spring appearances, including striking out Red Sox stars Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez. Bowman notes that it’s unlikely Matzek will end up on the Opening Day roster, but he could be a name to watch going forward. On a personal level, though, it seems like it’s already a triumphant comeback tale for Matzek. “The game was taken away from me for a little while,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back and have the chance to compete at any level.”
With the regular season approaching, we’re taking a look at hitters and pitchers from each division who are seeking bounce-back years in 2020. We’ve already covered the American League, so let’s head to the Senior Circuit and begin with 10 NL East hitters hoping to rebound from subpar 2019 showings this year.
Didi Gregorius, SS, Phillies:
With a one-year, $14MM guarantee, Gregorius was one of the Phillies’ highest-profile acquisitions during the offseason, though the former Yankees star landed the contract off a less-than-ideal platform year. After returning from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in June, the 30-year-old hit a below-average .238/.276/.441 and totaled only 0.9 fWAR over 344 plate appearances. Gregorius also wound up under the league average in several important Statcast categories. Nevertheless, as someone who put up no worse than 4.0 fWAR in both 2017 and ’18, the Phillies are banking on a rebound; otherwise, they can simply move on after the season.
Johan Camargo, 3B, Braves:
The switch-hitting Camargo was a 3.0-fWAR player two seasons ago, but he fell flat last year, turning in a minus-0.5 effort with a dismal .233/.279/.384 line in 248 plate appearances. Despite that, he’s in the running (along with Austin Riley) to start at third base this season for the Braves, who lost previous No. 1 option Josh Donaldson in free agency.
Yan Gomes, C, Nationals:
Gomes earned the lone All-Star nod of his career in 2018, his final season with the Indians, but saw his offensive production dip in Year 1 with the Nationals. A slow start doomed Gomes to a .223/.316/.389 line in 358 PA, though he did experience a major offensive rebound in the second half. Defensively, while Gomes did throw out 31 percent of would-be base thieves, his pitch-framing numbers fell off a cliff. Still, the Nationals brought him back for two years and $10MM to once again team with Kurt Suzuki.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Mets:
Cano was supposed to be the long-term answer at second for the Mets, who paid a pretty penny for him and closer Edwin Diaz in a trade with the Mariners in December 2018. Instead, the longtime star turned in the worst season of his excellent career, batting .256/.307/.428 in 423 trips to the plate during an injury-shortened campaign. Cano recorded far better numbers during the second half of the season, though, and ranked near the top of the league in multiple Statcast categories (average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage). So, it may be too soon to declare the 37-year-old done; at least, the Mets hope that’s the case.
Wilson Ramos, C, Mets:
Ramos was yet another of the Mets’ hyped pre-2019 pickups whose first season with the team didn’t go as hoped. The 32-year-old did notch a respectable batting line for his position, slashing .288/.351/.416 across 524 PA, but it paled in comparison to what he did the previous season. And Ramos wasn’t exactly a strength defensively. He threw out just 15 percent of would-be base stealers and ended up near the bottom of the league in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average metric.
Jed Lowrie, INF, Mets:
There may not have been a more ill-fated addition for the Mets last offseason than Lowrie. Signed to a two-year, $20MM contract after back-to-back terrific seasons with the Athletics, multiple injuries limited Lowrie to nine games and eight plate appearances. The 35-year-old isn’t even a lock to participate this season, as he continues to deal with leg troubles. Even if Lowrie does play, he’s not slated to be anything more than a backup right now. Perhaps that will change as the season goes along, but Lowrie will have to get healthy first.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets:
Hey, another Met! Cespedes is coming off an injury-ravaged couple years – including an ailment he suffered during a run-in with a wild boar – but seems to be making progress now. The talent’s there for a bounce-back campaign, but if your stance is “I’ll believe it when I see it,” you’re not alone.
Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets:
Maybe we should change the name of this list to “Mets Hitters Who Are Looking For Bounce-Back Seasons.” Nimmo was the most productive of this group last year, at least offensively, but his output fell shy of his coming-out party in 2018. Injuries held the on-base machine to 69 games, 254 PA, a .221/.375/.407 line and 1.3 fWAR. Meanwhile, his hard-hit percentage plummeted by seven points and his expected weighted on-base average dropped from .352 to .330, per Statcast.
Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Marlins:
Aguilar was among the game’s most prolific sluggers as a member of the Brewers in 2018, when he registered a 134 wRC+ and amassed 35 home runs. But he was unable to follow it up during a 2019 divided between Milwaukee and Tampa Bay. Aguilar concluded with an uninspiring .236/.325/.389 line and 12 homers across 389 trips to the plate. However, according to Statcast (.334 xwOBA versus .307 real wOBA), he may have deserved better. The Marlins are banking on that after plucking the 29-year-old off waivers over the winter.
Francisco Cervelli, C, Marlins:
Like Aguilar, Cervelli’s production dropped precipitously in 2019. The 34-year-old’s longtime concussion problems came to the forefront again, holding him to 160 PA of replacement-level production. But Cervelli was a very good contributor just two seasons ago, and for $2MM, Miami’s hoping he’ll serve as a solid complement and mentor to Jorge Alfaro.