- A hamstring injury forced Cubs left-hander Jon Lester to the IL on April 9, though it appears the well-respected hurler is nearing a return. The Cubs could activate Lester during their upcoming series against the Dodgers, which runs from Tuesday to Thursday, the Associated Press relays. The 35-year-old looked “very good” during a 45-pitch sim game Saturday, according to manager Joe Maddon. The Maddon-led Cubs haven’t needed a replacement starter since Lester went down, instead relying on Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and the struggling Yu Darvish, but that will change Sunday when Tyler Chatwood takes the ball against Arizona. Chatwood fell on his face as a starter during a walk-happy 2018, the first season of a three-year, $38MM contract, and has continued to exhibit control problems as a reliever this season.
Free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel is “still in touch” with the Mets and Brewers, tweets The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who notes that the Mets would only sign the 30-year-old if he were open to “any role” in the team’s bullpen. Rosenthal reported a week ago that the flamethrower’s price has dropped substantially, though whether or not he’s budged on the desire to pitch only in the ninth inning is still an open question. Both clubs’ pens have been far shakier than anticipated in the early going: indeed, apart from the lights-out performance of offseason acquisition Edwin Diaz, New York’s pen has arguably been the league’s worst. Milwaukee, too, has lost Corey Knebel to Tommy John, was without stalwart Jeremy Jeffress until this week, and has gotten middling-at-best output from all other contributors not named Josh Hader. Still, it’s the sloppy rotation – beset by a thus-far return to normalcy from Jhoulys Chacin and a gopher-ball binge embarked upon by rookies Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta – that seems most in need of the Crew’s attention. Allocating what little resources purportedly remain to anything other than a veteran starter would seem a curious choice indeed.
In other news from around the Senior Circuit…
- Per Rosenthal, the Giants are already “willing to talk” about some of their veteran relievers, though closer Will Smith doesn’t appear to be among the names on the list. Lefty Tony Watson, who’s seen his average fastball velocity dip to a career-low 91.0 MPH, figures to be at the fore, along with the richly-paid Mark Melancon. Sam Dyson, Trevor Gott, and Nick Vincent, all of whom’ve had strong 2019 debuts, would likely also be in the mix, with the former’s $5MM 2019 salary seemingly the impetus for such an early position on the block. The club would likely jump at the chance to move Melancon, 34, who’s owed approximately $29MM through 2020. The former closer hasn’t allowed a run thus far in ten ’19 IP, but signs of major regression lurk beneath: the righty’s allowed hard contact at a rate of above 40% for the second consecutive season (after a career-high of 27.1% in his first nine MLB campaigns), has seen his swinging strike rate plummet to a career-worst 8.0%, and is again failing to strike batters out at an alarming rate. Any Melancon move would likely need to be offset by either another bad contract or a significant chunk of change heading with him, but the ever-creative Farhan Zaidi may yet have something up his sleeve.
- Cubs reliever Brandon Morrow, who’s mixed occasional big-league appearances around a litany of DL/IL stints in his 13-year MLB career, has been shut down in his attempted return from a right elbow injury. The 34-year-old was scheduled to miss just the season’s first month, but “did not recover well” from a bullpen session he threw earlier this week, according to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. The club, who’s already shuffled multiple bullpen pieces after a disastrous late-inning start in the early going, was counting heavily on Morrow to stabilize the mishmash crew. No timetable’s been set for the righty’s return, so the club will have to lean primarily on the well-traveled arms of Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, and Brandon Kintzler in close-and-late situations.
- Backup Cubs backstop Victor Caratini underwent surgery to repair his broken left hamate bone, as Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune reports on Twitter. That’s not surprising news, and doesn’t really modify his expected timeline. It’ll be about four to six weeks on the mend for Caratini, who’ll presumably need to ramp back up therafter and take at least a brief rehab stint. Even if all goes as hoped, it’s likely the Cubs ill go without him until June.
The Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Rockies were among the majors’ most successful clubs in 2018, when the quartet comprised 40 percent of the league’s playoff bracket. No one was better than the Red Sox, who rolled to 108 regular-season wins before steamrolling the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers in the postseason en route to their latest World Series title. The Yankees, despite their loss to archrival Boston, enjoyed a more-than-respectable year in which they notched 100 victories. And Colorado knocked out Chicago in the National League wild-card game, a battle of two 90-plus-win teams, before succumbing to Milwaukee in the divisional round.
Given the excellence those clubs displayed last year, it would have been fair to expect each of them to earn playoff berths again in 2019. Instead, while we’re just a couple weeks into the season, all of those teams have tripped out of the starting block, having combined for 19 wins in 58 games. They’re the only members of last year’s playoff field that are under .500 at this point.
Boston, whose roster is almost the same as its title-winning version (sans relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly), dropped a game to the lowly Orioles on Saturday. Fifteen contests into the season, the Red Sox have already lost 10 times – something they didn’t do until Game 35 a year ago. Neither their all-world offense nor their high-end pitching staff from 2018 have come close to replicating those performances thus far, and questions have swirled around ace Chris Sale. Signed to a five-year, $145MM extension before the season, Sale’s velocity – which began dropping amid an injury-limited 2018 – has continued to plummet. Unsurprisingly, the 30-year-old’s effectiveness has waned as his fastball has lost power. Not only has Sale allowed an earned run per inning across 13 frames, but one of baseball’s all-time strikeout artists has fanned just eight batters.
Maybe Sale is battling a physical issue, but the Yankees are dealing with plenty of their own. Eleven of their players, including standouts Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Aaron Hicks and Dellin Betances are on the IL. The majority of that group won’t be back in the near future – or perhaps until 2020 in the case of Andujar – while Severino, Gregorius, Hicks and Betances haven’t suited up yet this year. With so many integral contributors unavailable, the Yankees have started 6-8. That would be less concerning if not for their inability to capitalize on an easy early season schedule. The Yankees have played 11 games against the Orioles, Tigers and White Sox, all of whom are regarded as bottom feeders, and only won six of those matchups. The AL East rival Rays (11-4) have taken advantage, evidenced by their 4.5-game lead on New York and their six-game edge over Boston.
Over in the NL, the Cubs – on the heels of a widely panned offseason – have sputtered to a 5-9 showing and a four-game deficit in the Central, which could be one of the majors’ most competitive divisions. Although cornerstone hitters Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber haven’t resembled their best selves, the Cubs’ offense has still done well statistically. Their pitching has been abysmal, on the other hand. Yu Darvish, who’s in Year 2 of a huge contract, continues to perform nothing like the pitcher he was pre-Chicago, while the bullpen the Cubs did little to bolster over the winter has looked predictably vulnerable.
Speaking of vulnerable, the Rockies have christened their season with the majors’ worst record (3-12) and its last-ranked run differential (minus-36). If the Rockies are going to overcome their horrific start to pick up their third straight playoff appearance, they’ll need far more from their position players. Their hitters have put together a woeful 37 wRC+ and minus-2.6 fWAR, both of which easily rank last in the game. Injuries have played a part, as regulars David Dahl, Daniel Murphy and Ryan McMahon are all on the IL. Meanwhile, the Rockies’ primary offensive catalysts – Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon – have all been duds so far. Those three won’t stay down forever, though, and Colorado’s starting staff also has the talent to rebound from its early season mediocrity. But the Rockies can’t afford to let this skid continue to fester, especially considering they’re stuck in a division with the perennial champion Dodgers. Realistically, it’s wild card or bust for the Rockies, but rallying to steal one of those two spots in a crowded NL won’t be easy.
While it would be unwise to panic on April 13, there are more reasons for concern than expected in all of these teams’ cases. Then again, the same was said last year about the Dodgers, who began 16-26 on their way to 92 wins and another pennant. The Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Rockies can take solace in that, perhaps, but do you believe any of them are already in serious trouble?
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Some few contracts include provisions giving the player control over one or more seasons by affording the chance to opt out of the remainder of the deal. Take the bird in hand or see how many you can net from the free-agent bush? Market changes have impacted the math for some players, but the open market still has riches to offer. We don’t know how things will look for any given player at season’s end, but here’s how it’s shaping up at the outset of the 2019 campaign:
Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: Three years, $43MM: The 2016-17 version of Andrus — and the one we saw through the season’s first two weeks in 2018 — looked every bit like a player who would exercise the first of two opt-out clauses in his contract (which came at the end of the 2018 season). From Opening Day 2016 through April 11 last year, Andrus posted a terrific .301/.352/.459 batting line with 30 homers, 78 doubles, 11 triples and 49 steals through 1318 plate appearances. Paired with his glovework at shortstop, he looked very capable of topping the remaining four years and $58MM on his contract. Unfortunately, he suffered an elbow fracture, missed two months, and returned to hit only .245/.289/.347 in his final 367 plate appearances. An offseason of rest looks to have done him some good, as he’s hitting .380/.392/.500 through 51 PAs. Unlike several players on this list, there’s an actual chance that Andrus could test the open market, though free agency hasn’t been kind to players on the wrong side of 30 in recent years.
Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies: One year, $20MM (unless Phillies exercise two-year, $40MM option for 2021-22): Arrieta’s first season with the Phils was solid, if unremarkable. He tallied 172 2/3 innings and gave the team a 3.96 ERA with fielding-independent metrics that didn’t stray too far from that ERA (4.26 FIP, 4.08 xFIP, 4.29 SIERA). The former Cy Young winner’s velocity is down a couple miles per hour from its peak levels, and while Arrieta showed good control and ground-ball tendencies in 2018, he no longer appears to be a strikeout pitcher. Given that he’ll pitch next season at age 34, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the Phillies will sign up to tack on another pair of $20MM seasons. With a strong 2019 effort, it’s possible that Arrieta positions himself to land a two-year deal with a larger guarantee but lower annual rate (e.g. two years, $30MM), so it’s not out of the question that he’d opt out at season’s end, even if seems unlikely at present.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs: Four years, $81MM: Darvish’s first season in Chicago was an unmitigated disaster, as a series of arm injuries limited him to just 40 innings of work. His velocity isn’t where it was in previous seasons, and in this season’s small sample of three starts, he’s walked more batters than he’s punched out. It’s hard to envision any scenario in which Darvish opts out of his contract; even if he stormed back to ace status and won an NL Cy Young Award, I’m not sure he’d top $81MM as a 33-year-old free agent with a qualifying offer hanging over his head. The Cubs appear stuck with the contract and will need to simply hope for a rebound.
Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs: Four years, $86MM (assuming he makes 550 PAs): Heyward has had a scalding hot start to the season, mashing at a .351/.444/.676 pace. Through 45 plate appearances, he’s already halfway to his home run total from a 2018 season in which he came to he plate 489 times. Even if Heyward’s bat proves to be rejuvenated to its 2015 levels, however, it’s virtually unfathomable that he’d walk away from the remaining $86MM on this contract. His poor results in his first three seasons with the Cubs still loom large enough that a monster year at the dish would be met with a heavy dose of skepticism, and he’ll turn 30 in August.
Kenley Jansen, RHP, Dodgers: Two years, $38MM: After seven seasons as a near-unstoppable force in the Dodgers’ bullpen, Jansen looked mortal in 2018 when he logged a 3.01 ERA (his first time ever topping 3.00) and 10.3 K/9 (his first time south of 13.0). A strong enough rebound campaign could embolden Jansen to seek out a three-year deal at a lower annual salary than the $19MM remaining on his contract; the Rockies gave Wade Davis a total of $52MM for the same three-year age span that Jansen will be entering (32-34). He’s already rejected one qualifying offer in his career, so he wouldn’t be eligible to receive a second one (even though he landed with the same team that winter).
J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Red Sox: Three years, $62.5MM: The general expectation in the 2017-18 offseason was that Martinez’s 2017 season (.303/.376/.690, 45 home runs) would be a peak year. Instead, he turned in an arguably even more productive 2018 season with the Red Sox, hitting a ridiculous .330/.402/.629 with 43 home runs in 649 PAs — the second-highest total of his career. Martinez is off to another strong start in 2019, and despite a frosty climate for free agents, one can only wonder if he’d be tempted to once again test free agency if he can post a third consecutive season of 40-plus homers with an OPS north of 1.000. One wrinkle to consider is that barring an unexpected midseason trade, Martinez would have a qualifying offer attached to him this time around; that wasn’t true of his last trip through free agency, as he’d been traded from Detroit to Arizona midseason.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals: Four years, $100MM: Strasburg is still a strikeout machine who posts big totals in swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rates, but his 93.1 mph average fastball in 2019 is well south of last year’s 94.5 mph (to say nothing of his career 95.3). The former No. 1 pick was a big part of the Nats’ rotation in 2018 and should be again this year, but he was more good than great last year (130 innings, 3.74 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 43.6 GB%). Moreover, Darvish and a much younger Patrick Corbin are the only two pitchers who have topped $100MM in guarantees over the past two offseasons. Strasburg would be hit with a qualifying offer if he opted out, and he’d be betting against recent trends as a 31-year-old pitcher looking to cash in on a nine-figure contract. He can ask Dallas Keuchel how well that strategy works.
April 12: The Cubs have placed Caratini on the 10-day injured list due to what has indeed been revealed to be a fractured left hamate bone. Catcher Taylor Davis has been recalled from Triple-A Iowa in his place. Caratini will undergo surgery Monday and miss four to six weeks of action with the injury, per Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago / 670 The Score (Twitter link).
April 11: Cubs catcher Victor Caratini will undergo a CT scan tomorrow on his left hand, the club told reports including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times (Twitter links) after tonight’s game. With x-rays revealing a possible hamate fracture, the fear is that Caratini could hit the shelf for a stretch.
Caratini evidently suffered the injury tin the midst of what turned out to be a productive plate appearance. But it may turn out to be his last until the month of June. Hamate breaks typically come with an absence of about a month or two.
Fortunately, it’s also quite a common injury for hitters that doesn’t generally result in any kind of long-term problems. But some believe that there’s a power depletion for some time upon a player’s return. And the Cubs will hardly be thrilled to go without Caratini for a reasonably lengthy stretch, even if there is good reason to think he’ll still return to full speed by mid-season.
Though he hasn’t received much action as the reserve to Willson Contreras, Caratini has been off to a strong start. Through 17 plate appearances on the year, he has 8 hits (four for extra bases) and 3 walks against just four strikeouts.
While the Cubs pursued at least one veteran backstop over the offseason, they ended up deciding to rely upon Contreras and Caratini. There’s not much in the way of established depth behind them, with Taylor Davis the only other option on the 40-man. Beyond Davis, Francisco Arcia is the only other backstop in the organization with MLB experience.
Now 24 years of age, Tseng originally signed with the Cubs out of Taiwan in 2013. He has produced good results at times in the minors, but the club obviously did not feel he was likely to provide much at the game’s highest level.
After a strong 2017 showing in the upper minors, Tseng was knocked around last year for a 6.27 ERA in 136 1/3 Triple-A innings. Tseng did manage a reasonably promising combination of 7.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and a 48.4% groundball rate, and was likely unfortunate to carry only a 59.2% strand rate, but he was also touched for twenty long balls.
Tseng only has eight MLB frames under his belt, over which he has compiled an impressive 11:2 K/BB ratio. But he has also surrendered three home runs and eight earned runs in that brief span. Tseng struggled badly in limited Cactus League action this spring.
We’ll cover a few of the day’s notable call-ups in this post:
- The Cubs will promote lefty Tim Collins to take the roster spot of injured starter Jon Lester, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com (via Twitter). Collins inked a MLB deal late this spring after being cut loose by the Twins and was optioned to open the season. He’ll try to help settle a relief unit that has sputtered out of the gates. Collins didn’t exactly excel last year with the Nats, but did make it his way back to full health and back up to the majors after several lost seasons. He has racked up an impressive number of strikeouts in 2019, with 13 in 9 1/3 spring innings and three more in 2 2/3 at Triple-A.
- Joining the Yankees roster is right-handed reliever Joe Harvey, per a club announcement. The club dropped Jonathan Loaisiga back to Triple-A on optional assignment to clear active roster space; Harvey already owned a 40-man spot. With a pair of off-days in the upcoming schedule, Loaisiga can get some work in at Triple-A while the MLB club enjoys an extra reliever. Harvey will get his first taste of the majors at 27 years of age. Last year, he worked to an impressive 1.66 ERA with 10.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 in 54 1/3 innings over 38 appearances at the highest level of the minors.
The Cubs are preparing to place starter Jon Lester on the 10-day injured list, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com (via Twitter). He was due to undergo further medical examination today after suffering a hamstring injury yesterday.
It still isn’t known how serious the injury is. Lester indicated after the game that he felt optimistic, even suggesting he might not need to miss a start. But he’ll be shelved for at least an outing or two with the IL placement.
Losing Lester, even for a brief stretch, will present another obstacle for a Cubs team that has stumbled out of the gates. He has been the anchor of the Chicago rotation ever since he landed with the organization, continuing to produce good results of late even as his stuff and peripherals have faded.
The Cubs would typically just turn the ball over to Mike Montgomery, but he’s hurt. That could mean that Tyler Chatwood will reenter the rotation, though his control problems have yet to abate in a relief role. Alec Mills represents another 40-man possibility.
The Cubs’ offense clicked in today’s home opener, but there’s still some cause for concern. Left-hander Jon Lester exited the game in the third inning due to tightness in his left hamstring, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. Lester had singled and scored in the prior frame, and Wittenmyer notes that the southpaw was slow to get up after sliding safely into home plate. More will be known after an MRI tomorrow, as Wittenmyer tweets. While Lester says he’s optimistic and isn’t even counting out making his next scheduled start, it seems safe to assume he’ll miss at least one outing. If that comes to pass, the Cubs would likely have to turn to righty Tyler Chatwood to make a start, given that Mike Montgomery is currently on the injured list due to a lat strain.
Here’s more from the NL …
- Clayton Kershaw will make what is expected to be his final rehab start tomorrow for the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate, tweets Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. If Kershaw is indeed ready to be activated after that outing, he’ll step back into the rotation in place of fellow southpaw Julio Urias, Pedro Moura of The Athletic tweeted last night. Los Angeles hasn’t exactly felt Kershaw’s absence in the win-loss column, as they’re sitting at 8-2 on the season, but he’ll nevertheless be a boon to an already dangerous roster that sports baseball’s best run differential (+36). Urias has shown a velocity uptick to open the new season, but the Dodgers will be happy to take things slow given that he only returned from injury in time to record 15 2/3 total innings last year.
- Rockies left fielder David Dahl exited last night’s game early due to an abdominal injury sustained on a swing, writes MLB.com’s Thomas Harding. While the outfielder himself doesn’t believe he’ll need to miss an extended period of time, manager Bud Black offered a more cautious outlook, simply stating that the Rox have their “fingers crossed” and are hoping for a slight tweak as opposed to something like an oblique strain that would require a trip to the injured list. Dahl has been brilliant to start the 2019 season for the otherwise offensively challenged ballclub, raking at a .343/.385/.629 clip and getting a look as the team’s cleanup hitter. Should he require an IL stint, Raimel Tapia would figure to fill in during his absence.