- The Dodgers recently adopted the Rays’ strategy of using an “opener” — that is, starting a reliever for a few outs before based on matchups — and in an interesting interview, bullpen coach Mark Prior chatted with Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchik to discuss how that came about. Left-handed reliever Scott Alexander had taken note of Sergio Romo’s run in that role with Tampa Bay and approached Prior to simply express that he’d be open to it if ever needed. Prior took it to the coaching staff and, not long after, the Dodgers felt circumstances dictated experimenting with the notion. “He’s a ground-ball pitcher, and we’re in Colorado,” said Prior. “…It just so happened that we needed someone that day, and given Colorado’s lineup with the lefties at the top, it made sense to get him through the fourth or fifth hitter and then go to someone else.”
The Mets have re-claimed left-hander P.J. Conlon off waivers from the Dodgers and designated infielder Phillip Evans for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, the team announced to reporters following this afternoon’s game (Twitter link via Anthony DiComo of MLB.com). Conlon has been optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas.
Conlon’s time with the Dodgers, clearly, will prove to be abbreviated. Los Angeles only claimed him off waivers from the Mets last week, and the southpaw had yet to even pitch in a game with his new organization before being placed back on waivers. It’s nothing new for the Dodgers to claim a player and then try to run him through waivers themselves as a means of keeping him in the organization without committing a 40-man roster spot. It’s a move they’ve had a fair amount of success with in past seasons, though the Mets clearly didn’t see fit to let Conlon get away and seized the opportunity to reclaim the depth they lost last week.
Conlon, 24, allowed seven earned runs in his first two big league starts with the Mets this season, spanning just 5 2/3 innings. His struggles weren’t contained to the MLB level, either, as he posted a whopping 6.58 ERA in 39 2/3 innings spanning eight starts with Vegas this year. However, Conlon possesses solid numbers up through the the Double-A level and turned in promising K/BB numbers in Triple-A this year even while struggling with his bottom-line run prevention numbers. He’ll now return to the organization that originally drafted him and continue on as a depth piece.
As for the 25-year-old Evans, this’ll be the second time he’s been designated for assignment by the Mets in the past calendar year. He’s just 1-for-9 on the young season but hit .303/.395/.364 in a tiny sample of 38 plate appearances in the Majors last year. Evans is a career .273/.337/.445 hitter in 671 PAs at the Triple-A level and has experience at every position other than center field, first base and catcher. If he clears waivers, he’ll have the right to reject an outright assignment in favor of free agency, given that he was outrighted the last time he was designated by the Mets.
When Austin Barnes overtook Yasmani Grandal late last year, it seemed the latter was a potential offseason trade piece for the Dodgers. Despite quality production over his tenure in Los Angeles, after all, he took just 11 plate appearances during the team’s postseason run. Instead, the Dodgers held onto Grandal in his final season of team control.
Now, more than a third of the way through the 2018 season, Grandal again seems like one of the game’s best backstops. He’s commanding the lion’s share of the time behind the plate, helping the club weather some devastating injuries and setting himself up for an interesting trip onto the open market. We’ll use this post to take a closer look at his free agent stock.
Grandal is among the highest-rated catchers this season by measure of fWAR, with 1.3 wins tallied to this point. He’s slashing a productive .246/.346/.451 through 205 plate appearances, with nine home runs and an appealing combination of a 12.2% walk rate and 22.0% strikeout rate. Statcast likes his batted-ball profile, crediting him with a .362 xwOBA that exceeds the .343 wOBA he has produced.
If anything, though, that WAR metric likely understates Grandal’s value, because it doesn’t account for his framing prowess. Baseball Prospectus’s measure, WARP, credits Grandal with 2.0 wins to date this year. But even that may undersell the backstop. He has drawn only slightly above-average framing marks from BPro this year, while StatCorner continues to grade Grandal as the best in the business. That was a shared assessment of both outlets over the past several years. And by measure of WORP, Grandal has contributed a whopping 17.2 wins over his first three years in L.A.
Teams will make their own fine-tuned assessments of defensive value, weighing considerations — pitch calling, pitcher management, etc. — that are all but impossible to assess from the outside. But everything in the data suggests that Grandal is a top-quality catcher. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a switch-hitter who has historically been best against right-handed pitching but still reaches base at a quality clip against southpaws. Grandal is still 29 years of age, too, and has been plenty durable to this point in his career.
So, how might that play in free agency? The catching market is something of its own beast, due in no small part to the fact that many of the best receivers have reached extensions before reaching free agency. Players such as Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Miguel Montero, Salvador Perez, Jonathan Lucroy, Francisco Cervelli, Tucker Barnhart, Devin Mesoraco, and Yan Gomes have all signed away their prime years recently (or in the not-so-distant past), without testing the open market.
When premium backstops do hit free agency, they certainly can be paid. Brian McCann ($85MM) and Russell Martin ($82MM) have demonstrated that recently with high-dollar, five-year deals. Of course, the biggest contracts have still come between backstops and their existing teams. Joe Mauer inked his $184MM deal with the Twins when he was still catching, of course. And Mike Piazza worked out his massive deal with the Mets before technically becoming a free agent.
Clearly, Grandal isn’t in the rarefied air of Mauer, Piazza, and Posey. But is there an argument to be made that he ought to be able to approach McCann and Martin levels of pay over a five-year term? Grandal is on par with McCann in terms of age (both entering age-30 seasons as free agents) and a fair bit younger than was Martin. And though Grandal has not reached the heights offensively that McCann did at times as a young player, there’s a case to be made that his bat is roughly as appealing at equivalent stages. In the three years prior to his deal with the Yanks, McCann compiled a composite 113 OPS+, while Grandal presently sits at 111 since joining the Dodgers. Martin turned in a 105 OPS+ in the three seasons immediately preceding his trip onto the open market.
Whether Grandal will have a case for anything approaching that level of pay isn’t yet clear, but will surely depend upon still-unknown factors including how he performs the rest of the way and precisely how the demand side shapes up. It’s worth remembering that the Martin contract came in a fair bit higher than expected, when the Jays decided to add another guaranteed season. We’re also missing potentially relevant intermediate market markers, since several of the more anticipated possible recent free-agent cases have not been tested. Cervelli re-upped with the Bucs, Lucroy and Matt Wieters struggled in platform years, and Wilson Ramos was injured just before reaching free agency. At a minimum, though, Grandal seems clearly to be trending towards a contract that includes at least four guaranteed seasons and an annual salary in the $12MM to $16MM range. Of course, that also suggests he’s quite likely to receive a qualifying offer, which could dent his market somewhat.
So long as he can sustain something like his current output for the remainder of the season — which certainly seems reasonable given his track record — Grandal could represent an interesting test case for the market’s current valuation of catchers. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how things turn out given the presence of other useful catchers (including Ramos and the increasingly interesting Tyler Flowers) on the 2018-19 market and the fact that there’s now a widespread appreciation of the value of framing. With plenty of teams likely in need of new backstops, the catching market ought to serve as a quality undercard to the premium class of free agents.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- What’s most amazing about Matt Kemp’s remarkable two-month run with the Dodgers, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs writes, is not the fact that he’s off to a .344/.374/.568 slash. (Indeed, it seems there’s reason to anticipate those numbers coming back to earth, given his .400 BABIP.) Rather, it’s the fact that Kemp is suddenly grading as a solid defender in the corners, allowing him to rack up an impressive 1.8 fWAR in just under two hundred plate appearances. Sullivan examines the defensive component in an interesting piece that’s well worth a full read.
- Ross Stripling, who looks to be in the midst of a breakout season with the Dodgers, spoke to Pedro Moura of The Athletic about the role that data and analytics have played in his emergence (subscription required). The 28-year-old righty has turned in a ridiculous 1.68 ERA with 11.0 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.56 HR/9 and a 47.6 percent ground-ball rate in 48 1/3 innings for the Dodgers so far in 2018. Stripling’s success is derived in large part from advance scouting of opposing lineups and taking deep dives into hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, Stripling discusses the importance of knowing the quality of contact a hitter will make against pitch types in various portions of the strike zone. “I don’t care about average,” said Stripling. “I just want to know where he pulls the ball at 100 mph. I’m a believer in limiting slug, which is basically limiting exit velocity.” Moura’s column takes a long look not only at Stripling’s sudden success, but also his amateur days, his childhood fascination with baseball statistics and his path to professional baseball.
The Dodgers are set to select the contract of left-handed pitching prospect Caleb Ferguson, as J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group tweets. The news first got out, it seems, when Ferguson’s mother announced it on Facebook (though Hoornsta notes that he’s confirmed the promotion himself as well). The Dodgers have a full 40-man roster, so they’ll need to make a corresponding move to add him to the roster.
[Related: Los Angeles Dodgers depth chart]
Ferguson, 21, entered the season ranked 15th among Dodgers farmhands, per Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis of MLB.com. Tommy John surgery in high school caused him to drop to the 38th round of the draft, but he’s steadily risen through the Dodgers’ minor league ranks as he’s mended and rebuilt his arm strength. After dominating Double-A opponents with a 1.38 ERA, 40 strikeouts and 10 walks through 39 innings, Ferguson was moved up to Triple-A for a brief eight-inning stint before now ascending to the game’s highest level.
The addition of Ferguson will give Los Angeles an option to start on Wednesday this week. The Dodgers currently have an entire rotation’s worth of talent on the DL (and a very good rotation, at that) with Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Julio Urias all on the shelf at at the moment. As such, if Ferguson is indeed called upon to start, he’ll step into the rotation alongside Alex Wood, Ross Stripling and fellow rookies Walker Buehler and Dennis Santana. It could be a simple spot start regardless, as the Dodgers have a pair of off-days next week that’ll allow them to skip the fifth spot in the rotation.
- The slumping Cody Bellinger hasn’t started two of the Dodgers’ last three games, as manager Dave Roberts talked to reporters (including Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register) about how the reigning NL Rookie Of The Year is trying to adjust to being pitched differently as well as some bad breaks at the plate. “He’s doing everything right as far as the preparation. The results just haven’t been there,” Roberts said. “So as a young player, he’s constantly trying to make adjustments. You get to a point where you wonder if you’re ever going to get a hit. All players go through that at some point in time.” Roberts wasn’t ready to say that a brief minor league stint might eventually be in the cards for Bellinger, who is hitting only .225/.298/.413 with eight homers over his first 238 plate appearances.
The Dodgers have claimed left-hander P.J. Conlon off waivers from the Mets; the club announced the move. Conlon will be assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City, and left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu has been transferred to the 60-day DL in order to make room on the 40-man roster.
Conlon hasn’t exactly impressed in his first taste of big league action; he’s allowed seven earned runs in his first two big league starts spanning just 5 2/3 innings. The Mets apparently didn’t need to see much more, as they designated him for assignment on Thursday in order to clear room to add a pair of right-handers to the roster. Juan Lagares was also transferred to the 60-day disabled list at that time.
Even in Triple-A last season, Conlon pitched to a whopping 6.58 ERA in 39 2/3 innings spanning eight starts. A mid-round pick of the Mets back in 2015, Conlon rocketed up the minor league ladder to make his MLB debut while spending no more than one year at each level of the minors. It’s almost curious that the Mets gave up on Conlon without ever giving him more than ten starts above the Double-A level, particularly given his serviceable results at Double-A in 2017.
The Dodgers have some rotation issues of their own, and Conlon could provide some decent minor-league depth. After all, they just learned they’ll be without fellow lefty Clayton Kershaw for another month (though obviously Conlon wouldn’t be much of a consolation prize in that regard).
6:06pm: Manager Dave Roberts suggests that there’s at least a preliminary expectation that Kershaw will miss over a month of action, Moura tweets.
5:22pm: Star Dodgers hurler Clayton Kershaw returned from the disabled list to start yesterday, but he’s now headed right back to the shelf, as Pedro Moura of The Athletic was among those to indicate on Twitter and the team has now announced. Kershaw has been diagnosed with a lower back strain, as Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times tweets.
It’s really not surprising to hear that Kershaw will need at least at least a brief additional respite. He reported a tight back yesterday that required an MRI and kept him from traveling with the club. During his five innings of action, Kershaw never topped 90 mph with his fastball, which is hardly a promising sign.
At the moment, there’s no firm indication as to the seriousness of Kershaw’s new injury concern. His prior DL stint this year was for biceps tendinitis, but he has dealt with back troubles in the past two years, including a five-week absence last year for an injury with the same description as this one. Until we learn more, though, there’s no way to know how long Kershaw will be down. And the length of the absence will surely be tied to his progress.
Kershaw is hardly the Dodgers’ only injured starter, which complicates matters in the near term. The club just brought up youngster Dennis Santana for his first taste of the majors to help account for the missing arms. Now, righty Brock Stewart will be recalled to take the open spot on the active roster.
The Marlins have acquired first baseman Peter O’Brien from the Dodgers in exchange for cash, tweets Matthew DeFranks of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. It’s a homecoming of sorts for O’Brien, a Miami-area native, though he’s been assigned to the team’s Double-A affiliate in Jacksonville for the time being. He wasn’t on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, so no corresponding move is necessary for the Marlins.
O’Brien, 27, came up through the Yankees minor league system as a catcher noted for his tremendous power, but he’s bounced all over the diamond thanks to questionable defensive skills and has ultimately settled in at first base. He’s had a rough start to the season with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate, hitting .150/.241/.390. While he’s shown his typical brand of impressive power, clubbing seven homers in 112 plate appearances, he’s also struck out at a 38.9 percent pace so far.
The Marlins will be the seventh organization for O’Brien, who went from the Yankees to the D-backs in the 2014 Martin Prado trade and has since bounced from the D-backs to the Royals, Reds, Rangers and Dodgers in a series of smaller trades and waiver claims. He’s a career .176/.228/.446 hitter in 79 Major League plate appearances and has slashed .254/.306/.495 in 1162 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.