- The Pirates have signed infielder Sherman Johnson to a minor-league contract with an invitation to MLB spring training (h/t to Andersen Pickard). The 29-year-old tallied 11 MLB plate appearances with the 2018 Angels but has otherwise spent his entire pro career in the minors. In parts of four Triple-A seasons, Johnson has compiled a .241/.347/.364 slash while mostly lining up at second and third base. The Florida State product entered pro ball as a 12th-round pick in 2012.
Despite Kiermaier’s statesman status as the longest-tenured Ray, the club has taken an aggressive approach to finding players capable of roaming the grass in center. He remains a defensive stud, but his health is perpetually in question and his offense has slipped over the past two seasons. His two-year slash line checks in at just .223/.280/.386 across 847 plate appearances. Despite roughly 21% less offensive production than average (79 wRC+), Kiermaier’s A-1 defensive abilities and plus baserunning skills maintain his viability as a starter. Margot fits the same profile, but five years younger and he bats from the right side.
The Rays know what they like, apparently, because they are continuing to experiment with power-shy Lucius Fox in centerfield, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Fox has been an infielder for most of his career, primarily at shortstop, though he’s gotten looks at second and third as well. Fox is a tremendous speedster, making him a fit for center from a raw tools standpoint, but he has yet to log any professional time in the outfield. It hasn’t clicked yet for Fox offensively with a .244/.337/.325 line across four seasons in the minor leagues.
Before acquiring Margot, the Rays also picked up Randy Arozarena in the Matthew Liberatore trade. Arozarena now seems likely to start the year in Triple-A, but he’s another option for center. He also happens to be coming off a monster year in Triple-A, where he hit .358/.435/.593 in 64 games after earning a promotion from Double-A. He excelled in a small-sample 19 games with the Cardinals at the end of the year, making their playoff roster as a speed option off the bench. Purely from a numbers standpoint, Arozarena could have the highest-ceiling of all their current options.
The Rays clearly prefer a gold glove roving-type in centerfield, but Austin Meadows could also fill in there in a pinch. It is telling, however, that he has only logged 13 innings in center since being acquired from the Pirates.
Fortunately, there hasn’t been much in the way of negative health news to this point of Spring Training. Let’s check in on a few issues that have arisen …
- Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez is feeling both excitement and some trepidation as he nears readiness to test his recently tweaked shoulder, as Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Indication remains that Suarez could conceivably be ready to roll on Opening Day. He says he’s getting his timing down even as he avoids throwing or swinging full-bore. But there are also some nerves as he prepares to ramp up. “Just a little bit because I know I have something there,” Suarez said when asked whether he’s nervous. “I don’t want to get hurt again. I have to be careful. We’ll see what happens.”
- After a disappointing 2019 season, the last thing Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty wants to deal with is another injury issue. Right now, the hope is that his oblique/rib cage problem isn’t going to represent a major limitation, as Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports. But Piscotty might be down for another week and it’s beginning to look like Opening Day readiness could be in doubt. That’d be a disappointment, of course, but it’s surely better than rushing back and ending up with a bigger problem.
- Neck tightness kept Pirates righty Chris Archer from making a scheduled outing today, as Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic was among those to report on Twitter. There hasn’t been a substantial update just yet, but there’s no reason to believe that this is more than a minor blip.
- It’s a similar situation in Indians’ camp, where righties Emmanuel Clase and Aaron Civale have been limited. As MLB.com’s Mandy Bell tweets, the former is dealing with lat discomfort and the latter a sore groin. While Clase is going to slow his build-up to let things calm down, Civale is preparing to throw a sim game.
The Pirates are more likely than not to land outside the playoff picture in 2020, but they’ve not given up the notion of wreaking some havoc on the NL Central this year. To do so, however, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman will need to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, writes Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. True enough, Reynolds and Newman came out the gate strong in 2019, posting 3.2 fWAR and 2.4 fWAR, respectively. And yet, teaming their rookie duo with Josh Bell’s breakout bat still only amounted to the 20th-ranked offense by runs scored (758 runs), 19th by wRC+ (92). Beyond these three, the other two Pirates rounding out their top-5 by wRC+ in 2019 now play for different teams (Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson), and the sixth is a pitcher (Steven Brault). Immediately upon the close of 2019, the Pirates had planned to give Brault a go as a two-way player, but with new leadership up and down the organization, it’s unclear what his role will be. Regardless, Jarrod Dyson is the biggest addition made the to position player group this winter. Reynolds and Newman are core pieces of this lineup, and the good news is this: if they do slump in their sophomore seasons, they should have enough leash to find their way back. Let’s jump from the bottom of the NL Central to the top and check in with the reigning divisional champs…
Pirates infielder/outfielder Pablo Reyes has been suspended 80 games after testing positive for the banned substance Boldenone, Major League Baseball announced on Wednesday. Reyes was designated for assignment by the Pirates and sent outright to Triple-A Indianapolis last month.
Reyes, 26, has seen action with the Pirates in each of the past two seasons but struggled in 2019 after an intriguing debut in 2018. Overall, he’s mustered only a .229/.295/.368 slash in 220 plate appearances as a big leaguer. That said, Reyes also carries a solid .281/.341/.471 line through 589 plate appearances in his Triple-A career. Today’s PED revelation and last year’s league-wide offensive explosion in Triple-A will cause many to question the legitimacy of that production, however. Reyes missed about a month of the 2019 season due to an ankle injury.
Having been outrighted off the roster, Reyes was already facing an uphill battle to make it back to the big leagues. Now, with a half-season suspension for a performance-enhancing substance, his road to a second tour of duty in the Majors is all the longer.
With the exception of the Reds, who have made several notable moves, this hasn’t been an action-packed offseason in the National League Central. Cincinnati was a fourth-place team a season ago and is currently mired in a six-year playoff drought, but the club has made an earnest attempt to transform itself into a playoff contender since the 2019 campaign concluded. Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama have all come aboard in free agency to bolster the Reds’ position player group. Meanwhile, a rotation that was already strong in 2019 has tacked on Wade Miley to complement Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani, and the bullpen has pulled in Pedro Strop.
The Reds only won 75 games last year, but at last check, the majority of MLBTR voters expect them to amass 80-some victories this season. In the NL Central, where there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team, it may only take 80-plus wins to claim the division. The Cardinals’ 91 led the way last year, but they’ve made no truly headline-grabbing acquisitions in recent months, they’ve lost outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Braves and now one of their most reliable starters, Miles Mikolas, is dealing with arm troubles early in the spring.
Along with the Cards, the 2019 Central boasted two other plus-.500 teams – the Brewers (89 wins) and the Cubs (84). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see either team contend for the playoffs again this year, but it’s difficult to argue that they’ve gotten better since last season. The Brewers have made quite a few changes, especially in the infield (Brock Holt’s their latest pickup), but they also lost two of their best position players in Moustakas and catcher Yasmani Grandal earlier in free agency.
The Cubs, meantime, have been stunningly quiet for a deep-pocketed team that collapsed down the stretch in 2019. Seismic changes were expected after they laid an egg last year, and maybe they’ll still come (a Kris Bryant trade seems like the most realistic way to shake things up). For now, though, their roster looks a lot like the 2019 edition. There’s still plenty of talent on hand, but there’s no more Castellanos, who emerged as one of the Cubs’ main threats at the plate after they acquired him from the Tigers prior to last July’s trade deadline.
Aside from the Pirates, who are more likely to compete for the No. 1 pick than a playoff berth this year (and whom we’ll leave out of this poll), it wouldn’t seem unrealistic to pick any of the NL Central’s teams to win the division. This year’s PECOTA projections (via Daniel Kramer of MLB.com) have the Reds grabbing the division with 86 wins and the Cubs totaling 85 en route to a wild-card spot. The system gives the Reds 66.2 percent preseason playoff odds, the Cubs 51.5 percent, the Cardinals 24.4 percent and the Brewers 20.3. We still have several weeks to go before the season opens, but as of now, which of those clubs do you think will finish on top?
(Poll link for app users)
- To say this has been an offseason low on impact acquisitions for the Pirates would be an understatement. They’ve signed three major league free agents – catcher Luke Maile and a pair of outfielders Jarrod Dyson and Guillermo Heredia – all for modest prices. Thanks to its offseason decisions, including the trade of center fielder Starling Marte to Arizona, Pittsburgh’s projected to enter 2020 with a microscopic payroll of $60MM, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. It’s not an ideal way to build a team, but the Pirates are in a rebuild. Once (and if) the Pirates begin to turn things around, new general manager Ben Cherington expects to have more money at his disposal. “I’m confident [payroll] will increase over time as we get deeper into our team build, there’s opportunity and we get closer with those opportunities,” Cherington stated Sunday (via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). “I’m confident we’ll have the means to build a winning team and add pieces. We’re not putting any kind of date on when that could happen. We’re going to try and get there as soon as we can. That’s an every-day thing.” The Pirates have come under fire for a lack of spending, though Cherington added that he’s “really confident that the total investment in baseball operations is not just enough but really competitive within the industry,”
February 13: The Pirates have officially announced the signing via press release. To create space for Dyson on the 40-man roster, the Bucs placed righty Jameson Taillon on the 60-day injured list. Taillon is expected to miss most, if not all of the 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last August.
February 12: The Pirates have a deal in place with veteran outfielder Jarrod Dyson, per Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Twitter link). It’s a one-year, big-league contract, per Jeff Passan of ESPN.com (via Twitter). Dyson will earn $2MM, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network. (Twitter link. Heyman also first reported the sides were close to a deal.)
Dyson will help the Bucs cover for the departure of center fielder Starling Marte — who was dealt to Dyson’s most recent team, the Diamondbacks. It’s likely that the Pirates will utilize others up the middle as well, though we’ll know more when the club gathers up its position players in camp.
Now 35 years of age, Dyson is no longer quite the player he once was. He remains an excellent defender and elite baserunner, so the Bucs can feel confident they’ll get value in those areas. Those attributes also make Dyson an easy player to trade to a contender in need of a mid-season roster boost in anticipation of the postseason, as Dyson is a tailor-made late-inning bench asset.
Trouble is, the bat has lagged noticeably of late. From 2013-17, he carried a .262/.326/.361 slash line — hardly a standout mark, but within 12% or so of league-average productivity. It was easily enough to make Dyson a valuable player given his other high-grade tools. But over his two seasons with the Diamondbacks, Dyson has slumped to a meager .216/.302/.299 batting line.
There’s really not much to love about Dyson’s profile at the plate. He has boosted his walk rate of late but has consistently failed to make hard contact — though that was true also when he was turning in better outcomes. Whether due to his approach or those of opposing pitchers, Dyson’s launch angle has also headed northward. He has not gained any pop but has seen his batting average (and batting average on balls in play) dive.
It’s still easy to see the appeal of this move for the Bucs. There is some value to be found here and Dyson does keep the door open somewhat to competitiveness. Perhaps there is even a bit of overall upside, if the club can help him find a way to reduce the number of harmless fly balls he’s hitting while maintaining his plate-discipline improvements.
The notion of a closer’s role has evolved over the years, but there’s never been any doubt of the importance of a reliable late-inning relief strategy. While some organizations prefer more flexible arrangements, quite a few still utilize dedicated ninth-inning men. Settling on a closer isn’t just important to a team and to fantasy baseball gurus. It’s also a factor in a player’s trade and free agent status and — especially — to his potential arbitration earnings.
Here are some early notes on spring closer situations from around the game …
- Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke made rather clear that he views Brandon Workman as the top closing option entering camp, as Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com tweets. The club isn’t making anything official just yet, but the comments from the just-minted skipper give him a strong presumption. That’s not too surprising: the 31-year-old Workman emerged as a premium pen arm last year, when he racked up 71 2/3 innings of 1.88 ERA ball with 13.1 K/9 and 5.7 BB/9. He does have some experience closing out games, having finished 16 Boston wins as part of a committee approach last year.
- For the Pirates, there’ll be no waiting: new skipper Derek Shelton says Keone Kela will handle the ninth, as Adam Berry of MLB.com reports on Twitter. Kela’s time in Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly been smooth, but he’s undeniably talented enough to do the job and will now be challenged with added responsibility as the organization seeks to turn the page on a brutal 2019 season. There were numerous problems on and off the field for the Bucs. By far the most important was the arrest of closer Felipe Vazquez on charges so awful that it’s hard even to think of the matter from a baseball perspective. But the organization has obviously had to make decisions to account for that departure. There is plenty of incentive for Kela, who will be a free agent at season’s end. If things go better for the 26-year-old than for the remainder of the Pirates team, he could also feature as a significant mid-season trade piece.
- The Marlins have set about compiling a new-look bullpen this winter. It seems it’ll be anchored by one of the club’s recent veteran additions. Manager Don Mattingly strongly suggested that Brandon Kintzler is the top choice to function as closer, Craig Mish of FNTSY Sports Radio tweets. The 35-year-old isn’t exactly a prototypical swing-and-miss, capital-C closer type. But he did turn in 57 frames of 2.68 ERA ball last year with a typically strong 54.7% groundball rate. And Kintzler has saved 49 games in his career.
Both Pittsburgh (Starling Marte) and Boston (Mookie Betts), of course, have completed trades shipping high-profile outfielders out of town. The Red Sox added an immediate option to step into Betts’ shoes, Alex Verdugo, but his acquisition gives the club three left-handed-hitting outfielders. Pairing Pillar with that trio would give the Sox an option at any of three outfield slots — and one who carries a respectable .281/.313/.453 career batting line against left-handed pitching. Notably, with Betts and David Price traded to the Dodgers, Red Sox ownership has accomplished its goal of dropping south of the luxury tax barrier; Boston is currently about $9.5MM shy of that $208MM cutoff point, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez.
The path to regular at-bats in Pittsburgh seems more direct for Pillar. Bryan Reynolds and Gregory Polanco are likely to roam two of the three outfield spots — likely the corners — and the Buccos’ other options are utilityman JT Riddle and reserve outfielder Guillermo Heredia. Prospect Jason Martin could eventually emerge as a spot, but he’s rehabbing from October surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and could be limited early in the year.
Pillar hit a career-best 21 home runs in 2019 and notched his fifth straight season with 14 or more steals. His once-elite glovework now grades out closer to average, but he should be at least a serviceable option in center and could yet see a rebound in that regard. However, Pillar also drew a walk in only 2.8 percent of his plate appearances, leading to a .287 on-base percentage that was the fourth-worst among all qualified hitters. Overall, Pillar’s .259/.287/.432 slash was 15 percent worse than league average by measure of wRC+ and 11 percent below average per OPS+.
Those lackluster on-base skills, the diminished defensive ratings and a projected $9.7MM salary (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz) all surely played a role in the Giants’ decision to non-tender Pillar earlier in the offseason. He’s certainly in line to earn less than that projection at this point, but the veteran center fielder still seems like a candidate to land a Major League deal — be it in Boston, Pittsburgh or elsewhere.