Baseball is in the air.
Spring Training games have started, almost all of the big-name free agents have signed, and every major leaguer seems to have spoken their piece about the Astros. It’s time for baseball!
… or is it?
While Opening Day looms closer and closer, there are still things—some significant, some not so much—that every team could do before the season kicks off to better their situations.
Here is one suggestion for every National League club to consider before March 26:
Embrace Zac Gallen
General Manager Mike Hazen commented on the status of the Diamondbacks rotation and the team as a whole heading into the 2020 season: “I just genuinely believe that we as an organization, as a team, should never be in a position where competition doesn’t matter.” This caused many to speculate that Zac Gallen’s spot is not set in stone. The team’s stance is that Gallen is not necessarily in the rotation, but he is also not out of it. Though I do not doubt that Gallen is a significant part of Arizona’s plans for 2020 and beyond, it is a bit concerning that a situation could unfold in which Gallen has a terrible Spring Training and is, at least in the early going, held out of the rotation.
Robbie Ray hardly ever pitches deep into games (averaged just over 5 IP per start in 2019), Luke Weaver is coming off a significant arm injury that mostly ended his breakout 2019 campaign, and Gallen has a total of 80 career IP at the MLB level. This could create a situation in which a lot of stress is put on the bullpen and team ace Madison Bumgarner to eat a lot of innings. Regardless, though, Gallen is too much of a talent to not put in the rotation from the get-go. Some combination of Mike Leake and Merrill Kelley could eat innings as a fifth starter or provide long relief for those days they’re needed, but Gallen should not be set aside for one of them. I expect Arizona to do the right thing.
Bat Dansby Swanson Ninth
It was hard to choose something here. The back-end of the rotation is in rough shape at the moment, especially with Cole Hamels shelved. However, the Braves have young arms in Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, and Ian Anderson. They also took a flier on a 33-year-old Felix Hernandez. I think they’ve done all they can for now and are hoping that something will work out between all of those pieces.
I was also a little concerned that Mark Melancon might close over Will Smith. To be fair to Melancon though, he pitched really well as the Braves closer last year when he got the job. Additionally, Smith is the only lefty out of all the top names in their bullpen. They may want to utilize him more strategically and not just cement him to the ninth inning.
Though neither Dansby Swanson nor his fantasy owners would want to hear it, I think he should bat ninth—behind the pitcher—in the Braves lineup. Brian Snitker is not going to move Ronald Acuña from the leadoff spot, he has made that abundantly clear. While that worked out well for the Braves and certainly Acuña last season, it did somewhat limit their ability to manufacture runs because arguably their best hitter was batting quite often with no one on base. Of Acuña’s 41 home runs in 2019, 26 of them were solo shots. Seven of those were leadoff home runs, so it wouldn’t have mattered who was batting ninth. Still, although it would mean fewer PA for Swanson, the Braves’ run production could be even better in 2020. Before injuring his heel in late July of 2019, Swanson had a 108 wRC+ and had already cracked 17 home runs. The injury clearly bothered him. Through just 38 second-half games, Swanson had zero homers and a 56 wRC+. Assuming he is healthy again, he could resume what he did in the first half last year, except for this time, do it in front of one of the best hitters in the game.
I understand the Braves had a great offense last year, especially with Acuña batting leadoff. I just think it could be even better. Maybe it doesn’t have to be Swanson, but a real hitter in front of Acuña would be awesome.
Don’t Trade Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant will be a free agent after the 2021 season and has been involved in many trade rumors this off-season. Regardless of all that and him losing his service time dispute, Bryant apparently wants to be a Cub for life. Even if that is just lip service and he ends up signing elsewhere, the Cubs should try to compete with Bryant during these final two years of his contract. While the Reds are much improved, the Pirates look terrible and the Cardinals and Brewers both lost key components from their 2019 playoff rosters. Not only is the division winnable, but the window of contention for the Cubs roster is right now. Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, and their entire starting rotation are over 30 years old. Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, and Bryant himself are in the heart of their primes. They are one or two moves away from being real World Series competitors, especially if Yu Darvish builds on what he did in the second half of 2019. The Cubs should go for a title, not trade the face of their franchise. Right, Red Sox?
Trade for Francisco Lindor
As mentioned in the Cubs portion, the National League Central is ripe for the picking and the Reds may be the team in the driver’s seat. They have the best rotation in the division and added Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama to the offense. The one glaring hole in the Reds lineup is at shortstop. Their pursuit of Didi Gregorius fell short and they’re left with the uninspiring Freddy Galvis at the position. While there is definitely a middle-ground solution somewhere between starting Galvis and trading for the best shortstop in baseball, I think the Reds should push their chips in and grab Lindor.
With Moustakas at second base, Eugenio Suarez at third base, and Jesse Winker, Aristides Aquino, and Akiyama battling for the two outfield spots leftover from the Castellanos signing, it is looking like there is no room for Nick Senzel. Could a package headlined by Senzel and, say, Hunter Greene, get the job done? Greene hasn’t pitched in awhile due to Tommy John Surgery, but pre-TJS he was hitting 102mph on the radar gun and was a consensus top 50 prospect in baseball.
The Indians don’t appear to be all-in on 2020 after trading away Corey Kluber for a bench bat and a reliever. They have also clearly shown interest in trading Lindor. Even if the Senzel+Greene package isn’t close enough to get this deal done, I still think there’s a deal to be had here if the Reds truly want it. After signing the 31-year-olds Moustakas and Akiyama, as well as trading for the 29-year-old Bauer, the Reds envision themselves competing very soon. Why not do that with the best shortstop in baseball for 2020 and 2021?
Let the Youth Play
The Rockies are notorious for signing veterans that block their top prospects. Daniel Murphy is maybe their most recent example of it. To be fair, at the time, I was excited to see Murphy’s bat go to Coors. We all saw how that played out in 2019, though. I don’t blame the Rockies for trying but they need to realize a cold hard truth—they are not good enough to compete. Their offense is dynamic, no doubt, but their pitching is so bad. One could hear the collective bats of the National League West lick their chops when they heard Rockies’ manager Bud Black say that he thought Wade Davis should be their closer. The pitching just isn’t there—not in the rotation, not in the bullpen, and probably not in the minors either.
With that being the case, the Rockies should strongly consider benching Murphy, sliding Ryan McMahon to first base, and letting Garrett Hampson take over second. I would understand them wanting to showcase Murphy to try and deal him at the deadline if he looks anything like he did last May (.344/.364/.505), but he might just be washed up. His Baseball Savant statcast sliders look quite gloomy. Hampson, meanwhile, had a monster September and entered the 2018 season as the Rockies’ number four prospect according to MLB Pipeline. With McMahon, Hampson, and Sam Hilliard in the lineup, the Rockies can give themselves a nice glimpse into their future and stop blocking their top young talent.
Go With Wood
Depth is not a bad problem to have. In fact, for a team that likes to rest their starters as much as the Dodgers do, this is a great problem to have. Nevertheless, one of the top priorities for manager Dave Roberts heading into the season is going to be to figure out the rotation. The first three spots are pretty much locked up – Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and David Price. Julio Urias has been confirmed by manager Dave Roberts to be in the rotation on Opening Day as well.
That leaves one rotation spot for Alex Wood, Dustin May, Ross Stripling, Tony Gonsolin, and Jimmy Nelson. Even if you don’t consider Nelson to be a viable candidate based on how the last few years of his career have gone, the other four are definite contenders. May and Gonsolin still have options. Stripling has been an effective reliever in the past (career 3.12 ERA as a reliever).
That leaves Wood. Before an injury-riddled 2019 season with the Reds, Wood had excellent seasons with the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018. During those campaigns, he went 25-10 with a 3.43 FIP and 1.13 WHIP. That was just two years ago! I think it is in the Dodgers’ best interest to start the season with Wood in the rotation and if he falters, has another injury, or May or Gonsolin just play too well to keep out of the rotation, then so be it.
Elieser Hernandez Time
I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough of Jose Urena. Though he was a bit of a disaster out of the bullpen, maybe they can continue to work on making him a closer.
Elieser Hernandez, meanwhile, intrigues me a bit.
He generated a 37.4% whiff% in 2019 on his slider and was ranked in the top 20% of pitchers in average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, and expected batting average. Granted, it was a small sample size, but why not see what you have here if you are the Marlins? Sure, his ERA and FIP were both over 5.00 in 2019, but that can largely be attributed to opponents hitting .297 off his fastball despite the xBA for that pitch being .252. He also made two appearances against the Dodgers in which he gave up 10 earned runs in just 6.2 IP. If you take those two appearances out of Hernandez’s numbers, his ERA drops over a full run. Part of that, is of course, because of how small of a sample it was. But, again, if you’re the Marlins, why not explore this and see what you have? Unless Urena wildly outperforms him in Spring Training, the Marlins should award the fifth starter spot to Hernandez.
Find Out if Freddy Peralta’s Slider is for Real or Not
The ultimate test of if a pitcher will cut it as a Major League starter or not might be if they have a third reliable pitch or not. This has been Freddy Peralta’s problem ever since making it to the MLB level. He’s always had the dynamic fastball and would throw a curveball to keep hitters somewhat guessing. But, without a third pitch in his arsenal, he was limited in how much he could keep batters off balance and how deep he could go into games.
In the minors, he threw a slider but abandoned that pitch once he reached the majors. Apparently, the slider is back.
Peralta tore up the Dominican Winter League with the pitch this off-season and is looking to incorporate it into his arsenal for 2020. Everyone knows how badly the Brewers need help in the rotation, so the slider for Peralta could end up being huge for them. If the pitch proves to be effective in Spring Training, manager Craig Counsell should insert Peralta into the rotation.
Whatever You Do, Play JD Davis
The Mets were beat-up last year, and that was what enabled Davis to land playing time to begin with. When he got that play-time, he raked. Davis posted a 136 wRC+ and .373 wOBA. He was simply unbelievable with the bat and his immense raw power knocked 22 home runs in 410 AB.
I am sure the Mets want to play him, but if Cespedes truly is back, then who takes a seat? It wouldn’t be Michael Conforto or Jeff McNeil, so that would leave the final spot that Davis can play to be decided between himself and Brandon Nimmo. Nimmo’s far superior fielding and excellent ability to take a walk may lead to him eating into Davis’ at-bats, if not outright taking them. However, it shouldn’t. Davis’ bat was too good in 2019 to not at least give it a chance to win a permanent job. Whatever transpires this Spring Training, the Mets should stick with playing JD Davis regularly to start the season. I realize this concern hinges on the health and ability of Cespedes, someone we haven’t seen perform at a high level in a very long time. I just really like Davis and want to see him get his shot.
Work on Offensive Approach
The Phillies’ offense was startlingly terrible last year, at least in comparison to what many expected from them. Jean Segura and Rhys Hoskins disappointed, Andrew McCutchen got hurt, and Bryce Harper took awhile to adjust to his new surroundings. The team ranked in the bottom third of the MLB in team batting average (.246), tied with the horrendous Baltimore Orioles. Their OBP, even with walk machines Hoskins and Harper (and for a portion of the season, McCutchen), ranked just 19th in baseball. Their leadoff spot rotated between many players throughout the season but never truly got figured out—the Phillies hit just .237 with a paltry .326 OBP on the season from the leadoff spot.
With a new regime in Philly led by former Yankees manager Joe Girardi, hopefully, we begin to see a new offensive approach from the Phillies this Spring. Hoskins appears to have already embraced this new regime by accepting a change in his batting stance to generate more contact.
The number one focus for the Phillies this spring should be to continue trying to fix the offensive woes they had last year. They constantly fell behind in counts, struck out a lot, hit terribly on the road, hit .254 with RISP, and hit just .233 in tied up ballgames. I know this suggestion is a vague one, and I do expect the return of McCutchen as well as the signing of Didi Gregorius to help, but boy, this offense needs to be better if they have World Series aspirations.
Trade Josh Bell
The Pirates might have a bright future with Mitch Keller, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, and Travis Swaggerty. Unfortunately, by the time that core would be ready to compete, like Trey Mancini in Baltimore and Matthew Boyd in Detroit, Josh Bell might not be nearly as valuable anymore and the money they would use on him to extend him could instead later be used on pieces to build around that young core.
I know Pirates fans don’t want to hear any of that and many accuse ownership of being cheap enough as it is. I hear and understand that, truly. But, in the cases of these three teams specifically—Pirates, Tigers, Orioles—their Major League rosters are just so bad that cashing in your major chips to build a monster farm system, like Houston did all those years ago, might be the best and most effective path towards contending. They already dealt Starling Marte, so why not Bell? Jameson Taillon is out, Marte is gone, the towel has been thrown in. Imagine if the Pirates were willing to not only part with Bell but also take on a large portion of Eric Hosmer’s contract? What do you think AJ Preller would be willing to part with to make that swap? Perhaps a fortune in terms of prospect capital.
As fun as it is to watch Bell go when he’s hot, Pirates fans should consider being open to the idea of moving their breakout first baseman. His breakout may have enabled them to accelerate a rebuild that was inevitable.
Sign MacKenzie Gore to a Six-Year, $55 Million Extension
The Padres are trying to compete, in case that wasn’t wildly obvious by their last several off-seasons. Whether it be the Hosmer mistake-of-a-signing, the monster Manny Machado contract, the immediate promotions of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack, their participation in the Betts sweepstakes, trading for the 31-year-old Tommy Pham, or even holding on to Kirby Yates at last year’s trade deadline, the Padres are all-in on competing. That’s awesome. Their best chance at truly competing, though, is having MacKenzie Gore in the rotation.
Though Gore just became old enough to buy a drink this very week, he has the tools to contribute right away when given the chance. The big lefty has a tremendous arsenal with good command. Gore grades out as a better pitching prospect by many outlets than Paddack did, and the Padres did not hesitate to immediately thrust Paddack into the rotation in 2019 but also let him throw a career-high 140.2 IP.
I think the Padres should try to take a page out of the White Sox book and sign their young, high-upside prospect to an extension. Worried that Preller may think twice about once again immediately starting the service clock on one of his elite prospects, I think an extension helps everybody out. The $55 million suggestion is just that—a suggestion. I’m not Gore’s agent, maybe he was already offered that and declined it! Who knows? But that number is $5 million more than what Luis Robert got from Chicago.
Commit to a Closer
The Giants almost certainly do not plan on competing in 2020, so a closer may be the last thing on their minds. However, it’s in their best interest to start the season with a closer they are committed to as opposed to a committee. For a rebuilding team, the easiest thing to trade away is a reliever and, coincidentally, relievers are quite often the most sought after item at the trade deadline. If the Giants can get Tony Watson, Shaun Anderson, or one of the other names in their bullpen to put together a few solid months of decent-to-good ninth-inning work (think Shane Greene 2019), they may be surprised at what they can get for them at the deadline.
They did not do the right thing last deadline and trade away Will Smith when they had the chance. This year, they can make up for it.
This obviously depends on someone in that poor-looking bullpen to actually pitch well, but stranger things have happened. Maybe a young name in the minors could do the trick like Raffi Vizcaino? Whatever the case, the Giants don’t look like a team that will have a lot to offer come selling season at the trade deadline. They should try to change that between now and then with whatever creative options are open to them.
Sign Yasiel Puig
I’m not sure any team needs Yasiel Puig at this point more than the Cardinals do. Their lineup is in seriously rough shape, especially if Paul Goldschmidt continues his decline in 2020. Marcell Ozuna was a force for them before his injury. Puig could replace some of what Ozuna brought to the table and energize this 2019 playoff team. He’s been on the market for so long that one has to think he and his agent may consider a one-year deal. If that is the case, that would make even more sense for the Cardinals who have several aging veterans in their lineup and rotation. As stated multiple times, the NL Central is wide open. Bringing in Puig to replace Ozuna may be the most obvious and necessary move for any team at this point. Let’s hope the Cardinals do the right thing and land the dynamic outfielder.
Harris or Hudson, Not Doolittle
Yes, of course, I want to see the Nationals unleash Carter Kieboom. I do like most of their options, though, so if Kieboom doesn’t impress in the spring, then I’m fine with them taking the slow approach on him. Instead, I think the Nationals need to move on from Sean Doolittle as the closer for good. Other than Roenis Elias, he is the only lefty in their pen. He’s coming off arguably his worst season in which he posted a FIP of 4.25, had his worst K/9 since 2013, and his worst BB/9 in a full-season as a major leaguer. Daniel Hudson, alternatively, pitched exceptionally well for the Nationals down the stretch. That included four saves in the playoffs en route to the Nationals’ first World Series title. Newly acquired Will Harris was arguably better than both Hudson and Doolittle in 2019, turning in a 3.15 FIP and 0.93 WHIP.
I think this one is fairly obvious, especially since Hudson finished the season closing games for the Nationals. I just hope the Nationals see it that way and do not return the job to Doolittle.
Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter and Instagram)