Having already broken down what each AL team should do, let’s examine one move that every NL team should do between now and Opening Day!
Start Daulton Varsho at Triple-A
The D-Backs were tough for this. I wanted to suggest that Luke Weaver completely abandon his curveball, but it looks like he is starting to already. There’s a few prospect relievers that I think should get a look (Humberto Castellanos and West Tunnell, a position-player-turned-pitcher who dominated in 2019 with a mid-to-high-90s fastball, were two), but that didn’t seem juicy enough and the players in their current bullpen deserve just as much of a look. So, I went with Varsho.
I like Daulton Varsho, and a catcher with some speed definitely piqued my interest in fantasy baseball. With that said, he got obliterated at the Major League level in his brief taste last season. Through 68 batted balls, he averaged an 86.2 MPH exit velocity. That would have been tied with the 12th-lowest AEV among all qualified hitters last season. He struck out at an exorbitant rate (28.7%) and hit just .188 through 115 PA.
Those numbers don’t mean anything for Varsho’s future. It was his first taste, a tiny sample, and he could still be a stud. With that said, there is no reason to rush him back to the Majors and have him get destroyed again. With the current San Diego and Los Angeles rosters, Arizona will be doing nothing in the NL West this season. They might as well let Varsho tear it up in Triple A and get his confidence back up before feeding him to MLB pitchers again.
Don’t Commit to a Closer
Usually, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. Call me old school, but I think there is something to be said for having a designated guy who knows he is getting the ball and comes in to shut the game down. Last year for Atlanta, that was Mark Melancon. He wasn’t amazing, but it worked. With that said, the Braves are lucky to have two reliable relievers who don’t walk many batters (especially Chris Martin) and provide high-strikeout rates. Will Smith and Chris Martin are an ideal lefty/righty pair who should both provide the team with saves this year when they’re needed. If the 6’8 Martin struggles in the role (he only has 6 career saves, compared to Smith’s 49), then Smith can easily step in and take it over. I’m hoping that doesn’t need to happen, though.
Arguably the next two best relievers on the team — Tyler Matzek and AJ Minter — are both lefties. So, locking up the left-handed Smith in the closer role doesn’t mean they won’t have any lefties to use before the ninth inning rolls around. Nevertheless, I think the best iteration of the club’s bullpen is a flexible one where one of their two awesome relievers can come in at any point to shut offenses down. For what this is worth, it looks like that is the approach that manager Brian Snitker is leaning towards for 2021.
Sign Rick Porcello
After trading away Yu Darvish, the Cubs rotation looks pretty awful. They’ve still got the perennially underrated Kyle Hendricks, but after that, it gets bleak and it doesn’t look like much help is on the way. Trevor Williams, who had a FIP of 6.30 through 55.1 IP last year (if you’re thinking “small sample!” he had a 5.12 FIP in 26 starts in 2019), is currently slated to be their fifth starter. Even if Porcello is actually as bad as he has been the last two seasons, is he any worse than that?
Let’s talk about Porcello. In 2016, he won the Cy Young. He had a 3.15 ERA (3.70 xERA) and a 1.01 WHIP. He threw his sinker 38% of the time, much more than his four-seamer which he threw 22% of the time. In 2017, Porcello inexplicably almost completely reversed those numbers, throwing his Sinker just 26% of the time and his four-seamer 33%. The result was a 4.65 ERA (4.92 xERA) and a 1.40 WHIP. Unsurprisingly, he did not repeat as the Cy Young winner.
So what did he do in 2018? Well he went back to using the sinker as his primary pitch, of course. He used it about 10% more than his four-seamer, saw almost a full-run drop in his xERA from 4.92 in 2017 to 4.01 in 2018, and his xSLG dropped from .483 to .403. Those are big differences! So, why, Rick, did you go back to your four-seamer as your primary pitch in 2019? It resulted in your worst season! The 5.52 ERA resulted in Porcello having to settle for a 1-year, $10 million deal with the Mets. He was a reigning Cy Young winner at just 31 years old and had to sign a one-year prove it deal. He went back to the sinker, but proved nothing. Almost completely abandoning the four-seamer (about 10% usage), Porcello got hammered. His xERA was even higher than in 2019 and his WHIP was a ludicrous 1.51.
He undoubtedly performed over his head in his Cy Young year, but this was a guy who was a solid middle-of-the-rotation reliable arm. I would like to see the Cubs give him a go. If he can get his sinker to be effective again, mixing in his four-seamer more than he did last year but not overly-relying on it, I think he could be solid for the Cubs. With Javier Báez and Nico Hoerner up the middle providing awesome defense, Porcello’s sinker could generate a lot of ground ball outs. He won’t require a long-term or expensive contract and the NL Central is going to be wide open. I’d go get this 32-year-old and see if I could get something out of him that the Mets couldn’t.
Trade for Miguel Rojas
The Reds shortstop situation is a disaster. They missed out on all of the big, and small, names that signed this off-season and are currently stuck with Kyle Farmer at the position. Rojas is no other-worldly player, but he is coming off a season in which, through 40 games, he posted an .888 OPS, career-best BB% (11.2%), and a tiny 12.6 K%. He is only owed $5 million this year with a club option for next year before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2023. Trading for Rojas should not come at a steep cost, and the Marlins might be interested since they could move Jon Berti to shortstop and open up full-time playing time for Isan Díaz. As impressive as they were last season, this is still a team that is rebuilding. Collecting a prospect for a player who just had a career-best season is probably a smart move.
There were rumors swirling all off-season of the Reds potentially selling Sonny Gray and even Luis Castillo, and yet both are still on the roster. With such a strong top of the rotation, combined with what should be a solid bullpen, the Reds should definitely be able to compete for an NL Central crown. Their offense is also much better than what they produced last year. They had a league-worst .245 BABIP. The next worse was the Rangers with a .266 BABIP. Talk about some awful luck! Upgrading from Farmer to Rojas could be a substantial offensive upgrade and one that helps get the Reds where they want to go.
Trade Trevor Story
Rockies fans and fantasy owners alike do not want to hear it, but the Rockies should trade their face-of-the-franchise shortstop. Story is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year so if the Rockies fail in their attempt to sign him to a long-term extension, the potential return they could get him for him gets worse by the day.
Last season, there were rumors that the Rockies could land Carlos Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Dakota Hudson, and Matthew Liberatore for Nolan Arenado. Now obviously that was pre-pandemic and not many that I know of would have predicted a down season and shoulder injury for the Rockies third baseman. Nevertheless, the Rockies waited too long and ended up getting a much worse return for their franchise player.
Now it is Story who is their franchise player and they have a decision to make. He is in his prime already. With how loaded the Padres and Dodgers are, do the Rockies expect to compete during Story’s prime years, even if they sign him to a long-term extension? I’m guessing they won’t, particularly with an abysmal pitching staff. The prudent move might be to trade him now for a substantial haul. Who knows? Maybe players like Garrett Hampson, Sam Hilliard, and Brendan Rodgers break out and they decide to re-sign Story once he hits free agency. If that happens, great. For now, though, this is a poor roster with one incredibly valuable asset. They cannot afford to let him walk in free agency after this season and get nothing in return.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Don’t Rush Kenley Jansen Off the Closer Role Just Yet
If you look at Kenley Jansen’s Statcast numbers, a lot of it looks like the same old Jansen. One of the best closers in baseball over the last decade, Jansen has built an amazing career off a terrific cutter/sinker combination. He closed out 11 games for the Dodgers last season and only surrendered two home runs in 24.1 IP. So what’s the problem?
Well, Jansen’s fastball velocity has dropped every season since 2016. His 2020 1.15 WHIP was the highest of his career and his 3.33 ERA was the second-worst of his career, only beaten by his 2019 mark (3.71). Combine a few of these concerning trends with his brutal 2020 playoff performances (5.14 ERA) and some in Dodgerworld are ready to move on.
While Jansen’s skills may certainly be declining, that does not mean that there is a better option to close games on the current roster. I like Blake Treinen, sure, but he is one year removed from a close-to-5.00 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. He’s only a year younger than Jansen with not even close to the same track record of success. Brusdar Graterol would be the other option. He is probably the Dodgers’ closer of the future, but that doesn’t mean he should usurp Jansen just yet. He has great tools for a closer: elite velocity and has hardly walked anyone in his limited MLB experience. Through 8.2 career playoff innings, he has yet to give up a homer and has a 0.81 WHIP, showing that in high-pressure situations, he may be able to consistently come through. Still, this is a player with just 41.1 total innings pitched (postseason included) at the Major League level. Shouldn’t we see a little more before removing one of the most reliable closers of this generation from his post?
Jansen had a two game stretch last year where he gave up 7 ER in 1.1 IP. Before, and after, that two game stretch, Jansen had an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00. He was the same awesome closer he had always been. Call it cherry-picking if you want, but what do you expect with such a short season? I can’t even believe I have to defend Kenley Jansen! His performance in the playoffs wasn’t great, far from it, but it wasn’t enough to remove him from this role. For now, anyway.
I realize the ridiculousness of this suggestion. If only it were that easy, right?
As great as it was that the Marlins surprisingly made the playoffs last year, there is no question that this team is still in the middle of a rebuild. I therefore found it shocking to see that none of their projected starting position players are under 27 years old, and only two of them are younger than 30.
For comparison’s sake, Elieser Hernandez is the oldest pitcher in the projected rotation at 25 years old.
I’m not saying that the entire offense should be as young as the rotation, but injecting some youth into that lineup and beginning to lay the foundation for their future offense is something to be considered.
To be fair, Jazz Chisholm, their top prospect and return for Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen in a 2019 trade, got called up last year and looked horrendous. He struck out nearly 31% of the time (and Jesús Sánchez and Monte Harris were even worse, two other mid-season call-ups for the Marlins). You can’t just keep trotting players doing that out on the field every night, I understand.
Still, clearing some space to give players like Isan Díaz, Lewin Díaz, Chisholm, Sánchez, Harris, and, one day, JJ Bleday an opportunity to play is in their best long-term interest. If none of them are ready, and they certainly didn’t look ready last year, then at least trade some of these veteran pieces for some more young players. That’s certainly easier said than done, but players like Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson are probably not going to be on the next great Marlins team. They hold value, acquire something!
Sign Maikel Franco
The Brewers were in on Justin Turner and although Franco is hardly half of the player that Turner is, he could be a necessary addition for the Brewers at this point. No, Franco’s career numbers don’t profile as much of a platoon player, but he has hit lefties much better than he has hit righties over the last two seasons. This could potentially work well with Travis Shaw.
Shaw, currently projected as the Brewers opening day third baseman, inexplicably hit lefties well last season. For his career, though, he has a .286 OBP vs LHP. Perhaps signing Franco could lead to a decent platoon. Even if it doesn’t, at least it doubles their chances at having a competent third baseman. As it stands, the bottom half of the Brewers lineup looks like it could be extremely terrible. Maximizing the production out of third base, be it riding the hot bat of Shaw or Franco, or strictly platooning them, at least provides a higher likelihood that they get something out of the position.
New York Mets
Don’t Rush Noah Syndergaard Back
The Mets were tough for this. What more can they do between now and Opening Day when they’ve already done so much? They are loaded top-to-bottom and just added to their depth with Taijuan Walker. Between Joey Lucchesi, Jordan Yamamoto, David Peterson, and Walker, I think the Mets should be able to piece together their fourth and fifth spots in the rotation pretty effectively, probably with those last two names.
This gives one of their major studs, Syndergaard, an opportunity to take his time and really build up his arm for when he eventually returns. Mets Manager Luis Rojas was impressed with a recent bullpen session from Syndergaard. While that is awesome to read, the Mets shouldn’t even consider bringing him back before their originally scheduled June target. Syndergaard is an important piece to this Mets team. He makes their very good rotation great. With that said, after undergoing Tommy John Surgery last March, they should be extra patient with their second ace.
Bring Cole Hamels Home
As it stands right now, Matt Moore, who has a career ERA over 4.50, is slated to be the Phillies’ fifth starter. I actually like that they acquired him, though, because Moore pitched more innings in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league than any starting pitcher in MLB did in 2020. Not only did Moore pitch a lot of innings (85), but he also had a 2.65 ERA. Maybe this trip abroad has reinvigorated the once highly touted Rays prospect.
For a team that should compete, though, the idea of either Moore or rookie Spencer Howard holding down that fifth starter role might be a little unsettling. Howard got torched in his first taste of the big leagues last year. He gave up 6 HR in just 24.1 IP.
The return of Hamels would not only bring a fan favorite back to Philadelphia but would add some more depth and experience to the rotation. He was shut down for basically all of last season with shoulder fatigue. If the time off has revitalized Hamels, he could be a solid addition. The last substantial sample of work we saw from him was in 2019 where he carried a 3.81 ERA through 27 starts. There were troubling signs that season, particularly his 1.39 WHIP (it was 1.37 the season before). But, as a fifth starter and another experienced and veteran voice, it could be beneficial and fun to see Hamels back in Philly.
Commit to Batting Ke’Bryan Hayes Leadoff
The Pirates are going to be bad. Like, really bad. I mean, potentially historically awful.
They finished with the worst record in baseball last year (19-41). The PECOTA projection system at Baseball Prospectus has them in last place once again with a 0% chance at winning the division. Their leader in fWAR (1.6) was Hayes and he only played in 24 games. The Pirate with the second-highest fWAR was Joe Musgrove (1.0) who they traded to San Diego. Things look extremely ugly in Pittsburgh. Fortunately, that division does not look too great so maybe the Pirates finish better than the Rangers or Rockies. We’ll see.
There is a glimmer of hope, though, and that is in Hayes.
Hayes dominated during his first taste of MLB action. It was only 95 PA, and that should be noted up front, but this is a top 50 prospect, not some random guy who got lucky for a few weeks. He had an average exit velocity of 92.8 MPH, a slightly-better-than average K%, an above-average BB%, a 1.124 OPS, hit over 32% line drives, and he showed a sprint speed of 28 ft/s.
By far, Hayes is the most exciting player on this roster. He should lead off to get as many plate appearances as possible. He has the speed and on-base ability (career .354 OBP in the minors) to fit the bill as an ideal lead off man and no one else on that Pirates roster should see more opportunities to make something happen with his bat than Hayes.
San Diego Padres
Prepare Blake Snell to go Deeper into Games
Blake Snell’s injury history, mixed with the Rays peculiar way of doing things, seemed to result in an extreme babying of the team’s ace. This was apparent all the way up through Game 6 of the World Series, where Snell was pulled from the game, despite cruising and having only thrown 73 pitches.
World Series aside, whether Snell’s lack of going deep into games was the fault of Snell or the Rays is irrelevant at this point. The fact of the matter is that this former Cy Young winner has made 34 starts since the start of the 2019 season and has only pitched a full 6.0 IP or more 11 times during that stretch. He also only threw 100 pitches or more 8 times during that same 34-start window.
The Padres are awesome. They’re clearly willing to do any move it takes to compete and they’re also very willing to pay their stars. They would be a World Series threat even without Snell. With Snell, though, they should be one of the three or four best teams in baseball. If they can get Snell to take on a true ace-workload, they could very easily find themselves in the World Series.
San Francisco Giants
Use a Six Man Rotation
I am not sure if I have ever seen a rotation as potentially subject to injury as the current Giants’ projected rotation. Behind Kevin Gausman will be Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, and Aaron Sanchez. To help preserve these arms for the long haul, I think the Giants should give a sixth rotation spot to Logan Webb.
The 24-year-old Webb is a ground-ball pitcher without much swing-and-miss stuff to his game (just an 8.8% SwStr% in the majors so far). He’s provided the Giants with 19 starts since first getting called up in 2019 and despite the yikes-inducing 5.36 ERA in those 19 starts, Webb mustered a much more respectable 4.15 FIP. There’s also reason to believe that Webb has maybe been a bit unlucky. The BABIP against him has been a pretty high .340 and he’s only stranded 63.6% of runners. The league average LOB rate in 2020 was 71.2%.
The injury concerns throughout the Giants rotation are real and Webb has done enough to this point, despite the terrible luck he seems to have had, to warrant a sixth spot in the rotation. Webb himself hasn’t pitched much more than 100 IP in any professional season, so the six man rotation approach would help him as much as his fellow starting pitchers.
St. Louis Cardinals
Get Dylan Carlson to Swing More
Carlson enjoyed some limited success during his first taste of big league action for the Cardinals last year. He hit the ball hard (42.1 HH%) and rarely chased pitches. If we want to really get deep into these 119 PA, though, there were a few clear areas where Carlson can improve during his upcoming rookie season.
In 2020, Carlson was hesitant to swing at all. This is understandable. The 22-year-old outfielder was seeing major league pitching for the first time, and it showed. He struggled with breaking balls (.214 xBA) and had a 40.4 Whiff% on off-speed pitches. He seemed a little overmatched. Carlson was so hesitant to swing that he swung at the first pitch of an at-bat just about 10% of the time, whereas the league average was 28%. He only swung at pitches in the zone less than 60% of the time. Carlson was undoubtedly passing up pitches that, with more experience and confidence, he’d be hitting into the bleachers.
His line drive rate was 35.5%, about ten percentage points higher than the league average and his 9.2 barrel% was also very good. When he made contact, he made it count. The tools are there. His K% in the minors (21.7%) wasn’t great but wasn’t nearly as bad as his 29.4% mark that he put forward last season. With a little bit more of an aggressive approach in 2021, he should complement Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt nicely.
Sign Jeff Samardzija
The Nationals rotation might not be as great as the names would suggest. Max Scherzer is still elite, but has battled hamstring and neck issues since the 2019 World Series. Stephen Strasburg is coming off of surgery to address a nerve issue in his hand that caused him to only make two starts last year. Since the start of 2019, Jon Lester has made 43 starts. In those starts, he’s earned a 4.49 FIP and 1.45 WHIP. Their fifth starter is Joe Ross. I didn’t mention Patrick Corbin, but here are my concerns in Tweet form:
Patrick Corbin's 2020:
Worst FIP, ERA, K/9, HR/9, SwStr% since 2016
Lowest GB% of career
High BABIP, not helped by a whooping 44.2% HH% and 90.7 AEV (both highest of career)
Worst FB (it lost 1.5 mph from 2019) by pVAL in MLB: -11.4
Was only 65.2 IP, to be fair.
— Pete B. (@PeteBBaseball) November 2, 2020
Were there signs in 2019?
-2nd highest avg HR distance (417ft on 24 HR)
-highest avg exit velo on balls hit in the air (95mph)
-2019 makes breakout 2018 look like an outlier (particularly HR, xERA, & Z-Contact%)
I am not counting on a bounceback. https://t.co/dQtYkAVsQC
— Pete B. (@PeteBBaseball) February 10, 2021
I am fully open to the ideas that Scherzer could bounce back and contend for a Cy Young and Strasburg can return to 2019 form. Corbin’s slider still seemed to work last year: he had the fifth best two strike chase rate of any pitcher who threw at least 50 innings last year. But we might not be able to bank on the fastball holding up. Even if all of that happens, I do not have a lot of faith in Lester or Ross at this point. I am not too enthused by Erick Fedde or Austin Voth, either.
This is where Jeff Samardzija comes in. Samardzija had to get shut down with shoulder issues last year and just seemed out of sync. He was awful in his four starts, but I am going to write that off. It was just 16.2 IP. Samardzija is far from an ace but before last season, he started 32 games in four out of the previous five seasons. He gave up a lot of homers but he hardly walked anyone. In his four seasons as a Giant prior to 2020, he averaged a 4.09 FIP with a 1.18 WHIP. That is perfectly suitable for a fifth starter and the Nationals should consider bringing him in.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)