Friday, August 6, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 6, 2021 -- "Third Third Previews, Pt. 3"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 69
August 6, 2021

This third batch of Third Thirds is where it starts to get interesting, as it features the six teams currently considered contenders that I peg as missing the playoffs.

I put a lot of work into my preseason predictions. In part because of that, I tend to stick with them as long as is reasonable. I don’t see the point, otherwise; if you’re constantly changing your picks, you end up having put 18 teams into the playoffs at one time or another, and who’s learning anything from that? I’m not silly about it; I predicted the Twins to win the AL Central, and that’s not happening, which was reflected in their placement in Monday’s column. Similarly, I had the Giants winning 70 games, a mark they’ll reach sometime this weekend. They’re now a playoff team in my eyes.

On the margins, though, and even outside of them, if I thought you were a playoff team in March, I think you’re a playoff team in August. Keep that guiding principle in mind as you read today’s Third Thirds. 

(Note: the number preceding the team name is where I ranked them in the preseason.)

24. Seattle Mariners (58-52 record, -51 run differential)

Jerry Dipoto’s decision to trade Kendall Graveman was unpopular enough. He didn’t need to see his relievers, including addition Diego Castillo, blow saves both Saturday and Sunday. Individual games don’t move the needle on trade evaluations, but that argument isn’t going to sway the subset of Mariners fans already irate over the trade of Graveman and his ten career saves.

Last week, I wrote that Dipoto had to balance the pressure to win now with a team whose record didn’t reflect its underlying performance, against the reality of that performance and the medium-term upside the Mariners have. I think he did that, exiting the deadline with a bullpen as good as the one he’d had at the start of the week, paying a small price for a #4 starter in Tyler Anderson, and adding some desperately needed OBP by trading for Abraham Toro. Toro has started eight of the nine games the Mariners have played since coming over, seven at second base. He’s not a true talent .438/.500/.813 batter, but that 1313 OPS has been very valuable.

I nearly dropped the Mariners into Wednesday’s collection of non-contenders because they’re just not anywhere near the Blue Jays and Yankees talent-wise, not yet. In the end I let the standings sway me. The Ms are 3 1/2 games out of the second wild-card slot, 7 1/2 behind the Astros. That’s close enough for them to be considered a contender no matter what the playoff odds say. It’s enough for a series in August in the Bronx to have meaning. It’s enough for a three-game series at home against the Jays next weekend to represent an opportunity to change the story. For a team that was supposed to be a bottom feeder in 2021, that’s a win.

More wins are coming. Jarred Kelenic has, after fits and starts, started hitting like the top-five prospect he is. Logan Gilbert has a 3.23 FIP in 14 starts. Julio Rodriguez is hitting .375 for the Dominican Republic at the Olympics. Emerson Hancock and George Kirby are starring in high-A. It won’t be long before everyone has forgotten the trade drama of 2021.

Reason to Watch: After a bumpy start to his career, not even reaching the fifth inning in his first three starts, Logan Gilbert has settled in: a 3.49 ERA and a 68/16 K/BB over his next 11. The Mariners are 10-1 in those 11 games.

21. Cincinnati Reds (58-51, +3)

The Reds were swept at home by the Brewers coming out of the break, pushing their deficit in the NL Central to seven games. That series reduced their chance to win the division by enough to make the idea of big swings at the trade deadline a non-starter. They patched around the edges, collecting low-impact bullpen arms (the LIBA Plan?) and waiting for the return of injured hitters. Along with the return of Michael Lorenzen, the trades flipped the bullpen over the course of a week. The four new guys -- Lorenzen, Mychal Givens, Justin Wilson, and Luis Cessa -- have combined for 15 1/3 innings and just two runs allowed as the Reds have won nine of their last 13 to tread water in the division race.

What’s changed for the Reds has been their opportunity for a wild card. I have not been alone in assuming that three playoff teams would emerge from the NL West, and it’s still almost certain that the Giants and Dodgers will be in the tournament. The Padres, however, have stumbled, going 13-15 since the start of July, 9-8 since the All-Star break. They’ve lost contact with the Giants and are now merely a wild-card contender, and at that, one riddled by injuries. The Reds are closer to the second wild-card slot, just 3 1/2 games back of the Padres, than they are to the NL Central crown, opening up a second door for their playoff hopes.

Should the Reds have been more aggressive in light of that? This is a team whose holes up the middle have hurt them all season, but both Nick Senzel and Mike Moustakas are expected back soon. It was, more or less, too late to trade for an infielder, especially with Jonathan India doing a pretty good Willie Randolph impersonation. They might have added a center fielder, but Senzel may yet get some reps out there when he returns.

The trade deadline isn’t just about will, though we can sometimes treat it as such. Teams looking to improve have to find talent that matches their needs in the marketplace, hope for a willing seller, and match that seller’s price. They have to be in that window where adding talent for the current season makes sense relative to keeping young players around for future seasons. In the case of the 2021 Reds, they may have fallen just on the wrong side of all those circumstances.

The good news is they have internal options. Moustakas will be back in Cincinnati this weekend, Senzel next week. The team’s top pitching prospect, Nick Lodolo, was just moved to Triple-A. Its second-best one, Hunter Greene, has struggled since his own promotion to that level, but he could still land in the Reds’ pen in September in a very limited role. The Reds still are chasing two better teams, but over the season’s final seven weeks, they may finally be doing it with the best version of their roster.

Reason to Watch
: Who doesn’t enjoy Joey Votto? The 37-year-old, who has looked done a couple of times in recent years, has hit .324/.427/.853 with 11 homers in 82 PA since the All-Star break. For more, check out this great piece by Jay Jaffe over at FanGraphs.

20. Boston Red Sox (64-46, +42)

I’m a bit of a nit about the order of events and how they can warp our perceptions. The Red Sox looked like a .500 team to me at the start of the season. They will probably end up around .500, maybe a few ticks above that. The biggest reason I didn’t have them higher was their lack of depth, especially on the mound. From March 29: “A pitching staff that was thin and reliant upon players of questionable durability the last few years is...thin and reliant upon players of questionable durability.”

As it happens, the Red Sox have gotten a remarkable volume of work from those players of questionable durability. As the season grinds on, though, the quality of that work has deteriorated. The rotation ERA has climbed steadily from its April 3.94 mark, and since the All-Star break Sox starters have a 5.50 ERA in 4 2/3 innings per start. Over four months, this group is providing the run prevention you might have expected in greater volume than you could have hoped for. By doing that, however, they reset the expectations for a Sox team that, past the first five or six roster spots, doesn’t measure up to the competition in the AL East.

The Red Sox have outperformed expectations in large part because Chaim Bloom’s small moves have panned out. Signing Enrique Hernandez, trading for Adam Ottavino, drafting Garrett Whitlock...that’s seven wins found for almost nothing. Throw in Garrett Richards and Christian Arroyo (claimed on waivers last summer), and you’ve added another win, just from front-office choices. Boston’s lack of action at the deadline -- adding Hansel Robles, Kyle Schwarber, and Austin Davis in minor deals -- was frustrating to fans, but this front office should have earned some trust by now. Moreover, as I said above, sometimes the fit isn’t there. The kind of starter the Sox needed was available, but they could not match the packages for Jose Berrios and Max Scherzer. Kyle Gibson was more readily available, but adding another #3 type wouldn’t have changed the team’s status much. The Sox need a lot of pitching to stave off what’s about to happen to this rotation, and that volume wasn’t available to them.

If you look at the trades that were made, you see the problem the Sox face. They don’t have depth beyond their top three prospects. Dave Dombrowski traded a lot of it away during his tenure -- which produced a championship all the way back in 2018 -- and the Sox have drafted low and infrequently in recent years: just four top-50 selections from 2017-2020. Baseball America had them as the 20th-best farm system last winter. Bloom was hired in part to address that, to not do things like trade Triston Casas and Jeter Downs for short-term fixes. Absent that, he didn’t have much in the way of valuable prospects to trade, not the way the Yankees and Padres did. That will change over time, but “over time” is the key.

The Red Sox could fend off the pack in the AL wild-card race. Chris Sale will return next week, Tanner Houck could be an upgrade on Richards and Perez in the rotation if they’d just let him be. The team’s lineup core is fantastic. If they don’t hold on, though, and end up 86-76 and watching the playoffs, that’s not failure. It’s certainly not an indictment of what they did at the trade deadline.

Reason to WatchChris Sale comes back, by some estimates, Thursday at Fenway to face the Rays. A true #1 starter who hasn’t pitched since 2019, Sale has the ability to change the story, and moot all the above pessimism, in a hurry.

17. Toronto Blue Jays (57-49, +114)

It’s not easy to pick the team to replace the Twins in my postseason bracket. The Rays, White Sox, and Astros are all comfortable picks for division titles, but there are four good teams for two wild-card slots. I can fall back on preseason picks to slide the Yankees in there, leaving one spot for the Red Sox, A’s, Mariners, and Blue Jays.

The Jays made one of the strongest plays at the deadline, dealing the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, Austin Martin, and another top-100 prospect in Simeon Woods Richardson, to get Jose Berrios. The addition of a frontline starter gives them an above-average starting rotation, with Alek Manoah returning from the IL as well over the weekend. They added Brad Hand to bolster the bullpen as well. Their run differential (+114) is better than the three teams ahead of them in the wild-card chase combined (+103). They’re only now putting their best lineup, with George Springer, on the field regularly.

So what’s missing? Relievers. The Jays have added Hand, Adam Cimber, and Joakim Soria since Opening Day, in part because they haven’t been able to keep their relievers healthy. Even at that, this is just not a good bullpen. Jordan Romano, back in the closer role, is the one reliever in this pen you might trust to throw a shutout inning. Lefty Tim Mayza has been effective (3.08 FIP) in low-leverage work. Rafael Dolis has a 15% walk rate. Hand is just a guy now, and was available in part because his middling work helped push the Nationals out of contention. The Jays have used 28 relievers this year, and they may go through 28 more before the year ends.

That’s why I’m saying the A’s and Yankees hold off the Blue Jays. It’s a close call, and there’s every chance the Jays simply keep bludgeoning their way past their bullpen woes, backing strong starts with a lot of runs to keep from playing many high-leverage innings. The Jays have blown out their opponents -- winning by five or more runs -- 20 times. They have ten games left with the Orioles and seven with the Twins, opportunities to pad those numbers. It’s just not going to be enough, because they can’t be trusted to pull out close games with these relievers.

Reason to Watch: He’s not the MVP on the right side of his own infield, but Marcus Semien deserves recognition for moving to second base, playing the position very well and raking to the tune of .275/.340/.523. Let’s not forget him when talking about the free-agent shortstop class this winter.

12. Philadelphia Phillies (56-53, -12)

No team has changed its station more since the Third Third series began than the Phillies have. The Mets have dropped four of five while the Phillies were winning every day, including a four-game sweep of the Nationals capped by a ninth-inning comeback yesterday. They’re now just a half-game behind a Mets team that has had trouble scoring all year and that will not have Jacob deGrom until at least September.

The additions of Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy weren’t flashy, but the 85 or so innings the two will pitch down the stretch could save 20 runs compared to the pitchers they replace. Only the Dodgers improved more at the trade deadline. Gibson joins Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola to create an impressive top three, and Kennedy immediately becomes the best pitcher in the bullpen.

It’s just not enough. The Phillies have 13 pitchers on their active roster as I write this, per baseball-reference. Here are the FIPs of the nine I haven’t yet mentioned: 6.00, 5.85, 4.40, 4.95, 4.91, 3.32 (Ranger Suarez!), 6.16, 3.51 (J.D. Hammer, in five games), 4.66. It’s the top of the seventh, you had to hit for Wheeler in the bottom of the sixth, you didn’t score, and now you need to pick a reliever to protect a tied game. Good luck with that.

There are comps here to the team above, the Blue Jays: Strong rotation, strong offense, shaky defense, weak bullpen. The Jays are better at the good parts and not as bad as the Phillies at the bad parts. Toronto would win the NL East by seven games if given the chance. It’s probably important this year to consider just how much league and division context affects how we judge these teams; the top four teams in the AL East are arguably all better than any team in the NL East. At least one of them is going home October 3, while some NL East team is going straight to the Division Series.

The Phillies won’t be that team because they’re just too thin.

Reason to Watch: I will enjoy Bryce Harper playing meaningful games, and quite possibly stealing an MVP award in a race that’s been torn apart by injuries.

7. New York Mets (56-52, -11)

Some NL team that I had making the playoffs had to get bumped to make room for the Giants, who are just this side of a lock. The Mets made that decision a little easier by putting their weaknesses on display for four days in Miami.

Over on Slack, a reader reminded me of this, from the first week of the season:

“The Darryl Strawberry teams had the best offenses in Mets history, with only the peak of the Mike Piazza Mets, a team built heavily on outside acquisitions, challenging that group’s dominance. (Rickey Henderson had a .423 OBP, 37 steals, and 89 runs scored for that team at age 40. I miss Rickey.) The Conforto/Nimmo Mets are pushing to join that group, and I think come the end of 2021, the 2019-21 Mets will be right there with the 1986-1990 ones as far as the best lineups this team has ever had.”

(Feeling good about my plan to make this a free issue right now, yes I am.)

Mike Petriello ran a strong piece yesterday that went deep on the Mets' offense, showing that there's been no one factor holding it back: individual bad years, injuries, and the ballpark have all contributed. The biggest takeaway, for me, was this:

“Yet when they contact the ball, they're ahead of only the Cardinals, Rangers, D-backs and Pirates in terms of generating value. As we said above, they have the 24th-best quality of contact, and that's led to the fifth-worst run value on that contact -- which you might expect from a club with the sixth-fewest homers and the absolute fewest extra-base hits in baseball -- and this is the entire story right here.”

The Mets are a group of disciplined hitters who work counts and get themselves into good spots at the plate and they squander that by not driving the ball. From the standpoint of changing that, you could have hardly done better than to add Javier Baez, who swings at everything and hits the ball very hard when he makes contact. Baez also improves the defense wherever he plays -- shortstop now, second base or third base thereafter. Baez is also a plus baserunner, joining a terrible baserunning team. At a significant cost, the team’s 2020 first-round pick Pete Crow-Armstrong, the Mets got the right player for their stretch drive.

I’m leaving them here, just missing the playoffs, but there’s no team in baseball that has more variance the rest of the way. I don’t know that anyone has a grasp on how many innings deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, and Noah Syndergaard wiil pitch. This prediction, the Mets missing the playoffs, is based on a pessimistic estimate of that number. If deGrom makes five starts in September, if Carrasco is back for good, if Syndergaard chips in some innings, I’ll almost certainly be wrong.

Reason to Watch
: There are so few true leadoff men in baseball any more. Brandon Nimmo hits for average, draws walks, hits some doubles. He’s not really a center fielder, but has improved over the last two seasons. On a team with a lot of watchable players, he’s my favorite.