Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 8, 2023 -- "Third Third Previews, Pt. 3"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Third Third Previews, Pt. 3
Vol. 15, No. 79
August 8, 2023

There was a very strange distribution of teams at the deadline this year. With just nine sellers, 21 teams self-defined, to one extent or another, as contenders. That means we have nine teams left to cover that will not make the expanded playoffs.

Longtime readers may recall that I prefer to make one set of predictions and stick to them all year. Especially as the playoff field expands, I find that hopping from team to team means you eventually pick 22 teams to reach the tournament, and that’s not really helping anyone. This year, though, has seen three of my predicted postseason teams fall out of the picture already. This makes it easier to walk away from my whole pick set and just make updated predictions in their entirety.

Today’s Third Third piece covers five of the nine remaining teams that I predict will miss the postseason. I don’t mind saying that I have very little confidence in my picks, even this deep into the season. There are six, maybe seven really good teams, and everyone else is just kind of there.

(Each team’s record and other information is current through Monday. Remember that these are running in reverse order of my preseason rankings, worst to first.)

27. Cincinnati Reds (60-55 (.522, 13th in MLB), 558 runs scored, 584 runs allowed, second in NL Central)

The Reds have outplayed my preseason projection despite getting just 21 starts from the two players I thought would be key to their success, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. The key has been turning over the lineup faster than I expected they would. The Reds have six position players worth at least one win; three are rookies and two others sophomores, with Jake Fraley, at 28, the oldest of the six. The Reds are 39-32 when Matt McLain starts, and 31-21 when Elly De La Cruz does. 

That’s not just made them better than expected and a whole lot more watchable, it’s made them contenders. The Reds are a game-and-a-half behind the Brewers in the NL Central, and have led the division for a good chunk of the summer. They hold the final wild-card slot, part of a scrum that has six teams separated by five games. They’re not a cute story like the April Pirates, they’re a team that’s played near-.600 ball since calling up its best prospect and has two paths -- division and wild card -- to the postseason.

So the Reds’ passivity at the deadline is a problem for me. Yes, they’ve arrived a year early, but that’s all the more reason to take advantage. The future isn’t guaranteed to any team; this is a rare chance to steal an NL Central that doesn’t feature a good Cardinals team. It’s a chance to take advantage of having a wipeout reliever in Alexis Diaz and a bunch of breakout seasons by outfielders Will Benson, Jake Fraley, and T.J. Friedl. When this many things go right, the play is to capitalize on them. 

I’ve said it myself, one problem with this trade deadline was that the sellers simply didn’t have star talent to move. The Reds, though, didn’t need #1s and #2s in their rotation, they needed average, even slightly below average, starting pitching. Paul Blackburn would have helped them. Mike Clevinger. Rich Hill. Jose Quintana. Anything to get Luke Weaver out of the rotation, to keep from having to tap Ben Lively or dig for Lyon Richardson. The Reds had a low bar for improvement and a deep farm system to trade from, and all they did was add a lefty reliever in Sam Moll.

We saw this last year with the Orioles, who called up their own superstar rookie and changed the direction of the franchise, only for the front office to pass on improving a team that was in the mix at the deadline. The 2022 Orioles missed the playoffs, though they have returned this year -- after an offseason mostly spent counting money -- to be one of the best teams in baseball. It will work out for them. Maybe it will work out for the Reds, who should get Greene and Lodolo back soon and have a far easier path to the tournament than last year’s Orioles did. It just feels like they missed a bet.

Over the next four days, we’re going to run into this conflict a lot, where it seems like the team should have added talent, but it’s not clear what talent they could have added. I’m not going to land on one side of the argument consistently, as each situation is different. I think the teams that had two playoff berths to play for yet stood pat deserve more criticism than the ones who had just one spot to play for.

Reasons to Watch: At the peak of Ellymania the Reds hosted the Braves for a weekend series and drew 126,000 people for three games. Playing a bad Nationals team over this last weekend, they drew 106,000 people. Seeing Great American Ball Park full has been one of the best stories of the season.

One Stat: Statcast evaluates a team’s offense based not just on actual events but on the quality of their batted balls leading to those events. The Reds have the largest gap between what they’ve done (.324 wOBA) and what they would have been expected to do (.312 xwOBA) in baseball.

24. Chicago Cubs (58-55 (.513, 15th in MLB), 576 RS, 510 RA, third in NL Central)

As I said above, you never know when these chances will come, so I agree with the Cubs’ decision to forego trading Cody Bellinger and instead add Jeimer Candelario and push for a playoff berth in 2023. To some extent, the die was cast in the winter when, having burned off almost all the goodwill from 2016, the Cubs signed Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon and other free agents in an attempt to show their determination. When those players put you within a few games of the division lead midsummer, you have to take yourself seriously.

They might have done more, but unlike the Reds, the Cubs didn’t have huge holes to fill, though losing Marcus Stroman to an injury created one. The kind of player they needed, a big bat for first base, a rotation anchor, just wasn’t available. Adding Candelario is a defensive upgrade, and he helps balance the lineup as a switch-hitter who is effective from the left side. His presence also eliminates the temptation to play Christopher Morel at third base. 

The Cubs have been the best team in the NL Central this year, and it’s not terribly close. Clay Davenport’s numbers peg them as the only .500 team in the division, and by third-order record, they should have an eight-game lead on the pack. They’ll finish the season with a trip to Milwaukee that could very well decide things, but the key week comes at the end of August, when they host the Brewers for three games and then go to Cincinnati over Labor Day weekend. Remember that the Brewers and Reds don’t play each other again, so that week could go a long way to deciding the division.

Reasons to Watch: If I can’t get you interested in meaningful baseball during the summer at Wrigley Field...OK, you’re probably a Cardinals fan. Cody Bellinger has a chance to double his batting average from two years ago (.165 in 2021, .332 in 2023), which can’t have happened very often in MLB history. 

One Stat: The Cubs lost 11-2 to the Mets last night, just the latest in a season full of blowouts both for and against. They’ve played 42 games decided by five runs or more, second in MLB to the Dodgers. 

This is where we start to hit the muddled middle, where there was not much separation in my preseason picks. I pegged team #20, the Rangers, at 79-83, and the teams tied at #12, the Cardinals and Guardians, at 85-77. We’re into that group now. In the overall MLB standings, the difference between #8 and #18 -- the next two teams in this list -- is just five games.

19. San Francisco Giants (62-51 (.549, eighth in MLB), 503 RS, 474 RA, second in NL West)

After dipping out on the Carlos Correa deal and missing out on Aaron Judge, the Giants sprayed money around in free agency to little effect. Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, Ross Stripling, and Sean Manaea have collectively been around replacement level for a total of $60 million or so. Despite lighting a pile of money on fire, the Giants have a top-ten record in MLB, a comfortable hold on a wild-card spot, and a fighting chance at an NL West title. 

The Giants are another team, though, that froze in late July. They made one deal, picking up waiver bait from the Mariners in A.J. Pollock and Mark Mathias. I’m not just being mean. Mathias was a waiver claim by the Mariners in July and Pollock was headed for a DFA before being dealt. The Giants, working around injuries to Haniger and Mike Yastrzemski and navigating Luis Matos’s failure to launch, took a chance on variance. The Giants have been churning all year. Just two teams, the Pirates and Angels, have used more position players than the Giants have (28).

What the Giants needed -- all together now -- was the kind of starting pitcher who wasn’t available on the market. With Anthony DeSclafani down, and Alex Wood intermittently available, the Giants’ rotation has been Webb and Cobb and anyone who wants a job. They have used openers and tandem concepts; when relievers Scott Alexander, John Brebbia, or Ryan Walker start a game, the Giants are 15-4, putting them miles ahead of what most teams get from their #5 slot. It can be ugly to watch, and the kind of thing many fans (and even more baseball writers) turn up their nose at, but it’s winning. 

It’s hard to keep doing this consistently. As strong as Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler are at identifying, maximizing the value of, and getting performance from marginal talents, the Giants roster is still missing a core. Logan Webb looks like that kind of player, but he’s literally the only one here who is. Maybe Patrick Bailey -- now down to .262/.307/.414 -- becomes that guy, maybe Matos or Marco Luciano or Kyle Harrison does. For now, though, the Giants’ talent base just doesn’t match up.

Reasons to Watch: Mark Simon from Sports Info Solutions has been talking a lot about the Giants and close games. Last night’s 8-3 win was 3-2 entering the top of the ninth, with a Giants six-spot off Carlos Estevez and Aaron Loup flipping the game. Giants games frequently are in doubt right up through the final pitch, reflective of a team that doesn’t get beat up or beat its opponents up too often.

One Stat: Collectively, the Giants staff doesn’t have great raw stuff, but it does throw strikes. Giants pitchers have the lowest walk rate (6.8%) in the majors.

16. Arizona Diamondbacks (57-56 (.504, 18th in MLB), 532 RS, 560 RA, third in NL West)

The Diamondbacks are one of two teams, along with the Angels, that hasn’t won a game in August. They didn’t go for it quite as strongly as the Angels did, mostly because, again, the kind of starter they needed wasn’t available. They did make some tactical pulls at low cost, acquiring Paul Sewald to close and Tommy Pham to serve as a fourth outfielder for a lefty-heavy roster. 

As Jay Jaffe wrote yesterday, the Diamondbacks are 7-22 since July 2, worst in baseball. They’ve gone from one of the game’s best stories to a team struggling to stay above .500. Rookies Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno suffered shoulder injuries that impacted their availability and performance, and another rookie, Drey Jameson, appears to have a torn right UCL that may require Tommy John surgery. The healthy rookies, like Ryne Nelson and Brandon Pfaadt, have combined for a 5.68 ERA in 32 starts, the Diamondbacks going 14-18 when the two start a game. 

The order of events means more than it should. If you tell me, hell, tell a Diamondbacks fan, that the team will be 57-56 and in the wild-card race on August 8, they would probably have been pretty happy. Having a four-game lead in the division in June, though, resets expectations and now gives the season a sheen of disappointment. This wasn’t supposed to be the breakthrough year, though, and you can see positives all over the place. Even if the injuries and poor bullpen work combine to wipe out the Snakes’ playoff hopes, the 2023 season has to be seen as a positive step forward, something to build upon.

Reasons to WatchCorbin Carroll, even with a clipped wing, combines power, speed, and a real idea of what he’s doing at the plate. He’s a ridiculous (even for 2023) 36-for-39 stealing bases, and that big park in Phoenix gives him chances to stretch for triples and score first-to-home. He’ll be worth watching even when his teammates aren’t.

One Stat: The batted-ball gap is eating this team alive. The Diamondbacks are 25th in barrels hit (198), and 29th in barrels allowed (269). Only the Nationals (-98) and the Guardians (-80) have a worse “barrel gap” than the Diamondbacks (-71) do. 

15. Boston Red Sox (58-54 (.518, 14th in MLB), 549 RS, 519 RA, fourth in AL East)

The Red Sox are never going to get credit for how good their season has been. They are above .500 in the toughest division ever, against the fourth-hardest schedule in baseball. They’re still carrying Dave Dombrowski’s endless Chris Sale contract (59 IP, 1 WAR, $25.6M) to boot. They had climbed to within seven games of the AL East lead a couple of weeks ago, and on any given day since April they probably have a better record than the AL Central leader.

Again, though, we come across a team that sat on its hands at the deadline. The Red Sox picked up infielder Luis Urias, who at the time wasn’t even in the majors, making them the only team to not make a major-league deal in the deadline period. Similar to the Cubs and Padres, the Red Sox played well enough and were positioned well enough to make selling untenable, but similar to the Yankees they couldn’t find what they wanted to buy in a limited market. The Red Sox have plenty of #4 starters and decent relievers, they needed high-end pitchers. 

I keep writing the same paragraphs over and over and I just don’t know who is at fault here. You can’t trade for what isn’t available. Three highly-skilled pitchers who were available had the ability to dictate whether and where they were traded. You can’t trade your very best prospects for rentals; of the top seven prospects traded, six went in exchange for pitchers with at least one additional season of control, and the seventh was traded by an Angels team acting out of desperation.

We can all get in the habit of pairing bad-team player with good team and wondering why it didn’t happen, but real baseball trades are more complex than that. In the same way I can’t criticize a team because it didn’t sign one specific free agent, I can’t get on them for not making one specific trade, not least because whatever you read or heard, we do not get perfect, or even truthful, information on negotiations. 

With all that said, the Red Sox picked a bad time to lose seven of eight, including a quick 0-3 in one-run games and a sweep at home at the hands of the Blue Jays. They can get it back in a hurry with a nine-game stretch against the Royals, Tigers, and Nationals. In fact, they have to, because the schedule is horrific after that: a road trip to the Bronx and Houston; the Dodgers and Astros at home; and after a trip to Kansas City, 13 games against the AL East and a trip to Texas. All in all, from August 18 through September 20, they’ll play 29 of 32 games against postseason contenders, and not the fringy ones.

Reasons to Watch: Sale and Trevor Story will be back shortly, worth maybe a win each over the players they’ll be replacing, and that’s not nothing. The Red Sox may finally put their best team on the field over the season’s final six weeks. They will certainly be putting 20% of the payroll back out there.

One Stat: In an era when relievers who miss bats are as common as beer lines, the Red Sox bullpen has struck out just 21.7% of batters, ahead of just three teams with very bad pens, the Rockies, A’s, and Nationals.