U.S. Government’s New Policy May Help Cuban Ballplayers

One of the big questions when Barack Obama talked about softening relations with Cuba was what impact this would have on Cuban ballplayers. After talking to industry sources, some think we already have a new policy that will speed the process for Cuban defectors to become Major League players.

This new policy is online if you want to read the whole thing, but I’ll excerpt the important passages below, with all of this becoming official in the last ten days:
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The Problem With Rob Manfred’s Problem With Shifts

Yesterday was Rob Manfred’s first official day on the job, and he didn’t waste any take making headlines. In addition to penning an open letter to the fans, he also sat down with Karl Ravech for an ESPN Sunday Conversation, offering some thoughts on what he saw as priorities to tackle early in his tenure. Some of the points of emphasis are things people have been talking about for a long time — there can be entirely too much time between pitches, and when certain teams get together, the length of the game is a real problem as well — but it was his comments about potentially restricting defensive shifts that got the most attention.

In the context of the conversation about how the game can be improved, Manfred mentioned that the league was looking at ways to “inject additional offense into the game.” And it’s fairly natural that people would draw a connection between the rise in shifting and the decrease in offense around the game. After all, the trend towards non-traditional defensive alignment has picked up a lot of steam in the last five years, the same time period in which offensive output has returned to levels not seen since the early-1990s. Shifts are also highly visible changes to the game, as we have all seen line drives end up as easy outs when a frustrated slugger shakes his head and walks back to the dugout.

But while I appreciate Manfred’s willingness to think about tweaking the game to improve the overall experience, this probably isn’t the best path to pursue. Read the rest of this entry »

The Top-Five Yankees Prospects by Projected WAR

Earlier today, Kiley McDaniel published his consummately researched and demonstrably authoritative prospect list for the New York Yankees. What follows is a different exercise than that, one much smaller in scope and designed to identify not New York’s top overall prospects but rather the rookie-eligible players in the Yankees system who are most ready to produce wins at the major-league level in 2015 (regardless of whether they’re likely to receive the opportunity to do so). No attempt has been made, in other words, to account for future value.

Below are the top-five prospects in the Yankees system by projected WAR. To assemble this brief list, what I’ve done is to locate the Steamer 600 projections for all the prospects to whom McDaniel assessed a Future Value grade of 40 or greater. Hitters’ numbers are normalized to 550 plate appearances; starting pitchers’, to 150 innings — i.e. the playing-time thresholds at which a league-average player would produce a 2.0 WAR. Catcher projections are prorated to 415 plate appearances to account for their reduced playing time.

Note that, in many cases, defensive value has been calculated entirely by positional adjustment based on the relevant player’s minor-league defensive starts — which is to say, there has been no attempt to account for the runs a player is likely to save in the field. As a result, players with an impressive offensive profile relative to their position are sometimes perhaps overvalued — that is, in such cases where their actual defensive skills are sub-par.

5. Ramon Flores, OF (Profile)

550 .238 .305 .369 89 0.9

McDaniel notes with regard to Flores that, despite entering just his age-23 season, that he’s nearly a finished product. It’s not surprising, then, to see Flores’ name appear here among the Yankees’ top rookie-eligible players. What it also means is that, unlike with other prospects at the same point on the age curve, it’s probably not correct to assume that Flores will improve considerably over the next three or so years. Defensively, Flores receives a projection of about -3 runs — that is, roughly half way between a league-average center fielder and corner outfielder. This, too, supports McDaniel’s assertion that Flores is capable of playing (if not necessarily excelling at) all three outfield spots.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 1/26/15

Dan Szymborski: From his secret lair here on Skullcrusher Mountain, it’s the Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat!
Dan Szymborski: (No presidents as I am not home)
Comment From Dan
Do you have the Zips PC at least so we can get some projs?
Dan Szymborski: On my laptop, so no. There would be long waits between.
Comment From Eric
Your best guess as to where Shields lands?
Dan Szymborski: That’s hard as he’s the last really desirable free agent standing so there are a lot of options.

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Chris Sale Finds Another Great Pitch

I’m not sure that we talk about how great Chris Sale is often enough. That’s relatively easily explained, I suppose; after all, with offense down across baseball, there’s more great-looking starting pitchers than ever, and even just within Sale’s division last year we found Corey Kluber, James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Max Scherzer, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, and Phil Hughes. You don’t have to go too far to find an interesting starter to talk about these days.

Sale finished third in the AL Cy Young balloting, but a distant third, not picking up a single first-place vote. That was primarily due to an early-season trip to the disabled list that left him unable to match Kluber and Felix Hernandez in innings pitched; otherwise, on a rate basis, he was every bit the equal of the AL’s two best starters. But we know that Sale is incredible, and we know that in 2014 he began to be a different kind of incredible, as Jeff Sullivan noted in June. Sale began to diminish usage of his fearsome slider, the one that he’d collected more than half of his strikeouts in 2012-13 with, in hopes that fewer sliders would help maintain the health of his arm.

That was in June. Now it’s January. We have a full season of data to look back upon, and three things should be pretty immediately clear. One, Sale really did use the slider less over the course of the year as compared to 2013: Read the rest of this entry »

2015 ZiPS Projections – Boston Red Sox

After having typically appeared in the very hallowed pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past couple years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Boston Red Sox. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Arizona / Atlanta / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York NL / Oakland / San Diego / San Francisco / St. Louis / Tampa Bay / Washington

Despite the considerable investments made by the club both in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval this offseason — amounting to nearly $200 million collectively, those contracts — the top WAR projection among all Red Sox players belongs to their second-round pick from the 2004 draft. Dustin Pedroia produced the lowest slugging and isolated-power figures (.376 and .098, respectively) of his career last year, while also recording a career-worst strikeout rate (12.3%). ZiPS calls for Pedroia to find some positive regression in all three areas while still retaining his elite second-base defense.

Probably also capable of providing if not elite, then at least above-average, second-base defense is Mookie Betts. Owing to the continued employment by the club of Pedroia, however, Betts will be forced to supply above-average defense elsewhere. In this case, the most likely destination is right field. It would fair to say that Betts doesn’t possess the typical right-field profile, featuring less power and size than most who play the position. He has excellent plate-discipline skills, however, plus speed and non-negligible power on contact. Note that Betts’ defensive projection below (of -1 runs) is for center field. The equivalent in right would be about +6 or +7 runs saved.

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Evaluating the Prospects: New York Yankees

Evaluating the Prospects: Rangers, Rockies, D’Backs, Twins, Astros, Cubs, Reds, Phillies, Rays, Mets, Padres, Marlins, Nationals, Red Sox, White Sox, Orioles & Yankees

Scouting Explained: Introduction, Hitting Pt 1 Pt 2 Pt 3 Pt 4 Pt 5 Pt 6

Amateur Coverage: 2015 Draft Rankings2015 July 2 Top Prospects & Latest on Yoan Moncada

This is the longest list by a couple thousand words and the 58 videos (most with clips from multiple years) of current Yankee prospects on the FanGraphs YouTube page is the most of any team. Some of this is due to my history with the organization and proximity to their Spring Training home, but mostly due to the depth this once-maligned system has developed.

The big story with the Yankees farm system is their July 2nd spending spree last summer and the harsh critiques ownership gave the player development and scouting departments the summer before that.  One led to the other and now things look to be in a much better shape. It’s still too early to pass judgment on the July 2nd group, but all of the high bonus guys are listed below either on the list or in the others section.

They’re the only names below that are unlinked, since they haven’t played pro games yet, only instructional league; the videos of these players are from the pre-July 2nd showcases in the Dominican and from fall instructional league in Tampa. July 2nd prospects sign contracts for the following year, so the team gets an extra year of control before having to add them to the 40-man roster, rather than starting their clock a year early for just part of a summer of games.

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Sunday Notes: Adam Everett on D, Norris’ Notoriety, Boggs & Beer, more

Per the second edition of The Fielding Bible, “From 2003 through 2007, Everett was the best shortstop in the game. It wasn’t even close.”

Adam Everett, who played from 2001-2011, mostly with the Astros, was awarded no traditional Gold Gloves during his career. Omar Vizquel and Jimmy Rollins were two of the reasons. Everett’s pop-gun bat was another, but that’s a topic for another day.

He’s aware of his analytics-based accolades. In 2012, Everett was a special assistant in Cleveland, and he’s spent the past two seasons as the infield coordinator – and briefly the bench coach – in Houston. His reading and comprehension levels go well beyond “The Error of My Ways: A Dinosaur’s Guide to Defense.”

“The Fielding Bible kind of revolutionized things,” Everett told me earlier this week. “For a lot of teams, it became, ‘How much (measurable) value does this guy bring beyond an offensive standpoint?’ It put defense on the map a little more.”

Quantifying defensive value is one thing. Playing defense is another. Everett credits former Astros coach Doug Mansolino – “He’s the guy who got me over the hump” – for much of his development. He also acknowledged former managers Jimy Williams – “a tremendous infield teacher” – and Phil Garner. Each gave him free rein to position himself on the field. Read the rest of this entry »

FanGraphs Audio: The Consummate Kiley McDaniel

Episode 523
Kiley McDaniel is both (a) the lead prospect writer for FanGraphs and also (b) the guest on this particular edition of FanGraphs Audio — during which edition he discusses Baltimore prospects and Washington prospects and Mookie Betts.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 1 hr 2 min play time.)

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The Best of FanGraphs: January 19 – January 23, 2015

Each week, we publish north of 100 posts on our various blogs. With this post, we hope to highlight 10 to 15 of them. You can read more on it here. The links below are color coded — green for FanGraphs, brown for RotoGraphs, dark red for The Hardball Times, orange for TechGraphs and blue for Community Research.
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Jonathan Papelbon in Transition

From the looks of things, Jonathan Papelbon might well soon be on his way to Milwaukee. As I write this, nothing’s confirmed, and you never know when something might break down, or when some other team might decide to interfere. But the last I saw, the Brewers and Phillies were deep into negotiations, with the final hurdle being the small matter of Philadelphia covering some of Papelbon’s salary. That’s not actually a small matter — that’s kind of half of the entire trade. But, let’s assume.

One’s first thought, probably: Papelbon is nuts! Okay, granted, but maybe not important. One’s second thought, possibly: why not just sign Francisco Rodriguez as a free agent? Rodriguez was a Brewer for a few years. Of Milwaukee, he said this in September:

“I definitely know where I want to be. I want to be here. But it is not my decision. There are a lot of things the front office has to do over the course of the winter. They know how I feel. My heart is going to always be here.”

Some months ago, Rodriguez said he wanted to return. Maybe free agency changed his mind, I don’t know. I do know the Brewers know Rodriguez, and they must have their reasons. It’s not like this idea hasn’t occurred to them. It seems the Brewers are fond of Jonathan Papelbon. We, then, should talk about Jonathan Papelbon, closer for a bad team, who might soon become closer for a decent team.

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The Rockies As A 2015 Sleeper Team

The Rockies are always in a weird spot. No matter what they do or don’t do, no one ever really seems to care about them. They’re just kind of there. They maintain a low profile, and even if they never spend big, their payroll is not so low that it sticks out. Most stories that gain traction are “oh, those crazy Rockies” sorts of stories. The Four-man rotation, the GM with an office in the clubhouse, the two-headed GM, the humidor, the Giants whining about the humidor, and altitude, altitude, altitude. Rarely do we just focus on what’s going on in between the lines with the Rockies. But this season, that may change, as there is a legit case to be made for the Rockies as sleeper team.

Based on our projected standings, which are a combination of Steamer’s projections and our playing time manipulations from our depth charts, there are two definitively good National League teams — the Dodgers and Nationals. At 91 wins apiece, they pace not just the NL but all of baseball in our projected standings. But aside from them, the league doesn’t have any real standouts, and the teams sort of congeal around two spots on the win curve:

  • 83-86 wins: Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, Pirates
  • 81 wins: Marlins
  • 76-79 wins: Brewers, Padres, Mets, Reds, Rockies

So, if we accept that two playoff spots are tied up by LA and Washington (a big assumption, obviously, but go with it for now) then these 10 teams are vying for the other three. To be clear, the Rockies are pegged at 77 wins. You might think that sounds about right, or even generous. But, let’s roll through a few reasons why the Rockies could clear that bar and swaddle themselves in the middle of the playoff pack.

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Kiley McDaniel Prospects Chat – 1/23/15

Kiley McDaniel: I’m starting to run out of non-snappy things to say to kick off chats.

Comment From Raza
Where would you rank the Yankees farm system? Top 10? Top 15? 20? Bottom 10?

Kiley McDaniel: Just wrapping up their list right now. I have them 11th at the moment, but as covered in my last piece, the idea of ranking the systems depends on what you want to emphasize, since there isn’t an objective method for this yet.

Comment From j
Your Yankee list coming out today?

Kiley McDaniel: That’s up to the editors when it gets published, but about 30 min away from finishing it…once I finish this chat, of course. Currently at 6900 words.

Comment From The Butter-Upperer
Kiley, Old Bean, your chats are top drawer material.

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FG on Fox: Who To Shift and Not Shift

When the Giants signed Nori Aoki to a small contract last week, it looked like a sound investment even without digging too deep. The Giants wanted to add another regular outfielder. They found one for cheap, one who can play adequate defense while getting on base more often than the average hitter. While it’s true that Aoki doesn’t hit for much power, that’s just not his game, and he’s valuable despite that, just as David Ortiz is valuable even though he doesn’t steal bases. All right, so it’s not the exact same thing, but you see where I’m going. Focus on what a player can do, and so on and so forth.

Yet there’s also interest in the details. Aoki makes a lot of contact, which is one of the many ways he’s different from, say, Michael Morse. He puts the ball in play, just like Casey McGehee puts the ball in play, and the Giants have put together a higher-contact offense as opposed to a higher-power offense. But there’s also another thing about Aoki: he might be the least-shiftable hitter in the major leagues. He sprays the ball all over the place, unpredictably, which makes him tricky to defend. Dividing the field into thirds (instead of halves), the average hitter pulls about 54% of his groundballs. Aoki has pulled just 34% of his groundballs, meaning there’s no sense in moving your infielders around. He’ll hit the ball where he hits the ball.

As you certainly know, teams are shifting more and more often. Maybe you’re familiar with the numbers; maybe you’ve just had a sense. Here are some numbers, if you want them. As recently as 2011, there were just shy of 2,500 balls put in play with a shift on. The next year, that number went up 94%. Then that number went up 79%. Then that number went up 63%. There were 564% as many shifts in 2014 as there were in 2011. Shifts are even rising dramatically against right-handed hitters, which is particularly unconventional. There are two points. One, shifts have gone way up. Two, they’re going to continue to do that. Why wouldn’t they? Shifts make sense. Put people where the ball goes and the ball won’t get through as much.

Shifts are on the mind. At this point, they’re everywhere in the game, and one can no longer be surprised when a shift is put on. So there’s been talk about counter-shifts. The obvious maneuver is to put down a bunt, but for whatever reason, hitters have been reluctant to do this very often. And then there’s the simple idea of just using the whole field. The problem being, a hitter can’t just start doing that. A hitter’s swing tends to be a hitter’s swing.

I should work to get closer to the point. To jump ahead: I got curious to know which teams, for 2015, look to be the most- and least-shiftable. Now, I don’t think teams are built specifically to counter the shift, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pay attention. The 2015 offenses have mostly been built. Who looks the most susceptible to the infield shift? Who, on the other hand, looks the least? Where will there and won’t there be extra hits prevented?

Read the rest at Just a Bit Outside.

Library Update: Earned Run Average

Long-time readers of FanGraphs probably don’t need to spend much time reading up on Earned Run Average (ERA), but if you’re new to the site or to the understanding of sabermetrics, diving into the flaws of some of the more traditional metrics is a good way to learn about the value of the new ones.

This week, we’ve updated the ERA section of the Library to offer a little more information about why our writers prefer to talk about things like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) or Runs Allowed per 9 (RA9) instead of ERA. ERA has its place in context, but there are usually better alternatives if you’re trying to evaluate the quality of a given pitcher. Head over there to learn more.

As always, feel free to post questions in the comments below or to find me on Twitter with your inquiries @NeilWeinberg44.

2015 ZiPS Projections – Chicago Cubs

After having typically appeared in the very hallowed pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past couple years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Chicago Cubs. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Arizona / Atlanta / Chicago AL / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York NL / Oakland / San Diego / San Francisco / St. Louis / Tampa Bay / Washington

“Why do you hate Jorge Soler?” is a reaction zero people expressed via Twitter on Thursday when the author shared the depth-chart image below by way of that same social-media platform. What certain respondents did note, however, is that they’d take the over on Soler’s 1.0 WAR projection. Which, one comment regarding that: due (presumably) to limited playing time in the past, ZiPS only forecasts Soler for 345 plate appearances in 2015. That’s 1.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances — a substantial figure, that, for a player who’s recorded just a half-season’s worth of games above High-A.

Conspicuous by his absence in that same depth-chart image below is third-base prospect Kris Bryant, who receives the club’s highest projected WAR here, according to ZiPS, and the second-highest by Steamer. Whether he’ll be part of the opening-day roster isn’t really a question ZiPS, being a computer model, is prepared to answer. There appears to be some evidence, however, that when he does appear in the majors, he (i.e. Bryant) will be among the club’s very best field players.

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Behold, A Rusney Castillo Projection

I don’t think it’s any secret we’ve been talking up the 2015 Red Sox for a while around here. It’s not so much that any of us are rooting for the Red Sox; it’s more that the numbers kept suggesting the Red Sox were in good shape, and we’re nothing if not loyal to the numbers. Our projected standings, based on the author-maintained depth charts, have long held that the Red Sox are a legitimate World Series contender. Yet for so long, one thing was missing: a projection for Rusney Castillo.

It’s not that he wasn’t on the depth chart. It’s that he was previously projected for something like -0.2 WAR, which is to say, Steamer hadn’t yet bothered to work anything out. So our actual numbers were incomplete. Now, granted, -0.2 WAR might be a fine projection for Rusney Castillo, but that seems unlikely, based on his skills and based on the price he fetched from the Sox on the market. Anyway, I just want to let you know what someone else let me know this morning: Castillo’s got real numbers by his name, now. I don’t know precisely when this happened, but our Red Sox page features an official 2015 Castillo projection, and wouldn’t you know it, but it’s favorable.

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How Far Away Are the Phillies?

The situation in Philadelphia is bleak. I don’t think that statement is going to cause a stir. The Phillies, right now, are projected by Steamer to be the worst team in baseball in the season ahead, even worse than the rival Braves. Even if you might personally find Steamer to be a waste of everyone’s time, the Phillies still look like they’re going to be bad. To make matters worse, the best pitchers are both in their 30s. The best position players are both in their 30s. The 2015 Phillies are going to have some thousands of season ticket holders, and those same season ticket holders are going to experience their own sort of adversity.

One clue as to how bad things are: the team’s own executives are saying, publicly, that the organization is years away from contention. No attempt is being made to sugarcoat the state of things. Another clue as to how bad things are: that’s what a lot of fans want to hear. They’ve longed for this acknowledgment of the need to rebuild. Fans knew some time ago the Phillies needed to change course. Now the Phillies are doing so, willingly stripping down so as to make for a better future. But, how about that future, anyway? Might we be able to figure out how long it will be until the Phillies are decent again?

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Dominican League Performance as Indicator of Future Value

At the end of October, the present author published a not entirely exhaustive study which considered to what degree success in the Arizona Fall League (AFL) either did or did not portend future major-league success. Specifically, I looked at those AFL pitchers who’d finished either among the top or bottom third of that league’s starters by strikeout rate — the justification being that strikeout rate (a) is not only a fairly reliable indicator of success, but also (b) becomes stable in relatively small samples.

Even more specifically, I did this:

To better understand how much pitcher strikeout rate in the AFL rate might inform future major-league success, I looked at AFL pitchers from 2005 to -09 who’d both (a) faced 70 or more batters (that is, the sample threshold at which strikeout rate becomes reliable for major-league pitchers) and also (b) made at least half their appearances as starts. Each year in the DWL there are about 25-30 pitchers who meet both those criteria. For each of the five years in question, I isolated both the top and bottom third by AFL strikeout rate, resulting in 43 “high strikeout” and 43 “low strikeout” pitchers (although it should be noted that Adam Bostick appears twice among the high-strikeout group, thus leaving the former group with just 42 different actual players).

Despite the fact that Arizona Fall League performance is largely ignored — or, when it is cited, couched in a surfeit of qualifiers — the results of the study indicate that those pitchers who perform well in the AFL are more likely to perform well in the majors. By a reasonable margin, it seems. Again, the findings hardly suggest that AFL performance ought to be utilized without any context at all, but merely that — so far as pitchers are concerned, at least — it appears to provide non-negligible information regarding future value.

Of course, the AFL isn’t the only extant fall or winter league. Indeed, a number of other players — prospects as well as veterans and journeymen — all participate in the various Caribbean Leagues, the playoffs for which are currently underway in their respective countries. “What?” I asked myself in the service of ignoring something much darker and foreboding in my life, “what might winter-league performance say or not say about a particular pitcher’s future value?”

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Making the Case for a Strasburg/Betts Trade

The Boston Red Sox have too many outfielders. This isn’t news; it’s been clear for a while now that their outfield is overcrowded, and while shipping Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit for Rick Porcello alleviated the problem to a degree, they still don’t have enough at-bats to go around for the guys they’re going to bring to spring training. It’s a nice problem to have, of course, but it’s still an issue that the team will have to work towards solving.

The Washington Nationals have too many starting pitchers. Well, kind of; you can never really have too many starting pitchers, since the attrition rate of guys who throw a baseball for a living is so high, but Max Scherzer‘s signing does push Tanner Roark out of the initial starting five. Having a solid group of useful starters behind your starting five is important, but having Roark as your sixth starter is something of an embarrassment of riches.

The Red Sox could use a frontline starting pitcher, as Rick Porcello isn’t exactly a classic #1 starter on a team that is hoping to make a deep playoff run. The Nationals could use a long-term solution at second base, and if that guy could also provide outfield depth for 2015, that would be even better. There might not be another situation in baseball where two teams theoretically match up for a deal better than the Red Sox and Nationals. So, Misters Cherington and Rizzo, let’s make the case for a Stephen Strasburg/Mookie Betts trade.

Why Boston Should Do It

The Red Sox currently project as baseball’s fourth best team, according to our calculations, and enter 2015 as the slight favorites to win the AL East. Despite their miserable 2014 performance, this is a good roster, and one that is built to contend this season. Boston didn’t spend $190 million on Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to move towards the middle of the pack; this team was constructed to get back to the postseason this year.

And yet, this rotation feels incomplete. I like a lot of the pieces they have, and I think both Porcello and Wade Miley were shrewd acquisitions, the kinds of solid rotation pieces that every good team needs. But these are the guys you want starting once in a playoff series, and they’re currently the team’s two best starters, with a couple of lottery tickets and a lower-upside fifth starter behind them. The Red Sox starting five feels like a fantastic middle-to-back-end of the rotation, and if Porcello-Miley-Masterson-Buchholz-Kelly were their #2-#6 starters, we’d be talking about this as a position of strength.

You don’t need an ace to win the World Series, but as Madison Bumgarner just displayed a few months ago, it sure helps. October baseball is different, and the more frequent off days allow teams to allocate a higher proportion of their innings to their best few pitchers. Having a dominant starter make two starts and a relief appearance in a seven game series gives you a distinct advantage, but the Red Sox currently lack the kind of arm that can be deployed in that way.

Stephen Strasburg could be that pitcher. Over the last three years, he’s #3 in baseball in xFIP-, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. He’s an ace with upside, and at just 26, he wouldn’t have to be a short-term rental. While he’s only under control for two more seasons, the Red Sox have the financial flexibility to sign him to a long-term deal, and getting him acclimated to Boston ahead of time may give them an advantage in the negotiations. Unlike most pitching acquisitions, Strasburg doesn’t have to be a short-term patch. This is a guy that can provide value both now and in the future.

I know they love Mookie Betts, and so do I, but as much as they value Betts’ overall skillset, the fact remains that he’s a worse fit in Boston than he is on just about any other team in baseball. Betts was considered a plus defensive second baseman in the minors, but the Red Sox have second base blocked off, forcing him to the outfield. But even center field isn’t clearly available, with Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr still around, and so if the Red Sox keep Betts for the long-term, he may end up playing primarily right field.

Defense is important everywhere, and as Shane Victorino has shown, this skillset can still result in an impact right fielder, but there are fewer opportunities to utilize a defensive asset in right field than there are at second base or in center field. Betts doesn’t lose all of his value in right field, but he would lose some of it, especially because Victorino is still around for another year.

Right now, we have Betts projected for 385 plate appearances between second base, center field, and right field, and being a legitimate contributor to the roster as a super utility guy: his +2.4 WAR projection for 2015 would make him the game’s best 10th man. But if you reallocate those 385 plate appearances to the rest of the guys on the roster, you don’t actually lose all that much short-term value.

If you split Betts’ 210 center field plate appearances evenly between Castillo and Bradley, their projected total WAR from the position would go from +3.8 to +3.3, a half win drop. They’d lose another quarter of of a win by shifting the non-Pedroia second base at-bats to Brock Holt and a quarter of a win by sliding Daniel Nava and Allen Craig into the right field at-bats that don’t go to Victorino. So, all told, losing Betts costs them roughly one win over his actual internal replacements in 2015.

Meanwhile, Strasburg is probably a three win upgrade over Joe Kelly, especially because Kelly allows the team to use Brandon Workman as a reliever, where he has shown legitimate potential. Because every team needs more than five starters, Kelly doesn’t actually lose that much value, and many of Strasburg’s additional innings would come from guys who should probably spend a good chunk of the year in the minors.

In 2015, swapping Betts for Strasburg is probably something close to a two win upgrade for the Red Sox. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but the Red Sox are at the point where wins are highly valuable, and Strasburg is the kind of asset that could be leveraged to an even larger degree in October. While the upgrade is probably smaller in 2016 — with Victorino set to be a free agent, Betts would be able to play most everyday — the Sox still have Allen Craig under contract and Bradley in the organization, so they wouldn’t be dropping down to zero value replacements.

And while they would be surrendering four years of Betts’ prime during years in which Strasburg could theoretically be pitching for someone else, some of that is offset by the ability to exclusively negotiate a long-term extension or get a draft pick as compensation if he leaves. There’s no question that you’d rather have four more years of Betts’ production than either of those options, but the lost value is deferred several years into the future, and the Red Sox should be willing to trade future wins for upgrades in the next two years. Strasburg would represent the kind of upgrade that would make giving up Betts’ future worthwhile.

Why Washington Should Do It

This is maybe the harder sell, because I just argued for the present value of wins taking precedence over longer-term upgrades for contenders. And clearly, the Nationals are also in win-now mode, especially after adding Scherzer to the mix. And with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann set to become free agents at years end, trading Strasburg could mean that the team could enter 2016 with only Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark as stable rotation options. In a year, the Nationals could easily have a significant hole in their rotation if they traded Strasburg away.

But unlike with Boston, Betts fits their organizational weaknesses perfectly, and Strasburg represents more of a luxury than a need. With Jayson Werth likely to begin the season on the disabled list, there’s an everyday job waiting for Betts in Washington, and for the first few months of the season, he’d essentially be replacing some combination of Nate McLouth, Mike Carp and Tyler Moore, both of whom have some value as first baseman but little as outfielders. Even when Werth returns, Betts would have few problems playing everyday for the Nationals, as the Nationals outfield depth was diminished with the Steven Souza trade, and Yunel Escobar is not so valuable that he couldn’t be easily moved to a part-time role to free up time at Betts’ primary position.

In Washington, Betts probably projects as a two or three win upgrade over their internal positional options, especially if Werth’s shoulder proves to be a lingering issue. So while Strasburg is indeed an excellent starter, it’s not completely clear that the Nationals would actually be dramatically worse off in 2015 by making this trade. Strasburg is probably two to three wins better than Roark, and you’d have to also account for some of Roark’s current innings going to lesser options, but even on the high side, you’re looking at a three win drop-off in the rotation, and if you buy into Roark as a guy who can induce weaker-than-average contact, the gap is probably closer to two wins.

The 2015 Nationals wouldn’t be demonstrably worse with Betts than Strasburg, even though Strasburg projects to be the better player. Their high replacement level at starting pitcher and their very low replacement level behind their penciled-in starters in the OF and at 2B mean that the gap between the two players would be reduced in Washington, not emphasized as it would be in Boston. And Scherzer’s acquisition reduces Strasburg’s value in October as well, as there are only so many October innings to be allocated to starting pitchers. Using Scherzer as the Game #1/#5 starter sets him up to pitch in relief in Game 7, but likely excludes Strasburg from that potential third appearance; the first ace provides a lot more marginal value in the postseason than the second one.

So if the Nationals wouldn’t take a significant step back with Betts in lieu of Strasburg in 2015, the rest of the calculation is actually pretty easy. Next year, Betts moves into a full-time second base role, where he projects as roughly a three win everyday player making the league minimum, and the savings in 2016 salary could be applied directly an extension for Jordan Zimmermann. The assumption has been that Zimermann is not going to be re-signed because the team had to keep it’s future salary available to try to re-sign both Strasburg and Bryce Harper, but with Strasburg out of the picture, a long-term deal for Zimmermann becomes more palatable.

And even if Zimmermann isn’t re-signed, the difference in salary alone gives the team roughly $12 million of budget room that Strasburg would have eaten up, giving the Nationals a chance to offset the difference in expected value between the two by upgrading other parts of the roster. Even if you’re low on Betts, and see him as something more like an average big leaguer going forward, an average player plus $12 million in spending money isn’t a huge step back from a $12.5 million Strasburg.

And then there’s the 2017-2020 value, where the Nationals would have four prime years of an athletic second baseman, one at pre-arb and three at arbitration salaries. With ownership already pushing the costs of the present team into the future, stockpiling valuable assets who will make pennies on the dollar is the best way for the Nationals to build a sustained winner, and Betts is exactly the kind of player that the team will need in order to be able to try and keep Bryce Harper in D.C.

And while Betts’ carries the risks of a young player with just 200 big league plate appearances, the risk surrounding Strasburg may be just as high, especially with Tommy John surgery already on his resume. There’s no question that Betts could struggle to adjust to the big leagues, just as there’s no question that Strasburg’s elbow could go out again on any given pitch. The Nationals would be exchanging health risk for performance risk, but it’s not entirely clear that they’d actually be increasing the expected variance of their roster by making the move.

The TL;DR Summary

Swapping Betts for Strasburg would likely make the Red Sox two to three wins better in 2015, and probably a win or two better in 2016. The marginal value of these upgrades, along with the opportunity to try and sign Strasburg long-term before he hits free agency justify giving up the extra four years of control over Betts’ future, especially for a team in their market.

Swapping Strasburg for Betts might not make the Nationals much worse at all in 2015, while freeing up additional payroll space for 2016 to potentially retain Jordan Zimmermann. Strasburg’s postseason value is diminished by Scherzer’s addition, so he’s more of a luxury than a necessity for the team at this point. The Nationals will not be able to retain all of their young talent without supplementing the roster with productive low-cost players, and Betts is exactly the kind of player they should be targeting in a trade.

In talking with people in the game, neither side seems comfortable with the deal, which suggests that perhaps it’s a reasonably fair proposal, or at least in the ballpark of being reasonable on both sides. I know I’m higher on Betts than most, and if you place a very high value on frontline pitching, perhaps you think the Red Sox should add a sweetener to the deal. This isn’t so much about trying to say that Betts are Strasburg are equivalent in value as it is to say that the Red Sox and Nationals are currently setup to help each other about as well as two organizations have been in some time.

It’s almost certainly not going to happen, but as far as speculative trade suggestions go, this one seems to make as much sense on both sides as any I can remember.