Archive for Dodgers

Utley’s Chase for Cooperstown

Joe Mauer got there, but Chase Utley won’t. By there, I don’t mean the Hall of Fame, at least not directly, but the 2,000 hit plateau, which has functioned as a bright-line test for BBWAA and small-committee Hall voters for the past several decades. As I wrote back in April after Mauer collected his milestone hit, voters have effectively put an unofficial “Rule of 2,000” in place, withholding election from any position player below that level whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era, no matter his other merits. For anyone holding out hope that Utley would stick around long enough — while playing well, of course — to reach that marker, Friday was a rough day.

At a press conference at Dodger Stadium on Friday afternoon, the 39-year-old Utley announced that he would retire at the end of the season, forgoing the second year of a two-year, $2 million deal he signed in February. With “only” 1,881 hits over the course of his 16-year career, and less than half a season remaining, he’ll fall short of the marker.

After beginning the press conference by deadpanning that he’d signed a five-year extension, Utley said:

“I transitioned to a part-time player, something new for me, but I took it in stride… Also, a part-time strength coach, part-time pitching coach, occasionally part-time catching coach as well as a part-time general manager. The thing I’m having the most difficult time with is being a part-time dad. So that’s really the reason I’m shutting it down. I’m ready to be a full-time dad.”

While evolving from Phillies regular to Dodgers reserve/elder statesman, Utley has collected at least 100 hits just once in the past four seasons, and has just 30 this year. As injuries to Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Logan Forsythe decimated the Dodgers’ infield this spring, he appeared in 36 of the team’s first 40 games, 22 as a starter, and as of May 11 (through 38 games, selective endpoint alert!), he was hitting .271/.370/.412 with a 13.0% walk rate and a 114 wRC+ in 100 plate appearances. With Forsythe and Turner both back in the picture, however, and with Max Muncy hitting his way into regular duty, Utley went just 1-for-26 without a walk from May 12-29, after which he missed 20 games due to a sprained left thumb. Since returning, he’s made just four starts in 20 games, going 7-for-20 in that span, albeit with some big plays off the bench.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/11

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Andres Gimenez, SS, New York Mets (Profile)
Level: Hi-A   Age: 19   Org Rank: 3   FV: 50
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, 3B

Gimenez is a 19-year-old shortstop slashing .280/.350/.430 in the Florida State League. That’s good for a 107 wRC+ in the FSL. Big-league shortstops with similar wRC+ marks are Trea Turner (a more explosive player and rangier defender than Gimenez) and Jurickson Profar, who have both been two-win players or better this year ahead of the break. Also of note in the Mets system last night was Ronny Mauricio, who extended his career-opening hitting streak to 19 games.

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I Think I Love This NL All-Star Outfield

Bryce Harper, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis walk into a bar and… [squints at notes]… will be the starting outfield for the NL in the 2018 All-Star Game.

That’s not a joke. Nor is it a travesty, or justice served, or the result of any single organizing principle beyond their simultaneous eligibility for the honor. Barring any scratch due to injury, it’s a reality, one that demonstrates the potential strangeness that can occur when fans get to vote to choose the starting lineups for both leagues. Those lineups, along with the reserves and Final Vote participants, were announced on Sunday evening.

We go though this every year, and across this vast country, there’s no doubt some complaining about who’s worthy or unworthy of selection. If you care enough, you can probably find an egregious snub, a player whose omission will spike your blood pressure and cost you followers on Twitter when you surround your 280-character case for the guy with enough expletives. Me, I don’t vote for All-Star teams anymore and generally dread writing about the selections, but this trio is different. Seldom does a single unit – one league’s infield or another league’s outfield or a bullpen or whatever — shine a light on the fundamental conflicts that come into play when choosing a team.

Even once you acknowledge that the game is first and foremost an exhibition for the fans, who, after all, are the ones responsible for the vote, you run up against the question of criteria. Are the selections simply supposed to represent the hottest players over the first 80-something games of the season? The most accomplished players from around the league? The biggest stars on the most successful teams? Or the players whose true talent level over a large sample size suggests that they’re actually the best? You could go any one of those ways and get different answers — or find fault with any of them, as well.

Of the three starting NL outfielders, Harper was the easiest to predict, whether you measure from the moment in April 2015 when MLB officially anointed the Nationals to host the game — just before the 22-year-old fourth-year veteran set the Senior Circuit ablaze en route to an MVP award — or this spring, when the 25-year-old began the year by homering six times in Washington’s first nine games. While the performance gap between him and Mike Trout continues to grow, Harper is the one of the pair with more public exposure thanks to things as varied as the Sports Illustrated cover at age 16 and the Nationals’ four trips to the playoffs during his short career. He’s the one with the more outsized public persona, the wild hairdos, and the higher total of jerseys sold, at least as of last October.

I hate the handwringing over MLB’s perceived lack of a transcendent national star on par with LeBron James or Tom Brady — the “The Face of Baseball” conversation, in other words — as much as anyone, but Harper is about as Face of Baseball as you can get in 2018. And that’s not “even when he’s hitting .218,” that’s “especially when he’s hitting .218,” because beyond whatever advantages Harper has in name recognition among fans, there’s the growing understanding that .218 doesn’t represent the quality of Harper’s 2018 season, or his true ability.

No, Harper’s not having his best year by any stretch of the imagination, and yes, he’s been caught in a prolonged slump, making less frequent contact with pitches inside the zone than ever (76.6%, compared to a career mark of 84.3%) and getting eaten alive by infield shifts (40 wRC+ on contact, down from 107 last year and 81 for his career). Thanks to his 21 homers (second in the league) and 76 walks (first), though, he’s still got a .374 on-base percentage (15th in the NL), a .472 slugging percentage (26th), a 122 wRC+ (also 26th), and 1.5 WAR. In other words, he’s still a very productive hitter even in a down year, and over a larger timeframe — from the start of 2017 until now, for example — he’s still one of the game’s top dozen hitters by wRC+ — and the only one among that dozen who’s eligible to play the outfield for the NL this year:

MLB wRC+ Leaders, 2017-2018
Rk Player Team PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Mike Trout Angels 908 58 .309 .448 .628 186
2 J.D. Martinez – – – 856 72 .314 .383 .671 171
3 Aaron Judge Yankees 1064 77 .283 .414 .607 169
4 Jose Altuve Astros 1068 33 .343 .408 .525 156
5 Joey Votto Reds 1100 44 .310 .444 .527 155
6 Jose Ramirez Indians 1035 53 .309 .382 .586 154
7 Freddie Freeman Braves 913 44 .310 .404 .567 152
8 Nelson Cruz Mariners 964 61 .281 .370 .549 148
9 Giancarlo Stanton – – – 1073 80 .276 .363 .588 147
10 Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 1059 56 .291 .398 .554 144
11 Carlos Correa Astros 796 37 .297 .376 .522 143
12T Bryce Harper Nationals 880 50 .277 .395 .544 141
12T Kris Bryant Cubs 976 38 .290 .401 .519 141
14 Anthony Rendon Nationals 902 37 .294 .385 .526 137
15 Mookie Betts Red Sox 1036 46 .288 .372 .524 135

In other words, Harper is a damn solid choice to start the 2018 All-Star Game, warts and all. Besides, did you think they were gonna play the game in DC without him?

In some ways, Markakis is the anti-Harper, a 34-year-old player who’s in his 13th big-league season. While he’s taken home a pair of Gold Glove awards, he’s never before sniffed an All-Star team, though he probably deserved it in 2008 based on a first half with a 138 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR, fourth in the league. He, too, has actually been on the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated, jumping in the air to celebrate a victory along with fellow Orioles outfielders Endy Chavez and Adam Jones for an October 1, 2012 cover story written by David Simon of Homicide and The Wire fame, but unless you’re an Orioles or Braves fan, you probably couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup unless he was wearing his jersey. Hell, a late-season broken thumb cost him a playoff appearance in 2012, though he did hit a big two-run homer off Justin Verlander in Game Two of the 2014 Division Series.

After nine years with the Orioles, Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves in December 2014, a deal that was greeted with reactions ranging from “Huh?” to “What?” especially because the team had just traded away the more talented Justin Upton and Jason Heyward amid their rebuilding effort. For the first three years of the deal, he served as little more than a durable (but apparently not fully healthy) placeholder, averaging 158 games, a 100 wRC+ (.280/.357/.386), and 1.1 WAR a year for a team that averaged 69 wins. Yet when the Braves were ready to turn the corner towards contention, Markakis stepped up and joined Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies as a middle-of-the-order force. He’s handling breaking pitches better than he has in years. His average exit velocity is up 3.1 mph over last year, to 91.4 mph, good for 34th out of 292 qualifiers, and his .391 xwOBA is 61 points higher than last year and 48 higher than in any other year since Statcast was unveiled.

Overall, Markakis is hitting .322/.389/.490 for a 135 wRC+; his 113 hits ranks first in the league, his batting average third, his on-base percentage sixth, his wRC+ tied for 12th, and his 2.5 WAR tied for 18th and tied for third among NL outfielders:

NL Outfield WAR Leaders, 2018
1 Lorenzo Cain Brewers 317 8 .290 .394 .435 127 3.4
2 Kyle Schwarber Cubs 307 17 .249 .376 .498 129 2.6
3T Nick Markakis Braves 398 10 .322 .389 .490 135 2.5
3T Brandon Nimmo Mets 280 12 .262 .386 .515 148 2.5
5 Ben Zobrist Cubs 271 6 .294 .387 .429 123 2.3
6 A.J. Pollock D-backs 186 11 .289 .355 .590 147 2.3
7T David Peralta D-backs 356 15 .291 .354 .508 130 2.2
7T Starling Marte Pirates 317 10 .278 .328 .457 112 2.2
7T Christian Yelich Brewers 318 11 .285 .362 .459 120 2.2
10 Matt Kemp Dodgers 297 15 .319 .360 .549 146 2.0
11T Chris Taylor Dodgers 361 10 .257 .338 .461 119 1.8
11T Brian Anderson Marlins 395 6 .282 .359 .407 113 1.8
11T Cody Bellinger Dodgers 359 17 .234 .320 .475 116 1.8
11T Odubel Herrera Phillies 365 15 .281 .335 .469 117 1.8
15 Albert Almora Jr. Cubs 283 4 .326 .365 .452 120 1.7
16T Jason Heyward Cubs 283 5 .280 .339 .421 104 1.5
16T Kiké Hernandez Dodgers 247 15 .230 .313 .475 113 1.5
16T Corey Dickerson Pirates 317 6 .308 .341 .458 114 1.5
16T Bryce Harper Nationals 388 21 .218 .374 .472 122 1.5
20T 8 players 1.4

If you’re going by a larger timeframe than just the past three-and-a-half months, there’s no justifiable logic by which Markakis could be an All-Star, but as a hot hand on what might be the NL’s biggest surprise team (unless it’s the Phillies, who are actually tied with the Braves atop the NL East), he’s the type of selection that fans often make. And while he takes a back seat to 46-year-old Satchel Paige, 42-year-old Tim Wakefield, 40-year-old Jamie Moyer, and other older first-time All-Stars, there’s something endearing and cool about Markakis making it, particularly given that until his selection, he ranked second in career hits (2,164) among players who had never made an All-Star team and began their careers after 1933, the year of the first All-Star Game. If Nick Markakis can persevere that long before becoming an All-Star, then buck up, Buttercup, because good things are in store for you, as well.

Which brings us to Kemp, whose two previous All-Star appearances, in 2011 and -12, date back to when he was the toast of Tinseltown. In the first of those years, Kemp was voted the NL’s starting center fielder during a season in which he wound up one homer short of becoming just the fifth player in history to go 40/40 in homers and steals; as it was, he led the NL in homers (39), RBIs (126), total bases (353), and WAR (8.3) while ranking second in wRC+ (168). He won a Gold Glove, and while he finished second to Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting, he landed an eight-year, $160 million dollar extension, setting a record for an NL player. While he got off to a sizzling start the following year, back-to-back left hamstring strains limited him to five plate appearances in a two-month span and forced him to the sidelines for the Midsummer Classic.

Thus began a string of increasingly frustrating seasons during which Kemp’s production on both sides of the ball sank; the Dodgers traded him to the Padres in December 2014, eating $32 million of the $107 million remaining on his deal. On July 30, 2016, the Padres sent him to the Braves along with $10.5 million in exchange for infielder Hector Olivera, who was under suspension for a domestic-violence incident, owed $28.5 million for 2017-20 once he was reinstated, and immediately released upon completion of the deal. As I noted in late April, the trail of bad paper attached to Kemp came full circle this past December, when the Braves dealt him back to the Dodgers for Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy (collectively owed more than $50 million for 2018) and another $4.5 million, a move designed to help the Dodgers get under the competitive balance tax threshold.

Though Kemp had homered 77 times from 2015 to -17, he hit just .269/.310/.470 (107 wRC+), posted the majors’ worst outfield defense by UZR (-33) and DRS (-50), and produced a net of 1.4 WAR for his $64.5 million salary. The Dodgers, with an outfield logjam, weren’t even expected to roster him come Opening Day, presumed instead to have plans of trading him to a DH-friendly team or releasing him. Nonetheless, Kemp showed up to camp having lost a reported 40 pounds, played well during spring training, and became the beneficiary when Justin Turner’s broken wrist opened up time for Kiké Hernandez in the infield.

Improbably, Kemp proceeded to hit for a 144 wRC+ during the Dodgers’ otherwise dismal April and is now batting .319/.360/.549 with 15 homers and a 146 wRC+, which ranks seventh in the league, second among the league’s outfielders (sorry, Nimmo), and second on the Dodgers, who would be closer to Triple-A Oklahoma City than NL West-leading Arizona if not for his unlikely resurgence. No, his defense isn’t great (-1 UZR, -3 DRS), but it’s not gut-shot bleeding awful the way it was during his first round of stardom. His 2.0 WAR may rank just ninth among NL outfielders, but I don’t see any more compelling redemption stories of his caliber above him.

Perennials, first-timers, redemption stories… let’s face it, All-Star selections aren’t just about choosing the best in the league, and they probably never were. Sure, the unlikely trio’s AL counterparts — namely Trout, Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge rank as the majors’ top three outfielders by WAR not just over the 2018 season but including 2017, as well. Still, with something on the order of 70 roster spots between the two teams once the dust settles on injuries and inactives, it helps to have some variety, a few guys here and there who check the various narrative boxes that release the different neurotransmitters during the game’s pitching changes.

Grieve if you want to over the slight of Cain, whose fourth-ranked WAR merely netted him a reserve role. Bemoan the fate of Nimmo, who’s already suffered the indignity of being a 2018 Met, for being left off not just the NL roster but the Final Vote ballot, as well. Scream all you want about the unfairness of the process, the need to reform this bloated affair because the unwashed masses can stuff the electronic ballot boxes, or because there are too many rebuilding teams that mandate automatic recognition, or because collectively these guys can’t hold a candle to a Frank RobinsonWillie MaysHank Aaron starting trio. I’m happy for Harper, Markakis, Kemp and the fans who chose them. For once, I’m seeing this particular 24-ounce cup of overpriced ballpark beer as half-full instead of half-empty, and my day is better for it.

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/9

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Victor Robles, CF, Washington Nationals (Profile)
Level: Rehab   Age: 21   Org Rank: 1   FV: 65
Line: 0-for-1, BB

Robles has begun to make rehab appearances on his way back from a hyperextended left elbow that he suffered in early April. He’s gotten two plate appearances in the GCL each of the last two days. The Nationals’ big-league outfield situation should enable Robles to have a slow, careful rehab process that takes a few weeks. He is one of baseball’s best prospects.

Adam Haseley, CF, Philadelphia Phillies (Profile)
Level: Hi-A Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45
Line: 2-for-5, HR

The homer was Haseley’s fifth of the year and his slash line now stands at .301/.344/.417. He’s undergone several swing tweaks this year, starting with a vanilla, up-and-down leg kick last year; a closed, Giancarlo Stanton-like stance early this season; and now an open stance with more pronounced leg kick that loads more toward his rear hip. All that would seem to be part of an effort to get Haseley hitting for more power, his skillset’s most glaring weakness. But Haseley’s swing plane is so flat that such a change may not, alone, be meaningful as far as home-run production is concerned, though perhaps there will be more extra-base hits.

The way Haseley’s peripherals have trended since college gives us a glimpse of how a relative lack of power alters those variables in pro ball. His strikeout and walk rates at UVA were 11% and 12% respectively, an incredible 7% and 16% as a junior. In pro ball, they’ve inverted, and have been 15% and 5% in about 600 pro PAs.

Akil Baddoo, OF, Minnesota Twins (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 19   Org Rank: 12   FV: 45
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, SB

Baddoo is scorching, on an 11-game hit streak during which he has amassed 20 hits, nine for extra-bases. He crushes fastballs and can identify balls and strikes, but Baddoo’s strikeout rate has doubled this year as he’s seen more decent breaking balls, with which he has struggled. Considering how raw Baddoo was coming out of high school, however, his performance, especially as far as the plate discipline is concerned, has been encouraging. He’s a potential everyday player with power and speed.

Jesus Tinoco, RHP, Colorado Rockies (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 23   Org Rank: NR   FV: 40
Line: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 7 K

Tinoco didn’t make the Rockies’ offseason list, as I thought he had an outside shot to be a reliever but little more. His strikeout rate is way up. He still projects in the bullpen, sitting 93-95 with extreme fastball plane that also adds artificial depth to an otherwise fringe curveball. He’ll probably throw harder than that in the Futures Game.

Travis MacGregor, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 20   Org Rank: 21   FV: 40
Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 2 R, 6 K

MacGregor is a projection arm who is performing thanks to his ability to throw his fastball for strikes, though not always where he wants. His delivery has a bit of a crossfire action but is otherwise on the default setting and well composed, with only the release point varying. It’s pretty good, considering many pitchers with MacGregor’s size are still reigning in control of their extremities. MacGregor’s secondaries don’t always have great movement but should be at least average at peak. He projects toward the back of a rotation.

Austin Cox, LHP, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Short Season Age: 21   Org Rank: HM   FV: 35
Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 10 K

Cox, Kansas City’s fourth-rounder out of Mercer, has a 23:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11.2 pro innings. He put up goofy strikeout numbers at Mercer, too, but struggles with fastball command. He’s a high-slot lefty who creates tough angle on a low-90s fastball, and his curveball has powerful, vertical shape. It’s likely Cox will be limited to relief work due to fastball command, but he could be very good there, especially if the fastball ticks up in shorter outings.

Notes from the Field
Just some pitcher notes from the weekend here. I saw Rangers RHP Kyle Cody rehabbing in Scottsdale. He was 94-96 for two innings and flashed a plus curveball. Joe Palumbo rehabbed again in the AZL and looked the same as he did last week.

Cleveland has another arm of note in the AZL, 6-foot-1, 18-year-old Dominican righty Ignacio Feliz. He’s one of the best on-mound athletes I’ve seen in the AZL and his arm works well. He sits only 88-92 but that should tick up as he matures physically. His fastball has natural cut, and at times, he throws what looks like a true cutter in the 84-87 range. He also has a 12-to-6 curveball that flashes plus.

Feliz could develop in a number of different ways. Cleveland could make a concerted effort to alter his release so Feliz is more behind the ball, which would probably play better with his curveballs. Alternatively, they might nurture his natural proclivity for cut and see what happens. Either way, this is an exciting athlete with workable stuff who doesn’t turn 19 until the end of October.

Between 15 and 18 scouts were on hand for Saturday night’s Dodgers and Diamondbacks AZL game. That’s much more than is typical for an AZL game, even at this time of year, and is hard to explain away by saying these scouts were on usual coverage. D-backs OF Kristian Robinson (whom we have ranked No. 2 in the system) was a late, precautionary scratch after being hit with a ball the day before, so he probably wasn’t their collective target. Instead, I suspect it was Dodgers 19-year-old Mexican righty Gerardo Carrillo, who was 91-96 with a plus curveball. I saw Carrillo pitch in relief of Yadier Alvarez on the AZL’s opening night, during which he was 94-97. He’s small, and my knee-jerk reaction was to bucket him as a reliever, but there’s enough athleticism to try things out in a rotation and see if it sticks.

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/5

Monday through Wednesday notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.


Brewer Hicklen, OF, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: HM   FV: 35+
Line: 4-for-6, 2B, HR

Hicklen has some statistical red flags if you’re unaware of the context with which you should be viewing his performance. He’s a 22-year-old college hitter with a 30% strikeout rate at Low-A. But Hicklen hasn’t been committed to playing baseball for very long, as he sought, late in high school and throughout college, to have a football career. He went to UAB as a baseball walk-on and eventually earned a football scholarship as the school’s defunct program was to be reborn. But Hicklen’s physical tools stood out as he continued to play baseball (plus speed and raw power), so he was drafted and compelled to sign. He hasn’t been focusing on baseball, alone, for very long and has a .300/.350/.525 line in his first full pro season. He’s a toolsy long shot, but so far so good.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 6/27

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Jabari Blash, OF, Los Angeles Angels (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 28   Org Rank: NR  FV: 35
Line: 3-for-3, 3 HR, BB

Blash is no longer rookie-eligible, so while he’s a fun player to watch hit bombs and had a hell of a game last night, he’s on here today as a conduit to discuss what’s going on with some of the Angels hitters in the lowest levels of the minors. This is Trent Deveaux last fall, when he first arrived in the states. His swing was largely the same early this spring, albeit with a stronger, more involved top hand, which helped him drive the ball with more authority. This is what he looks like right now, which bears quite a bit of resemblance to Blash. No offense to Blash, who has had a long pro career and will probably play for another half-decade or so, but I’m not sure I’d proactively alter an ultra-talented 18-year-old’s swing to mimic that of a notoriously frustrating replacement-level player. Deveaux isn’t the only low-level Angels hitting prospect whose swing now looks like this.

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Max Muncy’s Home Run Hit Albert Almora on the Head

Dodgers infielder Max Muncy is an instrument of the Absurd, nor is there much evidence to the contrary. He owns, for example, a name that has traditionally been the province exclusively of mid-century private detectives. He’s also a former fifth-round pick who entered the season with roughly -1 WAR and yet who, somehow, is currently leading his club by that same measure. Muncy’s bona fides wherein the ridiculous is concerned are beyond reproach.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Max Muncy has once again had a rendezvous with the improbable. Batting in the first inning tonight against the Cubs, Muncy drove a fastball from Kyle Hendricks to center field — over the center-field wall, in fact. Instead of remaining over the center-field wall, however, what Muncy’s home run did instead was to re-enter the field of play and strike innocent bystander Albert Almora on the head. Did it kill or even just injure Almora? Signs point to “No.” But did it cause him a moment’s indignity? Yes, not unlike the sort one experiences just by living.

Daily Prospect Notes: 6/20

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen running slightly later than usual due to travel for the FanGraphs meetup in Denver this weekend. Read previous installments here.

Clay Holmes, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 25   Org Rank: 27  FV: 40
Line: 7.1 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 8 K, 1 R

Holmes has had mediocre command throughout his career and has generally projected to a bullpen role where he’d theoretically be a mid-90s sinker/slider guy. In the past month, he has thrown 66% of his pitches for strikes and has been locating his slider to the back foot of left-handed hitters effectively. He looks more like a backend starter than a reliever right now, but it’s a four-start run juxtaposed against more than a half decade of fringe control.

Alexander Montero, RHP, Boston Red Sox (Profile)
Level: Short-Season   Age: 20   Org Rank: NR  FV: 35+
Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 7 K, 1 R

Montero’s presence and early success is a welcome sight for one of the worst systems in baseball. He’s a relatively projectable 20-year-old with a three-pitch mix led by a fastball that’s up to 95 mph and a diving split changeup. Montero signed late for an amateur IFA last summer, inking a deal just weeks before he turned 20. He pitched in the DSL last year and was skipped directly to the New York-Penn League this summer after finishing extended.

Brandon Wagner, 1B, New York Yankees (Profile)
Level: A+  Age: 22   Org Rank: NR  FV: 35
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, HR

Wagner has had an odd developmental path. He was a chubby high school first baseman from New Jersey who spent two years at a Texas JUCO and became a 6th rounder as he improved his conditioning. He has displayed a career-long ability to discern balls from strikes and is a .365 OBP hitter over four pro seasons. During that time, Wagner has moved his batted-ball profile like a glacier from 50% ground balls down to 40% and has now begun to hit for significant in-game power. Six-foot first basemen with average, pull-only power are still long shots, but if Wagner keeps performing if/when he’s promoted to Double-A, he’ll at least force re-evaluation the way Mike Ford did.

Jackson Kowar, RHP, University of Florida (draft rights controlled by Kansas City)
Level: CWS Age: 21   Org Rank: NR  FV: 45
Line: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 13 K, 0 R

Kowar was dominant in his College World Series start against Texas yesterday, reaching back for 95-97 toward the end of his start and was flashing a 70 changeup. He also threw 121 pitches.

Jacob Amaya, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers (Profile)
Level: Short-Season  Age: 19   Org Rank: HM  FV: 35
Line: 1-for-1, 4 BB

Amaya’s tools have a utility vibe because his frame limits his power projection to something around average or just below it, but he’s an average athlete with defensive hands befitting a middle infielder and advanced bat-to-ball skills. If he grows into a 6 bat, which is unlikely but possible, it won’t matter that he doesn’t hit for a lot of game power.

Notes from the Field

I’m just going to drop a bunch of D-backs notes from yesterday’s AZL action. Alek Thomas went 0-for-3 but ground out tough at-bats and spoiled several good pitches while he did it. He also made two impressive defensive plays, one which might have robbed a homer and another in the left-center gap that robbed extra bases. Jake McCarthy looks fine physically (of note since he was hurt for most of his junior year at UVA) and took a tough left-on-left breaking ball the other way for a single in his first pro at-bat. Twenty-year-old righty Luis Frias was up to 96 mph, rehabbing Brian Ellington was up to 97. Finally, lefty reclamation project Henry Owens (Allen Webster, Owens, and Clay Buchholz have all been D-backs for some amount of time during the last year, which isn’t surprising if you know the roots of this current front office) K’d 5 in 2.1 innings with some help from the umpire. He was 87-90 with an above-average changeup, an average breaking ball, and arm slot closer to what he had as a prospect with Boston after he was side-arming last fall.

Daily Prospect Notes: 6/19

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Forrest Whitley, RHP, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 20   Org Rank:FV: 60
Line: 4 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 7 K, 0 R

This is the best pitching prospect in baseball, wielding ungodly stuff that spiked when he dropped about 60 pounds throughout his senior year of high school. He’s also on Driveline’s weighted-ball program. He’ll show your four plus or better pitches over the course of an outing. Whitley has yet to allow a run since returning from suspension. The suspension might be a blessing in disguise for Houston, who could now conceivably weave him into their playoff plans without fear of overworking Whitley’s innings count.

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Here Is a Quick Look at Max Muncy’s Peers

Recently, I wrote an article about the very surprising Max Muncy. That was published on June 4, which is only about a week and a half ago. The way this tends to work, we write articles about players when we can’t ignore their hot streaks anymore, and then, invariably, regression sets in. Not so, in this case. At least, not yet. Since June 4, Muncy has batted 31 times. He has eight walks and ten hits, four of which have left the yard. Muncy has actually gone deep four games in a row.

Muncy didn’t even figure into our preseason Dodgers depth chart. I doubt the Dodgers were thinking too much about him, either. Muncy was projected by both Steamer and ZiPS as a below-replacement player. Well, he’s come to the plate 157 times, and out of everyone with 150 plate appearances, Muncy ranks third in baseball in wRC+, behind only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. The picture, according to expected wOBA, is only a little bit different — within the same player pool, Muncy ranks fifth, between Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto. The numbers are spectacular, and the size of the sample is only growing.

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How the “Opener” Spread to the Dodgers

PITTSBURGH — Dodgers reliever Scott Alexander had just finished his lunch and was walking down the 16th Street Mall in Denver last Friday when he received a text from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.

“‘Hey, you’re getting your start today,”’ the text read, as Alexander remembers it. “‘One or two innings.’”

Alexander had not regularly started professional baseball games since he was in Rookie ball with the Royals in 2010.

The left-hander had watched with curiosity last month as Rays reliever Sergio Romo started back-to-back games for the Rays, ushering in a new label, “the opener,” and a new game strategy. And on that Friday at Coors Field, the movement spread to the Dodgers and the NL West, as Alexander pitched the first inning of an 11-8 win over the Rockies. The Dodgers employed the strategy again yesterday in Pittsburgh when Daniel Hudson started against the Pirates.

After learning of what the Rays were doing with Romo, Alexander approached Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Prior in the bullpen during a May 28 game at Dodger Stadium. There Alexander “half-jokingly” broached the idea with Prior, saying he would be open to “opening” for the Dodgers.

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So Ross Stripling Is Great Now

The Dodgers are now back to having as many wins as losses. That’s not anything amazing — it has them tied with the Pirates — but as recently as May 16, the Dodgers were 16-26. Their most recent win was a five-run decision in Pittsburgh. Leading the way was Ross Stripling, who got the start and spun five shutout innings. He didn’t walk a batter, and he struck out seven. Back in March, the Dodgers wouldn’t have imagined they’d be here. Stripling’s start, though, was a representative one.

I’ve been on something of a Dodgers theme lately. That’s a coincidence, but then, the Dodgers’ early story is compelling. They haven’t gotten much from their supposed best players, and they’ve been lifted by a handful of surprises. The other day, I wrote about the surprising Max Muncy. Tuesday, I wrote about the surprising Matt Kemp. Now it’s time to write about the surprising Ross Stripling. When I woke up yesterday, Kemp was the Dodgers’ team leader in WAR. Stripling has now taken over the spot. Not bad for someone expected to pitch out of the bullpen.

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The Most Astonishing Early Statistic

When I wrote about Max Muncy, I pointed out how strange a season it’s been for the Dodgers. Many of the best players have been hurt, or they’ve underperformed. Meanwhile, they’ve been supported by surprises like Muncy, Ross Stripling, and Matt Kemp. Muncy has been one of the team’s better hitters. Stripling has been the team’s most valuable pitcher. And Kemp has been the team’s most valuable overall player. I mean that in terms of WAR — Kemp has the highest figure on the club. At +1.8, he’s already done more than he did in any of the previous three years.

I skipped right by that when I was writing about Muncy, because I was writing about Muncy. But it’s just as big a deal. Remember, nobody wanted Kemp. Even the Dodgers didn’t want Kemp. It appeared he’d declined into being a valueless player. When he was traded, he wasn’t traded because of his skills; he was traded because of his contract. Now we’re more than two months into 2018, and Kemp’s a major reason why the Dodgers are even alive. His present WAR alone might be the most astonishing early statistic.

I want to drill a little deeper. Kemp’s WAR is surprising. One component of his WAR is even more surprising.

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The Dodgers’ Latest Discovery

If there’s one thing to understand about the Dodgers’ season so far, it’s that it hasn’t been very good. The team has more losses than wins, and presently sits in third place in its division. If there’s a second thing to understand about their season so far, it’s that it could be so much worse. The Dodgers have the best Pythagorean record in the NL West. They have the best BaseRuns record in the NL West. They have the highest playoff odds in the NL West. And the team has already been put through the grinder.

Before the year, Clayton Kershaw was projected to lead the team in WAR. He ranks 10th, and he’s hurt. Corey Seager was projected to be second on the team in WAR. He ranks 14th, and he’s hurt. Cody Bellinger was projected to be third on the team in WAR. He ranks 16th, and there have been whispers of a demotion. Justin Turner was projected to be fourth on the team in WAR. He ranks 27th, because he was hurt. Rich Hill was projected to be sixth on the team in WAR. He ranks 39th, and he’s hurt.

The Dodgers are very much alive in the race, and they might very well be the favorites. And that’s despite the top of the roster having a strikingly unusual look. If it weren’t for a handful of surprise performances, they might already be too far underwater. The improbable team leader in WAR is Matt Kemp, a guy the Dodgers didn’t even want. The player in second is Ross Stripling, a starter who began in relief. And there’s another player who’s closing in on the lead. He homered twice on Sunday. Not long ago he was a 27-year-old spring training non-roster invitee. Max Muncy is slugging .551.

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Do World Series Losers Get Hangovers?

The 2018 Dodgers found a new way to hit rock bottom, losing four straight at home to the Reds, the NL’s worst team. They’ve now lost 14 of 19 and, at 16-24, with Corey Seager out for the season, Justin Turner yet to play and both Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu on the disabled list, they entered Monday just a game ahead of the Padres (16-26) in the NL West. Read that again: a team with a payroll of nearly $200 million, one that lost Game Seven of the World Series, is within spitting distance of a rebuilding club that hasn’t seen a .500 season since 2010.

Through the first 40 games of the season, the Dodgers have fared worse than all but two of the previous 17 teams that lost the World Series — namely, the 2001 Mets and the 2008 Rockies, both of whom stumbled out of the gate at 15-25. Which raises the question: is there a “World Series hangover” for teams that lose the Fall Classic?

Last year, in the wake of the 2016 champion Cubs’ sluggish start, the powers that be at Sports Illustrated asked me to investigate the possible existence of a World Series hangover effect, particularly given that no team had repeated as champion since the Yankees in 1999 and 2000. While conceding that the numerous areas one might examine (such as a year-after effect on pitcher performance and injury, or on hitters and aging) are endless and potentially fascinating, I chose to keep things simple by testing a couple of theories — namely, that (a) the defending champions were more likely to start slowly the following year and that (b) said teams were more likely to finish slowly.

It’s easy to project narratives on either of those theories. In the case of the first, perhaps a shortened offseason left players too little time to rest and recover, or the front office was reluctant to break up a championship team. In the case of the second, perhaps it takes longer for the heavier workload to catch up, or for their luck to finally run out. But instead of falling back on such explanations, I simply decided to see where the data took me.

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Top 23 Prospects: Los Angeles Dodgers

Below is an analysis of the prospects in the farm system of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Scouting reports are compiled with information provided by industry sources as well as from our own (both Eric Longenhagen’s and Kiley McDaniel’s) observations. For more information on the 20-80 scouting scale by which all of our prospect content is governed you can click here. For further explanation of the merits and drawbacks of Future Value, read this.

All the numbered prospects here also appear on THE BOARD, a new feature at the site that offers sortable scouting information for every organization. Click here to visit THE BOARD.

Dodgers Top Prospects
Rk Name Age High Level Position ETA FV
1 Walker Buehler 23 MLB RHP 2018 55
2 Alex Verdugo 21 R RF 2018 50
3 Yadier Alvarez 22 AA RHP 2020 50
4 Will Smith 23 R C 2019 50
5 Keibert Ruiz 19 AA C 2020 50
6 D.J. Peters 22 AA RF 2020 45
7 Mitch White 23 AA RHP 2019 45
8 Dennis Santana 22 AA RHP 2018 45
9 Dustin May 20 A+ RHP 2020 45
10 Jordan Sheffield 22 A+ RHP 2019 45
11 Yusniel Diaz 21 AA RF 2020 45
12 Jeren Kendall 22 A+ CF 2021 45
13 Starling Heredia 19 A CF 2022 45
14 Edwin Rios 23 AAA 1B 2019 40
15 Cristian Santana 21 A 3B 2021 40
16 Matt Beaty 24 AA 3B 2019 40
17 Connor Wong 21 A+ C 2020 40
18 Gavin Lux 20 A+ SS 2021 40
19 Drew Jackson 24 AA SS 2019 40
20 Robinson Ortiz 18 R LHP 2023 40
21 Breyvic Valera 26 MLB SS 2018 40
22 Devin Smeltzer 22 AA LHP 2019 40
23 Ariel Hernandez 25 MLB RHP 2017 40

55 FV Prospects

Drafted: 1st Round, 2015 from Vanderbilt
Age 22 Height 6’2 Weight 175 Bat/Throw R/R
Tool Grades (Present/Future)
Fastball Slider Curveball Changeup Command
70/70 55/55 55/60 45/50 45/50

Buehler roared back from Tommy John in 2016 and sat 96-99 with a plus curveball and slider/cutter in his first outing back from surgery. That was harder than he ever threw at Vanderbilt. He threw only five affiliated innings, but the Dodgers immediately began internal conversations about how to get him to the big leagues in 2017. They did, and after a late-summer move to the bullpen, Buehler got a nine-inning September espresso.

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More Pitchers Are Getting Pulled from No-Hitters

On Friday night, in just his third major-league start, Walker Buehler delivered on the promise that the Dodgers envisioned when they made him the 24th pick of the 2015 draft out of Vanderbilt. Pitching on a rainy night at Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey, in the opener of the three-game Mexico Series, the 23-year-old righty held the Padres hitless for six innings while striking out eight and walking three. But with his pitch count at 93, one short of his professional high, manager Dave Roberts did not waver in his decision to put the brakes on the kid’s bid for a slice of baseball immortality.

Via the Orange County Register‘s Bill Plunkett, Beuhler said that Roberts “told me I was out of pitches and I was out of the game.”

This wasn’t the first time that Roberts pulled a starter who had yet to allow a hit, but it was the first time that his decision paid off in full, as relievers Yimi Garcia, Tony Cingrani,and Adam Liberatore each chipped in a hitless inning, thus completing the 12th combined no-hitter in big-league history and the first in franchise history. Prior to that — and jusy five games into his managerial career, on April 8, 2016 — Roberts had removed Ross Stripling after 7.1 innings of hitless ball against the Giants. The 26-year-old Stripling, who himself was making his major-league debut, had thrown 100 pitches and had walked four batters when Roberts called for the bullpen. Having missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, he understood the precautionary move, even though it backfired, as reliever Chris Hatcher promptly gave up a game-tying home run to the next batter, and the Dodgers eventually lost.

Things worked out better for the team when Roberts pulled 36-year-old Rich Hill after seven perfect innings on September 10 of that year. Though Joe Blanton surrendered a single with two outs in the eighth, the Dodgers did get the win.

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Walker Buehler Is No Longer a Luxury for the Dodgers

The Dodgers have not gotten off to the start they would have liked this season. Failing to win even half their games, they’ve seen the Diamondbacks parlay a strong first month into a place atop the NL West standings. The combination of those two developments has allowed the D-backs to turn the Dodgers’ projected 14-game divisional edge at the beginning of the season into a complete tossup.

Injury has played a part in LA’s struggles. The club, of course, recently learned that star shortstop Corey Seager would miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. In addition to Seager, Logan Forsythe, Yasiel Puig, and Justin Turner have all missed time, as well. Despite all that, however, Dodgers position players rank third among NL teams in WAR. The Dodgers’ depth in the lineup has thus far passed the test.

For much of the the season’s first month, the club’s rotational depth hasn’t been tested in the same way. It’s about to be, however. And a good season out of prospect Walker Buehler — once a luxury in the organizational depth chart — could be necessary for the team to overtake the Diamondbacks in the division.

Before the season started, the Dodgers opted to get under the competitive balance tax to save money. In doing so, they absorbed the contract of the thus-far resurgent Matt Kemp, sending Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy to Atlanta. Kazmir, since released by the Braves, was purely a salary dump, but McCarthy represented some depth for a Dodgers’ rotation that already had quite a few arms. Walker Buehler was foremost among that depth, but after pitching around 100 innings last year in his return from Tommy John surgery, he might have to blow past that mark this year to keep the Dodgers in the race.

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Launch Angle Isn’t for Everyone

You could almost be convinced that hitting is easy. Or, at least, you could almost be convinced that getting better at hitting is easy. What can a hitter do to improve in this day and age? Aim up. Try to hit the ball in the air. Elevate and celebrate, and everything. So much contemporary analysis is built around identifying a player or players who are hitting more fly balls than they used to. And, without question, for some players, this has been the key. For some players, aiming up has unlocked potential that could never get out. Especially in the era of aggressive infield shifts, a ball in the air is more valuable than a ball on the ground.

But the important equation isn’t so simple. We went through the opposite of this 10 or 15 years ago. There was a time when we all fell in love with ground-ball pitchers, because, after all, grounders can’t be homers. But there are processes that lead to someone getting grounders, and there are processes that lead to someone getting flies, and fly-ball pitchers have their own upsides. Moving to the present, with hitters, it’s not about whether a fly is better than a grounder. It’s about the swing. What specific kind of swing can allow a hitter to become his best self, overall?

The answer isn’t the same for everyone. The answer could never be the same for everyone. Some hitters, for sure, have gotten better by steepening their swing paths. Kyle Schwarber and Joc Pederson are two hitters attempting the opposite.

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This Spring in Tommy John Surgery

Last week, the bell tolled for the 2018 season of the Diamondbacks’ Taijuan Walker. The week before that, it tolled for the Padres’ Dinelson Lamet, and before him, the Angels’ JC Ramirez and the A’s A.J. Puk. If it feels like March and April are particularly full of Tommy John surgery casualties, that’s because they are, at least when it comes to recent history. In early March, just after Rays righty Jose De Leon discovered that he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament, I noted some recent trends regarding everyone’s favorite (?) reconstructive elbow procedure, including the extent to which those early-season injuries are rather predictive of the season-long trend. With April now in the books, and with my nose still in Jon Roegele’s Tommy John Surgery Database, the situation is worth a closer look.

Via the data I published in the De Leon piece, just under 28% of all Tommy John surgeries done on major- or minor-league pitchers (not position players) from 2014-17 took place in March or April, with the figure varying only from 24.8 % to 30.0% in that span. Even expanding the scope to include February as well, which doesn’t increase the total number of surgeries by much but does capture significant ones such as that of Alex Reyes last year — gut punches that run counter to the optimism that reigns when pitchers and catchers report — the range is narrow, with 27.5% to 33.0% of pitcher surgeries taking place in that span.

After my piece was published, a reader pointed out that The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh took an in-depth look at the phenomenon, but intuitively, it’s not hard to understand. Not only do pitchers’ activity levels ramp up dramatically once spring training begins, as they move from lighter offseason throwing programs to facing major-league hitters and therefore place far more stress on their arms, but many pitchers are finally forced to reckon with injuries that did not heal over the winter.

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