The 5 most curious decisions made by baseball’s contending teams

Posted by    |    February 16th, 2017 at 9:17 am

These teams are as win-now as win-now gets, but they calmly and quietly filled these roster holes.

You are tasked with writing a series of offseason previews. Congratulations. You get to pour over 30 rosters and figure out what each team needs. Some teams are easy because they need younger, cheaper players (Reds). Some teams are harder because they’re at a crossroads (White Sox).

You make a list of what each team needs, and then you set about your business. You spend time researching it all, analyzing the free agent market and trade candidates, and you come up with your ideas.

These are the teams that didn’t listen to a single lousy word you wrote.

Here are five teams that don’t want you to worry your pretty little head about what they need. They’ve got it figured out, and they’re smarter than you. Shoo.

1. The Cubs preferring the fifth starter in the bush to the one in the hand

There are teams that did less with their rotations. The Astros never snagged their ace. The Orioles are still counting on Ubaldo Jimenez. The Yankees are bringing back the same starting pitchers from last year’s underwhelming season.

The Cubs, though, are different. They had a rotation. They were set. They’re the defending champions, and no one would have begrudged them for avoiding the entire hot stove league.

Jed Hoyer: “We were already pretty good, you know”

But instead of exercising their option on Jason Hammel — for a reasonable one-year salary of $10 million — they paid him $2 million to test the open market. It saved them $8 million, and it was reasonable to speculate what they had up their sleeves. Sonny Gray? Julio Teheran? Chris Sale?

Brett Anderson.

Which is fine! The difference between Hammel and Anderson ended up being $4.5 million, and that turned out to be more than half of Jon Jay’s salary. It’s exactly 1/45th of the total number of “CUBS WORLD CHAMPS” aprons they’ve sold in the time it took you to read this paragraph, but now we’re quibbling. A reasonable person could suggest that Anderson is preferable to Hammel, even if their salaries were equal. I disagree, but not so strenuously that I’d spend more than five seconds debating it.

It just seems like an exchange of cost certainty for a pitcher who has topped 50 innings in just one of the last five seasons. If the Cubs had pitchers spilling out of their system, it would make more sense, but that’s not how they’re built. Not yet.

They’re smarter than I am. From here, though, it’s a move that seems to have a concealed explanation that we’re not privy to. Fair enough.

2. The Red Sox and Mitch Moreland

The Red Sox, like the Cubs, are stacked. They have talented players at nearly every position, but that’s selling them short. They’re young players. Stars, some of them. Their best starting pitcher is the one without a Cy Young.

Even considering that, though, the Red Sox made a weird decision at first base. Here are Mitch Moreland’s WAR totals for his career, from highest to lowest, according to Baseball-Reference:

2.2
0.9
0.7
0.6
0.5
0.1
-0.1

That’s one good year, and six years a well-managed organization should be able to find at a yard sale. If WAR isn’t your thing, that’s fine — Moreland did win a Gold Glove last year, even if defensive stats and the eye test weren’t so sure — but there’s no way to argue that he’s been more than a generic first baseman for several seasons now. He’s a career .254/.315/.438, even though he’s played in Texas his entire career.

The Red Sox sought him out. Paid him $5.5 million. Then they suggested that Moreland’s platoon-mate would be Chris Young, a lefty-thumper who has never played anywhere but the outfield.

Color me curious! And confused. But, like with the Cubs, I’m willing to appeal to authority. I’m just a dumb blogger, kicking rocks.

The only thing that bugs me is that the Rangers are also a smart team, and they were fine with letting Moreland walk. They didn’t think there was any more nectar to squeeze out of the 31-year-old. It’s hard to appeal to authority when there’s another authority that might be more authoritative. This is so confusing!

3. The Rangers gambling with 40 percent of their rotation

The Rangers are about to sign Mike Napoli to play first base. He’ll work with James Loney, who also signed. This is not a position of concern for them, considering they have Joey Gallo in reserve and Jurickson Profar without a position. They had a first base arrangement already if they wanted to focus on something else. Now they have another first base arrangement.

Meanwhile, they’re entrusting their final two rotation spots to a pair of pitchers who both had ERAs over 5.00 last year. One of them was closer to 6.00, even.

A.J. Griffin and Andrew Cashner were the bee’s knees in 2013, we’re talking the snake’s hips. But that was 2013, which is about 50 years ago in pitcher years. Since then, Cashner has been disappointing-to-awful, and Griffin has thrown 119 innings in the majors. There are fine reasons for a smart team to want to take a chance on both of them.

There are also reasons to be skeptical. Griffin gave up 28 homers in 119 innings, which is one of the highest rates in baseball history for any pitcher over 100 innings. Cashner’s tenure with the Marlins was an absolute debacle. He’s trending in the wrong direction, and he’s doing it violently.

If the Rangers were a destitute, revenue-sharing franchise, fine. You do what you do, if that’s what you have to do. If the Rangers didn’t have prospects or trade chips of interest (see the Giants, who are sticking with Matt Cain), the raffle tickets make sense.

The Rangers, though, have that conundrum up there, with Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar, who won’t get playing time. There wasn’t a way to turn a logjam into a pitcher? what about good ol’ Bartolo Colon or R.A. Dickey? Just one more starter in the Colby Lewis mode, steady and stable, would have done so much.

Tyson Ross might come back in May or June. The only thing that makes me feel remotely confident about this arrangement is that Cashner and Ross combining for 300 outstanding innings for the Rangers would be so, so, so, so overwhelmingly Padres that I can’t stand it. The rotation is still filled with a lot of ifs and maybes for a team looking to defend a division title.

Eh, they’re smarter than me. I’m okay with this, even if I have to repeat it every section, self-flagellating to obscure the fact that at least one of these teams is totally going to eat it with their underwhelming offseason decision to be so calm and self-assured.

4. The Giants don’t have a left fielder you’ve heard of

The last All-Star outfielder developed by the Giants was Chili Davis, who was drafted the year that Star Wars came out. They’ve had a good left fielder or two since then — that surly guy, with the records — but they’re in something of a drought over the last decade. They can get one-year stopgaps, but nothing like a long-term solution.

They had a hole in left field. It was an obvious hole. They hit 130 homers, and one of their leading home run hitters, Angel Pagan, was leaving in free agency. Also, one of their leading home run hitters was Angel Pagan. That seems important.

The Giants also had a gaping, bleeding, oozing bullpen hole that needed to be cauterized last July, but was left festering. It got infected by October. So they focused on that first, which made sense.

When it came to left, though, they went in house. Mac Williamson is a strong, athletic outfielder straight out of central casting, and Jarrett Parker is a high-whiff, big-power left-hander who hasn’t been intimidated by the dimensions at AT&T Park, but neither of them have the statistical pedigree that a win-now team might want. The Giants, who have cycled through Fred Lewis, Dan Ortmeier, Nate Schierholtz, Armando Rios, Calvin Murray, Jason Ellison, Todd Linden, John Bowker, Roger Kieschnick, and Gary Brown since the new ballpark opened, are willing to count on one of Williamson or Parker in a contending season where every extra win will be exponentially valuable.

Fine, great, grand. They see something. I’m the dummy. There is a reason for this, at least, in that they’re going to pay the salary-cap tax, which they have for two years now, and they’re maxed out on their budget. That, and they’re devoid of the top prospects needed to trade for a younger outfielder that would allow them to fit that budget.

If there were a year to sell out — Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Madison Bumgarner are excellent now, but there are no guarantees in two years — this would be it. As is, the Giants are going to start either Williamson and Parker and fix things at the deadline if it doesn’t work. That’s a fair solution for a team with budget constraints. It’s just hard to believe they’re so comfortable with it.

5. The Nationals are going in-house with their closer

The last time we saw Shawn Kelley was in that picture at the top of the page. He was hurt. The two-time Tommy John survivor was hurt, and his postseason was over. He’s the closer now.

This makes sense because he’s ridiculously talented. He was the steal of last offseason, and he makes the Nationals much better. But he’s also a closer that will need to be treated carefully. Kelley’s 58 innings last year was a career high, so the Nationals shouldn’t expect any Andrew Miller-like marathons if they reach the postseason again.

This is fine … except the Nationals, of all teams, should be on the hunt for those Miller marathons. They’ve made the postseason three times since they were the Expos, and each one of those appearances has included a devastating bullpen-fueled loss. There was the Pete Kozma Experience in 2012, the Jordan Zimmermann Yank in 2014, and the Sweet Crap Did You Really Use Five Pitchers In One Inning fun of 2016. For a team that’s so tightly constructed, with such an obvious ultimate goal, it’s always felt like they were one ultra-reliever short.

They still might trade for David Robertson five seconds after this is published, which is fine. But I would think this was the team that could justify an absurd stretch for Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman. This was the team that could have traded their best prospects for Miller last year. Instead, they’re making do. They have a cavalcade of high-walk, high strikeout pitchers, the types with an eternal chance of metamorphosing into trusted late-inning options. But they don’t have that guy, the one who could have saved them in ‘12, ‘14, or ‘16.

Do I have to keep going with the theme? The Nationals are smart. They’re old-SABR smart when it comes to spending millions on a bullpen. Forget it, move along. The rotation is as good as any in the National League, so there are worse weaknesses to have.

If we’re back in here eight months, though, talking about the danged Nationals bullpen, I’m going to use cuss words. I don’t want to, but, consarnit, what choice do I have? This is a team that needs to prepare for a possible post-Bryce apocalypse, so I get why they aren’t ditching their formidable collection of prospects. But just one more reliever would do so much to help their ability to not do what they’ve done in the recent past.

Five teams. All contenders. Weird decisions. Maybe correct. They’re the big shots around here, and I’m just some schnook that likes to get slapped around. But there’s at least a chance that some of them will have regrets by the end of the season, even if we could spot the problems way back in February.