Malcolm On Base: Feb. 19, 2018

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

Note: Sorry for the prolonged absence. My daughter was getting over a virus, and that means there’s very little time for anything other than that.

1. Can’t help but be positive for Gabe Kapler’s camp

(This was originally published at Phillies Nation)

The Phillies have been in camp for a little under one week, and in that time we’ve already been offered a number of interesting glimpses into the management style and general behavior of Gabe Kapler.

Here’s Vince Velasquez on Kapler’s workout regimen, per Matt Breen:

“We’ll be standing in the weight room just having a normal conversation and next thing you know, there’s four plates on each side. Like, gosh, what is he doing that we’re not doing, you know? I love it.”

Here’s Matt Gelb on players taking snaps out of position.

Here’s Kapler using his phone to record video of player performance.

Here’s the bit about actual umpires being called in to call balls and strikes for pitchers during bullpen sessions.

Here’s the bit about all the music being played on the fields.

Here’s the video of Kapler acting like a little kid in a little league dugout during a spring training bullpen session.

And here’s Matt Mullin on the many things Kapler is doing differently than at your typical spring training: Practices that start later in the morning, in part to respond to body clocks and in part because the field is dry; giving players off days after particularly harder practice sessions; treating every single player different, in a way of meeting them where they are; and all that talk about playing “boldly.”

Here’s a quote:

“One of the questions I’ve been asking a lot of our players is, ‘What does it mean to play boldly?’ What does it mean to deliver a pitch boldly, what does it mean to take a swing in the batters box boldly, what does it mean to communicate boldly? And what I’ve gotten in return is: with conviction, with fearlessness, courageously, with intent.”

When speaking about expectations, he didn’t flinch in saying he thinks his team will compete for a National League East title in September. He didn’t even use qualifiers that singled out positions or players, such as “If we get more innings from our rotation” or “If Maikel Franco turns into a star.” Instead it was a statement about the whole team stepping just a little forward. To Kapler, the effort – not even the buy-in, because if you ask Kapler, he isn’t selling this – should be from all corners. The team as a unit matters more than any one player, even as Kapler is determined to treat every player in a way comfortable to him.

I’d imagine that, for a ballplayer, a fresh environment where the manager is energetically spilling his thoughts about boldness and expectation can be quite intoxicating. It could also be overbearing, but we’re only a week into this thing. Still, you see the quote from Velasquez, and you hear that Carlos Santana and Franco are already joined at the hip, and you read about Pat Neshek wanting to return to Philadelphia, even spurning higher offers, and you have to believe there’s something to this.

Just read about Velasquez, who of all players has spoken the most about the Kapler effect. It makes sense – from what we know of Velasquez, he’s an energetic, slightly eccentric guy who can’t stop talking about how he feels, especially when he’s struggling. Guys like that – and I’m one of them – sometimes need a mentor who speaks his language and can be a cheerleader, critic and buddy, all at once. Kapler, who has kept in touch with the pitcher throughout the offseason, seems fine tuned to Velasquez. Now Velasquez has a goal of throwing 200 innings in 2018. Hey, we’ll see when the pitches hit the mitt, but this positive behavior is a welcome sign for a guy who has the potential to be a top-line starter.

Heck, think about it – Velasquez was at his absolute best extremely early in his tenure in Philadelphia. With more losing, a rash of tough outings and a mass of confusing information, Velasquez only worsened. It’s possible he only needs to simplify, focus and stick to what he does best: pump fastballs and mix in a breaking ball or two. Again, we’ll see, but this is a great sign early on.

Want more? How about Kapler on Odubel Herrera, who arrived at camp with bronze dreadlocks and goatee. Kapler is oozing with praise over Herrera’s performance and attitude. He spun Herrera’s lapses on the field into praise about Phillies fans. He’s holding Herrera as an example for how to play boldly and how to play with a positive demeanor. That’s great, especially considering Herrera is the highest-paid player on the roster. The Phillies need him to set the table and set the example as the character who defines this squad.

It’s only been a few days, but already there’s a sense that this Phillies team is going to be different from any that came before. We might chuckle at some of Kapler’s quotes. We might question some of the tactics. But we might also see Velasquez turn into an ace, and we might also see Herrera turn into one of the top outfielders in the game, bar none. We might have a team that we’ll love because they play hard and fierce, never with fear and always – yes – boldly.

2. No, the Eric Hosmer deal is bad

The widespread opinion of Eric Hosmer to laymen who don’t indulge in advanced metrics is this:

  • Eric Hosmer is a leader of a team that won a world championship, which is a big deal.
  • Eric Hosmer is a great defensive first baseman, maybe the best in baseball.
  • Eric Hosmer has decent power and a good average.
  • Eric Hosmer is one of the better first basemen in baseball.

Meanwhile, the widespread opinion of Eric Hosmer to people who follow and heavily consider advanced metrics is this:

  • Eric Hosmer is a leader of a team that won a world championship, which is fine, I guess.
  • Eric Hosmer is not very good defensively.
  • Eric Hosmer varies between a good offensive player and a bad offensive player.
  • Eric Hosmer is somewhere in the middle, potentially below average, when compared to first basemen across baseball.

I tend to agree with the latter camp, of course, because when I think of good first basemen, I can rattle off about a dozen names before thinking about Hosmer. And, according to Fangraphs WAR (fWAR), Hosmer has been baseball’s 17th best first baseman since 2011 his first full season. So, what do you know, somewhere in the middle and potentially below average.

The San Diego Padres, a model of mediocrity if ever there was one, came to an agreement with Hosmer on an eight-year, $144 million pact Saturday. There’s an opt-out clause that can be exercised after year five of the deal, so the Padres are at least paying Hosmer a total of $105 million ($21 million per year). The final three years of the deal are each worth $13 million, so if Hosmer believes he’s worth more than $13 million after 2022, then he can pull the opt-out card.

In the wake of the agreement, baseball writers have almost overwhelmingly either celebrated or half-heartedly approve of the Hosmer deal. To which I’m befuddled.

This is not a good deal. In fact, the deal is bad.

Let’s start with the first argument most writers are making: five years at $21 million per is pretty good and doesn’t hamstring the Padres.

What? Are you kidding? Have these writers watched the Padres handle their payroll in recent years? This is an organization that, yes, is valued at $1.125 billion, but has routinely kept a low payroll. Here are their payroll numbers since 2011, including their overall ranking in baseball (out of 30):

  • 2017: $71.624 million (28th)
  • 2016: $112.895 million (17th)
  • 2015: $100.675 million (22nd)
  • 2014: $90.094 million (21st)
  • 2013: $67.143 million (26th)
  • 2012: $55.244 million (30th)
  • 2011: $45.869 million (28th)

Maybe writers are thinking about wish fulfillment here, that A.J. Preller and his staff will finally start operating like the team that has a $1.125 billion valuation. It’s the same wish fulfillment that seemed to occur in the 2014-15 offseason. Then, the Padres traded prospects, including Yasmani Grandal, to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp. Then they traded more players to Oakland for Derek Norris. The next day they signed Brandon Morrow and traded prospects (including Trea Turner and Joe Ross) to Tampa Bay and Washington, receiving Wil Myers and a few others as part of a three-team trade. Also later that day, they traded more prospects to Atlanta for Justin Upton. Finally they signed James Shields. Writers lauded (or understood) them. But the team stunk, falling to 74-88 in 2015 before yet another rebuild.

Some of this excitement, I think, came because the Padres were never exciting. Maybe the least exciting team in major league history, the Friars have no world championships (though a few close calls) and an otherwise boring history while being the team that happens to play in arguably the most beautiful city in America. Seeing a young go-getter general manager like Preller work those wizardry wonders in 2014 and 2015 must have been like crack to wonks wanting to see the Padres turn into something (heck, I get it: I had a longtime MLB The Show franchise with the Padres simply because I wanted to make them interesting).

That brings us back to Hosmer, a deal that some people argue is like the Nationals’ huge Jayson Werth contract in 2010. Then, Werth was coming off his fourth-consecutive season with a better-than-3.0 fWAR (he had a 5.1 fWAR in 2010). He played a good defensive position in right field, and played it well (12.5 UZR in 2008, 6.9 UZR in 2009, an outlier -2.6 UZR in 2010). Werth was one of baseball’s premiere power/speed talents (.236 ISO, 4.9 speed score in 2010). He also was one of the more patient players in the league (12.6% walk rate in 2010). Finally, while he was 31, he was a late bloomer, only becoming a full-time player midway through his age-29 season. People may have scoffed at Werth’s seven-year, $126 million contract, but in retrospect there was plenty of reason why the deal made great sense.

Even then the deal was bad, as Werth only accumulated 13 fWAR during the length of the contract.

But contextualize Werth’s contract and you can better understand why the Nationals pulled the trigger in December 2010. In 2009 the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg, the top draft pitching prospect in years. In June 2010 they drafted Bryce Harper, the top draft hitting prospect in years. The Nationals of that era were extremely lucky to be that bad, because the combination of Strasburg and Harper allowed them to look five years into the future. Even then it seemed obvious that Strasburg and Harper would blossom into all-stars quickly, so the Nationals had reason to risk seven years and $126 million on Werth. They figured the team would be competitive. They figured people would visit the ballpark.

It’s not so easy with the Padres. Mackenzie Gore is a fine top prospect for a good system, but he was a high school arm who probably doesn’t reach the majors until 2020. Fernando Tatis Jr. is also a very good prospect, and he should be ready around 2019, but he’s not Harper. Beyond them the system has good talent, mostly with role player types. That’s great, sure, but the Padres in 2018 aren’t the Nationals in 2010.

Also, even despite his frequently mediocre performance after signing the contract, Werth was a surer bet for the Nationals than Hosmer for the Padres. We know 2017 was Hosmer’s best season (.318/.385/.498, 15.5% K, 9.8% BB, .179 ISO, 3.4 SPD), but 2016 was arguably his worst season (.266/.328/.433, 19.8% K, 8.5% BB, .167 ISO, 2.8 SPD). He teeters from being a fringe top-10 first baseman and somewhere in the mid-20s. Or, more accurately, he’s about the 17th best first baseman in baseball. Werth, at the time of signing his deal, was the second-best right fielder in baseball (18.2 fWAR from 2006-10). If you’re going to pay premium buck, you’d better get a premium talent.

That brings us back to the Padres and their payroll. Their ownership hasn’t yet shown a commitment to raising payroll and supporting a competitive team in a division where the Dodgers are a kingdom, the Giants are savvy, and the Diamondbacks and Rockies have recently proven smart at reading markets and windows. And maybe this is the beginning of a new era there – maybe Preller and Co. will be more aggressive in dolling out free-agent contracts.

But even still, Hosmer isn’t the player to whom commit even five years of salary. If you don’t have Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman or Joey Votto, you’re looking to devote few resources and little commitment to a position where you simply need a bat to either hit you a plus-.200 ISO or plus-.300 AVG. Hosmer has yet to get anyone an ISO over .179, while his average has risen above .300, but only twice. He’s, again, a decent choice if you’re going to fill a first base hole. But he is not worth the big commitment. Especially if you’re a team signaling to baseball that you’re close to contending for a playoff spot. There was no free agent hitter worth a commitment of more than three years from a sub-.500 team this offseason. It’s that simple.

Hosmer should be good for the San Diego locker room, one would assume. He also should be a decent offensive producer, at least half the time. But he’s not a good defensive player. He’s limited by position and ability. And most of all, he’s simply the wrong move for a team that just wasted perceived future value.

3. You know, DFA’ing Dickerson makes sense

On Saturday the Rays made three moves that further pushed them into the American League East basement in 2018. They decided to designate for assignment outfielder Corey Dickerson, then trade a player-to-be-named-later to the Angels for C.J. Cron, then trade pitcher Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota for a shortstop who doesn’t look like a sure thing and is probably two years from major league experience.

We knew the Rays were probably going through a rebuild, at least since they finally dealt Evan Longoria in January, sending him to San Francisco for Denard Span and prospects. Plus the only free agent they signed to a major league contract was Sergio Romo, who at this point doesn’t exactly move the needle in any way.

The moves Saturday show the Rays are clearly looking to cut as much salary as possible. Dickerson just agreed to a $5.95 million contract for 2018, while Odorizzi is set to earn $6.3 million. Meanwhile Cron is going to earn $2.3 million in 2018, so in one day the Rays shed nearly $10 million in salary. For a club that consistently operates as one of the three or four lowest payrolls in baseball ($70 million opening day in 2017, $66 million in 2016, $75 million in 2015, $76 million in 2014), slashing $10 million is a big deal.

Add to that the Longoria trade: In trading the third baseman the Rays gave up his $13.5 million salary of 2018 (plus another $67.5 million guaranteed from 2019-22), though they had to take on Span’s $9 million this year, and likely a $4 million buyout in 2019. Still, they must have felt it was worth taking on some pay now to slash that future payroll.

If the Rays want to go further, there’s still payroll out there to slash. Wilson Ramos is getting $8.5 million and would be a solid trade deadline acquisition. As would Chris Archer, whose market is large and whose contract is sufficient for just about any team not named the Rays ($7.5 million guaranteed in 2019 plus two club options in 2020 and 2021).

Meanwhile, Dickerson last season hit .282/.325/.490 with a .207 ISO. While his numbers took a dip in 2016, he has always profiled as a power-first guy who can probably club 30 dingers. And while that might be tempting, he’s not the best hitter and is relatively impatient (his walk rate has been around 5.8% in Tampa Bay). From what we can tell analytically, his defense in left field is passable, but passable left field defense isn’t necessary for really anyone, especially rebuilding teams.

The point is this: the Rays see a guy making $5.95 million but only worth some fleeting home runs for a team that won’t need them. Now, could they have found a trade partner before DFA’ing him (and thus starting a clock on a possible trade)? Maybe. But maybe not. Dickerson is a player in a weird spot – he’s in his second arbitration season, so he’ll get paid slightly more in 2019 (let’s say $7-$8 million) before hitting free agency. Teams may look at a passable left fielder who’s more of a designated hitter who doesn’t walk enough and isn’t the fastest player and say no thanks. And can you blame them? Home runs are everywhere right now. Defense and on-base skills are necessary. Dickerson might just be the unfortunate victim of a moment when his skills aren’t valued.

So can we get mad at the Rays? We know their constraints and we know how they have to continuously adjust, especially considering their competition. If the Rays were a bigger-market team, maybe Dickerson works a little longer, but for this situation, he’s a guy who might work, but probably doesn’t, and so what’s the point in holding on when you have other players to check out?

Hopefully Dickerson finds a new team. Maybe it’s a team like the Rockies, his old squad who would surely get some use out of him off the bench. But either way, Dickerson is a sign of the times.

4. A quick note on the Western Metal Supply Company

I’d like to write something longer about how a team like the Padres builds its team. Should they not prioritize home runs at all, considering Petco Park is frequently one of the worst dinger parks in baseball? Or should they actually swing the other way and prioritize guys who can hit 40-plus home runs per year, regardless of their other tools?

Should the Padres prioritize great pitching, sticking with high-strikeout guys who, even if they walk a few guys, aren’t going to give up big fly balls? Or should they actually plan to put less money in pitching, since most any competent guy who goes to Petco should at least put up decent numbers?

I think about this a lot because I love the idea of building teams. So when I look at Pecto Park, I see a pitcher’s haven that has a cool home run target in left field: The Western Metal Supply Company.

Because of this I currently would build the Padres this way: Invest on pitching and good outfield defense, but carry one guy (probably a first baseman) who can absolutely slaughter the ball from the right side. That way fans are clamoring to watch a dude play wall ball with the Western Metal Supply Company.

I’d actually have the same strategy if I ran the Giants, just moving the big home run hitter to the left side so that he could deposit balls into McCovey Cove (that worked with a certain Barry Bonds, remember?).

Anyway, Wil Myers is close to that guy (.220 ISO), but I’d go even more extreme than that. On Saturday, after trading Cron to the Rays, the Angels grabbed Chris Carter on a minor-league deal. Last year wasn’t the best for Carter, who put up a career-worst .168 ISO in 208 plate appearances for the Yankees, but in 2016 he had that .277 ISO with 41 home runs.

Yes, Carter strikes out a ton. Yes, he’s absolutely a three-true-types guy. Yes, he can only play first base.

But I’m telling you: Carter for one year in San Diego – instead of Hosmer for potentially eight – could’ve been better for the Padres. Maybe he slams a bunch of dingers into the Western Metal Supply Company while hitting in the seven-hole. Maybe the Padres have some fun with it.

Oh well. We’ll never know.