Signed IF-R Yuliesky Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. [7/16]
Trying to project hitters transitioning from Cuba to the U.S. appears to be a bit of a fool’s errand. Stars in Cuba don’t exactly have predictable performance translations, and their career performance certainly doesn’t always follow a normal curve. (See Puig, Yasiel for more data.) So let’s skip past the uninformed guesses as to how one of Serie Nacional’s true stars will hit in the world’s top league, and focus more on the roster shuffling issues that this move creates. After all, there were plenty of teams with open roster holes that the acquisition of Gurriel could have addressed. Perhaps not a single one of them was the Houston Astros.
Gurriel is likely to provide the most value to a team playing either second base or third base, and the Astros have no hole at either of those positions. In case you haven’t heard, All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve keeps improving and is putting forth an MVP-caliber season (4.5 WARP) in 2016. As for third base, right now Jose Valbuena is hitting, and in the minors talented prospect Alex Bregman is lurking. Bregman’s not a natural third baseman–he may better be served as a shortstop–but Carlos Correa appears to be blocking the six unless the Astros want to make a surprising switch between their two young building blocks. With young talent (A.J. Reed, George Springer) and veterans (Carlos Gomez, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis) at first base and the outfield, you may be able to make the case to shift Valbuena to first base or open up left field for Guerriel. But there’s no seamless fit.
My best educated guess is that since baseball is a copycat league, the Astros are taking a page out of the playbook of the best team in the game: the Chicago Cubs. Though the two teams have been on vastly different trajectories in the extreme short term (down for the Cubs from their white-hot start, the exact reverse for the Astros), both spent years rebuilding (tanking?) in order to collect high draft picks and save cash. Today’s Cubs have a litany of talented offensive players, and manager Joe Maddon deploys them in creative ways. Kris Bryant moves about the field like a utility player despite his near-MVP performance, and Javier Baez is what Ben Zobrist could have been if the former Ray sold out his secondary skills for bigger and better bat speed. They have too many good position players for the eight positions, but no one is complaining.
When budding slugger Kyle Schwarber got injured, the Cubs leveraged their position player depth to just shift things around and get another good player (Jorge Soler or Javier Baez or pick another name) into the lineup. This, I think, is the way the Astros plan to leverage the Gurriel signing. The lazy analysis says that the Astros might slough Bregman off to another team for a top-flight starter or flip Valbuena for a reliever. That’s certainly possible too. But if the Cubs have taught us anything it’s
that free agents will sign for less money in order to break The Curse that you can never have too many good bats. While we don’t know yet whether or not the elder Gurriel will be a bad hitter, an OK hitter, or a good hitter, he’s a fit on the Astros because time wears down all teams. Houston may have been a surprising landing spot, but with Gurriel in the fold, future surprises should be a lot less painful for the Astros. —Bryan Grosnick
Signed 1B-L Justin Smoak to a two-year, $8.5 million contract. [7/16]
Right now, in the NBA, something strange is going on. If you haven’t been following along, contracts have shot up as a result of the league’s rising salary cap and incoming revenue. Max salaries, once reserved for only the elite players in the league, have trickled down to mere stars, and even fourth-option rotation players have started making more than $10 million per season over multiple years. Kent Bazemore gets four years and $70 million from the Hawks just a couple years after being the Warriors’ victory cigar. Luol Deng gets almost the same cash to play what Braves fans might call the “Nick Markakis role” (this translates to veteran presence and consistency, if likely disappointing overall performance) in Los Angeles. And so on.
As a result, effective players signed to contracts prior to this huge bump in salary have become incredibly valuable chips. Just a year ago Tobias Harris’ contract of four years and $64 million looked like a gross overpay by Orlando; a few months ago Detroit was only too happy to snap up that contract in trade despite Harris’ performance changing almost not at all. Sharpshooter Khris Middleton’s contract from last season seemed too much for an untested 3-and-D player in a league seemingly teeming with them; now few would argue that he’s paid appropriately for his talent.
Now, the unspoken question: what does this have to do with an under-performing first baseman North of The Wall? Well, this was a long walk to get to this point: a contract like this may not look very appealing today, but could be quite palatable a year down the line. At first glance, guaranteeing two additional years and even a few million to a player with -2.0 WARP over his career seems a bit of a shock. After all, if you’re looking for a replacement-level first baseman, Triple-A seems to be stocked to the gills with Quad-A sluggers, and there always seems to be a James Loney-type available for the plucking.
At second glance, this deal locks in a league-average hitter (.267 True Average over 2015 and 2016) at a position of turmoil; both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are slated to become free agents at the close of this season. And while that True Average clocks in at close to the league average, first base isn’t the dynamic offensive position it used to be–Smoak’s .332 OBP and .413 slugging percentage hews rather closely to the .334 OBP and .448 slugging percentage that’s the position’s average. In an uncertain world, Smoak is a player who’s relatively constant. While no great shakes with either the bat or his glove, he’s been solid over his time with Toronto, and performs right in line with his pre-season PECOTA projection. He’s reliable, an all-too-rare trait sometimes.
At 29 years old, Smoak seems quite unlikely to have a sudden breakout that would herald a new era in slugging–he’ll likely never hit for enough average to make him a world-beater at first base. There’s always a chance a run of great BABIP could turn Smoak into a two-month All-Star, but his best case is a slightly expensive insurance policy against both rising costs and missing superstars. In the worst-case scenario, the Jays are out the $4 million per year it could’ve used to sign a fringy seventh-inning reliever and still have a hole that must be filled in the lineup. But in the best case, Smoak runs into a few more fastballs, hits 20 or so homers, and makes his hay on a below-market rate so Toronto can go out and spend the bulk of their money elsewhere, perhaps even on Bautista or Encarnacion. —Bryan Grosnick
Recalled OF-L Michael Conforto from Triple-A Las Vegas; optioned OF-L Brandon Nimmo to Triple-A Las Vegas. [7/17]
You can say this for the Mets: they’re not afraid to mix things up. First, the Mets optioned the struggling Conforto and summoned Nimmo to the bigs in order to, ostensibly, field the best possible major-league team. Though Conforto may (or may not) have been struggling through a wrist injury, he was hitting far below the standard set by his excellent 2015 debut. Meanwhile Nimmo, a former top draft pick, had earned his shot in the big leagues by tearing up the eminently tear-up-able PCL. Unsurprisingly, the changes in location have swapped the two’s performance profiles: Nimmo has been overmatched in his time in the majors–his best quality is his ability to take a walk, and that skill has run away (just three in 55 plate appearances) since coming to New York. Meanwhile, Conforto’s obviously ahead of Triple-A pitching, with a strikeout rate identical to his walk rate (11.6 percent) and a True Average almost 75 points better than what he posted in the majors. He’s ready; Nimmo is not, and perhaps may never be.
Jarrett Seidler noted the issues that might have come from Conforto spending too much time in Triple-A–namely the rumblings of a grievance as the Mets may have sought to game his service time–and his return to the majors could squash that potentiality. But while that problem is addressed, another one now appears: according to reports, Yoenis Cespedes has asked to no longer play center field this season, locking him into a corner outfield role. One would have to imagine that the Mets will abide by their star’s demands–not only do they want to keep him happy and in New York past 2016, Cespedes simply isn’t much of a center fielder at all.
While Nimmo was on the roster, the Mets had a passable center field platoon caddy for Juan Lagares … at least in theory. Now, the Mets have three corner outfielders for two spots in Cespedes, Granderson, and Conforto, but no suitable platoon caddy for Lagares in center. Perhaps the team could use Conforto as a platoon partner for Granderson, but that would limit the playing time of one of the team’s stalwarts. A soft platoon of sorts, with Conforto spelling Cespedes semi-regularly might be the team’s best option. If only one of these guys could play first or third base, the Mets might be in a bit of a better situation. Until then, it may take a return to last season’s form from Conforto for the Mets to break free of the NL Wild Card jumble. —Bryan Grosnick