NL West: Every Team’s Most “Under the Radar” Player

Los Angeles Dodgers

Joc Pederson

Joc

(Richard Mackson/USA Today Photo)

He broke out early in 2015, slumped in the second half, and everyone forgot about him. Outside of Los Angeles, I don’t think people realized how good Joc was in 2016. He posted a better OPS (.847) than Justin Turner (.832), but Turner finished 9th in MVP voting, and Pederson didn’t get a single vote. He also cut down on his strikeouts, had more total bases, and hit one less homer than he did in 2015, all in 109 fewer plate appearances.

Hopefully Joc will garner more attention in 2017.

San Francisco Giants

Derek Law

Derek Law

(Brad Mangin/Getty Images)

As a rookie in 2016, Derek Law posted a 2.13 ERA (2.53 FIP). A single season can be deceptive, especially as a reliever; however, outside of San Francisco circles, Law got no attention. If you’re a Giants fan, you know that he was certainly the most consistent arm out of an otherwise tumultuous bullpen.

It’ll be interesting to see if he can open more eyes with a solid sophomore campaign.

Colorado Rockies

DJ Lemahieu

DJ Lemahieu

(Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire Photo)

After posting a .911 OPS and winning the batting title in 2016, you’d think DJ Lemahieu would be one of the most talked about players in the game, yet, his name almost never comes up; Bleacher Report ranked him the 9th best second basemen, which is heinous. MLB Network’s “shredder” ranked Lemahieu the 7th best second basemen, ahead of Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe and Ben Zobrist, two of whom were higher on BR’s list.

He definitely gets a bad wrap because he plays at Coors Field, but his home/road splits were decent last year; Lemahieu posted a .303 average on the road, albeit his slugging percentage was low (.395). He’s no schlub on defense either, posting six wins above replacement over the last five seasons.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Brandon Drury

Brandon Drury

(Ben Margot/AP Photo)

Following a brief stint with the club in 2015, Drury became a fixture in the Diamondbacks 2016 lineup. In his age 23 season, Drury posted a .786 OPS and hit 16 home runs in 461 at bats. If he can cut down on his strikeouts in 2017 (100), Drury could become a real force in the Arizona lineup.

He’s a bit of a defensive liability, though, as he made four errors in just 103 chances at second and third base. He wasn’t fantastic in the outfield either, but he was better. The Diamondbacks should stick him there to avoid another -1.7 defensive WAR season.

San Diego Padres

Yangervis Solarte

Yangervis Solarte

(Joe Camporeale/USA Today Photo)

Although he missed a decent chunk of last season, in his 443 plate appearances, Solarte was phenomenal, posting an .808 OPS. If you discount the fact that he didn’t register the 502 at-bats needed to qualify for a batting title, Solarte’s OPS puts him above Xander Bogaerts, Elvis Andrus, Stephen Piscotty, Francisco Lindor, Mike Napoli, etc. He’s ahead of plenty more “bigger” names, too. He also hit 15 home runs in his limited at bats.

Solarte was the guy who inspired me to write this. When I looked up his stats a couple days ago, I was shocked by how good he was and how little I heard his name. The last time he was getting a lot of publicity was when he broke onto the scene with the Yankees in 2014. Hopefully more people take notice of him this season. 

 

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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MLB Power Rankings (Top Ten)

10. Seattle Mariners

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 83-79

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(USA Today Photo/ Joe Nicholson)

Jerry Dipoto significantly improved the Mariners during the offseason, adding Jean Segura (33 SB; .368 OBP) and Jarrod Dyson (30 SB; .340 OBP), who’ll get on a base at a pretty high clip and provide speed at the top of the lineup. Dipoto added Danny Valencia as well, who has quietly put together back to back good seasons (.864 OPS in 2015; .792 OPS in 2016). Add Add three big bats in Robinson Cano (.882 OPS), Nelson Cruz (.915 OPS) and Kyle Seager (.859 OPS), and you’ve got a pretty daunting lineup.

The rotation looks like it could be good, but there’s definitely some uncertainty surrounding Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly. They’re coming off down years in which their FIP was 4.63, 4.27 and 4.49, respectively. Yovani Gallardo (5.04 FIP) and James Paxton (2.80 FIP) are the other two starters. The bullpen looks okay, with Marc Rzepczynski (3.57 FIP) and hard throwing young reliever Edwin Diaz (2.04 FIP) at the back end. Evan Scribner was nearly unhittable in a brief stint with the Mariners in 2016.

The pieces are there for the Mariners to make a run.

9. Texas Rangers

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 83-79

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(Getty Images/ Bob Levey)

The Rangers finished 2016 on a sour note, getting eliminated from the playoffs by the Toronto Blue Jays, again.

Look for ageless veteran Adrian Beltre (.879 OPS) to anchor the Rangers high powered lineup.  Rougned Odor (.798 OPS) is only 23 years old coming off a 33 home run season, and Nomar Mazara was a contender for rookie of the year. Elvis Andrus (.800 OPS) and Jonathan Lucroy (.855 OPS) will provide excellent bats at the top of the lineup, too. After a strong showing in the first two rounds of the World Baseball Classic, Jurickson Profar may finally come into his own in 2017.

Cole Hamels (3.98 FIP) will lead a rotation that should be pretty solid, as long as Yu Darvish (3.09 FIP) and Martin Perez (4.49 FIP) can stay healthy. The bullpen has some powerful arms, with Matt Bush (2.74 FIP) and Sam Dyson (3.62 FIP). Tony Barnette (3.38 FIP) and Alex Claudio (2.97 FIP) were solid in 2016, too. Left hander Jake Diekman will start the year on the disabled list.

The Rangers have all the pieces to make another playoff run.

8. New York Mets

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 85-77

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(USA Today Photo/ Jeff Curry)

The Mets rotation should be quite formidable in 2017, assuming everyone can stay healthy. Ace Noah Syndergaard (2.29 FIP) will lead the rotation, followed by Jacob Degrom (3.32 FIP), former ace Matt Harvey (3.47 FIP) and Steven Matz (3.39 FIP). Zack Wheeler, Robert Gsellman (2.63 FIP) and Seth Lugo (4.33 FIP) will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Jeurys Familia is expected to receive a 30 game suspension for domestic violence, which might affect the bullpen early in the season. Addison Reed (1.97 FIP) will fill the closer’s role in the meantime. Jerry Blevins (3.05 FIP) and Hansel Robles (3.56 FIP) will have to step up in Familia’s absence, too.  

The Mets lineup, which was fifth in home runs last year, is intact. Yoenis Cespedes (.884 OPS) is back on a four-year contract. Neil Walker (.823 OPS) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.810 OPS) provide a solid veteran duo up the middle. Despite not having concrete spots in the field, TJ Rivera (.821 OPS; 105 AB) and Wilmer Flores (.788 OPS) will contribute offensively as well. Lucas Duda will look to bounce back after an injury hampered 2016. Curtis Granderson (.799 OPS) has had back-to-back good years.

The Mets do have some significant question marks. For one, will David Wright be on the field consistently, and if he isn’t, will Jose Reyes be able to replace him? Is the Mets 2016 home run rate sustainable? Can Michael Conforto play like he did in 2015? The Mets may challenge the Nationals for the top spot in the NL East, but will likely compete for a wild card spot.

7. Houston Astros

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 91-71

HOU1

(Houston Chronicle Photo/ James Nielsen)

Finishing at the bottom of the league several years in a row allowed the Astros to stockpile a ton of talent via the draft, using some prospects as trading chips and developing others. After 2015 ended in a wild-card berth and 2016 in a near miss, the Astros are ready to make a strong run in 2017.

Already having one of the best offensive infields in baseball, featuring Jose Altuve (.928 OPS), Carlos Correa (.811 OPS) and Alex Bregman (.791 OPS), the Astros added veteran bats Brian McCann (.748 OPS), Carlos Beltran (.850 OPS), Josh Reddick (.781 OPS) and Nori Aoki (.738 OPS) in the offseason. Add George Springer (.815 OPS) and Evan Gattis (.826 OPS), and the Astros have created one of the best offenses in baseball.

The rotation doesn’t look as promising. Dallas Keuchel will probably never match his 2015 campaign, so Lance McCullers (3.00 FIP) will have to step up and become the Astros go to guy. Collin McHugh has underperformed his FIP the last two seasons, so a big season may be in store for him. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton will slot in at four and five. The bullpen, which features Luke Gregerson (2.99 FIP), Chris Devenski (2.34 FIP), Will Harris (2.35 FIP), Pat Neshek (3.68 FIP) and Ken Giles (2.86 FIP), looks great; they only lack a good left handed reliever. Tony Sipp’s FIP jumped from 2.93 in 2015 to 6.19 in 2016.

If the current rotation can sustain the Astros, they’ve got a good chance to go all the way in 2017, just like Sports Illustrated predicted.

6. San Francisco Giants

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 87-75

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

(USA Today Photo/ Jake Roth)

After blowing 30 saves as a team last year (Yes, 30), the Giants addressed the issue by signing free agent closer Mark Melancon. Derek Law is also an intriguing arm coming out of the bullpen. Leading the rotation is Madison Bumgarner, who believe it or not, is only 27. He’ll be supported by Johnny Cueto (2.95 FIP), Jeff Samardzija (3.85 FIP), Matt Moore and Matt Cain.

The lineup looks solid as always, with former MVP Buster Posey, defensive wizard Brandon Crawford (.772 OPS), underrated first baseman Brandon Belt (.868 OPS) and Hunter Pence (.808 OPS). 

The Giants are a pillar of consistency in the National League. Look for them to make a run.

5. Washington Nationals

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 91-71

Max Scherzer.jpg

(Getty Images/ Mitchell Layton)

The Nationals obvious strength in 2017 will be their rotation. Led by ace Max Scherzer (3.24 FIP), the four other starters are Stephen Strasburg (2.92 FIP), Tanner Roark (3.79 FIP), Gio Gonzalez (3.76 FIP) and Joe Ross (3.49). The bullpen looks decent, with Blake Treinen (3.62 FIP), Sammy Solis (2.78 FIP) and Shawn Kelley (2.97 FIP), but does have an obvious weakness: the closer. The Nationals passed on Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, saving $80 million, but that could come back to bite them. They need a good closer to shut the door at the end of games.

Despite losing Wilson Ramos, the Nationals lineup is dangerous. Bryce Harper will look to bounce back from a “down year” in which his OPS was .814. Daniel Murphy (.985 OPS) is coming off a career year; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Anthony Rendon (.797 OPS) and Jayson Werth (.752 OPS) are solid, and rookie sensation Trea Turner (.937 OPS) accumulated a 3.7 WAR in less than half a season.

The Nationals are vying for the top spot in the NL East, again.

4. Cleveland Indians

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 92-70

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(USA Today Photo/ David Richard)

The team that came oh so close to winning it all in 2016 looks even better in 2017.

Unfortunately, all-star Michael Brantley is still not 100% after missing most of last year, and may miss opening day. Even without him, the Indians lineup is stacked. Edwin Encarnacion (.886 OPS) will provide an upgrade at 1B/DH, and Yan Gomes will add some pop to the lineup after playing only 74 games in 2016. Double play duo Francisco Lindor (.794 OPS) and Jason Kipnis (.811 OPS) are mainstays in the lineup, as is 1B/DH Carlos Santana (.865 OPS). Utility man Jose Ramirez impressed with his .825 OPS in 2016.

Andrew Miller (1.68 FIP), the postseason juggernaut, will anchor the bullpen, along with Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw. Frontline starters, Carlos Carrasco (3.72 FIP) and Danny Salazar (3.74 FIP), look to bounce back from injuries. Trevor Bauer’s coming off his best season yet (3.99 FIP). Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber will anchor the rotation, and Josh Tomlin rounds out the starting five.

I almost feel bad putting the Indians at number four on this list. Cleveland’s ready to make another title run.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 94-68

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(Getty Images/ Harry How)

Anchored by the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, and a strong supporting cast of Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias and Scott Kazmir, the Dodgers rotation looks great heading into 2017. Hyun-jin Ryu, who’s been hampered by injuries for two years, has had a solid spring, which may result in a return to the rotation, too. whoSergio Romo looks to strengthen the bullpen and set the stage for Kenley Jansen, who’s returning on a five-year contract. Pedro Baez, Grant Dayton and Alex Wood are all coming off solid years out of the bullpen, too.

Going into his age 23 season, Corey Seager (.877 OPS) will anchor the lineup along with veterans Justin Turner (.832 OPS) and Adrian Gonzalez (.784 OPS). After struggling in the second half in 2015, Joc Pederson (.847 OPS) bounced back last season, and catcher Yasmani Grandal (.816 OPS) had his best season yet.

Logan Forsythe, who was acquired during the offseason, will give the team an upgrade at second base. If Trayce Thompson can come back healthy and build on his early 2016 success, the Dodgers may have a surprise star in the outfield.

2. Boston Red Sox

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 93-69

BOS1

(AP Photo/ Steven Senne)

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, David Price will likely start the season on the disabled list. While his 2016 was good, Sox fans are hopeful Price can pitch more like he did in 2015. When he does return, the Sox rotation will consist of two Cy Young award winners (Price and Porcello), a guy who should probably have one (Chris Sale) and knuckleballer Steven Wright who broke out in 2016. Slot Drew Pomeranz in at number five and you’ve got one of the best rotations in baseball.

The bullpen looks solid with Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg, Robbie Ross Jr. and Craig Kimbrel; however, they sustained some big losses this offseason, including Brad Ziegler (free agency), Koji Uehara (free agency) and Carson Smith (Tommy John surgery).

A lineup laden with all-stars gives the Red Sox one of the best offenses in baseball, too. Hanley Ramirez (.866 OPS), Mookie Betts (.897 OPS), Jackie Bradley Jr. (.835 OPS), Dustin Pedroia (.376 OBP) and Xander Bogaerts (.802 OPS) give them a ton of firepower. Rookie stud Andrew Benintendi (.835 OPS), catcher Sandy Leon (.845 OPS) and super-utility man Brock Holt will contribute as well.

The Red Sox are well rounded and more than ready to make another run at the playoffs in 2017.

1. Chicago Cubs

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 95-67

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(USA Today Photo/ Jerry Lai)

The Cubs are coming of their first championship in 108 years. A team built around a young core of players, including reigning MVP Kris Bryant, they’re sure to be good for years to come. They lost two key players this offseason, Dexter Fowler and Aroldis Chapman, to free agency. But, they’ve added an excellent bullpen arm in Wade Davis who came via a trade with Kansas City, and Kyle Schwarber is poised to put up big numbers coming off his return from injury. Add Albert Almora Jr., who only had 112 at bats in 2016, and a full season from Wilson Contreras, and you’ve got the most powerful lineup in Major League Baseball.

There are so many good players to talk about on the Cubs roster, I haven’t even mentioned Ben Zobrist (.386 OBP), Javier Baez (.423 SLG), Addison Russell (21 HR, 95 RBI), Anthony Rizzo (.928 OPS) or Tommy La Stella (.357 OBP), who might be one of the most underappreciated players in baseball.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey, the starting rotation speaks for itself.

The Cubs look to be the force of Major League Baseball once again in 2017.

 

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

Is Kenley Jansen Worth $16 Million a Year?

Photo via Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Once a minor league catcher who struggled to hit the baseball, Kenley Jansen has blossomed into one of the game’s premier relief pitchers. In 2016, a contract year, Jansen demonstrated his dominance out of the bullpen, leading all relievers in WAR* (3.2) and finishing second in FIP** (1.44). The Curacaoan hit the market at an opportune time, too, as major league games are increasingly dominated by hard throwing relievers (and relievers in general).

Screen-Shot-2016-12-13-at-10.35.59-PM

Using baseball-reference.com, I ran a query and found that, over the past decade, relief pitchers’ SO9 have increased by 1.4, from 7.3 K/9 to 8.7 K/9. This is significant, especially if you consider that over the previous 10 years this statistic remained fairly stagnant, hovering around the 7.3 K/9 threshold. Using the same query, I found that since 1988, the average bullpen’s OPS+ against has dropped from 100 (league average, including starters and relievers) to 94 (6 percent better than league average). From this, we can deduce two things. One, relief performance has clearly improved over the last 25+ years. Two, relievers are outperforming starters.

Prior to the 2016 offseason, the biggest contract ever signed by a reliever was $50 million over four years by Jonathan Papelbon in 2011. This offseason, three relievers have already signed larger contracts: Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman, and now Kenley Jansen. So, is Kenley Jansen worth the five years and $80 million the Dodgers gave him?

Fangraphs has a model for converting a player’s WAR into his value on the free-agent market. There are a few other websites with different calculations, but the basic method adds together all the free agent salaries from a given offseason and examines the ratio of dollars to one WAR. Using a general consensus from multiple sites, one WAR on the open market during the 2015 offseason was worth about $7.7 million. According to this model, Kenley Jansen’s 3.2 WAR last season would’ve been worth $24.6 million on the open market.

From 2012-2016, Jansen compiled a WAR of 11.4. If we use the 2015 market estimate, Jansen was worth $88.8 million. Now Jansen is going into his age 29 season. Say he gets slightly less productive and is worth one less win over his five-year contract with the Dodgers. In this scenario, he’d be worth almost exactly $80 million. Obviously, we can’t pinpoint Jansen’s exact WAR over the next five seasons, but he’ll likely continue to do much of the same.

It’s safe to say that the Dodgers actually paid what the market dictated Jansen was worth. It’s difficult to measure Jansen’s value to the Dodgers bullpen specifically, but in 2016 the next closest FIP to his 1.44 was Joe Blanton’s 3.33. Not re-signing him would’ve left a hole at the back of the bullpen.

Five years and $80 million for Kenley Jansen ain’t too shabby.

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


*WAR = Wins Above Replacement

Measures how many “wins” a player is worth; a zero WAR is “replacement level”.

**FIP = Fielding Independent Pitching

Essentially a replacement for earned run average; however, FIP only takes into account true outcomes, or things the pitcher has total control over (e.g., home runs, walks, and strikeouts).