Why the Cleveland Indians are the favorite to win the AL Pennant

The Cleveland Indians just posted 13 unanswered runs to beat the resurgent Texas Rangers last night by a score of 15-9 after trailing 9-2 (Disclaimer: I wrote this three days ago but didn’t get the chance to publish it).

While coming into the 2017 season the general consensus was that it was Cleveland’s starting pitching that would carry them through the regular season and into the playoffs. Last night showcased the two aspects of their squad that get much less recognition and are the main reasons why they’re my AL favorite.

The two aspects are their depth and strength of their lineup and bullpen.

The headline grab from Monday’s game is obviously the 13 runs the offense put up after the third inning, but what goes unnoticed was the ability of the Indians bullpen to hold the Rangers offense scoreless after the No. 4 inning.

More times than not when a team goes down early by seven runs, the manager will turn to their long relief mop up guys hoping to collect outs and save the premier arms in the bullpen to fight another day.

However, the Indians’ entire bullpen is comprised of premier arms.  Finishing the final five and two-thirds innings of last night’s game, surrendering just one ER on three H and two BB was the combination of Dan Otero, Boone Logan, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Nick Goody.

All of these guys may not be household names, but only one of them showcases an ERA above 3.00 (Otero – 3.48).  When you add in Zach McAllister (another sub 3.00 ERA) and, the man I believe to be the best reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller you get the most complete and dominant bullpen in baseball.

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Photo via Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In total, there are seven quality arms in Cleveland’s pen who all have at least 26 appearances on the season. Out of those seven, the only guy averaging less than an inning per appearance is lefty specialist Logan.

During the 2016 postseason, we saw how effective Terry Francona’s strategic, heavy use of the bullpen was. Barring any significant injuries, it looks like he will have all the tools to do it again.

The bullpen as a whole ranks in the top-3 in almost every pitching category and leads in ERA (2.59), fewest blown saves (3), opponent SLG (.336), and opponent OPS (.621).

The other teams that hover around the top of these categories with the Indians are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Each team just so happens to be holding a spot in the playoffs right now.

With an increased importance on the health of starting pitching and limiting pitch counts in baseball, a strong bullpen carries value in many ways and is an underappreciated aspect of most successful MLB teams.

The main story of Monday’s 15-9 victory was the lineup of the Indians that put up a jaw-dropping 13 consecutive runs over a four-inning span.

This lineup was one that I thought, coming into the season, would undoubtedly be amongst the top 5 in the league. Unfortunately, everyone has underperformed this far except for Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall.

Major offseason acquisition Edwin Encarnacion struggles at the plate have been most notable, but in the month of June, the Dominican slugger is slashing .333/.454/.654 with 23 R, 7 HR, and 18 RBI, and for the first time since June 2016, has more walks (17) than strikeouts (14).

In a lineup that has a lot of solid contact hitters, the power of Encarnacion can be the spark this lineup needs to catch fire for the second half of the season.

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Photo via Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo

The other main disappoint from this lineup has been Francisco Lindor. Lindor’s power numbers have been impressive this year with 14 HR and 21 2B in just 330 PA whereas he had just 15 and 12 HR in 684 and 438 PA in 2016 and 2015 respectively, yet his ability to get on base and steal bags has been way down this year.

His AVG and OBP are down to .253 and .316 compared to .301 and .358 in 2016 and .313 and .353 in 2015.  This dip is mainly due to his .250 BABIP which is markedly lower than the .324 and .348 marks he had in 2016 and 2015, which means he is due for a positive regression over the final few months of the season.

While it may be over-optimistic to expect him to return to those levels, it is likely that number will regress towards the mean and bring his AVG up to around .270-.290 by the end of the season.

On top of these two all-star caliber players, the Indians lineup has depth and versatility across the board that allows them to matchup well against both righties and lefties. For example, Lonnie Chisenhall pinched hit against the Dodgers last week after the removal of Rich Hill, who posed an unfavorable lefty on lefty matchup, and finished the game 2-3 with a home run and five RBI against right-handed arms.

Chisenhall’s counterpart is Brandon Guyer who hits against left-handed pitchers well. Filling out the rest of the lineup are OF Bradley Zimmer, Michael Brantley, 2B Jason Kipnis, 1B Carlos Santana, and IF Jose Ramirez who have all shown the ability to go 4-4 with 2 HR on any given night. Don’t be surprised to see this lineup get hot and carry the team through the dog days of summer and into October.

This lineup reminds me of the one that carried the Royals to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 15. On any night, the nine guys they trot out are tough outs and really make the pitcher work to get through six innings.

It has been well documented over the years that power pitching is what wins in the postseason. With a staff headed by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, the Indians have the potential to have the best starting rotation in the postseason.

While Salazar has been a disappointment this season and Carrasco got roughed up on Monday night, they’ve had stretches of dominance in the past and, if healthy, they can do so again in the playoffs. If Kluber gives the same level of production he did in the 2016 postseason (4-1, 1.83 ERA, 35 K, pitching on 3 days rest 3 times), the Indians will have a No. 1 Ace that can match up with the best of the MLB.

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Photo via Jason Miller/Getty Images

Their rotation is finished out with Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merrit, all of which have shown the potential to be postseason pitchers, especially with the prowess of the aforementioned bullpen behind them.

Most playoff rotations consist of three or four guys. With seven arms to pick from, everyone should have a lot of trust in Francona to put together the strongest postseason rotation in the AL.

The Indians have won 10 of their last 15 games and look to be righting the ship at the perfect time. They currently sit atop a wide open AL Central with a 41-36 record and look poised to run away with the division or at worst compete for a wild card spot. Especially when you consider the Tribe went 53-28 at Progressive Field in 2016 and are currently 16-20 at home this season.

There are numbers of ways in which the Indians can improve and will improve in the second half of this season.


Let’s #EmbraceDebate here.  Let me know why you guys think I’m wrong and who you see rolling through the AL this October.

My Advice to Baseball Fans This Summer

This is my first article for The JR Report and although I have a few others written and ready to go, I thought this one would be the best to put out first as it gives you a look into my style and the best way to follow baseball, in my opinion.

The summer is a time when the sports world slows to a near halt with the only true action being the MLB season. As the NHL and NBA playoffs came to an abrupt conclusion, sports fans quickly went from having a plethora of content to watch to being entirely reliant on the MLB.

For some, this is the time when they check out, head to the beach, and wait for the NFL season. But for others who are lifelong and diehard baseball fans, they can find plenty of enjoyment and entertainment throughout the dog days of summer.

Hopefully, this article will explain to anyone how to optimize their baseball experience this summer with a list of expert suggestions.

Stop watching ESPN

I can’t emphasize this point enough.  I hope you’re like me and are sick of seeing Brian Windhorst’s fat face and stupid hair plastered on your TV screen all summer talking about Lebron’s hairline, whether or not he’ll wear a headband, or what US city is his wife’s favorite.

Brian Windhorst falls asleep during NBA offseason conversation SportsCenter. Photo Via The Big Lead via ESPN

 

Or listening to Merril Hoge and Adam Schefter talk about which NFL player has decided to skip offseason workouts that are four months before the first preseason game and will probably end in some underwhelming contract settlement if anything.

If either of these ESPN descriptions has resonated with you it’s time to direct your attention to the MLB Network, which probably comes with most standard cable and offers the best baseball coverage.

The on-air personalities are fantastic, from Mark DeRosa in the morning to Kevin Millar, Sean Casey, and Eric Byrnes spanning across the afternoon and evening. The MLBN has insightful perspectives of former MLB players who bring much more common man humor and personality than Aaron Boone, Dan Shulman, or Alex Cora who couldn’t entertain pre-pubescent teen with a Playboy magazine.

Not only does MLBN bring talent that ESPN can’t match, but one can actually watch highlights and breakdowns of every team around the league on a daily basis.

An average ESPN baseball highlight consists of either an incredible performance or some gimmick like a Nationals President mascot race, but for a fan of a small market team, they never get the chance to see how their team did the night before.

The network is almost always broadcasting at least one game a day and is a great spot to find afternoon baseball or primetime games when all there is on TV is reruns.

This is by far the biggest piece of advice I can give and I hope you give it a shot and enjoy the experience.

Use FanGraphs

If you’re a stats junkie like myself, FanGraphs is the spot for you.

With baseball moving more and more towards a sabermetrics and numbers never lie approach, FanGraphs is the place that can keep anyone up to speed with all the new developments and numbers that go into evaluating players and teams.

The valuation of players through the use of WAR is fascinating and the articles on FanGraphs explaining WAR really changed my perspective on modern day baseball.

I not only recommend keeping up to date with the most interesting FanGraphs articles, but also using the advanced stats to understand why some players or teams are doing better than others and to find out which players to pick up or trade for in your Fantasy Baseball leagues.

Follow your teams farm system

MLB success these days is so dependent on the successful drafting and development of prospects.

The days of “buying” championships seem to be on their way out and building through the farm is in.

For that reason, knowing who your top prospects are, how they’re performing, and understanding their track to the majors is a way to find a bright spot in the summer when your MLB team’s performance is lackluster.

Many fans know going into a particular season that their club has little to no chance to compete, and while that may be reason to not follow along with struggling, low-ceiling players in the MLB, following your farm system can give you optimism for seasons to come.

If you haven’t done so, read Moneyball

As I mentioned in my push for FanGraphs, baseball has been and is still moving towards more statistical based analysis than ever before. My first understanding of this came with the book Moneyball which gave interesting insight on how sabermetrics developed while giving a side by side view of how it brought the Oakland A’s to prominence in the early 2000s with very little cap room at the GM, Billy Beane’s disposal.

I’ll be honest with you guys I’m not a big book guy myself and am usually entirely against the “the book is so much better than the movie” rhetoric, but in this case it really is true. While Moneyball the movie was entertaining and a pleasure to watch, if you really want to gain any greater knowledge of the major shift in baseball operations, Moneyball is a must read.

As the Summer goes on, I intend to add more ideas to this list as they pop in to my head.

Continue reading “My Advice to Baseball Fans This Summer”

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

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(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

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(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

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(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.

MLB Power Rankings (20-11)

20. Kansas City Royals

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 75-87

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(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

After the hapless death of Yordano Ventura, the Royals went out and improved their starting rotation during the offseason, adding Jason Hammel and Travis Wood. The staff will be led by Danny Duffy, who demonstrated his dominance in the World Baseball Classic against Team Canada. Ian Kennedy and Jason Vargas round out the rotation. The bullpen, which was the Royals strength for many seasons, has lost a few of its big names. Of the “three-headed monster”, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Wade Davis, only Herrera is left. With that being said, Joakim Soria is a solid reliever, albeit a little overpaid, and Matt Strahm (2.06 FIP) was excellent in 2016. Travis Wood was a solid acquisition, too. This bullpen might not have the same glamour as the 2015 team’s bullpen just yet, but it certainly has potential. 

The lineup has some solid new additions in Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss. The rest of the lineup contains the Royals core of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and young stud Raul Mondesi Jr. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Royals are in contention at the all-star break, because it will significantly impact GM Dayton Moore’s trade deadline moves.

If the Royals aren’t in contention in July, look for Dayton Moore to deal some key players; center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar are all free agents after the 2017 season. 

19. Los Angeles Angels

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 83-79

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(Getty Images/Layne Murdoch)

The Angels lineup is vastly improved going into 2017. Headlined by MVP Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa and C.J. Cron provide a solid supporting cast. Cameron Maybin, who broke out last year with a .383 OBP, is an excellent addition to the team. Jefry Marte will provide some solid pop as a utility player.

The Angels pitching staff is the big question mark going into this season. Garrett Richards will look to return to 2015 form, and Matt Shoemaker hopes build on his 3.51 FIP in 2016. The rest of the rotation consists of Tyler Skaggs, who hasn’t pitched a full big league season yet, Jesse Chavez, who pitched out of the bullpen exclusively last season, and Ricky Nolasco, who had a decent second half with the Angels last year, but hasn’t had a good season since 2013. The bullpen looks decent, with Jose Alvarez (3.11 FIP) and Cam Bedrosian (2.13 FIP) coming off great years.

The Angels starters will hold them back in 2017.

18. Miami Marlins

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 78-84

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves

(USA Today Photo/Steve Mitchell)

The Marlins have one of my favorite lineups in baseball. Giancarlo Stanton’s a prolific power hitter, Marcell Ozuna’s an all-star, Christian Yelich should be an all-star (he got snubbed), JT Realmuto’s the most underrated catcher in baseball and Martin Prado had a .359 OBP in 2016. Add Justin Bour, who’s a sneaky good hitter, and you’ve got an excellent lineup. If Dee Gordon has a bounce back year, the Marlins could be dangerous.

The Marlins rotation looks alright heading into 2017. After the unfortunate death of Jose Fernandez, Miami doesn’t have a true ace. Wei-Yin Chen and Edinson Volquez will lead the rotation. Adam Conley’s coming off a solid season, as is Dan Straily, although they both outperformed their FIP. Tom Koehler rounds out the rotation. The bullpen, on the other hand, looks great. The Marlins have five solid arms in Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler, Kyle Barraclough, David Phelps and A.J. Ramos.

The Marlins rotation probably won’t allow them to compete for a playoff spot in 2017, but their lineup should provide some excitement.

17. Pittsburgh Pirates

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 82-80
MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates

(USA Today Photo/Charles LeClaire)

Andrew McCutchen is coming off the worst season of his career, and people are questioning whether he can return to his former MVP self. I don’t think he’ll be the same player he was from 2012-14, but he should be more productive than he was in 2016. Surrounding him, the Pirates have a pretty solid lineup that includes Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Jung Ho Kang. There are some questions surrounding Kang, though, after his DUI incident in South Korea during the offseason. He’ll likely be suspended to begin the season, and he’s currently not even in Spring Training due to issues with his visa (DUI related). He’s one of the Pirates most consistent hitters, so him missing a chunk of the season will definitely impact the team.

The Buccos pitching staff has some uncertainty surrounding it, too. Gerrit Cole needs to return to his 2015 self, giving the Pirates a true ace. Ivan Nova had a good second half with Pittsburgh last year, but he needs to prove that he can maintain that success over a full season. Jameson Taillon, who pitched well in his first big league stint (3.71 FIP), is yet to throw a full season in the big leagues. The rest of the rotation will probably feature some combination of Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison and Chad Kuhl. The bullpen took a big hit with Mark Melancon’s departure. Tony Watson and Felipe Rivero will probably be the team’s best relievers.  

I expect the Pirates to finish right around the .500 mark.

16. New York Yankees

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 81-81

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(Getty Images/Tom Szczerbowski)

The Yankees starting rotation has been unpredictable the last couple years, and that won’t change in 2017. They’ve got a solid number one in Masahiro Tanaka, the but the rest of the rotation is a big question mark. CC Sabathia had his best season since 2013, but he’s going into his age 36 season. Michael Pineda is known for being remarkably inconsistent, although he did post a 3.34 FIP in 2015 and a 3.79 FIP in 2016. Luis Severino is yet to prove to he can stick in the big leagues, and the rotation’s fifth slot is uncertain. The bullpen looks good, though, after reacquiring Aroldis Chapman and Tyler Clippard. They’ll have lots of late inning success with those two at the back-end along with Dellin Betances.

The lineup looks pretty solid, but it did take a hit after the unfortunate shoulder injury Didi Gregorius sustained in the World Baseball Classic. Hopefully for Yankees fans, it’ll only keep him out through April. He’s already going to miss 30 games or so. There are big expectations for Gary Sanchez after his absurd 2016, and Greg Bird will look to build on his success from 2015. Free agent signee Matt Holliday will provide a solid bat in the middle of the lineup.

The Yankees will probably stick around into September, but ultimately miss the playoffs.

15. Baltimore Orioles

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 81-81

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(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

With the exception of Matt Wieters, who was only okay in 2016, the Orioles powerful lineup is still intact. Baltimore has five players in the lineup who hit 25+ homers last year (Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Jonathan Schoop) and left fielder Hyun Soo Kim who got on at a .382 clip in 2016. Pedro Alvarez (.826 OPS) also hit 22 home runs in limited, platoon plate appearances.

In terms of pitching, the situation isn’t as stable. Chris Tillman will probably put up another solid year with a FIP right around 4.00, but the rest of rotation is shaky. Breakout years from Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy would definitely give the O’s a much-needed boost, but Gausman’s performance has been pretty uniform the last couple years, and Bundy is yet to complete a full season in the big leagues. Ubaldo Jimenez underperformed his FIP by more than a run, so there might be some hope there. The Orioles bullpen looks good, though, with three excellent late inning options in Mychal Givens, Brad Brach and lights out closer Zach Britton.

If the Orioles can outperform their Pythagorean Win-Loss record yet again, they’ll likely end up in a wild card slot.

14. Colorado Rockies

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 78-84

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(Getty Images/Matt Hazlett)

This lineup has to be right up there with the Chicago Cubs for best in baseball. The top SIX hitters in the lineup going into the 2017 season combined for an .891 OPS (!) last season, and that’s without newly acquired CF/1B Ian Desmond. Granted, the Rockies play their home games at Coors Field, but that’s still a ridiculous combined offensive output.

The Rockies pitching, however, is another story. Jon Gray showed a lot of promise in 2016, posting a 3.60 FIP. The starting rotation improved overall, as well; starter ERA fell almost half a run. With that being said, the Rockies starter ERA was still 26th in the Major Leagues, and the Rockies bullpen was the worst in the Major Leagues blowing 28 saves with a 5.13 ERA. Take that with a grain of salt, though, as their ERA is inflated due to the conditions in Colorado (The Rockies road ERA was 4.37). The Rockies bullpen should be rejuvenated in 2017, after adding Mike Dunn and Greg Holland. A full season from Adam Ottavino will help, too.

The Rockies could be 2017’s surprise team, as long as their pitching can keep them within striking distance.

13. Detroit Tigers

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 81-81

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(USA Today Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

After missing the playoffs by two games in 2016, the Tigers had an unusually quiet offseason. Their only two somewhat notable moves were bringing back catcher Alex Avila and utility infielder Omar Infante, both of whom will probably play supporting roles in 2017. The one big loss from the lineup is Cameron Maybin, who broke out in 2016 (.801 OPS in 394 plate appearances). Other than that, the team is essentially the same.

The bullpen, which was not great in 2016 (4.22 ERA and 19 blown saves), didn’t make any notable additions, either. Their starting rotation will also be pretty similar. The Tigers have more than five starters, so there may be some shuffling over the course of the season. The Opening Day rotation will likely consist of Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmerman, Anibal Sanchez and Daniel Norris, which I think is solid. They could even be sneakily good if Jordan Zimmerman returns to form, and Daniel Norris lives up to his potential.

The lineup will be solid, anchored by Miguel Cabrera who somehow flies under the radar every year; seems like everyone forgets how good he is. He’ll be supported by all-stars Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton. Cameron Maybin left a gaping hole in center field, though, where the Tigers don’t have a true replacement. They’ll likely have to settle for a below average, in-house replacement.

Detroit’s good lineup and rotation will allow them to compete for a playoff spot, as long as their bullpen doesn’t blow it.

12. St. Louis Cardinals

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 83-79

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(USA Today Photo/Jasen Vinlove)

After going 24-23 in one-run games in 2016, the Cardinals signed Brett Cecil to strengthen their bullpen, who’ll hand the ball off to Seung Hwan Oh at the back-end. Trevor Rosenthal lost the closer’s job after imploding last season, and the Cardinals are hoping to turn him into a starter in 2017; last time out, he threw three innings against the Astros. It’ll be interesting to see if Rosenthal can make solid contributions to the team as a starter. The rest of the rotation looks solid, led by Carlos Martinez, who pitched to a 3.61 FIP in 2016. Adam Wainwright will throw 200 innings, Mike Leake should return to form after underperforming his 3.83 FIP in 2016, and Lance Lynn will look to bounce back from Tommy John surgery. Top prospect Alex Reyes is lost for the season to a UCL tear.   

The Cardinals 2017 lineup looks strong, especially with the addition of Dexter Fowler. It remains to be seen whether Fowler can continue his success from his breakout 2016 (.393 OBP) with the Cubs. Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz and Yadier Molina provide three solid bats in the middle of the order. Jhonny Peralta will look to bounce back after a mediocre 2016 in which he played just 82 games.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Cardinals are poised to make a run again. They always seem to find a way. 

11. Toronto Blue Jays

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 86-76

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(Getty Images/Hannah Foslien)

The Blue Jays have made the playoffs two years in a row, but it looks as though they’ll be fielding a weaker team in 2017. With Edwin Encarnacion gone to the Indians, and Jose Bautista aging quickly, their usual high-powered lineup will probably score fewer runs this season; Josh Donaldson will carry the offense and Kendrys Morales will look to fill Encarnacion’s shoes. Excluding Jose Bautista’s spot in right, the other two outfield positions look as though they’ll be pretty weak. Kevin Pillar is an excellent defender in center field, but has a below league average bat, and Michael Saunders is gone to the Phillies after a breakout year.

The Jays pitching looks solid, as they brought in two new bullpen arms in J.P. Howell and Joe Smith. The rotation will be one of the best in the American League, featuring 24-year-old stud Aaron Sanchez (definite 2017 Cy Young contender), Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano.

The Blue Jays are coming for another playoff spot.

 

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

MLB Power Rankings (30-21)

30. San Diego Padres

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 65-97

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

(USA Today Photo/Jake Roth)

The Padres big 2016 offseason acquisition? Jered Weaver! He was blowing his fastball by hitters at 83 mph last season. Oh, and his FIP? An astounding 5.62. The scariest part is he may actually be a mainstay in the Padres rotation. Jarred Cosart is probably the best option they’ve got, and that’s only because he was good two years ago. Hopefully for Padres fans, 2017 will be a year for prospects Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe to blossom, while Wil Myers provides a glimmer of excitement. This will be a forgettable season in San Diego.

29. Cincinnati Reds

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 70-92

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(Getty Images/Joe Robbins)

The Reds pitching staff had the third worst team ERA in 2016 and walked the most hitters in baseball. Alfredo Simon was dreadful in his return to the team, registering a 7.13 FIP in 58 ⅔ innings, and their ace was Dan Straily. To improve the pitching staff, the Reds front office made two (somewhat) notable moves, signing Drew Storen and Scott Feldman. After showing significant improvement with Seattle in the second half last season, Storen will likely strengthen the Reds bullpen. Scott Feldman will start on Opening Day. 

Billy Hamilton and new starting second baseman Jose Peraza will provide some excitement atop the lineup with their game changing speed, and Joey Votto will likely continue to drive in runs and get on base at an absurdly high clip. The offense will likely take a hit, though, after Jay Bruce’s midseason departure and Brandon Phillips’ trade to the Braves. Let’s see if Adam Duvall can build on his breakout year as the Reds continue to rebuild at an unusually slow pace.  

28. Philadelphia Phillies

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 71-91

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(AP Photo, Derik Hamilton)

The Phillies have a trio of young right handers (Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff) who all showed promise in 2016. Aaron Nola, the most exciting of the bunch, posted a 4.78 ERA, significantly underperforming his FIP of 3.08. Velasquez, Nola and Eickhoff will be led by Jeremy Hellickson, who unexpectedly chose to return on a qualifying offer.

Philadelphia has a few exciting bats as well. Maikel Franco (25 home runs), Odubel Herrera (.361 OBP) and Cesar Hernandez (.371 OBP) all had excellent years in 2016. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia’s top prospect, is nearing the big leagues, too. 2017 probably won’t be a breakout year for the Phillies, but they’re getting more competitive and should contend relatively soon.

27. Minnesota Twins

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 74-88

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(Star Tribune Photo, Richard Tsong-Taatarii)

The Twins’ rebuilding years are beginning to pay off. After finishing with the worst record in baseball last year, they’re poised to take steps forward in 2017. Miguel Sano and Max Kepler look like legit, power hitting prospects, Byron Buxton flashed all five tools in his second big league stint, and Jose Berrios looks ready to stick in the big league rotation. Minnesota will also add to their great young talent pool with the number one overall pick in the 2017 Draft. The Twins will be an exciting team to watch this year with their young power hitters. Plus, it’s always enjoyable watching undersized power hitting second basemen Brian Dozier launch balls into the upper deck.

26. Milwaukee Brewers

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 69-93

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(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Brewers don’t have anything special going on in 2017.

They’re struggling to trade their aging all-star Ryan Braun, who’s expendable at this point; the Brew Crew won’t be winning anytime soon. Their best player last year, Jonathan Villar turned down a contract extension in hopes of getting more money after 2017, and their franchise catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, is gone to Texas. They have one promising young pitcher in the 2017 rotation in Zach Davies, and 2016 surprise Junior Guerra, who’s already 32 years old, will start on opening day. Get ready for a meaningless year, Milwaukee.

25. Chicago White Sox

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 69-93

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(MLB Photo)

The White Sox are beginning to rebuild, and it’s happening quickly. This offseason, they traded away their best pitcher, Chris Sale, and their best outfielder, Adam Eaton, who have three and five years of team control, respectively. After trying to win the last couple of years, GM Rick Hahn is tearing the team down in hopes of competing again a few years down the road. In return for Sale and Eaton, the Sox got excellent prospects in Yoan Moncada (#1 on MLB Prospect List), Lucas Giolito (#11 on MLB Prospect List), Michael Kopech (#16 on MLB Prospect List) and Reynaldo Lopez (#46 on MLB Prospect List).

These moves are just the beginning, though, as Chicago still has several big trade chips in first baseman Jose Abreu, third baseman Todd Frazier, outfielder Melky Cabrera, closer David Robertson and starter Jose Quintana. The White Sox will likely deal more players throughout the year as they prepare for the future. 

24. Oakland Athletics

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 79-83

MLB: New York Yankees at Oakland Athletics

(USA Today Photo/Kyle Terada)

The A’s bullpen looks good, as usual, with names like Sean Doolittle, Santiago Casilla, Ryan Madson, John Axford, etc. The starting rotation will look to bounce back after 2016 saw ace Sonny Gray’s FIP go from 3.45 to 4.67. Sean Manaea did look promising in his first big league stint, though.

Oakland has a good, young third baseman in Ryon Healy, who posted an .861 OPS in 283 big league plate appearances last year. Marcus Semien developed a power stroke, and Khris Davis broke out with 42 home runs. Don’t sleep on Billy Beane.

23. Atlanta Braves

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 73-89

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(USA Today Photo/Daniel Shirley)

The Braves are in an unusual position. They’ve got a lot of young, inexperienced talent, yet they’ve spent a decent part of the offseason acquiring veterans like Brandon Phillips, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey for what seems like an attempt to be respectable. Rather than riding out a tough season with young players, the Braves look as though they could actually be okay. They’re a bit higher on my power rankings than most. I think their lineup isn’t half bad, and their veteran rotation may guide them to a decent record.

22. Arizona Diamondbacks

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 77-85

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(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The Diamondbacks are coming off a dismal year in which they won just 69 games. Offseason acquisition Shelby Miller’s FIP ballooned from 3.45 in 2015 to 4.87 in 2016, and free agent, $205 million pitcher Zack Greinke’s went from 2.76 to 4.12. If they can return to form, the Arizona rotation might actually be decent.

A.J. Pollock, arguably the best center fielder in the NL in 2015, is returning from injury after playing only 12 games in 2016. According to Baseball Reference, Pollock was a 7.4 win player in 2015. With a similar performance, the Diamondbacks should expect to win an additional seven games. They’ve also got some solid offensive pieces around Pollock, including Yasmany Tomas, Jake Lamb and obviously, Paul Goldschmidt. Lookout for a solid year from Arizona.

21. Tampa Bay Rays

Fangraphs projected 2017 record: 82-80

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers

(USA Today Photo/Leon Halip)

The Rays are projected to win 82 games, yet they’re number 21 on my power rankings, here’s why: After a 68 win season in 2016, it’s hard to imagine an above .500 finish after trading away two of their best players (Drew Smyly and Logan Forsythe). With that being said, there are definitely a few reasons the Rays may finish close to their projected record.  

The Rays were last in MLB in one-run ball games in 2016 at 13-27; that’s extraordinarily bad luck. If the Rays are league average in one-run ball games in 2017, they’ll win a handful more games. Despite losing Drew Smyly, the Rays rotation is still young and has three very promising arms. Chris Archer will likely bounce back after a disappointing 2016; he was fantastic in his World Baseball Classic start. Jake Odorizzi had another solid showing last year, and Blake Snell flew under the radar with a 3.39 FIP after being called up.

The lineup has some solid bats, too, with Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, who impressed with 30 home runs in 2016, and of course, Evan Longoria. They may be low on my list, but the Rays could be a surprise team in 2017.

 

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

David Ortiz: The Greatest Final Hitting Season Ever?

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Well, it’s official. Barring some sort of Brett Favre type comeback, David Ortiz has retired. After 20 seasons, Ortiz will be remembered not only for his 541 home runs and nearly 2500 hits, but for his flamboyant personality and his innate ability to deliver in the biggest moments.

While Ortiz’s final season didn’t go exactly as planned, as the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Indians, it will certainly be remembered for something else: one of the greatest final hitting seasons in the history of baseball. But, was it the greatest?

Table 1 displays the top five final seasons ranked by OPS since the beginning of the expansion era. Looking strictly at OPS, David Ortiz has the best mark by far. However, it would be facile to declare this the greatest final hitting season ever based purely on that. OPS is an excellent stat for measuring offensive performance, but it has its flaws. For example, OPS gives on base percentage and slugging percentage equal weight.

The general consensus is on base percentage is worth at least twice as much as slugging. In Moneyball by Michael Lewis, it’s revealed that Paul DePodesta theorized that at the high end of the spectrum, on base percentage is worth three times as much as slugging. Based on the fact that one point of on base is worth more than a point of slugging, I’ve calculated two separate stats in table 1 (OBP*2+SLG and OBP*3+SLG), which give greater weight to OBP.

 

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The only person who even comes close to touching Ortiz is Will Clark, whose 17 point OBP advantage gives him a boost under the alternate OPS calculations. However, even with the generous 3x weighting applied to his on base, Clark still falls short of Ortiz.

Another measurement we can use to compare offensive performance is oWAR (offensive Wins Above Replacement), which again puts Ortiz well ahead of the pack; he’s worth a full win more than Will Clark.

Now, although this article is about offense specifically, some might argue that while Ortiz presented considerable offensive value, his overall value was hindered because of his inability to play the field, whereas players like Will Clark and Kirby Puckett combined sound offense with the ability to play a position, or multiple in Puckett’s case. A sound argument on the surface, because these players would seemingly provide defensive value, Puckett, Clark and Belle actually negatively impacted their teams in the field. So, amongst the top five final seasons in OPS, it seems as though David Ortiz reigns supreme even if you factor in defense.

Congratulations, David, on the greatest final hitting season ever.


*oWAR =  Offensive Wins Above Replacement

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

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).

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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).