Better Outfield of the Future: Marlins or Pirates?

I know that I’m not alone in saying that one of my favorite parts about baseball is the projection of young players. In fact, I’d probably even say that I enjoy dreaming on what young players could be even more than I enjoy players for what they actually are. It’s one of the reasons I follow the Cubs and Twins (get well soon, Byron) as closely as I do the A’s and Dodgers. Obviously, it’s especially exciting when a group of young prospects on the same team all come up and meet expectations, as rare as that may be. To take it one step further, it’s just the best when all of that talent is concentrated in one positional group (pitchers, infielders, outfielders). So in an effort to combine my love of projection with what is currently happening on the field, I’m going to take a look at a couple of the most exciting young units in baseball.

Here are the top ten outfields as currently ranked by fWAR:

Screenshot 2014-08-14 at 9.08.00 PM

Of the top ten, only two teams are currently starting an outfield where all three players are 28 years old or younger. Now, it would be pretty funny if I said they were the Orioles and Blue Jays just to make you angry, but since you’re a person who ostensibly reads titles before you read articles, you know that these two teams are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins. Spoiler revealed.

Anyways, both young outfields are clearly extraordinarily talented. Each unit has an excellent case as the most promising outfield for the next five or ten years. That said, it’ll almost surely be a young outfield that exceeds them, because if baseball does nothing else, it destroys our expectations each and every season.

But focusing on the task at hand, the two outfields are very similar if you look at them in a certain arbitrary way. They each feature one superstar (Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton), a strikeout-prone “tools” guy (Starling Marte and Marcell Ozuna) and a skinny corner guy with all-star potential (Gregory Polanco and Christian Yelich). Now, those descriptions don’t really matter, but they’re interesting nonetheless. What does matter, however, is performance on the field.

The Pirates outfield has probably been the more hyped unit so far, and I think the majority of people would choose them to be better going forward as well. Their core three is currently the more productive, and they blow away the Marlins in production over the next four years, using the Oliver projection system.

image (5)image (6)If the projections turn out to be correct, the Pirates outfield is going to be, on average, 4.8 wins per season more valuable than the Marlins. But I have a couple of issues with these projections.

First, wow do they hate Marcell Ozuna. This is somewhat understandable considering Ozuna never was that highly regarded as a prospect, and some people thought that the Marlins were making a mistake by promoting him to the big leagues so quickly last year. But as he’s shown since his callup, Ozuna is actually pretty valuable. In only 70 games in 2013, he was worth 1.6 fWAR. In 2014, he’s been hitting for power and been worth nearly 2 wins with a month and a half left to go in the season. He’s not a perfect player (28.7 K%), but I think it’s fair to say that he’s not the borderline replacement level guy that he is projected to be right now.

My second issue is that I just can’t get comfortable projecting Gregory Polanco as a 5 fWAR player just yet. He’s obviously a top prospect holding his own in the majors, but five win players are really good. Only 19 position players were more valuable in 2013 than the 5.2 fWAR that Polanco is currently projected to reach by 2018. I certainly won’t be shocked if he reaches that level, but man, as fun as prospects are, sometimes they bust for no apparent reason. I’ll need to see a full productive season before I feel good about calling him a future MVP vote-getter.

Unfortunately for the Pirates case in this argument, the outfield fWAR top ten that I posted at the beginning of the article largely reflects the contributions of a player whom I have not mentioned thus far: Josh Harrison. At just 27 years old himself, Harrison has continued to be productive after what most assumed was just a hot couple of months. However, with Polanco now in the majors, it looks as though Harrison will be playing in the Pirates infield over the coming years, assuming all of the outfielders are able to retain their health. So it will likely be up to Polanco to replicate Harrison’s 2014 numbers (144 wRC+) going forward, a tall task even for someone as talented as he. Combine that with the possibility that Andrew McCutchen begins to decline upon hitting 30 in a couple years, and the Pirates outfield may not look quite as pretty as it does on paper at the moment (though it’ll still probably be really good).

Now, rather than continue to list reasons why you shouldn’t choose the Pirates, let’s talk about one final reason why you should choose the Marlins in our completely meaningless debate. Talent aside, the Marlins’ greatest advantage over the Pirates is their youth. Stanton is actually the oldest of Miami’s outfielders at the decrepit age of 24, while Ozuna and Yelich are 23 and 22, respectively. As a group, they certainly have the longest way to go to reach their ceiling, but they also have the most time to get there. And if you’re like me, you may be inclined to be on upside.

When choosing between these two outfields, there’s really no wrong option, as cliche as that may sound. They each have a combination of current production and future projection that we simply don’t see very often. Personally, despite all of the reasons I listed against them, I’m still inclined to go with Pittsburgh, but the choice is harder now than it was when I began this post. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll be able to sit back and enjoy both units, hopefully for the next decade or so.

 

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Xander Bogaerts’ Rookie Struggles

Coming into the year, the Boston Red Sox were riding high after the 2013 title in which they’d gone from worst to first. Just about everyone with a worthwhile opinion thought that’d they at least be in contention for the playoffs again this year, and it wasn’t uncommon to see people picking them to repeat in 2014.

One of the few questions people did haveabout the team was how would they integrate their two young players, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, in their first full seasons as starters. Of these two players, Bradley was the one that people seemed most concerned about. This made sense, since he was less regarded as a prospect than Bogaerts (number 2 overall on most prospect top 100 lists). But while Bradley has been a complete zero with the stick (57 wRC+), his defense has carried him to 1.5 fWAR so far this season. Bogaerts, on the other hand, has a wRC+ of 82, which combined with mediocre defense has left him hovering around replacement level.

Now, there’s no doubt that people are disappointed by Bogaerts’ season, and they have every right to be. Bogaerts was hyped as the rare prospect with superior skills and a significant amount of polish, and he showed why when he played like a veteran down the stretch in last year’s playoffs. Nobody was expecting him to be replicate Mike Trout’s rookie season, but a league average regular was probably a reasonable expectation. Obviously Bogaerts has underperformed relative to that standard.

Guys like Trout, Yasiel Puig and Manny Machado have essentially ruined the kind of expectations we now put on guys going through their first full seasons. Do you know how many batting-title-qualified rookies have had an OPS lower than Bogaerts’ current .650? 311! And of that 311, 283 of them were older than Bogaerts’ current 21 years of age. Bogaerts is struggling, but that’s what rookies do. There’s no greater jump in professional baseball than the one to the majors.

Bogaerts is actually hitting pretty well against fastballs and changeups. The crux of his issues this year have been against breaking balls. And there’s really no way to sugarcoat it. He’s been terrible against any and all spin, hitting just .143 and slugging .167. Unfortunately, opposing pitchers have noticed, and Bogaerts has only seen more breaking balls as the season has progressed.

plot_hco_bytime (1)

 

As the rate of breaking balls has gone up against Bogaerts, his numbers have gone down. The Red Sox shortstop was actually a well above average hitter heading into June (119 wRC+ in March/April, 149 wRC+ in May), but then everything fell apart. Bogaerts posted an almost unthinkable .426 OPS in June, a number less than half (.897) of what he posted the month before. He followed that up with a much improved, but still terrible July (.595 OPS) and continued to struggle in August.

Bogaerts’ struggles with breaking balls coincide with the part of his game that has perhaps regressed the most as his season has progressed: his plate discipline. After working 25 walks through the end of May, Bogaerts has been told to take his base just seven times since. A large part of that has been the decline of his ability to discriminate between a breaking ball thrown for a strike, and one thrown for a ball.

plot_hco_bytime

As you can see in the graph above, Bogaerts has stayed fairly steady against fastballs and changeups, but his ability to recognize breaking balls has completely melted away. As for why this has happened, that’s difficult to say. Maybe Bogaerts has always struggled against breaking pitches. But the most likely answer is that he’s a rookie struggling to adjust against pitchers capable of taking advantage of his weaknesses. Nevertheless, it’s at least been a prolonged slump, and one that Red Sox fans have to hope isn’t a glimpse into continual struggles for their youngest player.

Then, putting aside things that we can actually measure, there’s the possibility that Bogaerts is simply in his own dead right now. As a ballplayer, he’d probably tell you he’s trying to do too much. There’s certainly something to that side of the argument. It can’t be easy to fail so spectacularly after being hyped as the next face of one of the most prestigious franchises in the game.

There’s also an argument to be made that some responsibility for Bogaerts’ struggles can be set at the feet of his manager, John Ferrell. There have been rumors that Ferrell was the person in the organization pushing the hardest for the Red Sox to resign Drew, which they ultimately did in late May. Drew, who had never played any position but shortstop in his big league career at that time, would be forcing Bogaerts over to third base, the position he played down the stretch of the 2013 title run. Bogaerts expressed some disappointment at time as a result, and an argument can be made that the team’s decision to resign Drew shook his confidence. Before Drew joined the lineup on June 2nd, Bogaerts was batting .296/.389/.427. Since then he’s hit .169/.201/.279. You might say that those dates are arbitrary and coincidental, and you can make of them as you wish. I will say that confidence is a huge part of succeeding in this game, and it should not be overlooked.

Overall, Bogaerts probably won’t look like he belongs back in AA forever, though we may have to wait until 2015 to see the player we were all hoping for. We got that player in the first couple months of this season, but pitchers’ adjustments, along with Bogaerts lack of adjustment to those adjustments, have torpedoed what was initially a very promising rookie year. That said, young players with Bogaerts pedigree and polish often turn into solid players at the very least, and I’m still as excited as ever about his career going forward. He’ll figure it out.

Javy Baez is Here

Javier Baez got called up and will be in the Chicago Cubs’ lineup tomorrow against the Colorado Rockies. In Coors Field. Here’s some gifs courtesy of reddit user /u/Stonewater of Baez hitting bombs off of MLB pitchers.

 

Jesus Christ. The bat speed.

Analyzing Marcus Stroman

Quick, name the top candidates for AL Rookie of the Year. The first two you probably think of are this year’s biggest international imports: Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu. And deservedly so. Tanaka was a legitimate Cy Young candidate before encountering elbow problems last month, while Abreu has been arguably the best first baseman in the league so far this season. After them, you’d probably guess George Springer, who’s hit for a ton of power, but like Tanaka, is currently hurt. Then you’d get to guys like Xander Bogaerts, Yordano Ventura, Dellin Betances and Nick Castellanos. But the guy who isn’t being hyped up enough right now is Blue Jays righthander Marcus Stroman.

Before getting into his pitching, I’ll try to make the argument for why you should love Marcus Stroman the person. First is the reason why some people thought he would have to become strictly a reliever in the big leagues: his size. At 5’9″, Stroman is among the shortest pitchers in the majors. Stroman is not and never will be Pedro Martinez, but he’s in the Martinez mold as a little guy that touches the upper nineties on his fastball. And everyone loves a short guy that throws gas. Second is his habit of chomping on what looks like an entire package of Big League Chew every time he takes the mound.
Stroman-Gum
He looks like a grazing animal up there. It’s great. Oh yeah, and if you don’t like Marcus for some reason, you might want to keep that to yourself, because here’s a picture of him with his father, who is, of course, a police detective in New York:

stromanParents

Look at the size of that guy! I think I would admit to any crime he accused me of. Or I’d just curl into a ball the second he stepped in the room. Probably both. Also, since Marcus was suspended 50 games last year for a banned stimulant, I think certain guesses could be made as to where he received it.

In addition to tiring his jaw, Stroman has been wearing out opposing hitters over the past couple of months. Stroman began the 2014 season in Triple-A before making his debut on May 4th against the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, Stroman was initially asked to be a reliever for the first time in his career, and ran into some struggles. He allowed 9 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings and was promptly sent back down to Buffalo, this time to get reacquainted with starting as the Blue Jays realized that relief wasn’t his best role.

Upon being recalled on May 30th, Stroman has arguably been Toronto’s best pitcher, as he’s thrown 68 stellar innings with a 2.12 ERA and a 63/16 strikeout to walk ratio. To go with his great surface numbers is a 2.79 FIP as a starter, showing that Stroman has not just been a Jeff Locke-like example of short term luck.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Stroman has been his willingness to use all of his pitches at any given time. Check out how Stroman has been using his off-speed stuff more often since his first start of the season.

Stroman5-30

 

With the exception of his changeup, which has shown promise regardless, Stroman has increased the usage for all of his secondary pitches as the season has gone on. As previously mentioned, the best of these secondaries has been the breaking ball, which has usually been identified as a slider in the past, but PITCHf/x marks as both a slider and curveball in the chart above. As Stroman’s favorite weapon when ahead in the count, the breaking ball has accounted for over half (33 to be exact) of Stroman’s strikeouts this year. But if the numbers don’t convince you of what a beast this pitch is, you can always ask Eric Hosmer.

The concern about Stroman coming up was that because of his size he would fail to hold up over the long haul. That question, admittedly, is still a valid one. Stroman has pitched a little over 100 innings between Triple-A and Toronto this season, and the 111 2/3 he posted last season in the minors is a career high for the 2012 first-rounder. But the Blue Jays, who let the trade deadline pass on Thursday without making any moving to upgrade their rotation (looking at you, J.A. Happ), will be counting on him to stay strong as they fight for a playoff spot down the stretch. Thus far, Stroman has gotten better with experience, as seen below:

Screenshot 2014-08-02 at 12.53.12 PM

I certainly wouldn’t expect him to keep improving each month since he set the bar so high in July, but remaining an above average pitcher in August and September could mean the difference between another disappointing season and Blue Jays making the playoffs for the first time since Joe Carter was rounding the bases against the Phillies. A few more starts like this one, and people around baseball might start to give Marcus Stroman the kind of attention he deserves.

 

Astros Fail to Sign Brady Aiken

Well, it’s over. As of 5 p.m. ET today, the signing deadline for players from last month’s draft had passed, and for the first time since Tim Belcher in 1983, the first overall pick, Brady Aiken, had failed to sign. The whole saga has been more than adequately covered elsewhere, so I won’t bother rehashing it. But the instinct of a lot of people immediately following the announcement that Aiken hadn’t signed was to rake the Astros through the proverbial coals. This may surprise a lot of people, but that reaction might be an overreaction. Or it might not. None of us have any idea, really.

The Astros obviously had issues with Aiken’s medical results. There’s a rumor that he has an unusually small UCL, which despite not being currently damaged, could prove weak in the future given the amount of stress put on that ligament. When it’s put like that, it sounds like pretty rational thinking. Considering the incredible wave of pitching injuries that have affected just about every team recently, teams have a right to be concerned about any flaw. But at the same time, there is another argument that says that a small UCL (or whatever is wrong with Aiken) isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the Astros are making it out to be, and they are squeezing Aiken out of millions without much reason. That also sounds like a reasonable argument. I have no idea who to believe either.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two arguments. I find it hard to believe that the Astros would just be trying to screw Aiken out of so much money without cause, especially after the two sides verbally agreed to $6.5 million a couple days after the draft. But I’m also not convinced that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Aiken’s elbow, as his side claims. Either way, it seems unlikely that this failure to sign ends up well for both sides.

Looking at it from the Astros’ perspective, they just missed on a guy that general manager Jeff Luhnow called the most advanced prep pitcher he’d ever seen. While that might seem like hyperbole, and probably is, it’s not like Aiken was picked first because of signability; MLB’s tougher slotting system has made that a less common route than it was in the past. Though Carlos Rodon came into the year as the consensus number one pick, Aiken surpassed him this spring after his stuff jumped up a level and Rodon’s performance spilled from his sophomore year at NC State. Aiken is extremely talented, and now he won’t be an Astro because of a condition that might be an injury, but not one that actually is an injury.

That said, it’s not as if the Astros totally lose out because of this. As compensation for failing to sign Aiken, Houston will get the second selection in next year’s draft, which essentially guarantees them of another elite talent. Plus they’ll have their own normal first rounder, which has an excellent shot of landing in the top five (again). Who knows, maybe they’ll get a better player than Brady Aiken at number two next year. Maybe they’ll get Daz Cameron, whom I had an unabashed man crush on. But as of today, the Astros look like they’ve missed out on a great prospect for a perhaps illegitimate reason.

As compelling as looking at this from the Astros’ point of view is, I find it even more compelling from Brady Aiken’s angle. First of all, it takes some balls to turn down the kind of money Houston offered, even the money on the table after the possible injury was found by team doctors. The minimum Houston had to extend to Aiken to receive its compensation pick for not signing him still was north of $3 million. Let’s say this condition turns into an injury. Aiken probably isn’t going to get a $3 million offer again if he needs Tommy John or already has TJ under his resume. Nationals’ prospect Lucas Giolito, every bit the prospect Aiken is, couldn’t get $3 million after it was discovered that he needed elbow surgery shortly after he was drafted.

But money aside, who knows what Aiken will do from here. He has a few options. First is stick with his commitment and attend UCLA. But there might be complications with that since Aiken obviously has had an agent throughout this whole process and the NCAA hates kids having help with the biggest financial decision of their life. So maybe he’ll become a Bruin, but it’s unlikely that he is able to pitch without at least an investigation. Worst case scenario if he chooses that route is that he is declared ineligible and has to reenter next year’s draft. There’s a good chance he wouldn’t go in the top five in that scenario since he’ll have just gone a year without pitching competitively, and it’s not like teams will magically forget about whatever it actually was that scared the Astros off.

Aiken’s second option is to go to junior college for a year and reenter the 2015 draft. This is probably Aiken’s safest play, if perhaps the least desirable on a personal level. He’d miss out on spending time on UCLA’s campus, but if he’s focused on getting into pro ball with as little strain on his arm as possible, spending one year at JUCO proving that he’s healthy would keep his stock pretty static. And yet, should he choose this option, whatever team drafts him next year may find the same thing the Astros found last month, and would probably try to draw a hard line in negotiations. If next spring we’re talking about Brady Aiken, junior college pitcher, then if nothing else, we’ll have the most compelling JUCO player since Bryce Harper.

Aiken’s final option, and the one that comes with by far the most questions is the possibility of him being made a free agent by MLB. While an unsigned player normally would never be allowed to just become a free agent, MLB set somewhat of a precedent for a player in Aiken’s predicament when sixth overall pick Barret Loux was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. Like Aiken, Loux had agreed to a handshake deal with the team that drafted him, only to have the team discover that something was wrong with his pitching arm in a post-draft physical. Loux’s case was more extreme than Aiken’s, however. It was found that he a torn labrum and elbow damaged, which made the Diamondback’s so concerned that they didn’t even offered Loux the minimum amount necessary to take advantage of the compensation rules that will allow the Astros to have the second pick next year should Loux choose (for no reason, considering his injury) not to sign. But because of this unusual situation, instead of making Loux reenter the draft in 2011, MLB elected to make him a free agent, and he ended up signing with the Texas Rangers for a little over $300,000.

So while the Loux and Aiken situations aren’t identical, one can see why Aiken and his agent would consider appealing for the same treatment. Should he hit the open market, it would be interesting to see not only how much money Aiken would sign for, but whether what team lands him would find the same issue as the Astros. Again, this is probably the least unlikely path that Brady Aiken will take, but it would be a surprise if he did not at least consider it as a possibility.

It’s hard to see this working out for both sides. The Astros might have just lost out on a future ace. Brady Aiken might have just lost the opportunity to sign for more money than he’ll be offered next time he negotiates a contact. Maybe he’ll follow Gerrit Cole and get more money as a college junior than he was offered as a first rounder out of high school, but that seems highly unlikely given the difference in the pair’s original draft slots (Cole was drafted 28th in 2008 before going 1st in 2011). Plus, if the Astros are right about Aiken having a real elbow problem, then he could get injured and never see a fraction of the money he was offered. Especially on Aiken’s end, there seems to be a lot of risk without much marginal reward. Maybe next year we’ll be talking about Aiken going number one for the second year in a row, with a clean physical from the team that drafts him, and signing for $7 million, but I doubt it.

Overall, the failure to sign Aiken is probably the most compelling draft story in a long time. It brings up questions not just about the Houston Astros and Brady Aiken, but about the draft as a whole. For example, this whole thing could have possibly been avoided if MLB had a pre-draft medical combine to combat surprise post-draft “injuries” like this one, but whether that is a reasonable expectation is a topic for another discussion. Today it’s about Brady Aiken, and where he, and the Houston Astros, go from here.

Taking a Look at the Cubs Future Talent

Coming into the season, the Chicago Cubs already had an embarrassing amount of positional talent, and even if they’d added no one else, they would probably be the easy choice for the best group of non-pitchers in any system. And yet, the rich have gotten richer, since the Cubs drafted C/1B/OF Kyle Schwarber fourth overall last month, and traded for SS Addison Russell on the 4th of July in the Jeff Samardzija deal. But to say that they have the best collection of talent is one thing, while actually showing what that talent can produce is another.

So with that in mind, I’m going to take a stab at putting together a compilation of Cubs’ top prospects future statistical lines using a couple different sources. First is the Baseball Prospectus Futures Guide, which is the only publication of its kind that publishes tool grades across the board (Baseball America only writes the Overall Future Profile for each player, with the exception of the top prospect in each system) using the 20 to 80 scouting scale (if you are unfamiliar with the scale read thesetwoarticles by Kevin Goldstein). Second is an article from FanGraphs (found here) which attempt to quantify players’ WAR using that same 20-80 scale.

Using those sources, I’ll take a look at what each of the Cubs’ top prospects stat lines would look like if each player actually reached the ceiling of each of their tools as judged by the Baseball Prospectus staff.

Here’s how the Cubs top seven guys stack up in terms of tools:

And here they are with their skills translated into marginal (from the MLB average of 2.0 for a starter) WAR:

In the graph above, each bar is the amount of WAR away from the league average of 2.0. Any tools not shown are 50 grades, and therefore have no difference from the league average.

Finally, here is the total WAR of each Cubs prospect:

A few caveats before I discuss each player individually:

  • Each tool is displayed as judged by Baseball Prospectus before the season began. There will definitely be tool grades that you disagree with. I disagree with them too; such is the benefit of hindsight. We’ll get to the issues I have in the player profiles. Be patient.
  • I will be using the second table underneath the translation of power into WAR in the FanGraphs post I am using as source material. I chose that table with the intention of keeping these numbers as realistic as possible.
  • The margins of WAR for each tool are generally pretty conservative. A player can still be extremely valuable while grading out as below average in one area. This includes the hit or power tool. Go check out Josh Donaldson’s 2014 stats if you don’t believe me.
  • I chose to use the BP glove tool over the arm tool when translating the two tools into WAR, since the general consensus is that the glove tool is more important in determining a player’s defensive value.
  • Additionally, defensive WAR does not slide based on the player’s position. Obviously a 50 glove shortstop is more valuable than the equivalent first baseman, but we have no way to adjust for that here.
  • Remember that 2 WAR is generally considered the benchmark for a league average regular. 4-5 WAR is all-star territory, and anyone above 6 WAR is probably going to be an MVP candidate.

Now let’s get to the players:

Javier Baez, 2B/3B/SS/OF

Tools: 65 hit, 80 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 2.0 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 4.6 total WAR

Despite experiencing the toughest 2014 season of any prospect on this list, Baez’s value of 4.6 WAR seems like a reasonable ceiling for him. If his prime years leave him somewhere between four and five WAR, he’ll be a perennial all-star candidate.

That said, Baez’s hit tool grade of 65 stands out as an overgrade at this point in time. He obviously has a great deal of developing still to, but guys with his approach generally don’t hit for a high average without a Vladimir Guerrero level of hand-eye coordination. Baez can still reach the 5 WAR level considering his power potential, but it’s really hard to see him ever being more than a 55 level hitter.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 75 power, 45 run, 50 glove, 65 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.7 power – 0.2 run + 0 defense = 2.0 total WAR

This is the stat line that stands out the most as being too low. Bryant has absolutely torn up AA and AAA this year to the tune of a .346/.444/.701 slash line. Like Baez, there’s a good amount of swing and miss in his game, but it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if that grade ended up being at least half a grade short at the big league level. Bryant may also have more power utility than a guy like Baez, considering his advanced approach, though neither player will lack for much in the department regardless.

He may end up in right field, but that shouldn’t alter his projection too drastically. Bryant has a plus arm, but he’ll be in the lineup to hit and hit for power. 2 WAR is probably the low end projection for last year’s no.2 overall pick.

Albert Almora, OF

Tools: 65 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 65 glove, 55 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 0.7 power + 0 run + 1.7 defense = 4.9 total WAR

While Bryant’s projection stands out as being too low, Almora looks the most overvalued in terms of WAR. Almora has suffered through a rough first half, although he has picked it up of late, including a cycle last night. But even considering the recent hot streak, the plus projections on both the hit and power seem especially optimistic. Then again, Almora is the youngest guy on this list, so he has more time than anyone to prove me wrong.

However, dismissing Almora as overrated is probably not fair to him, nor is it the right way to analyze an exercise like this. I’ll admit, and I’m not alone in this, that I tend to overvalue great hitting prospects in comparison to great defensive prospects. Part of that is rational: hitting is generally more valuable than defending. But another part of that is my brain saying ooh dingers. Almora may be a perfect example of the type of prospect that gets underrated while going through a rough stretch. A plus to plus-plus center fielder, like Almora, is extremely valuable, and unlike hitting, defense doesn’t slump.

Jorge Soler, OF

Tools: 55 hit, 70 power, 50 run, 50 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.4 power + 0 run + 0 defense = 1.9 total WAR

A borderline regular seems like a reasonable projection for a guy like Soler. At the plate, he has a very similar profile to Javy Baez: crazy raw power, but a questionable approach. But scarily enough, he’s actually probably less polished than Baez, and he is likely relegated to a corner while Baez has the potential to play a premium defensive position. But again, the defensive WAR in the table above does not adjust for position, so the difference isn’t reflected in Soler’s WAR calculation.

Additionally, Soler has missed the majority of the 2014 season with an injury, though he’s been tearing the cover off the ball since he got back. But combine the injury with the fact that he can’t play center and has faced character concerns in the past, and Soler may end up as the odd man out in a lineup that looks as crowded as the future Cubs’.

Arismendy Alcantara, 2B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 55 power, 65 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 0.4 power + 0.5 run + 1.1 defense = 2.5 total WAR

The lone big leaguer on this list, Alcantara was enjoying a breakout season with a .307/.353/.537 at AAA before being called up and getting four hits in his second game with the Cubs. An above average regular, which is what 2.5 WAR would make him, is exactly the kind of player the Cubs are expecting at this point. Alcantara can do a little bit of everything, and even if he’s never elite at any one thing, his well roundedness and versatility should be extremely valuable for Chicago. Since he’s already in the majors, he requires the least amount of projection. Things will only get easier for him as other guys from this list join him at the highest level.

Addison Russell, SS

Tools: 60 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line(Marginal WAR):  1.0 hit + .7 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 2.8 total WAR

Regardless of what the Cubs choose to do with Starlin Castro, Russell is the guy that most likely will be filling the six hole for Chicago over the next decade. Russell is famous for perhaps the best pair of hands (both offensively and defensively) in the minor leagues, and that trait has elevated him to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Around 3 WAR seems like the floor for a guy as highly regarded as Russell, though the Cubs should be thrilled even if that’s all that he’s able to give them on a yearly basis. He’s not a freak show in the mold of Baez, but his floor is much higher, and none other than Billy Beane compared him to Barry Larkin after trading him away for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Kyle Schwarber, C/1B/OF

Tools: 60 hit, 65 power, 45 run, 40 glove, 45 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.0 hit + 1.1 power – 0.2 run – 0.1 defense = 1.8 total WAR

Like Bryant, Schwarber’s line is one that stands out as lower than I would have thought. While 1.8 WAR isn’t terrible, it’s certainly lower than the Cubs are expecting for the player who currently has more homeruns than the rest of the (brand new) 2014 draft class. With that said, this could again be some hitter bias creeping into my thinking. Despite being having plus hit and power tools, Schwarber may just be below average at everything else. The Cubs are currently splitting his time between catcher and left field, though most scouts believe that he’ll have to abandon the shin guards at some point. However, if Schwarber is able to stick behind the plate, this projection should shoot up if his bat meets projections. Regardless, I think Schwarber’s bat will play anywhere, and I’d expect more out of him than 1.8 WAR.

 

Future for Present: Samardzija to the A’s

In what is almost certain to be the biggest trade this season, and probably the biggest since the Red Sox – Dodgers trade in 2012, the Oakland Athletics went all-in on the 2014 season by trading top seven prospect Addison Russell, 2013 first-rounder Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Even though the A’s could have already been considered the favorites to win the title, this trade puts them firmly in the driver’s seat for October.

Despite ranking second behind the Nationals in team ERA, Oakland’s pitching staff was a middle of the pack 16th for xFIP, according to FanGraphs, meaning they were a pretty good candidate to regress over the second half of the season. Behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (though his injury history isn’t exactly reassuring), guys like Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz don’t have a history of sustained performance. So by grabbing two pitchers from the rebuilding Cubs, the A’s shored up the one area of their team that could have proved vulnerable down the stretch.

People may be surprised that general manager Billy Beane would be willing to sell the farm for guys that probably won’t be around long-term, it will be difficult to criticize him if Oakland ends the season with a championship. Oakland’s offense is currently a borderline-historic juggernaut, outscoring opponents by 1.5 runs per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The second place Angels come into today with a +0.8 RPG differential. Over a full season that’s about an 11 win advantage over just the Angels, let alone the rest of the league.

It shouldn’t be undersold that it is the Angels, rather than another team, right behind the Athletics. Oakland’s division rival can make a case as the second best team in the American League, and it’s difficult to underestimate any team that has the world’s best player. By adding Samardzija and Hammel, Oakland not only becomes one of the deepest staffs in the league overnight, but it takes two prime trade candidates away from their competitors.

Despite being considered the best team in the league before this trade, the A’s are just 3.5 games ahead of the Angels. If Samardzija and Hammel can pitch at about a combined three or four win pace over the remainder of the season (a reasonable expectation), Oakland should be able to win the AL West pretty comfortably. But where this trade will make a big difference for Oakland is in the post-season. Do you think A’s fans might be a little more comfortable with Samardzija or Hammel starting a playoff game instead of the aforementioned Chavez, Milone or Pomeranz? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, while Oakland looks set up for a title run, Chicago looks like they may be the front runners for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, not that they mind. By adding Russell, I think the Cubs have the most impressive group of position players at the minor league level that I’ve ever seen. Russell is a no-shit shortstop, and with him, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara, the Cubs could have an infield with three guys capable of playing the six-hole at the major league level, should the Cubs choose to use that alignment.

Russell ranked third, seventh, 11th, and 14th on the top prospect lists for ESPN, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America, respectively.  The highest praise for him is about his hands, both in the box and in the field. He’s projected as a possible 70 hitter with above average power and a plus glove. If he reaches that ceiling he’ll be the starting shortstop for the National League most July’s. It’s truly rare to see a prospect of his quality moved in a trade, and we haven’t seen one move since the Wil Myers – James Shields trade in 2012. But unlike that trade, it seems difficult to criticize either side in this deal.

While Russell is the real prize in the Cubs’ haul, McKinney and Straily are more than just throw-ins. McKinney was a first rounder last June, and while he’s struggled a bit while an aggressive promotion to High-A this season, he projects as an average regular down the line. The only problem is that average might not be good enough to get in the Cubs’ future lineups, but I’ll get to that in another post. Straily exploded onto the scene two years ago, when he struck out 222 hitters between AA, AAA, and the majors. But he’s struggled ever since, and has bounced between AAA and Oakland the past two seasons. He doesn’t have elite stuff, but Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has done a good job of helping pitchers improve, as seen through Hammel and Jake Arrieta. Straily will have plenty of opportunities to make adjustments without consequence at the big league level, and the Cubs will surely hope that he can get back to the performance level he showed two years ago.

Like just about any trade, it would be dumb to declare a winner before any player involved has played a game with their new club, but I will say that I love this trade for both sides, which I something I can’t really ever remember thinking. While this deal might have swung the title in favor of Oakland this season, it may end up contributing to the end of a certain drought on the south side of Chicago a few years from now. We’ll see.