Baseball’s been very exciting this season. We’re seeing potentially the best team of all time, and a few others at the top who are straight dominant. We might have a sixty home run man. 80% of the AL still has a realistic shot of making the playoffs. But, what you might not be paying attention to what’s been happening at the bottom.
To preface this, the teams I’m going to write about in this piece are the White Sox, Mets, and Phillies. You might be wondering, “why not the Tigers, A’s, Padres, or Toronto”? And I can answer those very quickly. For the Tigers, the emergence of Matt Manning and Beau Burrows has been enormous for a recently barren farm system. They were also able to add Jeimer Candelario, and Isaac Paredes at the deadline, and on a lesser note, Dawel Lugo. Alex Faedo was a somewhat strange pick for them in the draft and remains a project, however an undeniably talented one.
For the A’s, new ownership is taking over and will hopefully be willing to let Billy Beane and Co. have a little more wiggle room financially. Matt Chapman looks like the real deal, and they still have a slew of top prospects, and recently acquired ones, giving them Franklin Barreto, A.J. Puk, Dustin Fowler, Jorge Mateo, and Jesus Luzardo, not to mention the once highly touted James Kaprielian. They still have a long way to go, but it’s no reason to panic yet.
The Padres have actually been pretty good since the end of May, partially due to the solid play from Manuel Margot, Jose Pirela, Cory Spangenberg, and Yangervis Solarte. Brad Hand has also been a big find for them, and they just took the best player in this year’s draft in Mackenzie Gore. Fernando Tatis Jr. looks like a legitimate star, and Luis Urias is one of the best pure hitters in the minors. Not only did they find value at the major league level, but they still have incredibly talented arms in Morejon, Quantrill, and Espinoza. I don’t ever really consider prospects “safe”, but I think most of these guys are easily above-average major league talents.
Lastly, Toronto. Justin Smoak has broken out in a big way this year and is on a paltry contract. Josh Donaldson still looks like, well, Josh Donaldson and will command a big return if traded. However, the real reason I’m not concerned is that they probably have the best prospect in the minor leagues in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and another fantastic prospect in Bo Bichette. Even Anthony Alford has performed well enough in the minors to be a substantial prospect. While the system does drop off significantly after the top, there’s enough talent there that the Blue Jays won’t be non-competitive for long, especially if they decide to deal Stroman, Osuna, or Donaldson (or all three).
Now we’re getting into the meat of the piece. In the paragraph above, I see all those teams with relatively bright futures. Yes, even the Tigers with their payroll. I think they’ll be okay, despite being very underwater with some contracts for awhile. The important thing is they’ve already made a substantial change of course and are doing it well, otherwise they’d be one of the groups I’m writing about. But, with that, comes the teams that have had either horrid luck, or botched their rebuild. The White Sox are up first.
This was the team I hesitated to leave off. As you may have noticed, the Braves were omitted from both groups previously mentioned. This actually has to do with some of the White Sox’ top level guys, specifically Yoan Moncada. To be clear, Moncada was not my #1 prospect coming into the year, despite that seeming to be the consensus. I even had Cody Bellinger above him. Moncada put up a 131 wRC+ in AAA this year before being called up to the majors. Which is good, but it’s not world-beating by any means. He was still having pretty significant contact issues against lefties in the minors, and still struck out at a 28.3% clip overall. After a blazing hot start to AAA, he was somewhat pedestrian there. A lot of people have likened Moncada’s development to the Twins’ Byron Buxton. Both are generational talents, but whether or not they tap into that is what makes them so tantalizing. In his third year in the majors, Buxton may be starting to figure it out. But even he put up a 164 wRC+ in AAA last year. 131 wRC+ does not strike fear in me, especially as a twenty-two year old, and especially as the #1 prospect in baseball. He’s put up an 88 wRC+ so far, which is fine, but it’s mainly buoyed by a 15.6% BB%. Some might think that’s an elite number, and it is, but only if you’re actually hitting. He’s likely using walks as a crutch to get on base right now because, frankly, he looks overmatched. I’m definitely not out on Moncada, but I am concerned and always have been. Michael Kopech looks great and I love him. I think Eloy Jimenez will be a monster. But after that, the system doesn’t really do much for me. Zack Burdi went down with TJ earlier this season. Blake Rutherford has been just ok, and people are really starting to take notice. Jake Burger and Zach Collins may not be good enough to play in the field. Luis Robert has been great in rookie ball, but…he should be. We really won’t know what he is until he reaches the higher levels. But here’s the thing. The White Sox system is clearly loaded with talent. Maybe most aren’t sure things, and almost all of them have substantial warts, but I have real doubt in their ability to develop position players. The last position player I can think of that they developed was Joe Crede who basically fell off the planet after his career year in 2006. And it’s not like the White Sox have been devoid of talented prospects. Even the players they traded for or signed during free agency. It was never pitching that was the problem with these teams; it was hitting. If they can’t sustain performance at the highest level, I have no idea how they’re going to do it with players who are struggling to do it in the minors. So far with Moncada, we’re seeing just that.
After what seemed like a very hopeful year last year with the encouraging developments of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Tommy Joseph, and Cesar Hernandez, Phillies fans felt a sense of optimism after the dark ages of the fallout from the Ruben Amaro Jr. era. They took Mickey Moniak in the draft first overall and it looked like a great decision at the time. They had J.P. Crawford who would have likely been called up this year after an uncharacteristically bad performance at AAA, and had the most physically gifted catching prospect I’ve ever seen.
This has been a dark year for the Phillies. Aaron Nola still has questions about his health, despite the talent being there. Jerad Eickhoff has been effective since coming back, but missed the majority of the season with an injury after starting off very poorly. Vince Velasquez is probably never going to be healthy or effective ever again. Maikel Franco has been horrendous, putting up a 71 wRC+ and walking only 6.7% of the time. He has a .668 OPS on the year. Herrera has been his normal, solid self putting up 2.7 WAR after a brutal start to the year, and it looks like Cesar Hernandez has kept most of his gains from last year. Tommy Joseph, like Franco, probably doesn’t have much time left to show he’s a major leaguer. All in all, it’s been a dark year on the MLB side (at least pre-Hoskins era). On the farm, things have been decidedly worse. Jorge Alfaro put up a 79 wRC+ at the highest level of the minors, reaffirming the many concerns that have followed him for years. He’s 24 and his best season was four years ago in A-ball, so his time to show he can be a productive big leaguer is whittling down. Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick from last year’s draft, has an 80 wRC+ in A-ball and is not slipping, but falling off of some lists. J.P. Crawford has turned it around in AAA, finally, but still owns a fairly pedestrian 111 wRC+. A lot of this rebuild was hinging on him turning into a 3-5 WAR player/star, but at this point if the Phillies got a league average shortstop from him, they’d be happy. And that is a valuable asset still, but a major blow to an organization who was counting on him to be a cornerstone. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Rhys Hoskins actually might be the next great slugger to emerge from the NL. All he’s done is hit since 2015, and I don’t need to talk about how he’s done in the majors. All in all, this has been a tough year. They’ve done well enough in the international markets the last few years to acquire some high ceiling arms, but right now it just can’t make up for the deterioration of the system at the top. They have the money to spend in free agency, yes, but you can’t buy wins like you used to anymore. And even if they wanted to spend money, they really couldn’t because they have no idea when their window of contention is. There’s been good news at the major league level with Hoskins and Nola continuing to develop, but this year has been a major step back.
I was literally writing an article on the Mets, got halfway through and stopped because I had to go to work. The article was about how the Mets are still in a great position to contend as they have a lot of high level talent, and a lot of young talent. And then while I was at work, Michael Conforto dislocated his shoulder. And the next day Yoenis Cespedes got injured from a massage that was, likely, to avoid future injuries. Noah Syndergaard has been injured all year with a head contusion since apparently he thought he was smarter than doctors. Even with his most recent injury, his elbow still remains a major concern for the future. Jeurys Familia has been injured all year. Thomas Szapucki had season-ending TJ surgery. Yoenis Cespedes hasn’t been healthy all year. Travis d’Arnaud has been both injured and bad this year. Juan Lagares has also been injured most of the year. I have a better chance of becoming President of the United States than Steven Matz has of being healthy and effective at the same time. Robert Gsellman, an early Rookie of the Year pick, has been awful. Matt Harvey is probably doing something somewhere, who knows anymore. Zack Wheeler is just the personification of a rehab stint. They acquired an armada of minor league relievers at the deadline for pretty much worthless assets in an unfortunate buyer’s market. What else is there to say? It’s nice to see Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario making their major league debuts, but Smith has been bad and only put up a 134 wRC+ in a very hitter friendly AAA league. Amed Rosario shares some of these same concerns, putting up a blistering 116 wRC+ in that same league. He has an 87 wRC+ in the majors right now, and rest-of-season projections seem to be even lower on him. He may not be Francisco Lindor 2.0 like we all thought, but might be closer to Orlando Arcia than anything. This is probably the most difficult year out of all the teams, but I’m not quite done with this nightmare year yet. Let’s talk about Michael Conforto who has been unsurprisingly awesome this year. People dislocate their shoulders, it happens, but they don’t always tear their posterior capsule as well. Because this happened in his non-dominant arm, this injury has a very high risk of occurring again, not to mention any shoulder surgery for baseball players is a huge red flag. He might not hit for as much power again, or even hit for average as well as he did. This can be a career-altering injury, and it’s much more serious than people think. But there may be a silver-lining to all this. With all these injuries paves the way for God’s #1 prospect, Tim Tebow. Jacob deGrom has been really good. Small miracles.
Honorable Mentions: Reds and Giants
I originally had these two in the “these teams might be screwed” category, but the more I thought about it, they aren’t devoid of hope like the Mets, despite the fact that they may be renewed with faith soon. Starting with the Reds, they are quite the team on the position player side. They’re sixth in offensive WAR, and are third in defensive WAR, which is really, really impressive. But it’s pitching where they rank dead last, and I mean dead last, they’re not even particularly close. If not for Raisel Iglesias and Luis Castillo, I’m not sure where they’d stand. Robert Stephenson has always shown flashes and hopefully stays healthy enough next year to see him over the course of a full year. They have one of the top pitching prospects in the game in Hunter Greene, as well as another well-regarded prospect in Tyler Mahle, so it’s not difficult to squint and see the Reds as competitive soon. They still have top prospect Nick Senzel in the minors who is murdering AA and will probably be in the majors fairly early on next season. Taylor Trammell is tantalizing. The only big issue I found with the Reds, besides the obvious dire need for pitching, is their window of competition is very murky. With a top-five team on the field, they could be one of the league’s most dangerous teams if they had just league average pitching. Their highest level talent seems to be about two or three years away, at which point many of the players from this year’s team will either not be on the team anymore, or seriously declining. There’s a lot to like here, and if they add a starter or two over the offseason and a couple relievers you could be looking at an easy Wild Card sleeper going into next year.
Speaking of Wild Card sleepers, well, maybe not. But the Giants. They have a pretty brutal farm system, but they always seem to pull players out of nowhere that are just good. They’re great at developing players, and even with this ugly, ugly season, I still believe they’re well above-average in that regard. Basically what you’re seeing this year is a couple key players having down years, specifically Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford who I still have a lot of faith in. Madison Bumgarner has been injured but is an easy lock for 4+ WAR, and Johnny Cueto put up three straight seasons of 4+ WAR before this year, including 5.5 WAR last year, so I’m not ready to believe he’s done. I figured between Bumgarner, Belt, Crawford, and Cueto there’s been a loss of about 9 WAR (this is somewhat conservative). 61 wins is still bad, but it’s a whole tier up from 52 wins. Posey still looks very good, but he’s not getting younger despite his baby face. The bullpen is really, really bad but they still have substantial position players and a pretty dangerous 1-2-3 punch in their rotation if all are healthy. What has really bitten them this year has been the subpar performance of their role players like Joe Panik, Hunter Pence, and Denard Span. This is an aging core, but still not a bad core, and if the Giants add some younger, more effective (yes, obviously) role players in the offseason, I do think they compete. I don’t think there’s a scenario in which they contend for the West or put up a meaningful lead in a Wild Card race, but I think there’s too much talent here to give up based on this lost season. And due to the position they’re in, their assets are much more valuable to them than other teams. They’re not underwater. They can definitely continue to add, but with a weak farm system and another season like this, they might find themselves in a different position in this article in a year.
It’s not a particularly long piece, or stat-heavy piece, but it has been an unusually dark year for some of these teams and I had to point it out. Whether you agree with how I’ve grouped these teams or not, there seems to be three clear tiers growing in baseball; the dominant tier, the mediocre tier, and the rebuilding/tanking tier. This last tier has had a rough year, on almost all accounts. You can go team by team and see everything that went wrong. Even in a sport where the best hitters are successful 30% of the time, this year has made it feel like a whole lot less.