A few weeks ago I was in Miami, and then Atlanta, following the Brewers so I could watch Jeremy Jeffress throw. Miami was uneventful—he did not throw in the entire series—but Atlanta was a fun trip. JJ hit 98 once, had a couplegood outings and I was glad to have spent time with him. This has been such a rewarding season, and I still think the best is yet to come for JJ.
Zach Eflin and Jaimeson Taillon's stories began this month, and we all fill in the plots.
On Tuesday, June 14th, Phillies starter Zach Eflin made history. Well, history of a sort. Against the Toronto Blue Jays—an offense that, you may have heard, is pretty good—Eflin pitched 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs. He did strike out three, but also walked two, leading to a pretty rough first night. Here are some sparknotes to help historically contextualize Eflin’s very first start as a major leaguer:
The uncomfortable feeling of hoping your favorite team will save money signing Latin teenagers.
We’re at the point in the season, as you may have heard a few times now, where we can begin to judge who is and who is not a contender for the playoffs. Some teams are in a no-doubt playoff push even in these early June days, and teams like the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals are looking ahead to the trade deadline to see who they can pick up to bolster their runs. Then there are teams like the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, who find themselves in a dog fight, and who can look forward to several months of local columns debating the plusses and minuses of “selling the youngsters” and “adding experience.” But what about the already-also-rans like the Atlanta Braves or the Minnesota Twins? What can they look to in the doldrums of uncompetitive June? Well, July 2nd, of course.
July 2nd marks the date that amateur free agents from outside the United States can officially enter into deals with major-league clubs. It is basically a moment when, somehow leaping the bounds of even our most prestigious wishful prospect thinking, teams sign 16-year-old kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and any number of other (mainly Latin American) countries while the teams’ fans wonder if these kids will be able to help in 2018. It’s an exciting day, marking the start of a new crop of hope in the minor leagues, a kind of second draft to pump excitement into even the most moribund fanbase. It’s fun, basically.
The reality of the day, however, outside of its hopeful pomp, is a bit more complex. Many of the free agents that will “sign” on July 2nd have been under handshake deals for far longer than that. Kevin Maitan, the Venezuelan shortstop who supposedly defends like Andrelton Simmons and hits like Miguel Cabrera and rides a stallion of white gold named Juan de Cortez onto the field, apparently has an unofficial agreement with the Atlanta Braves. This is, of course, illegal, but the deal exists in the odd gray area of plausible deniability and indeterminate rules that exist for Major League Baseball’s international free agents. Indeed, while spending caps introduced to the 2012 signing period have made the international market not quite the Wild West free-for-all it used to be, “July 2nd” can stand in metonymically for the massive business of finding, courting, and underpaying the 16-year-olds who will win you a championship seven years down the line. And this business sees teams bending and breaking the rules as a matter of course, as the cost of playing the game in the first place.
And MLB has been attempting to curb this rule bending, mainly by introducing newer and more exotic rules. Handshake deals and communication with free agents prior to 16 are frowned upon and forbidden, if not always explicitly. Spending caps, tied to draft position, have been levied on each team, and going over that cap carries the penalty of not being able to select any players on the following July 2nd deadline, along with a (probably far more onerous) financial penalty. To give you an idea of how labyrinthine these rules can get, here’s an excerpt from a Ben Badler column from 2014 on a then-new rule change:
The small move that went so, so bad in a season that is sliding in that direction.
The Braves aren’t playing Tyler Flowers all that much, which is smart. The entire plan in Atlanta this season is to lose games, after all, and Flowers poses a threat to that mission. In 115 plate appearances thus far, Flowers has a .260 TAv, and he’s been his usual (very good) framing self behind the plate. He’s been worth 0.8 WARP already, despite his part-time role, but A.J. Pierzynski has saved the team from disaster with his .185 TAv and -0.8 WARP. The best news for the Braves, though, is that their two backstops make just $5 million combined this season. To take up two roster spots, keep the team replacement-level or worse, and leave so much money in the pockets of corporate owners is about as much as the team could ask from a catching tandem. Every nickel not spent on payroll is another nickel the team can spend on the effort to get their next new stadium built with other people’s money.
Let’s say that you weren’t the Braves, though. Let’s say you’re a team that wants to win games this season. If you were such a team, you probably wouldn’t want Pierzynski and Flowers for your catching duo. At the very least, you might seek to play Flowers more often, and Pierzynski less, so that you would get at least the half a win or so above replacement that $5 million usually buys in free agency. Really, though, it’s a pretty unappealing catching situation. It’s hard to imagine a contender who would envy it. There is one, though, and here’s the funny part: It's the only other team that has employed this exact pair in the past.
As you may have heard, the Chicago Cubs started the season pretty well. As of the end of May, they were 35-15, playing exactly .700 ball. That projects to a 113-49 record over 162 games, which would be the most wins in a season since the Mariners won 116 in 2001, and the most in the National League since, well, since the Chicago Cubs won 116 in 1906.
But that wasn’t the only notable end-of-May record. The Twins and Braves were both 15-36, on pace for 48-114. The Reds, at 17-35, were on pace for 53-109. The 20-33 Padres projected to 61-101, raising the question of how Padres owner Ron Fowler would describe the Twins, Braves, or Reds. On the other hand, the 32-20 Red Sox were on pace to finish 100-62, the 33-21 Giants were on track for 99-63, the 32-21 Nationals on pace for 98-64, the 31-21 Rangers for 97-65, and the 30-21 Mariners for 95-67. So there were, at the end of May, four teams with a shot at 100 losses and six that could win 100.
As an aside, I am fully cognizant that “on pace for” is intellectually lazy and ignorant, unless it’s wielded cleverly by the likes of Jayson Stark or Cespedes Family Barbecue. (Especially the Cespedes Family Barbecue link. You should check it out. Go ahead, it won’t take long. I’ll still be here.) So no, I’m not implying that there actually will be four teams with 62 or fewer wins and six with 62 or fewer losses. I’m just setting the tone. Play along with me here.
We're coming to Atlanta on July 16th. Reserve your spot at the event today!
Baseball Prospectus and the Atlanta Braves invite you to join us for a great day of baseball on Saturday, July 16, 2016 at Turner Field. Thanks to the fine folks in the Braves' front office, we are proud to be able to offer our guests the following: