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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed C-L Alex Avila to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. [11/25]

Few are the catchers who peak at age 24, but that’s clearly where we are with Avila. Concussions have derailed Avila, with lesser injuries to his legs only speeding his decline. Once a valuable defender with above-average framing and blocking skills, he’s now a disaster behind the plate, just barely playable there. Avila still hits right-handers at a decent clip—he has a .265 TAv against them over the last three years—but that’s now all he does. In 2015, the White Sox used Geovany Soto—a former All-Star, washed up shy of 30 years old—as their backup backstop. By signing Avila, they’re committing to doing so again. As backup catchers go, one could do worse than Avila. If he plays more than a few days a week, though, or if he ever faces a left-handed starter, the Sox are in trouble. —Matthew Trueblood

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired RHP Brendan McCurry from the Athletics in exchange for IF-S Jed Lowrie. [11/25]

So you’re an organization notable for your dedication to college scouting and for deemphasizing velocity in evaluating pitchers. At the end of your push into the playoffs last year, you simply ran out of bullpen depth. What do you do? If you have a time machine, perhaps you use it to go back and grab an arm like McCurry before he fell into the 22nd round of the 2014 Draft, where the A’s nabbed him. Jeff Luhnow didn’t have a time machine, though. What he did have was a medium-value surplus infielder, and he used that surplus to add McCurry to his array of bullpen options.

Obviously, Carlos Correa is the Astros’ present and future shortstop. Luis Valbuena is under team control for another season, and figures to at least start the season at third base. Colin Moran had good success in the Double-A Texas League in 2015, so he’s on the doorstep of the Majors. In many respects, Lowrie was not only expendable, but redundant. By clearing the $7.5 million they owed Lowrie in 2016 (and the $7.5 million guaranteed to him after that), Luhnow has given himself some flexibility to address other issues, and McCurry could help in the Majors as soon as next spring. —Matthew Trueblood

Drafted in just the 22nd round despite a spectacular senior season closing games at Oklahoma State, McCurry has continued to dominate hitters and get outs with elite efficiency at every professional stop with one of the more unique profiles in the minor leagues. Standing all of a generously-listed 5’10” and 165 pounds, he utilizes two distinct arm slots to deploy an arsenal consisting of at least a half-dozen distinct variants of velocity and movement on his pitches. From a higher three-quarter release he’ll work primarily off a four-seam fastball that sits 90-92 with sneaky life and a curve that scrapes 70 with plus depth and some two-plane action. He’ll also run an occasional two-seamer away from lefties and mix in an upper-70’s slider that has late bite and shows potential to generate a ton of groundball contact. That’d be all well and good, but then he’ll drop down to a borderline true sidearm slot half the time as well. Down low the base of his arsenal shifts to a two-seamer at 88-91 with heavy run and a changeup with feel and near-identical movement fading to the arm side but 10 to 12 miles an hour of velocity separation. His curveball takes a rounder, sweeping shape with less bite but significantly more horizontal bend.

The raw stuff doesn’t overwhelm, but the overall package does. McCurry’s pitches play up across the board on account of stellar command, above-average to plus movement, and strong deception. The arm action is clean, and despite some effort he shows solid balance though both his release points to drive plus command. He generally maintains a consistent posture through his hand break and the beginning of his arm swing, though he’ll occasionally tip his hand to an impending sidearm pitch when his front shoulder dips and his momentum leaks out to the third base side early. Regardless, McCurry hides the ball well with both deliveries and shows surprising repeatability out of each slot. The fastball-change combination from his lower release is particularly potent, but nothing he throws is straight and he shows an advanced ability to sequence and execute his pitches. Perhaps most interestingly, he doesn’t simply alternate between arm angles by the at-bat; he’ll jump from slot to slot within at-bats, and he’ll utilize both releases to left- and right-handed hitters alike. Hitters never look quite comfortable against him, and that’s one of the better compliments you can give a pitcher regardless of how he throws.

It’s certainly easy enough to write off this kind of profile, but in McCurry’s case there’s more here than just smoke-and-mirror chicanery. It certainly remains an open question as to whether the act will work against big league hitters, but I’m significantly more optimistic about him developing into a useful middle-inning arm than I am about most “gimmick” pitchers. —Wilson Karaman

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Acquired IF-S Jed Lowrie from Astros in exchange for RHP Brendan McCurry. [11/25]

As has been their wont for the last few years, the A’s will go into 2016 with a positional roster defined by modularity. Lowrie will be an everyday player for them, but he might play two or even three infield spots semi-regularly. He’s no longer a good fielder at any of those positions, but when healthy, he remains a helpful hitter.

Here’s the problem for Oakland: Lowrie will make $7.5 million in 2016. Billy Butler will make $10 million. Brett Lawrie and Danny Valencia project (according to MLB Trade Rumors) to make about $7.3 million through arbitration. If that four-player core were likely to return 10 wins of value, that $25 million or so would be money well-spent. They’re not, though, and their salaries are likely to amount to 30 percent of the overall payroll. This deal makes the A’s better, over the next two years, but it also trims their margin for error, and might invite a higher-risk, higher-reward deal in the near future. —Matthew Trueblood

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Signed LHP J.A. Happ to a three-year deal worth $36 million. [11/27]

Here’s one way to improve production out of the fifth spot in your rotation: sign an ace. That way, everyone gets bumped down a spot, and your fourth starter is suddenly your fifth starter—by definition an improvement over whoever you were running out there before. That’s one way to get the job done. Here’s another: sign a pretty decent big-league pitcher and call him your fifth starter. In signing J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal, the Blue Jays chose Option Two. They also—not coincidentally at all—eliminated any possibility of pursuing Option One, by spending money on Happ they might otherwise have used to tempt David Price back to Toronto.

That’s pretty smart on the part of the Blue Jays, because $36 million plus whatever else they had in reserve sure wasn’t going to be enough to get David Price to return to the Rogers Centre, and Happ only needs to produce about 3.8 WARP over the next three seasons to be worth the value of his contract. PECOTA isn’t too confident that he’ll do so—it projects just 0.1 WARP for Happ through 2018—but I’m a bit more sanguine than the system. Happ, who’s always had a love-hate relationship with his breaking stuff (he can’t always command it) cut the breaking-cord for good under the tutelage of Pittsburgh’s Ray Searage in 2015, going to his hard stuff 87 percent of the time in the latter half of 2015, after averaging about 77 percent for the rest of his career.

Results showed up in spades: Happ produced a sparkling 1.85 ERA over 63 â…“ Steel City innings in 2015, and getting higher whiff rates on all four of his five pitches than ever before (the cutter was the only exception). That’s the pitcher the Blue Jays hope they’re getting going forward, but if he produces at even half that level for the next three years—say, at 1 WARP a year—he’ll be a perfectly fine investment for a team that has a limited window to compete (the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees are all coming on strong) and relatively tight-fisted corporate ownership. Putting a ton of money into keeping David Price not only wasn’t possible, it probably wasn’t a smart move in the first place.

After re-signing Marco Estrada and trading for Jesse Chavez (who’s criminally underrated), the Blue Jays have the luxury of slotting Happ into the fifth spot in their rotation, behind R.A. Dickey and a now-fully-healthy Marcus Stroman. More to the point, with Drew Hutchinson (not to mention Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez) still on the roster, Toronto suddenly has an extremely deep one through six, and the flexibility to make moves down the line if the need arises: with the exception of Dickey, all six starters (including Hutchinson) are signed through at least 2017 on eminently tradeable contracts, barring total performance collapse.

Toronto came two wins short of the World Series last year. They’ll return all of their key position players in 2016 and now—with Happ, sans Price—have a very deep starting rotation too boot, and the money to patch other holes in their roster, like left field (surely Ben Revere can’t play there forever?). That’s the foundation for a very good ballclub, and one that wouldn’t be possible with a re-signed Price. Signing Happ isn’t the sexy move Jays fans were looking for after a splashy ‘14-’15 offseason and a charmed regular season, but it sets Toronto up nicely for another run at a title next fall, and the flexibility to move forward with purpose after 2016, too, fades into history. —Rian Watt

Fantasy Impact

J.A. Happ

In 11 starts with the Pirates to close out the 2015 campaign, Happ posted a 1.85 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning (9.81 K/9), cutting his walk rate to a career-best 1.85 BB/9 and holding opposing batters to a paltry .211 TAv. It’s treading into murky waters to suggest that Pittsburgh, and more specifically pitching coach/Yoda Ray Searage, are solely responsible for Happ’s stark transformation because the southpaw began making adjustments in Toronto as far back as 2013. However, The major alteration we can definitively pinpoint from Happ’s short-lived tenure in the Steel City was a dramatic increase in fastball usage, which jumped from 49% over 21 appearances (20 starts) with Seattle earlier in the year, to 65% in Pittsburgh. Between his four-seam, cutter and sinker, Happ is currently throwing a fastball roughly nine out of every 10 pitches.

The hallmark of a Searage reclamation project is that the adjustment isn’t a dramatic overhaul to a pitchers mechanics or arsenal. Instead, it’s a subtle change that produces tangible results. Since Happ’s four-seam and cutter are his only offerings that in tandem, hold opposing batters slugging percentage below league-average, while also generating above average whiffs-per-swing, the Pirates simply got him to scrap the rest of his repertoire and lean primarily on his best stuff. It worked.

Obviously, the transition out of the NL entirely and into the AL East is a negative for Happ’s fantasy value, as it virtually erases any chance of him replicating the minuscule 0.84 HR/9 rate (his lowest rate since 2010) he compiled pitching in the spacious confines of SAFECO Field & PNC Park last year. However, it doesn’t mean prospective fantasy owners should label him a potential bust and cross his name off their draft boards entirely. The adjustments and progression he has made over the past few seasons juxtaposed with his willingness to return to Toronto, where he obviously feels comfortable, should not be overlooked as the more important factors determining his value going forward.

Among starters who threw at least 100 innings with a 4.00 Deserved Run Average (DRA) or higher last season, only Jose Quintana, Kevin Gausman and Trevor May finished with a lower cFIP, a predictive pitching metric, than Happ (91). The 33-year-old left-hander lacks the upside of a prototypical “fantasy ace” but if the fastball-centric approach follows him to Canada, he has the potential to finish as a top-50 fantasy starter once again in 2016. —George Bissell

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bhacking
11/30
I'm interested in the comment on Ben Revere. Although my eyes tell me his routes to balls are absolutely terrible his speed allows him to make up for that, at least for a few more years. He gets on base to set the table for the big bats. With Revere and hopefully a fairly healthy Michael Saunders and of course Pillar and Bautista I'm pretty happy with the outfield. What am I missing?
rianwatt
11/30
Hey there! I deserve this, for making a flippant comment. Revere isn't terrible, in general, he's just middling enough to make left field a place where the Blue Jays could (relatively) easy make an upgrade with cash only.
hotstatrat
11/30
Well, Happ is moving away from the team that made him so successful to a hitter's park in the DH league. My fantasy impact arrow is pointing downward.
GeorgeBissell
11/30
As I stated in the piece, the move to Toronto and the AL is an obvious negative for his fantasy value, I won't dispute that. However, I don't think it will adversely affect his value enough that I would significantly downgrade him from either a projection or a ranking sense. Just because he's leaving Pittsburgh doesn't mean he has to stop doing what made him so successful (throwing more fastballs) down the stretch last season. The context surrounding those stellar numbers, specifically the adjustments and progress he has made over the past few seasons, carry more weight going forward than the impact of moving to a hitters park for me.
hotstatrat
12/01
I thank you for the analysis. I hope you are right as I own him and plan to keep him on both my Scoresheet teams.

However, I do worry that it is not simply a matter of throwing more fastballs. It could be having the right coach to give Happ the right confidence and to keep him from, perhaps, doing more subtle bad habits. Hopefully he has some good rapport with Toronto already and can help them look after himself.