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The joke, as you may have heard, is that Dave Dombrowski came to Boston and inherited a team with a lot of solid pieces and loads of potential. The only part of the team that was a complete disaster was the bullpen—the one thing that the golden god of the big-ticket trade was never able to fix in Detroit. With the acquisition of Carson Smith to complement Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara, it looks like Dombo might have cracked the bullpen code.
All you need to do is give up one or two top-50 minor leaguers and a solid cost-controlled left-handed starter, and you too can build a very scary late-inning composite!
Smith, toiling in near-obscurity among the many small disappointments of the 2015 Seattle Mariners season, emerged as one of the AL’s best relievers. He came off his DRA-breaking 2014 cup of coffee to emerge as a late-inning force, mixing nearly a dozen strikeouts per nine innings with a ground-ball rate (66 percent) that would make even Dallas Keuchel envious. His slider is a true out-pitch, and makes opposing batters swing and miss (21.8 percent whiff rate) or drill the ball into the dirt. He was fifth among qualified MLB relievers in FIP (2.09), 11th in cFIP (67), and 17th in DRA (2.67).
Not everything was rosy in the Emerald City, though; at the end of the season, Smith’s velo dipped, and his second-half stats weren’t quite as succulent as his start to the season. This trend might have gotten a bit more play were he not lights-out during his scoreless September (.265 OBP and .205 SLG against). In Boston, if he’s anything less than a force to be reckoned with, I think we’ll hear about it, and Dombrowski may rue giving up his steady No. 4 starter for the high-risk righty.
Coming along for the ride is Roenis Elias, a young and cost-controlled lefty that some have already posited as a superior replacement to the outgoing Wade Miley. Let’s nip that one in the bud right now: a superior strikeout rate (Elias’s ’15 strikeout rate was 19.8 percent to Miley’s 17.7 percent) does not make one a finer starter. While Wade Miley was a clockwork hurler capable of churning out average innings on the regular, Elias is at best a work in progress, with performances that range from his complete meltdowns in June against Kansas City and Houston to … well, even the good outings (against Colorado on September 12) don’t make him look like a star.
Elias’s curveball threatens at times—and flashes solid plus—and he has enough velocity to make things interesting, but his inability to avoid the free pass consistently hurts him. He could possibly be a fine fifth starter on a second-division team … maybe even the Red Sox if everything breaks wrong. But on a team looking to upgrade their rotation, Elias is a swingman, a depth piece, and the guy you count on to stick around and fiddle if the city is already on fire.
On a superficial level, it appears that the Sox downgraded their rotation options in going from Miley to Elias in order to upgrade their bullpen options in going from Aro to Smith-and that the end result is more or less a wash in terms of projected WARP. Assuming that Eduardo Rodriguez is a lock for the rotation and Henry Owens is on “prepare-for-a-Clay-Buchholz-
Then there’s the possibility of a “Royals Effect” where, chaining Carson Smith to Koji Uehara and Craig Kimbrel a la 2014’s devastating Herrera-Davis-Holland combo may provide benefits greater than the sum of those relievers’ WARPs-especially in the playoffs where the Sox are desperate for an appearance. There’s a non-zero chance that Carson Smith ends 2016 as the greatest seventh-inning reliever in baseball history: his stat sheets spit fire hotter than the velo on his sinker. It’s perhaps equally possible Smith burns out like many other recent late-inning options hailing from the Pacific Northwest.
Dave Dombrowski is betting big on a revitalized bullpen, and it seems like he’s placing his chips on the correct high-impact relievers. Dealing from the team's stockpiles (prospects, mid-rotation left-handed starters) is a nice way to shore up the team's biggest weakness. While no ‘pen is a sure thing, and DD’s bullpens even less so, it’s hard to argue with taking several of the best guys from the previous season and lining them up at the end of games. —Bryan Grosnick
Smith moves from the top option for saves in Seattle (and one of the brightest young closers on the fantasy scene) to Boston, where he’ll be a seventh or eighth inning bridge to new closer Craig Kimbrel. Smith is set for a huge drop-off in value from the $14 he earned with the Mariners in 2015, and even with an injury to Kimbrel, he may find himself behind Proven Closer™ Koji Uehara in John Farrell’s shiny-new bullpen pecking order. Smith’s 32.4 percent strikeout rate was tenth among all relievers (min. 50 IP) this season and his .192 batting average against put him inside the top-20, giving him value in holds leagues as a high-leverage strikeout artist, but his value in dynasty leagues and shallow mixed leagues undoubtedly takes a major hit with his arrival in a suddenly deep Red Sox bullpen that features Kimbrel, Uehara and Junichi Tazawa as other late-inning options.
Elias had an outside chance at grabbing Seattle’s fifth starter job and establishing himself as a deep mixed league option in 2016, but despite making 20 or more starts in each of the last two years with the M’s, his days as a starter are likely over in Boston. The Red Sox figure to deploy Elias either as rotation depth at Triple-A Pawtucket or as a LOOGY in their bullpen, as the 27-year-old held lefties to a .227/.299/.309 line in 2015 and struck them out a just under 32 percent clip. It’s hard to envision Elias moving ahead of Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly (and his great stuff), Henry Owens or Brian Johnson as back-end rotation options in 2016 and beyond. —J.J. Jansons
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Acquired LHP Wade Miley and RHP Jonathan Aro from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for RHP Carson Smith and LHP Roenis Elias. [12/7]
Trading for Wade Miley is the very definition of a safe choice. Since his breakout 2012 season, Miley has been a very predictable pitcher from a performance standpoint: he posts a low strikeout rate (but not too low), allows a few too many homers (but not too many), and generally acquits himself at about a league-average level over two hundred innings. On a year-to-year basis, he tends to keep his true-talent level steady—his cFIP rarely varies too much from his career 103 mark—with end-of-year totals checking in between 1.2 and 2.5 WARP each year.
Over at BP Boston, where Ryan P. Morrison is to Miley what Jane Goodall was to chimpanzees, we know the truth: Miley is constantly making slight tweaks to his approach and even his peripherals, usually arriving at the same point each time despite a slightly different journey. He’s altering his pitch mix, using his slider less frequently against right-handed hitters in dangerous counts. He’s adjusting his release point, perhaps to throw hitters off late in the season. But he is not breaking out. In fact, if he wasn’t so boring, you could make a nice comparison between his performance and Jerry Dipoto’s entire offseason: a thousand little adjustments that result in (most likely) the same old stuff over and over again.
Nevertheless, having Safeco Field as a new home base might be a nice change of pace for the southpaw, as pitching in Boston and Arizona for half his games never did him any favors. There’s been over a half-run difference between his work at home (4.32 career ERA) and on the road (3.61) over the years, and he’s given up 11 more dingers on his own turf in fewer innings than in more frames abroad. Out by Puget Sound, he’ll be asked to fill the same role he always is: the left-handed fulcrum around which the rest of the rotation pivots.
On one side is Felix, the ace, and on the other, the high-risk, high-reward types like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton; now in the middle is Miley, the walking, talking insurance policy that allows Seattle to give their other starters enough rope to hang themselves, pull the team up from misery, or maybe a little of both.
(And if the team had to sacrifice a fine young reliever to get that reliability, so be it. At least they didn’t hang onto the bullpen arm too long like they may have done with Tom Wilhelmsen…or Charlie Furbush…or Danny Farquhar. Carson Smith’s velocity dip at the end of the season could be nothing, or it could be the beginning of the end. Relief pitchers! As for Roenis Elias, well, he had a 5.25 ERA across both the PCL and MLB last year. He’s no Wade Miley.)
Miley is the CBS police procedural, the certificate of deposit, the color beige. He’s a near-lock to throw 200 league-average innings and punish left-handed hitters at a below-market price—just $15 million over the next two seasons. This is not the move that will make the Mariners favorites in the AL West or put them on the cover of Winter Meetings Magazine, but Miley is the kind of safe, savvy veteran starter who will keep the Mariners’ rotation afloat. —Bryan Grosnick
Sometimes the least-known piece of a trade ends up being the best player in the deal. That's probably not going to happen with Jonathan Aro, but he does have a chance to be a serviceable member of a bullpen. He'll throw a two and four-seam fastball, and though it's not elite velocity he'll get the pitches up to 95 mph with sink and run. He'll also show a hard slider without big break, but enough velocity/tilt to make it a solid-average offering. There's also a fringe-average change that he'll show to left-handed hitters, but it's really mostly about the first two pitches. He does fill the strike zone with all three pitches, and usually those strikes are located where they are intended.
Miley moves from pitching in the bandboxes of the AL East to the cavernous parks of the AL West and will look to re-establish himself as a solid—but not sexy—SP4 or SP5 option. Miley’s 3.95 DRA posted in Boston this season was much better than his 4.46 ERA indicates and despite a drop in his strikeout rate (17.7 percent) from his career-best 2014 rate with Arizona of 21.1 percent, he still compiled 147 strikeouts—good for 25th among American League starters. Miley has pitched the 15th most innings of any starting pitcher since 2012, striking out a minimum of 144 batters in each of his four full seasons as a starter. His total of 621 strikeouts over the period put him 25th overall. Miley won’t win any fantasy titles by himself, but he’s not been much different over the last two seasons as he was in his first two full seasons with Arizona, where he posted a 3.33 ERA (and 16 wins) in 2012 and a 3.55 ERA with ten wins in 2013, while pitching at Chase Field. Quite obviously, Safeco Field is a much tougher place to hit for any hitter than his two previous stops, but it’s particularly harsher to right-handed hitters and Miley’s consistency should put him in line for an ERA under 4.00 and to once again make the climb to the top-25 in strikeouts among American League starters–making him a strong bet to exceed the $6 he earned this season, according to Mike Gianella’s evaluations.
Jerry Dipoto has now shipped closing options Carson Smith and Tom Wilhelmsen out this winter, paving the way for Benoit to get the bulk of the ninth inning work this season—as things stand now. With Dipoto channeling his inner A.J. Preller this offseason, things are subject to change by the week in Seattle, but Benoit (himself acquired by Dipoto last month) looks to have a stranglehold on the closing duties in 2016. Just be aware that 2015 marked both his lowest strikeout rate (24.8 percent) and highest walk rate (9.1 percent) since his last season with the Rangers in 2008. —J.J. Jansons