It’s the time of year when everyone plays general manager, but some potential trades are not as logical as they might appear. Consider the Astros, whose OPS at catcher is the second-lowest in the majors, and the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, whose OPS at the position is tied for the highest. An obvious fit, right? Not so fast. And probably not at all.
Astros players and coaches revere the defensive work of Martín Maldonado, who was the alternate catcher to Robinson Chirinos on their 2019 World Series club and the regular during their 2021 Series run. The front office is aware of the sentiment in the clubhouse and in agreement with it, making it unlikely the team would displace Maldonado, according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking.
Maldonado, 35, is hitting .153 with a .503 OPS. He has thrown out five of 18 potential base stealers, one of the league’s best rates, but his framing ranks only 49th out of 60 catchers, according to Statcast, and only the White Sox’s Yasmani Grandal has allowed more passed balls. How is it, then, that Maldonado is so popular among the Astros? It’s because of his other attributes. His leadership. His game-planning. His game-calling.
Go back to last year’s American League Championship Series, which the Astros won in six games. When asked how the Red Sox were outscored, 22-1, in the final 26 innings, Sox manager Alex Cora told Fox Sports’ Tom Verducci, “Brent Strom and Martín Maldonado. Two of the smartest people in baseball. They completely changed their strategy against us midway through Game 4.”
Strom, the Astros’ former pitching coach, temporarily retired after the season, only to resurface with the Diamondbacks. Maldonado, whom the Astros twice acquired at previous deadlines — from the Angels for Patrick Sandoval in 2018 and from the Cubs for Tony Kemp in 2019 — has started 43 of the team’s 60 games at catcher. The Astros lead the AL West by 8 1/2 games and rank second in the majors in ERA.
The issue with the Astros is their offense, which led the majors in runs last season and ranked third in the sport’s previous full season, 2019. The current group ranks 22nd in runs per game, and is batting .228 with runners on base, 27th in the majors. The Nationals, the team with the game’s fourth-worst record, are scoring at a higher rate.
Maldonado, though, is hardly the only under-performing hitter. While the offensive dropoff from Carlos Correa to Jeremy Peña at shortstop has not been as great as initially feared, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and third baseman Alex Bregman are not producing to their usual levels. Center field, shared by Chas McCormick and Jose Siri, is a particular problem area.
The beauty of Contreras is that he also could help a team as a designated hitter, a role in which he’s batting .333 with a 1.080 OPS in 60 plate appearances this season. But the Astros already have the game’s top DH, Yordan Álvarez, and use the spot to rest other players on days Álvarez is in left field.
The Yankees, who also are getting modest offensive production at catcher, are in somewhat of a similar position. Their catchers, Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino, are guiding a pitching staff that leads the majors in ERA. Why would the Yankees want to introduce a new catcher at midseason and disrupt such a successful unit?
Any team that acquires Contreras potentially will run that risk. Still, he will be in demand, even as a rental before he reaches free agency.
Contreras, 30, would make particular sense for the Giants, who recently demoted Joey Bart; Curt Casali has never played 90 games in a major-league season and the team already has plucked two catchers from other clubs’ Triple-A rosters. The Padres were not afraid to trade for Austin Nola with a month left in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and now might be in the market for catching again. The Mets expect James McCann to return from a broken hamate bone later this month or in early July, but could seek more offense at the position. Other possibilities — the Rays, perhaps — are sure to emerge.
The Astros obviously would prefer Maldonado to raise his OPS to his career mark of .632, but like most teams, they consider the entirety of the player, not just one aspect of his game. For catchers, blocking, throwing and framing can be quantified. But other things — the execution of a game plan, the trust of a pitching staff — cannot. The Astros are not brazen enough to overlook Maldonado’s greatest strengths, even if they are impossible to measure. They know what he means to their team.
Stay out of that room!
Aaron Judge’s arbitration hearing is set to take place a week from Wednesday, but will the Yankees even allow it to reach that point?
The team wants to keep its relationship with Judge positive in its effort to sign Judge long-term. And Judge’s incredible performance in the first two months, while theoretically off-limits for consideration by the three-person arbitration panel, might only help his cause.
The panel is supposed to rule only on what happened last season, and not consider any of Judge’s accomplishments after March 1. The only admissible post-March 1 data points, according to a source with knowledge of the process, are “comparative baseball salaries,” or contracts signed by other players — Correa’s three-year, $105.3 million free-agent deal with the Twins, for example.
Yet, while the arbitrators obviously are professionals, they don’t live in caves. If they follow baseball at all, they’re aware of Judge’s major-league-leading 24 homers and 1.077 OPS, maybe even his impressive play in center field. Who knows how deeply all of that might be lodged in their collective subconscious?
Then again, arbitration is a crapshoot. Judge asked for $21 million. The Yankees offered $17 million. The arbitrators — again, if they follow baseball at all — likely know Judge is a free agent at the end of the season. They might figure, “Eh, he’s looking for $300 million. If he doesn’t get the extra $4 million here, so what?”
A long-term agreement in the coming days would appear to be a longshot — the Yankees would be negotiating with Judge at the peak of his value. The best move for the Yankees likely would be to reach a settlement with Judge before his hearing, then continue working on the bigger deal.
A keeper for Texas?
Rangers left-hander Martín Pérez is the kind of starting pitcher non-contenders almost always trade at the deadline. He’s on a one-year contract. He’s earning a relatively modest $4 million. And even after his clunker against the White Sox on Saturday, he’s fifth in the American League with a 2.18 ERA in 74 1/3 innings.
Yet, the best guess on Pérez is that he will finish the season with the Rangers, and perhaps even sign an extension. No talks regarding a contract have taken place, sources said, but Pérez clearly has enjoyed returning to the organization that signed him at 16 out of Venezuela in 2007. And while the Rangers (28-31) are unlikely to make a playoff push, they are trying to take a meaningful step forward.
In that sense alone, trading Pérez would be counter-productive. The Rangers, remember, spent $561.2 million on free agents last offseason. They want to stop the cycle of spinning veterans for younger players and contend as soon as next season. They also must consider the market dynamics, knowing that, as a rental, Pérez probably would not bring back much in a trade.
Pérez, 31, had a 5.15 ERA and averaged 107 innings the previous four seasons. He lacks the pedigree and track record of Lance Lynn, a former first-round pick whom the Rangers sent to the White Sox for righty Dane Dunning and minor-league lefty Avery Weems in Dec. 2020. Teams likely will view Pérez as an aberration, and construct their offers accordingly.
The Rangers are not about to close off options, and it’s always possible some team will overwhelm them with an irresistible offer. Chances are, though, a trade of Pérez would not move the needle. The more likely outcome is that the Rangers will keep him and build around him as they move forward.
Fool me once …
Something to watch during trade season: Whether certain teams are reluctant to make the same types of deals that burned them at last year’s deadline.
Will the Rays, for example, be as willing to take on a rental after parting with right-handers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman for Nelson Cruz? Ryan, currently on the COVID-19 injured list, has a 2.96 ERA in 13 starts with the Twins. Strotman, on the other hand, has struggled at Triple A.
Then there are the Pirates, who likely will think twice about trading four-plus years of club control with reliever David Bednar after giving up three-plus years of Clay Holmes by sending him to the Yankees for infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Jun Park.
Holmes, after increasing his use of a sinker Yankees manager Aaron Boone likens to former major leaguer Kevin Brown’s, has become one of the game’s most dominant relievers. Bednar, meanwhile, is a native of Pittsburgh, popular in the clubhouse and far enough from free agency to be part of the Pirates’ next contending club. Shutdown relievers also have value to rebuilding teams, helping them protect their rare leads and finish off wins.
Braves’ Harris: A scouting find
The Braves scouted center fielder Michael Harris as both a pitcher and hitter at Stockbridge (Ga.) High. But Dana Brown, the team’s scouting director, said he viewed Harris the same way he did former major leaguers James Loney and Nick Markakis, both of whom also pitched as amateurs. To Brown, Harris was a hitter, and the youngster only reinforced that opinion during an audition at Truist Park when he hit balls on and over the Chop House in right field.
The 2019 draft was Brown’s first as scouting director with the Braves; president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos knew him from their days working together with the Expos, and made Brown one of his first hires when he became Blue Jays GM in Oct. 2009. The initial recommendation on Harris came from former Braves scouting coordinator Chris Lionetti, who is now the director of player identification for USA Baseball.
Brown used his first pick, No. 9 overall, on catcher Shea Langeliers, whom the Braves later used as the centerpiece in their trade with the Athletics for first baseman Matt Olson. Harris was the Braves’ third-round selection and went 98th overall.
“I remember Dana telling me he was a top-five high-school bat in the draft — he wrote it in his report as well — and that we had to take him,” Anthopoulos said. “He wasn’t highly touted at all and Dana wanted to take him in the third round. I remember asking him if he was sure we needed to take him that high and he was adamant.
“He did the same thing with Spencer Strider (the Braves’ fourth-round pick) in 2020. I’ve been with him a long time and when he’s that convicted I stay out of the way. One other time he pounded for us to sign a player was Tyler Matzek when he was in Indy ball. It was August (2019), minor league season was about to be over and he wouldn’t let it go so we signed him to a two-year minor-league contract. Dana doesn’t bat 1.000, no one does but when he’s passionate about something, I’ve learned the smart move is to listen.”
Yankees’ Torres back on track
Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres determined that he hit too many groundballs last season and wasted no time trying to fix the problem after the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the wild-card game. Torres, 25, studied video of himself from 2018 and 2019, and worked in the cage from October to December, trying to find his old swing. For the most part, his plan is working.
Torres’ on-base percentage is at a career-low level, but he already has hit 12 homers, three more than he had last season. His flyball rate has taken a big jump. He is hitting the ball harder. And he has regained confidence as his results have improved.
“He has really turned the clock back,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “It’s been what we thought we had, not what we’ve been seeing the last year and a half.
Gleyber Torres by season
Mets’ Escobar always bursting with pride
Mets third baseman Eduardo Escobar likes to tell teammates, “I’m proud of you, man,” saying, “it’s something to make people feel good.” He said he began using the saying with Torey Lovullo, his manager with the Diamondbacks from 2018 to 2021, inspiring Lovullo to order t-shirts with the phrase.
“He started to say things to me like ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ as a daily greeting,” Lovullo recalled. “I found it funny each time and when I laughed he would respond with ‘I’m proud of you.’ I guess it was his way of showing appreciation towards someone who would laugh with him … which eventually found its way onto a t-shirt.”
The Mets donned black, “Proud of You Man” t-shirts with Escobar’s face etched on the front when they celebrated him becoming the 10th Venezuelan player to reach 10 years of major-league service last month.
Angels’ Lorenzen: Loving life in Anaheim
Michael Lorenzen might be the happiest player I’ve encountered all season. By signing a one-year, $6.75 million free-agent contract with the Angels, Lorenzen was able to return home to southern California, move into his desired role as a starter and pitch in a six-man rotation that allows him to ease his transition from the bullpen.
Lorenzen, who has a 3.45 ERA in 60 innings, has yet to pitch on four days rest; two of his starts were on five days rest, eight were on six days rest or more. He is pitching on almost a college schedule, starting each of the past five Saturdays. And he is absolutely relishing working on his pitches between starts.
As a reliever, Lorenzen did not always have time to refine his repertoire. As a starter, he takes the information he receives from each start and makes certain adjustments playing catch or throwing in the bullpen.
“That’s what excites me to show up every day,” he said. “What can I do to get better?”
Letting the kids play in Pittsburgh
Of the outfielders the Pirates recently promoted to the majors, only Travis Swaggerty ranked among the team’s top 20 prospects entering the season, according to The Athletic’s Keith Law. Swaggerty was No. 12 on Law’s list, while Jack Suwinski and Cal Mitchell did not even crack his “Others of note.”
The Pirates did not necessarily expect any of these players to reach the majors so quickly. They did not even protect Mitchell on their 40-man roster last fall. Only the cancellation of the Rule 5 draft ensured Mitchell would remain in the organization. His path to the majors, along with Suwinski’s and Swaggerty’s, accelerated with injuries to veterans Ben Gamel, Jake Marisnick and Greg Allen.
Which isn’t to say that none of the three younger outfielders stands a chance of success.
Suwinksi, acquired from the Padres with infielder/outfielder Tucupita Marcano and Class A righty Michell Miliano in the Adam Frazier trade, was a high-school draft out of Chicago in 2016 who could prove a late bloomer. Mitchell has less power than Suwinksi but makes more contact and could at least stick as a fourth outfielder. Swaggerty, the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft, is just now regaining his footing. He missed all of 2020 when the minor-league season was canceled and nearly all of 2021 after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Manager Derek Shelton says the Pirates will continue to start between three and five rookies each game. Another young outfielder, Canaan Smith-Njigba, might enter the mix soon. And the prospect fans want to see most, 6-foot-7 shortstop Oneil Cruz, could make his 2022 debut with the team Friday when the Pirates begin a seven-game homestand against the Giants and Cubs.
Around the horn
• How much did Yordan Álvarez’s play in left field factor into the Astros’ decision to award him a six-year, $115 million extension? Not nearly as much as his offensive prowess, obviously, but Álvarez’s ability to play the field on occasion did figure into the overall calculus of the deal.
Álvarez, 24, made 39 starts in left last season, and has made 23 this season. His sprint speed is in the 26th percentile, meaning he is faster than more than one-fourth of the players in the majors. He certainly has proven capable of covering the smaller left field at Minute Maid Park
• Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor credits third base coach Joey Cora with helping him make a defensive adjustment earlier this season.
“I wasn’t using my legs to throw the ball,” Lindor said. “I’ve always been quick catch-step-throw, catch-step-throw. Joey helped me to get in my legs, shuffle, shuffle and throw. Ever since then, my arm feels a lot better. Now I feel like my ball has more carry, more backspin.”
The advanced defensive metrics, which are not always reliable in smaller samples, are divided on Lindor’s fielding this season. He rates 11th among shortstops in Statcast’s Outs Above Average, but is tied for 34th and last with the Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. in Sports Info Solution’s Defensive Runs Saved.
• And finally, an executive from an NL club makes an excellent point: It will be difficult for four AL East teams to reach the postseason, simply because they will take turns beating up on one another. The White Sox, on the other hand, should benefit from playing in the forgiving AL Central if they ever get their act together. Their remaining schedule is the easiest in the majors.
After the Yankees, the Blue Jays appear the best-positioned of the AL East clubs, in part because opposing players who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 remain prohibited from playing in Canada (the Jays, of course, faced an extreme disadvantage because of COVID-19 last season, playing their home games in three different sites).
The Jays currently hold the top wild-card spot by a half-game over the Rays and four games over the Red Sox. The Guardians are a half-game behind the Red Sox, the Rangers three games, and the White Sox and Angels 3 1/2.
(Top photo of Willson Contreras: Rick Scuteri / USA Today Sports)