Around The Diamond: Who Goes Where When Elvis Returns?

Jared Sandler
June 11, 2018 - 10:05 am
Texas Rangers shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

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Thanks for reading my random baseball thoughts. I’ll always start with some thoughts from around the league and then I’ll give you my Rangers thoughts, too. Please feel free to share this weekly blog post on social media with your friends if you feel so inclined and never hesitate to engage with me on social media about my thoughts and opinions to further the discussion—that’s what this is all about!

*Teams have been waiting and building towards this off-season with a bevy of All-Star caliber free agents set to hit the market. Interestingly, with injuries to some like Kershaw and Donaldson and Pollock, the frenzy, though fervent, might not be as fierce as people anticipated. However, the two most coveted free agents-to-be, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, are doing everything they can to live up to the hype of their projected value. For a while, it seems like it was an understood hierarchy that Harper was the King of this class while Machado and incredibly worthy Prince. I’m not so sure about that. Both are tremendous players and debates like these can be silly, but Manny Machado’s growth this year at least warrants the question of who is better: Harper or Machado? Regardless of the answer, with Bryce Harper you get a guy who is as close to a superstar as baseball has—understand, that superstardom isn’t tied directly to ability as Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, isn’t as much of a superstar as Harper is, per se—so Harper will get the bigger contract, even if he isn’t the better player.

We can settle that debate another time. Right now, I want to investigate why Machado’s made this a conversation. For one, he’s hitting the ball in the air way more this year (50.5%) than over his career (39%) and that’s translated to more home runs. But maybe more significantly, Manny Machado is starting to walk. Over his last five seasons, Machado has averaged about 41 BB/600 PA. This year, he’s on pace for 63 BB/600 PA and will exceed that total for the season assuming health as he’ll receive more than 600 PA. Machado’s chasing out of the zone just 27.9% of the time, an improvement on each of his last two years (33% and 32%).

Machado’s approach and his pitch selection have led to an improvement across his entire slash line. He’s slashing a career-high in all three areas with an incredibly impressive .312/.380/.591 line, all of which top Bryce Harper. I don’t know if anyone has looked at Manny Machado and thought that he’d grossly underachieved before this season, but he’s absolutely taking the next step. Plus, Machado, who is above average at short stop but elite at third base, is better defensively than Harper.

Is Machado going to get the bigger contract? Probably not. Is Machado the better player? With the right to change my opinion, right now, I’m taking Machado.

*For the last three years I’ve picked the Houston Astros to win the World Series. Despite the challenge of repeating, I picked them this year because I actually felt like their roster was better than it was last year when they rolled to the title. Their starting rotation, though I didn’t expect this dominance, was a big part of it. While they haven’t created separation in the division just yet, they’re going to win the west and I expect it to be relatively easy. But after that? Things can get interesting with two other very good AL teams: the Yankees and the Red Sox.

It’s unrealistic to expect the Astros to have the same roster on August 1 that they have today. They’ll go and get bullpen help, which they desperately need, and I’ll see how their roster looks after that before offering some cutting analysis of their World Series chances. With that said, I still think what might be the most interesting element and the biggest “x-factor,” more than whom they acquire, is how they re-purpose their rotation. During last year’s playoff run, both Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. were used as relievers in big moments—McCullers to close out the ALCS and Morton to close out the World Series. With five outstanding starters and no need for all five to be used in that role, I’m curious how A.J. Hinch will make use of these pitchers and I believe it will be a key in their playoff run.

*The Oakland Athletics drafted Kyler Murray with the 9th overall pick in the MLB draft. That he was drafted was not a surprise. The surprise was that he was drafted that highly. Murray, who is set to become the University of Oklahoma’s starting QB this fall, signed a deal with the A’s that earns him a bonus of nearly $5 million and allows him to continue his college football career this fall. I’m just confused as to why it makes sense for either side…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that it’s playing out this way because I think Murray’s future is best as a baseball player but he’s sure to be an incredibly exciting QB at the college level. We get the best of both worlds, in a way. It just seems odd that organizations, often so strict on what their big investments can and can’t do, would be so willing to let Murray do this. I have no doubt that Murray made it clear to any team that wanted to draft him that allowing him to play was a part of the deal, but I’m surprised that Oakland, knowing this, would take him with that high of a pick and give him that large of a bonus.

For both sides, the risks are obvious. On the team side, they’re paying a first round pick nearly $5 million to go and get chased around by incredible athletes looking to hit him as hard as they can. Let’s say he sprains his ankle…no biggie. He can overcome that. But what if he tears an ACL and loses yet another year of development? Or, even worse, what if he suffers a significant shoulder injury? Obviously these are hypothetical, but ones that teams usually are way more strict about when considering.

For Murray, I’ll be more concise. He’s risking injury that can not only impact his career but also stunt his development, of which he needs plenty considered he’s barely played over the last three years.

Murray, who purposely did not take the mandatory drug test when coming out of high school making him ineligible for the draft because he wanted to play college football, stepped away from baseball for a season and then struggled after transferring to OU both with the Sooners and then in the Cape Cod League. This year, however, Murray slashed .296/.398/.556 for the Sooners which gave plenty of teams great reason to believe his baseball abilities can catch up to the supreme athleticism. Regardless of the two-sport decision, I’m excited to watch him this fall and follow his progress thereafter.

*Really loved this discussion about broadcasting between Travis Sawchik and one of my mentors, Jason Benetti, on Fangraphs: https://t.co/fVP1pOr7wI

Power Rankings

1. Houston Astros: Their flaw—the bullpen—is quite fixable before the deadline.

2. Boston Red Sox: Tough to find a concerning flaw with them, I’m just taking Houston’s SP

3. New York Yankees: Their SP depth is a real concern and their bullpen isn’t bulletproof.

4. Washington Nationals: They’re a great combo of talented, young, and desperate.

5. Chicago Cubs: Their dominance over the Brewers this year (7-1) gives them the edge.

(St)Ranger Things

*The Rangers have a tough decision to make when Elvis Andrus returns, presumably by the end of the week. What we know is that when Elvis is ready, he’ll come back and play SS. When he comes, who goes? When you set aside biases, there isn’t an easy answer. Let’s assess the candidates…

Isiah Kiner-Falefa: With Beltre back, he’s already lost some starts, but he’s still getting plenty of playing time, but that might not be the case when Elvis returns. If Izzy is only starting 3-4 games a week, it might make sense to instead give him everyday starts in AAA. Just because a guy has some early success as a big leaguer, it doesn’t mean he’s done developing, especially when it is a guy like Izzy who got called up because of injuries and not because he was bashing down the door and forcing the Rangers’ hand. An added benefit of a demotion is that it will allow him to resume his development as a catcher. If the Rangers were fighting for a playoff spot then you likely keep Izzy because of his value, but since they’re not, his development trumps an extra win or two. I’m very confident that Izzy will be a productive player for the Rangers and some added time in AAA might be the best play long term.

Rougned Odor: There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that Rougie has plenty of room to grow as a hitter, but he has been hitting better and the coaches have raved about his growth in approach at the plate. Rougie could possibly benefit from a confidence boost at AAA, but his biggest challenge is laying off the tough pitches you see at the big league level but not in the minors. I also wonder if the Rangers, for Rougie’s specific case, would prefer to keep him with their coaches to maintain some continuity.

Ronald Guzman: If this were a horse race and the in a twisted world the winner of the race is the one who gets sent down, Guzman isn’t out in front. With that said, a bad week could be the equivalent of a powerful push down the stretch. His departure could open up either first base or left field to keep Profar in their regularly. He’s acquitted himself nicely as a hitter, though he’s far from a finished product. With a year of AAA time—and success at that level—already under his belt, the Rangers might feel like his development is best served at this level. His departure is possible, but he’s definitely in the “show” position.

Jurickson Profar: First of all, he’s out of options, so he isn’t really a candidate. But even if he had options, the fact that he’s been one of the most productive hitters in the AL over the last month eliminates his name from the discussion. He will certainly see time at different positions, though. With Elvis back and likely manning short every day, Profar will possibly see time at first, second, third, and maybe even left field so long as it bat warrants it.

Carlos Tocci: From a production standpoint, Tocci’s falls well below any other position player candidate. However, there are two problems with this. First, taking him off the 25-man creates a spot for Elvis but adds an even bigger logjam because Tocci isn’t really playing anyway and isn’t an infielder. Instead of leaving one guy on the roster no longer getting everyday at-bats, it leaves you with two.  The Rangers seem to like him as a long-term project and due to his Rule 5 status likely only get to continue with that project by keeping him on the roster. Perhaps they can work out a deal with the Phillies to keep him and thus permit them to send him to AAA, but even if they do, it doesn’t really solve the first issue, thus making it seem silly to either lose him or work out a deal to keep him when it doesn’t solve anything.

Any Reliever: Removing a pitcher could create a spot for Elvis, but it doesn’t solve the playing time issue. Just as if they were to remove Tocci from the 25-man, it leaves you with two guys no longer getting everyday at-bats with at least one of those two really needing them.

My guess is that the Rangers choose to send down Izzy because of the importance of him getting everyday ABs plus the added benefit of him getting ti resume development as a catcher.

*With the above discussion, it got me to thinking about current Rangers who could at some point settle into a position different than any they’ve played at the Major League level. It could be soon or a few years down the road, but there are three guys for whom a position switch is possible. For the sake of the conversation, though Jurickson Profar has not played LF this year, that wouldn’t be considered a new position since he’s not only played it at the big league level in the past, but he’s logged over 200 innings there. The below three suggestions feature players and a position which they’ve never played at the big league level.

Nomar Mazara to First Base: I’ve long called for this move. While Maz has a cannon for an arm, he lacks mobility in the outfield and often doesn’t get to balls others do. My thought has been that Maz goes to first and Gallo goes to right, but it doesn’t seem like that imminent or likely in the future. Who knows what the roster will look like in the future and which players they’re trying to fit in where, but I’m not going to rule out Maz to first base somewhere down the road.

Rougned Odor to Left Field: Whereas I don’t see Maz playing first base this year, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Rougie got some time in left. As they try and find playing time for folks upon Elvis’s return with Rougie among them, maybe it’s something they’d consider. Rougie has gotten better at second this year but is still below average at second. Some believe his athleticism might play better in the outfield where he doesn’t have to react as quickly. This, of course, is the year to go ahead and try something like this, even if for just a game.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa to catcher: This is the most likely and maybe he shouldn’t be eligible since he’s caught over over 300 innings in the minors. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a permanent catcher, but there’s a good chance he is a new-breed utility player who catches and plays elsewhere along the infield. If he goes down to AAA, I could see him coming back this year and catching a bit at this level.

*Jon Daniels was given a contract extension last week. Some love him, others don’t. I get it. He’s the most accomplished GM in franchise history and has put together teams capable of winning the World Series in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016. That’s all he can do. He can’t play. My guess is that, among those who don’t like JD, their perception of him would be different if Nelson Cruz makes that catch in 2011. But is that fair? Or what if Ron Washington had put Endy Chavez in right, a player acquired for that purpose? Both of those are out of JD’s control. Is he perfect? No. But no GM is. While people are more inclined to remember his misses, there’s no way the Rangers would be the 5th winningest organization since 2010 if the hits didn’t far outweigh the misses.

Either way, it seems that those who are disgruntled with JD don’t like his moves of late. What really can’t be disputed is the work he did to build a contending team from the basement of the AL West, a task he has ahead of him at the present. He’s already shown his very capable at rebuilding so, beyond the fact that he’s been one of baseball’s most successful GMs over the last 15 years, it makes sense to let him go through another rebuild since he’s 1-for-1 in that department.

*Minor Leaguer to watch: INF Andy Ibanez is arguably the most improved position player in the system. Exclusively at AAA this year, Ibanez, who the Rangers acquired out of Cuba in 2015, is slashing .321/.394/.455 and ranks 11th in the PCL in batting average. The 25-year old can play a few infield positions but he’s probably best hidden at second base. With the Rangers’ long-term hope of building a better defensive unit, his best value might be in a trade, but either way, his great production is very encouraging.