Yep, that’s right; I’ve decided to make this a running series.
Not that Free Agent Focus will be a long-running series, mind you; the offseason will not stay cold forever, and signings will start up before long, I have to believe. However, using such time as we have until then, I thought it might be useful to make these free agent scouting reports into a recurring feature for now. Maybe we get a dozen players profiled, and we’re all richer for having taken a look at some of the names not sitting atop the pyramid of fame and potential earnings this offseason.
Michael Brantley, OF
6’2”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Age during 2019 season: 32
2018 Stats: 631 PA, .309/.364/.468, 124 wRC+, 7.6% BB, 9.5% K, 3.5 WAR
- When healthy, hugely productive hitter
- Left-handed bat would help balance lineup
- Outstanding contact skills
- No qualifying offer
- Extreme contact hitter
- 32 years old
- Substantial recent health issues
- Declining athleticism
- Middling power output
I’m starting with Michael Brantley here because his name has been swirling about a bit lately in connection with the Cardinals. Jon Morosi just tweeted out a couple days ago the Cards are, “maintaining interest in free agent Michael Brantley,” which is of course just as vague and useless as anything you’re likely to hear in the offseason. The reaction to said tweet was, however, pretty predictable at this point, with the usual mixture of fatalism, front office hatred, and snarky carping about the Cardinals’ endless failures to ever do anything worthwhile.
Melodramatic wailing aside, it’s understandable that the reaction to a Cardinal signing of Michael Brantley, when the speculation and wishcasting has all been pointed toward Bryce Harper, would be one of severe underwhelmedment. Underwhelmedness? Whatever the noun for the state of being underwhelmed is. Brantley is certainly not a bad player, by any means; he’s just not a franchise-changer at this point in his career.
The thing is, though, Brantley by himself would really make no sense, but Brantley as part of a larger realignment certainly could. He’s a left-handed hitter with a fantastic contact profile who projects for an .800 OPS and 117 wRC+ in 2019. Given how thin the Cardinals are in terms of left-handed hitters, bringing in Michael Brantley to work as a time-share corner outfielder with Marcell Ozuna and Tyler O’Neill could offer the Cards a significant weapon at what should be a relatively moderate cost.
There are however, downsides to consider. Brantley was an extremely durable player earlier in his career, averaging over 600 plate appearances per season from 2012-’15. He has not, unfortunately, been nearly so dependable in recent seasons, missing nearly all of 2016 with shoulder and biceps problems, and almost half the 2017 campaign with ankle issues. He did rebound to play a full season in 2018, but the recent track record is still concerning.
The situation with Brantley for the Cardinals is essentially this: if Dexter Fowler is on the 2019 club, Brantley is probably a no-go. He and his two and a half win projection for next year are certainly a better bet to place than a Fowler resurgence, yes, but not to the point you force the move. If Harper is a realistic option, you make it happen and worry about how to reshape the roster around him. Brantley does not fall in that same category of player.
However, if the Cardinals do not end up getting Harper, but make upgrades elsewhere and are able to move Fowler this offseason, then Brantley could become a very attractive piece. For instance, in the cases of either a Paul Goldschmidt acquisition or a Josh Donaldson signing, the Cards would be adding a right-handed bat to help anchor the offense from the center. A lefty who play the outfield corners to complement Ozuna and O’Neill at that point would make all the sense in the world. Putting Brantley into somewhat more of a timesharing role at this point in his career might be best for him anyway, and a rotating cast of four outfielders, with Harrison Bader taking the majority of the center field time and O’Neill backing him up, could be extremely productive.
In short, any offseason solution that involves Michael Brantley is almost certainly much more complicated than simply signing a Bryce Harper and planting him in the cleanup spot. If, however, the major offensive addition comes at one of the corner infield spots, Brantley’s name could — and maybe even should — come up as part of a larger plan.
Drew Pomeranz, LHP
6’6”, 240 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Left
Age during 2019 season: 30
2018 Stats: 26 G, 11 GS, 74 IP, 6.08 ERA, 5.43 FIP, 19.2% K, 12.8% BB
- Was worth roughly 7.5 bWAR in 2016-2017
- Should be cheap coming off disastrous season
- Young enough at 30 to hope for bounceback
- Has very good career splits against LHH
- No qualifying offer
- Experience pitching out of both starting rotation and bullpen
- May not be a good pitcher
- Long-term durability questions
- Seriously, might not be good anymore
I don’t want to say we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, because we’re not. Not at all. However, it’s fair to acknowledge that a signing of Drew Pomeranz would be strictly a reclamation attempt, trying to sign a player at one of the lowest points of his value and hope your coaching staff can help him regain some vestige of his previous form.
The thing is, Pomeranz had an incredibly disappointing career for the first several years he was in the big leagues, being both very bad and extremely fragile the vast majority of the time. He kept kicking around, however, helped in large part by the same thing which helped keep Andrew Miller in the mix for so long: to wit, being left-handed and a pitcher does amazing things for a player’s desirability on the market. Finally, in 2014 he landed with the Oakland Athletics and threw reasonably well, working half the time in starting roles and half the time in the bullpen. He returned to the A’s in 2015 and pitched even a little better, albeit primarly out of the ‘pen rather than half and half. Good health was one of the primary drivers for Pomeranz to succeed in Oakland, but he also made meaningful improvements to his repertoire and command as well. He moved on to San Diego to begin 2016 and was excellent, but when the team tanked around him he was dealt to Boston, where he continued to pitch well. He was very good again in 2017, posting nearly four wins of value in under 175 innings.
And then, well...2018 happened. And Pomeranz went back to being hurt, and being not very good, once again just as he had from 2011-’13. The strikeouts fell, the walks rose. He lost a full two miles an hour off his fastball, and for the first time in his career his curveball was a negative value proposition. In fact, the curveball wasn’t just a negative; it was one of the least valuable pitches on a rate basis in all of baseball.
So why, you may be asking, would Pomeranz be an attractive free agent signing?
Well, the simple answer is, “he wouldn’t.” The more complicated answer, however, is, “well, he wouldn’t, unless he were cheap and you felt a role change or coaching might help him regain his form.”
At this point, the best way forward for Pomeranz might very well be a move back to the bullpen more or less full time, where he can used the fact he’s been a starter in the past to hopefully have a little extra stamina over a standard one-inning reliever. In shorter bursts, maybe the arm speed comes back some more, pushing his fastball back up and increasing the spin on his curve enough to make it a plus pitch again.
To be clear, I don’t think Drew Pomeranz should be any kind of Plan A or B for a team looking to upgrade. However, at 30 years old he’s still young enough it’s possible to see a relief role leading to a second act for the former top prospect, and without a ton of really attractive left-handed options on the market this offseason he might represent one of the better lefty relief signing possibilities, or at least one of the ones with the highest ceiling.
Jose Iglesias, SS
5’11”, 194 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Age during 2019 season: 29
2018 Stats: 464 PA, .269/.310/.389, 90 wRC+, 4.1% BB, 10.1% K, 2.5 WAR, 9.7 UZR/150
- Very valuable glove at shortstop
- Good contact ability
- Positive baserunning value most years
- Not a good hitter
- Questionable whether he’s actually better defensively than Paul DeJong
- Has never collected 500 PAs in a single season
- No power at all
Here’s a name that keeps getting thrown around by a certain segment of the fanbase, as well as one or two specific members of the media covering the team. The idea goes something like this: “Since the Cardinals won’t spend the big money on a big bat, and also had the worst defense in baseball because errors, then what they should do is sign a great glove for shortstop and move Paul DeJong to third base because he’s not really a shortstop.”
The idea of Paul DeJong not being a shortstop seems to be somewhat based on the fact he’s over six feet tall and white, whereas shortstops are supposed to be waterbug-bodied Latin players, and the fetishisation of the position specifically seems to be rose-coloured glasses for the days of Whiteyball. (Not that I didn’t love watching Ozzie Smith; there just seems to be a really puzzling romanticism for that era, considering that it was a good era, yes, but nowhere near as dominant as the mid-60s clubs, or pretty much the whole of the 2000s, or most of this current decade, either.)
So anyhow, here’s the thing: I can understand and appreciate the idea of going all-in on a smothering defense, particularly considering you have a pitching staff that tends to be groundball heavy. I myself have mildly advocated for a similar approach with Jean Segura, should he be placed on the trade market, with he and DeJong sharing the left side of the infield in one configuration or another. However, Iglesias has been such a poor hitter in the past that even with his glove generally being very highly thought of (DRS and plus/minus actually both see him as a much more average defender than UZR), he hasn’t been anything more than an average player. Now, if he were to hit going forward the way he did in 2018, while putting up +5-10 defensive ratings at short, then maybe you’ve got something worth investing in. At that point he’s basically Kolten Wong, only at shortstop, and that’s a pretty valuable player.
However, it’s not at all clear that 2018 represents a new level for Iglesias, rather than a simple moderate uptick in the course of a Cesar Izturis-y career path. Plus, his defensive metrics as a whole paint him as a good, but not otherworldly, sort of defender who really doesn’t move the needle over DeJong himself. (For reference, DeJong’s UZR/150 in 2018 was 9.3, just a tick worse than Iglesias, while his +/- and DRS ratings were both +14, far better than Iglesias’s +1 and +2, respectively. And yes, I know one-year samples on defensive metrics and all that, but that’s all we have at this point for DeJong.) Pauly D probably isn’t as good going forward as he appeared to be in 2018, but I think he’s easily an above-average defender at shortstop, and the distance from him to Iglesias, even if we’re generous and believe him to be the best version any of the numbers suggest he might be, just isn’t all that far.
More importantly, the real question isn’t whether Iglesias over DeJong at short would represent any kind of upgrade; the question is whether Iglesias would be a better bet to place than, say, Josh Donaldson to play third base, or Jean Segura in a trade, or Paul Goldschmidt to man first with Matt Carpenter holding down third. I really, really don’t believe he would be. I think the most optimistic view of Iglesias might push him toward being a three-win player; all of those other options represent much higher realistic ceilings.
The bottom line is this: Iglesias is, in the minds of some fans, the next best thing to getting Andrelton Simmons. And honestly, he might be the next best thing, or at least the most similar realistic philosophical move. But in terms of the actual quality of the player, he’s nowhere near Simmons. And he’s nowhere near the best upgrade the club could make.