THE BIG HIT | First Catch of the Day

by Ken Napzok

The first piece has fallen. Actually the first TWO pieces of the pitching free agent puzzle have fallen into place. Zack Wheeler is a Phillie and Cole Hamels will be firing strikes for Atlanta next season. And so it begins…

I love the offseason. While the NFL has the better draft with all its pomp, circumstance, and Chris Berman jokes, their offseason is far less flashy. It’s more about head coaches moving about and conversations about salary caps and what Jerry Jones is saying. Major League Baseball’s offseason is always full of surprises, strategy, and robust collection of speculation. While not every baseball fan has the dates of the Winter Meetings marked on their calendars like I did during my high school years, we are all amateur general managers at heart. This why fantasy baseball has always been such a big passion for so many.

It’s also why we listen to retired players and pundits rambling on about who is going where. And hopefully it’s why you’re reading this now. The baseball offseason is just fun.

While catcher Yasmani Grandal was the first big signing of the 2019-2020, this offseason is ALL about those big pitchers. It’s quite a great class, but someone has to make the first move. Cole? Strasberg? Bumgarner? Wheeler? If you had Wheeler in the pool you were sssssoooooo close.

Turns out it was Hamels. The Atlanta Braves gave the 35-year-old a one-year deal worth $18 million. That’s a big win for Hamels. Not saying 35 is too old to earn yourself a big paycheck, but Hamels is two seasons removed from a double win season. Three seasons from being what you’d call a frontline starter. And Cole Hamels will not be earning that money to lead the staff, he’ll helping to mentor it from the backend. And that’s why this is a deal to love if you like to root for this team. 

The club will have Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, and Sean Newcomb walking out to the mound before Hamels. The pressure is off and the money big. Great deal for Hamels despite there being a lot of talk of him wanting to go home to Philadelphia. (Literally. He has a house there.) He’ll turn 36 very soon and as his career begins to wind down, he’ll get to be that veteran leader that he had coming up in Philadelphia. Life is a circle, friends. Life is a circle. 

Though Philly fans aren’t too happy about that.

But here’s where it gets interesting… 

If the going rate for a veteran arm not leading the staff is 18 million for one season, then what are the aces going to get? 

The first answer came fast. The Phillies — perhaps burned by watching Hamels not come home AND sign with a rival — went after Zack Wheeler and got him despite coming in about ten million lower than what the Chicago White Sox offered. Wheeler signed a 5-year, $118 million-dollar contract. That is in the same ballpark as the Patrick Corbin deal with Washington last season. (Their stats at the time of their respective signings are eerily similar as well.) That’s about a 23 million dollar take per season. 

Is Wheeler worth it?

Yes!

Or rather… potentially.

The Phillies needed a frontline starter and while Cole or Strasburg would have been the bigger get, it was not necessarily the most realistic idea for their budget. So Wheeler came into focus. He missed 2015 and 2016 due to Tommy John surgery (so common now that I think you can get one a Jiffy Lube while changing your car’s oil.) and by missing these seasons, the back of Wheeler’s baseball card might make you wonder if he’s done enough to warrant this. He’s never tossed more than 195 ⅓ innings or struck out more than 195 (Both of those coming last season), but all of those nifty new age stats tell a different story. Wheeler had the fourth highest average last season and the expected slugging percentage against his curveball was the 14th highest is baseball. (Oh you didn’t know about xSLG? Do you even baseball, bro?!?!) Other stats, many tweeted by dubious Philly fans, might give you pause. 

However,  Joe Giradi already has Aaron Nola ready to lead and in Wheeler, will be getting a pitcher primed for a breakout season. Which is what happens when you don’t have the Mets’ bullpen coming in after you. 

Zack Wheeler’s career can be broken down, analyzed, and second guessed over each season, each inning, and each pitch, but I’m always going to go with my gut and my gut is that Wheeler found a home in which he is a now well-paid part of an entire team. A key part. An important part, but just a part. He might be cashing big, prime time checks, but he doesn’t need to win twenty, take home a Cy Young, or close out game seven. He just needs to keep this very competitive team in games as they battle the Braves. 

Now if only the Mets had traded him last season instead of watching him walk away for a compensation draft pick and some international bonus pool money. 

Anyway… Hamels and Wheeler have made the first moves. If THAT is the kind of money flying around for them, then hold onto your hats for what’s coming for Cole and Strasburg. 

Transaction Mania

The 45 Minutes South of Los Angeles Angels

Lost in the free agency news of the week was the Angels’ acquisition of right hander Dylan Bundy. Picked up from Baltimore while the world was watching Wheeler and Hamels get new laundry, Bundy brings potential (he’s only 27) and much needed consistency to the Angels rotation. Yeah, he has a gopher ball reputation, leading the majors with 41 home runs allowed in 2018, but Camden Yards plays like one of those whiffle ball stadiums you built in the backyards of your youth. 

The Angels are one of the teams trying for the big splash and Gerrit Cole might end up taking his lunch breaks at Disneyland, but one arm does not win a title. Just like one superstar MVP bat doesn’t automatically get you out of the cellar. Mike Trout knows that very well right now. Some Angels fans might grumble about trading some prospects to get him, but Bundy is one of those pickups that you just might look at later as he’s going for his 15th win down the stretch and say, “Ah, good one.” 

It’s pronounced Millie-walk-eh Brewers

Early fantasy tip alert! Early fantasy tip alert! Having lost Yasmani Grandal, the Milwaukee Brewers reached over to the Seattle Mariners clubhouse and plucked Omar Narvaez for pitching prospect Adam Hill. 

Narvaez is a hit first, glove second kind of backstop, but, hey, you can always figure out how to get those outs later as long as someone is not making those outs at the plate. After three seasons with the White Sox, slugging .429 over 97 games in 2018, Narvaez got a bigger chance in Seattle last season. He was arguably one of their more consistent threats at the plate, finishing with 22 homers, 55 RBI, and an OPS of .813. Though the Brewers will throw some other catchers out there with better gloves, Narvaez is about to play his age 28 season and provides the Brewers their best chance to replace Grandal’s bat. Looking for a cheap source of power in your National League-only fantasy baseball league this coming season, give Narvaez a chance just like the Brewers did. 

But can he close out the ninth?

The New York Mets made a move to add some outfield depth in the wake of losing Wheeler and not signing Dennis Eckerslyy or Mariano Rivera to close games. 

Jake Marisnick is coming back to the N.L. to help shag balls in the outfield and bring his — leans in closer to the stat sheet — career .227/ .280/ .380 slash line. Look, Mets’ fans, we get it. It’s been a tough week watching one of your pitchers leave to a rival, rumors of the team going for Josh Hader in the trade market not sitting well with some the fanbase, and a lot needs still begging to be addressed. But Jake Marisnick isn’t a bad option to log some time out there. Especially when you look at the stat lines of some of last years guys. Juan Lageres — .213 avg. Brandon Nimmo — .221 avg. Carlos Gomez, Keon Broxton, and, well, you get it. Marisnick has pop against lefties, can flash leather with the best of them, and the Mets didn’t have to get rid of the top prospects that a trade target like Starling Marte. It’s not everything you need… but it’s a first step in a direction. Maybe not the best direction… but a direction none the less. Mets fans will just have to take that for now. 

This week in baseball history…

On December 9th, 1965, the Cincinnati Reds sent “aging” slugger Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson. The Reds GM of the time, Bill DeWitt, felt Robinson was not a young 30. It was one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history and another reason to absolutely love baseball’s offseason and the  comings and goings that are never sure things.

Some legends say that the leaders of the National League were angry with the Reds for sending one of their best players over to that no good, dirty upstart junior circuit known as the American League. That might be true. Might not be. But it fits so well into the myth of this trade. DeWitt goes down as the goat here and not the G.O.A.T — but the bungling GM that let it happen. 

However, that’s not entirely true either. DeWitt helped build the 1961 pennant winners and later pulled in players like Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. He was more than competent. He was successful. So why did he trade Robinson?

There is a great article out there from 2013 from the Red Reporter that goes into much more detail, but despite all of his accolades and big time stats Robinson was unhappy in Cincy, had run into some trouble with the law, and threatened to quit baseball in 1963. Robinson and the Reds had stopped being a good fit. I think that’s a no-fault situation on both sides. That happens. It’s life. When it’s time to make a move, you make it. 

Plus, the Reds could hit. They needed pitching. 

Milt Pappas may have a name that makes him sound eternally 65, but in 1965 he was 26 and coming off his seventh straight winning season. (He had been a full-time big league since he was 19) Picking up Pappas and a solid reliever like Jack Baldschun, who had been acquired by the Orioles from the Phillies only three days prior to this trade, along with a working bat in Simpson wasn’t a bad idea on paper. 

But sports are never played on paper. 

Thankfully.

Clearly motivated and ready for a new start, Robinson didn’t just play well for the Orioles in 1966 — he won the triple crown and helped lead the Orioles to a World Series win over the Dodgers. (He was the series MVP as well) The Orioles would go to the Series in ‘69, win it ‘70 over the Reds, and be back in 1971, losing to the Pirates. By 1972, Robinson was traded to the Dodgers and by then his best playing days were behind him. But his barrier breaking managerial career was still forthcoming. 

As for Pappas? He was actually quite serviceable for the ‘66 and ‘67 Reds, winning 16 in the latter campaign. But serviceable doesn’t cut it in the history books up against a future Hall of Famer winning a Triple Crown and World Series. By the end of 1968, Pappas was in Atlanta. He finished in Chicago pitching the Cubs, winning 17 in ‘71 and ‘72, and retiring after the 1973 season with 209 career wins (and 129 career complete games for all you anti-pitch count warriors.) 

Frank Robinson retired in 1976 a legend and part of that legend is the trade that was supposed to signal his end that turned into the next great chapter of a dazzling baseball story. 

Walk Off Quote

“Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.” –  Branch Rickey, Change Maker, December 20th, 1881 – December 9th, 1965


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Ken Napzok once won the triple crown by  eating at three different fast food joints for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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