B/R MLB Roundtable: World Series Dark Horses, Aaron Judge’s Injury Impact and More
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How much trouble does Aaron Judge’s toe injury spell for the Yankees?AP Photo/Ashley Landis
With a couple of weeks having passed since Round 1, it’s time for B/R writers Joel Reuter and Zachary Rymer to sit down for a fresh discussion about the biggest topics from around Major League Baseball in Round 2 of the 2023 MLB Roundtable.
Zachary Rymer: So, Joel. We’re back after almost three weeks away from the roundtable, which at the current exchange rate is something like three dozen new gray hairs. I’d nonetheless describe my spirits as high. Maybe not “Jhoan Duran’s fastball velocity” high, mind you, but high nonetheless.
Joel Reuter: That exchange rate feels about right. I’m actually starting to get a pretty sweet salt-and-pepper thing going in my beard. It makes me feel exponentially more distinguished, maybe I can start to fool some others into thinking the same. Shall we talk some baseball?
ZR: May we both age as well as Bartolo Colón, to whom we would both like to wish a happy retirement.
Who Is the Best Pitcher in MLB Right Now?
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Houston’s Framber ValdezTodd Kirkland/Getty Images
ZR: Speaking of great pitchers, that’s where I’d like to start our chat today.
Is it just me or has 2023 been a rough one for the guys who we typically think of as the best pitchers in the game? Justin Verlander and Sandy Alcántara aren’t living up to their Cy Young-winning performances from last year, and guys like Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole haven’t been themselves, either. Others are hurt, including Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón.
Thus I submit to you: Who is the best pitcher in baseball right now?
JR: I love that Bartolo is just now officially retired, but he’ll be on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2024. What a legend!
You’re absolutely right, it’s been a weird year for high-profile starters. Wild to think that Verlander, Dylan Cease and Alek Manoah were top three in AL Cy Young voting, and Alcántara, Max Fried and Julio Urías were top three in the NL balloting. None of them would get a single vote if the season ended today.
I’m going to take Framber Valdez as the best pitcher in baseball right now. He’s just so consistent. Led the majors with 29 quality starts last year, tied for the AL lead this year with 10 in 12 outings, pitching to a 2.12 ERA through 79 innings. Throw in his stellar postseason track record and that’s enough for me to give him the crown.
ZR: I must confess you’ve caught me off-guard here. You’re not wrong to want to start a Framber fan club, but I had been sitting here anticipating Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen.
With all respect to “Quadzilla,” Gallen’s my guy. He leads all pitchers in fWAR since last year’s All-Star break, and that’s over a non-small sample size of 27 starts and 169 innings. The 2.08 ERA is nice, but arguably even better is that he’s limited hitters to a .240 OBP in this span, the best of any pitcher who’s faced at least 500 hitters.
Even if you look at pitching as an art form, Gallen kinda-sorta makes the grade there, too. I mean, when you’re compared to Greg Maddux, you must be doing something right.
JR: Can’t fault the Gallen pick at all, those two scoreless-inning streaks since last year’s All-Star break made it clear that when everything is clicking he’s basically unhittable. Neither of us mentioned Shane McClanahan, who probably wins the AL Cy Young if the season ends today, so here’s me mentioning him. You’re welcome, Rays fans.
What Are the Odds of Luis Arraez Actually Hitting .400?
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Miami’s Luis ArraezMegan Briggs/Getty Images
JR: Do we think any of those guys we mentioned could strike out Luis Arraez right now?
The Marlins second baseman has his batting average up to .403, and he is working on a ridiculous run of nine multi-hit performances in his last 12 games. Are we finally going to see someone hit .400 for the first time since Ted Williams in 1941?
ZR: A .400 average? In this economy?
There’s at least one good reason to take Arraez’s run at .400 seriously. He’s struck out 11 times all year. Per K%+, he’s having the best contact-hitting season since Tony Gwynn in 1998. He’s creating as many chances for hits as he can, which would bode well even if he didn’t have bat control that nobody else has in today’s MLB.
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If we’re putting numbers on his chances, I’ll go 1-in-82 in honor of how many years have passed since the Splendid Splinter’s splendid season.
JR: I’d put $20 on those odds, but here’s a stat that feels relevant: Arraez is a .349 career hitter during the first half, and a .299 career hitter after the All-Star break. That includes a .338/.289 split last year. He had more than enough cushion to hold on and win the AL batting title last year, but he’s not going to have much wiggle room above .400, if any, this year. I suppose it hasn’t happened in 82 years for a reason.
Here’s a bonus question for you: If he does hit .400, is he the automatic NL MVP winner?
ZR: Oh, interesting. But I’d guess no. I don’t think he’ll even be the MVP of his own division if Ronald Acuña Jr. keeps doing [waves hands emphatically] that.
What’s a Trade That Should Happen This Summer?
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Chicago’s Tim AndersonDuane Burleson/Getty Images
ZR: One thing that’s for sure is that Arraez is making Marlins GM Kim Ng look awful good for making that trade with the Minnesota Twins, so let’s play on that with this: Pitch me a trade that simply has to happen this summer.
JR: For me, the trade that absolutely has to happen is Tim Anderson to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The combination of Miguel Rojas and Chris Taylor isn’t cutting it trying to plug the hole left by a season-ending injury to Gavin Lux. The team’s shortstops rank near the bottom of the league in batting average (.204, 28th) and OPS (.587, 29th), and Rojas has also taken a step backward defensively.
Shortstop is the clear No. 1 item on their summer shopping list, and who else are they going to target? An underperforming Amed Rosario? An overpaid Paul DeJong?
ZR: I have a note in my notes that says, “Just hope Joel doesn’t pick TA to the Dodgers.” Curses. Foiled again. And yeah, given the state of the shortstop market, one would think the White Sox would be in position to mine Los Angeles’ farm system for all it’s worth.
I would like to see the Blue Jays, who suddenly have a Manoah-sized hole in their rotation, load up for the playoffs by acquiring an old friend from the Cubs: Marcus Stroman. He’s another guy who’s been fantastic since the second half of last year, posting a 2.56 ERA over 27 starts. Beyond being a fun reunion, it would be a great fit. He’s a ground-ball pitcher, and they’ve allowed the fourth-lowest average against ground balls.
JR: Love the visual imagery of the 5’7″, 180-pound Stroman trying to fill a hole created by the 6’6″, 285-pound Manoah.
I think that’s a great fit, and even if they build a package around top prospect Ricky Tiedemann, the Blue Jays don’t have the pieces to swing a deal for Shane Bieber, so it’s a logical pivot for a team with a pretty clear need for rotation help.
Where Is the Panic Meter for Yankees and Rangers After Big Injuries?
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Texas’ Jacob deGromSam Hodde/Getty Images
JR: We’re halfway into this roundtable discussion and we haven’t said a word about the Yankees yet. Shame on us. Is it time to sound the panic alarm with Aaron Judge on the injured list for the second time this year?
ZR: Oh, right. The Yankees. Word is they’re a big deal even though they have exactly as many World Series titles as the Marlins and Royals over the last 20 years.
In any case, on a 1-to-10 scale, I’d put the panic meter for the Yankees at a 7.
The good news is that Judge’s toe injury isn’t a season-ender, and one would hope it won’t be a nagging thing after he returns. But every game counts, especially in a division as stacked as the AL East.
Without Judge in their lineup, the Yankees’ chances of winning games are akin to me dunking a basketball. They went 4-6 during his first stint on the injured list and were probably lucky to do even that well.
JR: I’ll take that a few steps further. Since the start of the 2021 season, the Yankees have gone 370-142 (.723) with Judge in the lineup and 15-17 (.469) when he’s watching from the sidelines. There might not be any single player who means more to the success of his team.
Let’s be honest, the Yankees offense just isn’t very good without him. I think I’ll put them at an 8/10 on the panic meter until he proves there are no lingering effects from this injury.
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AARON JUDGE, WHAT A GRAB! pic.twitter.com/snlOXLbt4f
ZR: Clearly we’re both worried about the Yankees without Judge, but what about the Rangers without deGrom?
I feel like this should be a bigger deal, but their 25-10 record since his last start on April 28 is a compelling proof of concept that they’ll be just fine while he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery. They’ll be in more trouble if other members of their rotation also get hurt, but for now, it’s one of the best units in the game even sans deGrom. I can’t push the panic meter any higher than 5/10.
JR: Yeah, I’m honestly not all that worried about the Rangers, considering deGrom didn’t throw a single pitch in May and they went 18-9 without him. I am a bit concerned about potential regression from Jon Gray (2.32 ERA, 4.18 FIP) and Martín Pérez (3.97 ERA, 4.73 FIP), which would put more pressure on their rotation, but their offense takes a lot off the pitching staff’s shoulders. They also have a deep enough farm system to swing an impact deal at the deadline if the rotation does become a concern. Put me at 3/10, I still think they’re a legit World Series contender.
ZR: I suppose there is the question of the post-2023 implications of deGrom’s injury, but…well, this is a 2023 Roundtable, not a Long, Slow March Into the Gaping Maw of Eternity Roundtable.
Who Has Been the Most Disappointing Offseason Addition?
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Philadelphia’s Trea TurnerMitchell Leff/Getty Images
ZR: Anyway, this deGrom talk provides an opportunity to pivot to another question: Who has been the most disappointing addition of the 2022-23 offseason so far?
JR: I was feeling good about my Trea Turner for NL MVP pick when he was crushing everything he saw for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but he has been shockingly bad. For a player who relies heavily on his speed and athleticism, that 11-year contract paying him through his age-40 season could wind up being a disaster.
He’s not just off to a slow start, either. He’s striking out way more (18.5 to 24.2 percent), walking less (6.4 to 5.6 percent), and in a season where 28 players have already recorded double-digit stolen bases, it feels like he should have a lot more than eight steals.
The Phillies recently dropped him down to the cleanup spot in the order, and he went 4-for-5 with two home runs on Monday, so maybe that will unlock something?
Who gets your vote for the most disappointing addition? Will you be sticking with the shortstops who signed a big contract theme?
ZR: I would say Turner has been the most surprising disappointment of this past winter’s additions, but I will indeed stick with shortstops and shake a weary fist at Carlos Correa.
He may be under contract for $100 million less than Turner, but he accounts for 22 percent of the Twins’ payroll. Even setting aside his foot and heel injuries, to have a guy like that posting career-worst numbers across the board is what they call “suboptimal.” And his metrics (including an xSLG 65 points below his career norm) don’t provide much in the way of hope.
Yeah, yeah. The Twins are in first place anyway. But it’s very much in spite of Correa, and one wonders how long it can last.
JR: Have to wonder if the Giants are breathing a small sigh of relief with Aaron Judge on the injured list for a second time and Correa off to such a poor start…
Who Had the Most Exciting Rookie Season of Our Lifetimes?
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Los Angeles’ Mike Trout in 2012Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
JR: Alight, enough doom and gloom with all this talk of injuries, panic meters and the worst offseason additions. Let’s shift the mood with some good old-fashioned nostalgia.
Elly De La Cruz hit a ball into the stratosphere Wednesday night, and the entire baseball world is buzzing about his unicorn-esque skills. Who is the most exciting rookie to burst onto the scene during your lifetime?
ZR: I suppose the obvious pick here is a certain someone who came across the Pacific Ocean in 2001, but I’m instead going to wrap myself in the warm blanket that is Mike Trout’s 2012 season.
It’s hard to fathom just what a sensation he was that year. He hit .326! He cranked 30 home runs! He stole 49 bases! He made that catch in Baltimore and generally played Gold Glove-caliber defense. By the end he had amassed 10.5 rWAR, which is (and it’s hard to believe this is true but it is) almost 2 rWAR better than any other rookie hitter has ever had in a season.
Since it was my first year on the baseball beat, I also won’t forget Trout’s arrival and ascension caused the language of baseball to evolve. It was because of him that WAR became mainstream. The rest is history, as they say.
JR: Excellent pick. I’m not sure I truly appreciated just how good he was while it was happening, and an excellent point on how he really was a driving force in the WAR revolution.
Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols in 2001 are both worthy picks, as is Aaron Judge in 2017, but I’m going back a bit further to a season that helped shape me as a baseball fan.
I grew up 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, and at 10 years old, I was just getting into baseball in 1998 when a 20-year-old Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters against the Houston Astros in his fifth career start. To this day, it’s the most dominant individual performance I’ve ever seen on a baseball field, and I still curse Kevin Orie for misplaying what was his only “hit” allowed that day.
The Cubs went on to make the playoffs that year for the first time since 1989 after some lean years at the onset of my childhood, and I was hooked on our national pastime for life.
ZR: I will stump (and have stumped) for Wood’s 20-strikeout performance as the single-best game ever pitched. What he did that day was simply unreal.
Which Surprise Contender Is a World Series Dark Horse?
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Arizona’s Zac GallenChris Coduto/Getty Images
ZR: Since the Cubs were a surprise contender that year, how about you pitch me on which of this year’s surprise contenders is a dark horse for the World Series? No 2022 playoff teams allowed.
JR: I’ve already mentioned the Texas Rangers are a legitimate World Series contender, but I’m actually going with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
There is not a more underrated one-two punch in baseball than Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, and in a season where the AL seems to have a noticeable leg up on the NL in terms of top-tier teams, it’s not hard to envision a path to the World Series for a D-backs team with a great mix of veterans and rising stars.
They need to go get one more quality starter and a late-inning bullpen arm, but they have the farm system to do it. I’m buying what’s brewing in the desert.
ZR: I’m also on board with the Rangers as a legit World Series contender and otherwise would have heaped praise on the Snakes if you hadn’t done so.
I’ll probably live to regret this, but dare I say nobody should want to play the Angels in a short series?
Shohei Ohtani is the best player in the world, and the World Baseball Classic was the best showcase yet for his clutch gene. Trout simply has to be better than he’s shown so far this year, and I think the bullpen is underrated. Between Carlos Estevez, Jaime Barria, Chris Devenski and Matt Moore, the Angels have a relief foursome with a composite 1.70 ERA.
Of course, the Halos have to get into the playoffs first. But that’s where Judge’s injury and the general meh-ness of the Blue Jays can only help.
JR: Any baseball fan who watched the WBC should be rooting for Ohtani to be playing in October, purely from an entertainment value standpoint.
It’s interesting that we both ignored the Orioles, a team tied with Atlanta for the third-best record in baseball. They’re so much fun to watch, and the future is so bright, but I do have a hard time wrapping my head around Kyle Gibson starting Game 1 for a title contender.
ZR: It’s hard not to get hung up on the Orioles’ starting staff. It’s obviously gotten them this far, but what happens when they have to put Gibson up against a Valdez, a McClanahan, a Cole or an Ohtani? Probably not something good for the O’s.
In any case, I believe we’ve once again solved baseball, Joel.
JR: I’m honestly not sure how it survived these last three weeks without us serving up our takes. Until next time!