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Newsletter Free Preview: Talking Myself Into Zack Cozart

After writing about why I wouldn’t sign Eric Hosmer on Monday, I thought I’d take a look through the top free agents in search of what might be a smarter, more realistic use of money—just in case the Padres are interested in shelling out some dough this winter, that is. In the end, after hemming on Alex Cobb and hawing on C.C. Sabathia, I landed on one name: Zachary Warren Cozart.

Cozart isn’t really my cup of tea at first glance, as he’s coming off a career-year and is already 32 years old. That’s the right combo for a big offseason contract and subsequent underperformance, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a team not yet ready to compete. The good news: Cozart isn’t really treated like a slick-fielding shortstop coming off a five-win year, and the Padres are perpetually looking for an answer at the position. The Reds couldn’t trade him over the summer and then didn’t even give him a qualifying offer after the season, and MLB Trade Rumors—which has him ranked as the 13th best free agent—projects him to get a reasonable three-year, $42 million deal. (Others, like Jon Heyman, Jon Heyman’s expert, and Dave Cameron have him in a similar price range.) Cozart is the rare free agent who flies all the red flags of a potential overpay yet remains comfortably underrated.

Cozart’s really had two different careers. From 2012 through 2014, he was well below average offensively, rarely walking while showing just occasional pop. He was still close to an average player just based on a good glove at short alone, as he racked up 35 DRS over that stretch. Since then, Cozart’s remained a solid (if steadily declining) gloveman, but he’s morphed into a better than average hitter. Counting his breakout this past year, he’s posted the fourth-best wRC+ (114) among regular shortstops since the start of 2015. In 2017, he doubled his career walk rate (12.2 percent) while also easily notching career highs in ISO (.251) and wRC+ (141).

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Newsletter Free Preview: Second-Guessing Dave Roberts

The Sacrifice Bunt Newsletter will almost always feature Padres-centric writing, but occasionally I might branch out into more general baseball stuff. This is one of those times. (As always, any feedback is always appreciated.)

Dave Roberts’ decision to take out Rich Hill after four innings on Wednesday night is easy to defend. Zach Crizer and Dave Cameron (among others) did so yesterday, each noting all the reasons why it made sense. The main argument is that Roberts was being proactive, getting a potentially tiring Hill out of the game before he faced the heart of the Astros order for a third time.

We’ve seen the trend ramping up over the last few postseasons: Managers are increasingly willing to pull their starters early—even good starters, like Hill or Clayton Kershaw—to get into the bullpen, turning the middle and late innings into out-by-out chess matches. The strategy is based primarily on the times-through-the-order penalty, which says, in clear facts and figures, that starting pitchers get worse the more times they run through a lineup. Further, good teams generally have good (and deep) bullpens, so relying on the relief corps early isn’t necessarily a problem.

Hill was pitching well through four. He had racked up seven strikeouts and made some of the best ‘Stros hitters, like Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, look silly against a barrage of ~89 mph hour fastballs and sharp-breaking curves. But Hill had surrendered three walks on the night while allowing a total of five base runners between the third and the fourth alone, and the Astros had the top of the order due up in the top of the fifth. Given the right-handedness of George Springer, Alex Bregman, Altuve, Correa, and Yuli Gurriel, turning things over to the same-handed Kenta Maeda—a hard-throwing revelation in his new relief role—made twice as much sense.

Or did it?

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Newsletter Snippet: Padres Outfield Prospects, Reviewed

The Outfielders

Overview: It’s something of a theme for various areas of the farm, specifically on the position player side, but there’s all kinds of talent here but no slam-bang, no-doubt future superstar. There are enough young, promising players, however, that it wouldn’t be surprising if one emerged over the next year or two. There’s also a nice complement of safer, closer-to-the-majors types, like Franchy Cordero and Franmil Reyes, to balance things out. With Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, and Alex Dickerson already at the big-league level, the Padres should be able to put together solid homegrown outfields for the next half decade, if that’s the route they choose.

  1. Franchy Cordero

If you count his work between Triple-A El Paso and the majors, Cordero had the rare 20/20/20 season in 2017, collecting 24 doubles, 21 triples, and 20 home runs in 518 plate appearances. That feat—plus good defense and base running—gives you a sense of the power-speed game that earned Cordero the top spot on this list.

The problem remains the strikeouts: In 99 plate appearances in San Diego, Cordero whiffed 44 times. After a hot start in the majors, pitchers simply figured out how to exploit the rookie, and in a stretch of 24 plate appearances in late June, he went hitless while striking out 17 times. His strikeout rate in Triple-A was a more manageable (but still high) 28.2 percent.

Cordero’s batting average on balls in play was high at both levels, which is something of a regression concern going forward. He BABiPed .400 with the Padres and a crazy-high .431 in El Paso, where, apparently, even tumbleweeds fall in for hits. That’s a sign he was consistently hitting the ball hard, sure, but also unsustainable. From 2010-2017, the highest BABiP among big-league hitters with at least 1,000 PAs is Miguel Sano’s .362 mark.

If Cordero can cure his swing-and-miss issues, he’s a star in the making. More likely, that problem will accompany his return to the majors, limiting his upside. Ultimately, he’s still a fleet-footed center fielder with speed and power, which is why he sits atop this list despite the obvious faults. He’s got a good shot to be a solid platoon/fourth outfielder, at least, and maybe something more.

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Newsletter Snippet: Padres First Base Prospects, Reviewed

The First Basemen

Overview: Unlike at catcher, there’s not a ton of depth here. Josh Naylor is a bonafide prospect, but the lack of power production keeps him at something less than blue-chip status. Brad Zunica hit 18 home runs in about half a season’s worth of work at Fort Wayne, but that was his second tour of the league, plus he destroys entire ant colonies when he runs at full speed. After Zunica, there’s just not much out there.

That’s not necessarily a problem, however, because most teams aren’t all that keen on developing players at first base. Oftentimes first basemen end up being outfield or third base transplants, so there are plenty of potential eventual candidates spread throughout the system (not to mention Naylor and Zunica). Plus, in theory, an adequate first baseman should be easier to find on the free agent market or, perhaps, through another astute trade.

  1. Josh Naylor

It took former Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso nearly a full decade of professional baseball to tap into the power potential that he showed as a junior at the University of Miami. Alonso connected for 28 round-trippers this season, besting his previous big-league career-high by 19 home runs. He made a conscious effort to—get this—hit more home runs in 2017, and it worked. With the new strategy came more strikeouts, more walks, and an ISO nearly double his previous career mark. Despite a late-season power outage, Alonso emerged as a truly effective hitter for the first time in his career.

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Newsletter Snippet: What Till Next Year

Another baseball season came to close on Sunday, ended for the Padres on a swing by Pablo Sandoval, the broken down former Giants hero whose brief resurgence won San Francisco the finale but cost them the coveted first overall draft pick next June.

For the Padres, with a final tally of 71-91, the results were business as usual. That’s the sixth time in seven years that the Padres have finished with 70-something wins, a stretch that was rudely interrupted only by last year’s 68-win team. On balance, it’s been an unremarkable stretch of bad but not downright terrible performance, shag carpeting and wood paneling repurposed in the form of a baseball team.

This squad was supposed to be really bad, though, projected by most algorithms and talking heads to be the worst team in baseball. In the end, they weren’t—at least if you ignore our old friend Pythagoras. The Padres won more real-life games than expected, outpacing six other clubs, some of which entered April with legitimate playoff hopes (like the Mets and those Giants).

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