The Manny Machado Watch has intensified over the past couple of weeks. In some ways, that’s hard to believe. After all, this has been going on since last winter, when the Baltimore Orioles‘ star infielder was reportedly first aggressively shopped during December’s winter meetings. Still, the watch has intensified as we move toward the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of the month. Everything transaction-related seems to be in limbo until the Manny Watch is resolved.
Last week, as part of my monthly Stock Watch rundown of the probability shifts around baseball, I incorporated a kind of automated Manny Watch into the proceedings. The point there was to virtually trade Machado to every team in the majors and see how doing so affected everything from win forecasts to World Series odds.
Hopefully your takeaway was that as great as Machado is, as with all rental-type acquisitions, he should be viewed more as a tipping-point kind of player than anything else. That’s just how baseball works. Machado might make a difference for a team trying to emerge from a cluster of similarly talented teams but, by himself, he wouldn’t make a fringe contender into an elite one.
Today, let’s approach the same topic with a little more art than craft by answering a question that I’ve been asked a lot over the past couple of weeks: From my viewpoint, which contender would reap the most benefit from acquiring Machado? While I refer to the math I laid out in the Stock Watch as a jumping-off point, today I want to get into some of the more subjective reasons why I slot the possible landing spots for Machado the way that I do.
I’ll keep my focus on the 12 teams that currently have at least a 1 percent shot at winning the World Series according to my latest round of simulations. I’ll do them in reverse order.
12. Houston Astros: The Astros will almost certainly be targeting bullpen help over the next few weeks. There is just no reason for them to use any of their movable prospect stock on a Machado rental. Shortstop Carlos Correa hasn’t been on top of his game this season, but that’s actually a good sign for Houston, which has a couple of areas ripe for positive regression. The torrid Alex Bregman would be the leading National League MVP candidate if Houston still played in that circuit. Jose Altuve is having a Jose Altuve season at second base. Even left field, a little bit of a weak spot in the Houston lineup, could become an impact slot if prospect Kyle Tucker produces.
11. Washington Nationals: Perhaps Machado would be more of a target for the Nats if there was reason to think that Daniel Murphy was not going to hit his stride. After a slow start upon his return from injury, Murphy has started to put up numbers. I guess you could argue that Murphy could be bumped over to first base, with Anthony Rendon moving to second to make room for Machado. But why? The Nats need to focus on upgrading behind the plate and adding a couple of arms.
10. Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have been a fixture in the Machado rumor mill for months now, but I’m just not seeing it. The Cubs prize the continuity and depth of their position player group. They’d have to break that up in order to land Machado because they don’t have the pitching prospects to swing a deal. Machado may be a better player than shortstop Addison Russell overall, but Russell has been one of the game’s best defenders this season and, at 24, still has three more seasons of team control remaining. The marginal upgrade just isn’t worth it, especially when Chicago needs to add pitching. The Cubs’ position group — whether it’s offense, defense or baserunning — is one of baseball’s best. Sure, Machado helps, but the Cubs have other fish to fry.
9. Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox are so blistering hot right now that it’s hard to see any needs in their profile. I still think they could get better offensively behind the plate, which isn’t a need Machado addresses. According to baseball-reference.com, Boston ranks last in second base WAR and 29th at third base. Machado would be an impact upgrade for a team on pace to win well over 100 games. Boston is strong enough across the board that it doesn’t necessarily need to target a splashy move. In fact, you can make a good argument that the Red Sox would get more net value in a trade by adding a defense-first type who can help situationally in the middle of the infield. But the biggest reason why Boston should possibly target Machado is simply to keep him away from the Yankees.
8. Atlanta Braves: Things have settled down for the Braves, but they remain in the thick of the race for the NL East crown. Atlanta is getting by fine with a left-side infield combo of shortstop Dansby Swanson and third baseman Johan Camargo. If the Braves do want to add a bat and convert Camargo to a utility role, Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas makes more sense on the balance sheet and he’d be a great fit for SunTrust Park. He’d also cost less in prospect value, and the Braves may need to convert some of their organizational depth into bullpen help.
7. Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are in a similar spot to Atlanta. They have had issues with infield production, but they have young players — Scott Kingery, Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford — who might be in for better second halves. Franco’s recent play has improved markedly, for instance. They have a deep system and their window to contend is just opening. But the Phillies have been aggressive since last winter, and if the NL East crown is in their sights, then a run at Machado makes a lot of sense. Despite Franco’s improvement, the Phillies rank 26th in WAR by third basemen and 28th at shortstop. Maybe Kingery and Crawford can improve that showing. Machado definitely can. But the thing I keep coming back to with the Phillies: Why deal a top pitching prospect for a player you’re going to likely go all out to sign this winter anyway?
6. St. Louis Cardinals: The floundering Cardinals have bigger needs than infield help, especially now that Paul DeJong is back from the disabled list. But this is a middling offensive group that could use the jolt of another power bat, regardless of where it comes from. St. Louis also has a lot of near-ready minor league depth in starting pitching, which seems to be the top priority on Baltimore’s wish list. When you consider the heightening agitation of the St. Louis fan base and the glaring need for bullpen help — which any team trading for Machado can seek in a package from the Orioles — you can see the fit.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers: In terms of positional need, I’m not sure there is a desperate one for Machado in Los Angeles. Sure, second base has been a weak spot, and if you trade for Machado, then Chris Taylor can be a bigger part of the answer there, assuming the amazing Max Muncy doesn’t take over the position. The Dodgers have the prospect depth to deal from. But if the Dodgers are going to break their title drought, they are going to need more arms for the bullpen. They don’t have a ton of room under the luxury tax threshold to bring in Machado and address the relief core, though the possibility of moving money out is always there.
4. New York Yankees: I don’t know if Justus Sheffield was part of the Yankees’ reported offer for Machado. What I do know is that if he was, that raises the ante for everybody. That would mean that an organization’s top pitching prospect is on the table and to beat that offer, you better put yours on there as well. Really, though, the Yankees don’t need Machado, who, as far as I can tell, is not a candidate to fill New York’s need for rotation help. However, I could see this happening if New York were to think that Boston is serious in its Machado pursuit. If Machado is a tipping-point player, the race between New York and Boston is clearly one he could tip.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks’ run to the wild card last season probably would not have happened if not for Mike Hazen’s aggressive acquisition of J.D. Martinez. Lately it feels like the Snakes are barely hanging on and that a similar splash is needed. Otherwise, Arizona could watch the Dodgers, Giants and even the Rockies race past them in the NL West. This isn’t that young of a group. A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin will be free agents after the season and Paul Goldschmidt likely will be in the same spot next season. I’m not sure the Diamondbacks could win a bidding war for Machado, but he would be a massive upgrade at shortstop for them.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: I’d hate for the Brewers to burn a top pitching prospect like Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff. Unlike the Yankees, who can more readily fill rotation gaps in the free-agent market, it’s imperative that the Brewers keep their internally developed pitching coffers full. Still, the National League is ripe for a breakthrough team this season. Milwaukee can be that team. The Brewers could use a starting pitcher, if only to ensure that they don’t exhaust their dynamic bullpen, but Milwaukee should get Jimmy Nelson back at some point and it has managed to find rotation answers when it has needed to over the past couple of years. However, Machado would be a huge upgrade in the middle of the infield. The Brewers could dangle one of those pitching prospects and the talented but struggling shortstop Orlando Arcia as a start. The Milwaukee system is a deep one that was built to capitalize on situations exactly like this.
1. Cleveland Indians: To be sure, if Cleveland doesn’t shore up its bullpen, the Indians will be a quick out this fall. But Cleveland also has some weak spots in the field. By targeting a package for Machado, Zach Britton and maybe Brad Brach, the Indians would narrow what seems like a sizable roster gap between themselves and the power trio of New York, Boston and Houston. The window in Cleveland is starting to close, and with a starting rotation that can beat anyone else’s, now is the time to go all-in. This, after all, is a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in 70 years.
What the numbers say
Ranking the managers
Recently I’ve been reading 1997’s “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers,” which, somehow, I’d never gotten around to even though I’m pretty sure I bought it when it came out. In the middle of it, James outlines a couple of methods for ranking managers, a process that he very much did not want to become the main topic of the book. I understand: Once you put something into a rankings format, it overwhelms everything else you write.
One method James outlined was to assign points to each manager for each season based on what his team accomplished. He awarded four points for winning a championship, three for a pennant, two for winning a division and one point for finishing over .500. Bonuses were given for finishes at least 20 games over .500 and for winning 100 games.
It was a simple and elegant method, as so many of James’ techniques are. But the results are now more than 20 years old and as best I can tell, updated numbers haven’t been calculated since the book came out. James has since published another article on rating managers for Hall of Fame worthiness, but the methodology there is a little more complicated, so we’ll go with the points method for now.
Rating managers empirically always has been an iffy proposition. I’ve tried to do it before in an attempt to create a “wins-added” metric that could be incorporated into my season projection efforts. I’ve never come close to finding something that works. Still, I am a curious sort, so I updated James’ numbers using manager data from the Lahman database.
Here is the current all-time top 10:
John McGraw, 80 points
Joe McCarthy, 73
Connie Mack, 72
Bobby Cox, 64
Tony La Russa, 60
Joe Torre, 58
Casey Stengel, 52
Walter Alston, 51
Sparky Anderson, 49
My numbers don’t match up with James’ exactly; I think it’s because of how he handled seasons in which a manager was replaced. McCarthy had two of those seasons (1946 and 1950) and he had a winning record in both campaigns, despite not finishing the season. James seemingly doesn’t give him points for those seasons. I have, which is enough for McCarthy to finish one point ahead of Mack.
But note the three recent (but retired) skippers in there — Cox, La Russa and Torre. At the time James’ book was published, Cox (tied for 20th) was the highest-ranking active manager.
What about today’s active managers? Glad you asked:
Terry Francona, 31 points
Bruce Bochy, 30
Mike Scioscia, 29
Joe Maddon, 24
Ron Gardenhire, 18
Buck Showalter, 18
Mike Matheny, 13
Bob Melvin, 12
Don Mattingly, 11
Ned Yost, 11
These 10 skippers are the only ones who have cracked double digits for their career. As you can see, all of them have some work ahead if they want to crack the all-time top 10.
Meanwhile, our five rookie managers — Dave Martinez, Alex Cora, Mickey Calloway, Aaron Boone, Gabe Kapler — combine for zero career points. They’ve never managed before. Still, it made me wonder if this current group — devoid of historical leaders and long in rookie skippers — is unusually green.
The answer: Not really. The average manager this season has 8.3 years of big league experience, including this season. That’s a little ahead of last year’s average of 8.1. In 2015, the average was 6.4, which was the lowest since 1992.
We don’t know how this year will play out, but last year, the group of managers finished the campaign with a combined 302 career manager points. That was up from 275 the year before, but it was nothing unusual. The average manager had 9.1 career points, which was just under the historical average of 9.5.
Finally, if you ever want to argue with someone about which season had the most accomplished group of managers, here are some starting points: The all-time record for career points average for a group of managers in any one season is 17.3, set in 1950. That was Connie Mack’s last season, McCarthy’s last season (though he didn’t finish it) and included other stalwarts in Billy Southworth, Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel.
The first half of the 20th century dominates the leaderboard — the top 22 seasons for average career points per manager all happened before 1951. However, if we want to focus just on the division era (since 1969), the late 2000s and early 2010s dominate the list:
The leader, 2009, was the last season in which Cox, Torre and La Russa all still managed, but other longtimers were active as well: Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella and Mike Scioscia.
Since you asked
Slowing things down pays off
One first-time All-Star this year is Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz, who has harnessed his high-octane stuff and become a consistent top-of-the-rotation performer for one of baseball’s breakout clubs.
Foltynewicz has become less and less fastball reliant with each passing season. That includes this season when, according to fangraphs.com, his average heater is 96.6 mph, just shy of his career high and 1.3 mph faster than a season ago. But he now throws his slider more than 26 percent of the time and, according to Fangraphs’ pitch value metrics, that pitch has become his bread and butter. His strikeout rate has jumped 2.26 whiffs per nine innings, all the way to 10.62. Foltynewicz is one of just eight NL starters who already has reached two WAR this season.
I discussed Foltynewicz’s improvement with him last month, two days after he threw a two-hit shutout against the Nationals at SunTrust Park.
It’s been a nice run for you, capped by that shutout the other night. What’s been the biggest thing for you in taking the next step with your career?
Mike Foltynewicz: Slowing things down. Once I’m on the mound, in the past when I’d get in trouble, or things weren’t going my way, I’d kind of speed things up. Either that or just go out there and try to throw as hard as I can. You see how that goes. Now I just take things pitch by pitch. Just really focus on the task at hand instead of wondering who’s on deck or who is coming up next. Mechanical-wise, it’s just slowing things down there too. Not getting too much movement going on. Staying solid over the rubber and attacking the zone.
I always like to ask guys who come up with a lot of raw stuff, is there a point where it just becomes clear that you just can’t out-velocity hitters at this level?
MF: I know, it’s crazy. I realized that real quick, back in ’14 and ’15. I’m still learning today that you can’t use that all the time because, I remember Chipper Jones telling me a few years ago, these guys hit town in jet planes. When you’re doing it consistently and keep throwing fastballs, they’re going to hit it. You’ve got to get consistent with your off-speed — curveballs, sliders, changeups. That was a big key, too, knowing that you have 97-98 in the back pocket, and can go out and pitch 92 to 95 and hit your corners. Get guys off the plate and expand the zone with your off-speed. It’s just going out there and learning how to pitch.
It definitely seems like for all the excitement there has been here about the coming wave of talent, it’s come together more quickly than people thought. Was there a point, maybe in spring training, where you looked around and just realized, hey, we might be pretty good right now?
MF: Absolutely. At the end of last year, you kind of see what is going to happen, but I hadn’t seen much of the younger dudes, like [Ozzie] Albies and [Mike] Soroka. [Sean] Newcomb, I had heard great things about him. All of a sudden spring training comes and you actually see these guys play every day and it’s just like, oh, my goodness. These guys are the real deal. That was just an exciting point of spring, getting the fans excited for the early part of the year. Then they show up and just rolling off spring training and it’s just fun. I love watching these guys play.
Coming right up
A virtual certainty
It’s All-Star week! You already knew about that and everything that goes with it. The All-Star break is a time to exhale and escape from reality for a few days. Or, if you prefer, to escape into virtual reality.
Of course you know about the Home Run Derby, which you can track live on ESPN as you watch it. This year, however, Major League Baseball will crown a fan as its virtual home run champion.
As someone who grew up fantasizing about Star Trek-style holodeck technology, this is almost eerie. But the intersection of VR and big-time sports was inevitable. Early this year, MLB became the first professional sports league to release its own VR product, which ostensibly allows you to participate in a home run hitting contest in various venues.
This weekend, from Friday through Sunday, fans in D.C. can hit the All-Star FanFest or PLAY BALL Park and play a VR version of the derby specifically designed for Nationals Park. Want to feel what Max Muncy will feel Monday night? Now is your chance.
You hold a real bat, but the pitches and the backdrop will all be simulated — as I understand it, it will be like you’re hitting in the same venue as Bryce Harper. You hit as many homers as you can for 90 seconds. The top 32 players will be matched up bracket style in a tournament that begins at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday.
This is all for fun, of course, but I’ve been interested in virtual reality as it pertains to skills development in baseball for the past year. It seems like we’re getting close to a world in which, say, Mike Trout wants to improve his ability to hit high fastballs. Well, load up Walter Johnson into the VR machine and go to work.
And maybe it’s personal bias, but doesn’t it seem like baseball is perfectly suited to integrate these types of technologies?