MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Michael Wacha's disaster contract year gets worse after demotion to bullpen
Jason Castro, meanwhile, is raising his stock heading into free agency
The 2019 MLB season is now one-third complete. The old adage is you spend the first third of the season evaluating what you have, the middle third making the necessary changes, and the final third riding those changes out. Once the annual amateur draft passes next week, teams will shift into trade deadline mode, and the trade deadline can of course impact free agency.
As we've done all season, we're going to keep tabs on the 2019-20 free-agent class with these weekly stock watch posts, then on the first Thursday of each month we'll update our free-agent power rankings. Here are two impending free agents on the rise and two others trending the wrong way.
What has gotten into the Twins' catchers this season? Minnesota's backstops are second among all catchers in batting average (.295), second in on-base percentage (.372), first in slugging percentage (.672), first in OPS (1.014), and first in home runs (17). Good gravy.
Veteran Jason Castro is a major part of that, hitting .241/.348/.570 with seven home runs in 92 plate appearances. That's after hitting .142/.257/.238 with one home run in 74 plate appearances before season-ending knee surgery last year. It's amazing what having healthy legs under you can do. Castro's contact quality is the best it's ever been this year:
- Exit velocity: 92.6 mph (career 87.4 mph)
- Hard-hit rate: 51.9 percent (career 34.3 percent)
Based on his exit velocity and launch angle and all that, Statcast calculates Castro's expected slugging percentage at .669. He's crushing the ball this year. Also, Castro remains a solid defender with a strong arm and near elite framing numbers. Now that he is healthy, Castro is a contributor on both sides of the ball.
Quality catching is always in demand and, as a left-handed hitter, Castro is on the heavy side of the platoon. A long-term contract is not happening with his 32nd birthday a month away. I think his absolute floor is the one-year, $5.75 million contract Robinson Chirinos signed over the winter. Even with the understanding Castro (probably) won't slug .600-ish all year, I could see him getting two years and $12 million or so. Never underestimate how many teams need catching each winter.
Let's start with the obvious: Reds righty Tanner Roark has an unsustainably low home-run rate through 11 starts and 56 1/3 innings. He's sitting on a 0.32 HR/9 despite a minuscule 33.8 percent ground-ball rate, and he's doing it in the juiced ball era and in a home ballpark known for giving up homers. For his career Roark has a 0.91 HR/9 and 10.1 percent of his fly balls have left the yard. This season it's 3.6 percent. That's going to correct itself at some point.
Now, that said, Roark is also running a career high (by far) strikeout rate at 24.0 percent, and changes to his pitch selection help explain it. Roark has roughly doubled his slider usage this year while scaling back on everything else (sinker, curveball, changeup, cutter) to compensate.
Year after year, sliders generally have the highest swing-and-miss rate among all pitch types in baseball, and Roark specifically has created more empty swings with his slider than any other pitch. More sliders, more strikeouts. Makes sense, no? Contact is bad, especially these days given the emphasis on exit velocity, so Roark's found a way to avoid it as much as possible.
There is little chance Roark will finish the year with his current 3.20 ERA given the looming home-run rate correction. As long as he keeps up the strikeouts, however, and continues to chew up innings as he's done his entire career, Roark is setting himself up nicely going into free agency. Roark's slipping strikeout numbers in recent years created concern about his future. Now that's corrected that a bit, he'll go into free agency with a shot at multiple years around $10 million annually.
Gosh, Matt Harvey's supposed bounce-back year could not be going worse. After getting tattooed for four homers and eight runs in 2 2/3 innings by an admittedly excellent Twins lineup last week, Harvey was placed on the injured list with an upper back strain. He'll resume throwing Monday with an emphasis on correcting some mechanical issues.
"It'll be nice to have a little bit of time off and get working on my mechanics so when I do come back it's all hashed out and ready to go," Harvey said. "I have a responsibility to these guys in the clubhouse. I have to do everything I can to get back to where I want to be and where I know I can be."
"I didn't want to tell anybody about it," Harvey said. "It's me being stubborn and trying to fight through things. The last thing I wanted to do was be on the DL again, but clearly, it wasn't something I could work through. It was kind of hurting my performance."
Beyond the 7.50 ERA and .277/.353/.527 opponent's batting line, the underlying numbers on Harvey are not good. His velocity is down across the board ...
... and his fastball spin rate is down approximately 10 percent from his heyday. Watch him pitch and it is obvious: Harvey's stuff is nowhere near as good as it was before his 2016 thoracic outlet syndrome and 2017 shoulder stress reaction. Add in his 2013 Tommy John surgery and those are three serious arm injuries. Each one on its own can sabotage a career. Harvey had all three.
Fair or not, there are off-the-field concerns with Harvey as well (partying, mostly), so the redeeming qualities are few and far between. The Angels gave him one year and $11 million hoping he would recapture past glory. Given his name value and the fact he will turn only 31 in March, I am certain another team will give Harvey a one-year deal this winter and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. That one-year deal might only be $2 million or $3 million this time though, and if this back injury lingers, a minor-league contract is a distinct possibility.
Following an injury-interrupted (oblique) but generally successful 2018 season, Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha came into 2019 with a chance to significantly increase his free-agent stock. He is still only 27 (28 in July) and his track record is quite strong. With a healthy and productive year, Wacha could've been looking at a nine-figure payday in free agency.
Instead, after nine miserable starts (5.59 ERA in 46 2/3 innings), Wacha was demoted to the bullpen earlier this week, and life as a reliever didn't start well either. The Phillies bludgeoned Wacha for six runs, including three homers, in one inning Wednesday night. He's now sitting on a 6.61 ERA with a ghastly 2.27 HR/9. Also, his 14.2 percent walk rate is among the highest in the league. It has been an all around ugly season for Wacha, at least to date.
The numbers are ugly. The larger issue -- and the root cause of his rough season -- is the overall decline in Wacha's stuff. His fastball is down roughly 1.5 mph from last year, when it was down roughly 1.5 mph from the year before. Moving to the bullpen didn't help either -- Wacha's heater averaged 92.7 mph Wednesday after going into the game with a 92.4 mph season average. For a guy with a few arm injuries in his history, that's worrisome.
The good news? Wacha's trademark changeup is still a decent pitch. The swing-and-miss rate on his changeup has increased from 31.7 percent in 2017 to 33.1 percent in 2018 to 35.8 percent early in 2019, and the expected slugging percentage on the pitch has dropped from .381 to .335 to .243 during the same time period. A changeup you can dream on and the relative youth will be Wacha's saving grace going into the winter.
Given his age and pedigree, Wacha will undoubtedly be cast as an "upside play" in the offseason, even if he finishes the season with an ERA over 6.00. I have little doubt teams will line up to make him one-year contract offers. Can he salvage his season enough to get multiple years? Or would it make sense to take one year and try to rebuild value anyway?
I'm a "get as much as you can while you can because careers can be short, especially for pitchers" guy, but in Wacha's case, I could see him going the one-year "prove yourself" contract route. Even with a dreadful year, $12 million or so might be within reach on a one-year deal. That's still a far cry from what he could've been in position to receive this winter.
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