MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Zack Wheeler, Rick Porcello off to rough starts in contract years
On the other hand, Michael Pineda and Drew Pomeranz are showing encouraging signs
In what qualifies as a minor miracle, the 2019-20 free-agent class did not lose any players to contract extensions this past week. Big names like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt pulled themselves off the market in recent weeks. Rather than try to maximize their earning potential in free agency, they took the guaranteed money now. Can't say I blame them.
The 2019 season is two weeks old and, truthfully, no player has increased or decreased their free-agent stock in a meaningful way. Unless there is an injury involved, two weeks is nothing in baseball. Guys have good and bad two-week stretches all the time. As far as free agency goes, we're still in wait-and-see mode. There is a lot of baseball to be played before the offseason.
That won't stop us from checking in on impending free agents throughout the summer, of course. Here is a pitcher-heavy edition of our weekly free-agency stock watch series. Once a month we'll update our top free-agent rankings as well. Away we go ...
Could Michael Pineda be this season's Nathan Eovaldi? There is a chance. Pineda is returning from Tommy John surgery this year -- Eovaldi returned from his second Tommy John surgery last year -- and he'll get to strut his stuff in a contender's rotation all summer. ( )
So far, so good for Pineda. He's allowed two runs in nine innings while being held to a strict pitch count in his two starts, and, more importantly, he is missing bats. Ten strikeouts (31.3 percent of batters faced) with an above-average 13.3 percent swing-and-miss rate is vintage Pineda. His slider is snapping out of the strike zone.
Pineda's velocity is worth watching going forward. He is mostly 90-92 mph right now whereas he routinely sat 95-97 mph before Tommy John surgery. The Twins are taking it easy on Pineda -- that's a smart move for them and a good move for Pineda and his long-term health -- so he's still building arm strength. Those 95-97 mph fastballs might be back in a few weeks.
There are two components to Pineda's free-agent stock. One is health and the other is performance. We're in wait-and-see mode with the latter. As for the former, the early returns are promising. Pineda is throwing well and there is plenty of life and action on his fastball/slider combination. That's what I wanted to see early this season. Some semblance of the old Pineda.
Barring an absolutely incredible season, I can't see Pineda getting an Eovaldi contract next winter (Lance Lynn contract this coming offseason ( ).). Eovaldi is younger and there was a sentimental "thanks for the World Series" component to his contract. With a good, healthy season though, I could see Pineda landing a
Fun fact: Drew Pomeranz threw 344 1/3 innings with a 3.32 ERA with a strong 24.9 percent strikeout rate from 2016-17. He did that while playing his home games in hitter-friendly Fenway Park as well. Last year Pomeranz, who will play the entire 2019 season at age 30, slipped to a 6.08 ERA in 74 innings while dealing with nagging forearm issues.
The Giants gave Pomeranz a low-cost one-year contract ($1.5 million) over the winter and through two starts he's allowed four runs and struck out 11 in nine innings. Most importantly, his velocity has ticked up noticeably. To wit:
The season is young, so we'll see whether the velocity uptick lasts, but Pomeranz would be hardly the first pitcher to experience velocity gains after an injury-filled season. He's healthy now and it's showing in his arm strength. It's also showing in his spin rates too. Here are Pomeranz's spin rates last three seasons:
The Giants made several front office changes over the winter, most notably adding a coordinator of pitching analysis, a position designed to help San Francisco get more out of their pitchers. The Dodgers, Yankees, and Rays in particular have proven adept at using analytics to help their pitchers get to the next level. The Giants are trying to do the same now too.
For Pomeranz, a guy who likes to pitch up in the zone with his fastball, a high spin rate is imperative. So is velocity. There needs to be enough on the pitch to not only get swings and misses and soft contact, but also help the curveball play up. That was certainly not the case for Pomeranz last year. In the early going this year, the velocity and spin rates are up, and that bodes well going forward. A full, healthy season of high velocity/high spin Pomeranz would make him a sneaky nice free-agent option.
It has been a dreadful start to the season for the Red Sox and their starting pitchers especially. Through two starts Rick Porcello has allowed 16 runs (11 earned) and 23 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .444/.523/.778 against him. On one hand, it's only two starts. On the other hand, Y I K E S.
What most stands out with Porcello is the walks. Seven in 7 1/3 innings. Seven walks is usually a month for Porcello. Now he's walked seven in two starts. Porcello walked four batters in his first start and three in his second. It's only his second four-walk start in the last two years and it's the first time he's walked at least three batters in back-to-back starts since September 2011.
With an established pitcher like Porcello, I'm inclined to brush aside a bad two-start stretch like this. Chances are this'll sort itself out as the season progresses, and besides, no Red Sox starter looks good right now. The group is in a collective lull. That said, there has been a noticeable trend with hitters chasing less and less out of the zone against Porcello. Check it out:
The MLB average chase rate is 29.3 percent and Porcello has been north of that throughout his career. He's done nice work getting hitters to expand the zone. This year his chase rate is 21.8 percent and, as you can see in the graph, his chase rate is trending down. Hitters are not chasing as much, which has undoubtedly contributed to his year's walk issues.
Boston has already signed Chris Sale ( ) and Xander Bogaerts ( ) long-term and I'd bet the farm on them signing Mookie Betts to an extension before he becomes a free agent in two years. The club has not been shy about admitted they won't be able to keep everyone. Porcello is making $21.125 million this year and he seems like a candidate to be let go so the money can be spent on others.
Walk trouble or no walk trouble, I suspect Porcello will be a very polarizing free agent. He never misses a start and is reliably solid, though he turns 31 in December and has only had one truly great season. Porcello seems like a candidate to get squeezed a la Dallas Keuchel. And, if these walk and chase rate issues persist, he might find free agency to be even more harsh than it's already become.
Zack Wheeler has more to gain with good health and a good 2019 season than any impending free agent. He was marvelous last year -- his 1.68 ERA in the second half was better than teammate Jacob deGrom's (1.73 ERA) -- and finally appeared to be over the injury troubles that sabotaged his 2015-17 seasons. Another big season would put Wheeler, a former tippy top prospect, in position to cash in nicely.:
Two starts into the new season, Wheeler has allowed 11 runs in 9 2/3 innings. Last time out he walked seven (!) and struck out two in 4 2/3 innings. Also, the soft contact is not coming as often as it did last year. There's been a downward trend since the middle of last summer.
The season is still very young and, as with Porcello, I'm inclining to chalk this up to being a blip at the moment. We need more information before we can declare Wheeler's stock on the decline. He hasn't had a good start to the season. That is an undeniable truth. There is plenty of time to change the narrative though.
With Wheeler, the most important thing is health. Is he healthy? The answer is yes, and as long as he's healthy, it's probably only a matter of time until the performance falls into place. Given all the injuries though, teams are going to scrutinize Wheeler every time out. His velocity and spin rates are good. Is there reason to believe he can pitch at an ace-level across a full season? We're waiting for confirmation on that.
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