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SnakePit Round Table: New catcher in town edition

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In which we welcome Alex Avila, discuss the team payroll and wonder if the NFL has peaked.

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Houston Astros v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

What did you think about the signing of Alex Avila?

Makakilo: My initial thoughts (30 January) were

  • In 2017, he had a high percent of hard-hit balls.
  • He is younger than Iannetta, so he has less chance of decline if he can avoid injury.
  • I hope the D-backs have at least one option year.
  • I like that he wanted to play for a team that will make the playoffs and picked the D-backs!
  • D-backs showed flexibility to add a catcher who may not be ‘defense first’ – (and yet he may be a good pitch caller and well appreciated by pitchers).

Two deeper thoughts are:

He will hit well in Chase! Sean Testerman’s article covers his ability to hit balls hard. Two of his best thoughts follow;

  • “And he has crazy power upside but this is very limited by his launch angle.”--Sean Testerman
  • “And considering that Chase Field favors doubles and triples more than home runs with Avila’s penchant to hit a lot of hard-hit line drives and Avila could really thrive in AZ.”--Sean Testerman

It’s great that he was signed for two years instead of one year. Three years would have been optimal because it would have allowed for a timely arrival of the D-back catcher of the future, Daulton Varsho. MLB Depth Charts projects him to be called up to the Majors in mid 2020. In the last roundtable, I picked Varsho as one of three young players who have not yet played at the Hall-Of-Fame level, but might in the future.

James: I’ve wanted the team to make a run at Alex Avila for a long time. I guess it’s better late than never. I’m not as high on Avila as I once was, but I am glad to see the team pick up a decent left-handed bat to fill a position of need. His pitch-framing is sub-par, but the rest of his defense is at least around average or better (depending on the metric and the year). At the cost, I’m thrilled. That’s the biggest thing for me. He came to Arizona on a very friendly contract, and he’ll fit in nicely as a semi-regular starter.

Keegan: I really dig it. I chatted with Bless You Boys, the Tigers’ SB Nation site, about him briefly during a Q&A session and they had high praise for him just as they did when J.D. Martinez was acquired. The validity of pitch framing has come under scrutiny recently and rightfully so with the volatility of catcher rankings each season. I am a believer in the “skill” myself, but I don’t think having Avila as part of the battery is going to hurt the Diamondbacks as much giving half of the appearances to Chris Herrmann. He wouldn’t be hard to move if need be with the cost effective contract he was just signed to.

Jim: Much needed. I really would not have been happy going into Opening Day with a platoon of Jeff Mathis and John Ryan Murphy. Much as defense is clearly a very important part of catching, they still need to go up there and bat. The drop-off from Chris Iannetta would have been significant, and with the still-likely loss of J.D. Martinez, would certainly have had an impact on the offense. Avila should, hopefully, be roughly equivalent to Iannetta, and has the added advantage of being a left-handed bat, so forms a natural platoon with Mathis.

Where else does Arizona need to be active?

Makakilo: The D-backs need to add depth in center field. What if Pollock is injured? What if Pollock is lost to free agency after this season?

James: The outfield situation is still something of a mess. It would be nice to see the team pick up a third or fourth outfielder to platoon with either Tomás or Peralta. It would be nice if that player was also a capable center fielder. I’m not expecting the team to be able to find a direct replacement for Pollock. First, there really is not one available in free agency, and second, the cost of acquiring such a player via trade would be prohibitively high. However, it would be nice to have a starting-caliber outfielder able to fill in should anything happen to Pollock, like him leaving in November. Of course, I also wouldn’t mind them simply working out a 3-4 year extension with Pollock that is a decent percentage of what Lorenzo Cain just recently signed for. That would probably be Arizona’s best outfield investment.If Corbin is traded, it needs to be for outfield help. I also wouldn’t mind seeing what Christian Walker can do in LF if given a bit more playing time. I’m not sold he can stick, but it’s a low-cost, no-risk move with high potential upside. Tomás isn’t going anywhere, so I’d like to find a way to piece together an outfield where having him play as the 4th OF isn’t the worst thing.

Keegan: When asked this question around the Winter Meetings, most of us pointed out the outfield and the bullpen. The bullpen has been somewhat addressed with the slew of bargain minor league signings by Mike Hazen last month, so the outfield is the most glaring area of need. If the humidor is in fact in use this season, that could theoretically put more balls into play in the outfield as opposed to the bleachers. With the expansive outfield of Chase Field, it has always been imperative to have strong defensive players out there. There has to be a contingency plan in place if Pollock is allowed to walk in free agency.

Jim: Yeah, what they said. ^^^^ The outfield is at least one player short of being reliable, unless you have a touching faith in Yasmany Tomas suddenly becoming productive [and if so, how was the dark side of the moon?]. I’m pretty much treating him as a sunk cost, and anything more than replacement level would be a pleasant surprise. With nothing much apparent on the prospect front, it looks like we will need a trade, or some out of the box thinking from Mike Hazen. Otherwise, perhaps we’ll end up seeing Chris Owings or Brandon Drury in the outfield again in 2018. Not looking forward to that.

The team payroll appears more flexible than previously thought. How high will it go?

Makakilo: Everybody likes a bargain! A bargain window opened this off season. The D-backs are taking advantage of that window, which is great! When the large pool of free agents has signed (likely by the start of the season), the window will close. The downside is that when the window closes, likely the D-backs will execute salary dumping trades, albeit profitable trades.

Nevertheless, I hope I’m wrong - maybe the D-backs have been sandbagging their financial budget and they relish the chance to see fans in shock and awe.

James: I will be pretty surprised if the team has not already reached critical mass with regards to payroll. I am still only about 50% confident the team is going to stick with what it has and not still try to unload Patrick Corbin before the season starts. I agree with others that the plan might have been to try moving Shelby MIller as well. I was never a fan of tendering him a contract, but I understood the desire for another year of control. I’m just not sure about paying a guy more than $10 million between 2018 and 2019 just to provide one question mark season next year.

I think Avila might be the fan’s reward for the team getting the $50 million from the sale of MLBAM. It would be nice if the team added more, but precedent just does not support that.

Keegan: ryeandi did a tremendous job keeping track of potential arbitration savings, and I think the Avila signing could at least partially be attributed to that as well as the MLBAM windfall. I’m not holding out for anything more to be honest, such as re-signing J.D. Martinez. That would put the team in the neighborhood of $150-$160 million without any corresponding moves, so I just don’t see how that is realistically going to happen with this ownership group. I believe that Hazen is operating within the parameters that have been set behind closed doors, as opposed to what has been said publicly. I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see Corbin moved for the right return prior to the season to clear some space.

Jim: The money James mentioned certainly could drive payroll up, for this season only, to the $160 million mark, if all of it was plowed into the team. I think that’s likely what was behind the strong rumors linking Arizona to Manny Machado. If more single-season opportunities like that present themselves, the war-chest would presumably still be there, though it would need to be a move that makes sense from a baseball perspective, and not just spending for the sake of it. We’ll see. But at this point it does appear pronouncements on our salary ceiling have perhaps been a bit of a misdirection.

What do you think of the proposed pace-of-play changes?

Makakilo: Three thoughts follow.

The pace of play could impact pitchers most. For example JJ Putz stated, “The whole key is to slow things down. Never speed up. This game’s hard enough at a normal speed. When you let it get faster, you start hearing the crowd, start thinking about something other than your next pitch. Pretty soon you’ve given up a four-spot and you’re wondering, ‘What just happened?’”

A faster pace will increase the value of preparation for each situation and each opponent. That is a good thing because the mental game of baseball has always been an important part of the game.

The rules to improve the pace of play need to be well thought out for two reasons. First, the nature of the game should continue to appeal to fans, both old and young. Second, there are subtle issues to be addressed. One example is Ken Rosenthal’s article titled Rosenthal: Sign stealing an overlooked issue in MLB’s pace of play debate, remains a divisive issue. I am confident that well thought out rules (and policies to implement the rules) could be agreed to. However, because of the lack of cooperation between the players and the owners, I do not know whether it will happen.

James: I am not a fan of the proposed changes. I especially hate any proposal that changes the game with runners on base, as is proposed for the 2020 season. Once runners reach base, let the players play the game however they see fit. Instituting a pitch clock that applies with runners on base is a truly fundamental change to the way the game is played. This sort of change should never be allowed.

I’m fine with a pitch clock with no runners on, I just don’t see it actually accomplishing what Manfred is dead-set on achieving. Yes, pitchers slowing down has lengthened games, but so has the proliferation of strikeouts and the increased use of relief pitchers. I am all for streamlining pace of play somewhat. However, Manfred continues to tie pace of play to length of game. While a better pace of play might result in somewhat shorter games, it is not going to be the drastic 10-15 minutes of shortening he is looking for. The game has evolved. Part of that evolution has been a drastic increase in offense, something that MLB was so desperate for that they allowed the PED-era to thrive. Couple the continued increase in offense with the increase in strikeout, and the formula for a “short game” is now one that looks at games ending under around two hours and forty-five minutes, rather than under two and thirty.

Keegan: There is nothing wrong with the pace of play. There never has been. If the game is too slow for you, then perhaps this isn’t the game for you. It is the only time during my day to day where nothing else matters for those 3+ hours. My biggest gripe is with the proposed change of starting extra innings with a runner on second base. That’s as awful as declaring the first team to score in overtime in the NFL the winner. It is too much of a fundamental change to the rules of the game. I wouldn’t have a problem with limiting mound visits because some teams do abuse that from time to time. The MLBPA needs to do a better job of negotiating the next CBA to try and reign in the league’s ability to implement these changes without any approval. Bring back the bullpen carts! We could shave a few seconds off the game by not allowing relievers to lollygag from the bullpen to the mound.

Jim: It does seem like it’s more tinkering for the sake of it. Rather than making more changes, they might be better off enforcing current rules, such as stopping hitters from stepping out of the batter’s box, or 8.04, the one which says, “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.” That said, I like the idea of limiting mound visits, which add nothing to the game from a spectator’s viewpoint.

Are you concerned about the apparent freeze on high-end free-agent signings?

Makakilo: No. Instead of being concerned, I am looking for low-cost opportunities to improve the D-backs!

James: If this was 2019, I would be concerned. It isn’t. In fact, it’s the free agent period immediately before what is currently slated to be the most talented and lucrative free agent class in baseball history. There is also vocal concern about how much some teams have cut payroll, even though for teams like the Dodgers, a great deal of the payroll that has been shed has been from dead contracts falling off the books. Dead contracts are rarely replaced by new spending. Also, teams like the Yankees have been, since last winter, openly stating that they are positioning themselves for next year’s free agent class, which includes getting below the luxury tax threshold. When you take all that and then also look at the dearth of impact talent in this year’s class of free agents, the lack of aggressive spending just doesn’t surprise me at all. Teams are becoming more discerning with their spending, and the vast majority of impact free agents in this year’s market come with significant concerns of one sort or another. It should also be telling that a very strong argument can be made for this season’s #2 free agent, J.D. Martinez, not even ranking among the top 10 in next year’s class.

With the advent of analytics rapidly making their way into the decision making of front offices around baseball, and the lack of true, premium talent in this season’s market, I honestly think this is mostly just a market correction.

Keegan: Not concerned but moreso interested in what this means for players such as Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock, and Paul Goldschmidt as the approach their own free agency. If this is a trend that we can expect to continue into future seasons, that might change the Diamondbacks chances of retaining any of those three players for the better. Paul Goldschmidt won’t hit the open market until his age 32 season. How many teams are going to be willing to offer him more than 5 years if front offices are becoming more prudent with their contracts given to aging players? Maybe it is time to shift those earnings towards younger players in their prime when the next CBA negotiations come around.

Jim: Not at all. It’s a market correction, with there no longer being enough teams unaware of the pitfalls, in order to create bidding wars for those over-30 free-agents. I don’t see very many fans at all concerned by it: mostly agents, the occasional (mis-guided, to me) writer. But I am not sure there are any fans who would give up on baseball if the season begins without Eric Hosmer or whoever. Indeed, as a fan of a smallish-market team who wasn’t likely going to be in on them anyway, better they’re not playing for anyone, than for one of our rivals.

It was the Super Bowl this weekend. Is your interest in the NFL waning?

Makakilo: Thanks for reminding me - I might have forgotten about the Super Bowl. It is the one time a year that I watch football, albeit mostly the commercials.

James: My interest in the NFL has been waning by bits and pieces for over 30 years now. The lack of interest has picked up significantly over the last two or three years. The dangers that players are putting themselves into, some of the rule changes, and the almost total lack of true parity in the league has just made it so I really have no interest anymore. Over the last decade, I still followed the game enough to at least stay abreast of major developments, mostly because I still had individual players I could root for. Almost all of them have retired now though, so I now have even less reason to care.

The NFL needs a massive overhaul of the fundamental variety for me to take real interest again. I’m not sure that the sort of changes that would need to be made would allow the game to still be American-rules Football as we have come to know it though.

It’s time for baseball to reclaim the crown of being the sport identified as America’s pastime.

Keegan: This season was odd for me because I could tell I was less involved than prior seasons. At first, I attributed it to my increased contributions here, but then I realized I’ve always been this involved with the Diamondbacks during the NFL season even before I began contributing here. I’ve now realized that the NFL has just become too much of a circus act for me to care as much as I do about the baseball season. I will always be a Dallas Cowboys fan, they are the team I have followed since birth, but I can feel my interest in the league waning. That isn’t to say that they can’t win my interest again, but they need leadership changes to redirect the way they conduct business.

Jim: I did enjoy the game today, but is 1,100 yards of offense going to be the new normal? It felt more like arena ball than a game balanced between offense and defense. I wondered why anyone ever bothered to run at all. I used to be quite interested back in Britain (I was a Vikings fan!), but those days are long gone, and the events of this season haven’t done anything to rekindle interest. I do think there will be a problem in coming years, with parents increasingly aware of the risks and dangers, and steering their children away from the sport. That’s going to affect the pipeline into college sports and through to the NFL. I think it’s potentially quite likely we’ve passed the peak of the game.