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Mets raised their floor more than any contender

2018 club had 11 hitters with less than 0 WAR, most in NL
MLB.com

On June 2, 2018, the Mets rolled out a lineup with Jose Bautista in left field, Kevin Plawecki at first base and Luis Guillorme at third base, eventually also giving pinch-hitting appearances to Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez and Jose Lobaton. They lost, 7-1, to the Cubs in extra innings, one of many wasted outstanding Jacob deGrom starts. 

That game may not have been exactly what new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had in mind when he talked about "eliminating the ifs" and "[having] versatility on the roster that gives us depth," but it gets to one of the main points of this particular Mets offseason. No, they haven't come away with Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, but they have managed to attack one of the main problems the 2018 group had: a lack of depth. They've raised their floor.

On June 2, 2018, the Mets rolled out a lineup with Jose Bautista in left field, Kevin Plawecki at first base and Luis Guillorme at third base, eventually also giving pinch-hitting appearances to Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez and Jose Lobaton. They lost, 7-1, to the Cubs in extra innings, one of many wasted outstanding Jacob deGrom starts. 

That game may not have been exactly what new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had in mind when he talked about "eliminating the ifs" and "[having] versatility on the roster that gives us depth," but it gets to one of the main points of this particular Mets offseason. No, they haven't come away with Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, but they have managed to attack one of the main problems the 2018 group had: a lack of depth. They've raised their floor.

Another way to put that is like this: An obvious and effective way to win baseball games is to have good players, but a more subtle yet also quite effective method is to not have unproductive players.

It sounds like the same thing, but it's really not. Stars are great, obviously. The past three World Series champions had Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez (2018 Red Sox); Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve ('17 Astros); and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo ('16 Cubs). You can't win without star players, which is why Harper and Machado are so appealing. But those World Series winners also had valuable role players like Steve Pearce, Jake Marisnick and David Ross. They had depth, lots of it.

If you want to see the importance of depth, look no further than the Dodgers and Astros, arguably the two most consistently good teams over the past few years. Sure, they have stars. But they've also managed to cover for injuries to Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Carlos Correa, among others. Losing top players was more of a speed bump than a season-ending calamity, as it's been for other clubs. That's how championships are won. 

There's a pretty clear way to show the relationship between having fewer unproductive players and winning games, and that's by taking the stars out of the equation. We can prove that pretty easily by looking at how much playing time teams gave to players who didn't have much to offer in 2018. The quick-and-dirty way we'll do that is to use FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement model and find non-pitchers (minimum 10 plate appearances) who put up a negative WAR in '18.

This isn't perfect because we're treating everyday players the same as part-timers -- we'll get to that in a minute -- but the takeaway here ought to be clear.

On the right, five of the six teams with the fewest negative-value players made the playoffs. (The Cubs had just one, backup catcher Chris Gimenez, who had only 32 plate appearances for Chicago. The Dodgers and Astros being tied for second fewest is the least surprising outcome.)

On the left, the seven teams who had more than nine such players all finished below .500. We haven't even talked about stars yet; it's just that it's all but impossible to win if you have too many players who aren't carrying their weight.

(About the surprising position of the World Series champion Red Sox: That's largely because three of those eight were their catchers Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, who combined to hit just .202/.255/.294 in 755 plate appearances. This also includes Eduardo Nunez's .265/.289/.388, as well as the limited contributions from Hanley Ramirez before he was released. In addition, three of those players -- Brandon Phillips, Sam Travis and Dustin Pedroia -- combined for only 78 plate appearances. It helps to have superstars like Betts, Martinez, etc., to balance it all out.)

Look closer at those three teams on the left, the ones who had the most sub-replacement players. You'll see the 115-loss Orioles, which isn't surprising. You'll see the Marlins, Royals and Tigers, all of whom lost between 98 and 104 games last season and are not expected to contend in 2019. But you'll also see the Mets, who are very much trying to win this year, which explains some of their offseason moves.

Video: Lowrie, Van Wagenen on infielder signing with Mets

In 2018, the Mets gave nearly 1,000 plate appearances to the following group: Reyes, Travis d'Arnaud, Jack Reinheimer, Phillip Evans, Ty Kelly, Guillorme, Gonzalez, Lobaton, Dominic Smith, Matthew den Dekker and Tomas Nido. This doesn't even count the 210 plate appearances given to Austin Jackson and his .247/.290/.348 line, since he barely squeaked past 0 WAR. (Only d'Arnaud, Guillorme, Nido and Smith remain in the organization; d'Arnaud is fighting for a backup job, and the other three are all ticketed for Triple-A in 2019.) That distinguished collection combined to hit all of .194/.257/.309 and were worth negative-3.7 WAR. 

So take the nearly 1,000 production-draining plate appearances from that group, plus the 916 more given to Jackson, Plawecki and Wilmer Flores (combined 1.1 WAR, .246/.311/.387), who each also have departed from the organization, and it gives us 1,831 times to the plate -- and a .220/.284/.348 line, negative-2.6 WAR. That's nearly a third of all non-pitcher plate appearances for the Mets in 2018.

The 2019 Mets are replacing that volume of plate appearances with contributions from newcomers Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, J.D. Davis and Keon Broxton. Take a look at the 2018 production for those five new Mets as well as their 2019 projections:

2018 actual: 1,646 plate appearances, .274/.348/.445, 10.8 WAR
2019 projected: 2,127 plate appearances, .247/.318/.410, 8.0 WAR

Either way, that's much better. Conceivably an upgrade of 10-12 wins. And depending on health and how quickly first-base prospect Peter Alonso (No. 2 in organization, per MLB Pipeline) acclimates, manager Mickey Callaway may also have the option of calling Todd Frazier and Jeff McNeil off the bench on a daily basis, plus competent veterans Rajai Davis and Gregor Blanco likely a phone call away at Triple-A. Simply in terms of depth, the 2019 Mets should be markedly better than their '18 counterparts. 

Video: Mets introduce catcher Wilson Ramos

If this sounds familiar, think about the 2015 Mets. You probably remember that group's run to the World Series as being fueled by the acquistion of Yoenis Cespedes, the emergence of Daniel Murphy and the the arms of Matt Harvey and deGrom, and that's all true. But before that team really took off, they had games like this one where the 3-4-5 in the lineup were Flores, John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell. Where things really started to change was when the Mets acquired Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson from Atlanta, the same day Michael Conforto was promoted for the first time.

Neither veterans were stars, but that wasn't the point. It gave the club a competent bench, and sometimes that's just as important. You need stars to win. You need depth and complementary players, too. Just ask Mike Trout, the best player of his generation, how many playoff games he's won without help (Hint: 0). 

Now it may not be enough. The Mets' lineup would sure look better with Harper or Machado. There are still open questions about whether the talented-but-fragile rotation has enough depth, because we haven't even gotten into how P.J. Conlon, Harvey, Drew Gagnon, Corey Oswalt and Chris Flexen all made starts for the Mets in 2018 -- 20 of them, or more than 10 percent of the season -- and combined for a 6.58 ERA. Plus, the National League East looks like a four-team cage match.

But if Van Wagenen wanted to minimize the "ifs," it sure seems like he's done that, on offense, anyway. As the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs have shown, depth matters. It matters matters more than ever. The Mets are trying to push themselves in the right direction.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

New York Mets

Why trade to Phillies boosts Realmuto's value

Catcher has .678 career OPS at home, .848 on road
MLB.com

J.T. Realmuto is probably baseball's best catcher, which says a lot about him and a little about the relative weakness of the catching position in today's game. (By one value measure, he's the least-imposing "best catcher in baseball" since Mickey Tettleton held the unofficial crown in 1989.)

Still, it's easy to see why the Marlins placed such a high value on Realmuto's services this offseason, before finalizing a trade on Thursday that sent the catcher to the Phillies. It's difficult to find good catching, and he's a fantastic one, in his prime, reasonably priced for the next two years. If Realmuto merely repeats his 2018 line of .277/.340/.484 (139 OPS+) -- basically Matt Chapman's bat wielded by a good defensive catcher -- he'd have been a strong addition to nearly any team.

J.T. Realmuto is probably baseball's best catcher, which says a lot about him and a little about the relative weakness of the catching position in today's game. (By one value measure, he's the least-imposing "best catcher in baseball" since Mickey Tettleton held the unofficial crown in 1989.)

Still, it's easy to see why the Marlins placed such a high value on Realmuto's services this offseason, before finalizing a trade on Thursday that sent the catcher to the Phillies. It's difficult to find good catching, and he's a fantastic one, in his prime, reasonably priced for the next two years. If Realmuto merely repeats his 2018 line of .277/.340/.484 (139 OPS+) -- basically Matt Chapman's bat wielded by a good defensive catcher -- he'd have been a strong addition to nearly any team.

But what if there's more in there? What if by simply leaving Miami for Philadelphia, there's a possibility that Realmuto's bat could get an additional boost?

Video: Klentak discusses potential pursuit of more talent

No, we're not talking about escaping a lack of lineup protection from a weak Marlins lineup, which is more myth than reality. We're talking about getting out of Marlins Park, which played like an extreme offense-suppressing stadium in 2018. We're talking about getting past some of the most serious home/road splits we've seen in years.

This isn't hyperbole. Look at the difference between "Miami Realmuto" and "road Realmuto" over his career:

Realmuto at home, career
.244/.292/.384, .291 wOBA, .279 BABIP

A .291 wOBA is basically what light-hitting up-the-middle players like Amed Rosario and Manuel Margot put up in 2018.

Realmuto on the road, career
.310/.358/.494, .364 wOBA, .356 BABIP

A .356 wOBA is basically what powerful sluggers like Javier Baez and Khris Davis put up in 2018.

That's a 73-point difference between Realmuto's home and road marks, and if you're wondering if that's a big deal, it is. As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan noted in December, it's the largest "home-field disadvantage" since 2002 of any player with at least 1,000 plate appearances both at home and on the road. It's worth noting that among the top eight names on that list, two logged time for the Marlins in recent years: Derek Dietrich and Logan Morrison.

Video: MIA@PHI: Realmuto smacks solo homer to center in 6th

Even if we're just looking at last season, Realmuto's best year to date, the differences remained.

Realmuto at home, 2018
.269/.329/.444, .332 wOBA, .313 BABIP

Realmuto on the road, 2018
.283/.350/.520, .372 wOBA, .311 BABIP

Ignore the relatively small difference in batting average, because that's not really the point here. Look at the large differences in on-base and slugging percentages. Realmuto's great year came in a park that kills offense. That much seems certain.

But it can't just be about Realmuto, can it? That is, if Marlins Park hurts hitting to such an extent, we need to see it in more than just one player. One way to do that is to look at hard-hit rate, or percentage of batted balls hit with exit velocities of at least 95 mph. If you sort that just by ballpark, you're obviously influenced by the talent level of the rosters who play there. For example, the parks with the two highest hard-hit rates in 2018 were in Anaheim and Boston, but that may say more about Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez than it does about the venue.

One way around that is to look at the hard-hit rate from visiting players in each venue. This could of course be affected by pitching talent -- good pitching should keep hard-hit rates low -- except that in this case, Marlins pitching wasn't good. Miami had a 4.76 ERA, highest in the National League, and it allowed a .424 slugging, second-highest. Our default expectation here should be that a poor pitching staff allowed a ton of crushed baseballs.

However, that's not what happened. Not at all. If we look at the 30 ballparks, ranked by highest hard-hit rate allowed by home pitchers, we'll see that Marlins Park came in last. No ballpark saw a lower hard-hit rate by visiting hitters.

There's a million ways to look at this, really. Visiting hitters had the lowest average distance (277 feet) on fly balls and line drives at Marlins Park, a full 21 feet behind Coors Field (298 feet). Visiting hitters at Marlins Park underperformed their Expected wOBA by 58 points, second-largest gap in the game, a full 161 points behind what happened in Colorado, where hitters overperformed by 103 points. Remember, this is all off a pitching staff that generally wasn't effective at limiting hard contact.

The reason why that happened is a little hard to suss out. It could be something with the batter's eye, or the atmospheric conditions inside the park, or the way the baseballs are stored there. It could be a combination of several of those factors, or something else we haven't considered. Whatever the root cause, it's clear that something about Marlins Park is making it more difficult to hit there.

Video: MIA@PHI: Realmuto ties it with an inside-the-parker

So, in theory, this makes Realmuto even more appealing. The idea of getting him out of Marlins Park and placing him in Citizens Bank Park means that you'd expect his overall line to improve. After all, Philadelphia was the fourth-most friendly park for home runs in 2018, while Miami was 30th. Right?

The answer, of course, is "probably." You can certainly make the case that the move from Miami to Milwaukee boosted reigning NL MVP Award winner Christian Yelich in his first year as a Brewer in 2018. Leaving Miami didn't do the same for Marcell Ozuna, though his first year in St. Louis was marred by a shoulder injury so it's difficult to know what effect the ballpark change really had. Giancarlo Stanton's move from Miami to Yankee Stadium resulted in fewer home runs, but it wasn't reasonable to expect another 59-homer season, regardless of the home park.

Then again, the issue in Miami isn't spread to all fields. There's ample evidence that the biggest power suppressor in Marlins Park is trying to hit to right field, which might explain why leaving town affected the lefty Yelich more than than righties Stanton and Ozuna. Realmuto, of course, hits from the right side, but the effect on his power has been clear. Let's repurpose a chart Sullivan used to show just how hitting to the pull side at home was fine for Realmuto, but how hitting up the middle or to right field really hurt him.

Realmuto wOBA, career
Pull -- .410 home, .415 road (.005 better on road)
Center -- .298 home, .459 road (.161 better on road)
Opposite -- .211 home, .375 road (.164 better on road)

Those are pretty significant differences. We know something is going on in Miami, but we don't know what. We know Realmuto had a strong year there regardless. We can be reasonably certain that getting out of there to any other home park would have helped -- especially the hitter-friendly home park in Philadelphia.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Miami Marlins, J.T. Realmuto

The 11 hardest-throwing rotations for 2019

MLB.com

Velocity certainly isn't everything. Location, movement and spin all play a role in a fastball's effectiveness, not to mention how it works with the rest of a pitcher's repertoire.

But velocity does help. It increases pressure on hitters and widens a pitcher's margin for error. Just check out these MLB-wide numbers from 2018, based on hitters' weighted on-base average (wOBA) against starting pitchers' fastballs (four-seamers and two-seamers/sinkers).

Velocity certainly isn't everything. Location, movement and spin all play a role in a fastball's effectiveness, not to mention how it works with the rest of a pitcher's repertoire.

But velocity does help. It increases pressure on hitters and widens a pitcher's margin for error. Just check out these MLB-wide numbers from 2018, based on hitters' weighted on-base average (wOBA) against starting pitchers' fastballs (four-seamers and two-seamers/sinkers).

Less than 90 mph: .379 
90-92 mph: .365
92-94 mph: .355
94-96 mph: .335
96-98 mph: .281
More than 98 mph: .270

For context, hitters had an overall wOBA of .316 last season against starters on all pitch types.

Given that breakdown, it's worth considering which teams' rotations have the best velocity going into next season. Determining this isn't an exact science, but MLB.com took a shot at it, using Statcast™ data and 2019 projected rotations recently provided by the 30 MLB.com beat writers -- with a few updates.

Before we get to the high heat, a few notes about the methodology:

• "Fastball" was defined as four-seamers and two-seamers/sinkers.

• MLB data from 2018 was used for every pitcher, except those who didn't start in the Majors last year or haven't pitched in MLB yet. In the former case, data from their most recent season was used; in the latter case, those few pitchers simply weren't counted for the purposes of this exercise.

• Since most pitchers see their velocity increase when used out of the bullpen, only data from starts was used. The average fastball from an MLB starter in 2018 was 92.3 mph, compared with 93.4 mph for relievers.

• A team's average is the average of every fastball thrown by those pitchers last year, as opposed to just an average of each pitcher's average fastball velocity. So if one pitcher threw 2,000 fastballs and another threw 500, the first pitcher's fastball received a lot more weight. In other words, playing time and pitch usage mattered.

Without further delay, here are the top 11 hardest-throwing rotations in MLB, with each group listed in descending order of velocity:

1. Rays: 95.8 mph
Tyler Glasnow 96.5 mph, Blake Snell 95.8 mph, Charlie Morton 95.7 mph

The Rays get a big asterisk in this spot, with only three true starters included due to their use of the opener. Counting Ryan Yarbrough (89.2 mph), who pitched 147 1/3 innings last year despite making just six starts, would bring down that average. On the other hand, the live-armed Glasnow has a shot to play a bigger role in Tampa Bay's rotation after coming over from Pittsburgh last summer.

Video: TB@BOS: Glasnow strikes out Betts swinging in 1st

2. Astros: 95.0 mph
Josh James 96.9 mph, Gerrit Cole 96.5 mph, Justin Verlander 95.0 mph, Framber Valdez 91.9 mph, Collin McHugh 90.3 mph (2017)

Although Houston's rotation was spectacular in 2018, Dallas Keuchel is a free agent, Morton is gone and Lance McCullers Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery. Even so, American League Cy Young Award candidates Cole and Verlander are two of the game's hardest-throwing regular starters, and James showed a great arm during his brief '18 debut, topping 101 mph at one point. (Half of James' six MLB appearances last year came out of the bullpen, but he was primarily a starter in the Minors during the season. He is penciled into the Astros' rotation.) McHugh averaged 92.1 mph last year, but that was entirely out of the bullpen.

Video: OAK@HOU: Cole strikes out Olson with 99.9-mph heater

3. Mets: 94.5 mph
Noah Syndergaard 97.4 mph, Jacob deGrom 95.9 mph, Zack Wheeler 95.9 mph, Steven Matz 93.4 mph, Jason Vargas 86.4 mph

With the defending National League Cy Young Award winner, plus Syndergaard and Wheeler, the Mets boasted three of last season's top seven starters in average fastball velocity out of the 108 who threw at least 1,000 heaters. Vargas, however, drags down the rest of the group.

Video: NYM@SF: Syndergaard K's Longoria to seal the 2-hitter

4. Yankees: 94.0 mph
Luis Severino 97.6 mph, James Paxton 95.4 mph, J.A. Happ 91.9 mph, Masahiro Tanaka 91.6 mph, CC Sabathia 90.1 mph

No starter last season averaged a higher fastball velo than Severino, whose 151 pitches at 99-plus mph were by far the most in the Majors for someone in that role. The acquisition of Paxton from Seattle gives New York the game's second-hardest thrower among lefty starters, behind only Snell. While Tanaka and Sabathia don't throw hard, they also used their fastballs less often than any other regular starters. (Sabathia does use a cutter heavily.)

5 (tie). Phillies: 93.6 mph
Nick Pivetta 94.8 mph, Zach Eflin 94.3 mph, Vince Velasquez 93.8 mph, Jake Arrieta 93.0 mph, Aaron Nola 92.4 mph

Nola is coming off a spectacular season for reasons other than premium velocity, with opponents batting just .206 and slugging .309 off his four-seamer and sinker. In his first season with Philly, Arrieta's velocity was up from the year before (92.2 mph), but it was still down quite a bit from 2016 (94.4 mph).

Video: MIL@PHI: Nola catches Perez looking to end the 4th

5 (tie). White Sox: 93.6 mph
Reynaldo Lopez 95.5 mph, Dylan Covey 94.0 mph, Carlos Rodon 93.0 mph, Ivan Nova 92.8 mph, Lucas Giolito 92.3 mph

Giolito's lack of fastball velocity relative to what he showed as a top prospect has been jarring, but the White Sox hope he and Lopez take steps forward in 2019. Covey is just one fifth-starter candidate, along with Manny Banuelos, whose only MLB action came in '15.

7. Indians: 93.3 mph
Trevor Bauer 94.5 mph, Mike Clevinger 93.6 mph, Carlos Carrasco 93.4 mph, Shane Bieber 93.0 mph, Corey Kluber 92.0 mph

Cleveland is bringing back the entirety of a rotation that ranked as one of baseball's best last year -- but perhaps not primarily because of its stellar velocity. Tribe starters had the fourth-lowest fastball usage rate, with Bauer, Clevinger, Carrasco and Kluber all sporting dominant secondary pitches.

Video: CLE@LAA: Kluber sets down Ohtani to start the 3rd

8. Red Sox: 93.2 mph
Nathan Eovaldi 97.1 mph, Chris Sale 94.9 mph, Eduardo Rodriguez 93.3 mph, David Price 92.7 mph, Rick Porcello 90.4 mph

After having his second Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2017, Eovaldi returned to the Majors -- and to his place as one of the game's hardest-throwing starters. He ranked third in that category (minimum 500 fastballs), behind only Severino and Syndergaard. Sale, Rodriguez and Price all are considerably above average for southpaw starters (91.4 mph).

9 (tie). Braves: 93.1 mph
Mike Foltynewicz 96.4 mph, Kevin Gausman 93.6 mph, Sean Newcomb 93.0 mph, Mike Soroka 92.6 mph, Julio Teheran 89.7 mph

Foltynewicz enjoyed a breakout season behind one of MLB's hardest fastballs. However, Gausman's average velocity has dropped by nearly 2 mph since 2016, and Teheran's by 1.6 mph just since '17. Soroka is one of a handful of young Atlanta pitchers who could factor into the rotation, including lefty Luiz Gohara, who has averaged 96.2 mph as a starter in his young career.

Video: ATL@PHI: Foltynewicz fans Quinn, gets 200th strikeout

9 (tie). Cardinals: 93.1 mph
Miles Mikolas 93.9 mph, Michael Wacha 93.6 mph, Carlos Martinez 93.5 mph, Jack Flaherty 92.6 mph, Adam Wainwright 89.5 mph

Martinez averaged 95.6 mph in 2017, but he is coming off a frustrating year that included three DL stints and time in the bullpen. Wainwright's lack of velocity is a frequent topic as well, but it ticked up a bit when he returned late in the year, and St. Louis re-signed the 37-year-old for another year. One thing to watch is whether flame-throwing Alex Reyes stays healthy and gets a chance to start.

9 (tie). Pirates: 93.1 mph
Jameson Taillon 95.2 mph, Chris Archer 94.7 mph, Joe Musgrove 93.0 mph, Jordan Lyles 92.9 mph, Trevor Williams 90.4 mph

This could be an underrated group, led by Taillon, who broke out in 2018 while topping 95 mph with both his four-seamer and sinker. On the other hand, Archer's velocity was down nearly 1 mph from '17. Williams' velocity also declined (from 91.8 mph), yet he got great results by limiting hard contact.

And here are the bottom five teams on the list:

26. Giants: 91.1 mph
27. Brewers: 91.0 mph
28. Cubs: 90.4 mph
29. A's: 89.9 mph
30. Mariners: 88.7 mph

Three of these teams made the postseason last year, and four finished above .500, so there is obviously much more to winning than just having a hard-throwing rotation. (Though it should be noted that none of the five finished higher than 13th in starting pitching WAR, according to FanGraphs.)

A big question for the Giants is the health of Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija and the newly signed Drew Pomeranz, the latter two having suffered significant velocity declines last year. The Brewers would move up with a healthy return from Jimmy Nelson and more starts for young arms such as Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. The Cubs' veteran staff is highly accomplished but not high octane -- though a Yu Darvish rebound would help. Rookie left-handers Jesus Luzardo (MLB Pipeline's No. 12 prospect) and Yusei Kikuchi didn't count for this exercise, but they could be big boosts for Oakland and Seattle, respectively. However, with Paxton traded, no returning Mariners starter averaged above 90.1 mph last year.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Which remaining free agents boast best skills?

MLB.com

With less than a month remaining before Spring Training gets underway, many free agents have already found homes for the 2019 season.

Among the names already off the board are starting pitchers Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ and Yusei Kikuchi; relievers Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller and Adam Ottavino; and hitters Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal and Andrew McCutchen.

With less than a month remaining before Spring Training gets underway, many free agents have already found homes for the 2019 season.

Among the names already off the board are starting pitchers Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ and Yusei Kikuchi; relievers Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller and Adam Ottavino; and hitters Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal and Andrew McCutchen.

That still leaves plenty of talented players available, and clubs looking to add certain ingredients to their rosters before Opening Day will have no shortage of options. Here is a look at the remaining free agents on the market who possess the top skills.

POSITION PLAYERS

Hardest hitter: Manny Machado
Statcast™ classifies batted balls with at least a 95-mph exit velocity as hard-hit, and in each of the past two seasons, nobody has produced more of those than Machado. He put a hard-hit ball in play 257 times in 2018 -- 28 more than anyone else (MLB batters as a group hit .524 and slugged 1.047 on hard-hit balls last season). On a rate basis, Machado made hard contact on 48.2 percent of his batted balls, a figure that ranked 15th out of 228 players (minimum 250 batted balls). As a 26-year-old shortstop/third baseman with a good glove, Machado's appeal should go far beyond this, but his ability to consistently square up pitches is fundamental to his status as a top free agent.

Video: NLCS Gm1: Machado's 115.6-mph homer opens the scoring

Most power: Bryce Harper
The other big name at the head of this class is closing in on 200 career home runs (184 to date), as Harper enters his age-26 season having smacked 34 last year while slugging .496. He was well above average in 2018 at both making solid contact (45.1 percent hard-hit rate), and getting the ball in the air (53.6 percent line drive/fly ball rate). As a result, Harper tied for 25th in MLB by connecting for 45 barrels -- balls with an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, which usually turn into extra-base hits.

Video: STL@WSH: Harper crushes 451-ft. game-tying HR in 9th

Most versatility: Marwin Gonzalez
Gonzalez is the only player who spent at least 20 games apiece last season at first base, second base, shortstop and left field. He and Sean Rodriguez are the only two active players with at least 90 career games at those four positions, plus third base. Gonzalez doesn't just have a lot of gloves -- he is adept at using them, posting roughly average or better Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) scores at each spot. With a 111 OPS+ over the past five seasons, Gonzalez has a good enough bat to play just about every day, even if he's constantly moving around the field.

Best outfield defense: A.J. Pollock
Given that Pollock recently turned 31 and has a rather extensive injury history, teams might be somewhat skeptical of his ability to continue chasing down fly balls in the years to come. But there's no doubt that his track record in that area is strong. Despite all of his missed time, Pollock is tied for 14th among MLB outfielders with plus-51 DRS since 2013. Just last year he was plus-6 in both DRS and Statcast™'s range-based Outs Above Average metric.

Video: SD@ARI: Pollock covers 99 ft. for catch to save no-no

Best infield defense: Adeiny Hechavarria
There are several options here, including Freddy Galvis, Josh Harrison and Jose Iglesias. But Hechavarria has been worth plus-17 DRS as a shortstop over the past three seasons, ranking sixth at the position despite averaging 114 games. That being said, Hechavarria's paltry .246/.283/.347 line over that span could make him more of a backup and late-game defensive replacement in 2019.

Best catcher defense: Martin Maldonado
Between the Angels and Astros last season, Maldonado stopped 17 of 35 base-stealing attempts, leading the Majors with a 48.6 percent rate. How? Among 36 catchers who faced at least 20 attempts at second base, Maldonado averaged the third-hardest throw velocity (87.5 mph) and eighth-fastest pop time (1.97 seconds). The eight-year veteran doesn't contribute much at the plate but has consistently rated well as a pitch framer, in addition to his control of the running game.

Video: ALCS Gm4: Maldonado nabs JBJ at 2nd with 87-mph throw

Most speed: Cameron Maybin
Fellow veterans such as Craig Gentry, JB Shuck and Eric Young Jr. may bring a bit more speed, but Maybin is probably more likely to land at least a semi-regular role, having averaged 120 games per season since 2015. The 31-year-old did drop from 33 stolen bases in 2017 to 10 last year for the Marlins and Mariners, but saw virtually no change in his average sprint speed (28.6 feet per second), which ranked in the top 20 percent of MLB.

PITCHERS

Most swing-and-miss ability: Craig Kimbrel
One of the game's elite closers over the past eight seasons, Kimbrel would also lead this remaining class of free-agent pitchers in fastball velocity (97.1 mph) -- albeit down from 98.3 mph in 2017 -- and best secondary pitch. Working off that heater, Kimbrel threw his curveball about 35 percent of the time last season, and batters went 5-for-61 (.082) against it, with one extra-base hit and 33 strikeouts. Between those two pitches, the righty racks up lots of strikeouts. Batters missed on 40 percent of their swings against him in 2018, the third-highest rate out of 499 pitchers (minimum 200 swings).

Video: HOU@BOS: Kimbrel K's Altuve on 100-MPH heater

Best ground-ball artist: Dallas Keuchel
For a team that plays in a homer-friendly ballpark, Keuchel would have obvious appeal. The lefty threw his sinker more than 40 percent of the time last season, and generated a grounder on roughly 55 percent of balls put in play against him. While that represented a drop from his 68 percent mark in 2017, it still ranked among the best in MLB, and Keuchel has finished well above 50 percent in every season of his career.

Best at limiting quality of contact: Wade Miley
The veteran lefty made some real changes between 2017 (5.61 ERA for Baltimore) and '18 (2.57 for Milwaukee), including making a cutter his go-to weapon. Opponents struggled mightily to square up the pitch, and Miley kept them off balance with an assortment of other offerings. Of the 169 pitchers who generated at least 250 balls in play last season, Miley produced the eighth-lowest hard-hit rate (28.5 percent) and second-lowest barrel rate (3.5 percent), trailing only Noah Syndergaard in the latter category.

Most effective fastball: Nick Vincent
This might seem like an odd choice, given that Vincent is a 32-year-old right-hander whose four-seamer averages less than 90 mph. But while velocity obviously helps, it isn't everything. Vincent, with a 3.62 ERA over 191 appearances for Seattle since 2016, gets a lot of spin on his fastball and attacks up in the zone with it. The results are striking. On four-seamers over the past three seasons, Vincent's 30.8 percent strikeout rate is higher than Aroldis Chapman's, and his .230 expected wOBA -- which factors in quality of contact, strikeouts and walks -- is the lowest in the Majors.

Video: BAL@SEA: Vincent K's Jones to end the frame

Best specialist: Oliver Perez
It's nice to be left-handed. Perez, a 37-year-old who worked as a starter for much of the previous decade, has found a second life coming out of the bullpen. The Indians used him with extreme care last season, as Perez faced less than 2.5 batters per appearance -- about 54 percent of them lefties. The results were terrific in that limited role. Perez posted a 1.39 ERA and 35.8 percent strikeout rate while allowing just a .417 OPS. While it's a small sample, Perez's .216 xwOBA allowed trailed only Sean Doolittle, Jose Leclerc and Edwin Diaz.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Marwin Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Adeiny Hechavarria, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Manny Machado, Martin Maldonado, Cameron Maybin, Wade Miley, Oliver Perez, A.J. Pollock, Nick Vincent

Jose Martinez offers rare skills at the plate

Talented hitter remains in St. Louis despite numerous trade rumors
MLB.com

When the offseason began, the Cardinals' Jose Martinez looked like one of baseball's most obvious trade candidates, perhaps headed to an American League team that could take full advantage of his bat while mitigating his defensive shortcomings.

But with Spring Training fast approaching, and Martinez still on the St. Louis roster, the chances seem to be increasing that on Opening Day he will stay and serve as MLB's most overqualified pinch-hitter.

When the offseason began, the Cardinals' Jose Martinez looked like one of baseball's most obvious trade candidates, perhaps headed to an American League team that could take full advantage of his bat while mitigating his defensive shortcomings.

But with Spring Training fast approaching, and Martinez still on the St. Louis roster, the chances seem to be increasing that on Opening Day he will stay and serve as MLB's most overqualified pinch-hitter.

In such a scenario, Martinez would be valuable insurance in case Dexter Fowler can't put last season's struggles behind him, giving the club depth and pop off the bench along with Tyler O'Neill. Martinez also won't be eligible for arbitration until next offseason, which makes him a bargain. For those reasons, St. Louis' willingness to deal him may have been overblown all along, and could be even lower now, MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal wrote recently at The Athletic (subscription required).

But what is it, exactly, that makes Martinez's bat so desirable in the first place? Why might the Cardinals continue to overlook his shaky glove, beyond the practical roster considerations?

You could point to the 30-year-old's impressive slash line (.309/.372/.478) over two-plus MLB seasons, or the fact that his 130 wRC+ during that time is tied for 25th highest in MLB. As MLB.com's Matt Kelly showed earlier this offseason, Martinez possesses a rare ability to both put the bat on the ball and hit it hard when he does.

Video: COL@STL: Martinez smacks a walk-off 2-run hit in 9th

Martinez's appeal really comes down to this: No matter how opponents pitch him, he has the ability to win the battle.

Consider this list of five hitters: Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Martinez, Anthony Rendon and Christian Yelich. Besides Martinez, those are the two league MVPs from 2018, plus two other well-known stars who received votes. What do they all have in common?

For the answer, let's turn to expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), a Statcast-based metric that incorporates quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), walks and strikeouts. For context, the xwOBA across MLB last year was .311, and Martinez's overall mark of .380 ranked 12th among qualifiers, just behind current teammates Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt.

The five aforementioned hitters -- Betts, Lindor, Martinez, Rendon and Yelich -- were the only ones last season to reach each of the following xwOBA benchmarks:

• At least .340 vs. pitches in the top third of the zone (minimum 50 plate appearances) -- Martinez .418
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the bottom third of the zone (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .364
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the left third of the zone* (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .407
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the right third of the zone* (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .355
• At least .380 vs. pitches in the middle of the zone (minimum 30 PA) -- Martinez .495
• At least .300 vs. pitches out of the zone (minimum 100 plate PA) -- Martinez .322
*From the catcher's perspective

Tweet from @AndrewSimonMLB: Stay warm this winter with Jose Martinez's very red expected wOBA heat map. pic.twitter.com/8YYxZhRsvc

In other words, Martinez can hit the ball hard, just about wherever it's pitched. Really, the only place for pitchers to attack with any confidence is his low-and-way corner or the area outside it. But even there, his numbers are well above the MLB average for a right-handed batter (.241 xwOBA).

Here is Martinez fighting off a 97 mph fastball to that spot for a two-run double. And here he is homering off a high pitch from Zack Greinke, a low pitch from Josh Hader and an inside pitch from Corey Kluber.

Video: CLE@STL: Jose Martinez crushes a 3-run homer to left

Those pitches all were fastballs, but Martinez isn't just a dead-red hitter.

Here is another highly accomplished group of hitters to consider: Betts, Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge, Martinez, Anthony Rizzo and Mike Trout. Those six are the only ones last year who reached each of these expected wOBA benchmarks:

• At least .380 vs. fastballs (minimum 200 PA) -- Martinez .397
• At least .330 vs. breaking balls (minimum 100 PA) -- Martinez .344
• At least .330 vs. offspeed pitches (minimum 30 PA) -- Martinez .364

So not only did Martinez handle every possible pitch location, he also handled every pitch type. Here he is jumping on a 98 mph heater from Luis Castillo for a home run, staying back on an 83 mph changeup from Brandon Finnegan for a run-scoring double, and waiting long enough to rip an RBI single off a 72 mph curveball from Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Video: STL@LAD: Martinez opens the scoring on an RBI single

There is still time for a team, especially one in the AL, to seek exactly that sort of well-rounded offensive player to add to its lineup before Opening Day. While the options seem to be dwindling, it's not too difficult to imagine a fit with a club such as Cleveland, which needs a corner/DH bat and wouldn't need to inflate its payroll.

Such a trade would offer the Cardinals the opportunity to address another area of the roster or bolster their stable of prospects. But if Martinez indeed stays put, his unusual and enviable skills at the plate could continue to make an impact in St. Louis -- even in a reduced role.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Jose Martinez

How Russell Martin could rebound in 2019

Finding the launch angle sweet spot key in catcher's return to L.A.
MLB.com

A year ago, the Dodgers made a surprise trade to reacquire Matt Kemp, and the veteran outfielder enjoyed a rebound season by putting up his best offensive numbers since his first stint with Los Angeles, in 2014.

Now it's Russell Martin's turn to be back in Dodger blue -- and perhaps author a late-career resurgence.

A year ago, the Dodgers made a surprise trade to reacquire Matt Kemp, and the veteran outfielder enjoyed a rebound season by putting up his best offensive numbers since his first stint with Los Angeles, in 2014.

Now it's Russell Martin's turn to be back in Dodger blue -- and perhaps author a late-career resurgence.

Less than a month after sending Kemp on to Cincinnati, the club swung a trade with Toronto on Friday to land Martin, who referenced Kemp's 2018 All-Star season in his comments to reporters.

"There's something about putting on that Dodgers uniform that can bring out the magic in you," said Martin, who turns 36 next month and has one year remaining on his contract. "I hope to get some of that magic this year."

There is no "magic," of course. But there is reason to think that with some minor adjustments, Martin can achieve the rebound he seeks in his first season with the Dodgers since 2010.

In 2015 and '16 with the Blue Jays, Martin was basically a league-average hitter, posting identical weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) of 101. But that dropped to a 91 wRC+ last year, putting Martin about 10 percent below average while slashing .194/.338/.325. Given that MLB catchers as a group had an 84 wRC+, and that Martin is well respected for his work behind the plate, he certainly can contribute to the Dodgers without boosting his bat. But if he does, it would help the club make up for the departure of Yasmani Grandal.

Video: TB@TOR: Martin launches a go-ahead solo homer in 8th

"Last year was obviously a down year [offensively], but digging into it more, the quality of at-bat is elite and the batted ball profile is still strong," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said of acquiring Martin, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.

The first point is certainly true. Of the more than 300 batters who saw 500 or more pitches out of the strike zone last season, Martin had the lowest chase rate (10.2 percent), beating out second-place Joey Votto. He also ranked among the MLB leaders in walk rate (15.9 percent), with a strikeout rate (23.3 percent) not far above the MLB average.

Friedman's second point, about Martin's batted ball profile, is also true -- in one sense. He still has plenty of thump in his bat:

Martin's 2018 MLB ranks, per Statcast™
Min. 200 batted balls (281 batters)
Average exit velocity: 90.6 mph (T-42nd)
(On line drives + fly balls): 95.4 mph (T-36th)
Hard-hit rate (95+ mph): 43.0% (T-52nd)

Martin actually hit the ball harder on average -- and hit it hard more often -- than in 2016 or '17. His average launch angle (10.1 degrees), while below the MLB rate (11.7), also was higher than before. Combine Martin's walk and strikeout rates with his hard-hit rate and average launch angle, and you get a profile strikingly similar to that of the Mets' Brandon Nimmo, who hit .263/.404/.483 (149 wRC+).

The thing about averages, though, is that they don't tell the full story.

Consider the following leaderboard, which FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan previously pointed to:

Lowest rate of batted balls hit between 5-35 degrees, 2018
Min. 200 total batted balls (281 batters)
1. Russell Martin: 30.0 percent
2. Orlando Arcia: 31.2 percent
3. Eric Hosmer: 31.6 percent
4. Travis Jankowski: 32.2 percent
5-T. Avisail Garcia: 32.4 percent
5-T. Ian Desmond: 32.4 percent
MLB average: 40.9 percent

Hitting the ball at a launch angle below five degrees produces ground balls, resulting in a .242 MLB-wide slugging percentage last season. Hitting it above 35 degrees produces high fly balls and popups, resulting in an .058 batting average. That leaves a sweet spot in between that accounted for about 88 percent of all extra-base hits in 2018.

Focusing only on Martin's hard contact (exit velocity of 95-plus mph), fewer than half of his batted balls fell into that sweet spot, putting Martin in the bottom eight percent of MLB hitters. Simply put, even when Martin hit the ball hard, he produced too many easy outs.

Back in 2017, Martin made hard contact roughly the same number of times as in '18, but nearly 70 percent of those batted balls fell into the ideal launch angle range. That put him in the top eight percent of MLB hitters.

Perhaps Martin himself can make the adjustments necessary to move back in that direction. Perhaps the Dodgers, with their analytical approach and new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc in place, can aid that quest.

There's not a huge gap to overcome. The difference between Martin's 2017 and '18 seasons, over roughly 300 at-bats, was about eight hits and 18 total bases.

The odds are against any 36-year-old catcher, and Martin could continue to decline, losing playing time to Austin Barnes or another late addition. But with a tweak to Martin's launch angle, his return to L.A. could turn out to be a sweet one.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Russell Martin

This is why Ozuna could bounce back this year

Cardinals OF slugged .548 in 2017, but just .433 in '18
MLB.com

The Cardinals have added Paul Goldschmidt to their lineup and Andrew Miller to their bullpen so far this winter, and they'll likely welcome back the injured Alex Reyes to their pitching staff in 2019 as well. Those are three potentially large upgrades if all goes well, but the more interesting question may not be about the new faces. It might be about the returning big-ticket names who weren't quite themselves in '18. What can you expect from Adam Wainwright or Dexter Fowler? What version of Marcell Ozuna are you going to see?

Let's tackle that last question here, because it's a complicated one. On the surface, Ozuna's first season as a Cardinal was a disappointing one. By just about every measure you can think of, he took a major step back from the stellar 2017 season with Miami that had made him such an appealing trade target.

The Cardinals have added Paul Goldschmidt to their lineup and Andrew Miller to their bullpen so far this winter, and they'll likely welcome back the injured Alex Reyes to their pitching staff in 2019 as well. Those are three potentially large upgrades if all goes well, but the more interesting question may not be about the new faces. It might be about the returning big-ticket names who weren't quite themselves in '18. What can you expect from Adam Wainwright or Dexter Fowler? What version of Marcell Ozuna are you going to see?

Let's tackle that last question here, because it's a complicated one. On the surface, Ozuna's first season as a Cardinal was a disappointing one. By just about every measure you can think of, he took a major step back from the stellar 2017 season with Miami that had made him such an appealing trade target.

2017
.312/.376/.548 • .924 OPS • 37 homers • 144 wRC+

2018
.280/.325/.433 • .758 OPS • 23 homers • 106 wRC+ 

That's bad, obviously. That's worse. There were 277 players with 400 plate appearances in both seasons, and his 115-point slugging drop was one of the 10 largest. His 166-point drop in OPS was the seventh-largest. 

You might think of a few reasons why his numbers fell, like more strikeouts, more grounders, a drop in hard-hit rate. Any or all of those could have helped cause such a decline, especially since it was known that he was playing through a shoulder injury.

The thing is, none of that happened. Looking at the plate discipline and Statcast™ metrics, Ozuna looked like he was essentially the same hitter in both years.

2017
21% strikeout • 9% walk • 45% hard-hit • 47% ground-ball • .367 Expected wOBA

2018
18% strikeout • 6% walk • 45% hard-hit • 47% ground-ball • .353 Expected wOBA

Ozuna walked slightly less, but he struck out less, too. His hard-hit, ground-ball and launch-angle metrics were unchanged. His Expected wOBA, a Statcast™ metric that accounts for both quality of contact and amount of contact, was in the 84th percentile in 2017 ... and fell only to the 80th percentile in 2018.

Video: Langosch discusses Ozuna's shoulder surgery

Let's make it even more complicated. We know Ozuna's shoulder injury was severe enough that it required October surgery, but the differences in his first half and second halves were massive -- with a much better performance after the break.

2018, first half
.268/.309/.385 • .693 OPS • 10 homers • 89 wRC+

2018, second half 
.299/.351/.506 • .857 OPS • 13 homers • 131 wRC+ 

In the first half, he hit like Jordy Mercer or Tucker Barnhart. In the second half, he hit like Javier Baez or Matt Carpenter, despite having a shoulder problem that was clearly not getting better. 

So what happened here? How could his season step back by that much, without the underlying metrics changing, and then still be that strong in the second half anyway -- and what does it mean about expectations for 2019? Let's find out.

Some of it was unfortunate outcomes ...

When you hit the ball that hard and don't have success, you have to figure that at least part of it was the ball just not finding grass, and in this case, that's true. (Somewhat. This is part of the story, not all of it.)

One way we can track that is by looking at "barrels," a Statcast™ metric that describes a batted ball that has the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle. You can read about how it works here, but the short version is that a barrel has a minimum expectation of a .500 average and a 1.500 slugging percentage, and the shorter version is that as a hitter, it's just about the best possible thing you can do. Khris Davis (70) and J.D. Martinez (69) led the Majors in barrels last year, while light hitters like Dee Gordon had just one.

Ozuna had 46 barrels in 2018, slightly more than the 44 he had in '17. The difference is that in '17, only four of them turned into outs; he hit .909 with a 3.227 slugging percentage. (As we said, these are high-value batted balls.) In '18, a full 16 of them turned into outs, the second-most in baseball. He hit "only" .682 on them.

So what did outs those look like? Perhaps less impressive than you'd think. Maybe you were hoping for lots of fantastic plays. Instead, it's a lot of "at-em" balls. Some were plays where the fielder made it look a lot harder than they needed to, like this one in Miami.

Video: STL@MIA: Dietrich robs Ozuna with a leaping grab

Others were balls that were hit hard and looked good off the bat, but didn't quite make it all the way out. 

Video: PIT@STL: Ozuna brings home Garcia with long sac fly

Whatever it was, he had four times as many high-value batted balls find gloves in 2018 as he did in '17. What was that about? 

...but more of it may have been approach and health

Here's the thing about his identical-looking hard-hit rates: They weren't necessarily evenly distributed.

It's true that Ozuna had a 45 percent hard-hit rate in both his good 2017 and poor '18, and that he had a 47 percent ground-ball rate in both years as well.

But when you figure out how those were arranged, you start to see the issue. In 2017, just seven percent of his hard-hit balls -- the ones hit with 95 mph of exit velocity or more -- came on the ground. In '18, that jumped to 13 percent. He didn't hit more grounders overall, but he wasted more of his hard-hit balls on the ground.

In addition, you can really see the difference when you look just at fly balls and line drives and look at his average distance (in feet) between the two seasons. Interestingly enough, Ozuna's balls hit in the air had some added distances to center and right field. But to his pull side, he lost a shocking 42 feet of distance, more than enough to turn home runs into base hits or outs.

Maybe that's the true effect of the shoulder issue, that his power didn't disappear so much as it changed. You can see why this is a problem when you look at Ozuna's career home run spray chart; while he goes deep to center or right every so often, it's clear that his preferred long-ball territory is to left.

So that all makes sense, except for this part: If the shoulder was still injured late in the year, badly enough that it required the offseason procedure, how did he manage to hit so well in the second half? 

Here's one theory: Maybe the shoulder was already feeling a little better. Ozuna was placed on the disabled list on Aug. 22, the day he received a cortisone shot, and he returned on Sept. 2. We broke it up into "first half" and "second half" above, but let's go even deeper here. From the All-Star break through the disabled list trip, he hit .293/.347/.474 (121 wRC+), which, to be fair, was already a big step up from the first half.

After the rest and the shot, he returned to hit a stellar .306/.355/.551 (144 wRC+). While it's always smart to somewhat discount September numbers, since the expanded rosters can lead to opposition that wasn't good enough to be in the big leagues in earlier months, it's also fair to point out that three of his home runs came off of All-Stars Josh Hader and Ross Stripling as well as Tigers closer Shane Greene.

Again, we can't say for sure how much and when the shoulder was affecting him. What we do know is that we're looking at a player who was a star in 2017 and for the second half of '18, playing with an obvious injury and with underlying metrics that suggest the skill hasn't actually gone anywhere. 

"I'm going to get right," Ozuna said to MLB.com's Jen Langosch in October. "Big year. You watch. Big year for me next year."

Those are big words, the kind you'll hear plenty of players offer after a disappointing year. But from Ozuna, we've seen him have that year in the not-distant past. We've seen flickers of it in 2018. It's not at all hard to think that he could be just a big a part of the '19 success of St. Louis as Goldschmidt or Carpenter.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

St. Louis Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna

JBJ is underrated ... and poised to break out

Increased hard-hit rate from 39.7 percent to 50.4 percent in 2018
MLB.com

It's possible that Jackie Bradley Jr. is the fourth-most-notable player in his own outfield, given the presence of J.D. Martinez, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts and postseason hero Andrew Benintendi.

That's partially due to the sheer quality of the players who reside alongside him in baseball's best outfield, and it's partially due to the up-and-down nature of Bradley himself. He's had star-level seasons, hitting a strong .262/.345/.489 (119 wRC+) in 2015-16, with 36 home runs across the two years, and good defense; he's also had two straight disappointing years, hitting only .240/.319/.403 (89 wRC+) in 2017-18. Even his sparkling defensive reputation was somewhat up for discussion in 2018, as he won his first Gold Glove, but also had 0 Defensive Runs Saved.

It's possible that Jackie Bradley Jr. is the fourth-most-notable player in his own outfield, given the presence of J.D. Martinez, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts and postseason hero Andrew Benintendi.

That's partially due to the sheer quality of the players who reside alongside him in baseball's best outfield, and it's partially due to the up-and-down nature of Bradley himself. He's had star-level seasons, hitting a strong .262/.345/.489 (119 wRC+) in 2015-16, with 36 home runs across the two years, and good defense; he's also had two straight disappointing years, hitting only .240/.319/.403 (89 wRC+) in 2017-18. Even his sparkling defensive reputation was somewhat up for discussion in 2018, as he won his first Gold Glove, but also had 0 Defensive Runs Saved.

Maybe we'll always be tantalized by Bradley's talent while also being frustrated that he's been unable to convert it into that season, the kind where he combines more offensive talent with elite defensive play. Maybe it will never happen... and maybe it already started to.

The last thing the Red Sox really need is another star-level outfielder. Here's how they may be in the midst of watching one rise, nearly six years after he first made his debut with the team. Bradley's underrated, at a minimum. In 2019, it might be a lot more than that.

A reason to finally believe in the bat

Bradley has nearly 2,500 plate appearances spread across six seasons. He's been around for so long that when he made his Major League debut in a Red Sox-Yankees game in 2013, Jacoby Ellsbury was still patrolling the outfield for Boston and Betts was a Class A second baseman. This isn't exactly a small sample size.

The results, to be blunt, haven't been encouraging. Bradley's career line is just .238/.317/.407, a 92 wRC+ that's eight percentage points below average. That's somewhat dragged down by the dreadful .196/.268/.280 (50 wRC+) he put up in 530 plate appearances in 2013-14, but as we noted above, his last two seasons weren't strong and lagged behind his 2015 and '16 anyway.

It's true that after a weak start -- .210/.297/.345 (71 wRC+) in the first half in 2018 -- Bradley was much better in the second half, hitting .269/.340/.487 (118 wRC+), a performance that was roughly as good as Nelson Cruz or Freddie Freeman after the break. But it's also true that we've seen the streaky Bradley do this before, a few times, and then balance it out with a crash right back to earth.

So what makes this time different? It's possible that it won't be, that when the 2019 season starts, it'll be more of the same. But if it feels like this could have really been the start of something, it's because there's more to point to than just outcome stats. There's a truly encouraging increase in hard-hit rate, to an elite level, and there's a pretty clear explanation that Bradley can point to as to what fueled his strong second half.

To start with, Bradley's hard-hit rate -- that is, the percentage of balls hit with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph -- skyrocketed in 2018, from 39.7 percent to 50.4 percent.

That's a big improvement, and an important one. There were 216 batters who had at least 200 batted balls in each of the last two seasons, and only five had larger jumps in hard-hit rate, including Betts.

If we set the 2018 minimum at 150 batted balls -- roughly one per team game -- then that 50.1 percent hard-hit rate isn't just good, it's elite, essentially tied with Betts and Shohei Ohtani for 10th of the 332 qualifiers. That's in the 97th percentile, and several of the names ahead of him are baseball's true sluggers, like Martinez, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton.

Bradley, like every other hitter in the game, is far more successful the more often he hits the ball hard. In 2018, he hit .447 with an .871 slugging when hitting the ball 95 mph or harder, and just .204 with a .255 slugging when hitting it 94 mph or softer. This part isn't complicated, really: It's good to hit the ball hard as often as you can. For Bradley, his three hardest-hitting months since Statcast™ came online in 2015 all happened in the final four months of 2018.

If that had happened with no particular reason behind it, you might be tempted to toss it off as a mere hot streak. But in this case, it seems like Martinez may have offered a good deal more value than just the 43 homers he popped, because not only did Betts seek out Martinez's advice as he cruised to a career-best season, it seems that Bradley did the same.

Tweet from @guerinaustin: Jackie said that J.D. Martinez approached him and noticed something about his swing. Jackie on J.D.'s impact: "He's been amazing. I don't think words can describe what he's done....There's a reason why he's so successful."

Furthermore, Martinez introduced Bradley during the season to Craig Wallenbrock, the private hitting coach who helped turn around Martinez, Chris Taylor and others. This winter, he's spent part of his offseason working with Wallenbrock in person.

"This is the first time I heard any of this stuff," Bradley told WEEI.com in December. "What I've been taught my whole life is completely wrong. It's scary to say that, but it's wrong. I feel fortunate enough to make it this far doing it wrong.

"Knowing I can hit the ball just as hard as them physically, it all comes down to the way I impact the baseball. Well, I hit too many ground balls, so let's solve that problem. Let's get the ball off the ground, get it more in the air, on a line, and that way the shifts will be beaten."

If finding a hitter with above-average hard-hit skills and getting him to elevate sounds familiar, it should; it's been among the most prominent trends in baseball over the last few years. It doesn't always work, of course, but when it does, the results can be outstanding.

Daniel Murphy, for example, hit .290/.333/.419 over 2,855 plate appearances in his first six seasons, and .314/.361/.517 in the four years since. Justin Turner hit .260/.323/.361 in parts of five seasons until he was Bradley's age, and .305/.383/.505 since. That doesn't mean that Bradley will do the same, obviously. Then again, neither one of those guys played an elite center field.

The defense was already great

The DRS of zero -- i.e., "average" -- was somewhat surprising, because by the Statcast™ metrics, Bradley's defense remained elite. By putting up +11 Outs Above Average, he tied with Betts for the ninth-best mark in baseball.

For example, when Bradley robbed Adam Jones on April 14, it was a play that had a Catch Probability of under 10 percent.

Video: BAL@BOS: Bradley Jr. lays out for a fantastic catch

In September, this diving catch to take a hit away from Caleb Joseph had a Catch Probability of just 13 percent, meaning that nearly 90 percent of the time, that opportunity isn't converted.

Video: BAL@BOS: Bradley Jr. makes a spectacular diving catch

And in April, before the Red Sox had even made it north to Fenway Park, he took away a sure hit from Justin Bour on a chance that had a Catch Probability of only 36 percent.

Video: BOS@MIA: Bradley Jr. goes full extension to rob Bour

It's worth noting that Outs Above Average doesn't currently include arm value, which means that Bradley might not actually be getting full credit for his skills. That's important, because on June 19, he unleashed a 103.4 mph throw to nail Robbie Grossman at the plate, the hardest tracked outfield throw of the year.

Video: BOS@MIN: Bradley Jr. launches hardest throw of '18

Put it all together, and ... 

OK, so what's the upside here? What if Bradley does hit the way his hard-hit rate increase and second half suggests he can, and plays strong center field defense, and continues the good baserunning skills that had him ranked as one of the 15 most valuable runners in 2018?

Well, we've sort of seen that already. In 2016, Bradley had what was to date a career year. He hit .267/.349/.486 (118 wRC+), almost exactly what his 2018 second half line was. His defense was rated just as well as you'd expect, with +11 DRS, +8.2 UZR, and +10 Outs Above Average.

That year, at FanGraphs, Bradley was worth +5.2 Wins Above Replacement. It made him one of the 20 most valuable players in the game that year. He couldn't maintain it, obviously. But we've seen him do it before, and now he's working with an improved skill set, one with a career-high hard-hit rate that's bordering on elite, and with a hitting coach with a proven track record of helping decent hitters become strong ones. We've been tempted by Bradley's skills before, and it hasn't always worked out. There's enough happening here to think this time might be different.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Boston Red Sox, Jackie Bradley Jr.

Statcast trends that could affect Braves' 2019

MLB.com

ATLANTA -- Looking ahead toward the 2019 season, here are some Statcast™ trends and metrics that could influence how the Braves round out their roster and ultimately fare in their attempt to defend their National League East crown.

Freddie Freeman's power 
The Braves have gambled $23 million on the belief Josh Donaldson will be healthy enough to compete with Freeman and the handful of other legitimate NL MVP Award candidates. But there's also reason to wonder if Freeman will regain the power he possessed before his left wrist was fractured on May 17, 2017.

ATLANTA -- Looking ahead toward the 2019 season, here are some Statcast™ trends and metrics that could influence how the Braves round out their roster and ultimately fare in their attempt to defend their National League East crown.

Freddie Freeman's power 
The Braves have gambled $23 million on the belief Josh Donaldson will be healthy enough to compete with Freeman and the handful of other legitimate NL MVP Award candidates. But there's also reason to wonder if Freeman will regain the power he possessed before his left wrist was fractured on May 17, 2017.

Freeman has repeatedly said his wrist is fine, and he backed this up by arguably standing as the leading candidate for the NL MVP Award through the first two weeks of August. But when looking at exit velocities and barreled balls percentages, there is a noticeable difference between his before and after numbers.

Barreled balls event percentage
2018: 9.3 (25th of 97 MLB players with 400 batted ball events)
2017: 13.3 (10th of 182 w/300 BBE)
2016: 13.7 (sixth of 108 w/400 BBE)
2015: 11.3 (16th of 199 w/300 BBE)

Freeman's 2015 right wrist ailment limited him to 118 games, which was one more than he played in '17, when his left wrist was fractured by a pitch.

The best span of Freeman's career stretched from June 15, 2016-May 17, 2017. Within this season-equivalent (587 plate appearances) period, he hit .339 with 38 homers, a 1.127 OPS and 189 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). His average exit velocity was 91.6 mph, and he barreled 16.6 percent of balls in play.

Video: ATL@WSH: Freeman launches 443-ft. homer on birthday

While hitting .303 with a .892 OPS and 133 wRC+ since returning from the wrist fracture, Freeman's average exit velocity has been 89.1 mph, with 9.5 percent of balls in play being barreled.

Freeman earned a third-place finish in this year's NL MVP Award balloting, and his production solidified his status among the game's best. But after hitting .342 with 15 homers and a 1.031 OPS through his first 69 games, he batted .285 with eight homers and a .788 OPS over his final 93 games.

Maybe a winter's worth of rest -- or more importantly, the plan to rest more frequently next season -- will prove beneficial. Maybe being paired alongside Donaldson will prove beneficial, though last year Freeman did see more in-zone pitches than he had in any of the previous three seasons. Nevertheless, while dealing with multiple wrist ailments over the past few years, it's noteworthy to account for the recent decline in exit velocity and barrel percentage.

Inciarte's range 
The Braves have made it clear they value on-base skills and defensive value in their search for an outfielder. This has at least lessened the possibility of them trading for the Tigers' Nicholas Castellanos. But Ender Inciarte's presence would at least make this a more comfortable gamble.

Before looking at why Inciarte would qualify as a first-ballot Statcast™ Hall of Famer, let's look at Baseball Savant's definition of Outs Above Average (OAA) -- the cumulative effect of all individual catch probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who executes a 25 percent catch probability play gets +.75; one who unable to make the play gets -.25.

Inciarte leads all MLB outfielders with 66 OAA over the past three seasons. Billy Hamilton ranks second with 52. The only other two with as many as 40 are Lorenzo Cain (47) and Mookie Betts (46).

Defensive decline is inevitable, but Inciarte did not show any apparent signs as he tied Cardinals rookie Harrison Bader for an MLB-high 21 OAA in 2018.

Video: PIT@ATL: Inciarte leaps at the wall to make a catch

Inciarte's great range allowed the Braves to completely alter Markakis' average starting spot by playing him deeper and closer to the right-field line. Markakis went from -5 OAA (59th of 71 with at least 200 opportunities) in 2017 to 0 OAA (39th of 75) and a Gold Glove in '18.

Saying Inciarte could similarly influence Castellanos would be the equivalent of saying Ozzie Albies' range allows for the option of using Brian McCann at shortstop. But while Castellanos might still be the game's worst defensive outfielder, Inciarte's presence would at least make him less of a detriment.

Will Folty build on 2018?
When accounting for whether the Braves need to add a top-flight pitcher, you can question whether Sean Newcomb is capable of making a rise similar to the one Mike Foltynewicz experienced last season. But it may be even more important to account for the possibility Foltynewicz takes a step back in 2019.

Foltynewicz posted a 2.02 ERA through his first 16 starts and then extended a maddening first-half trend by experiencing one ugly inning in each of his final two starts before the All-Star break. He concluded July with two so-so starts before compiling a 2.55 ERA over his remaining 11 starts.

Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) provides a better indication of a player's skill because unlike wOBA, it erases defense from the equation by accounting for launch angle and exit velocities of balls in play. Foltynewicz finished eighth among NL pitchers with a .274 xwOBA, an .009 difference from his .265 wOBA, which ranked fifth in the NL.

Video: A look at the Braves' top first-half Statcasts

When Foltynewicz established himself through those first 16 starts, he recorded 10.82 strikeouts per nine innings and issued 4.04 walks per nine innings. His .261 wOBA was better than his .276 xwOBA. During his impressive 11-start stretch to end the season, he had a 9.76 K/9, a 3.44 BB/9, a .232 wOBA and a .257 xwOBA.

If solely looking at the xwOBA metrics, there is reason to project a slight decline. But if solely looking at the numbers and ignoring human elements like experience, then you likely wouldn't have guessed Foltynewicz would have gone from having a .339 xwOBA in 2017 to becoming an All-Star in '18.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Mike Foltynewicz, Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte