Controversial Roster Decisions MLB Teams Need to Make
Opening Day of the 2018 Major League Baseball season is close. So close, in fact, that teams really don't have many roster decisions left to make.
Some of them, however, are tough calls that are going to be controversial either way.
That's where we have some thoughts. Ahead is a look at seven roster conundrums that offer plenty of room for debate. Our goal is to come down on one side of the debate and explain why it's the right move for each of the teams in question.
Let's get to it.
Los Angeles Angels: Send Shohei Ohtani to the Minor Leagues
Right now, the Los Angeles Angels' plan for Shohei Ohtani appears to be the same as it's always been: start him in the majors and wait for him to become MLB's first two-way star since Babe Ruth.
Citing two Angels executives, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Wednesday: "Ohtani will be on the Angels’ opening-day roster."
Here's a better idea: Send him to the minor leagues. At least for the start of the season.
The 23-year-old's spring training numbers resemble neither the 2.52 ERA nor the .859 OPS he authored in five seasons of Nippon Professional Baseball. He's allowed 17 runs in four pitching appearances, only two of which were official Cactus League games. At the plate, he's 3-for-28 with nine strikeouts.
To be fair, it is possible to downplay Ohtani's struggles. And yet, it's also impossible to ignore the signs that he's not ready to be a major league star.
On the mound, he needs to work on finding a consistent release point, mainly for the sake of improving his fastball command. At the plate, he needs more exposure to good breaking stuff. As one scout told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports: "He's basically like a high school hitter because he's never seen a good curveball."
While the Angels could let Ohtani figure things out in the majors, two things should preclude them from doing so: the fact that they're trying to contend and the reality that they have enough depth to live without him until he's ready.
If time in the minors provides him with the proper experience and, by extension, a confidence boost, they'll be glad they sent him there.
San Francisco Giants: Give Steven Duggar His Shot
If the Angels do re-assign Ohtani to the minors, he'll join a veritable parade of prospects who have already felt that particular sting.
Among the notables who are still fighting for major league jobs, nobody has an argument to be on an Opening Day roster like Steven Duggar.
The 24-year-old center fielder is the San Francisco Giants' No. 3 prospect, according to MLB.com. That's primarily because of his defense, though he's teasing with an .898 OPS and four home runs in spring training that he can also hit.
Duggar survived the team's latest round of cuts and demotions Monday, making him one of only 31 players fighting to crack the Giants' 25-man roster.
"I'm going to have him out there," manager Bruce Bochy said, per Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're going to see a lot of him."
As for why Duggar hasn't been named San Francisco's starting center fielder, a few reasons spring to mind. In Austin Jackson, Gorkys Hernandez and Gregor Blanco, the Giants have three players with more experience. The team also stands to gain an extra year of control over Duggar by keeping him in the minors for about the first two weeks of the season.
But in this case, why wait? Jackson isn't a practical full-time player anymore, and neither Hernandez nor Blanco is anything special. Between his excellent defense and promising bat, Duggar has the goods to make a much bigger impact on the Giants' contention chances. All he needs is the opportunity.
Milwaukee Brewers: Let Jesus Aguilar Go
As much as they clearly don't want to, the Milwaukee Brewers should say goodbye to Jesus Aguilar.
With Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Domingo Santana set in their outfield, the Brewers don't have much choice but to have Ryan Braun share time with Eric Thames at first base.
In theory, that doesn't leave room for Aguilar, who aided Milwaukee's surprise 86-win season in 2017 with an .837 OPS and 16 homers as a part-time first baseman. And since he's out of options, he can't be sent to the minors unless he clears waivers. Spoiler alert: He wouldn't.
And yet, the Brewers are trying to keep him. One idea is to open the season with a four-man rotation, which would at least delay their having to make a call on Aguilar.
"There's value in extending that decision, not having to make it until you absolutely have to," manager Craig Counsell said, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com.
The Brewers would be glad they did if somebody—say, Santana or Braun—got hurt early on, thereby opening the door for Aguilar to stick around for a while. But since they can't use just four starters forever, it's hard to view the proposed strategy as anything other than delaying the inevitable.
Aguilar isn't good enough to be worth this much trouble. His bat is his only marketable asset, and that's where there are two caveats: It took a platoon role for it to become marketable in 2017, and good bats just aren't that valuable in an era that's crowded with solid hitters.
Chicago Cubs: Move Jason Heyward into a Platoon Role
The Chicago Cubs roster comes with a plethora of stars and one $23 million-per-year albatross: Jason Heyward.
The veteran right fielder managed a mere .669 OPS in his first two seasons in Chicago, and he isn't showing signs he has a better bat in store for 2018. He has just a .642 OPS in 14 spring training games.
Apparently, all this has Cubs manager Joe Maddon feeling conflicted. Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported the skipper is planning on using Heyward as his everyday right fielder but also "doesn't deny" that a platoon role could be in order if his struggles continue.
Alternatively, Maddon could get it over with and make Heyward a platoon player from day one.
Heyward's best argument for staying put as a regular is that he provides the kind of defense that few other right fielders are capable of. But that's only so valuable given that right field isn't a premium position.
While the Cubs could wait to see if Heyward's bat comes alive in the regular season, it's clear enough that ship has sailed. His poor offensive seasons in 2016 and 2017 were preceded by poor spring trainings. His latest poor spring training is threatening more of the same.
The Cubs would be better served having him share time with Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ and even Kris Bryant in right field. That's the way they can get the most out of their loaded roster.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp Belongs in a Platoon Role
Speaking of platoons, Matt Kemp also belongs in one.
The fact that the 33-year-old is ticketed to have any kind of role on the Los Angeles Dodgers is remarkable in and of itself. The trade that delivered him from the Atlanta Braves was essentially a salary dump, and it never seemed especially likely that Kemp would stick around.
Yet, there he is in better shape and with a .968 OPS and four homers to his name in spring training. In the Dodgers' left field competition, he's gone from afterthought to favorite.
Still, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was pushing things with these comments.
"He's definitely not nor has he ever been a platoon guy," he said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "It's more of the right situation and using him and the other guys on our club the right way. You look at that position, call it 650 plate appearances. Now it's our job to kind of figure out how we divvy those up. With Matt, certainly platoon doesn't even come into play."
Except the right-handed swinger generally does have an extreme platoon split:
- vs. RHP: .794 OPS
- vs. LHP: .921 OPS
Kemp would face mainly right-handers in an everyday role. Rather than risk his production being deflated by such an arrangement, the Dodgers should funnel at-bats against righties to Joc Pederson and/or Andrew Toles.
Besides, they're better defenders than Kemp, who's traditionally stunk regardless of the kind of shape he's in.
New York Mets: Put Zack Wheeler in the Bullpen
The ripple effect sent by Jason Vargas' broken right hand through the New York Mets roster benefits Zack Wheeler the most, as it means he gets to start again.
But only temporarily. And that's if he's lucky.
Vargas doesn't pitch with his right hand, so it's possible he won't have to miss a single start even after Tuesday's surgery to repair the injury.
"At this point, it all depends on how the sutures heal up," he said, per David Lennon of Newsday. "We're hoping for the best, and go from there."
Between this and the late emergence of Steven Matz, Wheeler's status as a starter is on thin ice. So rather than getting his hopes up, the Mets should be busy getting Wheeler ready to do the job he's best suited for anyway: pitching in relief.
This is not the first time this idea has been on the table, and Wheeler has never seemed particularly enthused about it. But the idea persists largely because the 27-year-old righty has a relief profile.
He's had trouble finding his footing as a starter because of health problems and inconsistent control. At least one of these things (hint: the latter) wouldn't be a deal-breaker in a bullpen role. And between his electric fastball and hard slider, Wheeler certainly has the stuff to handle it.
If he took to the job, he could become the Mets' very own Archie Bradley. That's an experiment that's worth the trouble.
Seattle Mariners: Name James Paxton the Opening Day Starter
This is the time of year when most teams have already settled on an Opening Day starter. For the Seattle Mariners, that's meant calling Felix Hernandez's number in each of the last nine seasons.
That streak has to end at some point, however. And there's no time like the present.
Hernandez managed just a 4.01 ERA in 240 innings over the last two years. The 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner hit another bump in the road in spring training, as a line drive off his elbow Feb. 26 has limited him to a single Cactus League start.
Seattle manager Scott Servais has already hedged on the possibility of giving Hernandez another Opening Day start, telling reporters that the 31-year-old may only be good for 75 to 80 pitches if he gets the assignment.
If all this isn't enough to make it clear the Seattle rotation is no longer King Felix's domain, there's the emergence of James Paxton to consider.
Though injuries limited him to just 24 starts, the hard-throwing lefty finally began realizing his ace potential with a 2.98 ERA and 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2017. The 10.32 ERA he has in spring training suggests major regression is in order. But in striking out 11 and walking only two, he's looked more like himself in his last two outings.
From a workload perspective, it doesn't really matter how the Mariners line up Paxton and Hernandez. But if they want to lead with a guy who can match up with other No. 1s, they should prioritize Paxton.