10 Panic Moves MLB Teams Must Avoid After Bad Starts

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 16, 2019

10 Panic Moves MLB Teams Must Avoid After Bad Starts

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    The Dodgers should keep Kenley Jansen in the closer's role, and more thoughts.
    The Dodgers should keep Kenley Jansen in the closer's role, and more thoughts.Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    The 2019 Major League Baseball season is inching out of small-sample-size territory. In some cases, that should prompt teams to take action regarding problem areas.

    In other cases, patience is advised.

    We've looked at 10 panic moves that clubs should avoid making even though they may appear to be solutions for slow starts. They mostly involve demoting struggling players, but there are also a couple of potential DFAs (designated for assignment) plus one possible free-agent signing and trade that we're not sure about.

    We'll start with the signing.

New York Mets: Signing Dallas Keuchel

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    Dallas Keuchel
    Dallas KeuchelDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    It won't be long until somebody signs Dallas Keuchel. The New York Mets are a prime candidate to do so.

    The Mets have been a consistent presence in rumors concerning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner's destination, and he may look especially appealing to them now. Their starting rotation has disappointed with a 4.45 ERA, and it's without left-handers Jason Vargas and Steven Matz.

    But while there's a place for Keuchel in New York, the fit isn't quite right.

    After pitching 204.2 innings in 2018, the 31-year-old lefty would bring some reliability to the Mets rotation. But his ability to be effective is reliant on how well his infield defense accommodates his ground-ball style. New York's infield defense has combined for minus-18 defensive runs saved, plus a National League-high .292 average allowed on grounders.

    If the Mets want to upgrade their pitching staff, they'd be better off signing ace closer Craig Kimbrel for a bullpen that's beset by a 4.62 ERA and key injuries of its own.

Cleveland Indians: Trading Trevor Bauer

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    Trevor Bauer
    Trevor BauerDuane Burleson/Getty Images

    Following a winter defined by star departures, the Cleveland Indians had small margin for error in 2019.

    Sure enough, they're barely holding together as they deal with a punchless offense and injuries to aces Corey Kluber (broken arm) and Mike Clevinger (back). This is giving rise to speculation about whether the Indians might sell ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

    In particular, a poll of front-office executives by MLB.com's Mark Feinsand pointed to Trevor Bauer as a big-ticket trade chip. The 28-year-old righty broke out as an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender in 2018, and he's pitching well with a 3.02 ERA at the outset of 2019. 

    But since Bauer is under the Indians' control through 2020, the clock isn't ticking to move him. Their alternative is to hold on to him and hope everything works out either this season or next.

    The Indians are in the thick of the American League wild-card hunt, after all. If that doesn't pan out, they won't necessarily have to break up the band this offseason. They might copy the Cincinnati Reds and load up on rentals for 2020, thereby building a team that will either contend or hold a lucrative summer fire sale.

Milwaukee Brewers: Designating Jesus Aguilar for Assignment

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    Jesus Aguilar
    Jesus AguilarAaron Gash/Associated Press

    Apart from reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, the entire Milwaukee Brewers offense needs to do better. But nobody more so than Jesus Aguilar.

    The 28-year-old went from being a useful platoon hitter in 2017 to a full-blown star in 2018, as he finished with an .890 OPS and 35 home runs. But in 2019, he's mustered only a .643 OPS and three homers.

    Given that Aguilar put up just a .760 OPS in the second half of 2018, it's fair to see his early 2019 returns as part of a longer slump. Since he doesn't have any minor league options, there's thus a case for the Brewers to designate him for assignment and not shed any tears when he gets plucked off waivers.

    Or they could just wait.

    Per Statcast's xwOBA metric—which measures expected production based on contact quality—Aguilar has been by far Milwaukee's unluckiest hitter through the first six weeks of 2019. Indeed, his walk and strikeout rates are looking good, and his hard-hit rate is still slightly above average.

    In light of all this, it's not surprising that Aguilar has been coming alive with a 1.101 OPS since April 29. His home run power isn't all the way back, but it should be before long.

Oakland Athletics: Designating Jurickson Profar for Assignment

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    Jurickson Profar
    Jurickson ProfarJustin Berl/Getty Images

    There probably isn't a worse everyday player in the majors right now than Jurickson Profar.

    The Oakland Athletics' second baseman ranks last among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Feeding into that is both poor offense (.552 OPS) and defense (minus-seven DRS), the latter of which has been marred by a case of the yips.

    Like Aguilar, Profar doesn't have any minor league options left. If the A's are going to move on from him, it will be by designating him for assignment and (presumably) losing him to another team via waivers.

    At least on offense, however, Profar isn't a lost cause.

    Now that Kendrys Morales is gone, xwOBA identifies the 26-year-old as easily the unluckiest hitter in Oakland. In a related story, the low strikeout rate and high hard-hit rate that fueled his long-awaited breakout with the Texas Rangers in 2018 have carried into 2019.

    It's harder to know what to make of Profar's defense, but the worst with his yips may be behind him. He made eight errors through May 3 but none since then.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Demoting Archie Bradley (Again)

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    Carson Kelly (L) and Archie Bradley (R)
    Carson Kelly (L) and Archie Bradley (R)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Arizona Diamondbacks came into the season with a clear blueprint for the late innings. Veteran closer Greg Holland would work the ninth, and Archie Bradley would work the eighth.

    But while Holland has done his job well, Bradley has struggled so badly that D-backs manager Torey Lovullo has already torn up the initial bullpen plan.

    Overall, Bradley has a 4.91 ERA through 17 appearances. More recently, he has a 14.54 ERA in his last four outings. This is nothing like the guy who put up a 2.68 ERA over 139 appearances in 2017 and 2018.

    But before the Snakes get carried away and demote Bradley even further down their relief ranks—or perhaps even to the minors, given that he has an option—they might want to look at the 26-year-old's underlying numbers.

    To wit, xwOBA pinpoints him as easily the unluckiest pitcher in Arizona. His elevated walk rate is a concern, but his fastball velocity (95.6 mph) and career-low contact rate signal that his stuff is fine.

    That's not a pitcher who needs a total reset. The right tweaks should do the trick.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Demoting Kenley Jansen

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    Kenley Jansen
    Kenley JansenSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Elsewhere in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have issues of their own with ace closer Kenley Jansen.

    The 31-year-old righty put up a higher-than-usual 3.01 ERA in 2018, and that trend has continued upward to a 3.98 ERA in 2019. There's also clear evidence that his legendary cutter is losing something, as he's not avoiding contact within the strike zone as well as he used to.

    Jansen's $80 million contract runs through 2021, so the Dodgers can't exactly rid themselves of him. Yet even though Jansen is only kinda-sorta receptive to the idea, they might be tempted to sign Craig Kimbrel as insurance for the late innings.

    Instead, the best thing the Dodgers can do is be patient with Jansen.

    He is coming back from offseason heart surgery, after all, and he may only now be getting back to full strength. His cutter sat at 91.8 mph through his first 17 appearances, but it's bumped up to 92.5 mph in his last three. Meanwhile, his in-zone contact rate is rapidly coming down.

    Lest the Dodgers have other thoughts, they should let Jansen close.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Demoting Nick Kingham

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    Nick Kingham
    Nick KinghamRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Pirates welcomed back Chris Archer to their rotation Wednesday. But with Jameson Taillon out for the foreseeable future because of a flexor strain, they'll need either Steven Brault or Nick Kingham to hold down a spot.

    Neither sounds appealing. Brault has put up a 9.39 ERA in two starts. Kingham has been no better with a 10.13 ERA in his two starting assignments.

    But between the two, there's at least one data point that tips the scales in Kingham's favor:

    • Brault as an SP: .487 xwOBA
    • Kingham as an SP: .368 xwOBA

    Other positive signs abound for Kingham. He started slow with his fastball, but it sat at 92.4 mph against the Diamondbacks on Monday. Overall, he has his pitches spinning at a better rate this year, and he's been getting hitters to frequently chase pitches outside the strike zone.

    In short, Kingham is teasing some real upside. Rather than banish the 26-year-old righty to the bullpen, that's where Brault should go while Kingham gets a shot to get comfortable in the rotation.

Tampa Bay Rays: Demoting Willy Adames

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    Willy Adames
    Willy AdamesSteve Nesius/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays rose quickly to the top of the AL East, but they've recently been feeling heat from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. 

    Since that heat won't dissipate anytime soon, the Rays will need as much as they can get from everyone they have. That goes double for their hitters, who've produced an exactly average 4.5 runs per game.

    Willy Adames looms especially large under the microscope. The 23-year-old was an elite prospect when the Rays called him up in 2018, and they had every reason to expect an All-Star breakout in 2019 after he finished his rookie year with a solid .754 OPS and 10 homers. In actuality, he has an ugly .652 OPS.

    Adames' roster spot probably isn't in jeopardy, but the Rays will have the option of sending him down once Matt Duffy and/or Joey Wendle are ready to return for infield duty.

    There's no need for that, however. Adames is already heating up with an .874 OPS in May. That's coming from increased aggression within the strike zone, and overall his hard-hit rate is way up from 2018.

    Per his DRS, Adames is also playing a solid shortstop. An All-Star breakout may therefore still be in the cards.

Chicago Cubs: Demoting Kyle Schwarber

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    Kyle Schwarber
    Kyle SchwarberQuinn Harris/Getty Images

    The Chicago Cubs have won 23 of their last 30 games and claimed the lead in the NL Central in the process. A team in that position has little to worry about.

    Yet Kyle Schwarber might be making them feel uncomfortable. He made a habit of falling short of high offensive expectations in 2017 and 2018. So it goes in 2019, as he has a .729 OPS and five home runs. His WAR, meanwhile, is at zero.

    To date, the Cubs have yet to back off using the 26-year-old as their everyday left fielder. But they do have the option of shifting him into a platoon with David Bote and/or Kris Bryant. Ian Happ, who's recently made progress in breaking free from his minor league banishment, looms as a potential replacement.

    Then again, Schwarber usually does start slow:

    • Through May: .731 OPS
    • After May: .839 OPS

    In the meantime, there are signs that Schwarber is trending toward a quality offensive season. He's maintained last season's strikeout dip, and his xwOBA is actually the best it's ever been.

Boston Red Sox: Demoting Jackie Bradley Jr.

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    Jackie Bradley Jr.
    Jackie Bradley Jr.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Things have been looking up for the Red Sox, who've overcome a slow start to climb back into both the AL East and wild-card races.

    Now they just need to get Jackie Bradley Jr. going.

    The 29-year-old can rest easy knowing that his minus-1.0 WAR is better than Profar's, at least. But it's better than nobody else's, and there's frankly no way to put a positive spin on his .444 OPS. Even his normally outstanding center field defense is suddenly rating poorly.

    But as if to prove a point, Bradley made arguably the best catch of the season when he robbed the Baltimore Orioles of a game-winning homer on May 8. Perhaps he's still got it, after all.

    As for Bradley's impotent bat, well, he's always been a hitter who's mixed extremely cold stretches with extremely hot stretches. As the Red Sox wait for one of the latter to materialize, they can take comfort in Bradley's strong walk rate and not-dead-yet capacity for hard contact.

    All told, they don't need to do something as drastic as using his final minor league option.

                             

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Minor league option data according to Roster Resource.