MLB Mailbag: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s Rise, Francisco Lindor's Slump and More

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

MLB Mailbag: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s Rise, Francisco Lindor's Slump and More

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Welcome to the Bleacher Report MLB mailbag!

    There is never a shortage of opinions on the B/R app, so it's time to put your thoughts to work with what we hope will become a weekly staple.

    In the weeks to come, we'll narrow the focus of the mailbag to more specific themes and topics, but for now, we simply asked, "What's on your mind three weeks into the 2021 MLB season?"

    There was a lot to unpack, so let's get to it.

                          

    If you'd like to have your question or hot take included in a future mailbag article, be on the lookout each Tuesday afternoon for the crowdsourcing thread on the MLB stream in the B/R app.    

Has Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Finally Arrived?

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Is this the Vlad we've been waiting for? (@samlichtschein)

    For the last two years, nothing has screamed "I'm a casual" more than calling Vladimir Guerrero Jr. overrated.

    He's 22 years old.

    There are 33 prospects on the current top 100 list at MLB.com who are older than him and another 20 who are the same age.

    Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. have given baseball fans the impression that every precocious teenager who rockets through the minors has to become an instant star in the big leagues, or else he's a bust.

    What those three guys are doing is rare. Most young prospects take a few years to find their footing in the majors. And all things considered, the 109 OPS+ that Guerrero had produced in 183 games before this season was impressive.

    Now it all seems to be clicking.

    He's hitting .368/.493/.632 with more walks (12) than strikeouts (11), and the advanced metrics tell an impressive story, with an average exit velocity (94th percentile) and max exit velocity (99th percentile) that rank among the MLB leaders.

    The unprecedented 80-grade hit tool that MLB.com slapped on him as a prospect is alive and well.    

Team Hot Takes!!

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Brewers starting rotation = best in league (@beneichholz)

    I'll take Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff over any other one-two punch in baseball right now, and Freddy Peralta is nasty. However, I'm not sold on Adrian Houser (4.95 FIP) or Brett Anderson (5.13 FIP) sustaining their current level of production.

    With Dinelson Lamet set to return to a San Diego rotation that already includes Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Chris Paddack and early NL Cy Young candidate Joe Musgrove, the Padres get my vote.

                                     

    The Cardinals offense will overcome a poor pitching staff to win the division. (@iustltb12)

    For years, the Cardinals were constantly searching for enough middle-of-the-order production to support a strong pitching staff, but the tables have turned. I think they're good enough to win a wide-open NL Central race, but they're not going to be able to do it if the pitching staff doesn't get on track. The offense is good but not good enough to single-handedly carry them to the postseason.

                                              

    Oakland is more the 10 wins in a row team than they are the team that started off 0-6. (@dbodbodbo)

    I predicted 90 wins and an AL West title for Oakland at the start of the season, and while I'll admit that 0-6 start had me sweating a bit, it's a long season. I still think they're the team to beat in that division. As long as the bullpen holds up with Liam Hendriks and Joakim Soria gone and Trevor Rosenthal failing to plug that hole as hoped, they'll be right in the thick of things.

                 

    Dodgers will break the season win record. (@ryty4)

    The Dodgers will need to go 103-41 the rest of the way to eclipse the 116 games that the 1906 Chicago Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners won to set the record. That's a tall order but far from impossible with an absolutely stacked roster.

Is Steven Matz for Real?

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Is Steven Matz success smoke or the real deal? (@JTforMVP0)

    The Toronto Blue Jays cast a wide net for starting pitching help this offseason, throwing roughly a dozen viable starting pitching candidates at the wall to see what would stick behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu.

    So far, left-hander Steven Matz is firmly adhered to said wall.

    Acquired from the New York Mets in January in exchange for a trio of mid-level prospects, Matz has gone 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 18.1 innings in his first three starts. Perhaps most importantly, he has limited opposing hitters to just nine hits after getting crushed to the tune of a .323 opponents' batting average a year ago.

    Is it sustainable?

    His 2.96 FIP is a promising sign, and as always, the effectiveness of his sinker is the key to his success.

    After generating a career-low 32.6 percent ground-ball rate last season, he has bounced back with a rock-solid 48.8 percent rate this year. Digging even deeper, he has allowed an 84.1 mph average exit velocity with his sinker in 2021 compared to 91.9 mph in 2020.

    He's pitching over his head a bit right now with that 1.47 ERA, but there's no reason he can't be a solid No. 3 starter on a contending team as long as he stays healthy.

Jay Bruce Rides Off into the Sunset

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Where does Jay Bruce rank for outfielders in the last decade? Was looking up everything after his retirement and forgot how great he was as an all-around player on those Reds teams. (@CHYTnUP)

    Cheers to Jay Bruce on an excellent career! The 34-year-old announced his retirement on Sunday after a 4-for-34 start to the season with the New York Yankees.

    The No. 1 prospect in baseball at the start of the 2008 season, Bruce debuted at the age of 21 that year and slugged 21 home runs in 108 games to finish fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. At his peak, he won back-to-back Silver Slugger Awards in 2012 and 2013, and he earned three All-Star selections during his eight-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.

    He retired with 319 home runs and 108 OPS+ in 14 seasons, and despite middling outfield defense, he still racked up 20.0 career WAR.

    Those 319 long balls actually lead all outfielders since the start of the 2008 season, one ahead of Ryan Braun (318) and a handful more than Giancarlo Stanton (315), Jose Bautista (313), Justin Upton (308) and Mike Trout (307).

    He was never a superstar, and he had some obvious shortcomings defensively and in the form of a less than stellar .314 career on-base percentage, but he fits comfortably into the second tier of outfielders over the past decade in terms of offensive value.

How Good Is Corbin Burnes?

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    How legit do you think Corbin Burnes is? (@aDerangedGaryFan)

    Super legit.

    His 0.37 ERA is accompanied by an equally minuscule 0.69 FIP, and racking up 40 strikeouts without issuing a single walk in 24.1 innings is a sign of pure dominance.

    In fact, it's historic, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com:

    "According to the Elias Sports Bureau, which has data back to 1893, when the pitching rubber was set at 60 feet, 6 inches, Burnes set the record for strikeouts by a starter without a walk. The previous mark belonged to Adam Wainwright, who whiffed 35 batters in 2013 before issuing a free pass. And according to STATS Inc., Burnes is the first pitcher in the modern era (since 1901) to have 40 strikeouts and no walks in a stretch of four games at any point in a season."

    Throwing his cutter more and his sinker less has been the key to unlocking his full potential.

    The 26-year-old has upped his cutter usage from 33.1 to 50.4 percent this year, and opponents are hitting just .098 with one extra-base hit and 20 strikeouts against the pitch.

    With the command he has demonstrated thus far, coupled with his ability to consistently miss bats, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see him right in the thick of the NL Cy Young conversation all season.

The Future for Shohei Ohtani

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Should Shohei Ohtani pitch and hit? Or just stick to one? And which one? (@striplingwarrior)

    With Shohei Ohtani's .309/.345/.655 line that includes nine extra-base hits in 58 plate appearances this year and a 126 OPS+ over the course of his four MLB seasons, I don't see any scenario where taking the bat out of his hands permanently makes sense.

    So the question here is whether he should keep pitching.

    The 26-year-old tossed four shutout innings of one-hit ball on Tuesday in his second start of the year, but he also walked six batters and now has 11 walks in 8.2 innings on the year.

    His stuff is electric, but his command has been the big issue since he returned from Tommy John surgery. And there is obvious risk in potentially losing his potent bat if he suffers an injury on the mound.

    But can the Angels really afford to close that door?

    Starting pitching has been their glaring hole throughout the Mike Trout era, and this season is shaping up to be no different, with the starting staff slotted 24th in the majors with a 5.23 ERA.

    There are roughly around 1,450 innings that need to be accounted for over the course of a 162-game MLB season.

    If your slugging designated hitter is capable of chewing through even 50 of them as a sporadic member of the rotation, why not let him?

Is Trevor Story the Answer for the New York Yankees?

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    Trevor Story
    Trevor StoryDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    What would a Yankees trade package for Trevor Story look like? (@NYCSports321)

    Unless Trevor Story suddenly becomes a competent starting pitcher before the July trade deadline, he should be nowhere near the Yankees' top priority.

    Gleyber Torres is a second baseman miscast as a shortstop, but the Yankees painted themselves into that corner by re-signing DJ LeMahieu, trading for Rougned Odor and failing to add an outside option at the position during the offseason. Once he gets going offensively, it will make his middling defense easier to swallow. And as long as Torres is not still hitting .182 when July rolls around, it looks like the front office is going to have bigger fish to fry.

    Namely, can anyone consistently pitch more than four innings every fifth day besides Gerrit Cole?

    The team's 3.44 ERA looks great at surface level. But it's propped up by a 2.29 ERA from the bullpen, and the relief corps is averaging nearly 4.5 innings per game. That's not a sustainable workload, and the Yankees are going to run the bullpen into the ground by August if they can't get more length from their starters.

    As for what it would hypothetically cost to acquire Story, the Manny Machado trade is a good comparison in terms of value. That deal saw the Dodgers send five prospects to the Orioles, headlined by outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who was viewed as a consensus top 100 prospect at the time.

    The Yankees don't have a top 100 guy they would likely be willing to include, but perhaps a deal built around shortstop Oswald Peraza and right-hander Luis Gil, with a few high-ceiling, lower-level fliers to round out the package, would get it done.

    But then what's left to address the rotation?

Is This (Finally) the Year for the Seattle Mariners?

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Are the Mariners for real? If not this year, when will they be contenders? (@mosang)

    I have some concerns.

    Let's start with the offense, where Ty France (171 OPS+) and Mitch Haniger (163 OPS+) are having excellent seasons, but the rest of the lineup has been underwhelming at best.

    A healthy Kyle Lewis will help, but I question how much upside this collection of hitters really has going forward, even if top prospect Jarred Kelenic is ready to roll by midseason.

    The bullpen has been lights-out (2.69 ERA), and the one-two punch of Rafael Montero and Kendall Graveman is legit. But the rotation is hanging on by a thread.

    Chris Flexen looks like a nice under-the-radar pickup, Yusei Kikuchi is showing some signs of life, and Marco Gonzales is better than his early numbers indicate. But this is not a rotation that can shoulder the load for a middling offense.

    This team actually reminds me a lot of the 2015 Astros, who sneaked into the AL Wild Card Game.

    They had a soft-tossing lefty ace (Dallas Keuchel), a good young center fielder (George Springer) and a hot-shot midseason call-up (Carlos Correa), and they came out the other side of a long rebuild as a surprise contender.

    A wild-card berth is not out of the question in 2021, and this could be the team everyone is chasing in the AL West within the next two or three years.

The Francisco Lindor Slump

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Cause for concern with Francisco Lindor's slump from last season seeping into this season? (@ShoddySkill)

    Let's just say a 3-for-4 game with a home run would go a long way right about now.

    A bona fide superstar working on three straight 30-homer seasons and sporting a 118 OPS+ for his career entering 2020, Lindor hit .258/.335/.415 last season for a 101 OPS+, but that was well short of expectations.

    Despite his so-so numbers, the New York Mets didn't hesitate to swing a blockbuster deal to acquire him from Cleveland before inking him to a 10-year, $341 million extension.

    We're just 12 games into his Mets tenure, but his .171 average and 52 OPS+ with just one extra-base hit in 53 plate appearances have more than a few people ready to panic.

    I'm still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt based on his past success and the fact that he's still in his prime at the age of 27.

    However, his average exit velocity (29th percentile) and hard-hit rate (36th percentile) don't exactly scream imminent breakthrough.

    He has earned more leeway than he's getting from Mets fans, but the concerns are not baseless.

Are the Red Sox Really This Good?

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Are the Red Sox sustainable? (@Beki2211)

    Maybe?

    The offense is going to pile up runs with Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers continuing to rake and J.D. Martinez back to his pre-2020 form, not to mention Christian Vazquez and Alex Verdugo both off to strong starts.

    The bullpen also looks vastly improved with offseason additions Matt Andriese, Hirokazu Sawamura and Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock pitching well, and Adam Ottavino likely to be a major factor despite his rocky start.

    That leaves the starting rotation.

    Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez have been excellent, but Nick Pivetta is playing with fire, walking batters at a 6.8 BB/9 clip. And veterans Martin Perez and Garrett Richards have been pitching batting practice in the early going.

    Chris Sale will be back at some point, but there's no guarantee he's going to immediately return to ace form. And even if he does, that still leaves multiple question marks on the staff.

    The Red Sox are more than capable of contending on the strength of their offense alone, but it's hard to buy them as legitimate World Series contenders given the current outlook in the starting rotation.

                    

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.