PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Peraza in trouble in CIN?

Cincinnati Reds

Jose Peraza (SS, CIN) lived up to his prospect pedigree for the first time last season, so unsurprisingly, there was considerable buzz about a further breakthrough this season. The 2019 Baseball Forecaster pegged him with an upside of 20 home runs and 35 stolen bases, yet he’s gotten off to a slow start by posting a 75 ct% and .169 xBA through Saturday’s action.

Despite not having the prototypical power to be a hacker at the dish, Peraza has never been a selective hitter, as indicted by a career-best walk rate of four percent. However, he’s taken that to another level this season, failing to draw a free pass through 61 plate appearances. The rest of his approach at the plate is also indicative that he is either pressing or working more aggressively at the dish purposefully. His o-swing% has spiked to 49% with a corresponding increase in strikeout rate (24.6%). Finally, even when’s making contact, Peraza is lifting the ball more than ever with a 0.63 GB/FB.   

Still early on, it’s unclear if this was a conscious change in approach or just a slump that has yet to play itself out. Either way, he’ll need to improve his performance to maintain his already diminishing playing time. Derek Dietrich (2B/ 3B, CIN) (209 PX, 151 xPX, .310 xBA) has gotten off to a scorching start, though we’ve seen that from him before.  Last season, he posted a 115 PX and 26 BPV from April-June, only to fall back to an 86 PX and -8 BPV from July to September. Even if he comes back to earth, Peraza’s playing time could be in danger if the Reds decide Jose Iglesias (SS, CIN) has staying power with his strong glove and with the eventual return of Scooter Gennett (2B, CIN). Of course, Nick Senzel (2B/OF, CIN) will be in Cincinnati at some point this season, and while the team continues to insist that he will play in center field, their lack of depth along the infield may dictate he create even more competition for Peraza.


Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant (3B/OF, CHC) missed a significant portion of the second half of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury, and after he returned, he didn’t look like the prestigious power hitter we’ve come to expect (48 HctX, 72 xPX, .234 xBA in September). After declining offseason surgery to repair the issue, his numbers have shown little in way of improvement early on this season (88 HctX, 85 xPX, .253 xBA). In some ways, there’s not much to indicate that he’s still battling injury: he’s proclaimed himself healthy, he’s been an everyday player, and beat reporter Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic recently did a deep dive on Bryant and reached the conclusion that Bryant isn’t injured.

However, Bryant’s batted ball profile provides less reassurance. In another recent article, Sharma compared Bryant’s spray chart from the first six weeks of 2018 to the the early portion of 2019 season, which distinctly illustrated Bryant’s lack of ability to pull the ball—especially in the air. More troubling is the lack of power he’s produced with his swings. Through Saturday’s action, his exit velocity ranks among the 35th percentile of all hitters and his hard-hit rate is in the 21st percentile.

Bryant is hardly the only superstar to start slow, meaning his poor performance isn’t necessarily due to continued injury. While there’s no scenario in which Bryant will lose a starting role or significant playing time based on merit, it’s hard not to notice the early season trends from Bryant and wonder whether he’ll be forced to the injured list again if his performance doesn't improve.


Milwaukee Brewers

Travis Shaw (3B, MIL) has gotten off to a troubling start, hitting just .188/.291/.261 through 79 plate appearances. However, a look under the hood shows that he is still making strong contact, maintaining a 103 xPX and 108 HctX through Saturday’s action. While those numbers don’t match the heights he’s reached in his first two seasons in Milwaukee, those indicators aren’t a reason for panic just three weeks into the season.

The main issue for Shaw has been his lack of contact as he’s maintained just a 63 ct%. There’s reason to believe that will improve, thanks to a career low 26.3 o-swing%, meaning the majority of his whiffs have come as a result as a career-low 75 in-zone contact%. Outside of suffering a seemingly minor hand injury suffered April 10, there’s little reason to believe Shaw simply cannot make contact anymore.

On the other hand, there has to be some concern that Shaw won’t be able to hang onto playing time long enough to break out of his slump. He has already started to sit against some lefties in favor of Hernan Perez (INF, MIL). Meanwhile, Keston Hiura (2B, MIL) has posted a .293/.317/.621 line through 60 plate appearances in his first taste of Triple-A, though he has also struck out 24 times. Hiura’s continued development and Mike Moustakas’ (2B/3B, MIL) recently fractured finger should give Shaw time to solidify his starting role, but he’ll have to start making more consistent contact to remain an everyday player for the remainder of the season.


St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals starting rotation has combined to post an ERA of 5.04 through Saturday’s action, placing them among the bottom three in the National League. Equally concerning is that they have managed to pitch only 100 innings combined through the team’s first 20 games of action. Though there’s plenty of blame to pass around the entirety of the rotation, Adam Wainwright (RHP, STL) (4.09 xERA, 2.1 Cmd, 7% SwK) and Dakota Hudson (RHP, STL) (4.83 xERA, 1.3 Cmd, 11 SwK%) appeared to be the most likely scapegoats early on, until Michael Wacha went on the IL on Monday. 

There are any number of candidates to take their place, including Daniel Poncedeleon (RHP, STL). While he posted an uninspiring 4.24 xERA across 33 innings in his major-league debut, he did flash some strikeout upside as a starter. However, that seems to have left him early at Triple-A this season, as he has managed only 13 strikeouts in 16.2 innings of work. With the Wacha news, Poncedelon will get first shot at filling Wacha's rotation spot.

Austin Gomber (LHP, STL) also worked in a swing role for the club last season. He struggled with control (3.8 Ctl) during his 75 innings, though that has improved at Triple-A to begin 2019, as he’s managed a 22/4 K/BB through 22.1 innings of work. Both Poncedelon and Gomber have been used as starters in the minors and therefore wouldn’t have workload concerns.  

However, the Cardinals boast a few other options who have more unclear roles but with more potential upside. The team remains non-committal about how they plan to utilize Carlos Martinez (RHP, STL), but he is seemingly nearing a return from his shoulder injury. While we don’t know what restrictions health will have on his role, he has proven capable of being a top-end fantasy starter in the past. Ryan Helsley (RHP, STL) made his major-league debut April 16 and is working out of the bullpen. That means there would have to be some time provided for him to stretch out to a longer workload, though he has completed two or more innings in each of his appearances. Meanwhile, Genesis Cabrera (RHP, STL) has recently increased his pitch count at Triple-A, throwing 72 pitches in his latest start. While he has issued six walks in 8.1 innings of work, his usage suggests the team may be willing to give him a shot in the rotation.


Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates caused shock waves around the bullpen market early last week when they announced that Felipe Vazquez (LHP, PIT) was unavailable to pitch Tuesday after the team had no scheduled game on Monday. That came in the wake of an appearance Sunday during which he was called upon to record six outs and throw 43 pitches. While it appears he has avoided serious injury for the time being—since being unavailable Tuesday, he has made two appearances through which he’s allowed only one baserunner and struck out four of the seven batters he’s faced—some lingering apprehension is appropriate.  

Vazquez has thrown at least 25 pitches in four of his first nine appearances. Of his 70 appearances in 2018, Vazquez met that threshold on only eight occasions. The increased pitch count has come as a result of a change in what the Pirates have asked Vazquez to do, as he has been called on to record four or more outs in three appearances. Over the entirety of the 2018 season, he had only nine appearances in which he recorded more than three outs.

While Vazquez has proven to be highly durable and one of the most reliable closers across the past few seasons, it’s worth noting the injury risk if the Pirates continue to use him in such an aggressive manner. If he does go down at some point, the Pirates’ have a number of candidates to close games behind him. Nick Burdi (RHP, PIT), Keona Kela (RHP, PIT), and Richard Rodriguez (RHP, PIT) have all been used in the eighth inning and other high-leverage situations early on. Kela has struggled with the long ball (4.1 hr/9 through 7 innings) early making him an unlikely choice in the short-term, leaving Burdi and Rodriguez are reasonable speculative sources of saves. [Ed.—This was written before Burdi's significant arm injury on Monday night; obviously he is no longer in the speculative saves picture.]

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