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In the barren days of winter, MLB front offices steal the show. Big-splash free-agent signings and blockbuster trades grab the headlines during the offseason, as general managers partake in the game’s annual arms race. But while nine-figure contracts garner much of the attention, roster construction is not as simple as writing one or two giant checks. The best clubs build with a balanced combination of trades, drafting and free agent acquisitions — both big and small.

In Week 6 of Three Up, Three Down, we’ll highlight a trio of players on the rise who took very different paths during their big league careers. On the uglier side of the coin are three aces who have turned to jokers so far in 2016.


1B/3B Travis Shaw, Boston Red Sox

Stats May 9 – May 15: 11-for-27, 2 HR, 7 XBH, 9 RBI, 9 R, 1 SB, 5 BB, 3 KPercent owned: 77 percent

While Jackie Bradley Jr. has gotten most of the attention for Boston’s success as of late — and deservedly so — fellow 26-year-old Travis Shaw has enjoyed his own sizzling start to the season.

The on-field impact of the disastrous Pablo Sandoval signing has been largely minimized thanks to Shaw’s breakout season. As a ninth-round pick out of Kent State in 2011, Shaw hit .261 in 521 minor league games and was never considered a top prospect. He posted a respectable .270/.327/.487 slash line in 65 games with Boston last season, his first taste of the major leagues. This year, the left-handed hitting third baseman has feasted on right-handed pitching, hitting .364/.443/.617 in 107 at-bats.

Shaw is among the league leaders with a .398 BABIP, which will almost certainly decline, so don’t expect him to keep up his current .317 batting average. That being said, the Red Sox lineup is absolutely loaded, meaning Shaw should continue to put up nice runs scored and RBI totals. If you were lucky enough to pick him up off the waiver wire, it would take a pretty significant trade offer to part ways with him now.

SP Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants

Stats May 9 – May 15: 1 GS, 1-0 W-L, 8.0 IP, 1 ER, 8 H, 0 BB, 3 KPercent owned: 90 percent

Many folks were left scratching their heads when the Giants inked Samardzija to a five-year, $90 million deal in December after the righty put up a 4.96 ERA in 2015, third-worst among qualified starters. Eight starts with his new team, however, and it looks like The Shark is back to being a good pitcher again.

Samardzija has been the workhorse San Francisco needed, pitching at least seven innings in five of his first eight outings. A big key for his success has been keeping the ball on the ground. He’s posted a 50.6 percent ground ball rate, much higher than his 39.0 percent rate last season. The key factor seems to be the increased use of his cutter — he’s using the pitch 38.4 percent of the time this season after only going to it 20.8 percent of the time in 2015.

Samardzija’s frequent use of the cutter has paid off, as it’s been his most effective pitch so far. It’s resulted in a ground ball 42.1 percent of the time, with a 30.8 percent strikeout rate. Samardzija allowed a career-worst 29 home runs last season, and if he can stick with his current approach, that number will be significantly lower by the end of 2016.

OF Melvin Upton Jr., San Diego Padres

Stats May 9 – May 15: 10-for-23, 3 HR, 5 RBI, 5 R, 1 SBPercent owned: 29 percent

Baseball loves a comeback story, and the hitter formerly known as B.J. Upton has quietly risen from the ashes this season in San Diego. Acquired as part of the Craig Kimbrel trade in April 2015, Upton showed signs of life as a part-time player, hitting .259/.327/.429 in 87 games during an otherwise miserable season for the Padres.

With a clear shot at regular playing time in left field, Upton has thrived, and the key seems to be his improved plate discipline. From 2012 to 2015, Upton had a 29.4 percent strikeout rate with a walk rate of 8.8 percent. Those number have leveled off to 24.7 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively, more in line with his prime years.

Upton was an utter disaster in Atlanta, but he’s looking more like the player from his peak-Rays years these days. According to PITCHf/x data, Upton is swinging at pitches out of the zone less frequently than he has in seven years. His fly ball rate is the lowest since 2008, allowing him to make better use of his speed, and his hard-hit rate hasn’t been this high since 2007.

Upton’s on pace for 20 home runs and nearly 30 stolen bases, and even if he doesn’t reach those lofty numbers, he’s shown enough to be a viable fantasy option moving forward. He’s always had the talent, and at only 31 years old, there’s still plenty left in the tank for him to become the dynamic player he once was.


SP Matt Harvey, New York Mets

Stats May 9 – May 15: 1 GS, 0-1 W-L, 5.2 IP, 5 ER, 11 H, 0 BB, 6 KPercent owned: 98 percent

Even though it’s only mid-May, there are already some clear causes for concern surrounding the Dark Knight. After throwing 216 total innings last season (postseason included) — his first year back from Tommy John surgery — Harvey’s average velocity has dropped 1.8 miles per hour on his fastball. His strikeout and walk rates are both the worst since his rookie season, and he’s failed to pitch more than six innings in any start so far.

What’s more concerning is the procession of weak lineups Harvey has faced up to this point. Six of his eight starts have come against teams ranked 22nd or worse in runs scored — a group that includes the Royals (26th), Phillies (29th) and Braves (30th, faced twice).

Against less-than-stellar competition, Harvey has allowed a 27.9 percent line drive rate, fourth-highest among qualified starters. Hitters have been able to square up on Harvey’s arsenal this season, particularly his slider, his second-most used pitch. After allowing a .180 batting average against the slider in 2015, batters have hit .385 against it this season.

The pitch drew rave reviews during spring training but has been terrible so far in games that actually count. Solving the mystery of the disappeared slider will be the key to a quick turnaround for the 27-year-old ace.

SP Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros

Stats May 9 – May 15: 1 GS, 0-1 W-L, 6.0 IP, 8 ER, 10 H, 2 HR, 3 BB, 4 KPercent owned: 96 percent

Last season, Keuchel was a ground ball-inducing control freak who made it almost impossible for hitters to square up against. This year, the reigning Cy Young Award winner has looked nothing like his dominant self.

Keuchel’s walk rate has soared to 3.96 BB/9, his highest since his rookie season. In 36 starts last season (postseason included), he walked four batters only once. In eight outings this year, he has three such starts, and he’s only lasted longer than six innings three times.

Keuchel’s average velocity has dropped on all of his pitches, and he was never a flame thrower to begin with. After dominating against left-handed hitters last season, Keuchel has allowed a .283/.316/.434 slash line against them this year. His hard-hit rate is 31.2 percent, his worst ever, leaving him with an ugly 5.58 ERA.

It’s been a nightmarish season for the Astros, who were a trendy World Series pick during the preseason. They’ve dug themselves into a deep hole in the early going, and it’ll be largely up to Keuchel to dig them out of it.

SP Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

Stats May 9 – May 15: 2 GS, 0-1 W-L, 9.1 IP, 10 ER, 14 H, 3 HR, 4 BB, 6 KPercent owned: 95 percent

Given his so-so peripheral numbers, Gray seemed like a good bet to regress in 2016. But even the biggest doubters have to be surprised with just how hapless he’s looked so far this season.

Among his numerous problems, Gray has dealt with control issues all year long, allowing a career-worst 4.0 BB/9 so far. The main factor has been his off-speed stuff, which he hasn’t been able to throw for strikes. That’s enabled hitters to sit on his fastball, and Gray’s heater has been punished nearly every time out. Batters have hit .320 against his four-seamer and two-seamer combined, with five home runs.

Gray’s home run rate is the 17th-highest among 103 qualified starters despite the fact that half his starts have come at Oakland Coliseum, one of the most difficult parks to hit home runs in. Whatever the cause for Gray’s erraticism, he’s looked nothing like the pitcher who finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year.

There has been nothing to suggest that he is injured, so our best guess is that this is a mechanical issue that Gray will have to correct. With little trade value at the moment, owners will be hoping he figures it out sooner rather than later.