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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hot Stove Kiss

The Rangers quietly filled their gaping hole at first base last week by acquiring left-handed slugger, Ben Broussard, from the Mariners for a minor-league infielder and right-handed castaway, Chris Shelton, from the Tigers for a minor-league outfielder. This is the makings of a pretty potent platoon. The Rangers pick up two former top prospects, both of whom have fallen from favor. Broussard came up in the Cleveland organization and was once considered by many to be the left-handed equivalent of Travis Hafner. Hafner clearly got the better of that comparison and the presence of Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez made Broussard expendable. The Indians traded him to the Mariners for another former hot prospect, Shin-Soo Choo, in the middle of 2006, at the time Broussard was hitting .321 with an 880 OPS. Broussard disappointed the Mariners, struggling in the second-half of '06, then hitting only seven dingers in 240 AB in '07. Still, Broussard has shown promise when given regular playing time, including an 806 career OPS against right-handed pitching. In Texas' ballpark, he could be this year's Carlos Pena. Chris Shelton, similarly, started like gangbusters in 2006. He had ten homers by the end of April and an 856 OPS at the All-Star break, but the league caught up to him, his OPS dropped to 596 in the second half, and the Tigers replaced him with Sean Casey. The 27-year-old Shelton spent all of 2007 at AAA. While he is unlikely to display enormous power, he has consistently improved his pitch selection, resulting in a .380 OBP in the minors last season. Shelton is also an excellent defender, whereas Broussard is quite mediocre, perhaps even better suited for DH. Giving up next to nothing, the Rangers have acquired two players who may be primed for breakout campaigns in '08. The franchise admitted to itself that no amount of free agent spending was going to assure their competitiveness for next year, so they found reasonably-priced alternatives (including the one-year deal for Milton Bradley) who could become cornerstones for the next several seasons.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Redemption Songs?

No matter how many times George Mitchell pleads that it should be otherwise, his report will be considered the critical document of the steroid era. It will be a key reference for any baseball historian trying to make sense of the drama, on and off the field, of the game's millennial years. Even as he was saying it, you knew as he knew, there was no way the media was going to treat Mitchell's report as merely a synecdochical glimpse into the breadth of abuse by players, and irresponsible oversight by coaches, management, and baseball officials, during the nineties and early aughts. They were going to treat it as the Word, passed down from on high, as to who was juicing and who wasn't. Every major media outlet has reduced the 409-page document to a list of players mentioned within, many utterly without regard for the context in which the players name is being brought up.

When you actually read the document you realize that the quality of evidence varies enormously between players like Larry Bigbie and David Segui, both of whom admit using steroids, and players like Brian Roberts and Jack Cust, both of whom are implicated only by off-hand conversations they had with Bigbie. Most of the named players, including almost all of the big names (Clemens, Pettitte, Tejada, Gagne, Lo Duca, Brown, etc.) are faced with evidence that falls somewhere between these two extremes, often including testimony by Kurt Radomski and Brian McNamee, former dealers, corroborated by some form of paper trail or corresponding testimony. By strange coincidence, it seems that Mitchell's most thorough, detailed accounts are reserved for higher profile players, especially Clemens, whose abuse is outlined for nearly ten pages, about seven more than any other player.

There are many interesting storylines to follow in the wake of the Mitchell Report, probably none more sweet than the public "indictments" of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, long-characterized as golden-boys of the Caucasian work ethic. However, one story likely to be overlooked during the immediate fallout by media frantically concerned with the names in the report, is the story of the names that are conspicuously absent, including Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, and Brady Anderson (all of whom have been the victims of steroid speculation in the past). And some names which are present, like Bonds and McGwire, gain at least a partial redemption because no substantial new evidence is brought against them (some of the current evidence may even be called into question).

Undoubtedly, many reputations may be saved, at least in part, by the coincidence that the feds only managed to discover and utilize three major sources: BALCO, Radomski, and Signature Pharmacy (source for the Florida rejuvenation centers). Although Mitchell didn't highlight this striking inadequacy, it seems safe to say that he suggests at several places in the report and in his comments during yesterday's press conference that these three sources represent only a fraction of the supply lines available to major league players during the height of the steroid craze preceding the introduction of testing in 2002. It is this shortfall which has prompted baseball writers like Buster Olney and Drew Sharp, both Hall of Fame voters, to argue that no player from this era is free of suspicion, you have to be willing to enshrine all of them (including Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, etc.) or none of them (including Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Jeter, Biggio, etc.).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hot Stove Kisses & Curses

It has been, as predicted, a very exciting offseason. Besides a few mega-signings (A-Rod first and foremost), there has been a plethora of blockbuster trades, deals involving heaping handfuls of talent and certifiable superstars. It may not be over yet, with the Twins still shopping Johan Santana and several players fates - Joe Nathan, Joe Blanton, A. J. Burnett, and Erik Bedard, to name a few - possibly intertwined with that of the two-time Cy Young winner. Not to mention, of course, that by April guys like Mike Cameron, Carlos Silva, Livan Hernandez, Kyle Lohse, and Corey Patterson will definitely have found their way onto somebody's roster. The White Sox will have to decide what to do with Joe Crede. The Red Sox will have to decide what to do with Coco Crisp. The Cardinals will have to decide what to do with Scott Rolen. And, the Padres will need to put somebody in left, the Phillies will need to put somebody in center, the Rockies will need to play somebody at second, and the Astros and Mariners will have to have a couple somebodies (a.k.a. warm bodies) to trot out to the mound at the end of the week. Much could happen between now and then, however, we can assume that the majority of deals have been done and we know that the majority of impact free agents have been signed, so, as of yet, of the active franchises, here are the biggest winners and losers, in my opinion, and, perhaps most interesting, those teams for whom it will take at least a season to decide.


Chicago Cubs - prospects for Jacque Jones, Craig Monroe, Will Ohman, and Omar Infante; free agents Kosuke Fukudome and Kerry Wood

Chicago White Sox - Orlando Cabrera and Carlos Quentin for Jon Garland and prospect; free agents Scott Linebrink and Juan Uribe

Milwaukee Brewers - Guillermo Mota for Johnny Estrada; free agents Eric Gagne, David Riske, and Jason Kendall

Washington Nationals - Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes for Ryan Church, Brian Schneider, and prospect; free agent Paul Lo Duca

Minnesota Twins - Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Craig Monroe, and Jason Pridie for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and prospects; free agent Adam Everett

Boston Red Sox - free agents Mike Lowell and Mike Timlin

Detroit Tigers - Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis, and Jacque Jones for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Jair Jurrjens, Omar Infante, and five prospects; free agent Kenny Rogers


San Francisco Giants - free agent Aaron Rowand

Colorado Rockies - free agent Luis Vizcaino and Yorbit Torrealba

Atlanta Braves - Jair Jurrjens, Josh Anderson, and prospects for Edgar Renteria and prospects; free agent Tom Glavine

Houston Astros - Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde for Luke Scott, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and five prospects; free agent Kaz Matsui


Arizona Diamondbacks - Dan Haren, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and prospects for Jose Valverde, Carlos Gonzalez, and prospects

Monday, December 10, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon (Part 2): The Case for K-Lo

One of Billy Beane's significant contributions, elaborated in Moneyball, to the current baseball climate was his high estimation for the value of youth or, perhaps more accurately, his low estimation for the value of experience. Beane, and many a GM in his stead, contends that league-average (or worse) players are nearly always readily available at the minor-league level (assuming you know how to draft and evaluate). These players come cheaply, therefore there is never any reason to sign a mediocre veteran who cost five or six times as much for similar production. While a manager like Dusty Baker, who believes strongly in the value of experience, filled his bench in 2002 with players like Shawon Dunston, Tom Goodwin, Ramon Martinez, and Marvin Bernard, costing the Giants upwards of $7 Million, Beane's Athletics utilized guys like Jeremy Giambi, Olmedo Saenz, Adam Piatt, and Frank Menechino, all from within their own organization, for less than half the price.

The unfortunate result of Beane's realization is that now teams are often overprotective of even their second-tier prospects and wary of any player over the age of 35, even the supremely talented. In 2006, Beane's signing of Frank Thomas signaled his observation of this backlash and resulted in the A's getting an MVP-caliber season and a playoff berth on the back of a player making very near the league-minimum. While Thomas is the hyperbolic extreme of the new Moneyball icon, there are other players who have been consistently overlooked for the same reasons that Thomas was overlooked in 2006.

There is a glut of centerfielders on the market this offseason, as I've discussed previously. Already we have seen somewhat outlandish deals for Torii Hunter (5 yrs./$90 Mil.) and Milton Bradley (1 yr./$10 Mil.), and a quasi-reasonable deal for Andruw Jones (2 yrs./$36 Mil.). Expect to see more craziness when somebody gets around to signing Aaron Rowand. Even as the bigger names have gotten signed, their are still many alternatives available, as one would presume that guys like Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr. may be looking to relocate after being replaced, and second-tier free agents like Corey Patterson haven't even made it onto the rumor mill yet. One of those second-tier guys is Kenny Lofton.

Lofton's recent career reads like an absurd satire. After completing a four-year contract with the Indians (the team with which he will always be associated) in 2001, Lofton was presumed to be at the tail-end of his career. He had posted declining numbers in AVG, OBP, SLG, Runs, and Stolen Bases in each of the last three seasons with Cleveland. He was a 34-year-old ex-speedster who had spent significant time on the DL and no longer played the kind of defense that had netted him four straight Gold Gloves from '93-'96. In 2002, the Indians parted way with Lofton to make room for Milton Bradley, a promising prospect they had acquired from Montreal the year before. Lofton signed with divisional rival, the Chicago White Sox, for $1,025,000, approximated 1/8th of what Cleveland had paid him in '01. While Bradley hit .249 and spent half the season on the disabled list, Lofton had his healthiest season in years, scored 98 runs, mustered a 764 OPS, and finished the season as the lead-off hitter on the NL Champion Giants, batting .290 with seven runs scored and three stolen bases in the World Series.

In 2003, instead of resigning their late-season catalyst, the Giants opted to go with a very similar player, Marquis Grissom, who they signed to a three-year deal worth about $6.75 Million. Lofton once again signed for $1,025,000, this time with the Pirates. He was again traded at the deadline, this time to the Cubs, and again sparked a late-season run which landed the Cubs a few infamous outs from the World Series.

Grissom: .300 AVG, 790 OPS, 82 R, 79 RBI, 11 SB, 56 XBH
Lofton: .296 AVG, 802 OPS, 97 R, 46 RBI, 30 SB, 52 XBH

While Grissom and Lofton could hardly have had more similar value, the key here is that this was by far the most productive year of Grissom's contract, the Giants suffering through the final years of his career in '04 and '05.

Meanwhile Lofton played for two more teams during that span. He signed a new one-year $3.1 Million deal in 2004, this time with the Yankees. He struggled to play half the year, again showing signs of age (at 37), though he did have a good showing in the ALCS against Boston. It seemed surely, Lofton's run, at least as a starter, was over.

In 2005, while the Yankees handed centerfield chores back to Bernie Williams, Lofton signed on in Philadelphia as part of a platoon with Jason Michaels. Despite getting fewer plate appearances, Lofton outperformed the expensive Williams by a long shot:

Williams: .249 AVG, 688 OPS, 53 R, 64 RBI, 1 SB, 32 XBH, $12,357,143
Lofton: .335 AVG, 812 OPS, 67 R, 36 RBI, 22 SB, 22 XBH, $3,100,000

Despite his apparent resurrection, the Phillies decided not to resign Lofton, instead acquiring Aaron Rowand in the Jim Thome deal with the White Sox. Lofton signed with the Dodgers. Here were their lines at the end of '06:

Rowand: .262 AVG, 746 OPS, 59 R, 47 RBI, 10 SB, 39 XBH, $3,250,000
Lofton: .301 AVG, 763 OPS, 79 R, 41 RBI, 32 SB, 30 XBH, $3,800,000

Lofton slotted nicely between Rafeal Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra at the top of the Dodger lineup and was no small part of their run to the playoffs. However, they elected to sign Juan Pierre to a $42 Million deal during the offseason and Lofton, now 40, signed a one-year deal with Texas for $6 Mil., eventually getting traded to another playoff contender, his good ole Indians. Pierre's measly OBP may have contributed to the season-long slumps of Furcal and Garciaparra, while Lofton once again refused to show signs of significant decline:

Pierre: .293 AVG, 684 OPS, 96 R, 41 RBI, 64 SB, 32 XBH, $7,500,000
Lofton: .296 AVG, 781 OPS, 86 R, 38 RBI, 23 SB, 38 XBH, $6,000,000

In the six seasons since Lofton began being seen as a one-and-done rent-a-player, only once has he been outperformed by his (usually more expensive) replacement. Only once has he posted an OBP below .350. Only once has he missed playing in October. And, only once has the team that let him get away returned to the postseason the following year. It is almost like Lofton has had two careers. From his rookie year in 1992 until 2001, his salary inched up towards its $8 Million peak. Then it dropped down again in 2002 and inched up to another peak at $6 Million in '07, as teams slowly came to the realization that players of Lofton's talent continued to perform at a high level deep into their thirties. It would seem counterintuitive to predict that K-Lo will get less than that this coming year. If Jose Guillen is worth $12 Mil./year, he must certainly be worth six.

Oddly enough, the greatest players of the '90s have become the greatest deals of the late aughts. Thomas, Lofton, and Greg Maddux have already undergone that transformation. Perhaps Bonds, Piazza, and Griffey are soon to follow, along with Giles, Helton, and Smoltz. Or, perhaps, the market will swing back the other way and aging legends will make the big bucks way past their primes (as it used to be). But, at the very least, the Indians should know, it's a very dangerous proposition to let K-Lo go.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon

A few years back, in 2003, Micheal Lewis published a book called Moneyball which became synonymous with a new approach to baseball strategy at the general managing level. The subject of Moneyball was, specifically, Oakland GM Billy Beane, generally considered the mastermind behind this new approach, though he would likely give due credit to the many sabermetricians, like Bill James and Rob Neyer, and modern baseball geniuses, like John Schuerholz and Tony LaRussa, who have in some way or another participated in revising the way a baseball roster is viewed during the past decade.

It is accurate to say, as many have, that Moneyball preaches an increased allegiance to statistical analysis as a way of evaluating individual players and the teams that they play for. Standing alone, naturally, this is a gross oversimplification of Beane's philosophy, but it is undeniable that Moneyball helped popularize statistics like OBP, OPS, and WHIP, and that it was due, at least in part, to said statistics that Beane pursued players like Scott Hatteburg, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher, Chad Bradford, and Mark Ellis. None of these players are superstars (though perhaps Swisher is on the cusp), but they have all been inexpensive contributors in the Athletics franchise, which has gone 901-718 (.557) since Beane took over the reigns in 1998. He has led them to five playoff appearance, and posted the franchise only back-to-back 100-win seasons since 1931. 2007 was the first year a Beane team finished under .500 since his first year as GM. All this despite the fact that Oakland has never had a payroll higher than $80 Million or 16th best in the major leagues. When they won 100 games in '01 and '02, their payrolls were 29th and 28th, respectively.

Several of Beane's proteges have moved on to GM jobs of their own. Most notably, current Blue Jays GM J. P. Riccardi, who figures prominently in Moneyball. Many successful GMs, from both big and small markets, have adapted Moneyball tactics to fit there needs, including Theo Epstein in Boston, Kevin Towers in San Diego, and Walt Jocketty in St. Louis. They are both Beane disciples and innovators in their own right.

The simplest way to describe the Moneyball strategy when it comes to acquiring players via trades and free agency, is to say that it targets players who are "slightly damaged." That is, there is something about them that is going to raise the eyebrows of potential suitors, whether it is age, a weight problem, a weak throwing arm, a reckless temper, a history of injuries, an awkward delivery, a tendency to strike out, a defensive liability, a bad platoon split, or just plain slowness. Ideally, such a player also has a strength which is likely to go overlooked: discipline at the plate, reliability, endurance, bat control, or a good platoon split.

Here are a few examples:

Prior to the 2003 season, Beane masterminded a four-team trade, acquiring Erubiel Durazo from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Athletics gave up the only player in the deal who never reached the majors, a relief pitcher named Jason Arnold. Durazo was slow, fat, and apparently unable to hit left-handed pitching, which is why he'd never been a full-time starter in Arizona. During his next two seasons in Oakland, playing everyday as the designated hitter, he hit 43 HR, scored 172 runs, and drove in 165 more. He even received a few votes for MVP in 2004. In 2003 he actually hit lefties better than righties. Over the course of those two seasons the Athletics paid Durazo a total of just over $3 Million. As a comparison, the Yankees paid Jason Giambi, a former Athletic, approximately $24 Million in '03-'04. He hit 53 HR, scored 130 runs, and drove in 147 RBI.

Between 2004 and 2005, Beane dealt two of his "Big Three" starting pitcher, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. For Mulder, he received Dan Haren, Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero from St. Louis. The Cardinals saw Haren as, at best, a back-end of the rotation starter, they were concerned about his lack of intensity on the mound and his tendency to give up the long ball. During the 2004 season they had even converted him into a reliever. Beane immediately inserted the 24-year-old into his rotation. Haren pitched upward of 200 innings in each of the next three seasons, going 43-34. Calero has been a valuable middle reliever, and Barton is likely to start next season as Oakland's first baseman. Meanwhile, Mulder has gone 22-18 in three injury-plagued seasons in St. Louis, while earning around $18 Million. Oakland has paid the trio of Haren, Barton, and Calero somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 Million.

In 2006, the Athletics signed Frank Thomas, the future hall-of-famer who'd watched from the disabled list as the White Sox, the team he'd spent 15 seasons with, won the World Series in 2005 and decided they no longer needed him. He was 38, coming off back-to-back injury plagued seasons. Beane signed him to be the A's DH for a measly $500,000, one sixteenth of what Thomas made from Chicago the year previous. He finished 2006 with 39 HR, 114 RBI, and a 925 OPS. He was fourth in the running for the MVP and led the Athletics to the playoffs, while the White Sox fell short on a return trip. Thomas' replacement, Jim Thome, was roughly his statistical equal, but he cost Chicago 28 times more money.

One might argue that Beane deftness in deals like these (as well as many others) inspired other GMs to take chances on guys like Carlos Pena (can't hit lefties), Dmitri Young (old, fat, tempermental), Josh Hamilton (addicted to meth), and Cris Carpenter (injury-prone).

This offseason we are seeing the backlash. There is no shortage of "slightly damaged" players
Mike Cameron is facing a suspension, coming of an injury and took a small step backward offensively and defensively in 2007. Andruw Jones just had the worst offensive season since his rookie year, appears a little pudgy, and isn't even considered an option by the team he's spent his entire career with. Bartolo Colon hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since he won the Cy Young in '05, he'll turn 35 in May, and weighs well over 250 lbs., regardless of what the media guide says. Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Jose Guillen, Eric Gagne, Carlos Silva, Jason Jennings: all come with serious risks. And yet, at least in these opening weeks of the Hot Stove season, few of these players seem resigned to taking a contract that, either in value or duration, compensates for such shortcomings. The somewhat understandable position of baseball agents has become, in the wake of Moneyball, that merely being an established major league player in your late twenties or early thirties means you're entitled to a big payday, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. This may appear to some as indicative of greed and stubbornness on the part of the players and their representation (and there may be some truth to that), but it is also true that the game generally and each individual team is more profitable than it has ever been. The benefits of supportive fans and diversified revenue streams should not be passed on only to the owners and players the caliber of A-Rod, Carlos Zambrano, and Ichiro, but to all the players, particularly those who have paid their dues, as Cameron, Jones, Colon, et al definitely have.

A few years ago, coming off a brutal injury and three straight season of declining productivity, Jermaine Dye, a power-hitting outfielder in his prime, took a two-year deal (with an optional third year) for under $10 Million. Dye turned in two solid, relatively healthy seasons for the White Sox (including an MVP-caliber campaign in '06) and was rewarded with an extension worth more than double the money. This would seem an appropriate template for Andruw Jones. The dollar values would be considerably higher, but the idea would be the same. Take a short term deal, re-establish himself, and then get an even bigger contract when he's 33 or 34. His agent, the ubiquitous Scott Boras, continues to quote Jones' expectations as somewhere between Torii Hunter (5 yr./$90 Mil.) and Vernon Wells (7 yr./$126 Mil.). I think it is almost certain that they will at least get a four or five year deal worth upwards of $15 Million per season. Cameron will likely end up in the range of Gary Matthews Jr. (5 yr./$50 Mil.) and Juan Pierre (5 yr./$44 Mil.), though maybe for less years.

As the market adapts, GMs will have to reconsider their Moneyball tactics. With less players taking short-term deals, there is a much higher price on reliability, even if it is merely reliable mediocrity (witness Jeff Suppan (4 yr./$42 Mil.), Jason Marquis (3 yr./$21 Mil.), and A. J. Pierzynski (3 yr./$18 Mil.)). Likewise, as we have already seen this offseason, we will probably be seeing more trades that have long-term repercussions for both clubs. There will be fewer deadline blockbusters and one-year rent-a-players. If you're giving up three or four top prospects for a Johan Santana, Miguel Cabrera, or Mark Texeira, you intend to sign them to a five or six year extension.

Although there is no guaranteeing that Beane will be at the forefront of the next trend, watch carefully what he does this offseason. He may be on the verge of blowing up his team, a la the Florida Marlins, beginning a full-scale, multiple season rebuilding process of the type that has been generally unpopular during the Moneyball era. If he trades away Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, as rumored, it will definitely be unconventional. Pitching is regarded as a rare commodity, so frontline starters almost never get traded in the middle of their contracts. Both Haren and Blanton have three years left before free agency at prices well below their market value. Beane can reasonable ask for packages equivalent to those being offered for Santana, Jon Garland, etc., because Haren and Blanton will be significantly cheaper investments. If Haren and Blanton get traded, I expect there could be a wholesale auction, with Rich Harden, Huston Street, Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson, Mark Kotsay, and Nick Swisher all on the block. Beane will be looking for prospects around which to build his new suburban stadium.

So, who is the next Moneyball icon? The player who presents a moderate risk, with a sizable potential for reward? Later this week I'll outline a few free agents (or soon-to-be free agents) that fit the profile.