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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Notes on the Noughties

During the last few weeks the baseball media has been dominated by discussions of All-Decade rankings for players and teams. These discussions are, of course, founded upon an arbitrary window, which means they can lead to some odd conclusions. For instance, it has been generally accepted that Player of the Decade consideration comes down to A-Rod and Pujols, both of whom are certainly legitimate choices. However, imagine if we were including Barry Bonds' final two campaigns in the late '90s, or even had he been allowed to continue playing for two more seasons in his mid-forties (seasons which Bud Selig robbed from fans, a sin for which the commissioner should never be forgiven).

Bonds would, of course, lead Pujols and A-Rod in the vast majority of ratios and advanced metrics (OBP, SLG, OPS, WAR, Win Shares, etc.) and would be near the top in several counting categories as well (HR, BB, R, etc.). At the very least, it would have to be considered a three-horse race. A similar assumption can be made about Greg Maddux, who, despite retiring prior to the 2009 season, is still among the top ten starting pitchers of the decade in wins, starts, and innings, among other things.

However, despite the fact that All-Decade debates are purely academic, they operate as a mode for appreciating the recent history of the sport we love and, as such, are an enjoyable aspect of this Hot Stove season. As my contribution, I would like to levy praise upon a few people who have been under-represented in the All-Decade articles I've read so far. Most of these guys aren't worthy of being considered in the greatest players of the decade discussions at any position. In some cases, far from it. But their contributions nonetheless made an impact on the game and its fans, and in many cases, helped to define the way baseball was evolving in the decade of the 2000s.

Innings-Eater of the Decade: Livan Hernandez

The defining rotations of the 1990s were composed of three- and four-headed monsters: Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz in Atlanta; Nagy, Hershiser, & Martinez in Cleveland; and the revolving door of free agent Aces who joined with Andy Pettitte in the Bronx (Clemens, Cone, Wells, Gooden, Rogers, & El Duque). I'm not sure that the "innings-eating" #3 starter was purely an invention of the Noughties, but teams certainly valued such pitchers more than ever before. Jeff Suppan and Carlos Silva netted nearly $50 Million apiece on the promise of fulfilling that role. Jamie Moyer appears prepared to pitch into his fifties in that capacity. But for me, the quintessential innings-eater is Livan Hernandez.

Too often this decade, organizations like the Giants and Expos asked him to be their Ace and that was not his calling, but Livan Hernandez gobbles up innings at a rate unprecedented in the contemporary era. From 2000 until 2006, he never pitched less than 216 innings in a season, topping out at 255 in 2004. Three times he led the league in innings, twice in complete games, and four times in hits allowed. This decade he threw a total of 2201 innings, 38 more than his closest competitor (Javier Vazquez). In the process he went 129-124 and maintained essentially a league-average ERA (4.46). Only Roy Halladay accumulated more complete games.

Best Season: Expos 2003 (15-10, 3.20 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 178 K, 233 IP, 8 CG, 3.12 K/BB)

LOOGY of the Decade: Steve Kline & Ray King

The "left-handed one-out guy" got a fair amount of play in Michael Lewis's Moneyball and can safely be counted among the major innovations of the contemporary era, the credit going usually to Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. And whether they discovered the LOOGY or not, they certainly possessed the most effective implementation of it, when, in 2004, on their way to 105 wins and the NL Championship with the Cardinals, they employed two LOOGYs, Steve Kline and Ray King, who combined for 153 appearances and 112 innings. King and Kline completely shut down opposing left-handed sluggers, allowing one lonely homer during the entire season and an opponent's OPS under 450.

Both King and Kline had relatively prolonged careers in this capacity. From 2001 to 2007 King made at least 67 appearances every year and maintained a 3.52 ERA. From 2000 to 2007 Kline made at least 66 appearances every year and maintained a 3.32 ERA. They rank #9 and #11 in relief appearances over the course of the decade, combining for 1173 appearances and 889 innings. But 2004 was the best for each.

Best Season: 2004 Cardinals (Kline: 1.79 ERA, King: 2.61 ERA)

TTO of the Decade: Adam Dunn

The "Three True Outcomes" hitter was another topic of discussion in Moneyball, referring to players who ended the vast majority of their at-bats with either a strikeout, a walk, or a home run. In the "Juiced Ball" era, such players were valuable, despite the high number of "unproductive outs" they were prone to make.

49.1% of all of Adam Dunn's plate appearances ended in one of those outcomes. Compare that to a more traditional RBI man like Mark Texeira, whose TTO rate is 33.9% or a more extreme opposing example like Albert Pujols, whose TTO is just 28.7%, despite the fact that he has similar homer and walk rates.

Dunn led the league in strikeouts on three occasions in the Noughties. He led in walks once. Most importantly, he had a truly impressive run of five straight 40 HR seasons, which ended last year, when he hit "merely" 38.

Best Season: 2004 Reds (46 HR, 108 BB, 195 K, 102 RBI, 105 R, 956 OPS, 51.2% TTO)

WAR-rior of the Decade: Franklin Gutierrez

The Wins Above Replacement statistic has become a favored metric of sabermetricians in recent years. It, like Bill James' Win Shares, attempts to balance offensive production with defensive efficiency and positional scarcity. The names at the top of the list usually aren't too surprising - Pujols, Mauer, Utley, etc. - but the performance of Franklin Gutierrez has continued to defy projections.

Over the last three seasons, the performance of the Mariners 26-year-old centerfielder went from 1.8 wins above replacement t0 5.9, ranking him twelfth among all hitters in 2009. Base on FanGraphs tabulations, that means Gutierrez is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $20 Million a year, even though in 2009, he made the league minimum.

Obviously, Gutierrez's performance is based largely on his off-the-charts defensive ratings. His only comparable is Andruw Jones in his prime. This coming arbitration season will be interesting on many accounts (Tim Lincecum, anybody?), not the least of which is whether Gutierrez's agent can make a case for a large award based on the new evolutions in defensive analytics.

Best Season: 2009 Mariners (.283 AVG, 18 HR, 85 RBI, 764 OPS, 27.1 UZR, 5.9 WAR)

Most Underrated Pitcher: Mark Buehrle

I was listening to a Baseball Today podcast earlier this week as they discussed their All-Decade selections and Eric Karabell and Peter Pascarelli scoffed when a listener suggested that Mark Buehrle might be part of the All-Decade rotation. I will admit, he's probably borderline, but if you don't think he's in the running, you haven't been paying attention. Only Livan Hernandez and Javier Vazquez threw more innings during the 2000s, despite the fact that Buehrle was just 20 when the decade began. Among pitcher who pitched in every season of the 2000s, he ranks eighth in ERA at 3.80. He's won 135 games during that span, also good for eighth. And has been the picture of consistency.

From 2001 to 2009 Mark Buehrle never made less than 30 starts. He has five seasons of 15+ wins and has netted double-digit wins in every year. He ERA has risen above the league average only once, in his rough 2006 campaign (12-13, 4.99), and on many occasions he has been among the league leaders (as low as 3.12 in 2005). He has a World Series ring, a Gold Glove, four All-Star nods, and, of course, a no-hitter and a perfect game.

Best Season: 2005 White Sox (16-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 149 K, 237 IP, 3.73 K/BB)

Most Underrated Hitter: Bobby Abreu

His performance in this year's ALDS went a long way towards raising people's awareness, but Abreu's extraordinary performance this decade was often overshadowed by his teammates in Philadelphia and the Bronx. Abreu got to the plate more times than anybody in baseball during the 2000s and he finished in the top ten in hits (#8), runs (#5), RBI (#10), stolen bases (#6), walks (#2), and OBP (#8). He was a 30/30 man twice and a 20/20 man in every season except '06 (15/30), '07 (16/25), and '09 (15/30).

Best Season: 2004 Phillies (.301 AVG, 118 R, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 40 SB, 971 OPS)

Most Underrated Fielder: Pedro Feliz

I'm certainly open to debating whether a man who has never posted an OPS of 800+ is worthy of being a major-league starter at the hot corner, as Feliz has been for most of the decade. I will strongly contend, however, that Feliz is one of the smoothest and most impressive glovemen to ever play that position. He fields the barehanded dribbler better than anybody I've ever seen, ranges well in all directions, and has a canon for an arm. Thankfully, the stats back me up. Over the course of the decade he compiled a UZR of 76.4 and a UZR/150 of 15.5. Here's how that compares to other third basemen from the top ten in games played during this decade.


Pedro Feliz 15.5
Scott Rolen 15.5
Adrian Beltre 13.9
Brandon Inge 6.9
Mike Lowell -0.2
Aramis Ramirez -1.5
Alex Rodriguez -2.2
Melvin Mora -2.8
Chipper Jones -3.3
Troy Glaus -5.4

As you can see, Feliz deserves to be ranked on equal footing with Rolen and Beltre as the best defenders of the decade at their position, leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the field. That Feliz did not win a Gold Glove, while David Wright and Mike Lowell did, is among this decade's significant injustices.

Best Season: 2007 Giants (20 HR, 72 RBI, 708 OPS, 22.3 UZR, 2.8 WAR)

The Sporting Hippeaux's All-Decade Team:

C - Joe Mauer
1B - Albert Pujols
2B - Chase Utley
3B - Alex Rodriguez
SS - Miguel Tejada (This isn't just because I hate Jeter, stats back me up.)
LF - Barry Bonds
CF - Carlos Beltran
RF - Ichiro Suzuki
DH - David Ortiz

SP - Roy Halladay
SP - Randy Johnson
SP - Johan Santana
SP - Pedro Martinez
SP - C. C. Sabathia

RP - Mariano Rivera
RP - Billy Wagner
RP - Trevor Hoffman
RP - Francisco Rodriguez
RP - Joe Nathan

Honorable Mentions:

C - Victor Martinez
1B/3B - Carlos Delgado
2B/SS - Derek Jeter
OF - Vladimir Guerrero
OF - Andruw Jones

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jason Bay v. Cynicism

It has been reported that the Mets are on the verge of signing a long-term contract with Jason Bay, the left-fielder, most recently of the Red Sox, who is probably most famous as the guy who Manny Ramirez got traded for. New York has reportedly given Bay $66 Million over four years, with a vesting option which could add a fifth year at $14 Million.

So, while Bay will not become baseball's 20th Hundred Million Dollar Man (if recent reports are accurate, that title will fall to Matt Holliday), if the fifth year vests, his contract would be among the largest dozen or so ever given to an outfielder, just behind Torii Hunter (5 yr./$90 Mil.) and just ahead of J. D. Drew (5 yr./$70 Mil.).

Several commentators, including a fair number of Mets fans, have criticized the Bay signing. Rob Neyer calls Bay a "slow power hitter who can't really play the outfield." And while I'm usually prone to agree with Rob and I share his skepticism to some extent, I'm generally quite surprised by all the negativity. Jason Bay, it would appear to me, is the kind of guy who deserves to get paid. In six full seasons, he has never played less than 120 games. Four times he's topped 30 HR and 100 RBI. In only one season (2007) did his OPS dip below 895. He's soft-spoken and popular with his teammates. When he came over to Boston, in the middle of a highly-scrutinized pennant race, replacing one of the best players in the franchise's history, he really rose to the occasion, hitting .315 with 29 RBI in his first month with the team. What's not to like?

Well, there is the question of his "slowness." Early in his career Bay was a 20/20 man, who even played a little centerfield, but a knee surgery in 2006 has limited him somewhat. It shouldn't go unnoticed, however, that Bay is still a smart and effective baserunner. He stole ten bases in '08 without being caught and thirteen in '09 (only being caught three times), bringing his career stolen base rate to an admirable 82.5%. He may not be a burner, but this isn't exactly Paul Konerko either.

Bay's defense is also considered a liability, and there is more substantial proof to that effect. He's always had a noodle arm, but in recent years his overall outfield performance has really gone in the tank. In his first three years with the Pirates, his UZR stayed right around the league average, perfectly acceptable for a hitter of his quality, but from '07 to '09 he has posted Ultimate Zone Ratings of -11.5, -18.4, and -13.0. Pure faith in UZR would probably lead us to rank him as quite possibly the worst everyday left-fielders in all of baseball, and left field isn't exactly a position known for defense. Of course, for half of that time he was playing left field at Fenway, which is probably the single most abnormal positional space in the whole league, so I think we have to question the reliability of his recent defensive metrics. Is he a Gold-Glover? Absolutely not. Is he as bad as Adam Dunn or Raul Ibanez? I sincerely doubt it.

Buster Olney sagely points out that last year the Mets primary left-fielders were Gary Sheffield and Daniel Murphy, neither of whom will probably ever play the position again, so Jason Bay is a considerable upgrade. The Mets other outfielders, Carlos Betran and Jeff Francoeur, are both excellent defenders (especially Beltran), which should compensate slightly for whatever range Bay lacks.

In the same column, Olney carefully analyzes Bay's homers from '09 on Hit Tracker, responding to the other major criticism against Bay, that his power won't translate to spacious Citi Field. He concludes that Bay would've still hit 30 HR as a Met, rather than the 36 he hit as a Red Sock (sp?). I think the Mets would be perfectly happy with that total.

Last week I argued that the Mets best course of action this offseason was to "stand pat," rather than pursue expensive free agents like Bay and Joel Pineiro. I knew they wouldn't go that route, but I thought it made for a nice hypothetical. I still don't think they have the firepower to catch the Phillies, because even if they follow the Bay signing with the acquisition of Pineiro, Ben Sheets, or Erik Bedard, they won't have the rotational depth of a serious contender. In the end, regardless of the what the Mets do for the remainder of the offseason, they are going to need everything to go right in 2010 if they are even to have a shot at the Wild Card in a division which features the powerhouse Phillies and two other solid franchises, the Braves and the Marlins.

Whether or not New York gets the resurgence of power they expect from Bay and David Wright (who hit only 10 HR in '09) is dependent mainly on the health of Carlos Beltran (81 games in '09) and Jose Reyes (36 games in '09). If both are fully healthy, than the Mets lineup looks like something to be reckoned with. If not, than Bay and Wright will be consistently pitched around, just as Wright and Sheffield were in '09, and the run-scoring will slow to a trickle. Even more important is the health of Johan Santana, who missed the final six weeks of '09 with an elbow injury which required surgery. If the Mets have to enter next season without their horse, the season will be over before it begins.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #15: The Washington Nationals

Bud Selig was so sure about moving the Expos out of Montreal. He was so sure that he forcefully promoted the relocation and even contraction for years, despite protests from fans and the players union, dissent from other teams and MLB executives, and even massive lawsuits, some which charged him with racketeering. In an unprecedented and ethically dubious arrangement, MLB actually owned and operated the Expos for three seasons from 2002 until 2004, after which they became the Washington Nationals. In Washington, where there would soon be a new stadium (opened in 2008), Selig assured us that the franchise would become popular, competitive, and profitable.

2009, the fifth full season of Washington Nationals baseball, was the worst yet. Not only did the Nats post their worst winning percentage (.364) since moving to D.C., it was the franchises worst performance since 1976. And the putrid on-field performance paled in comparison to the shenanigans of the front office. Before the season even began a scandal with there South American scouting led to a host of firings and the resignation of the General Manager. At midseason, the Nats also fired their field manager, Manny Acta, who has since signed on to manage the Cleveland Indians. Frustration with the direction of the team caused an alarming rate of fan attrition, as attendance dropped to its lowest rate ever. Only 1.8 million fans paid for Nats tickets in 2009, that's over a million less than in their first season of existence. On one particularly sad day in early June, Randy Johnson picked up his 300th win in front of a crowd so small that the Nationals refused to release the attendance figures. This, my friends, is not a franchise headed in the right direction.

Free Agents:

Livan Hernandez (35) RHSP
Mike MacDougal (33) RHRP
Austin Kearns (30) RF
Saul Rivera (32) RHRP
Ron Villone (40) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Jason Bergmann (28) RHSP
Sean Burnett (27) RHRP
Jesus Flores (25) C
Wil Nieves (32) C
Scott Olsen (26) LHSP
Josh Willingham (31) LF

ETA 2010?:

Ian Desmond (24) SS
Justin Maxwell (26) OF
Stephen Strasburg (21) RHSP
Drew Storen (22) RHRP
Aaron Thompson (23) LHSP

Despite having one of the worst overall seasons in the franchise's history, there was one bright spot in 2009. Washington had earned the #1 pick in the June draft. With it, they selected what many believe to be the best pitching prospect of all time, the triple-digit phenom from San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg. Most scouts believe Strasburg is ready to pitch in the majors immediately. The fan base could use the thrill of seeing a massive talent every fifth game, but the Nats may choose to be cautious and slow his movement towards free agency by keeping him in the minors for a least a couple months (as the Rays did with Evan Longoria in '08 and Orioles did with Matt Wieters last season).

For much of the Nationals existence they have had to field a rotation of cast-offs and also-rans, relying heavily on guys like Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, and Tim Redding, pitchers who epitomize the AAAA player. Thankfully, after a number of high draft picks, the Nationals are ready to field a rotation with a lot of talent, though not a lot of experience. Strasburg (21) heads a group of freshman and sophomores which also includes Jordan Zimmerman (24), Ross Detwiler (24), Shairon Martis (23), Craig Stammen (25), and Aaron Thompson (23). All of these pitchers have the talent to become quality starters. It may not happen in 2010, but at least the potential is there and Nats fans can indulge a little hope every time out.

The veteran leadership will be provided by John Lannan (only 25), Scott Olsen (only 26), and recent, somewhat inexplicable free agent signing, Jason Marquis (31). What Marquis possesses is a rubber arm. He hardly every misses a start and he'll keep his team within striking distance for six innings a start. When the rest of the staff, including the bullpen, is young, such durability and consistency is valuable, even if the quality is, at best, league average. Lannan, on the other hand, is among the most unsung pitchers in the game. In two full seasons he has made 64 starts and posted a 3.89 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP, very quality production for a player who just turned 25 and plays for a decrepit franchise. His upside is Mark Buehrle-esque.

The Nationals bullpen became a running joke during the first half of 2009, and it was one of the main reasons Manny Acta got himself fired. The Nats converted only 57% of their save opportunities in 'o9 (worst in MLB), and that number was even lower before they acquired Mike MacDougal, who went 20 for 21 from June 17 to the end of the season. They were also last in the majors in bullpen ERA (5.09). So, it makes sense that they performed a full overhaul, trading, releasing, or not re-signing eight players who pitched 25 or more relief innings in '09, including MacDougal. The question now is, who's going to eat those innings.

The Nats signed Matt Capps, presumably to close, but though he is younger and has more upside than MacDougal, he is also more expensive and was among the least efficient closers in all of baseball for Pittsburgh last year. Washington also added Doug Slaten and Brian Bruney to fill out the bullpen corps (and will have a look a Eddie Guardado during Spring Training), but will probably rely most heavily on the development of Tyler Clippard (2.69 ERA, 67 K in 60 IP in '09), Garrett Mock, Jason Bergmann, Collin Balester, and their "other" 2009 first-rounder, Drew Storen.

Washington actually outscored traditional powerhouses like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros in '09, finishing in the middle of the pack in the NL. Adam Dunn did what he was paid to do, crushing 38 HR and driving in 105 runs. Ryan Zimmerman benefitted greatly from the improved protection, and at 24 posted his biggest season to date (.292, 33 HR, 106 RBI, 110 R, 888 OPS). Additionally, the Nats had to be pleasantly surprised by the production of Josh Willingham (24 HR, 863 OPS) and Nyjer Morgan (.369 OBP, 42 SB). If the Nats are to take a step forward offensively in '10, they will need those four to hold steady, and they will need improved production from Elijah Dukes and whoever is playing second base. It is unclear whether Washington has any more money to spend, but if they do, they could be bidders on the remaining middle-infielders, guys like Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez, and Kelly Johnson. Or, more likely, they could go after a utilityman, perhaps Chad Tracy, Jerry Hairston, or Adam Kennedy.

The signing of Marquis and Capps surprised pundits this winter, but the biggest surprise was the signing of 38-year-old legendary backstop, Pudge Rodriguez, to a two-year, $6 Million contract. Pudge's numbers have been in consistent decline since 2006, which isn't surprising, considering his age and the toll of his position. In '09 he managed just a 663 OPS, but he still manages the running game (35% CS in '09) and handles the pitching staff. The logic of this signing will come down to how the Nats use him. If he is primarily Jesus Flores' backup, tutoring a youngster who is, at 25, one of the better young catching prospects in the game (he posted an 877 OPS in limited action in '09), than the signing makes a lot of sense. If Pudge cuts into Flores' development by demanding the bulk of the playing time, than his presence is counterproductive.

I think that the Washington faithful can look forward to small step in the right direction in 2010, but the Nats are a long way from flowering the way that Tampa Bay has in recent years. They have accumulated a nice selection of pitching prospects, but they need to promote their offense as well. Next offseason will be critical, as Adam Dunn and Christian Guzman will enter free agency, freeing up a lot of cash. What the front office does with it may determine whether the Nats head towards becoming the Rays or the Royals.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
SS Christian Guzman (S)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
1B Adam Dunn (L)
LF Josh Willingham (R)
RF Elijah Dukes (R)
C Jesus Flores (R)
2B Willie Harris (R)
SP John Lannan (L)

SP Scott Olsen (L)
SP Jason Marquis (R)
SP Stephen Strasburg (R)
SP Jordan Zimmerman (R)

CL Matt Capps (R)
SU Tyler Clippard (R)
SU Drew Storen (R)
MR Brian Bruney (R)
MR Sean Burnett (L)
LOOGY Doug Slaten (L)
MOP Jason Bergmann (R)

C Ivan Rodriguez (R)
2B/SS Alberto Gonzalez (R)
2B/3B Adam Kennedy (L) FA
IF/OF Eric Bruntlett (R)
OF Justin Maxwell (R)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #14: The Los Angeles Dodgers

The conventional wisdom this offseason has been that L.A. has not and will not be a major player in the free agent market because of the messy divorce proceedings between owner, Frank McCourt, and his wife and former Dodger CED, Jamie McCourt. I don't care to speculate too much regarding this subject, except to say, it is probably in the best interests of the franchise if Jamie is awarded the team when all is said and done. She is clearly more familiar with the daily operations of the franchise and perhaps more dedicated to the teams success (as she has made it her sole priority since 2004). Since the McCourts took over, the Dodgers have had only one losing season and, under the leadership of Paul DePodesta (GM '04-'05) and Ned Colletti (GM '06-Present), as well as Jim Tracy (Manager '04-'05), Grady Little ('06-'07), and Joe Torre ('08-Present) they have made four playoff appearances and assembled perhaps the best collection of homegrown stars in all of baseball.

Ponder this list for a few moments:

RHSP Chad Billingsley (25) Drafted in 2003 (1st Round)
RF Andre Ethier (28) Drafted in 2003 (2nd Round)
OF Xavier Paul (25) Drafted in 2003 (4th Round)
CF Matt Kemp (25) Drafted in 2003 (6th Round)
SS Chin-Lung Hu (26) Signed in 2003 as Amateur Free Agent
1B James Loney (26) Drafted in 2002 (1st Round)
RHRP Jonathan Broxton (26) Drafted in 2002 (2nd Round)
LHSP James McDonald (25) Drafted in 2002 (11th Round)
C Russell Martin (27) Drafted in 2002 (17th Round)
IF Tony Abreu (25) Signed in 2002 as Amateur Free Agent
RHRP Ramon Troncoso (27) Signed in 2002 as Amateur Free Agent
RHRP Ronaldo Belisario (27) Signed in 1999 as Amateur Free Agent
LHRP Hong-Chih Kuo (28) Signed in 1999 as Amateur Free Agent

I think it's safe to say the Dodgers would not have gone to the NLCS the last two years without this collection of talent. Nobody on this list is older than 28, and yet there are four All-Stars, two Gold Gloves, and three Silver Sluggers. They make up a significant portion of the everyday lineup (Kemp, Ethier, Loney, Martin), provide arguably the Ace of the pitching staff (Billingsley), and almost the entirety of the bullpen, which was, in '09, the best in baseball.

So, the McCourts and Ned Colletti deserve some commendations right? Well, yes, they did have a significant hand in developing these players, but all of them were acquired prior to the McCourts purchasing the Dodgers, by the man they fired as GM, Dan Evans. Evans, who now heads up West Coast Sports Management, deserves a great deal of the credit for the Dodgers recent success and may be one of the more underrated general managers of the Moneyball era. In addition to the guys on this list, he was also responsible for drafting Edwin Jackson (who Colletti later traded to Tampa Bay for Lance Carter and Danys Baez) and for engineering several trades which gave the Dodgers a great deal on long-term financial flexibility (sending away Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Paul Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion, Devon White, etc.). Obviously, trading away veterans (or letting them walk, as he did with Chan Ho Park) didn't make Evans particularly popular with the Dodgers fan base, but it is hard to cite a case (except maybe Sheffield's) where he unloaded somebody who proved toe be worth what they were being paid over the next several seasons. And in the process, Evan stocked the farm system to the incredible degree which is paying dividends for his successors.

Then again, Evans also signed Darren Dreifort to five years and $55 Million.

Free Agents:

C Brad Ausmus (40)
2B Ron Belliard (34)
IF Juan Castro (37)
RHSP Jon Garland (30)
2B Orlando Hudson (32)
IF Mark Loretta (38)
RHRP Guillermo Mota (36)
LHRP Will Ohman (32)
RHSP Vicente Padilla (32)
RHSP Jason Schmidt (36)
DH Jim Thome (39)
RHSP Jeff Weaver (33)
LHSP Randy Wolf (33) [Signed w/ Brewers]

Arbitration Eligible:

Chad Billingsley (25) RHSP
Jonathan Broxton (26) RHCL
Andre Ethier (28) RF
Matt Kemp (25) CF
Hong-Chih Kuo (28) LHRP
James Loney (26) 1B
Russell Martin (27) C
Jason Repko (29) OF
George Sherrill (33) LHRP

ETA 2010?:

IF Ivan DeJesus Jr. (23)
IF Chin-Lung Hu (26)
RHRP Josh Lindblom (23)
RHRP Jon Link (26)
RHSP Ethan Martin (21)
C Lucas May (25)
OF Xavier Paul (25)

Although the Dodgers have a great core of players in place, one can see by the length of their free agency list that this isn't the best offseason to be standing pat. However, they may have no other choice. If that's the case, the continued success of the team will be dependent on the advancement of the prospects drafted by DePodesta and Colletti. So far, only Clayton Kershaw and Blake DeWitt have made any impression at the major-league level.

The primary source of anxiety for Dodgers fans is the rotation. Although the pitching staff was among the best in the league for the bulk of 2009, the young arms of Billingsley and Kershaw faded down the stretch and especially in the postseason. The most durable and consistent pitcher from the '09 rotation, Randy Wolf, is gone, having signed with Milwaukee, so the Dodgers need a fully healthy Hiroki Kuroda and more consistency from the young guns. At the back end, Joe Torre may be holding open auditions. Scott Elbert, James McDonald, and the knuckleballer, Charlie Haeger, were all starters throughout their minor-league careers, but adapted well to bullpen roles in '09. All are still in their mid-twenties, capable of making big strides. They will probably get long looks as starters during Spring Training. As will Ethan Martin. The 15th pick in the '08 draft hasn't pitched above A ball, but the Georgia alum should move relatively rapidly through the system, both due to maturity and the franchise's desperation.

The starting lineup is set at every position but second base, as both Orlando Hudson and Ron Belliard became free agents. Joe Torre seems comfortable handing a starting job to Blake DeWitt, a converted third baseman, who served the franchise well as a utility man in '08 and '09. If that experiment goes poorly, the Dodgers will turn to middle-infield prospects like Chin-Lung Hu and Ivan DeJesus Jr.

The Dodgers success in '09 depends most upon Billinsley and Kershaw, but they also need bounceback efforts from Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin. Manny's lack of production might be explained by his suspension, as he still managed an admirable 949 OPS for the season, but the Dodgers will no doubt be concerned by the fact that his OPS numbers declined in every month, from 1154 in April to 792 in the postseason. Russell Martin's precipitous decline is utterly without explanation. After being one of the best catchers in baseball from '06 to '08, Martin went into the tank in '09, managing only a 680 OPS, over a hundred points below his previous career low. Perhaps he was hiding an injury. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Whatever the reason, the Dodgers desperately need the All-Star to be back behind the plate in 2010.

Joe Torre has defied all his doubters since coming to L.A., taking the team to the brink of the World Series in each of his first two seasons. 2010 may be his greatest challenge yet.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

SS Rafael Furcal (S)
CF Matt Kemp (R)
LF Manny Ramirez (R)
RF Andre Ethier (L)
1B James Loney (L)
3B Casey Blake (R)
C Russell Martin (R)
2B Blake DeWitt (L)
SP Clayton Kershaw (L)

SP Chad Billingsley (R)
SP Hiroki Kuroda (R)
SP James McDonald (R)
SP Charlie Haeger (R)

CL Jonathan Broxton (R)
SU George Sherrill (L)
SU Ronaldo Belisario (R)
MR Ramon Troncoso (R)
MR Hong-Chih Kuo (L)
LOOGY Scott Elbert (L)
MOP Cory Wade (R)

C A. J. Ellis (R)
IF Jamey Carroll (R)
IF Chin-Lung Hu (R)
OF Xavier Paul (L)
OF Jason Repko (R)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #13: The New York Mets

Buster Olney blogged this morning about how he would fix the Mets. His solution calls for somewhere between eight and ten free agent acquisitions in the next two months, which demonstrates just how much trouble the Mets are in. After two seasons of disappointment, finishing just behind the Phillies in '07 and '08, the 2009 season was an absolute disaster. It is almost hard to fathom how a team with $150 Million payroll could lose 92 games.

Obviously, the Mets had their share of bad luck. Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and J. J. Putz, with a combined salary of $55,750,000, all missed more than half the season with injuries. Only one Mets starting pitcher, Mike Pelfrey, made more than 25 starts, and he posted an ERA of 5.03. In their spacious new ballpark, Citi Field, no Mets hitter launched more than seven homeruns.

The good news for the Mets is that they can put 2009 behind them. With Wagner, Delgado, Putz, and others headed for free agency, over $50 Million has come off the books. However, because of the Mets somewhat uncertain financial future (the Wilpons were heavily invested in Bernie Madoff) and because the team looks somewhat unlikely to compete in the near future (not only is the roster in shambles, but their AL East rival, the Phillies and Braves, both appear to have improved), they have had an unusually hard time luring top free agents this winter. The Mets were rumored in the mix for John Lackey, Randy Wolf, Nick Johnson, and, most recently, Jason Bay, but so far none have agreed to make New York their home. If the season started tomorrow the Mets left-fielder would be Angel Pagan and their fifth starter would be Fernando Nieve (who, to be fair, were among the only pleasant surprises during the '09 season).

Free Agents:

Carlos Delgado (38) 1B
Elmer Dessens (39) RHRP
J. J. Putz (33) RHRP [Signed w/ White Sox]
Tim Redding (32) RHSP
Jeremy Reed (29) OF
Brian Schneider (33) C [Signed w/ Phillies]
Gary Sheffield (41) OF/DH
Fernando Tatis (35) 3B/1B/OF

Arbitration Eligible:

Pedro Feliciano (33) LHRP
Jeff Francouer (26) RF
Sean Green (31) RHRP
John Maine (29) RHSP
Angel Pagan (28) OF

ETA 2010?:

Nick Evans (24) 1B/OF
Fernando Martinez (21) OF
Jon Niese (23) LHSP

Omar Minaya made it quite clear at the end of the 2009 campaign that the Mets would be looking to upgrade the outfield and the rotation prior to the 2010 season. However, especially if Jason Bay has indeed rebuffed New York's best offers, they are running out of options. Perhaps the Mets could be late-comers to the bidding for Matt Holliday or Johnny Damon. If not, their best outfield option may be simply retaining the services of Gary Sheffield (823 OPS in '09). The pickings for pitching are growing even slimmer, as Lackey, Harden, and Wolf have already been signed. The Mets could enter the bidding on Joel Piniero or chase a higher risk option, either one of the Cuban defectors, Aroldis Chapman and Noel Arguelles, or a former Ace coming off a major injury, like Ben Sheets or Erik Bedard. Every one of these pitchers has a high likelihood of becoming Minaya's final mistake as Mets GM.

Unfortunately, the Mets are going to find some way to spend a lot of money this offseason and when they do they are going to try to convince their fans that they are ready to make a run at the Wild Card in 2010. My question, however, is, "What if they didn't?" I'm telling you right now: the best thing the Mets front office could do for the long-term viability of their franchise is just sit tight. The Phillies are loaded. The Braves and Marlins are dangerous. Even the Nationals are likely to be as good as they've ever been (since becoming the Nationals). It's going to be a hard road to the playoffs through the NL East next season (and for several seasons to come) and the Mets frankly don't have what's required to be there at the end of it. The Mets have no idea whether Beltran, Reyes, and Johan Santana are going to be fully healthy by Spring Training. If they aren't, their season is probably over before it even begins. Maybe, just maybe, they ought to start thinking about 2011.

The 2011 Infield:

The Mets will retain Reyes, Wright, and Castillo through 2011. This coming season they need to take a long look at Nick Evans, Daniel Murphy, and Omir Santos, rather than burying them behind fading veteran who will delay their progress (yes, I'm talking about Bengie Molina). If things don't go well, next year's free agent market will features some quality at first base (Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena) and backstop (Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez).

The 2011 Outfield:

In 2010, the Mets should dedicate themselves to the development of Pagan, Francoeur, and Fernando Martinez. Pagan and Francoeur have been around for awhile, but are still in the early stages of their prime (28 and 26, respectively). Perhaps they are just late bloomers. In the second half of '09, once he was given an everyday job, Pagan hit .302 with 36 extra-base hits (including an amazing eleven triples), an 837 OPS, and scored 47 runs in 70 games. After coming over from the Braves, Francoeur his .311 with an 836 OPS in 75 game, better numbers than he ever posted in his three full season in Atlanta.

Martinez is a major talent (877 OPS at AAA in '09, at only 20-years-old). Because both he and Pagan are capable of playing all three outfield positions (and, in fact, all the Mets outfielders are pretty strong defenders) and the Mets have a lefty, a righty, and two switch-hitters at their disposal, New York could give the youngster a big share of at-bats in 2010 via a four-way rotation. Jerry Manuel could mix and match in such a way which would give Pagan, Francoeur, and Martinez plenty of opportunities and he could also get Beltran more rest, hopefully keeping him healthy. By 2011 the Mets outfield may fix itself. If not, then they can go after Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, or Jayson Werth.

The 2011 Rotation:

The Mets may simply have misjudged the quality of John Maine, Mike Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez. If so, they're going to find themselves in quite a hole, because beyond Fernando Nieve and Jon Niese, they don't have any pitching reinforcements in the high minors. On the other hand, the Mets now play in a pitcher's paradise, which should be a major bargaining chip with both A and B level free agents. The 2011 class of starting pitchers is quite promising, including top-flight guys like Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett, and Brandon Webb, as well as a quality second tier, with Javier Vazquez, Ted Lilly, Jorge de la Rosa, Kevin Millwood, and Joe Blanton, to name just a few. If Maine, Pelfrey, and Perez don't make significant strides this coming season, by resisting the 2010 free agents, the Mets will have set aside plenty of money to be major players on the 2011 pitching market.

The 2011 Bullpen:

K-Rod is signed through 2011 (with an option for 2012), as is Ryota Igarashi, the Japanese set-up man Minaya quietly signed last week. The Mets already have some quality bullpen arms in Bobby Parnell (25), Brian Stokes (30), Pedro Feliciano (33), and Sean Green (31). Feliciano is the only one of them who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season and his age will make him infinitely re-signable. Also, the Mets will likely have a couple of failed starters who might be converted into nice relievers.

I know full well the Mets won't heed this advice. They are going to overpay for somebody in the next month or so, and they very well may do long term damage to one of their stars by urging him to play through a lingering injury. And for what? In all likelihood the best-case scenario for the 2010 Mets is a third place finish. The 2011 Mets on the other hand, if nurtured, could be a contender.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

SS Jose Reyes (S)
2B Luis Castillo (S)
3B David Wright (R)
CF Carlos Beltran (S)
LF Jason Bay (R)
1B Daniel Murphy (L)
RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
C Bengie Molina (R) FA
SP Johan Santana (L)

SP Mike Pelfrey (R)
SP John Maine (R)
SP Oliver Perez (L)
SP Fernando Nieve (R)

CL Francisco Rodriguez (R)
SU Ryoto Igarashi (R)
SU Brian Stokes (R)
LOOGY Pedro Feliciano (L)
MR Sean Green (R)
MR Bobby Parnell (R)
SWING Kelvim Escobar (R)

C Henry Blanco (R)
C Omir Santos (R)
2B/SS Alex Cora (L)
1B/OF Nick Evans (R)
OF Angel Pagan (S)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ancient Spirits of Evil Trade Mumm-Ra to Decepticons for Skywarp & Dreadwind; Rumors that Former ThunderCat May Sign Blood-Pact With Boston Red Sox

I'm always thrilled when my least favorite NL team makes a trade with my least favorite AL team which has the potential to make both teams better. It's not hard for me to hate the Yankees or the Braves, the two most dominant franchises of my lifetime, but it's hard to find fault with a trade like this. Brian Cashman and Frank Wren both deserve the gratitude of their fans - their evil, evil fans - this holiday seasons.

To Braves: CF Melky Cabrera (25), LHRP Michael Dunn (25), RHSP Arodys Vizcaino (19)

To Yankees: RHSP Javier Vazquez (33), LHRP Boone Logan (25)

In the words of Mr. Rosenberg at It's About The Money, well, it's all about the money. Javier Vazquez was a Cy Young contender in 2009 (he finished 4th), but he also possessed the Braves third largest salary (behind Chipper Jones and Derek Lowe). Considering Javy's age and extensive track record, it's pretty unlikely that he'll ever be more valuable than he is right now, so it made great sense for Wren to deal him this offseason, gaining the Braves both greater financial flexibility and some solid young players in return. As added incentive, Atlanta has the rare good fortune of sitting on a stockpile of quality starting pitchers, with Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Jair Jurrjens all under contract through at least 2012.

To nobody's great surprise, the New York media has been a bit nonplused by the re-acquisition of Vazquez, who pitched for the Yankees in 2004, going 14-10 with a 4.91 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 198 innings. Personally, I don't see a whole lot to complain about, even though the ERA was a little high. The real story, however, was Vazquez's fluky late-season slide, perhaps the result of an unreported injury. In his first 18 starts he went 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA and 7.2 K/9. But in his last fourteen he was 4-5 with a 6.92 ERA and 6.2 K/9. This was completely uncharacteristic of Vazquez, who over the course of his career has actually been a slightly better pitcher after the All-Star Break (Pre: 4.32 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.0 K/9; Post: 4.04 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.3 K/9). One cannot expect Javy to post anything resembling his '09 line (2.87 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.8 K/9) pitching in the AL East and making half his starts at homer-happy Yankee Stadium, but with the New York lineup behind him, he's as safe a bet as anybody to again notch 15+ wins.

Clearly, the player most likely to have an immediate impact is Vazquez, but Melky Cabrera is an often overlooked and underrated player who at only 25 years of age has already played in nearly 600 major league games, including three postseasons and a World Series. He's a switch-hitter with modest power (13 HR in '09) and modest speed (10 SB in '09), who plays excellent defense, handles the bat well (only 59 K in 540 PA in '09), and still has plenty of room for development. In '09 he posted career highs in 2B, HR, SLG, and OPS, suggesting that his power, at the very least, is still trending upward. Melky's addition allows Atlanta to move Nate McLouth to left field, improving the outfield defense at two positions, and Matt Diaz to the bench, where he 921 career OPS against left-handers makes him an excellent pinch-hitter and platoon man (McLouth posted a measly 688 OPS against southpaws in '09).

At first glance, the exchange of Boone Logan and Michael Dunn seems a bit strange. They are both 25-year-old left-handed relief pitchers. Both have great strikeout rates, but problematic walk rates. Most scouts would probably tell you that their abilities are almost indistinguishable. But once again, it's all about the money. Boone Logan already has three full seasons and 164 major-league appearances under his belt with the Braves and White Sox. He'll become a millionaire through arbitration this spring. Mike Dunn, on the other hand, having been buried in an organization that rarely rushes young relievers, has logged only four innings at the major-league level, all this past September, so he won't be eligible for arbitration until 2013. Thus, the Braves are getting a pitcher who has essentially the same skills and upside as Logan, but for a much better price. The Yankees get a pitcher who has more professional experience and thus may be slightly better prepared for the pressure of pitching in the Bronx.

Finally, a full analysis of this trade won't be possible for many years to come, because the most talented player in the deal may be 19-year-old Dominican starting pitcher, Arodys Vizcaino. In the New York-Pennsylvania League last summer Vizcaino made a serious impression in ten starts. At just 18, he posted a 2.13 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 11.1 K/9 rate. Clearly, Vizcaino won't be ready to join the Braves rotation until at least 2012, but he could turn into a frontline starter. so many young stud pitchers, he may fizzle out as innings wear him down. We'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #12: The Pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates & The Curse of Barry Bonds

It's official. As of the end of the 2009 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the most storied franchises in the National League, have set a new record for ineptitude, having now failed to achieve even a .500 record for 17 consecutive seasons. Their last winning season came to an end in October of 1992, when a back-up catcher named Francisco Cabrera laced a single into left field, driving home former Pirate, Sid Bream, to end Game 7 of the NLCS. I was twelve-years-old and I'll admit it, I cried. The Pirates were my father's team. He'd spent much of his youth in Pittsburgh, and thus, as was natural, they were my team as well, at least until I was old enough to cultivate my own allegiances. As Bream slid past Mike LaValliere and Barry Bonds' throw arrived just a tad too late from left field, I broke into tears and my father said sternly, unselfconsciously quoting Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in baseball."

Obviously, I didn't know how long and how dreadful the slump would be, but even as a kid whose understanding of baseball was largely guided by card collecting, I knew that those Pirates, the team that had be the object of my first baseball infatuation, would not be the same by the time the next season began. My three favorite players were all becoming free agents. Doug Drabek, who'd be the Ace during Pittsburgh's run of three consecutive pennants, and had a career record of 92-62 with a 3.02 ERA as a Pirate, would sign with the Houston Astros. Jose Lind, the slick-fielding second-baseman who entertained fans during batting practice by jumping over teammates, joined the Kansas City Royals. And, of course, Barry Bonds, coming off a year in which he won his second MVP (and it really should've been three in a row), set a new benchmark for free agents by agreeing to a six-year, $43.75 Million contract with the San Francisco Giants.

The Pirates had had their chance to sign the man who led them to three straight pennants. The previous winter Bonds had been prepared to negotiate with the team that drafted and developed him. The Pirates chose instead to prioritize the retention of Andy Van Slyke, who was a fine player, certainly, but, well, I think we can all agree that even at his very best, Van Slyke was no Barry Bonds. And so Bonds walked and Pittsburgh baseball has been cursed ever since.

Not only have they been without a winning season, they've hardly come close. The Pirates haven't even won as many as 70 games since 2004. They've only won more than 75 twice in the last seventeen years. They've been through six managers, two of whom went on to win Manager of the Year with other teams (Jim Leyland and Jim Tracy), and six general managers. When you go back and look at these Pirates teams, you will find very little to be proud of. Since 1992 only five Pirates have recorded even one season of 100+ RBI: Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Jeff King, and Kevin Young. Bay, Ramirez, Giles, King, and Reggie Sanders are the only Pirates who've hit 30+ HR in a season over that span. To put that in perspective, over the same span, the Yankees have had ten different players who achieve both marks in the same year. And the pitching side of things is even more depressing. Since '92 only one Pirate has had a season of 15 wins. It was Todd Ritchie (15-9) in 1999.

Perhaps it's too soon to label Bonds' curse equal to that of the Billy Goat or the Bambino, but consider this. The general manager who was responsible for letting Bonds walk, Ted Simmons, suffered a heart attack only months after Barry signed with the Giants. Van Slyke, expected to be Pittsburgh's star in the post-Bonds era, hurt his knee midway through '93 and never recovered. He retired in 1995, at the age of 34, after three straight injury-plagued campaigns.

Not only did the Pirates franchise fall into a period of historic suffering following Bonds exodus, even his former teammates had a horrible run of luck. Drabek went 9-18 in 1993 and despite being only 30-years-old never again showed anything resembling the form he'd displayed in Pittsburgh. Lind, just 29, played only one season in Kansas City before his cocaine addiction spiraled out of control. He was out of baseball completely within three years and spent a year in prison after being arrested driving drunk and naked through the streets of KC. Sid Bream, 31, put all he had into that final dash for home. His balky knees gave out for good in '93 and he retired in '94.

Neal Huntington took over as Pittsburgh's GM in 2007. Clearly, he had a lot of work to do, but one has to believe that by 2010 it would be reasonable for Pirates fans to expect to see some progress. Well, Bonds is still officially a free agent? Maybe it's time for the an exorcism.

Free Agents:

Matt Capps (26) RHCL

Arbitration Eligible:

Ronny Cedeno (27) SS
Zach Duke (27) LHSP
Jeff Karstens (27) RHSP

ETA 2010?:

Pedro Alvarez (23) 3B
Jeff Clement (26) 1B/C
Brad Lincoln (25) RHSP
Daniel Moskos (24) LHSP
Steve Pearce (27) 1B/OF
Jose Tabata (21) OF
Donnie Veal (25) LHSP
Neil Walker (24) 3B

One thing you can certainly say about Huntington is that he has a strategy which is crystal clear. During his three season as the helm he has been a trading fool, sending away Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Salomon Torres, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Damaso Marte, John Grabow, Jose Bautista, Tyler Yates, Rajai Davis, Eric Hinske, and Ronny Paulino. Basically, if you're a Pirate who's older than 25 and possesses even a modicum of talent which might be marketable to another team, you'd best sign a month-to-month lease.

The good news for Pittsburgh is that via this revolving door Huntington has been able to restock a farm system which was shamefully shallow, especially considering how many high draft picks Pittsburgh has gotten over the last decade. Huntington has been particularly adept at acquiring players who were once considered top prospects but who for whatever reason fell out of favor with their original organizations; examples include Lastings Milledge (Mets/Nats), Jeff Clement (Mariners), Donnie Veal (Cubs), Delwyn Young (Dodgers), Charlie Morton (Braves), Brandon Moss (Red Sox), and Jose Tabata (Yankees). Huntington figures, I assume, that some of these guys may turn out to be as good as professional scouts once believed they would be.

More importantly, Huntington has begun making the most of Pittsburgh's inevitably high draft position. His predecessors squandered top ten picks on guys like J. J. Davis (#8, 1997), Bobby Bradley (#8, 1999), John Van Benschoten (#8, 2001), and Bryan Bullington (#1, 2002). From '93 to '02, Pittsburgh's most successful first-rounders were Kris Benson and Jermaine Allensworth (many of you are saying, "Who?"). Five first-round picks failed to even make it to the major leagues, even for a cup of coffee. For two others, a cup of coffee was all they got.

In recent years, the Pirates have finally drafted and signed some serious talent. Andrew McCutchen, the #11 pick in '05, made a splash this past season as a serious contender for Rookie of the Year (he actually won he BBA version of the award). Paul Maholm, the #8 pick in '03, has become the Pirates top starter (though that isn't saying a whole lot) by making 30 starts in four straight seasons and posting basically a league average ERA (4.45). Neil Walker (#11, 2004), Brad Lincoln (#4, 2006), Daniel Moskos (#4, 2007), and Pedro Alvarez (#2, 2008) have all performed at least decently in the minors and can be expected to arrive in Pittsburgh sometime in 2010.

The major challenge for Huntington and Pirates manager, John Russell, will be figuring out how to get their best hitters into the lineup without entirely compromising their defense. Several of Pittsburgh's most powerful prospects - Garrett Jones, Jeff Clement, Steven Pearce, Neil Walker - are essentially DH types. They will be prone to defensive adventures when slotted at first base and in the outfield. The two main offseason acquisitions thusfar are middle infielders, Akinori Iwamura and Bobby Crosby. When healthy, both are sure-handed and should help to solidify the infield with the help of Andy LaRoche at third base, but injuries have been an issue for both, especially Crosby, a former Rookie of the Year who fell out of favor in Oakland because of his inability to stay on the field.

McCutchen and Milledge make for two thirds of a high-octane outfield. Both are five-tool talents, although Milledge has struggled to demonstrates his skills consistently at the major-league level. The final spot will probably be manned by some combination of Jones, Pearce, and Moss, all of whom can slug a little, but none of which will flash a whole lot of leather.

On the pitching side of things, Pittsburgh surprised most of the baseball establishment by releasing their resident closer, Matt Capps, rather than offering him arbitration. Capps had a bad season in '09, but was as young and talented as any reliever in the organization. Huntington, however, figured the money he would earn in arbitration (probably as much as $5 Million) could be better spent somewhere else. The bullpen will undoubtedly be a major issue again in 2010.

The rotation, however, has some promise. While Pittsburgh still lacks a true frontline starter, the trio of Maholm, Zach Duke, and Ross Ohlendorf will provide more reliable innings than any Pirates rotation in a long while. And the organization finally has some depth to offer for the remaining spots, as Veal, Lincoln, Moskos, Morton, Kevin Hart, and Daniel McCutchen will all get a long look during Spring Training.

Having accumulated a admirable number of talented pieces, Huntington is now faced with the more daunting task of figuring out whether or not those pieces will develop as he'd hoped. That remains to be seen. Wise decisions will need to be made by the front office and the on-field staff to assist in their development.

Huntington seems to have no sense of urgency, which is probably a good thing. He will not rush his best prospects, guys like McCutchen and Alvarez. Even if everything goes exceptionally well, I don't expect 2010 will be the year the Pirates break the curse, but they could very well bypass Houston or Cincinnati (or both) and at least save themselves from a fourth consecutive last place finish.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
2B Akinor Iwamura (L)
RF Garrett Jones (L)
C Ryan Doumit (S)
3B Andy LaRoche (R)
1B Jeff Clement (L)
SS Bobby Crosby (R)
LF Lastings Milledge (R)
SP Paul Maholm (L)

SP Zach Duke (L)
SP Ross Ohlendorf (R)
SP Donnie Veal (L)
SP Kevin Hart (R)

CL Joel Hanrahan (R)
SU Steven Jackson (R)
SU Javier Lopez (L)
MR Evan Meek (R)
MR Jose Ascanio (R)
SWING Charlie Morton (R)

C Jason Jaramillo (S)
IF Ronny Cedeno (R)
IF Ramon Vazquez (L)
1B/OF Steven Pearce (R)
2B/OF Delwyn Young (S)
OF Brandon Moss (L)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jim Hendry Discovers Existence of Contract Worse Than Milton Bradley's, Trades For It

A few months ago I read an article about a UFC fighter who was renowned for getting pummeled by some of the best fighters in the history of the sport before they were rich and famous. He had been fighting for an insanely long time (and pretty much any amount of time in the UFC is insane), but had compiled, at best, a .500 record. He said (obviously, I'm paraphrasing here), "If you can't beat me, you haven't got a future in this sport."

And that, my friends, is exactly how major league general managers should view Jim Hendry. Today, another young, ambitious GM on the rise, Jack Zduriencik of the Seattle Mariners, cut his teeth in the industry by fleecing Hendry and left Cubs fans like myself wondering yet again whether gross incompetence can really be considered a "curse." Over at MLB Notebook, Zach Sanders is calling it reason enough to label Zduriencik "the best GM in baseball." I'm as big a Zduriencik fan as anybody, but he'll need to accomplish a little more before I'll consider him the equal of Epstein, Williams, Beane, and Jocketty. In this case, he's just one in a long line of crafty execs who have stolen Hendry's lunch money and wedgied him in the process. Let's recount:

Shortly after taking over the Cubs prior to the 2003 season, Hendry traded Dontrelle Willis and Julian Tavarez to Larry Beinfest's Marlins for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca. Willis would go on to win the 2003 Rookie of the Year and pitch 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the World Series. He averaged fourteen wins a season for Florida over the next five years. Matt Clement won fourteen games once. He and Alfonseca combined to go 40-42 for the Cubs over the next three seasons. In the cruelest of ironies, the Marlins ousted in the Cubs in dramatic fashion in the NLCS, on their way to their second championship in seven years. The Cubs have won two championships in the last 102 years.

The following season Hendry made a big splash in July when he landed Nomar Garciaparra for next to nothing from a fresh-faced GM named Theo Epstein. Garciaparra, hobbled by a lingering back injury which would dog him for the rest of his career, played in only 105 games over the next two seasons, but he collected almost $17 Million from the Cubs, not including the World Series share his ex-teammates voted him when the Red Sox won it all that season.

After two consecutive years of helping other franchises win championships, Jim Hendry took a couple years off, dedicating himself instead to the free agent market, where he picked up players like Jacque Jones, Jeremy Burnitz, Todd Walker, and Neifi Perez. Remember them?

Obviously, I'm being hard on Hendry. It's easy to say he's an idiot for trading away guys like Willis, Ricky Nolasco, Mark DeRosa, and, most recently, Jake Fox, but one also has to recognize acquisitions like Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Rich Harden, and Kenny Lofton, all of whom came over in trades and made immediate (in some cases lasting) impacts, and for whom Hendry gave up very little.

However, this offseason his actions have an unmistakable hint of desperation. He is a man who, having succeeded in keeping a highly demanding job for a fairly long duration, knows his tenure is coming to an end. He had, no doubt, convinced himself he would be the one to finally bring a championship to Wrigleyville, which would give him the "do no wrong" reputation with the fan base currently enjoyed by Theo in Boston and Kenny on the South Side. But, unless the Cubs have a miracle season, I see very little chance Hendry makes it to the end of his current contract (which expires after the 2012 season).

On cannot deny that he has overseen one of the more successful decades in the franchise's troubled history. In seven years at the helm, he led the Cubs to five winning seasons and three playoff appearances. Not since the early 1970s had the Cubs won with such frequency. And the last time the Cubs made three playoff appearances in a decade, FDR was the president.

However, twice now Hendry has built expensive teams which came close, teased fans with their potential, but could not give the North Side what they've been craving for the last century. Dusty Baker was supposed to be the savior and he looked like it during 2003, but he was run out of town after dreadful performances in '05 and '06. Then Lou Pinella was supposed to be the savior and he looked like it when he took the Cubs to the playoffs two years in a row in '07 and '08, but a heavily favored '09 club fell flat and now looks frighteningly familiar: old, overpaid, and without an identity.

Pressured by the Chicago media and perhaps by Pinella, Hendry was made to feel this winter like he had to trade Milton Bradley, who was, undeniably, a failure in his first season as a Cub. However, while Bradley was a disappointment because he didn't equal the rate of production he had displayed for the Rangers, Athletics, and Dodgers, Carlos Silva, who is signed for as much money and as many years as Bradley, is a failure of a whole different kind. Silva isn't only not worthy of the mega-contract he's signed to, he is no longer worthy of a major-league roster spot, something the Mariners realized when they axed him from their starting rotation after only six appearances in 2009. Yes, they later sent him to the disabled list with a "right shoulder impingement," but he never had any surgery, because the real reason the Mariners no longer wanted him on the active roster was his ungainly 8.48 ERA.

And lest you believe Jim Hendry's suggestion that perhaps Silva has rediscovered himself in the Caribbean League this winter, I will point out to you that just last week Carlos made his one and only start for Caribes de Anzoategui. He pitched less than three innings, yet managed to allow six hits, three homers, and four earned runs. All told, he has now pitched nine full innings in Venezuela, allowing eight earned runs. His opponents, who are primarily prospects and fringe major leaguers, are hitting a cool .410 against him.

The fact is, there was never a whole lot in Silva's arsenal to rediscover. How he managed to convince Bill Bavasi to give him a four-year/$48 Million contract will remain one of the great baseball mysteries of the 21st century. In the two years directly preceding Silva's signing, he went 24-29 for Minnesota, with a 5.01 ERA. He was marketed as an innings-eater, having pitched 180+ in four consecutive seasons, but even if he were to regain his best form, Silva has no business moving in front of Sean Marshall or Tom Gorzelanny on the Cubs depth chart. Let them eat the innings, because they might develop into something worthwhile.

Milton Bradley, at his best, has proven he can be one of the very best hitters in all of baseball. This is a player who made an All-Star team and led the AL in OBP and OPS as recently as 2008. THE ONLY THING CARLOS SILVA HAS EVER LED HIS LEAGUE IN IS HOME RUNS ALLOWED. Perhaps Milton Bradley, reunited with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, could've regained some semblance of his 2008 production. But I guarantee you, regardless, his production, even at his absolute worst, would've well surpassed what the Cubs will get from Silva, who I doubt...rather, I hope never makes a single pitch for Chicago.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Halladay Deal

Although the major media outlets have been treating it in much the same way they dealt with the three-team Granderson/Jackson /Scherzer trade last week, the Halladay/Lee/"Bonus Babies" deal is actually three completely independent trades:

#1 - RHSP Roy Halladay (33) goes from Toronto to Philadelphia for RHSP Kyle Drabek (22), OF Michael Taylor (24), & C Travis d'Arnaud (21)

#2 - LHSP Cliff Lee (31) goes from Philadelphia to Seattle for RHRP Phillippe Aumont (21), OF Tyson Gillies (21), & RHSP Juan Ramirez (21)

#3 - OF Michael Taylor (24) goes from Toronto to Oakland for 3B Brett Wallace (23)

The Aces:

On the surface it may be unclear why Philadelphia would want to part ways with Cliff Lee after he was so invaluable to their 2009 World Series run. The difference between Lee and Halladay isn't that huge, especially in the couple seasons. Both are still in their early 30s. Both have Cy Youngs. And both should probably be regarded as among the top half dozen starting pitchers in all of baseball.

Here are their basic lines from 2004-2009:

Lee: 87-48 (.644), 4.01 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 1134 IP, 13 CG, 21.9 WAR

Halladay: 89-45 (.664), 3.14 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 1205 IP, 35 CG, 33.8 WAR

Clearly Halladay has been better, but the difference is not extraordinary, especially when you take out the one awful year Lee had (5-8, 6.29) in 2007. The major difference between them at this point in their careers is not their current production or how much they are going to be worth for the next two or three seasons, but rather what they've made thusfar in their careers.

Halladay's first full big-league season was 1999, when he was just 22-years-old, and his first big contract was signed prior to the 2004 season, the year after he won the Cy Young. All told, not including the contract extension Philadelphia is negotiating presently, Doc Halladay has already made over $90,000,000 as a professional baseball player.

Cliff Lee, on the other hand, didn't pitch he first full season in the bigs until he was 25 (in 2004). In 2006 he signed an extension which covered his arbitration years plus a club option for 2010. In total, by the time he hits the free agent market next November, Cliff Lee, despite being only two years younger than Halladay, will have made only $20,000,000, less than a quarter of the good doctor's rake. Lee has, in fact, been one of the best deals in all of baseball over the last five years, so he's going to be looking to make up some of the difference next winter, probably by signing a contract for at least five years and $100,000,000.

Having already made his fortune, Halladay seems most concerned with getting himself hooked to a franchise that has a high likelihood of playing playoff baseball consistently through what remains of his prime. The Phillies are, most certainly, that kind of franchise. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Raul Ibanez, and Placido Polanco are all under Philadelphia's control through at least the 2011 season, so the core of the reigning two-time NL Champs will have at least two more shots at the championship. According to the reports so far, Halladay is preparing to sign a deal for three years and around $60,000,000, with potential options or incentives for more. Although it is still, clearly, a ton of money, it gives the Phillies slightly more flexibility down the road than they would've had if they resigned Lee, especially since next winter they will also be negotiating with Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton, and after 2011 there will be pressure to resign Howard and Hamels.

As I discussed in last week's offseason prospectus, the Mariners have as much financial flexibility as any team at the present moment. While the Phillies have over $120,000,000 in payroll obligations for 2010, the Mariners have only about $60,000,000, despite the fact that Mariners have generally spent $10-15 Million more per season than the Phillies in the recent past. So, if they choose, the Mariners can probably afford to make a very competitive offer for Lee either during the course of 2010 or even after he becomes a free agent next winter, and still have money left over to resign Felix Hernandez and go after a middle-of-the-order hitter.

The Young Arms:

Philadelphia will sending its best pitching prospect to Toronto, but will receive two of Seattle's best, although neither is really on the level with Kyle Drabek. At 21 years of age, Drabek pitched 158 minor league innings in '09 and compiled a 12-3 record, a 3.19 ERA, and 150 strikeouts. Although he may not start 2010 in the Blue Jays rotation, he will almost certainly be there by the end of the year. Phillippe Aumont is a year younger than Drabek and has yet to advance past high A. He's pitched well (3.29 ERA, 9.2 K/9 in 107 IP), but clearly not as well as Drabek. More importantly, he's a reliever. And although he is quite possibly good enough to be groomed as Brad Lidge's successor, relievers, even good ones, aren't nearly as valuable as starters. Juan Ramirez, also just 21-years-old, is currently a starter, but probably not for long. Thusfar he hasn't been very good. At high A in '09 he managed just a 5.12 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. There is still, clearly, time for him to mature, but at the moment, he seems destined to be coverted to a bullpen role.

The Outfielders:

From the Phillies perspective, they are essentially exchanging Michael Taylor for Tyson Gillies. But besides being outfielders and patient hitters, these are not very similar players. For starters, Taylor is older and has already proved his ability to hit in the high minors. In '09, between AA and AAA, he hit .320 with 20 HR, 84 RBI, and a 944 OPS. He's got power, clearly, and some speed as well, swiping 21 bases in 26 attempts, but is corner outfielder. In Oakland, especially now that the Athletics have parted ways with Jack Cust, Taylor could be competing for a starting spot this spring.

Gillies, on the other hand, is probably a year or two away, which is fine for the Phillies, who have Victorino, Werth, and Ibanez for at least next season. Gillies looks like a prototypical centerfielder/leadoff hitter. He stole 44 bags at high A in 2009 and got on base at an exceptional .430 clip. He also had 18 outfield assists and 14 triples. However, so far he doesn't look to have Taylor's power stroke. Gillies hit 9 HR in '09 and had a respectable .486 SLG%, but at the same level, Taylor slugged .560 and hit 9 HR in half as many games. Whereas Taylor probably would've been a potential replacement for Werth or Ibanez, the acquisition of Gillies means that it's Victorino who is more likely to walk next winter.

The Rest:

Brett Wallace hasn't had a big-league at-bat yet, but this is the second time this year he's been involved in a high-profile trade. In July he was the key component of the deal that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis. Wallace is a power-hitting third baseman (20 HR in '09) with decent plate discipline (.384 OBP in minors), but a pretty long left-handed stroke (116 K in '09). The Jays have clearly been coveting him for awhile. They drafted him in 2005, when he was coming out of high school, but he chose instead to go to Arizona State, where he was twice the Pac-10 Player of the Year. As a star player in college who has now had a full season of minor-league experience, Wallace is probably ready to make the jump to the show, which makes the deal a little odd for Toronto, since they just added Edwin Encarnacion this summer. This may mean that Encarnacion will be dealt or that Adam Lind is going to be testing himself in the outfield next year so that Wallace or Encarnacion can get at-bats at DH.

The Jays have accumulated quite a collection of catchers in recent weeks. A few days ago they signed John Buck after he was non-tendered by the Royals. Just prior to that they signed free agent journeymen backstops Ramon Castro (most famous for catching Mark Buerhle's perfect game in his first start with the White Sox) and Raul Chavez. The Jays already had a top catching prospect at AAA in J. P. Arencibia and now they've also added Travis d'Arnaud, who's not likely to break into the bigs before 2012. He's got a little pop (13 HR @ A), but there's not a whole lot else to say about him at this point.

Offseason Prospectus #11: The Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have been, as usual, one of the most active franchises of the offseason. Less than 24 hours after the official end of the season, Theo Epstein pulled off a somewhat surprising trade with the Florida Marlins that landed the Sox former "blue chip" prospect, Jeremy Hermida. Hermida has been a disappointment the past couple seasons (734 OPS), but is still only 26, perfectly capable of developing into a competent everyday player, though perhaps not the superstar scouts once imagined.

The same could be said of Boof Bonser, who Boston acquired last week for a player to be named later. Bonser missed the entirety of 2009 with a shoulder injury, but should be ready in time for 2010. Another former first-round pick, Boof never lived up to expectations in Minnesota, but he is only 28. Boston may see him as insurance for the rotation or as a potential reliever.

The Red Sox first free agent signing was Marco Scutaro, who inked a three-year deal (w/option) worth $14-17 Million. The framework of the deal suggests the Red Sox realize that by the end of his contract the 34-year-old infielder may be nothing more than a well-paid utilityman. Epstein hopes that Scutaro can equal what he did as Toronto's shortstop last season for at least one more year, while the front office monitors the health of Jed Lowrie and the maturation of Jose Iglesias.

Following Scutaro was a much more high profile prize, John Lackey, the best starting pitcher in the 2010 free agent class. Some, including myself, question whether Lackey is a true Ace, capable of leading the rotation of a contender, but in Boston he won't need to be. He will slot in behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and alongside Daisuke Matsuzaka, giving Boston quite possibly the most intimidating front four in the American League. The addition of Lackey will take a little pressure off of a rehabilitating Dice-K and the youths who will likely compete for the final spot: Clay Buchholz (the front-runner after his fine conclusion to 2009), Bonser, and Michael Bowden.

On the same day the news of Lackey's signing broke, it was announced that the Red Sox were close to a deal with Mike Cameron, the veteran Gold Glove centerfielder. If his contract gets finalized, Cameron will become the Red Sox only right-handed outfielder. He should make an excellent, versatile platoon man. In all likelihood, he will even get a fair number of at-bats against righties, as he fills in during J. D. Drew's inevitable injuries and the equally inevitable cold streaks from the young and inconsistent tandem of Hermida and Jacoby Ellsbury. Cameron has been known throughout his career as a wonderful, charitable citizen and popular clubhouse presence, as well as a fine player, so he offers more than just production to a team that seemed to struggle with chemistry at time in 2009.

Finally, on the last day of the winter meetings Boston shocked the baseball world by announcing the trade of Mike Lowell (and $9 Million) to the Rangers for Max Ramirez, a prospect who is currently considered a catcher, but whose future with the Red Sox is likely as a first baseman or designated hitter. Lowell was one of the Red Sox most popular players and a clubhouse leader, but his value has been depressed by a hip surgery which limited him severely in 2009. Nonetheless, if the deal goes through (the deal has been delayed by Lowell's medical reports) Red Sox fans very well may regret it, especially this season, as they'll be paying three quarters of Lowell's salary so he can play for another team. This deal is probably more about coveting Max Ramirez than giving up on Lowell. Ramirez is only 25-years-old and has played only seventeen major league games, but has already been traded straight up for Bob Wickman (2006), Kenny Lofton (2007), and now Lowell. That's because, although Ramirez probably won't do much catching after 2010, he can rake. He is the kind of hitter who, if given an opportunity, could be very, very productive from the moment he enters the league (think Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Howard, etc.). The Ramirez trade and, indeed, all the work Theo Epstein has done so far this winter, anticipate major questions which the Red Sox will have to answer by this time next year.

Free Agents:

Rocco Baldelli (28) OF
Jason Bay (31) LF
Alex Gonzalez (33) SS [Signed with Toronto Blue Jays]
Billy Wagner (38) LHRP [Signed with Atlanta Braves]

Arbitration Eligible:

Brian Anderson (28) OF
Boof Bonser (28) RHSP
Manny Delcarmen (28) RHRP
Jeremy Hermida (26) OF
Casey Kotchman (27) 1B
Hideki Okajima (34) LHRP
Jonathan Papelbon (29) RHRP
Ramon Ramirez (28) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Michael Bowden (23) RHSP
Max Ramirez (24) C/DH
Josh Reddick (23) OF
Junichi Tazawa (24) RHSP

What's the price of nostalgia?

Currently, only three players from the 2004 World Series roster are still wearing Red Sox uniforms: David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield. Next winter Papi and 'Tek will be free agents (Wakefield has two years left on his contract), as will Josh Beckett and Victor Martinez. There are a number of sentimental reasons to resign all four players, but Theo has proven himself to be largely immune to sentimentality; the Lowell trade being only the most recent example. This is a man who unceremoniously traded Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, and who allowed wildly popular players like Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, and Pedro Martinez to walk because he didn't think they would be fiscally responsible signings. It is hard to find a fault with his track record. It is probably a foregone conclusion that Varitek will retire at the end of the season, but the other three are much more difficult to evaluate. Much is riding on there performances in 2010.

Was last spring a fluke or the shape of things to come?

In the first two months of 2009, David Ortiz hit .185 with one lonely home run. The Slump got so bad that even Red Sox fanatics like Bill Simmons were declaring Big Papi "done." However, from June 1st to the end of the season, Ortiz hit 27 HR, had 81 RBI, and posted an OPS of 904. Over the same four month period MVP candidates like Mark Texeira (23 HR, 78 RBI, 931 OPS), Miguel Cabrera (24 HR, 66 RBI, 921 OPS), and Kendry Morales (26 HR, 78 RBI, 964 OPS) posted very similar numbers. (I hate to say I told you so, but, well, I did.) If Big Papi produces at the latter rate in 2010, he will probably get the opportunity to sign a contract that assures he ends his career in a Red Sox uniform. However, if he again shows signs of premature decline, even over the short term, he will probably be next winter's version of Vladimir Guerrero, a legendary slugger who's currently being treated like a third-tier free agent.

Who is the face of the franchise for the "20-teens"?

With Manny gone, Varitek's departure imminent, and Papi in moderate decline, the Red Sox suffered from an obvious leadership vacuum in 2009, especially prior to the arrival of Victor Martinez. The competitive intensity of Kevin Youkilis often rubbed teammates the wrong way. Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett appear too often as arrogant, self-involved, or, in Paps case, just a little dumb. Dustin Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP, is the obvious answer, as his reputation for fierceness on the field is equaled by his good-humored disposition off of it. However, like Ortiz, Pedroia's influence seemed to fade as his stats came back to earth a little in 2009. The Red Sox really gelled upon the arrival of V-Mart, who possessed a similarly strong cohesive presence in Cleveland. If this trend continues, Boston's front office will be even more inclined to resign him next winter, though probably as a first-baseman, not a catcher.

Can Tito juggle all these All-Stars?

In the latter part of 2009, Terry Francona was faced with the daunting task of rotating Martinez, Varitek, Youkilis, Lowell, and Ortiz in a wild C/1B/3B/DH platoon. 2010 won't be any easier.

C: Ramirez, Martinez, Varitek
1B: Youkilis, Martinez, Kotchman
2B: Pedroia, Scutaro, Lowrie
3B: Youkilis, Scutaro, Lowrie
SS: Scutaro, Lowrie
OF: Ellsbury, Drew, Cameron, Hermida
DH: Ortiz, Ramirez, Martinez

Francona has the luxury of depth at almost every position, which gives him defense against the injuries which often hamper veteran clubs. But it will be a challenge of finding ample opportunities for thirteen position players who are all accustomed to playing everyday. There is also the question of 22-year-old Lars Anderson, the Red Sox top hitting prospect. If he doesn't get traded, he could be ready to enter the 1B/DH mix as early as midseason. At some point, having too many big talents and big egos fighting over the same positions could become a source of distraction and dissent in the Red Sox clubhouse. Or, if everything gels, it could make them a powerhouse offense equal to or surpassing the Yankees.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/24):

LF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
C Victor Martinez (S)
1B Kevin Youkilis (R)
DH David Ortiz (L)
RF J. D. Drew (L)
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
CF Mike Cameron (R)
SS Marco Scutaro (R)

SP Jon Lester (L)
SP Josh Beckett (R)
SP Daisuke Matsuzaka (R)
SP John Lackey (R)
SP Clay Buchholz (R)

CL Jonathan Papelbon (R)
SU Daniel Bard (R)
SU Hideki Okajima (L)
MR Ramon Ramirez (R)
MR Manny Delcarmen (R)
LOOGY Dustin Richardson (L)
SWING Tim Wakefield (R)

C Jason Varitek (S)
1B/3B Mike Lowell (R)
IF Jed Lowrie (S)
OF Jeremy Hermida (L)

Monday, December 14, 2009


The unprecedented number of players who were non-tendered this weekend - including recognizable names like Chien-Ming Wang, Garrett Atkins, and Kelly Johnson - is just the latest evidence that the balance of power in baseball is shifting dramatically back towards ownership for the first time in the "free agency" era, which began in 1976. What management is saying, by choosing not to offer contracts to valuable players still under their control, is that they have such confidence in their ability to manipulate the market this offseason, there is no reason why they should participate in a process as fair (and therefore "expensive") as arbitration. As with last season, come March we will see many players signed at the last minute for short, cheap, and incentive-laden contracts. And Bud Selig get red-faced and self-righteous in a public statement about how ludicrous it is for agents and the MLBPA to even mention "collusion."

Thou doth protest too much, Bud.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Albatrosses

It has become habit for me to refer to "contractual albatrosses," especially during these months, when teams are weighing their investment options. I was asked last week what exactly I meant by applying this term to several players on the Giants and what exactly qualifies. While I haven't fashioned anything more than a fast and loose definition, I can say that the albatross metaphor comes from the famous Samuel Coleridge poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the narrator kills the bird, cursing himself and his crew, and is forced to wear the bird's corpse around his neck. As such, the albatross metaphor refers to a weighty burden or punishment of incredible duration. Attempting this explanation, of course, makes the baseball application seem a little ridiculous, but what I'm implying is that large, lengthy contracts given to players whose production wanes soon after signing can leave a franchise "wandering" for many years, economically crippled by overpriced commitments and shrinking revenues.

Here are what I see as the fifteen worst contracts in the major leagues going into the 2010 season. Some of these contracts haven't yet become irredeemable, but are on the verge of being.

15. Brad Lidge - RP - Philadelphia Phillies
3 yrs./$37.5 Mil. thru 2011 ($12.5 Mil. Opt./$1.5 Mil. Buyout)

He's one of the highest-paid closers in the game, yet he blew more saves than anybody in history in '09. There's still a very real chance he bounces back next year, but Phillies fans have to very nervous. Before Lidge's contract expires, Philadelphia will have to negotiate contracts with Jayson Werth, Cliff Lee, and Shane Victorino. If Lidge's contract prevents them from locking up any one of those guys, he had better be back to shutting the door with much greater frequency than he did in '09.

14. Michael Young - 3B - Texas Rangers
5 yrs./$80 Mil. thru 2013 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Again, this shouldn't imply that Michael Young isn't a fine player. Perhaps he will earn every dollar of this deal, but coming out of '09 it raises some red flags. First of all, the Rangers proved that they are a borderline contender this season, but their ownership spiraled into bankruptcy and the team in unlikely to have much payroll flexibility this offseason or next. They have been forced to part ways with useful players like Marlon Byrd and Kevin Millwood. It was especially odd that the Rangers handed him this mega-deal than immediately admitted that they didn't know how he best fit into their long-term plans. They wisely moved him from shortstop in order to clear the way for Elvis Andrus, but now he may be blocking their ability to advance Chris Davis and Justin Smoak, and get the most out of Mike Lowell. It would appear to me, at least at this juncture, that although Young is a very good player, Texas paid marquee money, probably higher than his market value, which could've been used to fill more glaring needs on the pitching staff and at catcher.

13. Juan Pierre - OF - Los Angeles Dodgers
5 yrs./$44 Mil. thru 2011 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Juan Pierre has behaved like a saint in Los Angeles so far. First Andruw Jones, then Manny Ramirez pushed him into a reserve role (making him the most expensive pinch-runner in the National League). He, like Orlando Hudson, did not fuel any media controversy by criticizing his manager or demanding a trade, but you can tell he is itching to get back in a starting lineup. During Manny's suspension Pierre batted .318 with 32 R, 21 SB, and a .381 OBP, making a strong case that he could be helping any number of teams who are looking for a quality leadoff hitter. The problem is that he's still owned $18.5 Million over the next two seasons. He makes more money than Jimmy Rollins or Carl Crawford, meaning the Dodgers would have to eat some of it just to get rid of him. That could mean a lot more biding his time, stewing on the bench for Pierre.

12. Alex Rios - OF - Chicago White Sox
7 yrs./$70 Mil. thru 2014 ($13.5 Mil. Opt/$1 Mil. Buyout in '15, Limited No-Trade Clause)

Alex Rios is quite possibly the single most talented player on this list. He has all five tools and some of them in spades, but his offensive production has mysteriously dropped off a cliff since he signed this monster deal prior to the 2008 season in Toronto. Over the last three seasons his OPS+ has dropped from 122 to 111 to 80 (100 is average), despite the fact that at 28 years old, he is smack in the center of his so-called "prime." By picking him up off waivers in August, the White Sox gambled that Rios would find his stroke again in a new environment, while shoring up centerfield, which has been a festering sore on the South Side since Aaron Rowand left in '06. Rios defiantly failed in this task, batting .199 over his remaining 41 games. He has over $60 Million left on his contract, which is now exclusively the Chicago White Sox problem.

11. Oliver Perez - SP - New York Mets
3 yrs./$36 Mil. thru 2011

He made more money this season than Matt Cain, Dan Haren, and Cliff Lee combined. They each won fourteen games (and each would've won more, had they not suffered from poor run support), while Perez made fourteen starts and won three games. More to the point, the division rival Braves signed an almost identical contract (3 yrs./$34.5 Mil.) with Cy Young-contender Javier Vazquez. The rumors about the Wilpon's investments in the Madoff scandal suggest that the Mets won't be buying their way out of mistakes like these as they might've done in the past (or as their crosstown rival so often does). They enter next season with question marks at every position but third base and closer, as the health of Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and Johan Santana continue to be of concern. In the end, this may be the deal that defines Omar Minaya's legacy.

10. Jeff Suppan - SP - Milwaukee Brewers
4 yrs./$42 Mil. thru 2010 ($12.75 Mil. Opt./$2 Mil. Buyout in '11, Limited No-Trade Clause)

On a team filled with off-the-charts talent, Jeff Suppan is the highest-paid player. The Brewers may have a limited window of time in which to use their spectacular core (Fielder, Braun, Gallardo, Hart, Weeks, Parra, etc.) of homegrown players to make a serious run at a championship. They are one or two pitchers away from being as dangerous as the Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Cubs. One wonders if it hadn't been for Suppan's contract whether they might've made a more serious run at resigning Sabathia, or maybe could be making a serious run at Halladay. By the end of next season, it may be too late for the "Baby Brewers"?

9. Jake Westbrook - SP - Cleveland Indians
3 yrs./$33 Mil. thru 2010

The Indians get a lot of press for being a well-run franchise. And it's true, this past season aside, they are routinely competitive despite coming from a small market. One wonders, however, what they might be like if they hadn't handed out their three biggest contracts to Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner, and Kerry Wood. Westbrook has made only five starts since signing this deal. Next season he will attempt to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. Then he will become somebody else's problem...or, with his value suppressed, he'll sign elsewhere for cheap and be comeback player of the year in 2011. Either way, it's not a pretty picture for the Tribe.

8. Aaron Rowand - CF - San Francisco Giants
5 yrs./$60 Mil. thru 2012 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Along with the Indians, they are the only team with multiple Albatrosses (and Edgar Renteria wasn't far from making this list), which makes it peculiar that Peter MacGowan was so eager to resign Brian Sabean. Rowand's tenure with the Giants hasn't been a total waste. He has kept himself in the lineup and plays solid defense. But when you consider what he gets paid, a 743 OPS over the past two seasons is a little discouraging. When the Giants handed him this deal, they were eager to make a splash after the ends of the Bonds era in the Bay Area, but they would be in such a better position had they held onto that money for a couple of years, dedicating it to going after a Texeira, a Holliday, or a Fielder, or to locking up Cain and Lincecum.

7. Travis Hafner - DH - Cleveland Indians
4 yrs./$57 Mil. thru 2012 ($13 Mil. Opt./$2.75 Mil. Buyout in '13, Limited No-Trade Clause)

Hafner is only 32, but thoses back-to-back 1000+ OPS seasons in '05 and '06 seem like a long time ago. Injuries have been the main problem, but one has to be concerned that repeated shoulder surgeries could sap Pronk's power permanently, much as they did Scott Rolen's. It rarely pays to make a full-time DH your keystone, but that's what the Indians chose to do. Since then, they've waved goodbye to C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, and Franklin Gutierrez. Coincidence?

6. Gary Matthews Jr. - OF - Los Angeles Angels
5 yrs./$50 Mil. thru 2011 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

In November of 2006, G-Matt was coming off easily the best season of his career, playing in the bandbox ballpark in Arlington. The Angels gambled that he was a late-bloomer. It turned out that 2006 was an abnormality and that Matthews Jr. was actually the journeyman fourth outfielder he appeared to be while playing for the Cubs, Padres, Pirates, Mets, and Orioles. Somehow the Angels missed that memo, so now they pay him $10,000,000 a year to play late-inning defense.

5. Alfonso Soriano - LF - Chicago Cubs
8 yrs./$136 Mil. thru 2014 (No-Trade Clause)

The Fonz moved up this list in a hurry in '09. Was this his "jumping the shark" moment? A repeat performance in 2010 could catapult him to the very top. But there is also the chance that this was a fluke, that he's still a legitimate $100 Million-Dollar Man. Cubs fans would probably tell you, however, that they aren't holding their breath.

4. Barry Zito - SP - San Francisco Giants
7 yrs./$126 Mil. thru 2013 (Vesting $18 Mil. Option for 2014 based on IP, No-Trade Clause)

This is probably the most famous albatross, largely because it was so clearly a mistake from the very moment the contract was signed. For the rest of his life Brian Sabean will wake up sweating with the cackling of horned versions of Scott Boras and Billy Beane still ringing in his ears. There is no way to look past the idiocy of this signing. All the signs were there. Everybody saw it, except for Sabean. But, at least Zito is going to make 30+ starts and pitching 180+ innings every year. He is the most overpaid innings-eater of all time. But those teams who signed similarly massive deals with Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Denny Neagle, and Chan Ho Park will tell you: be thankful for your innings, your double digit wins, and your league-average ERA. It could be a lot worse. You could've signed Carlos Silva...

3. Carlos Silva - SP - Seattle Mariners
4 yrs./$48 Mil. thru 2011 ($12 Mil. Opt./$2 Mil. Buyout in '12)

When Seattle signed Silva, they were under no illusion that he would be an Ace. What they though they were getting was exactly what Silva had given the Twins for the previous four seasons, an average of 31 starts, 12 wins, and 194 innings per season, with a thoroughly average ERA (4.42) and WHIP (1.36). One can certainly question whether even those numbers would've been worth $12 Million/year, but thusfar Seattle has received much less. In the first two years of his contract Silva has made only 34 starts, during which he has gone 5-18 with a 6.81 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the Mariners pay Silva $25.5 Million over the next two years not to pitch for them.

2. Eric Chavez - 3B - Oakland Athletics
6 yrs./$66 Mil. thru 2010 ($12.5 Mil. Opt./$3 Mil. Buyout for '11, Limited No-Trade Clause)

The good news for the A's is that it's almost over. The bad news is, Chavez's appearances have declined in every year since he signed his deal, culminating in a mere eight games and thirty at-bats in '09. He hasn't gotten to 350 AB since '06, the last time the A's were above .500. This is Billy Beane's nightmare. He had to choose one player to be the face of the franchise, the investment which would provide some stability on a roster subject to continual turnover. He could've had Miguel Tejada or Tim Hudson or Jermaine Dye or Barry Zito or Rich Harden or Nick Swisher. But he chose Eric Chavez. It could've been worst. He could've gone with Mark Mulder (remember him?).

1. Vernon Wells - CF - Toronto Blue Jays
7 yrs./$126 Mil. thru 2014 (No-Trade Clause)

When wells signed this extension in December of 2006, he was coming off a four season stretch in which he had maintained a very solid 853 OPS and averaged 29 HR and 97 RBI per year. He had also won three consecutive Gold Gloves. He had just turned 28. There was no reason for the Blue Jays to believe he wouldn't be their franchise player for many years to come. Unfortunately, that's not how it has worked out so far. Over the last three seasons Wells has managed only a 743 OPS, 16 HR, and 75 RBI. Worse yet, the contract was severely backloaded, so that Toronto will be forced to pay Wells $21-23 Million in each of the next four seasons, by the end of which, considering the steepness of his recent decline, there is a fairly high likelihood he won't even be a starter. Some have even suggested that the Blue Jays would be best served by simply eating much of his remaining salary either in a lopsided trade or by simply non-tendering him. Sadly, Vernon Wells may go down in history as the quintessential albatross, the most prohibitive contract ever signed.