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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What to do about the Giants?

I spent the last week in the Bay Area, during which I spoke at length with several friends about the prospects of their hometown team, the Giants, often while watching said team lose in tragic fashion to the rival Rockies. The humiliation of the Giants in Colorado may have effected the tenor of these conversations, however, in general I was deeply surprised at how cynical San Francisco fans (not generally know for their hang-dog, sourpuss attitudes) were about a team which is still right in the thick of the Wild Card race.

I had high hopes for the Giants going into the season. While many pundits predicted they might challenge San Diego for last place in the NL West, I chose to optimistically conclude that their incredibly talented rotation might make them dangerous, perhaps even a darkhorse contender. Last winter I offered encouragement to these same Giants fans, who were skeptical of the signings of Edgar Renteria and Randy Johnson, predicting that Sabean still had an Ace up his sleeve. Or, more accurately, a Slugger. I fully expected that in March he might announce the signing of an Adam Dunn or a Bobby Abreu, or perhaps their would be a midseason trade for Matt Holliday, Alex Rios, or Prince Fielder. Much to my surprise, while the Giants did succeed in becoming a borderline contender, so such addition was made. Instead, Sabean chose to bolster his offense with two more bit players, Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko. This had to be, and was, something of a disappointment for San Francisco fans. And so, with this column, I attempt to ask what is the true state of baseball in the Bay. Should one plead, as I have throughout the week, that they have every reason to keep the faith?

Our story begins with Brian Sabean. Giants fans have grown leery of their longtime general manager, whose contract expires at the end of this season, but who has an option that seems likely to get picked up.

Sabean has a pretty impressive resume overall. During his twelve-year tenure (not counting 2009), the Giants have made four postseason appearances and had eight winning seasons. He was at the helm when the Giants came within eight outs of a World Championship in 2002.

Early in his time with the Giants, Sabean developed a reputation for trades that were more like heists. During his first season he traded the popular, though aging Matt Williams for a package that included future MVP Jeff Kent, as well as Julian Tavarez and Jose Vizcaino, both of whom became useful major leaguers. In 2001, he acquired Jason Schmidt just before he emerged as a Cy Young candidate for the sum total of Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. And in 2003 he picked up Kenny Lofton, a key figure in the Giants stretch run and postseason, for two pitchers who never made it to the major leagues.

In recent years, however, Sabean's reputation has been marred by some questionable trades (most famously his relinquishment of Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser for one year of A. J. Pierzynski) and even more questionable free agent signings. The seven-year, $126 Million contract awarded to Barry Zito may prove to be his albatross, but of course $60 Million for five years of Aaron Rowand, $25 Million for three years of Randy Winn, and $20 Million for two years of an elderly Edgar Renteria are signing which haven't helped his cause.

And, of course, as more fissures have been exposed in the government's legal case (which was quite clearly fueled by the grandstanding of a single federal agent) and more conspicuous evidence of collusion surfaces everyday (despite Bud Selig's "he doth protest too much" protests) many Giants fans are wondering how much better the 2009 lineup would be if Barry Bonds was in it. After all, although he wouldn't be able to play everyday and might be limited on defense, Bonds did express willingness to play for the league minimum. It seems safe to imagine that the all-time home run leader at $500,000 salary, regardless of his age and limitations, would probably have earned his keep. And several time a week he would undoubtedly be a better clean-up hitter than Bengie Molina or Nate Schierholtz.

In this instance Sabean found himself between a rock and a hard place of his own making. Bonds, despite his reputation elsewhere, remains a hero in San Francisco. He was the Giants meal ticket for over a decade, almost single-handedly justifying the privately-funded AT&T Park. The thought of him playing elsewhere or fading into oblivion is difficult for some Giants fans to bear (not to mention some baseball fans, myself included).

However, during the early part of this decade, Sabean oversaw the building of a team that was among the most "grizzled" ever assembled. In Bonds final season, 2007, the Giants featured no less than seven "everyday" players aged 35 or older. Faced with three consecutive losing seasons, it was inevitable that the Giants would feel the need to get younger, even if that meant parting ways with the two primary faces of the franchise, Bonds and Omar Vizquel.

Sabean has been faced over the last two years with the challenge of replacing baseball's main attraction without exposing himself as the architect of entertaining, but inevitably flawed, one-dimensional franchises. Certainly, he could probably have used his stockpile of young pitching to acquire another premier left-handed slugger. Perhaps a Prince Fielder or a Ryan Howard. Instead, perhaps inspired by crosstown rival, Billy Beane, he has held on tight to his pitching prospects and relied on offensive stopgaps, while attempting to groom his own titans in the form of Sandoval, Angel Villalona, and Buster Posey.

The Giants pitching staff currently leads MLB in strikeouts, complete games, and ERA, while their offense is 26th in runs, 29th in homers, and 28th in OPS. Bengie Molina, who hits in the heart of the order, sports an embarrassing 641 OPS over his last 300 plate appearances. The Giants have surrendered 44.5% of their total at-bats to the sextet of Molina, Renteria, Randy Winn, Juan Uribe, Rich Aurilia, and Emmanuel Burriss, none of whom has posted an OPS within twenty points of the league average.

Obviously, I could go on demonstrating the Giants offensive insufficiencies for pages and pages, but I think it is simple enough to conclude that Sabean's "good pitch, no hit" philosophy is not going to bring a championship or even probably a playoff berth in 2008. But, after four straight losing seasons, 85+ wins (they are currently on pace for 87) would represent a significant step in the right direction. To achieve a winning record with so poor an offensive performance suggests that San Francisco is not too far removed from fielding a contender...if they play their cards right.

Which brings us to the good news. After years of relying on players on the verge of retirement, the Giants have gotten younger very quickly. Bengie Molina and Randy Winn, both of whom have expiring contracts, are the only regulars over 35, and they are both just 35. Perhaps more importantly, the three players which are the keys to the Giants future success - Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain - are all 25 or younger. They have been joined this season by some promising role players also in their twenties, guys like Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, Eugenio Velez, and Nate Schierholtz. All of these guys are signed through at least 2011 and some well beyond that (Sandoval won't be eligible for free agency until 2015).

When they parted ways with Bonds (as well as Pedro Feliz) after 2007, the Giants had gaping holes in left field, center field, first base, second base, and third base, with shortstop destined to become an issue as well after Vizquel's impending departure.

They have successfully filled at least three of those positions for years to come. Rowand, though overpaid and unspectacular, is a satisfactory center-fielder and a valuable hitter so long as he isn't expected to bat in the middle of the lineup. Freddy Sanchez is a solid-average defensive second baseman who brings excellent bat control to the top of the lineup and, if he enjoys his time in San Francisco, will probably come cheap in free agency after 2010, because he has neither impressive power nor impressive speed. Sandoval is a potential megastar, though the Giants must decide whether to accept his mediocre defense at third base or transfer him to first, a decision not unlike what the Tigers faced with Miguel Cabrera in early 2008.

And, they have more help coming. Eugenio Velez has hit .300 since his promotion in late July. He promises into a legitimate everyday player, potentially in a Mark DeRosa-esque utility role, although he is currently a butcher pretty much wherever he plays. Buster Posey is the Giants future catcher. He has raced through the minors over the last two seasons and is currently posting a 923 OPS at AAA. Expect his arrival very, very soon. Angel Villalona and Conor Gillaspie remain a long way off.

There is also no reason the expect that the rotation won't continue to be dominant. Zito is having his best year since joining the team. Lincecum and Cain are the most lethal 1-2 in all of baseball. Jonathan Sanchez is still a work in progress, but may have the best stuff of any #4 starter in baseball. And next spring, the Giants will have the luxury of auditioning half a dozen promising prospects for the #5 slot. At the moment, one would assume Madison Bumgarner has the inside track, but Henry Sosa and Kevin Pucetas have also dominated the minor leagues.

So, if the Giants want to be serious contenders in 2010 all they really need is a corner infielder and a corner outfielder. It would be a serious bonus if each of them could be counted on for at least 20 HR. Conveniently, San Francisco will presumably have $27 Million coming off the books this winter when they part ways with Molina, Winn, Aurilia, Uribe, and Randy Johnson.

Before my San Francisco friends got too excited about signing a Mark Teixeira-like savior, I had to caution them, the 2010 class is not especially deep. The highlights are Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. In both cases, there is a very hight chance they will re-sign with their current teams.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Run, River, Run

The St. Louis Cardinals are 15-6 (.714) since the acquisition of Matt Holliday, who, by the way, is hitting .453 with 22 RBI and a 1257 OPS in the National League. You know who else has been pretty good? Julio Lugo. Manny Ramirez's former sidekick is hitting .354 with a 987 OPS. He's made one error in his first ten games. And Mark DeRosa. He's hit eight homers and driven in fifteen runs since the All-Star Break. The team has won every one of Joel Pineiro last eight starts, during which time he has a 2.91 ERA.

What do all these players have in common? They were all acquired via trade by the Cardinal's relatively new GM, John Mozeliak.

Sure, the Cards also still have some guys from that Championship team in 2006: the Ace, Chris Carpenter, his protege, Adam Wainwright, the immovable backstop, Yadier Molina, and, of course, the Machine, Mr. Pujols. You get the picture. Mozeliak didn't exactly start with an empty canvas. But he has, with the rather extraordinary help of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, turned what was likely a borderline playoff team into a legitimate contender.

For the past two seasons he, LaRuss, Duncan, and Marty Mason have assembled a piecemeal bullpen from career minor leaguers and other team's castoffs. Currently, the St. Louis 'pen is home to seven guys who make less than six million dollars combined. Or, to put that in perspective, they make $2.5 Million less than K-Rod does by himself. That 36-year-old desperation closer, Ryan Franklin, who Mozeliak signed to an inexpensive three-year contract before last season, has saved 29 games, blown just one, and has a ridiculous 1.17 ERA. The bullpen has a respectable 3.96 ERA on the season and has been even better since the All-Star break.

Sure, Mozeliak has had a few clunkers - Khalil Greene and Troy Glaus come to mind - but he has been aggressive, his mistakes have been relatively rare and, more importantly, cheap, and he has regained the trust of St. Louis fans who felt burned by the firing of Walt Jocketty, the organizations disputes with LaRussa, and the departure of popular veterans like Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and Jason Isringhausen. I would argue that, with the possible exception of Rolen, who left in a trade for Glaus, Mozeliak made a difficult but nonetheless wise baseball decisions. Isringhausen's aging arm has not felt any better in Tampa Bay. Rolen has had a resurgent season, but his back has kept him out of the lineup regularly and sapped his power. Edmonds was perhaps preemptively retired, having proved a useful platoon player for the Cubs in 2008, but he no longer had the legs to be an everyday centerfielder.

The Cardinals, with quite a bit of help from a milktoast Cubs team, could run away with the NL Central if this current hot streak persists through their West Coast roadtrip. When they return home, the will have fifteen straight games against teams with records under .500. There is a lot to be said for the Phillies and Dodgers, and even for the Giants and Rockies, but in a playoff series against any of those teams, the Cardinals will have the two best hitters on the diamond. Also, both of the starters at the front of their rotation have World Series rings, something none of those teams can boast. And their manager has more wins than anybody in the integrated era, which may or may not give him the edge on Joe Torre.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fantastic Thoughts (September Call-Ups)

As we near September and roster expansion, here are a few players to keep on your watchlist. Not only is it necessary to be vigilant for players who could be sleepers in next season's draft, but productivity for unheralded prospects can help you down the stretch, especially in head-to-head leagues. You won't find any discussion of Jason Heyward, Justin Smoak, or Stephen Strasburg here. I assume you already know they are must-have prospects in keeper leagues and middle-round draft picks next spring. I more concerned here with guys your leaguemates are likely to be completely ignorant of and who represent late-round steals.

Julio Borbon - OF - Texas Rangers

With Nelson Cruz on the D.L., Borbon has entered into the Rangers outfield and DH timeshare with Daniel Murphy, Marlon Byrd, and Andruw Jones. Borbon is having a huge series against Boston, going 6-for-8 with 4 SB in two games. His speed and defense could keep him in the mix as a defensive replacement and occasional starter for Ron Washington even after Cruz returns. Obviously, Cruz, Byrd, and Josh Hamilton are all likely to need regular rest.

In the long run, Julio Borbon's talents will probably land him somewhere between Willy Taveras and Juan Pierre. His primary weapon is, clearly, his incredible speed. This season in AAA he stole 25 bases in 32 attempts and in 2008 he stole 53 bases in 71 tries. Borbon has also shown good contact ability throughout his minor-league career, with a .310 average over three seasons. If he can hit .300 or even .290 in the majors he will find a job someplace. The test will be his plate discipline. Much like Pierre, he profiles as somebody who will be difficult to strike out, but equally difficult to walk. Despite hitting .307 at AAA this season, he OBP was a modest .367. He walked only 33 times and struck out 40 in 400+ AB.

Fantasy players recognize that players such like this, while sometimes frustrating if they're playing for your hometown team, are rotisserie gold, because they will bring useful numbers in the batting average and runs categories, and can single-handedly turn a team into one of the dominant forces in the stolen bases category. Even as a part-time player, given between 300 and 400 AB, Borbon is capable of providing 20-30 SB.

Kila Ka'aihue - 1B/DH - Kansas City Royals

If this season has proven anything, it's that the Royals are the most poorly run franchise in either league. Sure, Pittsburgh, Washington, Cleveland, and the Mets have had their share of bumbles, but they've also demonstrated that they have solid plans for the future and their fans have legitimate reasons for optimism. Not so in Kansas City. The Royals seemed primed to make a run at .500 going into this season, but nearly all of their hitters have underachieved and inexplicably they continue to give regular at-bats to Jose Guillen (688 OPS), Willie Bloomquist (657 OPS), Mike Jacobs (728 OPS), and, most distressingly, Yuniesky Betancourt (599 OPS), who they traded for mid-season!!! Considering the apparent ineptitude of GM Dayton Moore, it is almost impossible to predict what the Royals will do this September and during the offseason. But there is no doubt in my mind that Kila Ka'aihue should be given an opportunity to play everyday at the major-league level.

After hitting 37 HR and 100 RBI between AA and AAA in 2008 and performing well in a brief call-up in September, it seemed like the 25-year-old was destined to begin the season on the major-league roster. However, the addition of Mike Jacobs kept Ka'aihue at AAA (inexplicably considering how Jacobs has played). Ka'aihue has not replicated his power numbers from '08, but he still has 17 HR, an 858 OPS, and, most impressively, for the second consecutive season he has more walks (88) than strikeouts (79). There are only eleven players in the majors with a better BB/K ratio above 1.00. They include Albert Pujols, Dustin Pedroia, Chipper Jones, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Helton, and Joe Mauer. My point being that BB/K rate is a pretty stellar indicator. Ka'aihue may not develop above-average power, especially for a first basemen, but his plate discipline and pitch recognition is superior and suggests that he could develop into a .300 hitter or better.

Jonny Gomes & Wladimir Balentien - OF - Cincinnati Reds

Gomes is 28 and has never been allowed 500 PA in a season. He has hit 20+ HR twice and, after hitting three in one game last week, is on pace to do so again in '09. Since June 7 Gomes is hitting .270 with 14 HR and a 956 OPS. He still averages around a stikeout a game and will no doubt continue to be streaky, but the power is very real. And, after the Chris Dickerson experiment failed, Jay Bruce broke his wrist, and Willy Taveras turned in the worst OPS in all of baseball, Gomes is likely to get everyday at-bats for the rest of the year. If he continues to perform, he could have an inside track for left field in 2010. Gomes is probably a .250 or .260 hitter at best, but given a full season of opportunities, especially in the Great American Smallpark, he will hit 30-40 HR. That's certainly worth a late-round flier in roto leagues.

For some reason the Mariners gave up on Balentien before they even gave him a fighting chance and the Reds got a 24-year-old who showed great power and a fair amount of speed and plate discipline in the high minors. Like Gomes, he is perfectly suited for the friendly confines of Cincinnati and, unlike Gomes, he is still very young and can play centerfield if absolutely necessary. Thusfar Balentien is making the Mariners look silly. In the seven starts he's made for the Reds, he's had a hit in every game and is batting .417 with a 1101 OPS. The NL will no doubt adjust to him, probably exploiting his tendency to overswing and chase pitches early in the count, but it is way to early to suggest that these are problems which can't be fixed.

Gio Gonzalez - SP - Oakland Athletics

The primary piece of the Nick Swisher deal with the White Sox which now looks like a Billy Beane heist, Gonzalez fell behind guys like Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Vin Mazzaro in the stockpile of young Athletics pitchers going into the season, largely because of his continued control problems. However, at a dozen starts at AAA he went 4-1 with a 2.51 ERA, .194 BAA, and 71 K in 61 IP, prompting Beane to find a place for him in the major-league rotation. His overall numbers are pretty mediocre, but if you disregard a start against the Twins in which he allowed eleven earned runs in three innings, Gonzalez has a respectable ERA of 3.65 in eight starts and 47 K in 44 IP. Gonzalez will continue to walk people in bunches, but he is also on his way to becoming one of the leagues premier strikeout artists. He will be at the back-end of the A's rotation from the start next year and, of course, benefits from Oakland's very pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Adding him in the late rounds will endanger your WHIP a little, but he could bring with him close to 200 K, a respectable ERA, and 10+ victories.

Aaron Poreda - SP - San Diego Padres

Poreda is also a product of White Sox scouting and development, but came to San Diego in the Jake Peavy deal. He has yet to make a major league start, but allowed just three earned runs in eleven innings of relief for the White Sox, striking out a dozen in the process. The Padres have sent him back to AAA to stretch him out. The adjustment hasn't been quick. He has a 9.64 ERA in three starts. However, in a dozen minor-league starts before he was promoted by the White Sox he had a 2.54 ERA and 78 K in 74 IP. Like Gonzalez, Poreda is only 22 and his still developing his control, but he is also likely to get a long look in the Padres rotation and the spacious confines of Petco Park. In the NL he might be able to keep his ERA below 4.00 and WHIP below 1.30, while giving you strikeouts in bunches.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bronx Tales

I'd like to admit from the very start that the Yankees are quite clearly the best team in baseball right now. They're playing confident, consistent baseball at home and on the road. They've got great depth in the lineup, decent depth on the pitching staff, and a solid defense (currently, they're 5th in the AL in fielding percentage). However, as is almost always the case when the Yankees are running hot, there are some audacious claims being made by the Yankee faithful which I'd like to address here.

1.) Derek Jeter is once again the best shortstop in the AL, both offensively and defensively.

There is no doubt that Jeter has made strides to improve his defense since declarations regarding his weakness in that facet of the game became something of a fad among sabermetricians. However, rumors of his resurgence have been greatly exaggerated. Jeter does have a positive Ultimate Zone Rating for the first time since the stat began being recorded in 2001 (quite possible for the first time in his career). However, he is still dead last among AL shortstop in range. His improvement is also assisted by the fact that his double-play partner, Robinson Cano, is also having a career year defensively. Jeter is still clearly inferior to Elvis Andrus and Marco Scutaro, and while his numbers are comparable, I would be reluctant to choose him over younger, quicker, better armed guys like Alexei Ramirez and Erick Aybar.

At the plate, Jeter is on pace for 20 HR for the first time since 2004. He's got his best OPS since he challenged for the MVP in 2006 and he's already got 20 SB, also his most since 2006. Again, notions of his resurgence should be tempered. Like most Yankees, he has been assisted dramatically by the friendly confines of their new ballpark. Jeter's OPS on the road (797) is only 20 points higher than his OPS for 2008. Only 3 of his 14 HR and 18 of his 50 RBI have come away from Yankee Stadium. Jeter remains, as he has been for the last couple years, an excellent contact hitter (.318 at home and on the road) with decent plate discipline and above average baserunning ability. Partially because the AL does not boast anybody on par with guys like Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Troy Tulowitzki, and Jimmy Rollins, Jeter is among the cream of the crop. However, Jeter fans should note that he trails Jason Bartlett of the Rays in almost ever offensive category (AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, RBI, SB, SB%, 2B, 3B). His numbers are almost identical to Marco Scutaro's, who doesn't benefit from his home ballpark.

Jeter dedication to improving his defense may mean that he will be able to remain a reasonable starter at shortstop for a couple more seasons, which will save the Yankees from a tough decision, but Jeter is still clearly in the twilight of his career and no longer among the elite at his or really any position.

2.) Mark Texeira is obviously the AL MVP.

Tex is having a great season, especially considering how poor it started and the general pressure of joining the Yankees as a mega-free agent and "future of the franchise" type player. However, let's diffuse the hyperbolic nature of this claim quickly by comparing his numbers to fellow AL first-baseman, Justin Morneau.

Texeira: .288/.385/.565, 71 R, 30 HR, 86 RBI, -0.4 UZR
Morneau: .300/.388/.562, 79 R, 28 HR, 94 RBI, -0.9 UZR

I think it's apparent from these lines that Texeira is not running away from the field, and that's not even considering the fact that Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera belong in the conversation as well. When one looks closer at the comparison with Morneau, Texeira picks up another disadvantage. While Morneau has very comparable numbers home and away (988 OPS/13 HR @ Home, 905 OPS/15 HR on Road), Texeira is an entirely different player away from the infamous right-field pavilion at Yankee Stadium (1031 OPS/19 HR @ Home, 867 OPS/11 HR on Road). There's nothing wrong with an 867 OPS. However, if you're going to win an MVP with that number, you better be a Gold Glove winning middle infielder (a.k.a. Pedroia in '08, Tejada in '02).

Tex is an impressive MVP candidate, but it isn't quite time to start clearing room on the shelf.

3.) The starting rotation is the best in baseball.

Yankees starters are 13th in ML in ERA, 12th in innings pitched, and tied for 7th in wins, so clearly this isn't the best rotation statistically. However, clearly what Yankees fans are excited about is the potential postseason rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, and (occasionally) Chamberlain. Sabathia is very quietly turning in another excellent season. His ERA (3.64) is higher than it's been since 2005, but he's on pace for 18 wins and 186 K, which are damn fine numbers. He's also currently on pace for nearly 240 IP. He's gone seven innings or more in 16 of his 25 starts. That's great news during the regular season. However, Sabathia also threw 240+ innings in '07 and '08. His heavy load may be one explanation why his postseason ERA is 7.92. New York would be well served to rest their Ace as much as possible down the stretch, a luxury it looks like they will have, so that Sabathia can enter the playoffs refreshed.

It should also be noted that their #2, A. J. Burnett, has never thrown a postseason pitch, which makes him a bit of a wild card. The Yankees top three is solid, but it isn't noticably better than the trios in San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Red Sox Special @ V-Mart

The BoSox may have made the most surprising acquisition of this trade deadline when they landed Victor Martinez for the package of Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price. Much has been made of the fact that the deal makes Terry Francona the operator of an unconventional merry-go-round of five proud veterans at six positions. That quintet of Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and Jason Varitek has combined for a somewhat astonishing 17 All-Star appearances, seven times have finished in the top five in MVP voting, and three of them own Gold Gloves (and Youkilis will probably make it four at some point in his young career). They'll make a cool $41.5 million this season.

To Francona falls the delicate task of telling one of these men each day that their name won't be on the lineup card. It's not all bad news. After all, with the exception of Youkilis, all are 30-years-or-older, so they could probably use a little rest. The BoSox manager will also be blessed with a great deal of variety as the quintet is comprise of one lefty, two righties, and two switch-hitters. Here are their platoon splits:

Mike Lowell (R) - vRHP: .294/.320/.450, vLHP: .315/.384/.584
Victor Martinez (S) - vRHP: .307/.373/.471, vLHP: .259/.363/.466
David Ortiz (L) - vRHP: .222/.320/.407, vLHP: .230/.294/.451
Jason Varitek (S) - vRHP: .223/.332/.406, vLHP: .250/.370/.539
Kevin Youkilis (L) - vRHP: .307/.408/.568, vLHP: .330/.464/.614

As you can see, only Varitek and Lowell show significant variations, and, as they are also the most senior citizens of Red Sox Nation, they will probably be getting the most days off. In truth, whether it happen now, in October, or at the beginning of next season, this trade probably means that, as John Kruk has suggested, Captain 'Tek is headed for a back-up role. Maybe he'll finally learn to catch Tim Wakefield. There are a few reasons for this. First, and foremost is, of course, that Victor Martinez is a legit middle-of-the-order hitter. Varitek wasn't V-Mart's offensive equal at any point in his career, but, while he's improved dramatically over his 2008 campaign, Varitek's current skill-set makes him undoubtedly the easiest out in the Red Sox lineup (bye-bye Julio Lugo and Nick Green), especially against right-handed pitching.

The faithful will say that 'Tek makes up for his offensive woes by being one of the game's greatest behind the plate. And this assertion, often followed by superlatives about "game-calling," is backed up of a 3.73 Catcher's ERA, best in the American League. His defense, however, does have one glaring flaw. While Varitek was never mistaken for a long-lost Molina brother, he threw out a respectable 24.7% of basestealers over his first eleven season. This year he's "gunned" down a mere 14%. This decline is contemporaneous with an much-noted increase in stolen base attempts around the league. As a result Varitek (and the Boston pitching staff, to be fair) is on pace to give up 120+ free bases in 2009. To put those numbers in perspective: Yadier Molina has a CS% of 41.0% and will fall victim to only around 30 successful attempts this season, despite playing in 15-25 more games.

It is no longer acceptable to ignore a catcher's throwing ability. It has been a growing trend since Mike Piazza tempted managers with the thought that they could get 30 HR and 100 RBI a season from their backstop. But Piazza never had to deal with those runnin' Rays. From 1993 to 2005, roughly the length of Piazza's catching career, only 27 players stole 50 or more bases and nobody stole more than 75. Moreover, only two teams, the '93 Expos and the '96 Rockies, stole more than 200 bases. The '96 Rockies were the only team to accomplish that feat from 1994 to 2006. Assuming the Rays maintain their current pace, both the '09 Rays and the '07 Mets will have joined the 200 SB club in the last three seasons. A dozen players have produced 50+ SB seasons in that time, assuming that the five new members from '09 maintain their current pace.

In the two game series between the Rays and Red Sox this week, the Rays nabbed six bases off Varitek in seven attempts. The only man he threw out was the not so fleet-footed Carlos Pena, which only further proves that Tampa Bay felt as though they could take extra bases with impunity.

Victor Martinez doesn't have the best arm in baseball, but in 2008 he threw out 37.1% and 32% in 2007. Though his legend may not be as thoroughly ingrained in the minds of the BoSox faithful, Martinez also has the reputation of a great "game-caller," and his career Catcher's ERA is 4.41 (Varitek's is 4.21), despite having managed some pretty poorly pitching staffs.

Martinez will be an improvement over Varitek both offensively and defensively, but Varitek will no doubt continue to catch two or three games a week (at which time V-Mart will often play first or DH) and this should help keep both of them fresher.

There is also one consideration which should not go unmentioned. Varitek has a player option for 2010. Considering the current market for veterans, it is unlikely he would find a job (or, at least, a million-dollar job) as a free agent with another team. That, and it seems unlikely he would want to leave Boston this late in his career. However, the Red Sox built his contract is such a way that if they were disappointed in his 2009 performance, his base salary would fall from $5 Million to $3 Million with bonuses based on games played ($400,000 for every ten starts past 80). It is very unlikely that the Red Sox will pay more than one of the bonuses in 2010. After all, Martinez has a club option for $7 Million, a steal for somebody of his talent.

We are nearing the end of a BoSox decade, and, fittingly, Varitek, Martinez, Ortiz, Lowell, and Josh Beckett all have contracts that expire at the end of 2010 (by which time J.D. Drew may become the longest tenured Red Sox). At that point, neither Varitek nor Martinez will probably be in Boston's plans, at least at catcher, especially if the trends toward speed and defense in the post-steroid era continue. And, on that note, you should check out the profile of Yadier Molina in this week's ESPN: The Magazine.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Welcome to the show, Meat.

2007 was "the year of the rookie." In the NL, Ryan Braun just best Troy Tulowitzki for the Rookie of the Year award by hitting .324 with 34 HR, 97 RBI, and 15 SB in only 451 AB. Dustin Pedroia won the AL version of the award as he hit .317 and scored 86 runs for the World Series champions. 2007 also introduced us to future All-Stars Tim Lincecum, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hunter Pence, and Joakim Soria. Delmon Young and Chris Young both had solid campaigns, though they have yet to live up to their considerable potential.

In all honesty, 2006 may have been an even better year for rookies. There wasn't anybody to equal the production of Braun, but that season introduced us to such future luminaries as Hanley Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis, Russell Martin, Josh Johnson, Andre Ethier, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Kinsler, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Broxton, Adam Wainwright, Jered Weaver, Dan Uggla, Corey Hart, and Francisco Liriano. In four seasons, that group has accumulated no less that 23 All-Star appearances.

Last year gave us several more impressive rookies, including Evan Longoria, Geovany Soto, Joba Chamberlain, Joey Votto, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jay Bruce, Pablo Sandoval, Chris Davis, and Alexei Ramirez. There were six rookies from 2008 who hit at least 20 HR. Four drove in at least 75 runs. And five pitchers notched double-digit wins.

This season has been a much different story. Highly-touted rookies like Matt Wieters and David Price have floundered a bit. There are currently no rookie hitters on pace for 20 HR or 75 RBI. Gerardo Parra leads all rookies with 38 RBI. Colby Rasmus leads with just 11 HR. There is no rookie hitter with 250+ plate appearances who sports an OPS above 738.

The pitching side has been a little stronger. In all likelihood Jeff Niemann, Ricky Romero, Rick Porcello, and Matt Palmer will all notch double-digit wins, though Porcello and Palmer have not pitcher particularly well, especially recently. J.A. Happ and Randy Wells could get there as well, currently they each have 7 W and ERAs under 3.00. However, Happ could finish the season in the bullpen after the additions of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez.

Several of the seasons best rookies did not arrive until late June or early July. Andrew McCutchen got Pittsburgh some much-needed positive publicity last night by hitting three homers in a game. McCutchen has hit .294 since his promotion, with 25 extra-base hits. He's also yet to be caught stealing in nine attempts. Gordon Beckham of the White Sox has also been making a splash. This afternoon he picked up his 36th RBI in only 52 games. Tommy Hanson has made ten starts for the Braves, going 5-2 with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP.

Hanson, McCutchen, and Beckham are each only 22-years-old. They are representative of the increasing temptation for teams to turn to prospects early, which may be one reason why rookies stats are a little more modest. Only a few years ago teams resisted promoting any but the most superior prospects - guys like Braun, Longoria, and Upton - before they were at least 23 or 24. Here is the list of players this season 22 or younger who are holding down (or held down) regular positions in the major leagues:

Brett Anderson - SP - OAK (6-8 - 4.33 ERA - 1.31 WHIP - 85 K)
Elvis Andrus - SS - TEX (.261 - 4 HR - 19 RBI - 686 OPS)
Gordon Beckham - 3B - CWS (.311 - 5 HR - 36 RBI - 858 OPS)
Kyle Blanks - 1B - SDP (.227 - 5 HR - 13 RBI - 813 OPS)
Jay Bruce - RF - CIN (.207 - 18 HR - 41 RBI - 725 OPS)
Everth Cabrera - SS - SDP (.258 - 1 HR - 14 RBI - 733 OPS)
Trevor Cahill - SP - OAK (6-10 - 5.01 ERA - 1.52 WHIP - 58 K)
Tommy Hanson - SP - ATL (5-2 - 3.25 ERA - 1.33 WHIP - 41 K)
Derek Holland - SP - TEX (4-6 - 5.56 ERA - 1.48 WHIP - 64 K)
Clayton Kershaw - SP - LAD (8-5 - 2.76 ERA - 1.23 WHIP - 117 K)
Mat Latos - SP - SDP (2-1 - 2.70 ERA - 0.78 WHIP - 13 K)
Fernando Martinez - OF - NYM (.176 - 1 HR - 8 RBI - 517 OPS)
Shairon Martis - SP - WAS (5-2 - 5.25 ERA - 1.42 WHIP - 34 K)
Cameron Maybin - CF - FLA (.202 - 1 HR - 3 RBI - 589 OPS)
Vin Mazzaro - SP - OAK (2-7 - 5.16 ERA - 1.61 WHIP - 43 K)
Andrew McCutcheon - CF - PIT (.292 - 6 HR - 31 RBI - 834 OPS)
Jonathon Niese - SP - NYM (1-1 - 4.50 ERA - 1.42 WHIP - 16 K)
Sean O'Sullivan - SP - LAA (3-0 - 3.72 ERA - 1.38 WHIP - 16 K)
Gerardo Parra - OF - ARZ (.274 - 5 HR - 38 RBI - 732 OPS)
Ryan Perry - RP - DET (5 HLD - 3.63 ERA - 1.47 WHIP - 32 K)
Rick Porcello - SP - DET (9-7 - 4.36 ERA - 1.41 WHIP - 55 K)
Aaron Poreda - SP - CWS (1-0 - 2.45 ERA - 1.55 WHIP - 12 K)
Colby Rasmus - CF - STL (.252 - 11 HR - 35 RBI - 730 OPS)
Josh Reddick - OF - BOS (.444 - 1 HR - 2 RBI - 1500 OPS)
Pablo Sandoval - 3B - SF (.324 - 16 HR - 63 RBI - 924 OPS)
Michael Saunders - LF - SEA (.160 - 0 HR - 1 RBI - 320 OPS)
Jordan Schafer - CF - ATL (.204 - 2 HR - 8 RBI - 600 OPS)
Travis Snider - LF - TOR (.242 - 3 HR - 12 RBI - 686 OPS)
Chris Tillman - SP - BAL (0-0 - 5.79 ERA - 1.71 WHIP - 2 K)
Justin Upton - RF - ARZ (.302 - 20 HR - 65 RBI - 926 OPS)
Chris Volstad - SP - FLA (8-9 - 4.35 ERA - 1.25 WHIP - 91 K)

That's 31 players! A few, like Martinez, Niese, Blanks, and Cabrera, were forced into action by injuries, trades, or unexpected roster situations, but most of these guys are with the big club by design and one has to wonder whether they are in the best possible situation for their progress. Derek Holland looked great last week, taking a shutout into the 9th inning, but his overall numbers leave a lot to be desired. Rick Porcello has had flashes of brilliance as well and sports solid overall numbers, but since the beginning of June he's 3-4 with a 5.20 ERA. Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro has been given very long leashes in Oakland because Billy Beane believes they can mature into Aces at the major-league level. He had great luck with Hudson, Mulder, and Zito in a similar situation, but that isn't always the case. Detroit tried the same thing with Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Cornejo. That didn't go so well.

This is all part of the trend towards youth which has gotten a lot of publicity lately, but teams seem to be misunderstanding the value to young players. Sure, Upton, Sandoval, Kershaw, and Hanson proved they had nothing left to prove at AAA and could outperform the guys in front of them on the MLB roster. However, when you promote a guy like Holland, Andrus, or Suanders to early, it not only endangers their confidence, but it decreases their value, because the clock starts ticking on them before they start producing for the franchise. Texas will have to pay arbitration on Andrus and Holland in 2011. Cahill, Anderson, and Mazzaro will qualify for free agency a year earlier, perhaps giving Oakland one less shot at contention.