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Thursday, October 08, 2009

The best deal in baseball?

Last December the Indians, Mariners, and Mets combined for a massive trade that distributed eleven players among the three teams. It wasn't treated as a blockbuster because the biggest name involved was the Mariner's incumbent closer, J. J. Putz, who was headed to New York, presumably as a very expensive set-up man for K-Rod, solidifying the Mets bullpen, which had been HORRIBLE in 2008. Although there were several valuable role players and a couple of B+ prospects among the rest, nobody would've expected any of the player involved to finish anywhere near the top 20 in Wins Above Replacement/Runs Above Replacement, the hottest new multi-factor metric born in the sabermetric community and intended to evaluate pitchers and position players on the same scale, with attention to offense, defense, ballpark and league adjustments, durability, and position scarcity.

Don't ask me to explain the formula. I can't.

What I can do is observe it that it yields some convincing results. Pujols does very well. As does A-Rod. Same for C.C. Sabathia and Tim Lincecum. No surprises there. But WAR/RAR rated Chase Utley as the #2 most valuable player in 2008, combining excellent hitting with superior defense at a premium position. All things considered, the top 12 from 2008 probably won't surprise anybody:

#1 Albert Pujols 8.9 WAR
#2 Chase Utley 8.1
#3 Chipper Jones 7.67
#4 Hanley Ramirez 7.57
#5 C. C. Sabathia 7.5
#6 Tim Lincecum 7.5
#7 David Wright 7.43
#8 Roy Halladay 7.4
#9 Cliff Lee 7.2
#10 Lance Berkman 6.8
#11 Mark Texeira 6.77
#12 Carlos Beltran 6.72

The 2009 results, on the other hand, might blow your mind a little:

#1 Zack Greinke 9.4
#2 Ben Zobrist 8.5
#3 Albert Pujols 8.4
#4 Joe Mauer 8.2
#5 Justin Verlander 8.2
#6 Tim Lincecum 8.2
#7 Chase Utley 7.7
#8 Derek Jeter 7.4
#9 Hanley Ramirez 7.32
#10 Roy Halladay 7.3
#11 Evan Longoria 7.26
#12 Ryan Zimmerman 7.1
#13 Felix Hernandez 6.9
#14 Prince Fielder 6.7
#15 Cliff Lee 6.6
#16 Javier Vazquez 6.6
#17 Adrian Gonzalez 6.4
#18 Jon Lester 6.2
#19 Dan Haren 6.1
#20 C. C. Sabathia 6.0
#21 Chone Figgins 5.9
#22 Franklin Gutierrez 5.8
#23 Adam Wainwright 5.7
#24 Ubaldo Jimenez 5.7
#25 Matt Holliday 5.6

You will note a couple of things even about the players whose inclusion in the top 25 isn't much of a surprise. Guady homer, RBI, or win totals don't overwhelm this metric. Sabathia (19-8) and Wainwright (19-8) finish in back of guys like Lee (14-13) and Haren (14-10). Prince Fielder's 141 RBI well behind Utley and Ramirez. Miguel Cabrera (5.5), Mark Texeira (5.2), Ryan Howard (4.9), Chris Carpenter (5.6), and Josh Beckett (5.3) all finish just outside the top 25.

There are a couple things going on here. WAR/RAR, with pitchers especially, gives us a good sense of the "luck" factors (ballparks, opponents, run support, etc.). The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays finished 1, 3, and 5 in the AL in scoring this season. Roy Halladay had to make 15(!) of his 32 starts against those three teams. He went 6-7 (2.97 ERA) against them. He went 11-3 (2.62 ERA) against everybody else. The strength of his competition pushes him ahead of bigger winners like Sabathia and Hernandez, and better ERAs, like Carpenter and Wainwright.

As far as position players, defense figures it should! The posterboy in this case is Franklin Gutierrez. Which brings me full circle. Gutierrez was one of those players the Mariners landed last December. You see, the Indians, Franklin's former franchise, were loaded with outfielders. They had Grady Sizemore entrenched in center, Gutierrez's natural position. They had Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo fighting for at-bats from the corner spots and Matt LaPorta, the prize of the recent C. C. Sabathia deal, slugging his way towards the big leagues as well. So, Gutierrez was expendable. Or was he?

It isn't so much that Sizemore, Choo, and LaPorta aren't good players, as is Francisco, who is now with the Phillies, but Gutierrez proved this season in Seattle that he is something very special. His hitting has been steadily improving over the past couple of seasons. His OBP jumped thirty points in 2009 to a respecable .339. He's provides a moderate speed/power combination. This year he hit 18 HR and stole 16 bases. Next year, at the magical age of 27, he may be a 20/20 threat. Still, as a hitter, Gutierrez's upside is probably akin to Mike Cameron. There's nothing wrong with that. Cameron has been a very likable everyday starter for well over a decade, but as good as he is in center field, Gutierrez is even better. Gutierrez's Ultimate Zone Rating (28.5) was 10 points higher than any player at any position this season, 16 higher than the next best centerfielder (B. J. Upton, 12.7). It was the best UZR by an outfielder since Andruw Jones netted a 30.0 in 2005. Now Franklin benefited from maximum playing time. Only Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, and Vernon Wells played more innings in center, and none by much, but his UZR/150 was still significantly higher than the his best competition. He was at 19.2, Upton at 10.8, and another Mariner, the shortstop, Jack Wilson, was at 15.3.

In a roundabout way I am trying to highlight the impressive job Jack Zduriencik has done in his short tenure with the Mariners. He dealt an expensive, replaceable closer (in other words, a closer) and got arguably a top 25 player in return. The Mariners paid Gutierrez just $450,000 this season. He won't be a free agent for three more seasons. And, because so much of his value is wrapped up in defense, he probably won't get as much in arbitration as he deserves. Moreover, that's not all Zduriencik landed!?! He got a couple of low-end prospects, Ezequiel Carrera and Maikel Cleto; a solid fifth outfielder in Endy Chavez; a young, cheap potential back-of-the-rotation starter in Jason Vargas; a 23-year-old first basemen name Mike Carp, who hit .315 in his cup of coffee this September; and a journeyman reliever, Aaron Heilman, who he turned around and sent to the Cubs for Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson, both young and cheap, the former of whom he used to go get Jack Wilson.

Prior to becoming the Mariners GM, Zduriencik was most famous for being the Scouting Director for the Brewers from '99-'06 who drafted Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, J. J. Hardy, Manny Parra, Andrew Bailey, Dana Eveland, Mat Gamel, and Ben Sheets. It represents a rare stretch of extremely successful drafting. Mariners fans are hoping Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin represent the beginning of a similar era in Seattle. The Mariners haven't had a first-round stud since Jason Varitek in 1994 (they did get Adam Jones as a compensation pick in 2003, as well as J. J. Putz and Rich Harden in later rounds in 1999).

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