Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fonz Redux

It's been a busy month, but during a pre-holiday lull I wanted to offer a couple of opinions about the flurry of deals from the concluding week of 2010.  First up, the top two free agent hitters from this year's class, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, both signed seven-year, nine-figure deals earlier in December.  These were the two largest contracts handed to outfielders since Alfonso Soriano signed his $136 Million deal with the Cubs prior to the 2007 season.  That deal already looks like one of the worst albatrosses in baseball history, as Soriano's production has declined dramatically over the last four years.

There are some unfortunate correlations between Soriano and this years duo of high-priced outfielders.  For starters, both Crawford and Werth have made their reputations, at least to some extent, based upon their speed.  The same was true of Soriano.  When he signed his megadeal, he was coming off a 40/40 season. Werth has posted a pair of 20/20 seasons and in the last three years has a rather incredible 88% stolen base success rate since becoming a Phillie.  Crawford, considered one of the speediest men in all of baseball, has led the league in steals on four occasions, and has averaged 50 steals per season since 2003.  Though both are corner outfielders by preference, their speed also makes it possible for them to slide over to center when necessary and helps to make them Gold Glove candidates at their natural positions.  The problem with paying high premiums for speed is that too often it is the first of the five tools to dissipate.  Take Soriano, for instance.  After averaging 35 steals a year in his first six seasons, Soriano has managed only 13 per year in his four seasons with the Cubs, largely due to nagging hamstring injuries.  He became an absolute drain as Chicago's leadoff hitter and was finally moved down in the order last season.

Injuries have effected Soriano's game on the whole, of course.  In his first six seasons, Soriano never played in fewer than 145 games.  Since coming to Chicago, however, he's reached that mark only once.  Werth and Crawford have also been relative iron men.  Werth has missed only nine games in the past two seasons; Crawford only fourteen.  Will they be able to maintain that pace, especially as they move into their 30s?

This brings us to the biggest and most obvious problem with deals like these: aging.  Werth with be 32 during the 2011 season.  The Nationals will be on the hook for $84 Million after he turns 35.  In order to "earn" that money, Werth will probably need to manage at least four or five Wins Above Replacement per season.  The list of outfielders who have managed to do that in their late thirties is extraordinarily short: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki.   Can Jayson Werth aspire to that class?

In this respect, Crawford's deal makes a lot more sense.  He will earn more money than Werth over the next seven years, but his contract expires only a few months after his 35th birthday.  Theo Epstein will take his fair share of flack in the coming years, as Boston's payroll escalates into pinstriped territory.  But Epstein, thusfar at least, has not been spending much of his money on players in decline (John Lackey aside).  For exactly that reason he passed on expensive long-term deals on Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, even though they were extremely productive in their limited runs with the BoSox, and turned his attentions instead to Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.

While it's highly likely that Carl Crawford's best seasons are still in front of him, thus justifying his $20 Million per year salary, the same can not be said of Jayson Werth.  Werth's career arch is very worrisome and not just because of his advanced age.  Due in part to some unfortunate injuries and perhaps in part to some poor personnel decisions made by his first two franchises (the Dodgers and Jays), Werth did not become an everyday player until he joined the Phillies in 2007.  Even then he was limited to platoon at-bats for some time.  As a result, unlike Crawford, he doesn't have a long track record of sustained brilliance, which make me very uneasy.  Really, only in the last three seasons has he been a productive everyday player.

Many, many players have produced like Werth has over a three-year period only to fall into rapid decline.  Here's just a few outfielders from recent memory: Brad Hawpe, Ray Lankford, Andy Van Slyke, Brian Jordan, Cliff Floyd, and, of course, Alfonso Soriano.  Like most of these players, Werth has benefitted during his prime years from hitting in the midst of a very potent lineup and in a very friendly confines.  Never before has he been asked to carry a load on offense like the one he'll be expected to carry in Washington, where Ryan Zimmerman is the only other All-Star quality player in the lineup.

One thing I will say for Werth.  Unlike Soriano, he has excellent command of the strikezone.  He draws walks and is consistently among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance.  This skill, unlike speed and power, is one that traditionally ages fairly well.  That aside, however, I fear Werth will be an albatross around the neck of the Nationals, a franchise that can ill afford to miss on a their nine-figure investments.

Crawford, on the other hand, though he is far more of a free-swinger, could be the first Hundred Million Dollar Outfielder since Manny Ramirez ('01-'08 edition) to earn every cent of his contract.  Even if his speed declines (which it almost certainly will, at least to some extent), his all-field approach, high averages, and stellar defense in left field should be enough to make him a productive top of the order hitter even in the waning years, and he's likely an MVP candidate for at least two or three seasons to come.

Friday, December 03, 2010

GM Hot Seat: Ned Colletti, Los Angeles Dodgers

Clearly, Colletti's job is safe, so long as McCourt Divorcegate continues, which will likely be deep into the 2011 season, if not beyond.  But, at some point down the line, either Frank, Jamie, or a new owner is going to be looking to put this extremely unfortunate chapter in the Dodgers history in the rearview mirror and, at that point, everybody in the current administration will be put under the microscope.

Sure, Colletti's got a few things to hang his hat on.  The Dodgers have been to the playoffs three times in his five years as GM, and advanced all the way to the NLCS on two of those occasions.  He masterminded the acquisition of Manny Ramirez, which was wildly successful...until it wasn't, but he hardly could've foreseen Manny's suspension and rapid decline.  He brought in Joe Torre, who was the most popular Dodger manager since Tommy Lasorda.  And, he's proved himself an aggressive wheeler and dealer, trading for helpful players like Casey Blake, Ron Belliard, Jim Thome, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, etc. at times when they were needed to fill key roles and he never gave up a whole lot in return.

Of course, underlying the solid track record of success on the field is the open secret among the Dodger faithful; most of the talent responsible for the deep runs in 2008 and 2009 came from the tenures of Coletti's predecessors, Dan Evans and Paul DePodesta.  Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, James Loney, Russell Martin, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Jonathan Broxton were all drafted (or signed) prior to Colletti's arrival in 2006.  It's probably too early to fairly evaluate Colletti's drafting and development record, but his only pick to pan out thusfar is Clayton Kershaw.

As for Colletti's record in free agency, that's very easy to address, and the results aren't good.  He's got four major busts - Manny, Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre, and Andruw Jones - who together cost the organization well over $150 Million.  And, while Casey Blake, Hiroki Kuroda, and Rafael Furcal have all earned their money, they haven't exactly been bargains.

Colletti isn't going to survive close scrutiny by the "new" administration, whomever that is, unless he can demonstrate that 2010 was just a blip on the radar.  He needs to get competitive again, right away.  The flurry of activity in Los Angeles early in the Hot Stove season suggests Colletti's well aware of that fact.  It took him less than a month to shore up his 2011 rotation behind young power arms Billingsley and Kershaw.

First, he resigned midseason acquisition Ted Lilly to a three-year, $33 Million deal that will take the junkballing control specialist into his late 30s.  Lilly's prolonged durability (he's averaged 30 starts a season over the last eight years) and his soft-tossing style suggest he can continue to have success at that late age, much like Jamie Moyer has, so the length of the deal is defensible.  In fact, considering how thin the pitching ranks are this winter, there's a strong likelihood Lilly could've gotten more had he tested the market.

Same goes for Hiroki Kuroda, who Colletti resigned for one year at $12 Million. Kuroda, coming of a season in which he posted a 3.39 ERA, probably would've been viewed as the second or third best starter available, behind Cliff Lee, and certainly could've gotten a multiyear deal. However, Kuroda is comfortably in L.A. and seems to want to leave himself the option of returning to Japan in 2012, so he gave Colletti a hometown discount.

Finally, this past week Colletti finished an inexpensive deal for Jon Garland, coming off one of the best years of his career.  Again, it seems likely Garland could've gotten more money or more years had he waited for the pitching market to develop, but he wanted to stay near his home in SoCal, so he took a $5 Million deal with an $8 Million option.  The option kicks in automatically if Garland reaches 190 innings.  Dodgers fans should be warned, he's reached that target every season since 2002, so this should be presumed to be a two-year, $13 Million deal.

All things considered, assuming Billingsley and Kershaw continue to progress towards being tandem Aces, this is a solid corps of starters.  Garland and Lilly can definitely be termed "innings-eaters," as they've proved themselves extremely durable, which should help the Dodger bullpen, which has had a heavy workload the last couple seasons.

Colletti followed his rotational renovations with a somewhat controversial contract offer to veteran utilityman, Juan Uribe, who is coming off a resurgent tenure with the Dodgers archrival.  Uribe helped the Giants by playing solid defense at several infield positions and providing some power as well, but he's definitely a risky investment at three years, $21 Million, which more than doubles what he was making in 2010.  Uribe will probably start as the Dodgers everyday second-baseman, but could move to short or third in 2012, after Blake and Furcal are scheduled to become free agents.  Uribe has a little thunder in his bat.  He's a good bet for around 20 HR.  But his career .300 OBP could make him a bit of a liability, especially in a lineup that is already short on patient hitters.

Most recently, Colletti elected to non-tender longtime catcher, Russell Martin, and middle reliever, George Sherrill, rather than offer them arbitration that could've cost as much as $15 Million.  He replaced Sherrill with Blake Hawksworth, acquired in a trade with the Cardinals for Ryan Theriot.  And, rumor has it, will soon replace Martin with Rod Barajas, probably for something like $2 Million in 2011.  While Martin certainly has the talent to make the Dodgers regret this move, in the short-term it gives Colletti some flexibility.  Even after the signing outlined above and potentially expensive arbitration hearings with Billingsley, Loney, and Kuo, the Dodgers should still be $3-5 Million under their payroll from 2010.

As noted above, I believe Colletti is feeling the pressure to win in 2011, but, considering the Dodgers current investments (including around $20 Million still due to Ramirez, Jones, and Pierre next year) and the McCourt "situation" there is little chance they can get into the bidding on Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, or even Paul Konerko.  This leaves Colletti with a difficult decision.  The 2010 roster that finished in fourth place in the NL West was not that different from the one that went to the NLCS in each of the previous seasons.  Unfortunately, much of the young talent regressed substantially last year, especially Kemp, Loney, and Broxton.  One could very easily speculate that they will return to form in 2011, which could be enough to get the Dodgers right back in the thick of it.  However, it also could be that Ethier, Kemp, and Loney are not ready to carry the offense by themselves and need a veteran slugger (like Manny) to take some of the pressure off.

Colletti could probably go get such a player via trade, but it might mean mortgaging the future.  Prince Fielder would certainly fit the bill, but would definitely cost the team Loney and a couple of top prospects and he would almost certainly be unsignable a year from now.  But if the Dodgers go to the playoffs, thereby protecting Colletti's job, wouldn't it be worth it?  To Colletti at least?

On the other hand, Colletti could look to some of the riskier trade candidates like Carlos Beltran and Josh Willingham.  Such players could probably be had without decimating the farm system, but there is a much higher likelihood they could be busts, either due to injuries or ineffectiveness.

The fact is, time is running short for this incarnation of the Dodgers.  Kemp, Ethier, Broxton, Loney, Billingsley, and Kuo will all be free agents by the end of the 2012 season.  Considering how much success this cast of players had very early in their careers, anything short of a World Series appearance would have to be considered a failure.  If they don't get within striking distance of that goal in 2011, I expect the blame game to begin.  First-year manager Don Mattingly will probably get a pass.  Colletti will not.  It's time for him to prove that he's not just another example of Frank McCourt's incompetence.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: Is Pujols still King?

I was doing a little Black Friday browsing, looking at various summation in the wake of the 2010 fantasy baseball season and I was surprised to see several early rankings for 2011 that had unfamiliar names at the top.

Tristan Cockcroft at ESPN started his Top 50 with Hanley Ramirez.   The guys at Bleacher GM were split between Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto.  I even saw a few cautious arguments for Carlos Gonzalez (how far we've come in one year).

I don't buy it.

For a couple years now there has been arguments for Han-Ram based exclusively on his positional eligibility.  There are several stat-hogging first-baseman around, but no shortstop comes within striking distance of Ramirez.  Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins have been dogged by injuries two years running.  In case you haven't heard, Derek Jeter is in decline.  Michael Young switched positions.  Troy Tulowitzki's been consistently inconsistent.

But, while Han-Ram still has a huge edge over the rest of the shortstop class and is very much in his prime at the age of 27, he's also coming off his worst season since 2006.  Even taking into account three-year averages, he's just not in the same weight class as Albert Pujols in the typical 5 X 5 categories:

Pujols: .331 AVG, 113 R, 42 HR, 123 RBI, 12 SB
Ramirez: .314 AVG, 106 R, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 31 SB

It's an old adage, but positional scarcity just isn't relevant in the first round.  You need to select a stat-hoarder with the #1 pick and Pujols is the premier stat-hoarder...and has been for a decade.

That, of course, is what's fueling the case for guys like CarGo and Votto.  Whereas Pujols is now in his thirties, and has suffered moderate declines in AVG, OBP, and OPS in each of the last two seasons, Gonzalez and Votto are coming off MVP-level campaigns and are still in their mid-twenties.  However,  youth cuts both ways.  CarGo won me several leagues this past season, but even I can recognize that his home/road splits are a bit disturbing and his BABIP was unsustainable.  I expect Gonzalez will continue to improve some aspects of his game, including his aggression on the basepaths and perhaps even his power, but there's potential for regression also.

I would also observe that, as good as Votto was, he did most of his damage in the midsummer months, got progressively less productive down the stretch, and had only one lonely hit in the playoffs.  Is that evidence that opponents had developed some kind of moderately effective scouting report?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I don't want to expend the #1 pick in the draft on a guy who could very easily revert back to his admirable, but not spectacular '08/'09 rates (.309-76-25-84-6).

Yes, both CarGo and Votto have advantages over Pujols in terms of more hitter-friendly ballparks, deeper lineups, and younger legs, but what they proved capable of doing for the first time in 2010, Pujols has done for a decade.  Coming off another year in which he led the NL in HR and RBI, he's given us absolutely no reason to think he's ready to stop.

Which brings us to Miguel Cabrera...

This is the argument I find most compelling.  If it weren't for the existence of Pujols, we'd be talking a whole lot more about what Miggy has done through the first seven full seasons of his career.  Let's put them side by side with the previous standard for consistency in first-base sluggers:

Lou Gehrig ('25-'31): 1053 G, 929 R, 232 HR, 981 RBI, .341/.443/.642
Miguel Cabrera ('04-'10): 1103 G, 702 R, 235 HR, 817 RBI, .317/.392/.558
Albert Pujols ('01-'07): 1091 G, 847 R, 282 HR, 861 RBI, .332/.420/.620

As you can see, Cabrera's only a nose behind the legends, despite the fact that he's played on far inferior teams.  With consistency and production on par with Pujols, especially in recent years, Cabrera's supporters can actually argue three distinct advantages.  1.) Cabrera is three years younger and coming off the best year of his career thusfar.  The bulk of his prime may still be in front of him.  Scary.  2.) He plays in the AL, where he has the luxury of taking an occasional game at DH, so his bat stays in the lineup (in an of itself, this explains why Cabrera has gotten a dozen more games than Pujols in the first seven years of his career).  3.) Miggy doesn't have any lingering injuries.  Obviously, Pujols has never missed significant time either, but he's had a pair of reconstructive surgeries on his right elbow, prompting ongoing speculation that he might eventually need Tommy John, which would undoubtedly send him to the D.L.

On this basis, I wouldn't fault somebody for taking Cabrera first.  I wouldn't do it myself, but I appreciate the rationale.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trane Leaving L.A.?

My man-crush on Russell Martin is no secret.  Honestly, what's not to like?  Martin plays the game with a tenacity unrivaled by his contemporaries.  His father is a busking saxophonist (thus, the middle-name Coltrane).  His mother is a French-Canadian lounge singer.  Drafted as an infielder in the 17th round (2002), Martin converted to catcher in 2003 and raced through the Dodgers minor-league system.  A flurry of fortuitous injuries helped him become the Dodgers everyday catcher in 2006, at the age of 23.  He played so well the Dodgers were forced to trade top prospect, Dioner Navarro, who they'd long expected to fill that roll.  Martin rewarded them with back-to-back All-Star campaigns in '07 and '08.  He also won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and, by the age of 25, looked on track to be among the best players at his position for a very long time to come.  Two years ago we could've had a legitimate argument about who's future was brightest, his or Joe Mauer's?

Unfortunately, those days are long gone.  In '09 his production fell off the table, mainly due to a complete absence of power.  In his first three seasons, Martin had averaged 14 HR and a .433 SLG.  Not Mike Piazza, certainly, but enough pop to keep opposing pitchers honest.  In '09 his slugging percentage dropped to an abysmal .329 and he hit just seven dingers.  His offensive woes prompted speculation that he was playing through an injury.  Perhaps Grady Little and Joe Torre had leaned too hard on their young backstop.  Martin led major-league catchers in innings from '07 to '09, by a relatively wide margin.  Had his heavy workload and Charlie Hustle disregard for endangering his body caught up to him?

Such rumors gained steam this past year, when Martin failed to rebound offensively and then had his season cut short by a hip injury.  At this point there are those who suggest that Martin may be a candidate to be traded or even non-tendered prior to the arbitration hearing in the spring.  The Dodgers are notably cash-strapped by the McCourt divorce and face potentially expensive negotiations with Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo, and James Loney.  Martin made just over $5 Million in 2010 and would probably be due for a small raise as well.  If the Dodgers aren't confident he can return to some semblance of his previous self, it may be fiscally safer to part ways, even if it means getting nothing in return for a two-time All-Star.

I certainly don't believe that to be the case.  Martin is still young (he'll be 28 in February) and catchers of his caliber, on both sides of the ball, are a truly rare commodity.  Yes, the Dodgers would have to commit $6 or $7 Million to an uncertain proposition in 2011, but they could very well end up with a player worth more than twice that much, who would then have an abundance of value leading into his contract season in 2012.  Sure, if Martin repeats his '09 and '10 performances, he'll have zero market next winter.  But trading him now would still be a dramatic case of "selling low."  Even teams desperate for catching aren't going to give the Dodgers anything more than spare parts for a player coming off of major surgery.  Best-case scenario they might be able to trade disappointments with a team like the Red Sox or White Sox, but they don't have a natural replacement for Martin waiting in the wings and they have too many other holes to fill this offseason to be creating them at positions where there are extreme market limitations.

It is much easier to find a competent left-fielder or third baseman than a competent catcher.  And Martin is, at worst, competent.  His WARs in '09 and '10 were consistent, 2.2 and 2.1 respectively, which is actually middle of the pack for everyday catchers (16 of 23 in '10, 11 of 23 in '09).  His defensive contributions, as well as his decent OBP, make him a virtual lock to outperform free agents like A. J. Pierzynski, Bengie Molina, and Rob Barajas, who would be the Dodgers other alternatives.  Martin remains a popular player among the Dodger faithful, at a time when support for the franchise is being tested.  He also possesses many of the qualities which new manager, Don Mattingly, also represented when he was a player, and their relationship is reportedly a strong one.

I certainly can see the cause for skepticism, but I think it's too early to throw in the towel on Russell Martin.  I hope to see him back in blue in 2011.  

UPDATE:  Apparently Ned Colletti didn't see it this way.  The Dodger did not offer Martin a contract for the 2011 season and he is now free to negotiate with other teams.  Colletti stated that L.A. "is pretty far down the road" in negotiations with a replacement.  The potential upgrade over Martin in the remaining free agent pool is Miguel Olivo.

I expect most GMs will view Martin neck and neck with Olivo.  With several teams still unsettled at catcher, he should generate plenty of interest.  Those who missed out on Victor Martinez will no doubt see some consolation in a younger, defensively superior backstop who has significant offensive upside.  Thus, Boston is a natural suitor, as are the Mariners, Mets, Astros, Padres, and even the Yankees, if they choose to delay the arrival of Jesus Montero.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Motown Ready For Rebound?

I've run hot and cold on the tenure of Dave Dombrowski.  I believe that the contract he gave Miguel Cabrera (8 yrs./$152 Mil.) may turn out to be one of the best and most value-driven nine-figure contracts in the game's history.  But that value has been more than offset by excessive contracts handed to Carlos Guillen, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis, among others.

I railed against the trading of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson last winter, but Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer gave Tigers fans lots to be optimistic about this season.  They're both young and inexpensive, and both showed flashes of brilliance.  Meanwhile, both Granderson and E-Jax had down years.  For now, it looks like Dombrowski bested both the Yankees and the D-Backs.  However, he turned around and made a predictably disastrous play for Johnny Damon.  Again, bad decisions offset good decisions.

Now, with Magglio Ordonez, Robertson, and Willis finally coming off the books, Dombrowski has more payroll space than he's had since the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006.  Dombrowski is one of the most active GMs every offseason, but this year he's taking it to a new level.  The Giants had barely finished their parade before the Tigers had announced half a dozen offseason moves.  Most notably, Dombrowski quickly resigned shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, and third baseman, Brandon Inge.  Then he snapped up free agent reliever, Joaquin Benoit.  And, most recently, he tabbed switch-hitting backstop, Victor Martinez.

V-Mart is easy to love.  He's one of the top five hitters at his position, possibly higher (only Joe Mauer is clearly better).  He's beloved by his teammates.  He's utterly consistent (OPS+ between 122 and 130 in every season except injury-plagued '08).  He's got a strong reputation as a game-caller and field general.  However, his age and his inability to control the running game in recent seasons suggest he is probably destined to be a first-baseman or DH by the end of this contract, at which point his production will merely be league-average for his position.

Benoit was arguably the best reliever in the American League last year.  However, $16.5 Million is a lot of money for a 33-year-old reliever who's coming off his best season, is only a year removed from a major injury, and isn't even your closer.  Dombrowski wasn't willing to go to $15 Million for Brandon Lyon last year, even though Lyon was significantly younger, had a better track record, and more closing experience.

In general, there seems to be an inconsistency of philosophy in Detroit's front office.  In '07 and '08 they spent wildly on offensive-minded players like Cabrera, Guillen, Edgar Renteria, and Gary Sheffield.  Then they reversed course and went with slick fielders like Adam Everett and Gerald Laird.  Now they've once again hired Iron Gloves at key defensive positions.  In every case, they've overpaid slightly for what they're prioritizing.  It's a hard pattern to get behind.

All this activity will promote speculation that the Tigers have moved within striking distance of the White Sox and Twins, both of whom have been utterly quiet thus far.  The division-leading Twins lost nearly their entire bullpen to free agency, as well as their winningest pitcher, their second baseman, and their beloved DH.  The Sox also lost a couple of key relievers, as well as their most productive hitter and their longtime catcher.  Plus Chicago still has question marks at third, in right, and at DH.  Until the offseason shakes out, we won't really know how much of the gap Dombrowski has closed.

That said, if he plans on making a serious run, not only at the AL Central title, but at a pennant, there is still a lot of work to be done.  The pitcher staff is very promising.  Justin Verlander, Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Armando Galarraga comprise a youthful, high-upside rotation.  An additional innings-eater would certainly be nice, but shouldn't be Detroit's top priority.  The bullpen, led by Benoit and Jose Valverde, and supported by young power arms like Daniel Schlereth, Ryan Perry, and Joel "Cross Your Fingers" Zumaya, should also be a strength.  And V-Mart, combined with perennial MVP candidate, Cabrera, make for a legit middle-of-the-order tandem.

The rest of the regulars, however, provide cause for concern, both offensively and defensively. The Tigers outfield situation is very uncertain.  Both Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch had nice rookie campaigns, but their underlying stats suggest they are prime candidates for sophomore slumps.  Jackson's .293 average was boosted by a frankly unsustainable .396 average on balls in play.  His defense should keep him on the field, but he may struggle to be a competent tablesetter.  Boesch's production fell off the table in the second half of 2010, to an extent which suggests his hold on a starting position in 2011 is hardly guaranteed.  The other options currently at Dombrowski's disposal are no more encouraging.  Utilityman, Ryan Raburn, and September call-up, Casper Wells, both played well in limited exposure, but neither profiles as anything more than replacement level at a corner-outfield spot.

The infield defense, especially up the middle, where lead-footed veterans Carlos Guillen and Jhonny Peralta are expected to play, could be among the worst in the AL.  Inefficiency at converting outs could be dangerous for young arms like Scherzer and Porcello, not to mention frustrating for all involved.  As such, Dombrowski may be interested in a slick-fielding second-baseman like Orlando Hudson, which would allow Guillen to be the primary DH, which might help him stay healthy.  Other options could be resigning Magglio Ordonez or another, similar outfield/DH option who could come at a reasonable price.  Vladimir Guerrero, Lance Berkman, Pat Burrell, and Hideki Matsui are some free agents who might fit the profile.  Earlier in the week I also suggest Josh Willingham could be a trade target on the Tigers radar.

As busy as Dombrowski has been early in the Hot Stove season, I think he's still two or three moves away from contending with teams like the Rangers, Yankees, and Rays.

Monday, November 22, 2010

...Oh, here's where all the sluggers are hiding. (Hot Stove Preview)

As promised, a peak at the most mouthwatering Hot Stove trade targets...

1. Justin Upton - OF - Arizona D-Backs

Potential Suitors: Everybody & Nobody

Perhaps the greatest indication yet of Upton's superlative talent is the extent to which all other Hot Stove storylines - Cliff Lee's free agency, Derek Jeter's squabble with the Yankees, the Dan Uggla trade, etc. - have been put on the backburner since Kevin Towers announced his willingness to listen to offers for the D-Backs 23-year-old outfielder.  Towers, in his first year as Arizona's GM, is probably just trying to raise awareness for his organization and facilitate conversations with his fellow execs.

It's true that he may also see a very real opportunity for the D-Backs in the immediate future, even though they share a division with the reigning World Champs.  There's certainly good cause to believe the Giants were a bit fortunate this year and they've got a lot of rebuilding to do on offense this winter.  I would go so far as to say the Padres weren't only fortunate, but fluky, and are likely to get worse before they get better.  The Dodgers have quite a bit of stockpiled talent, but the McCourt divorce has been keeping them hamstrung.  The Rockies are the only franchise in the NL West that is truly primed to contend in 2011 and beyond, regardless of what happens this offseason.

With that picture in mind, I can understand how Towers might believe that with a few cagey maneuvers he could get the D-Backs in the postseason as soon as next year.  However, I don't see why that plan wouldn't include one of the game's most promising young players.  If, in 2011, Upton develops into the superstar we all assume he will eventually become, he's almost certain to be worth more than anything he could yield in a trade right now, following a disappointing season in which he was slowed by injuries.  The D-Backs have Upton wrapped up for five more seasons, the next three of which come at an extremely reasonable price.  They also have already made a significant time investment.  They promoted him quickly and allowed him to mature at the major-league level under the assumption it would expedite his development as both a player and a leader.  Even though Towers wasn't in charge when those decisions were made, I think he'd be remiss to squander that time and energy for anything short of an absolute fleecing (we're talking a Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, & Matt Joyce type of fleecing). None of the organizations who have the depth of talent Towers would be interested are going to fall for his ruse, not for a guy who hasn't been able to stay healthy for a full season since he reached the majors.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Stays put.

2. Adrian Gonzalez - 1B - San Diego Padres

Potential Suitors: Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers

A year ago this time pretty much everybody was convinced Gonzo would be in Boston in time for the 2010 pennant race.  However, the Padres surprised everybody (including themselves?) by staying the hunt for the NL West title all the way to the season's final day.  It may have been a curse disguised as a blessing.  In the end, San Diego didn't get to play in October, and now Gonzalez is less than a year from free agency and his trade value is diminishing with each passing day.  If they Padres deal him, they'll still probably get at least two solid prospects in return, but they'll be essentially throwing in the towel for 2011.  It's a hard admission to make to their fan base.

Gonzo is likely destined for a Mark Teixeira-sized contract, which is why San Diego can't hope to retain him.  It could also limit his trade market.  Many teams will be interested, but few will be willing to offer top prospects merely for a one-year rental.  Typical free-spenders like the Yankees and Phillies will sit this one out because they've already got long-term commitments at first base.

If and when Gonzo is made available, I expect Boston will make every effort to acquire him, but their farm system will have a hard time competing with those of Texas, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, or Baltimore, if those teams do get involved.  San Diego's GM, Jed Hoyer, no doubt knows this, so he'll wait until later in the offseason to make a deal, hoping to identify more desperate franchises, and fueling a few more ticket sales as an added bonus.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Boston Red Sox for Casey Kelly, Lars Anderson, & Josh Reddick

3. Zack Greinke - SP - Kansas City Royals

Potential Suitors: Milwaukee Brewers, Arizona D-Backs, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds

I think there's real fuel for this Hot Stove fire.  While I don't agree with their diagnosis, Kansas City's front office clearly believes the Royals are just a few years away from contention.  Unfortunately for them, their Cy Young-winning Ace is just two years from free agency.  Frankly, for everybody involved, a trade makes sense.  Greinke gets to spend his prime years pitching for a team that has a chance and in return the Royals save some money and get a couple of players whose ETA is in line with their 2013 target.

Obviously, there's no shortage of teams in the market for a young, dominant starter.  And, because he's got two full years remaining under contract, his suitors won't necessarily be limited to teams with a chance of signing him to an extension.  I do think, however, Greinke's history of anxiety and depression will play a role, perhaps limiting the interest from franchises in large and/or unfriendly media markets.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Milwaukee Brewers for Brett Lawrie, Carlos Gomez, & D'Vontrey Richardson

4. Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers

Potential Suitors: San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers

I think we can say with relative certainty that Fielder is going to test the market next offseason.  For starters, his agent is Scott Boras.  We all know how much Boras likes to set precedents and Fielder is a potential precedent-setting player.  There's a strong chance Fielder will hit his 200th homer before his 27th birthday.  In five full seasons in the majors he's averaged 38 homers and 105 RBI.  He's dramatically improved his plate discipline (led the NL in walks in 2010) and his defense (it's still not great, but its better).  He's kept his weight in check.  He's shown great leadership.  And, perhaps most importantly, he's missed a grand total of 13 five seasons!

He's got a long and impressive track record, especially for a player his age, and you can be certain Boras will make somebody pay for it.  He will surely get a contract larger than any in the history of his far (there's a good chance Pujols is going to set a new record before Fielder hits the market).  So, while Fielder is a middle-of-the-order presence rivaled by only a handful of players in the entire game, few GMs will be willing to mortgage the farm knowing that either a.) they'll lose him in 2012 or b.) they'll have to pay him something near $200 Million.

Milwaukee will certainly shop him all winter long, but if they can solve their pitching woes some other way (enter Greinke), I expect they'll stick with Prince until the end and settle for a couple of compensation picks a year from now.  

Hippeaux's Prediction: Stays put.

5. Mark Reynolds - 3B - Arizona D-Backs

Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants,

Imagine this: You're a major-league GM (pretty good start, right?).  For the last week, you've been contemplating whether you're ready to commit a couple of your hard-won prospects to a trade for Justin Upton.  At last, you're ready to pull the trigger.  You're still anxious, but you figure, risks like this are a necessary part of doing business.  So you punch up Arizona's GM, Kevin Towers, and you lay out your offer in no uncertain terms...

...and then he tries the ole bait-and-switch!  "I don't know if I ready to part with Justin," he says, "but have you considered Mark Reynolds?"

Pros: Nobody can deny Mark Reynolds has legitimate 40 HR power.  When healthy, he's also got surprising speed and he's made dramatic progress on defense, posting his first positive UZR (2.2) in 2010.  He's got four years of major-league experience, but he just turned 27, so there's a high likelihood his best years are still in front of him.  He's under contract for three more seasons at a fairly reasonable price (roughly $8 Mil./yr.).

Cons: He's led the National Leage in strikeouts for three years running.  In 2010, he became the first National League player in three decades get enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, but finish below the Mendoza line (.198). (By the way, trivia answer is Ivan de Jesus, Cubs, 1981.)  He's spent his entire career so far playing in a launching pad (his career SLG% is 46 points higher at home).  He missed some games last season with hamstring problems and his stolen base totals suffered dramatically.  And, last but not least, he's not Justin Upton.

Towers "shopping" of Upton may actually diminish the market for Reynolds.  But the main thing diminishing the market for Reynolds is that he's coming off the worst year of his young career.  Perhaps this is an ideal opportunity to "buy low"?

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Los Angeles Angels for Trevor Bell & Brandon Wood

Here's some quick hits to round out the Top Ten...

6. Carlos Beltran - CF/RF - New York Mets

Beltran and Mets both looking for a fresh start.  It's a contract year for the 34-year-old outfielder, so he's motivated.  Is he healthy?

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Kansas City Royals for Chris Getz, Juan Cruz, & cash

7. Heath Bell - CL - San Diego Padres

Padres have a boatload of relievers ready to move into the 9th.  Bell's market will never be better than it is right now.  Sell!  Sell!  Sell!

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Atlanta Braves for Kyle Rose & Zeke Spruill

8. Josh Willingham - OF - Washington Nationals

Wills quietly had a couple of very strong seasons with the Nats and has been much better than you realize over the course of his career.  He's got one more year before free agency.  This could be a low-risk, high-reward rental.  Hey, Brian Sabean, THIS ONE'S FOR YOU!!!

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Detroit Tigers for Wilkin Ramirez & Scott Sizemore

9. Mike Napoli - C - Los Angeles Angels

He's never gotten on well with Scioscia, because of his defensive limitations, but there's no denying the kid can hit, and he's still young.  Could make a great C/DH combo for teams looking to add power.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to Toronto Blue Jays for Fred Lewis & Casey Janssen

10. Jason Bartlett - SS - Tampa Bay Rays

Reid Brignac & Tim Beckham are demanding playing time and Bartlett is coming off the worst year of his career.  He can be had for a song.  The question is, even then, is he worth it?

Hippeaux's Prediction: Traded to San Francisco Giants for Dan Runzler

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ugh La La...

The trading season got kick-started this week when the Florida Marlins, baseball's current leader in unabashed greed, sent Dan Uggla to their NL East rival, the Atlanta Braves, for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn.  Uggla's name has been circling the rumor mill for well over a year, so nobody should've been surprised that the Marlins eventually pulled the trigger.  Bu, many were critical of what they got in return: a utility infielder coming off a career year and a rookie reliever who probably profiles as a LOOGY.

Uggla, I grant, is a likable, somewhat under-the-radar run producer.  In five seasons he's been utterly consistent - 30 HR and 90 RBI in the bank.  And he plays a position, second base, that isn't replete with power-hitters.  Since integration (1947), only two second-basemen have had more homers than him at his age: Alfonso Soriano and Ryne Sandberg.

That said, like Soriano, he doesn't play the middle infield very well and is likely headed for a position switch.  His UZR in 2010 was -7.4.  Only Skip Schumaker, the converted outfielder, was worse among National Leaguers.  Uggla has been consistently near the bottom of the league in every defensive metric ever since his rookie year.  It seems fairly certain that sooner or later, perhaps as soon as next season, Uggla will be moved to a corner position, where his offensive numbers, while still solid, will no longer dramatically separate him from his peers.

Uggla is potentially a pretty one-dimensional hitter.  His .287 average in 2010 was a career high, as was his .369 OBP.  He doesn't steal bases.  He strikes out a ton.  What he does well, however, is hit homers and he sees lots of pitches.  Both things the Braves desperately need.  Uggla's 4.20 PPA was good for eleventh in baseball in 2010.  That, as much as his power, may explain the Braves interest.  Among their regulars, only Derrek Lee and Jason Heyward were particularly patient hitters in 2010, and Lee is headed into free agency.  Paired with Heyward, Brian McCann, and possibly a healthy Chipper Jones, Uggla might help force opposing pitchers to work a little harder than they did this year.

It is quite possible that Uggla's recent campaign represents the furthest extent of his talents.  He'll be 31 before next season begins.  He got a relatively late start, as a 26-year-old rookie.  So, he's got one more year of arbitration, which will probably cost the Braves somewhere in the vicinity of $10 Million.  And he will probably be looking for $10-$15 Million per season for his next contract, which will take him into his late 30s.  Considering his defensive limitations and his age, it will be risky to sign him to a long-term deal, especially if he has another relatively big season in 2011.

The Marlins, to nobody's great surprise, prioritized cheapness.  Omar Infante, like Uggla, is under contract for only one more season, but at about 25% of the cost ($2.5 Million).  He's also two years younger than Uggla.  Mike Dunn is still two full seasons away from being eligible for arbitration and will be 26 when the 2011 season begins.  So, all told, depending upon who Dunn replaces in the Marlins bullpen, they'll be getting somewhere around $7-$10 Million in salary relief.

In terms of overall production, they may not be giving up as much as it initially appears.  Infante's 2010 breakout, which got him elected to the All-Star team, surprised pretty much everybody. But, maybe it shouldn't have.  Between '08 and '09 he hit .298 with a 753 OPS, 69 R, and 67 RBI in roughly a season's worth of at-bats (520).  From that level, it isn't a ridiculous jump for a 28-year-old to hit .321 with a 775 OPS, 65 runs, and 47 RBI in 471 AB.

Even if Infante can maintain his high average (which I doubt, .300 is probably a reasonable expectation), he's still no match for Uggla offensively.  However, Uggla's offensive advantage is balanced to some extent by Infante's advantage on defense, where he is relatively effective and very flexible.  Infante logged innings at five different positions in 2010 and was, at least according to UZR, average or better at four of them.  Such "utility" allowed Infante to log a WAR of 2.7 in 2010.  Uggla has only beat that number twice in his five seasons (including 2010).

Finally, Michael Dunn, I think, is actually the key to this deal.  Since being converted into a reliever, Dunn has raced through the minors, dominating at every step of the way.  And it didn't stop when he was promoted to big leagues during the second half of 2010.  In 19 innings, he posted a 1.89 ERA and 12.8 K/9.  It's a small sample size, but combined with his minor league stats it suggests that he will be an effective lefty middleman immediately and certainly has the stuff to pitch in the late innings eventually, especially if he cuts down on his walks.  Dominant left-handed relievers are a rare breed, which is why guys like Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are still getting relatively big paycheck in their forties.  Every team needs one and the Marlins may have found theirs on the cheap.

While some have suggested that the Uggla trade is an obviously one-sided payroll dump that potentially upsets the balance in the NL East, I actually think both teams got better with this trade.  The Braves got a middle-of-the-order presence to bolster their mediocre lineup.  It may be exactly what they need to make them a more serious contender next October.  The Marlins got better defensively, as they will be able to slide Chris Coghlan in at second base and use Infante all over the diamond.  They also filled a key role in their bullpen and gave themselves some payroll flexibility.  One could suggest that John Buck got signed with the money the Marlins saved on Dan Uggla.

It bothers me as much as anybody that the Marlins have less than $30 Million in commitments for 2011, even though we're well aware they have at least that much money just from revenue-sharing, but we shouldn't let that prejudice effect our ability to analyze this trade.  The Marlins are parting ways with a player who is getting more expensive, but is likely to be less productive.  They are getting younger, undervalued players in return.  We generally applaud teams like the Rays and Twins for making these types of decisions.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Where have all the sluggers gone? (Hot Stove Preview)

I'm going to assume that early reports that Hiroki Kuroda has signed a one-year, $12 Million contract to stay with the Dodgers are true.  If so, I think it's safe to say he gave them a home-town discount.  Kuroda was arguably the second-best starting pitcher on the market this winter.  With the exception of missing some time in 2009, Koruda has been extremely steady in the Dodger rotation over the last three seasons, posting a 3.60 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.  FanGraphs estimated his worth this past season at around $17 Million.  Even though he is 35, he probably could've sought at least two or three years at $8-$10 Million per, considering his recent performance and the relative sparsity of free agent pitchers this offseason.  Consider, as a comparable, that Randy Wolf got three years, $30 Million last season from Milwaukee.  

Wrapping up Koruda for less money than he made the last two seasons represents a minor coup for Ned Colletti, who will likely be cash-strapped again this winter, as the McCourt divorce doesn't seem anywhere near resolution.  The Dodgers are coming off a very disappointing season, but at least they have some stability in the rotation with Kuroda, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw.  Colletti can concentrate solely on finding a middle-of-the-order presence to pair with Andre Ethier.  Considering his financial limitations, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he looks long and hard at potential trade targets like Prince Fielder, Carlos Beltran, and Dan Uggla.  Los Angeles possesses a notoriously deep farm system, though Colletti is unlikely to mortgage his top talents unless he believes it will bring the kind of bat (like Fielder) who makes the Dodgers immediate favorites in the NL West.

Here's my first look at some of the other names you're likely to hear a lot in the next month...

Premium Free Agents:

1. Cliff Lee (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: New York Yankees, Texas Rangers

In the last fifteen months, Cliff Lee has sure made up for all those years he spent being underrated in Cleveland.  Some went so far as to call him the best postseason pitcher in history after two straight impressive Octobers with the Phillies and Rangers.  Now he's primed to chase his friend and former teammate's mark for the largest average annual value in a multiyear contract for a starting pitcher.  Since he's already in his thirties, teams may be reluctant to give Lee more than five years, but they may very well offer close to $25 Million per season.  Also, although Lee is a talent any team would be interested in, several of the deepest pocketbooks this winter - Boston, Seattle, Detroit, etc. - aren't likely to chase pitching, which means it could come down to a bidding war between the Yankees and Rangers.

Hippeaux's Prediction: New York Yankees (6 Yrs./$140 Million)

2. Carl Crawford (Left Field)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox 

Crawford is in the pleasant position of being clearly the best hitter among a relatively thin class in the offseason following a severe league-wide offensive backslide.  Crawford is the perfect player for team preparing to compete in a "pitcher's era."  Not only is he a .300 hitter with decent power, but he is also an excellent baserunner and basestealer who is probably the best defender in the sport at his position.  He's not yet thirty, but Crawford has already played nine full seasons, and only once did he fail to top 140 games.  And, as if that weren't enough, he's reputed for his intangibles as well: a clubhouse leader in Tampa with a tireless work ethic and the charisma to illicit the same from his teammates.  The bidding will be steep.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Boston Red Sox (7 Yrs./$130 Million)

3. Jayson Werth (Right Field)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals

Crawford may be "The Perfect Storm," but Werth is hardly short on tools.  He's got power, speed, discipline, range, and an excellent throwing arm.  He's also coming off easily the best year of his career and will be 32 in May of next year.  There is reason to be cautious.  We may have just witnessed his peak.  That isn't to say that he won't be fairly productive for several more years, but the team that chooses to give him a nine-figure contract could soon find themselves with an Soriano-sized albatross.  And who, besides the Cubs, has a penchant for such signings?

Hippeaux's Prediction: San Francisco Giants (6 Yrs./$100 Million)

4. Adrian Beltre (Third Base)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians

Beltre has his best season since 2004 and was a legitimate candidate for the AL MVP, which made Theo Epstein look like a bit a genius for signing him to a one-year, $9 Million deal.  However, it may have served to make him even more of an enigma.  Was his relatively modest production during his five years in Seattle really just a product of the ballpark?  Is it possible he's one of those players who only steps it up during contract years?  Was he inspired by playing for a contender (just as he did in '04)?  There's no easy answer to these questions, which makes it hard to ante up for the 2010 Beltre (worth over $28 Million according to FanGraphs), when you may end up with the 2009 Beltre (worth less than $12 Million).  Somebody will gamble, but not for more than three years.  

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago White Sox (3 Yrs./$45 Million)

5. Adam Dunn (First Base/DH)

Top Suitors: Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals

Never has a player with five consecutive forty-homer season garnered so little interest as Adam Dunn did in 2009.  His pathetic outfield defense and his massive strikeout totals scared all the contenders away, forcing Dunn to accept a two-year, $20 Million deal with the Nationals, even though he was a 29-year-old slugger.  I would say, the hate was too great.  Dunn has since moved to first base and, in all likelihood, is headed to DH at some point in the near future.  All the while he's continued to hit moonshots.  76 of them during his two years in Washington.  Only Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder had more.  With power numbers falling around in the league, teams might have a little more patience for Dunn's limitations this offseason.  The Big Donkey is not without his charms.  He's basically unbreakable, having never missed more than ten games, since 2003.  And he has a career OBP of .381, which is better than Mark Teixeira ($181 Million) or Ryan Howard ($125 Million), among others.

As a little sidenote, with 354 homers entering the 2011 season, Dunn may be the first "untainted" player to reach the 500 HR plateau and not gain entrance to the Hall of Fame.  Dunn has never been connected to steroids, though he played through the tailend of that "era," and his utter consistency in the power department has discouraged those who are otherwise prone to aimless speculation.  However, he's only garnered MVP consideration twice (perhaps this year is the third?) and has never finished with more than four points (1%).  He's been named to just one All-Star team (2002).  He hasn't been awarded any noteworthy hardware.  And, despite his consistently stellar power numbers, he's never led the league in anything except walks (once) and strikeouts (thrice).  For me, it's hard to sell him as one of the best players in the history of the game.  But barring catastrophe, he's almost sure to join the 500 HR club sometime in the next five years (he'll probably be its 27th member).  That will make him a very hard case for Hall of Fame voters.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Texas Rangers (3 Yrs./$36 Million)

6. Victor Martinez (Catcher/First Base)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets

Matt Klaasen of Beyond the Box Score (among other things) recently released his Catcher Defense Rankings for the 2010 season.  To nobody's great surprise, V-Mart ranked near the bottom (#114 of 120, to be exact).  Being "better than Jorge Posada" may not be enough for Martinez's next employer, but V-Mart's value on the free agent market is much higher when tied to his ability to produce well above the standards for backstops.  To be fair, there are some things that Klassen's rankings cannot account for.  By all reports, V-Mart is a great field general, clubhouse leader, and game-caller.  Those things were certainly enough to keep marquee hitters like Posada, Jason Varitek, and Gary Carter behind the plate long after they stopped excelling at blocking balls and controlling the running game.  That said, I think it's in the best interests of V-Mart's next team to have a contingency plan, so I expect he won't be headed anywhere that has a long-range commitment at 1B and/or DH.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Detroit Tigers (4 Yrs./$50 Million)

7. Aubrey Huff (First Base/Outfield)

Top Suitors: San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves

I'm a serious Huff fan.  I even went so far as to make his case for NL MVP this year.  But even I have to be a little wary of a 34-year-old with a history of back and knee injuries coming off a career year.  Huff looked fantastic in 2010.  He came to camp in great shape and showed no ill effects following his derailed '09 campaign.  He even played better than average defense at multiple positions and stole seven bases, the second highest total of his career.  Huff, who, to be honest, has been perennially underpaid, will cite these accomplishments and his playoff heroics while lobbying for the biggest contract of his career.  (His 3 Yr./$20 Million contract with Baltimore wasn't exactly a megadeal.)  So long as the buyer doesn't go much beyond that, I can't fault them.  The potential reward well outweighs the risk.

Hippeaux's Prediction: San Francisco Giants (3 Yrs./$25 Million)

8. Paul Konerko (First Base)

Top Suitors: Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals


Like Huff, Konerko is coming off the best year in his long, very solid career, the last dozen seasons of which have been spent in Chicago.  He's a year older than Huff and has made about $50 Million more over the course of his career so far.  I see little reason for him to look for a change of scenery and the White Sox don't exactly have a stable of young sluggers waiting in the wings.  Konerko may even give the ChiSox a moderate hometown discount, especially if they're willing to work in some incentives and/or mutual option years.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago White Sox (3 Yrs./$30 Million + mutual option)

9. Carl Pavano (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs

Note that it's a steep drop between the top starting pitchers on the market this winter, which only improves Cliff Lee's bargaining position.  I rate Pavano slightly ahead of Kuroda, de la Rosa, Jake Westbrook, and Javier Vazquez, but it's a really close call.  All have substantial risk with moderate upside.  Four things are working against all these guys.  1.) The really big-market clubs have their hearts set on Cliff Lee, Zach Greinke, or hitters.  2.) Many mid-market franchises are running scared because of the obvious fiscal danger of signing middling free agent pitchers to lengthy contracts (see Suppan, Jeff; Silva, Carlos; etc.).  3.) Coming off "the year of the pitcher," fewer teams than usual are feeling pressed to make major changes in their rotations.  4.) Everybody and their mother has realized the importance of "young pitching," so teams are finding it easier to sell their fan bases on rookies like Jeremy Hellickson, Mike Minor, Kyle Drabek, and Brad Lincoln.

Having been one of those middling starters who got dramatically overpaid several year back, Pavano's probably not cursing the situation quite so much as his younger peers.

Hippeaux's Prediction: St. Louis Cardinals (3 Yrs./$25 Million)

10. Jorge de la Rosa (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners

Jorge de la Rosa won't yet be 30 on Opening Day, which can be said of very, very few of the pitchers on the market this winter.  It's also very possible that we haven't yet seen the best of him.  His WHIP and his ERA have improved in each of the last four seasons, while his strikeout and walk rates have remained steady.  Also, he's been pitching in the very unfriendly confines of Coors Field.  One could certainly see how a desperate GM could talk himself into a lengthy, Gil Meche-type deal for southpaw.

On the other hand, de la Rosa has missed a lot of time.  He's managed 30+ starts only once, in '09.  He's had several stretches of brilliance, including the final six weeks of this year, but he's never been able to perform at that level for a whole season.  Maybe he never will.  If Jorge really wants to maximize his earnings in the long-term, he should probably take a one-year deal and prove he's the pitcher he looked like in August and September.  If he did that, he'd probably be looking at $40-$50 Million in the winter of 2011.  In not, he'll probably be setting for around $7 Million a year for the next three or four seasons.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago Cubs (4 Yrs./$35 Million) Just because I fully expect Jim Hendry to do something stupid this winter and it might as well be this.

Later in the week I'll take a look at the primary trade targets...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gold Gloves Meaningless, Laughable...As Usual

For those of you acquainted with the sabermetric argument for defensive statistics, there won't be much news here, but I want to make my annual rant about the Gold Glove voting, which serious students of the game stopped taking seriously a long time ago, but which is still used to incentivize contracts, on Hall of Fame plaques, and by a hoard of ignorant pundits annually.  Here's the basics.

Obviously, we all prefer the aspects of the game which can be measured with our own eyes.  Unfortunately, defense is something that can only effectively evaluated over the long term (even one season is kind of a small sample size).  Every athlete in the league is capable of the occasional web gem.  We can't allow ourselves to be conned into hyperbolic attestations based on a single play or short series of plays spanning a few games.  As a result, nobody can hope to see enough baseball each season to be capable of making reasoned judgements without consulting some form of statistic.  If you watch your team everyday, you probably know pretty confidently which of your defenders are good, great, fine, weak, and ugly, and you could probably get confirmation of those observations using statistics.  But you can't make a reasoned, objective judgment about how your shortstop or left-fielder stacks up against the rest of the league, because you watch the 29 other teams but rarely.  To make the Gold Glove a meaningful award, the voters have to rely of some conglomeration of statistics.  Otherwise they are, as I've stated ad nauseum, meaningless and laugable.  

I openly admit that no defensive metric is perfect.  Every position demands a variety of skills and every player brings a different tools to the table.  Vlad Guerrero still has an exceptional throwing arm, but as he showed during Game One of the World Series, he's no longer very flexible or fleet of foot.  Juan Pierre has exceptional speed, but has a noodle arm and the tendency to take meandering routes to balls in the gap.  Any defensive assessment is, at last, imperfect, regardless of how much observational and statistical data we bring to the table.  We should, however, recognize that the advanced metrics (UZR is the most readily available) are based upon the charting of every play that every player is involved in.  As such, they do a lot of work that our eyes cannot.  There are flaws in the charting systems, certainly, but they get better with every passing year.  And, if you are really geeked on defense, you can look at something like John Dewan's Fielding Bible, which will breakdown not only "overall" defensive performance, but analyze how players approach specific types of plays (coming in v. going out, up-the-middle v. in-the-hole, around the bag v. off the line, etc.).

Since no one stat tells the whole story (although UZR comes pretty close), certain comparisons are too close to call.  Rob Neyer might suggest that Brett Gardner was marginally better than Carl Crawford this year, but both were extremely good.  And Neyer would happily admit that the small difference between them could be related to their ballparks, pitching staffs, and the simple fact that they didn't get exactly the same set of potential chances.  As such, I don't think it's all that unreasonable to give Crawford the hardware.  He's been an elite defensive outfielder for far longer than Gardner, so we know there's nothing the least bit flukey about his 2010 numbers.  The same can honestly be said about the choice of Evan Longoria over Adrian Beltre and Kevin Kouzmanoff, the choice of Troy Tulowitzki over Brendan Ryan, the choice of Albert Pujols over Ike Davis, etc.

All told, I'd say 13 of the 18 Gold Glove recipients were at least modestly deserving this season, which is actually pretty good, so I'm going to reserve my comments for the ones who clearly weren't:

Derek Jeter -4.7 (#7) 3.78 (#8) .989 (#1) 6.63 (#2) 38 (#9) -11.8 (#9) 6.5 (#1) 1303 (#4) 6 (#1)
Elvis Andrus 0.1 (#4) 4.48 (#4) .976 (#4) 5.61 (#6) 46 (#6) 1.3 (#4) -2.6 (#8) 1291 (#5) 16 (#4)
Cliff Pennington 9.9 (#2) 4.93 (#1) .966 (#7) 5.01 (#9) 53 (#4) 9.4 (#1) 0.6 (#5) 1304 (#3) 25 (#9)
Alexei Ramirez 10.8 (#1) 4.89 (#2) .974 (#6) 5.09 (#8) 67 (#1) 8.4 (#2) 1.0 (#4) 1376 (#1) 20 (#7)

Let's get this out of the way.  Derek Jeter won his fifth Gold Glove for his performance in 2010.  Jeter has become the posterchild for all that is wrong with the voting process.  There's no doubt, in fact, that the exposes which originated out of Baseball Prospectus a few years back actually spurred Jeter to rededicate himself to defense and in '08 and '09 he was better than he'd ever been (though still not nearly the best).  At this point, however, his age has merely caught up to him, and even stalwart Yankee fans will admit he's best.  He has hardly any mobility on either side and has one of the weakest arms at his position.

What he is, however, is very sure-handed on balls hit directly at him, which explains his league-leading fielding percentage.  It also explains why Alexei Ramirez created nearly twice as many outs outside the average shortstop zone and was involved in nearly 100 more plays.  According to FanGraphs, all that range (not to mention his incredible throwing arm) helped Ramirez to save his team approximately fifteen more runs than Captain Intangible over the course of the 2010 season.

Jeter's isn't the only Gold Glove causing accusations of Yankee bias...

Tuesday, November 09, 2010 About To Go The Way Of

The biggest news so far this offseason may be the prompt dismissal of the longest-tenured national broadcast team in professional baseball, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.  There have long been objections to Morgan's stubborn subjectivity and frequent bouts of megalomania masquerading as nostalgia, but ESPN finally pulled the plug following a second failed attempt at enlivening the broadcast with some fresh blood. In 2009, they temporarily turned to Steve Phillips, with hilarious results.  One might even surmise that the weekly public emasculations drove Phillips into the arms of Bristol interns.  This year the network forced Orel "Bulldog" Hershiser upon the Un-Dynamic Duo.  Living up to his nickname, I'd say Hershiser held his ground, defending himself calmly and articulately against Morgan's tendency to contradict everything he had to say with condescension and even vitriol.  I wouldn't be surprised if Bulldog is back in the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth in 2011, alongside some new partners.  Although I've been watching Sunday Night broadcasts on mute for most of the last half-decade, I will admit feeling a slight pang when reading the announcement.  Miller and Morgan were beloved figures in my childhood, before I realized that Morgan's color commentary had about as much variety as a Speak 'N' Spell.  And, although I find his pandering unfortunate (but probably necessary), I still find Miller to be a fine radio-style play-by-play man with a soothing voice.  They won't be missed, but they will be remembered.    

Jhonny Come Lhately

The free agent sweepstakes got started this week with a relatively underwhelming deal for Jhonny Peralta (2 Years/$11.25 Million with a $7 Million option for '13).  Peralta did a satisfactory job for Detroit after being acquired at the deadline.  His defense at shortstop is certainly suspect.  With Peralta and Carlos Guillen in the middle infield, the Tigers might want to consider employed a "rover" to stand behind the second base bag.  But Peralta can hit a little.  By wrapping him up, alongside the rangy Brandon Inge, the Tigers have at least bought themselves some payroll certainty so they can concentrate on replacing Magglio Ordonez and Johnny Damon, and perhaps give Miguel Cabrera a little lineup protection.  Detroit is finally out from under the strangulating contracts they gave to Ordonez, Dontrelle Willis, and Nate Robertson.  All told, their commitments could drop as much as 50% from '10 to '11, so Dombrowski may again be a player this winter.  With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello fronting a potentially dominant rotation, the Tigers may not be that far from contending in their mediocre division.

SPH S.S.S. Update

Those who followed my 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey may be interested to know that no fewer than five of the eight participants will be free agents this winter.  It would've been six had it not been for the Dodgers eagerness to wrap up Ted Lilly before he got a chance to test the market (3 yrs./$33 Million).  Brandon Webb, Erik Bedard, and Jeff Francis will all likely be pushed into single-season, incentive-laden deals, since none of them were able to prove themselves healthy before the end of the year.  Freddy Garcia, on the other hand, threw over 150 innings before being shut down with a minor back injury in September.  He was far from dominant, but could be very tempting for teams interested in a cheap innings-eater to slot in to the back of their youthful rotation.  Detroit could be a logical fit, in fact, as could Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, or Washington.  

The most interesting player from amongst the survey participants is definitely Jeremy Bonderman.  Bonderman ended the year poorly, but showed flashes of his former potential and did not make any return trips to the D.L.  He's still in his twenties and was once among the most promising young players in the A.L.  New scenery could be good for him, as will another year of remove from his injury.  Perhaps he's ready for the Dave Duncan treatment in 2011?


It'll be several months before Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez, Adam Dunn, and Adrian Beltre have all signed and we can start identifying potential steals from amongst this free agent class, but I'd direct your attention to a couple underrated players hitting the market.

Miguel Olivo's production fell off the table in the second half, to the extent that it almost looks like he might've been playing through an injury.  But Olivo really should've been the NL starter at the All-Star Game, after hitting .325 with 11 HR and a 925 OPS in his first three months with Colorado.  His inability to maintain that pace isn't too surprising, but Olivo has definitely proved himself an outstanding game-caller and thrower, who is also a better than average hitter for his position.  Catchers of his caliber are truly rare, yet he's been consistently overlooked (which happens when you play for Florida and Kansas City).  I expect he could be a good fit for the Reds, Mets, Mariners, or Rangers.

The Peralta signing is explained in part by the fact that the middle infield class is very weak this year.  As such, this may finally be the winter that Orlando Hudson gets the multiyear deal he so richly deserves.  O-Dog was clearly beloved by his Minnesota teammates.  It wouldn't surprise me at all if he agrees to return.  He was the eighth most valuable second-baseman in 2010, worth more than $12 Million according to FanGraphs for the second year in the row.  Despite the consistency of his production (with one minor hiccup during an injury-plagued 2008), Hudson has had to accept a succession of one-year deals for much less than he's worth.  The Cubs, Astros, Mets, Padres, Cardinals, Nationals, and Twins all need to fill gaping holes at second base and the only other free agents who play there are utilitymen like Felipe Lopez, David Eckstein, Bill Hall, and Cristian Guzman.  Hudson might finally have the bargaining leverage he needs.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Irrational Derek Jeter Love/Hate vs. Scott Rolen

The Yankee Captain's underwhelming 2010 season has made the controversy surrounding his impending free agency all the more stressful for Yankee fans...and entertaining for the rest of us.

Already the negotiations have begun in the media, with the House of Steinbrenner vowing not to pay for milestones and sentimentality, and Jeter's agent, Casey Close, reminding them that the Captain's "impact cannot be overstated."  In my view, the more rounds of shenanigans the better.  But there's really only one possible outcome, right?  Who else could be interested in a 37-year-old, defensively-challenged shortstop coming off the worst season of his career and demanding at least an eight-figure salary?  Not my team (I hope).

I am, of course, an avowed Jeter-hater.  My spite correlates more or less exactly in its excess to the hyperbolic man-love that originates from the Bronx and is spews almost daily from the mouths of self-righteous Jeter-ites like Joe Morgan and Joe Buck.  If there weren't such a willful ignorance on the part of the pro-Jeter camp, denying even his most glaring flaws and suggesting he ranks not only among the elite of his era, but is somehow among the best ever, I wouldn't feel obligated to write snarling anti-Jeter rants each and every year.

Can't we be reasonable?  I, at least, am willing to try.  What I want to know is, personal preferences aside, what is Derek Jeter's actual value on the open market?  In order to establish that, we'll need to start by looking at some similar players who've tested the free agent market in the decade since Jeter signed his last contract.

For starters, there's Miguel Tejada.  He's almost exactly the same age as Jeter.  He's been reluctant to accept the fact he's no longer a "Gold Glove" shortstop.  As recently as 2009 he had a year in which he was among the league leaders in hitting (.313) as well as several other categories.  But, in 2010, his production dropped off the table, as he posted a 692 OPS, the worst since his rookie season.  Sounds familiar, right?  Like Jeter, Tejada is a free agent and you can bet, whatever suitors he has (if any), they aren't going to be discussing anything bigger than the $6 Million, one-year deal he had in 2010.

Even I will grant, however, that Derek Jeter is worth more than Miguel Tejada, and not just because of his "intangibles."  Like Tejada, Jeter possesses great bat control, the ability to hit to all fields, sporadic power, and a great knack for situational hitting.  Unlike Tejada, he also has decent speed and a more selective approach, which will help him continue to be an acceptable top-of-the-order hitter, even as some other aspect of his game deteriorate.  Also, although the difference is probably minimal, and not supported by the limited sample size from this season, Jeter is still a noticeably better shortstop than Tejada, at least a more sure-handed one.  And Jeter's athletic skills, especially his speed and his instinct for tracking flyballs, suggest that when he's ready to accept a change of position, the Yankees will have options and Jeter have a better chance of adapting.  While I don't think the comparison is as unfair as Yankee fans would like to believe, Jeter has an apparent edge over Miggy on both sides of the ball.

With few other players playing shortstop at such a late stage in their career, it is necessary to look at other positions for comparable players.  It is at this point when we come to Scott Rolen.  I have to admit, this caught me completely off guard.  On the surface, it's kind of strange comparison.  The natural assumption is that these guys are opposites.  Jeter hits for average, Rolen for power.  Jeter steals bases, Rolen drives in runs.  Jeter is an ironman, Rolen is brittle.  Jeter is gregarious, Rolen is shy.  Jeter plays a mediocre shortstop (if we're being kind), Rolen plays an exceptional third base.  Jeter is a lifelong Yankee, Rolen's already got four franchises on his resume.  

However, when you look closer, you see they've been running more or less parallel as players for nearly two decades.  Jeter is nine months older than Rolen.  Both broke in at age 21, and both won the Rookie of the Year award (Jeter in the AL in '96.  Rolen in the NL in '97.).  They've both been frequent All-Stars (Jeter 11, Rolen 6).  They've both won Gold Gloves (Jeter 4, Rolen 7).  They've both come close to the MVP, but never won it.  They both played their prime seasons with the powerhouse franchise in their league.  And, although you may not have realized it, they are both amongst the premier players of their generation.

From '97 (Rolen's rookie season, Jeter's sophomore season) to the recently completed campaign, they rank #5 and #6 in Wins Above Replacement.  Those in front of them are of impressive ilk:

1. Alex Rodriguez 93.2 (6.7 per season)
2. Barry Bonds 86.5 (7.9)
3. Albert Pujols 83.8 (8.4)
4. Chipper Jones 71.5 (5.1)
5. Derek Jeter 67.9 (4.9)
6. Scott Rolen 66.6 (4.8)

Here's how the pair stack up in some other popular metrics:

                      AVG  OPS  OPS+ WPA
Derek Jeter    .314    837    119    31.6
Scott Rolen    .284    867    124    31.1

That's a pretty remarkable similarity.  And, it should also be noted, it's a pretty remarkable accomplishment to be rated in this class.  Some of the guys who fall just behind them are notable: Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guererro, Jim Thome, etc.  You may not have realized that Rolen belonged in such company.  (And I was reluctant to admit that Jeter did.)  One might be tempted to suggest that Rolen has been more valuable than Jeter over the course of his career because he's gotten to nearly the same WAR, but with less playing time (mainly due to injuries).  Jeter's WAR per 162 game is 5.18, Rolen's is 5.85.  That's a specious argument, of course, considering Rolen's shortened seasons (particularly '05 and '07) came at a severe cost to the Cardinals.

But Rolen's fragility has been somewhat exaggerated.  He's only had one season with fewer than 100 games started and he's averaged over 550 plate appearances per season during his 14-year career.  Whatever lingering damage there is to his shoulder and back, it has only cost him a few weeks over the last two seasons and certainly hasn't kept him from being productive when he's in the lineup.

In 2010, Rolen was the cleanup hitter on a team that led the National League in almost every offensive category.  He was the protection for MVP-candidate, Joey Votto, making his role an especially crucial one for the Reds.  He was a clubhouse leader and again played exceptional defense at third base (his 10.6 UZR ranked third in the NL).  He made just over $11 Million, but, according to FanGraphs, was worth over $20 Million.  Perhaps, as Matt Klaassen has said of Jeter's 2009, this was the "Last Great Season from a great player."  If so, the Reds may live to regret the $13 Million extension they gave Rolen prior to his 2010 campaign.  But, at $6.5 Million per season, Walt Jocketty has left plenty of room to get his money's worth, even assuming a relatively rapid late-30s decline.

Jeter was, again, according to FanGraphs, worth less than $10 Million in 2010 (but more than $6.5).  But, I can already hear pinstriped protestations, "The things Jeter does cannot be quantified."  Okay, let's talk about some things which can't be quantified.  

1.) Jeter is, of course, Captain Intangible, but Rolen isn't exactly a clubhouse cancer.  Walt Jocketty surprised almost everybody in 2009 when he went to great lengths to acquire the aging cornerman and then extended him only a few months later.  Jocketty and Dusty Baker clearly wanted Rolen to be the veteran presence on their young team and thusfar that gamble has paid off handsomely, with the Reds first trip to the postseason in nearly two decades.  Also, Jocketty's avid pursuit of Rolen makes a big statement about who was at fault during the falling out between the third baseman and Tony La Russa when all were with St. Louis.  Jeter and Rolen are both clearly good "chemistry" guys.

2.) Rolen still plays third base at well above par.  There is no reason to believe he'll have to change positions anytime in the near future and probably will retire still at the hot corner.  He provides exactly what you expect from his position - some power, run production, and decent average.  On the other hand, the Yankees must know Jeter is going to stop being an everyday shortstop soon, probably should've happened already.  Not only is there an awkward "Cal Ripken situation" brewing in the Bronx, but even if Jeter eventually accepts a move, it could start a chain reaction of difficult decisions.  Where will he go?  Who else will need to be moved to accommodate the switch?  How will this effect morale?  How will it effect the Yankee defense?  Will he provide enough offense to be a corner infielder, corner outfielder, or DH?  If not, how with the Yankees compensate and how much will they have to spend on that compensation?  Resigning Jeter has potential costs well beyond just the value of the contract.

3.) Although it's quite clear based on the above WAR standings that Rolen has had an extremely impressive career, he's not developed the HOF-caliber cache of Jeter (or anybody else on that list).  Nobody come to the Great American Ballpark with the hopes of catching one last glimpse of Scott Rolen.  They don't ask for their money back when Baker gives Rolen a day off.  Nobody is going to be scalping tickets in order to profit from Rolen's pursuit of 2000 hits or 500 doubles.  When Rolen can no longer produce better than the Reds other options at third base, he will no longer be their third baseman.  At that point, he will either be forced to accept a reduced role or retire.  Can the same things be said of Jeter?  If Joe Girardi decides the Captain is best suited to a super-utility role which gives him three or four starts a week, will Jeter accept it?  Will New York fans?

4.) Steinbrennerdom might say they aren't interested in "milestones," but you can be damn sure they're interested in the millions of dollars in revenue Jeter's pursuit of 3,000 hits and beyond will inevitably generate.  Those "milestones" mean ticket sales, memorabilia sales, television ratings, advertising sales, etc., etc.  Jeter deserves to be compensated accordingly.  I may not understand why he's so popular, but I don't dispute that he is, and popular players are profitable players.  However, the profit motive in this case does not necessarily correlate with the Yankees oft-stated top priority: winning.  Moreover, if the Yankees have proved anything during the last two decades, it's that winning is profitable.  In fact, putting the best team on the field, even if it doesn't include Jeter, might be the quickest and most efficient way to profit.

Jeter's contractual negotiations bring a lot of factors to the table which Rolen's frankly did not.  Even if you are compelled to believe, as I do, that they are comparable offensive players and that Rolen is the superior defensive player, you still have to give Jeter a bonus for his durability and his "brand."  I believe, that if the baseball market were truly perfect, in the Milton Friedman sense, Jeter would get paid  20-25% more than Rolen, at most.  Of course, it isn't perfect, and based on this year's performance, there's a strong likelihood that Rolen is actually underpaid, as he has been for much of his career.

If Rolen had waited until now to negotiate his extension with the Reds, he could've reasonably ended up making about what he made each of the last four seasons ($11 Million/Yr.), probably for the next two, with some incentives and some sort of option for a third.  I think this makes Buster Olney's prediction of 3 yrs./$45 Million for Jeter seem pretty reasonable, perhaps even generous...if this were a perfect market situation.    

But, as one last comparison and point of curiosity, I'd like to know how much each player has made per Win Above Replacement up to this point:

Jeter: $2,930,528 / WAR
Rolen: $1,549,450 / WAR

I think that satisfactorily dispels any notion of a perfect baseball market.