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Friday, January 29, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Albert Pujols is good. No, really." (First Base Preview)

First base has always been the deepest position in fantasy baseball, but this year's class is exceptional, with a dozen or more players who will go in the first five rounds, even in relatively shallow leagues.  That number gets even bigger if you include guys like Pablo Sandoval and Mark Reynolds, who are also eligible at first in most leagues, but who I don't include here because their primary position is third base (which is much, much shallower). 

There are conflicting views on how this excess of riches should effect your draft strategy.  Some believe that the prevalence of big bats at the position means you should load up on other positions in the early rounds and grab a guy like Paul Konerko or James Loney who might fall deep into the draft or be available for very little money in an auction.  Others would contend that with this many studs, it's even more imperative that you get one or even two of them on your roster.  

Although I think both strategies have validity, I tend more towards the latter, because I think it leaves you will slightly more room for error.  If you pass on a Prince Fielder, a Mark Texeira, or an Adrian Gonzalez, you had better be damn sure that the player you pick in his place is going to put up premium stats, regardless of what position he plays.  First baseman are productive, not only because the position tends to attract burly sluggers, but also because it tends to be slightly less toilsome than most of the other positions on the diamond.  23 first baseman, including every one of my top eighteen, played 130 or more games in 2009.  Compare that to 16 shortstops, 18 third baseman, and 10 catchers, and you get an idea why it's not a bad idea to grab a first-bagger early on.    

1. Albert Pujols (Cardinals)

Much as was the case with Bonds early last decade, for the last several years fantasy pundits have been trying to find a reason why Prince Albert shouldn't be the first player off the board.  After making a serious run at the Triple Crown in 2009, I think he's finally proven the such a reason doesn't exist.  It's hard to predict a duplication of his ridiculous '09 numbers (.327 AVG, 124 R, 47 HR, 135 RBI, 16 SB, 1101 OPS).  But, at the same time, Pujols is still in the midst of his prime, has never had an "off" year, and, with the signing of Matt Holliday, finally has some lineup protection, so (hazard this thought if you root for another NL Central franchise) there may actually be room for improvement (gulp).

2. Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)
3. Prince Fielder (Brewers)
4. Ryan Howard (Phillies)
5. Mark Texeira (Yankees)
6. Justin Morneau (Twins)
7. Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox) [also eligible at 3B in most leagues]
8. Adrian Gonzalez (Padres)

These are the lions.  In each of the mock drafts I've looked at thusfar, although the order might be altered slightly, all of these guys are off the board by the middle of the third round, sometimes earlier.  When choosing your stud, you should think carefully about your leagues rules.  In a standard 5X5 roto league you might bump Howard up a slot because of his propensity for massive HR and RBI totals.  If you league counts OBP or OPS, you might prefer Youkilis over a couple of the guys I've listed in front of him.  If you get negative points for strikeouts, that'll work against Howard and benefit Morneau and A-Gonz.

My favorite from this group is definitely Prince Fielder.  It's primarily because I just love watching him play, which is nothing more than an aesthetic justification, but I'll also point out that at 25, he's the youngest of the group and there is reason to believe that he may still be maturing (same goes for Cabrera, who is 26).  In '09 he dramatically improved his walk rate and the improved discipline not only translated into a better OBP, but also more hits and a higher average.

If there is a weak link, I think it's Mark Texeira.  Tex's hype legitimately corresponds to his contract and the fact that he helped bring a championship to New York in his first year with the club, but those who are predicting even bigger things in 2010 need to temper their expectations.  In some leagues he's getting drafted ahead of Cabrera, Fielder, and Howard.  As good as he is, his numbers don't quite stack up to that company.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #25: The Texas Rangers

In 2009 the Rangers had their best finish of the decade, despite the fact that they scored fewer runs than they had in any season since 1995.  The key, of course, was that they also allowed fewer runs than they had in any season since '95, thanks to dramatic improvements in pitching and defense.  While Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, and Jack Zduriencik have been given, appropriately, a great deal of credit for spearheading the recent movement away from evaluation based primarily on offense, equal billing should go to the Rangers administration led by Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, and Ron Washington.  Under their leadership, Texas has shifted the focus away from the homer-happy atmosphere that dominated most of the decade in Arlington, and the results thusfar have been very encouraging.

Texas's team ERA in 2009 was 4.38, good for 8th in the American League, which doesn't seem that great until you consider that Texas finished dead last the previous season and has not finished with an ERA below 4.50 since 1993, which was, coincidently, Ryan's last season as a player, and the season before the opening of The Smallpark at Arlington.  The Rangers pitchers were actually at their best during the midsummer months which usually coincide with a spike in long balls, as the staff went 17-8 with a 3.59 ERA in July.

There are many reasons to be excited about the Rangers prospects in 2010, as nobody on the staff is over thirty except for Frank Francisco (30) and Darren Oliver (39).  The Rangers were admirably cautious with their youngsters in '09, not allowing any of them to throw much over 150 innings.  Nevertheless, I would urge Rangers fans to temper their expectations.  It's a team I'll be watching with extraordinary interest and anticipation next season, but teams build on young players are notoriously inconsistent.  The 2010 Rangers are in some ways reminiscent of the 2008 Rays, who rode their young core all the way to the World Series.  Unfortunately, they are equally reminiscent of the 2008 D-Backs, a young team that backtracked considerably after a surprisingly strong showing in '07.

Meet the Crumbs

There are still some nice players inexplicably buried in the bargain bin: Orlando Hudson, Johnny Damon, Erik Bedard, Jermaine Dye, Kiko Calero, etc.  No doubt a number of teams are seriously considering such additions.  The Hot Stove news this week, however, has been mainly about bit players (with the exception of Ben Sheets), as teams look to add inexpensive depth to their major-league roster.

With the addition of Randy Winn, the Johnny Damon era in the Bronx is officially over, which is bad news for both parties.  Damon won't find a more ideal situation.  The ballpark in New York was tailormade for his swing and the two-hole in the Yankees lineup ranks among the poshest accommodations MLB has to offer, as it sits amidst three players whose combined net worth is over a billion dollars.  He'll turn over that luxury suite to Nick Johnson, Curtis Granderson, or Robinson Cano, but while all three players are admirable in their own right, none offers exactly the combination of speed, power, and discipline that made Damon such a perfect fit.  He could act an auxiliary leadoff hitter, an intelligent baserunner, who, though he speed is certainly declining, still went 12 for 12 in stolen base attempts in '09.  He was a great situational hitter, who could pick up a 2-out RBI, advance a runner, or try for extra bases.  And, most importantly, he wore pitchers down, seeing well over four pitches per plate appearance in each of his years as a Yankee.  I'll point especially to Game 2 of the ALDS against Minnesota this past October, when Damon went 0-4 with a walk, but made Twins pitcher throw him more than two dozen pitches (27, to be exact).  Damon is a foul-ball machine, a kind of RBI man's fluffer, who assured that Tex and A-Rod found an opposing pitcher who was already tired, frustrated, and desperate.

Which brings me to Randy Winn.  Randy Winn is, to some extent, Johnny Damon lite.  Like Damon, Winn is deep into his thirties (he'll turn 36 during the 2010 season), so his skills have declined noticeably.  But, also like Damon, he is a superb, conditioned athlete, who gets the most out of his aging body.  He's still got some speed (16 SB in '09), is an excellent baserunner, and an outstanding defender.  He doesn't have Damon's power, but he will contribute good at-bats and isn't reluctant to take a walk.  Randy Winn is a reliable, likable player, who will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the Yankee clubhouse.

And that's the crucial point about this addition.  Randy Winn will accept whatever role Girardi gives him, both because that's the kind of player he is and because he's been in the league for a dozen years and has yet to reach the postseason.  I expect he'll only start a game or two a week, primarily against left-handed pitchers, but Nick Swisher will very rarely be in right field late in games that the Yankees have the lead.  With Winn running alongside Granderson and Gardner, New York will boast a very good defensive outfield (which seems to be the prevailing theme of this offseason).

Almost simultaneous with the Winn signing, another former Yankee, Xavier Nady, was also contracted to be a fourth outfielder, for the Cubs.  It's an extremely low-risk signing, as even if Nady reaches all his incentives (cross your fingers, Cubs fans), he will only make about $5 Million.  Nady has a chance to be next year's version of Bobby Abreu.  Although he's hardly as proven as Abreu, he is also a player with a good track record and potentially All-Star skills, who's been forced to sign a contract for below his expected market value.  Nady missed all of 2009 following Tommy John surgery, but in 2008 he hit .305 with 25 HR and 97 RBI in a season split between Pittsburgh and New York.

Unfortunately, Nady can't play centerfield, he's right-handed, and a free-swinger, and in each of those characteristics he resembles commodities the Cubs already have a lot of.  But when a guy with a lot of upside comes this cheap, it's worth taking a shot.

I feel the same way about what was the quietest and may turn out to be one of the best signings of this offseason, the Cubs acquisition of Chad Tracy.  Tracy doesn't have a natural place to play in Chicago, as Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee hold down the corner infield spots and, as mentioned above, there have an abundance of corner outfield options.  That said, Tracy gives the Cubs a decent insurance plan and could be a potent left-handed pinch hitter.  It's been an extended rough stretch for Tracy, as he hasn't gotten 300 AB since 2006.  He's been slowed by injuries and fell behind guys like Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson on Arizona's depth chart.  But Tracy is still in his twenties and has significant power (he hit 27 HR in '05).      

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Bengie Molina ate one of my keepers." (Catcher Preview)

A couple weeks ago, it looked all but certain that the eldest Molina was headed to New York, but Brian Sabean swooped in at the last minute and saved Omar Minaya from further embarrassment.  Giants fans can look at the move with ambivalence.  Molina, despite his pathetic on-base percentages, is a decent contact hitter with good power (for a catcher), who is a dependable defensive presence and is familiar with the pitching staff.  When your success is deeply tied to the starting rotation, as San Francisco's so clearly is, it's hard to hand the catcher position to a rookie, no matter how promising he is.

From a fantasy perspective, this is bad, bad news.  Molina is a known commodity who doesn't excite anybody, because his decent power totals (20 HR, 80 RBI in '09) are offset by mediocre performances elsewhere (52 R, .265 AVG).  Molina is the kind of catcher you get stuck with late in a draft or auction because you unwisely spent your funds elsewhere.  Buster Posey, on the other hand, when he was slated as the Giants primary backstop, was the kind of high-upside rookie that fantasy owners get all tweeked about, especially in keeper leagues.  Splitting time between two minor-league levels last season, Posey hit .325 with 18 HR, 84 R, 80 RBI, 6 SB, and a 947 OPS in just 115 games.  Obviously, there will be a learning curve for the 23-year-old at the major-league level, but given 450+ at-bats, I'd be willing to bet that Posey could outhit Molina, even as a rookie.  Unfortunately, it looks like we'll never know.

The catcher position is, as usual, painfully thin.  There are two logical approaches, in my opinion, assuming you're in a league that uses only one catcher.  Either you spend one of your first three picks on Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, or Brian McCann, or you wait until the very end of the draft and hope to strike gold with a flyer and some diligent waiver wire work.  Most everything in between - the Molinas, the A. J. Pierzynski's, etc. - aren't worth the money or draft position you will have to waste on them.  There will be a couple catchers who emerge this season with comparable stats (.275, 70 R, 15 HR, 70 RBI).  The key is identifying the potential candidates so you can jump on them in April or May, because in all likelihood, you won't be the only one combing the waiver wire for a better backstop.

In leagues that require you to carry two active catchers, the strategy is much different.  In such leagues, the Molinas, Pierzynskis, and Ramon Hernandez's of the world are pure gold, merely because they are holding down regular ABs.  Only sixteen catchers got 400 plate appearances in 2009.  Only nine got as many as 500.  In a twelve-team league, that means more that half the owners were starting part-time players, perhaps juggling a couple of them, trying to guess which day Mike Scioscia would go with Jeff Mathis, or which day Jim Tracy would rest Yorvit Torrealba.  Needless to say, this can be a frustrating experience.  When Miguel Olivo goes yard on the Sunday afternoon you chose to start Jason Varitek, who ended up getting the night off, it's like leaving your windows down during a rainstorm the night after you paid full price for a car wash.  You're double fucked.

1. Joe Mauer (Twins)
2. Victor Martinez (Red Sox)
3. Brian McCann (Braves)
4. Russell Martin (Dodgers)

These are, obviously, the cream of the crop, and with the exception of Martin, you'll have to pay through the nose to get them, even though they probably won't register as many ABs as a starting first-baseman or outfielder.  Moreover, each of the big three have had injury issues at some point during the last two seasons, which makes that second or third round pick even more unsettling.

Martin was horrible in 2009 and many will, justifiably, knock him down into the second or third tier, but I'm choosing instead to focus on how consistently good he was in his two previous seasons, during which he averaged 87 R, 16 HR, 78 RBI, and 20 SB, with a .286 AVG.  Those totals, especially the steals, are exceedingly rare out of the catcher position, so I'll happily have another go-round with Trane this spring, rather than settle for somebody who's yet to prove they can get anywhere near such numbers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #24: The Baltimore Orioles

In the last decade, the Baltimore Orioles pretty much disappeared from the national consciousness.  They were a force to be reckoned with in the mid-nineties, but the Orioles haven't even managed a winning season since 1997 and, of course, they are buried in the toughest division in baseball.

For too long, Peter Angelos and his revolving door of general managers attempted to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox by going after big-ticket free agents like Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez, and Albert Belle.  Not only did they make some unwise and unlucky choices, but Angelos, though he craved the big names, was never quite prepared to spend the big money, so the Orioles ended up with very limited depth, especially on the pitching staff, a weakness that was routinely exploited by the thunderous AL lineups they squared up against throughout the regular season.

In 2007, Angelos brought Andy MacPhail on board and there was a decisive change in priorities.  Veteran players like Tejada, Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Erik Bedard, and, most recently, Melvin Mora were allowed to walk or, in some cases, were shown the door.  In the process, MacPhail began rebuilding the farm system.  Now the Orioles have a very different look, loaded with young, exciting talents on both sides of the ball.  The question remains, however, will the results be any different?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "In 2009, my fantasy baseball winnings paid for my divorce."

It's that time of year.  The end of football season is, mercifully, approaching.  Spring Training is just a few weeks away.  And seamheads like me (and, by virtue of the fact you're reading a baseball blog in January, probably you) have a stack of mostly meaningless season previews accumulating in their bathroom.  If you play in a deep, competitive league, your fantasy baseball preparations begin now.  Don't go crazy.  Don't burn yourself out on statistical analysis before pitchers and catchers even report.  The projected lineups in those season previews mean nearly nothing (sadly, the same goes for the ones attached to my very own Offseason Prospectuses), because a lot can change between now and Opening Day.

That said, the previews, if nothing else, provide a survey of the field.  When your draft or auction comes around six or eight weeks from now, a significant cross-section of your competition will probably be basing their strategies on what they've read in the magazines or on the mainstream websites.  As a result, there's going to be active bidding on rookies Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward, just as there was last season on David Price and Matt Wieters.  Many of the players the mags list as "sleepers" will no longer be sleepers come April (Everth Cabrera and Julio Borbon, for instance, seem to be getting a lot of early press, justifiably).  Don't overvalue the opinions expressed therein.  Keep in mind, nobody was talking about Chris Coghlan or Andrew Bailey last winter.

In the weeks ahead I will provide some "fantastic" analysis, provide insight, and answer questions regarding fantasy draft/auction strategy.  But today, rather than talk too much about specific players, I'd like to propose a few general rules I keep in mind when I'm reading the ecstatic preseason commentaries.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #23: The Arizona Diamondbacks

With the combo of Manny and Big Papi forcefully divorced, and, to some extent, ravaged by the tides of time, it is logical to ask the question afresh, what is the most fearsome tandem in baseball?  Texeira & A-Rod would no doubt be the choice of a vocal minority.  But, good as they are, do they really match up to Pujols & Holliday, Mauer & Morneau, Utley & Howard, or, my personal favorite, Ryan Braun & Prince Fielder?  All have a legitimate claim, and not too far back of them are duos like Lance Berkman & Carlos Lee, Victor Martinez & Kevin Youkilis, and Derrek Lee & Aramis Ramirez.

I predict, however, assuming the D-Backs can retain their investments, within the next year or two, there will again be a clear answer to that question, as Justin Upton & Mark Reynolds develop into the premier run-producing duo of the twenty-teens.  In 2009 the pair broke out in a major way, combining for 70 HR, 188 RBI, 44 SB, and, just to keep their youth in perspective, 360 K.  Tremendous production, despite the fact that Upton missed a month in the middle of the season and both appeared weary down the stretch (706 September OPS for Upton, 610 for Reynolds).  But inconsistency is to be expected from a pair whose combined age is the same as Jamie Moyer's (47).

Upton, still only 22-years-old, seems (knock on wood) destined to become the toast of his generation, his career path thusfar comparing favorably to guys like Griffey, Mays, Aaron, and Bonds.  When I watch Upton, I can't help but see a young, right-handed Bonds: the upright stance, the short, lightning-quick stroke, and, perhaps most of all, the eery calm.  Reynolds's aspirations aren't quiet so high, but it is reasonable to expect his potential as a hitter falls somewhere between Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard, not too shabby in either case, and he has much more speed and, at least for now, plays a scarcer position than either of them.

The D-Backs will begin the season with high expectations.  It is reasonable to believe that this club is at least as good as the one that made the playoffs in 2007, as it is still filled with players who have not peaked.  That, combined with the fact that nobody in the NL West got significantly better this offseason, makes Arizona a darkhorse contender, albeit one that will need a fair number of good breaks.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #22: The Tampa Bay Rays

Underdogs are exceedingly rare in baseball.  That is, teams that come as if from out of nowhere and make a serious run at the playoffs.  Even rarer are underdogs who get to the very brink of being champions, as the Rays did in 2008.  And rarest of all is an underdog who can duplicate such a performance from one season to the next.

It was almost inevitable that the 2009 Rays would backtrack, at least nominally.  But let me remind you that finishing in third place, with a winning record, in the AL East is no small accomplishment.  The 2009 Rays were fifth in the AL in runs scored and starter's ERA.  With 84 wins and a +49 run differential in the toughest division in baseball, one could make a strong case that the 2009 Rays were one of the top four teams in the American League (trailing the Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels).

Prognosticators have already resumed business as usual, treating the AL East as the two-horse race it has been for most of the last decade (since 1997, only once has a team other than Boston or New York won the division, and only one other time did a team other than Boston or New York finish second).  Rest assured, however, neither Terry Francona nor Joe Girardi view the Rays as underdogs any longer, and Tampa Bay is only a few good breaks away from being right back in the race for the AL pennant.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #21: The San Diego Padres

At the All-Star Break last season, I preemptively declared the Padres the worst team in baseball.  At the time the Padres were in the midst of a seven game losing streak and a particularly rough stretch in which they went 13-37.  However, San Diego really turned things around down in the final two months, going 37-25, despite the fact that they shipped away Jake Peavy, Scott Hairston, Chad Gaudin, and Jody Gerut and got zero production out of injured veterans Brian Giles, Cliff Floyd, and Chris Young.

The secret of San Diego's success, besides a monster season from Adrian Gonzalez, was the emergence of a quartet of young hitters.  A 22-year-old first-baseman turned outfielder named Kyle Blanks posted a .514 slugging percentage in a third of a season.  Right around the time I was making my ill-fated prediction, the Padres installed Wil Venable in right field full time, after which hit a dozen homers and managed a respectable 814 OPS.  They also installed a 22-year-old Rule 5 pick at shortstop, Everth Cabrera, and although he was clearly in a bit over his head at first, he also had his share of hot streaks, playing well enough to become the Padres full-time starter going into 2010.  And, they gave Tony Gwynn Jr. his first shot at a starting job (after three years riding the pine in Milwaukee).  Gwynn also ran a little hot and cold, but he's disciplined (48 BB/65 K), speedy, and plays great defense in the spacious centerfield of Petco Park.

Things went so well down the stretch in 2009 that San Diego fans have every reason to be optimistic this spring.  However, I'm going to stick to my guns.  Although I like some of the Padres talent, Blanks and Cabrera particularly, I still don't think there's enough of it, and the youngsters are going to suffer the usual growing pains in their first full season as regulars.  Moreover, the Padres ownership appears to be in desperate financial straits, eager to unload anybody who's making more than the minimum.  First it was Peavy.  Most recently it was Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was due for a somewhat sizable arbitration award and got shipped to Oakland last week.  And rumors continue to circle that A-Gonz and Heath Bell may soon follow.  If that happens (and maybe even if it doesn't), San Diego's payroll will sink below the level that the Marlins recently got chastised for.  It's hard to compete that way (although Florida does a decent job of it) and the NL West is pretty tough.  Although Petco will alway be a great place to see a ballgame, I expect it to be a very long season for the Padres faithful.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tejada's Dilemma

I mentioned in my free agent bargains post from earlier in the week that Miguel Tejada's negotiating position in the waning weeks of the offseason could be greatly improve if he is willing to consider becoming something other than a shortstop.  I want to point out, however, that there is more at stake than mere pride.  Tejada has been quietly climbing into the conversation of best hitting shortstops in the history of baseball.  His trails only Cal Ripken Jr. and A-Rod in homers hit as a shortstop during the integration era (I put very little stock in the numbers associated with a time during which a large cross-section of talent was not eligible to compete).  With another year at the position, Tejada would likely climb above 300 HR, at which point it would be hard to ignore him as part of the Hall of Fame debate.

Of course, mentions in the Mitchell Report will work against him, at least for the immediate future, but there is no denying Tejada's statistical credentials.  Sure, he's not quite in the league with Ripken, Rodriguez, and Ernie Banks, and he's never been great with the glove, but consider him in comparison to some of the other great shortstops who were most famous for their offensive contributions:

Miguel Tejada:
1871 G, 2114 H, 1116 R, 285 HR, 1185 RBI, 78 SB, .289 AVG, .341 OBP, .469 SLG
Robin Yount:
2856 G, 3142 H, 1632 R, 251 HR, 1406 RBI, 271 SB, .285 AVG, .342 OBP, .430 SLG
Pee Wee Reese:
2166 G, 2170 H, 1338 R, 126 HR, 885 RBI, 232 SB, .269 AVG, .366 OBP, .377 SLG
Alan Trammell:
2293 G, 2365 H, 1231 R, 185 HR, 1003 RBI, 236 SB, .285 AVG, .352 OBP, .415 SLG
Barry Larkin:
2180 G, 2340 H, 1329 R, 198 HR, 960 RBI, 379 SB, .295 AVG, .371 OBP, .444 SLG

All four of the above players were better than Tejada defensively, some by a wide margin, perhaps because they were all quicker, which also shows up in the steals department, but Tejada makes up for that weakness somewhat with his sizable power advantage.  With another couple years of merely mediocre production, he will eclipse all but Yount in most of the major counting categories, and Yount played a lot more total games (having entered the league when he was still a teenager) and played a lot fewer games at shortstop (his career was split almost perfectly down the middle between shortstop and centerfield).

Tejada also fairs pretty well in Bill James's "ink tests."  He won an MVP (in 2002) and received votes in eight different seasons (his highest finish outside of '02 was 5th)  He also earned two Silver Sluggers and made half a dozen All-Star appearances, including one in which he was awarded the All-Star MVP (in 2005).  He led the league in doubles twice and RBIs once, and has the fifth longest consecutive games streak in MLB history (1152 G).  Only Ripken and Steve Garvey have had longer ones since Gehrig.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #20: The Florida Marlins

It was an interesting week for the Fish.  First, they got a symbolic tongue-lashing from MLB and the Player's Union for failing to fulfill obligation laid out in the Basic Agreement.  Whether or not the Florida franchise is being thrown under the bus in order to dissuade further and more wide-reaching accusations of collusion remains to be seen, but the Marlins took little time announcing their first concession, signing Josh Johnson to a $39 Million deal, which will take him through his arbitration years and beyond, in 2013.

What's interesting about this revelation is that although Florida's ownership, led by Jeffrey Loria, is certainly guilty of stinginess (in 2006 they fielded a team that made less than $15 Million), they are hardly the only franchise for whom that's the case, and they are among the few that have fielded consistently competitive teams, even with a miniscule payroll.  The Pirates spent only about $6 Million more than the Marlins in '09 and at least ten teams cut there overall expenditures, citing the tough economy, despite no evidence that their specific industry was suffering.  Tampa Bay, Washington, Oakland, Minnesota, and Kansas City are all among the teams which are consistently among baseball's most thrifty franchises.

In a practice typical of the antitrust-exempted MLB, the league has withheld revenue-sharing figures since 2005, perhaps to dissuade widespread rumors that some teams weren't even spending all of the money they took in as their share of the profits from, DirecTV, and the new MLB Network.  Bud Selig, of course, would point out that such accusations are without basis, which is convenient, since he's the only one with access to the data, which he refuses to share.  Florida is probably being scapegoated here in order to ameliorate the Union, which is showing the first signs of life since Donald Fehr stepped down last June.  Hopefully they won't be the only ones.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reader Be Warned, From This Point Forward, I'm Rooting For The Juicers

Sure, I'll readily admit, no small part of my willingness to forgive stems from the adolescent man-crush I  (and, to be fair, many of the boyz of my generation) had on gentleman like Bonds, Sosa, and Sheffield long before anybody ever introduced me to the postmodern vocabulary of performance enhancement: acromegaly, cranial elongation, testicular atrophe, and the like.  But my current state of sympathetic righteousness goes well beyond the apologist tendencies bred of nostalgia.

Frankly, the juicers, for all their faults, are just more likable than their antagonists.  Their failings - most commonly characterized by ignorance or pride - are easy to relate to.  It is easy for me to imagine the cycle of temptation, rationalization, denial, and guilt which has been their burden for much of the last decade, in some cases longer.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine what satisfaction stodgy baseball writers get from declaring their intentions to withhold Hall of Fame votes from any player remotely linked to steroids; in some cases, from any player who even had the misfortune of being born into the so-called "steroid era."  I cannot empathize with the jealous types, like Jack Clark, who feel the need to level inarticulate criticisms on former colleagues, like flinging fecal matter, unprovoked, into the media void.  It may have seemed a somewhat ridiculous non-sequitur at the time, but more and more I understand why Barry chastised that gaggle of reporters all those years ago, "get your own house in order."

We could all benefit from this reminder.  History rarely reflects well on those who sit in judgment, cast aspersions, and make unsubstantiated assumptions.  I'm certainly willing to admit that many, many players used performance-enhancing drugs during the late nineties and early noughties.  It would be a bit naive to suggest otherwise.  It would also be naive to suggest that those who have crucified the juicers have been acting in the best interests of baseball and its fans.  The juiced ball era grows uglier by the day because there are no martyrs and no heroes.  The BALCO investigation was headed up by an ambitious meathead, Jeff Novitzky, who loved nothing more than seeing his name in the papers.  The Mitchell Report was conspicuously amateurish, as though designed to fall short of any legal standard.  And, of course, the infamous books by Selena Roberts and Fainaru-Wada/Williams look more and more like publicity stunts.  No doubt some of their accusations were true, but they were also filled with anonymous sources, circumstantial evidence, and speculation disguised as inquiry.  These witch-hunters long ago eclipsed the juicers in terms of dishonesty and self-interestedness.  Isn't irony grand.

In the past, I've been accused of holding a double standard, defending one group of juicers (Bonds, Sheffield, Sosa, etc.) while vilifying another (Clemens, A-Rod, McGwire, etc.).  My opinions towards these players were never based on their pharmaceutical regimens, but rather on playing styles and temperaments, but heretofore I consider myself a firm supporter of them all.  Fuck the haters.  These were the best players of their generation, alongside many others, including Griffey, the Big Hurt, and (cough, cough) Roberto Alomar.  They deserved enshrinement, in Cooperstown and in the much more important canon of baseball literature and history.  And they'll get it, in the end, while Novitzky, Michell, Chass, Roberts, Fainaru-Wada, and rest, they'll be lucky if they earn a footnote.

Look out for falling prices...

When I previewed free agency in mid-November there were 83 featured players.  As of this morning, 48 of them had either signed, accepted arbitration, or retired, including all of the players who I expected to dictate the market: Holliday, Bay, Lackey, Chapman, Figgins, and Valverde.  At this point, with the beginning of Spring Training only a month away, those who remained unsigned are starting to get anxious.  Many teams have already declared themselves "spent" this offseason.  So, with demand shrinking, we are also looking at an inevitable drop in prices, particularly at those positions which still feature a fair supply of options.  During the waning months of the last offseason, several players signed cheap, short contracts and proceeded to produce well above their pay grade, including Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, and Orlando Hudson.  If you believe, as Eric Karabell says, that "there is no such thing as a risky one-year deal," than this is a great time for general managers to play with the house's money.

Orlando Hudson & Orlando Cabrera

This is the second time the Orlandos have found themselves in this unsavory position in the last twelve months.  Last winter both players signed one-year deals for under $4 Million.  Frankly, I don't understand it.  Both players are Gold Glove-winning middle infielders who are solid, sometimes superlative, offensive catalysts, and are also widely recognized as good teammates and energizing clubhouse presences.

Hudson is suffering in part because of his mysterious benching by Joe Torre late in last season.  Torre elected to turn to Ron Belliard (who's also still available) more and more in September and October, even though Hudson was an '09 All-Star and really only had one poor month (June).  In fact, his OPS+ (109) was the highest of his career.  Nevertheless, though O-Dog very well may have had legitimate beef with Torre's decision, he never voiced any displeasure and he embraced his newfound role, even coming up with a pinch-hit homer in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Cabrera's season had a slightly different arch, as he slumped with Oakland through the first four months of the season, but when he came to the Twins, he immediately became a favored member of the club, lauded by fans and management, who inspired his teammates and came up with several big hits (none bigger than the homer he hit in Game 163 against Detroit).

To me, these seem like players who you want on your club, but for the second year in a row the bulk of general managers have disagreed.

Potential Suitors (for Hudson): Cubs, Twins, Tigers, Nationals
Potential Suitors (for Cabrera): Astros, Reds, Twins

Miguel Tejada

The former AL MVP has the opposite problem from Hudson and Cabrera, whose perceived weaknesses are clearly as hitters.  Tejada proved in '09 that he is still a force to be reckoned with at the plate, by leading the NL in doubles and batting .313.  Even though he's a free swinger (only 19 BB in '09), there are very few teams that would welcome his addition to their lineup.  The problem is that many believe that Tejada's defensive skills have eroded to the point that he is no longer a satisfactory option at the game's premier defensive position, shortstop.  As such, Tejada's marketability in the coming months depends largely on his willingness to make a switch, probably to third base or designated hitter.  If he can swallow his pride and commit to such a conversion, just as Michael Young did prior to last season, he will see a dramatic increase in suitors and a corresponding increase in salary.

Potential Suitors: White Sox, Angels, Twins, Athletics

Erik Bedard & Ben Sheets

One of the new business of baseball catchphrases is "reestablish his market."  It refers to players who need to take a short-term contract, not only because current demand necessitates it, but because it will be better for them in the long run.  Assuming they prove their health and effectiveness, Bedard and Sheets could be in line for much, much larger paydays a year from now.  Both have the potential to be frontline starters.  Sheets is a four-time All-Star (he started the game for the NL as recently as 2008) who is still in his early thirties.  Bedard is also just 31-years-old and looked on his way to becoming an Ace before injuries limited him to only thirty starts in two seasons with Seattle.  Even so, in those thirty starts, Bedard went 11-7 with a 3.24 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, and 162 K in 164 IP, which gives you a sense of what he might've been capable of if he was fully healthy.

This is where Karabell's maxim really comes under fire.  If your teams signs one of these pitchers, you expect them to produce, at the very least, like a #2 (just ask those Cubs fans who assumed Rich Harden would be a Cy Young contender in '09 after he looked so dominant during the second half of '08).  Unfortunately, the odds are that at least one of these guys not only will fail to fulfill that expectation, but will probably miss most of the season, potentially crushing a whole city's dreams in the process.

Potential Suitors: Cubs, Dodgers, Rangers, Cardinals, Brewers

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #19: The Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have gotten an uncharacteristic flurry of national press this week (I highly recommend this article at, thanks in large part to their surprise signing of Cuban phenom, Aroldis Chapman.  Aroldis may not be a household name, but he's gotten about as much buzz as any 21-year-old pitcher not named Stephen Strasburg.  Like Strasburg, he can throw in the triple digits, as he proved last spring during the World Baseball Classic.  Unlike Strasburg, there is very little evidence by which to predict Chapman's potential or longevity.  While scouts and even average fans got the chance to see every college start Strasburg made during his exceptional 2009 season at San Diego State, Chapman has pitched the majority of his innings behind the Iron Curtain, as Cuba used him sparingly in international play, perhaps as a way of preventing his defection...which seemed, nonetheless, inevitable.  Although he was hardly spectacular during the Classic (0-1, 5.68 ERA), buzz about him dominated coverage of the event, much as buzz about Dice-K dominated the 2006 version.

Chapman is just the latest high-ceiling Latino prospect to join the Reds pitching corps.  In 2008 Cincinnati acquired Dominican right-hander, Edinson Volquez, as part of the Josh Hamilton trade and he immediately rewarded them with a 17-win season in his rookie year.  He was joined by his countryman, Johnny Cueto, a veteran of the Reds system, who has managed solid, if not spectacular, numbers through his first two seasons (20-25, 4.61 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 290 K, 345 IP).  Cueto will turn 24 in February.  Volquez is 26.

Also on the horizon in Cincinnati are two more Dominicans.  Enerio del Rosario is a 24-year-old reliever who owned the minor leagues in '09, posting a 1.68 ERA in fifty appearance across three levels.  Pedro Viola is a hard-throwing left-hander who has struggled a bit in the high minors, but who the Reds still see as a potential future closer.

The Reds renewed dedication to international development seems to have had them on the verge of a breakthrough season for the last couple of years, but injuries to guys like Volquez, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Aaron Harang stymied the transition.  In 2010, the Reds again look like a promising squad on paper, but possess very few proven commodities.

Free Agents:

Jonny Gomes (29) OF
Kip Wells (32) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Jared Burton (29) RHRP
Nick Masset (28) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Yonder Alonso (23) 1B
Aroldis Chapman (22) LHSP
Todd Frazier (24) 2B/LF
Enerio del Rosario (24) RHRP
Pedro Viola (26) LHRP

The Reds look to me like an organization which is a bit in disarray, being pulled in different directions.  The administration of Wayne Krivsky, who preceded Walt Jocketty as GM, did a fairly good job drafting and developing, and the Reds have produced a string of solid in-house run-producers, including Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce.  On the other hand, Krivsky also hired a manager, Dusty Baker, who, though widely respected, also has a widely publicized Achilles heel when it comes to dealing with young players, often either distrusting them or, in the case of pitchers, exhausting them (the most famous example, of course, is Mark Prior).  Thus, Jocketty's main goal in his first year as GM was balancing the roster with some veteran presences that Baker could identify with, most notably Scott Rolen and Arthur Rhodes.

In his first two seasons as the Reds manager, Baker has again been accused of pushing his top starting pitcher too hard, as both Aaron Harang and Edinson Volquez suffered injuries and ineffectiveness after heavy workloads.  Baker, it is apparent, will not be changing his approach after almost two decades as a big-league manager, so the front office (assuming they plan on retaining him) will need to provide him with durable veteran arms for the rotation and the bullpen, in order to protect their young investments.

Bronson Arroyo is the prototype.  Arroyo is a rubber-armed as any pitcher in baseball, having logged 200+ innings in each of the last five seasons, generally improving as the year unfolds (4.81 career ERA before the All-Star break, 3.66 after).  He's notched the Reds fifteen victories in each of the last two seasons and last year was among the most underrated pitchers in baseball.  After a typically inconsistent first six weeks, Arroyo managed a 3.11 ERA in his final 26 starts, and piled up 220 innings.  If he can find a way to hit the ground running in April, he might finally be recognized as one of the better pitchers in the National League.

Aaron Harang has been the most noticeable casualty of the Baker era in Cincinnati.  The former Ace, who won 32 games and pitched 466 innings in '06 and '07, had Dusty's mouth watering when he arrived prior to '08 and in April and May of that year Harang average 106 pitches per start.  And that's before Baker brought him out to pitch four innings of relief on two days rest!  At that moment Harang's ERA was 3.32.  Since that time, Harang has gone 10-25 with a 4.87 ERA.  He's planning on starting a support group with the other victims of Dusty Baker's overconfidence: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Bill Swift, John Burkett, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, and Carlos Zambrano.

The Reds season rides on the health of the rotation.  When Arroyo, Harang, Volquez, and Cueto are at the top of their game, they are among the better front fours in the NL, and Chapman, Homer Bailey, and Micah Owings are high-octane options at #5.  However, the risk that two or more of these guys will spend the majority of 2010 on the DL is very, very high.

Unfortunately, the Reds production on offense will also be largely a matter of health.  Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, and Ramon Hernandez were among the many Reds who missed time in '09, and they are the core of the lineup, along with underappreciated second-basemen, Brandon Phillips.  There is reason to believe that Votto is on the verge of becoming one of the premier hitters in the National League, as he posted a 981 OPS in 131 games in '09.  If everybody comes back healthy and the rotation can reasonably limit the damage other teams do in the Great American Smallpark, the Reds have enough thunder to keep pace with most of their NL Central opponents.

There will be some interesting Spring Training battles at Reds camp, as Cincinnati doesn't have anybody locked in at shortstop, in center, or left field.  There are several interesting candidates for the outfield.  Chris Dickerson got off to a slow start in his rookie year, but was on a bit of a role, hitting .318 in a 43 game stretch during the summer, before an injury ended his season early.  He'll be fully healthy in 2010 and is likely to get a long look as the Reds leadoff man.

His primary competition will be the man who was expected to fill that role last year.  Willy Taveras, who also spent an extended stretch on the disabled list, had the worst year of his largely mediocre career, posting an downright anorexic OPS of 559.  Taveras lives on his speed, as represented by his league-leading 68 steals in '08 and he is a quality defender, but in the last two years his OBP has been only .293 (his slugging is even lower!), indicating that until he can create more opportunities for himself, he will probably be limited to pinch-running and defensive replacement duties.

The Reds long-term outfield plans include both of the 25-year-olds who will get long looks this spring.  If Drew Stubbs proves he has the range for centerfield, he may best both Taveras and Dickerson.  Stubbs stole 46 bases at AAA in '09, then nabbed ten more in a limited audition with the Reds, also showing surprising power, with 8 HR in 180 AB.  His plate discipline is decent, as his BB/K rate improved every year in the minors, but he will have to make another moderate step at the major league level if he hopes to become a premier leadoff man.
Walt Jocketty landed Wladimir Belentien from the Mariners for surprisingly little (Robert Manuel, a 26-year-old relief pitching prospect).  Belentien has "light-tower power," as he displayed when he hit the longest homer of the 2009 season, and he mashed 122 HR in the minor leagues, before the age of 24 (17.4 AB/HR).  But, like many young power-hitters, he has weaknesses which have been exploited at the big-league level.  If this youngster starts getting regular at-bats and makes adjustments, he has cleanup hitter potential.

At shortstop the Reds options are not quite as promising.  Paul Janish is the prototypical good-field, no-hit kind of middle infielder that usually doesn't fly on a team that doesn't already possess spectacular offensive depth.  Adam Rosales is a fairly promising hitter, but the fact that the Reds spent much of '08 and '09 trying him at every other position on the infield suggests they don't have much faith in him as their everyday shortstop.  The same can be said of Drew Sutton, who's shown some pop (20 HR, 931 OPS at AA in '08), but is best-suited for second base, where he's currently buried behind the Reds most established player.  The 24-year-old Chris Valaika will also get an audition, as his defensive consistency improved dramatically at AAA (only 7 errors in '09, after making 24+ in each of the two previous seasons), but that corresponded to a dramatic season-long slump at the plate (his OPS dropped by 228 points).

In the end, this may be a good opportunity for Jocketty to bring in another veteran presence.  Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, and Jerry Hairston remain unsigned.  Or, as he did with Belentien, he could chase a solid prospect who has fallen out of favor with his current organization, as Jed Lowrie has in Boston and Emmanuel Burris has in San Francisco.

This is an important season for Cincinnati.  Baker's contract expires at the end of the year, as do those for Harang and Arroyo.  If the Reds can turn in their first winning season since 2000, I expect all will be brought back (though the pitchers may have to settle for smaller salaries).  If they don't, I expect none will, and the rebuilding project will begin afresh with Jocketty as sole architect.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Chris Dickerson (L)
SS Orlando Cabrera (R FA
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
1B Joey Votto (L)
RF Jay Bruce (L)
3B Scott Rolen (R)
LF Wladimir Belentien (R)
C Ramon Hernandez (R)
SP Bronson Arroyo (R)

SP Edinson Volquez (R)
SP Aaron Harang (R)
SP Johnny Cueto (R)
SP Homer Bailey (R)

CL Francisco Cordero (R)
SU Nick Masset (R)
SU Danny Herrera (L)
LOOGY Arthur Rhodes (L)
MR Jared Burton (R)
MR Enerio del Rosario (R)
SWING Micah Owings (R)

C Ryan Hanigan (R)
IF Paul Janish (R)
IF Adam Rosales (R)
OF Willy Taveras (R)
OF Drew Stubbs (R)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Costas Confessional & Other January Musings

  • The most important quote to take from McGwire's much-publicized statement on Monday is this one: "I had good years when I didn't take any, and I had bad years when I didn't take any.  I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids."  Although it doesn't necessarily excuse his actions, it is important to recognize that steroids do not create the superhuman baseball players.  Perhaps they kept him on the field more often or prolonged his career, but I honestly believe that McGwire's power was, as he puts it, a "gift."  That doesn't mean that his massive homer totals weren't somewhat pharmaceutically-assisted.  Certainly, keeping a player of his caliber healthy makes a big difference (see Ken Griffey Jr., Milton Bradley, etc.).  However, let's also remind ourselves that hulking muscles are not the only, nor even the most critical ingredient for baseball power.  Alfonso Soriano hits more homers than Kevin Youkilis.  Rail-thin guys like Alexei Ramirez and Khalil Greene have awesome power strokes.  The stigma associated with steroids is a by-product of its illegality, which is mainly a by-product of the dangerous abuse of early versions of such drugs by weightlifters, swimmers, football players, etc. in the 1970s and 1980s.  It is not far-fetched to believe that within the next decade or so, athletes in many sports will use a new generation of "safe" pharmaceuticals for exactly the purposes McGwire describes...and nobody will care.  After all, it is in the best interest of the league and the fans to have healthy, productive stars.  At that point, the backwards geezers who currently dominate the BBWAA will be too senile or too dead to continue their crusade against "cheating," and all our favorite "juicers" will be rightfully enshrined.  We will also probably discover that the pharmaceuticals they used during the first decade of the 20th century were mostly "safe" as well.  I'm not claiming that "makes it alright," but those partisans who have been demanding confessions from McGwire, A-Rod, Bonds, and Clemens need to get on the honesty train as well and admit that the "Juiced Ball" era did not destroy the game, quite to the contrary, the game is healthier than ever, and, despite the crusade about steroid-related health risks, so are the "juicers."
  • McGwire's confession dominated Monday's Hot Stove session, overshadowing
    the Giants signing of Aubrey Huff.  It strikes me as a somewhat odd signing in that San Francisco is already replete with players whose best positions are first and third (Pablo Sandoval, Mark DeRosa, Jesus Guzman, Matt Downs, etc.).  However, it is hard to find a bad one-year deal, especially for a player who certainly has the potential to be the much-needed middle-of-the-order presence that the Giants sorely need.  Huff is coming off the worst year of his career, but at 33, there is the strong possibility that was just a fluke.  Two years ago, in Baltimore, he was one of the AL's premier power-hitters, leading the league in extra-base hits (82) and finishing fifth in OPS (912), sixth in RBI (108), and eighth in homers (32).  If he can return to near that form, it could be enough to put the Giants over the top in the NL West.  After all, they managed 88 wins in 2009 with a truly paltry offense, and neither the Dodgers nor the Rockies have made any splashes over the offseason.  Huff and DeRosa (who will presumably play left field) should inspire at least a modest offensive improvement.  The key, of course, is for the San Francisco rotation to repeat it's dominating '09 performance and for Sandoval to prove that he is the kind of hitter you can build a lineup around (something which I firmly believe).
  • I haven't yet posted my Offseason Prospectus for the Texas Rangers, who added Vladimir Guerrero over the weekend, but I will tell you that the Rangers are one of the franchises I'm most excited about heading into 2010.  I'm a big fan of Ron Washington and I was impressed by the Rangers performance in '09, especially considering they actually back-tracked offensively.  The health of Guerrero and Josh Hamilton will, of course, by crucial.  As will the development of young pitches like Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland.  With Millwood gone, the Rangers rotation is without a veteran presence (no, Rich Harden doesn't count), which could be ingenious or disastrous.  Either way, I'm looking forward to watching.  The Rangers are expecting a return to form from Vladdy, whose lifetime numbers at Arlington are pretty encouraging.  In fifty games in the Rangers home ballpark, Guerrero has 14 HR, 33 RBI, a .394 average, and 1175 OPS.  As far as the Rangers see it, even if Vlad is a disappointment, at least he won't be destroying them every time they play the rival Angels.  The only downside of the Guerrero signing is that it could impede the playing time of three breakout players from the 2009 squad.  In all likelihood, injuries will solve this problem, but there are currently two outfield spots available for Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and Julio Borbon.  Cruz was one of the big stories of the first half, earning himself an All-Star selection, and finished with 33 HR, 20 SB, and an 856 OPS.  Murphy started slow, but from June on, he managed an 814 OPS with 15 HR.  The 23-year-old Borbon didn't join the team until August, but in the final two months he hit .316 with 29 runs scored, 19 stolen bases, and a 802 OPS.  I imagine Borbon will leadoff and play centerfield on Opening Day, with Hamilton and Cruz on either side and Guerrero at DH.  Murphy will spell Cruz against especially tough right-handers and bide his time waiting for one of the veterans to come up lame. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #18: The Houston Astros

Houston's general manager, Ed Wade, made perhaps his biggest splash of the winter this weekend by signing free agent right-hander, Brett Myers, for $5 Million.  Although Wade has been busy throughout the Hot Stove season, Myers is the most reputable addition he's made.  Wade chose, instead of chasing John Lackey, Chone Figgins, or any of the other big-ticket free agents who would've been good fits in Houston, to pursue a handful of less notable complimentary players.  He renovated the bullpen by signing Brandon Lyon (3 yrs./$15 Mil.) and trading for Matt Lindstrom.  He improved his infield defense by adding Pedro Feliz (1 yr./$4.5 Mil.) and allowing Miguel Tejada to walk, so that he could cede shortstop to some combination of Jeff Keppinger and prospects.  Finally, he signed Myers, who despite struggling to stay out of trouble and on the field in Philadelphia, pitched quite well as both a starter and a late-inning reliever.  The Astros would like him to join the rotation, which was their Achillies heel in 2009.

Free Agents:

Brandon Backe (32) RHSP
Doug Brocail (43) RHRP
Chris Coste (37) C [Signed w/ Mets]
Darin Erstad (36) 1B/OF
Geoff Geary (33) RHRP
Mike Hampton (37) LHSP
Latroy Hawkins (37) RHRP [Signed w/ Brewers]
Miguel Tejada (36) SS
Jose Valverde (30) RHCL  

Arbitration Eligible:

Michael Bourn (27) CF
Tim Byrdak (36) LHRP
Jeff Keppinger (30) UT
Hunter Pence (27) RF
Humberto Quintero (30) C
Wandy Rodriguez (31) LHSP
Chris Sampson (32) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Chris Johnson (25) 3B
Tommy Manzella (27) SS
Wladimir Sutil (25) SS
Polin Trinidad (25) LHSP

Unfortunately for the Astros and their fans, Houston posted one of its worst seasons of the decade in 2009, despite having the franchise's largest ever payroll ($103 Million).  Astros County expects Houston will try to roll back that payroll slightly in 2010, to somewhere between $90-95 Million.  The 'Stros do have a fair number of veterans coming off their books, but they still have enormous commitments to Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee, as well as sizable arbitration awards coming for Wandy Rodriguez, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn.  Astros County thoughtfully argues that the Houston fan base can't expect the franchise to make another commitment this offseason of anything more than $3 Million.  That means even if Ed Wade uses that remaining cash very efficiently, the 2010 Astros are still going to have some gaping holes, especially for a team that hopes to compete with at least three divisional contenders: the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs.

I'll start with some good news.  The Astros rotation will be better than it was in '09.  Granted, it couldn't be much worse.  The '09 'Stros finished with a rotational ERA of 4.79, 14th in the NL.  But there's cause for hope going forward.  Roy Oswalt had the worst season of his career (8-6, 4.12 ERA).  At only 32, he's almost sure to bounce back.  Wandy Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02) continued to trend in the right direction, developing into a solid #2 starter.  He has improved his ERA, WHIP, and K/BB rate in each of the last three seasons, but continues to struggle on the road (4.05 ERA, compared to 2.08 at Minute Maid), which means there's still room for improvement.  Rodriguez remains a somewhat unheralded pitcher and could be a breakout player in '10.

Myers will likely slot into the rotation at #3, followed by Bud Norris.  Norris made ten starts as a rookie, going 6-3 with a 4.53 ERA.  He finished especially strong by going 3-0 in four September starts witha 1.57 ERA, 24 K, and only 6 BB in 23 innings.  Compare that to an August in which he walked 18 batters in 30 innings, causing his ERA to skyrocket (6.98).  If he has indeed solved those control issues, he could be a very solid back-end starter this coming season and a future star.

Yorman Bazardo, Felipe Paulino, Brian Moehler, and Polin Trinidad will also be fighting for starts, and with the exception of Moehler there is reason to believe that all of them have fairly bright futures.  Paulino was very inconsisten in '09, but is still only 26 and showed a solid strikeout rate (8.6 K/9) and was even dominant for brief stretches.  Bazardo and Trinidad are youngsters who have proven themselves in the minors and will look for the opportunity to reach the bigs for good in 2010.

The Astros lineup reminds me a great deal of the '09 Twins.  At the top, their is some serious thunder.  Michael Bourn has developed into solid archetypal center-fielder/leadoff-hitter, whose speed makes him an asset on both sides of the ball, an in '09 he raised his OBP by 70 points, to a respectable .354.  Behind him are Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence, a commendable trio of sluggers who have combined for 75+ HR in each of the last three seasons.  However, as in Minnesota, the bottom of the Astros lineup is a barren wasteland.  Kaz Matsui's OPS dropped to 659 in '09.  Pedro Feliz was only slightly better, at 694, and that was when he was hitting in that mechanism of pitcher fatigue, the lineup of the Philadelphia Phillies.  Behind them there will be J. R. Towles (609 OPS in 234 MLB AB) and either Keppinger (707 OPS in '09) or one of the defensively-minded prospects, Tommy Manzella (756 OPS at AAA in '09) or Wladimir Sutil (673 OPS at AA in '09).  Followed by a pitcher, that means there are five "easy outs" in a row, which will also make it easier for pitchers to avoid Berkman and Lee or attack Bourn and Pence as necessary.  If the Astros are going to have a chance this season, they need one of those "easy outs" to exceed expectations.  The most likely candidates are Matsui, who had a 781 OPS as recently as '08, and Towles, who posted strong OBP numbers throughout the minor leagues.  

The other possibility is that Ed Wade will be able to secure an additional cheap bat from among the disappointed free agents who are still looking for work come Spring Training.  I'm guessing he's keenly following negotiations with Orlando Cabrera and Rod Barajas. 

While the Astros did add two solid relievers this offseason (Lyon and Lindstrom), they also lost one of baseball's best closers (Jose Valverde) and their top set-up man (LaTroy Hawkins).  It will be a major challenge for Lyon and Lindstrom to replace that pair, who combined in '09 for 117 innings, 36 saves, 20 holds, and a 2.21 ERA.  The Astros bullpen was hardly lights out even with Valverde and Hawkins (4.13 ERA in '09), so Houston needs somebody to make a BIG step forward and protect leads for their improved rotation.  Jeff Fulchino (3.40 ERA in 82 IP) and Tim Byrdak (3.23 ERA in 61 IP) will need to build on their solid '09 performances and somebody from the group of young, promising arms will need to become a late-inning guys, either Wesley Wright, Alberto Arias, or one of the three prospects listed above who aren't in the rotation.

I'm guessing a lot of casual fans will look at the Astros this spring and think they are serious contenders in the NL Central. The middle of their lineup and their front four starters match up fairly well with many of their rivals.  However, those who follow this blog know that I consider roster depth among the most important aspects of building a competitive team for the six-month haul.  Frankly, the Astros are just plain thin, and their several weaknesses are going to be exposes over and over again by the middle of summer, especially if they suffer even one injury among that core group.  It would only take a small amount of bad luck for the Astros to actually sink below the Pirates and finish in last place for the first time since 1991.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Michael Bourn (L)
2B Kaz Matsui (S)
1B Lance Berkman (S)
LF Carlos Lee (R)
RF Hunter Pence (R)
3B Pedro Feliz (R)
C J. R. Towles (R)
SS Jeff Keppinger (R)
SP Roy Oswalt (R)

SP Wandy Rodriguez (L)
SP Brett Myers (R)
SP Bud Norris (R)
SP Yorman Bazardo (R)

CL Brandon Lyon (R)
SU Matt Lindstrom (R)
SU Jeff Fulchino (R)
MR Tim Byrdak (L)
MR Alberto Arias (R)
LOOGY Wesley Wright (L)
SWING Felipe Paulino (R)

C Humberto Quintero (R)
1B/3B Geoff Blum (S)
SS Tommy Manzella (R)
OF Jason Michaels (R)
OF Jason Bourgeois (R)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Juiced Hall Era

I was certainly thrilled that Andre Dawson was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame earlier this week, but I was also disappointed to learn that he will be the only member of the 2010 class. Obviously, there are a wide range of opinions among the membership of the BBWAA on what exactly it means to be a Hall of Famer and what exactly the role of the Hall of Fame is, and they are certainly entitled to that debate, since effective ground rules have never been laid out.

Bill James' The Politics of Glory outlines the Hall's humble origins, it's numerous oddities, and its torturous electoral process.  It is a must-read, even for people who aren't generally of the sabermetric persuasion.  Even though I don't fully agree with all of James' arguments, I appreciate that men like himself and Rob Neyer have thoughtful, well-reasoned explanations of what they expect the Hall to represent. Many other pundits (many of them BBWAA voters) are irrational and schizophrenic on the subject.  Sportswriters are prone to prejudice, ignorance, and hubris on many topics, but perhaps none more blatantly provokes these qualities than questions about the Hall of Fame ballot.

Personally, I just can't understand Cooperstown as anything except an archive and a museum.  I honestly don't imagine what other role it is supposed to play.  As such, I don't see the problem with inclusivity.  I have extraordinary liberal standards.  On this particular ballot, I would've supported the candidacies of fourteen players: Dawson, Roberto Alomar, Tim Raines, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Edgar Martinez, Burt Blyleven, Lee Smith, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, and Fred McGriff.  And there are many other players who I believe are too important to a rich baseball education to be excluded from an institution whose primary purpose would appear to be assisting such an education: Dick Allen and Curt Flood, for starters.  What I'm looking for from the Hall of Fame is a relatively complete picture of the various eras of baseball history and I think each of these men are appropriate to a portrait which is vivid and engaging.

I don't think baseball fans are as ignorant at the writers think we are. Just because Jack Morris is in the Hall of Fame, that doesn't mean he will be forever remembered as equal to Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax.  When writers argue that enshrining a player like Dawson or Blyleven or McGriff might somehow "dilute" the Hall of Fame and diminish the accomplishments of its other members I am appalled.  It portrays egotism and misanthropy, suggesting such writers think everybody else too stupid to make subtle qualitative distinctions.

On the contrary, I believe the Hall of Fame's institutional role should go well beyond increasing the appreciation of "first-ballot" players like Gibson, Koufax, Ruth, and Mays, men whose legends and contributions need very little help remaining in the public eye.  I think it would be wonderful to have a place where people can also learn about players (and other baseball personnel) who haven't been as broadly canonized, but are nonetheless fascinating and inspirational figures. I can't help but ask, "Why not?"  What possible disservice would be done by having a Dave Parker plaque in Cooperstown?  Parker's career was fully of incredible accomplishments and is also defined by a number of curious, humorous, and instructive anecdotes.

A Hall of Fame which successfully rendered an objective and productive history of America's pastime would have to be an independent institution. Bud Selig (and subsequent commissioners) should not have the power to govern the Hall, nor should there be any criteria which makes a player ineligible for entry.   The more the Hall relies upon MLB or the BBWAA, the more it loses credibility and becomes a largely inconsequential syphon for advertising and propaganda.  A truly comprehensive baseball history naturally includes the careers of Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, and Mark McGwire. To argue otherwise is grossly incompetent.  The Hall of Fame won't be a truly legitimate institution until such players are included.

However, I also believe the players should have no say in how they are represented in Cooperstown. Those actions which sullied the reputations of the men listed above are as much a part of baseball history as their achievements on the field. So, yes, Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame...but his plaque will "talk about the past."

Frankly, McGwire's treatment by voters thusfar suggests we are headed down a slippery slope. How do they propose to distinguish which "juiced" players get in and which ones don't.  McGwire's example is a dangerous one especially because he was never suspended for drug abuse or convicted of anything.  Everything we know about his pharmaceutical exploits is circumstantial.  Much the same can be said of Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod, and many of the other so-called "juicers."  The subjectivity of this process endangers the credibility of the institution.  What happens if Clemens is elected, but Bonds is not, or vice versa.

It is possible that ten years from now we will have a Hall of Fame that more or less omits two decades of baseball history and does not include baseball's all-time hits leader (Rose) or baseball's all-time home-run leaders (Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez), not to mention other players of extraordinary accomplishment like McGwire, Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, etc.

People go to the Hall of Fame largely to embrace their own nostalgia and share a part of those memories with their children. Many men and women who grew up during the "Juiced Ball" era would have very little use for a museum which ignores the existence of those players who most defined their youth. Keeping them out of the Hall of Fame is a fascistic re-writing of history. What must happen, eventually, is that baseball must enshrine the best players of that era, but they must do so without ignoring the ethical questions which also dominated the decade.

What makes a museum different from an amusement park is that it is expected to elicit not only joy, but also curiosity.  When a parent takes a child, they expect not only to entertain them, but also to educate and intrigue.  In such situations, it is imperative that the child see beyond the heroizing phenomenon of athletic celebrity.  Baseball is a wonderful way of exploring American cultural history, and that history much include discussions of addiction, exploitation, prejudice, and even defeat.  Manny's suspension is a part baseball's historical record, as is the Mitchell Report, the Bonds indictment, the Congressional hearings, the BALCO investigation, etc. To pretend otherwise merely compromises your credibility.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #17: The Colorado Rockies

In the fall of 2007, the Rockies used an eleven-game winning streak and an extraordinary extra-innings win against San Diego in game 163 to surge into the postseason and eventually to the World Series. They had five players with 90 or more RBI - Matt Holliday (137), Brad Hawpe (116), Garrett Atkins (111), Troy Tulowitzki (99), and Todd Helton (91) - and looked like a team built to win for several years to come.

Unfortunately for Colorado, like so many teams who make unexpected journeys deep into October, they had trouble duplicating that success, managing only 74 wins in '08 and beginning '09 by going 18-28, a performance bad enough to lead to the firing of long-time skipper, Clint Hurdle.

To everybody's surprise, soon after Hurdle was dismissed, the Rockies regained their swagger under Jim Tracy and '09 turned out to be the best regular season in the team's history (92 W, .568). They got manhandled by the Phillies in the NLDS, but there is once again optimism among the Coors Field faithful, as the team proved it could win without Matt Holliday.

In recent years, Colorado's front office, led by Dan O'Dowd, has made a consistent commitment to drafting, developing, and retaining their own players, and keeping themselves away from big free agents who haven't proven themselves in the distinctive environs of Colorado, like the ones that hamstrung the team earlier in the decade (Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, most famously). Of the dozen men who got 100 or more at-bats for the Rockies in 2009, only Carlos Gonzalez and Yorvit Torrealba have ever played for another organization (in Gonzalez's case, that tenure was very brief). The starting rotation is also led by two pitchers who are career Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook.

So far this offseason, O'Dowd has stuck to his guns. The Rockies offered arbitration to set-up man, Rafael Betancourt, but have otherwise been silent. In the early months of 2010, O'Dowd may look for a part-time catcher and minor bullpen or bench reinforcements, but the Rockies remain convinced that they already have the major pieces necessary to get them back to the promise land. And, with nobody in their division getting noticeably better so far this winter, they can make a pretty convincing case for being the preseason favorite in the NL West.

Free Agents:

Garrett Atkins (30) 3B/1B [Signed w/ Orioles]
Joe Beimel (33) LHRP
Jose Contreras (38) RHRP
Adam Eaton (32) RHSP
Alan Embree (40) LHRP
Josh Fogg (33) RHRP
Jason Giambi (39) PH
Matt Herges (40) RHRP
Jason Marquis (31) RHSP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Matt Murton (28) OF
Joel Peralta (34) RHRP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Juan Rincon (31) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Clint Barmes (31) 2B
Taylor Buchholz (28) RHRP
Jorge De La Rosa (29) LHSP
Jason Hammel (27) RHSP
Chris Iannetta (27) C
Ryan Spilborghs (30) OF
Huston Street (26) RHCL

ETA 2010?:

Jhoulys Chacin (22) RHSP
Samuel Deduno (26) RHSP
Edgmer Escalona (23) RHRP
Shane Lindsay (24) RHRP
Michael McKenry (25) C
Chaz Roe (23) RHSP
Esmil Rogers (24) RHSP
Eric Young (25) 2B/CF

While I think O'Dowd is an exceptionally competent GM, I see one area in which his conservative strategy might prove dangerous. While none of the free agent arms Colorado is losing were among the best pitchers in their bullpen, Alan Embree, Josh Fogg, Joel Peralta, Juan Rincon, Jose Contreras, and Joe Beimel did combine for over 150 innings. Down the stretch Contreras was among the Rockies most dependable relievers.

Colorado does have a nice selection of quality arms coming up through the system, but they will need to depend heavily on Manny Corpas, Franklin Morales, Randy Flores, and Taylor Buchholz, all of whom struggled with either injuries or ineffectiveness in '09. I wouldn't be surprised if O'Dowd finds one more "insurance plan" among the remaining crop of free agents, perhaps an inexpensive veteran like Guillermo Mota or David Weathers, or an return engagement for Contreras or Fogg.

By not offering arbitration to Garrett Atkins, a player who was once at the center of Colorado's offensive plans, the Rockies have committed full force to Ian Stewart as their everyday third baseman. Stewart was very impressive against right-handed pitching in his first full season (20 HR, 823 OPS), but struggled mightily against southpaws (5 HR, 664 OPS). The Rockies may see this as an avenue to free up at-bats for Eric Young, who is currently without an everyday role. Or, they may still be in the market for a right-handed cornerman who can also pinch-hit, somebody like Mark Loretta or Nomar Garciaparra.

It's truly odd to say it, but going into 2010, one of Colorado's strengths is the depth of their rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't yet reached the notoriety of a Lincecum, a Greinke, or a King Felix, but he belongs among that class of pitchers, a truly dominant Ace still in his mid-twenties. Ubaldo went 15-12 in '09 with a 3.47 ERA and 198 K in 218 IP. Most importantly, he seems to have harnessed his incredibly nasty stuff, dropping his walk rate from 4.7 to 3.5 every nine innings.

Lining up behind Jimenez the Rockies have the reliable veteran, Aaron Cook, who over the last four seasons has averaged 29 starts, 11 wins, and a 4.11 ERA, and the 2009 breakout lefty, Jorge de la Rosa, who went 16-3 for Colorado from June 1st until the end of the season.

The Rockies are also anticipating the return of Jeff Francis, who was considered their ace before injuries cost him much of 2008 and all of 2009. If Francis shows anything resembling his former talent, the Rockies will possess a front four which is among the best in the National League.

The final spot will go to Jason Hammel, at least to begin the year. Hammel was very solid in '09 (10-8, 4.33 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 177 IP), good enough to get first dibs, but he will be pressed to perform by the advancement of young guns like Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers, and Chaz Roe, all of whom look ready for major-league action. O'Dowd may choose to convert one or more of them into relievers, at least temporarily, as he did with Franklin Morales.

The star of the show in Denver will always be the offense. Even as production has decreased in recent seasons, thanks to the humidifier, Coors Field still consistently ranks among the top three parks for run production. What O'Dowd has improved at over the last few years, however, is putting together lineups which are dangerous in any climate and every stadium. He's still got the hard-swinging flyball specialists like Stewart and Chris Iannetta, but they are combined with speedy slap-hitters like Dexter Fowler and Eric Young, all-fields RBI men like Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe, and, most importantly, five-tool talents like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.

Especially if Iannetta bounces back from a sub-par '09 campaign that saw him eventually lose the starting role to Torrealba, the Rockies will have a lineup that rivals the depth of those in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Milwaukee (no lineup in the NL is as complete as Philadelphia's at the moment). And, like each of those teams, they won't be satisfied by anything less than October baseball. No reason why they should be.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Dexter Fowler (S)
LF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
1B Todd Helton (L)
SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)
RF Brad Hawpe (L)
3B Ian Stewart (L)
C Chris Iannetta (R)
2B Clint Barmes (R)
SP Ubaldo Jimenez (R)

SP Jorge de la Rosa (L)
SP Aaron Cook (R)
SP Jeff Francis (L)
SP Jason Hammel (R)

CL Huston Street (R)
SU Rafael Betancourt (R)
SU Taylor Buchholz (R)
MR Manny Corpas (R)
MR Franklin Morales (L)
LOOGY Randy Flores (L)
SWING Jhoulys Chacin (R)

C Michael McKenry (R)
IF Mark Loretta (R) FA
IF/OF Eric Young (S)
OF Seth Smith (L)
OF Ryan Spilborghs (R)

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #16: The Cleveland Indians

The Indians are one of the most enjoyable franchises to follow and one of the most challenging to evaluate. Mark Shapiro is among the more creative and unpredictable GMs in baseball and the teams he puts together often possess the same characteristics, which isn't always a good thing. During the Noughties, Cleveland won 90+ games four times, and lost 90+ twice. They spent over $90 Million (in 2001) and under $35 Million (in 2004), and pretty much everything between. Players like Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner experienced both ends of the performance spectrum, as candidates (and even winners) of MVPs and Cy Youngs, but also falling dramatically short of expectations in intervening years.

As recently as 2007 the Indians made it as far as Game 7 of the ALCS. They looked like a franchise poised to compete for years to come. However, their winning percentage dropped by nearly 100 points in each of the next two seasons and now, having dealt C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, Franklin Gutierrez, Mark DeRosa, Carl Pavano, Rafael Betancourt, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Garko, and Ben Francisco in the span of fourteen months, they appear to be franchise firmly in a rebuilding mode. Only ten players from the 2007 ALCS roster remain in the Cleveland organization.

This isn't unfamiliar territory. In 2005, when they had one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball, the Indians surprised everybody by winning 93 games and making a serious run on the AL Wild Card, going 38-16 (.704) in the seasons final two months. The next year, with a team of much the same composition, seemingly poised for contention, they again fell beneath .500. When it comes to Shapiro's Indians, looks can be deceiving.

Free Agents:

Jamey Carroll (36) IF [Signed w/ Dodgers]
Masa Kobayashi (36) RHRP [Signed w/ Yomiuri Giants]
Tomo Ohka (34) RHP
Jose Veras (29) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Rafael Perez (28) LHRP

ETA 2010?:

Michael Brantley (23) OF
Jordan Brown (26) OF
Carlos Carrasco (23) RHSP
Jeanmar Gomez (22) RHSP
Matt LaPorta (25) 1B/OF
Lou Marson (24) C
Vinnie Pestano (25) RHRP
Johan Pino (26) RHSP
Carlos Santana (24) C
Jess Todd (24) RHRP
Nick Weglarz (22) LF

The Indians organization has been for the last two decades one of the best in baseball at drafting and developing talent. Although financial restraints prevent them from retaining all of that talent, they firmly believe in replenishing the system via trades. Their success this season will be based mainly upon the production of those players who were acquired when Cleveland traded the veterans listed above.

Matt LaPorta was the centerpiece of the Sabathia deal with Milwaukee in 2008. The Indians weren't sure going into the year whether LaPorta was a left-fielder or a first-baseman. During his first promotion, playing primarily left field, LaPorta struggled, managing only a 571 OPS over the course of an eleven-game stretch in May. The Indians sent him back to AAA, and when he returned, he posted an admirable 805 OPS through forty games in August and September. After trading Ryan Garko and Michael Aubrey, it appears that Cleveland will enter 2010 withe LaPorta as their everyday first-baseman. LaPorta's minor-league stats (941 OPS, for instance) suggest he has the power to hold down that position. If he can provide protection for Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, Cleveland could produce runs in bunches. It is a balanced attack, with
power and speed from both sides of the plate, as well as solid defense up the middle.

The Indians rotation, on the other hand, is filled with once-promising prospects for whom this is probably the last chance. Fausto Carmona epitomizes the group. After being among the best pitchers in all of baseball in 2007, winning 19 games and posting a 3.06 ERA, Carmona has taken huge steps backward in each of the past two seasons. In 2009 he went 5-12 with an abyssmal 6.32 ERA. However, Carmona is still only 26 years old, perfectly capable of becoming a quality starter, if not the Ace he looked like a couple years ago.

Similarly, Anthony Reyes was once considered among the top pitching prospects. He threw eight strong innings in the first game of the 2006 World Series, at the age of 24. However, it has been mostly downhill from there. He went just 2-14 for the Cardinals in '07. He was traded to the Tribe midway through '08 and looked great down the stretch, posting a 1.80 ERA in his first six starts with his new team. But in '09 he was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. At the age of 28, he doesn't have many chances left.

The same can be said of Jeremy Sowers, the promising Vanderbilt Ace who's now made 71 major-league starts, but won only 17 of them. Aaron Laffey, another left-hander who breezed through the minor leagues, has also struggled to perform at the major-league level, posting a 4.42 ERA in 44 starts.

All of these pitchers are young enough that Cleveland is willing to give them at least another year of opportunities, but if Shapiro doesn't see significant maturation, 2011 may mark the end of his patience. The Indians next crop of hurlers is coming up the pipeline, buoyed by the additions of Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Johan Pino via Shapiro's flurry of trades last summer. Nobody in the Opening Day rotation will have a particularly long leash.

The Indians have a lot to work out going into Spring Training. Not only is the rotation pretty much a free-for-all, the Tribe will be looking at multiple candidates for left field, second base, catcher, and in the bullpen, where Kerry Wood, Tony Sipp, and Joe Smith are probably the only pitchers who have locked up spots in advance.

The battle for backstop is particularly interesting as it features two 24-year-olds who are both among the top prospects at their position. Lou Marson, who came to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal, got a couple cups of coffee in 2009 and posted a 708 OPS between Cleveland and Philadelphia. Marson doesn't possess much power, but he is a quality defender who gets on base at a very high rate (.433 OBP at AA in '08, .382 at AAA prior to the trade in '09). Carlos Santana hasn't advanced past AA yet, but he is one of the top hitting prospects around. In 132 AA games, he's hit 24 HR, driven in 99 runs, and posted a 939 OPS. If he can prove himself defensively, he is probably the Indians catcher of the future. If not, he is probably their DH of the future.

There are currently only three men on the Indians 40-man roster over the age of thirty: Kerry Wood, Jake Westbrook, and Travis Hafner. Each of them possesses an ungainly contract, so they probably won't be featured on next season's trading block unless they have an unexpected renaissance. Rather, they will be asked, along with Cleveland's new manager, Manny Acta, to guide a clubhouse full of exciting young talents. Although it is probably a truly long shot for Cleveland to surge to the front of their division (which is, to be fair, a division without an obvious powerhouse), by August of 2010, I expect none of the contenders will be looking forward to playing meaningful games against the Indians and in 2011 they may be favorites in the AL Central. Which, based on the contrarian perspective outlined above, may not be a position of strength.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Grady Sizemore (L)
SS Asdrubel Cabrera (S)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
DH Travis Hafner (L)
1B Matt LaPorta (R)
3B Jhonny Peralta (R)
C Carlos Santana (S)
LF Michael Brantley (L)
2B Luis Valbuena (L)

SP Jake Westbrook (R)
SP Fausto Carmona (R)
SP Aaron Laffey (L)
SP Anthony Reyes (R)
SP Jeremy Sowers (L)

CL Kerry Wood (R)
SU Joe Smith (R)
SU Tony Sipp (L)
MR Jensen Lewis (R)
MR Chris Perez (R)
LOOGY Rafael Perez (L)
SWING Justin Masterson (R)

C Lou Marson (R)
1B/3B Andy Marte (R)
2B/SS Jason Donald (R)
OF Trevor Crowe (S)

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Definition of Insanity

Einstein famously mused that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Fans of the Chicago Cubs can't help but ask, based on this justification, if the men in charge of their favored franchises haven't fallen clear off their rockers.

On the final day of 2009, Jim Hendry of the Cubs announced the signing of Marlon Byrd to a three-year, $15 Million contract. First off, I grant that figure is well shy of the $36 Million he gave Milton Bradley almost exactly a year ago, but it is nonetheless a sizable amount to pay an outfielder in his early thirties with an extensive injury history who is coming off a career year...playing at the Ballpark in Arlington, a stadium famous for offensive inflation.

Consider a few precedents...

Gary Matthews Jr.:

In 2006, at the age of 30, Matthews Jr. scored 102 runs, hit 19 HR, and posted a 866 OPS while playing for the Rangers. He had 164 more plate appearances (690) than in any other season of his career. His 2006 performance, combined with his consistent defensive prowess, led the Angels to sign him to an enormous contract (5 yr./$50 Mil). Over the first three seasons of that contract he has averaged 59 R, 10 HR, and 56 RBI, with an OPS of 708. His plate appearances have declined in every season, to just 360 in '09 and he is now considered nothing more than a very expensive fourth outfielder.

David Dellucci:

In 2005, at the age of 31, Delluci slammed 29 HR for the Rangers, 12 more than in any other season of his career. That season he also posted career highs in plate appearances (518), runs (97), hits (109), RBI (65), and walks (76), as well as an 879 OPS, prompting the Indians to sign him to a three-year, $11.5 Million deal. In two full seasons with the Tribe, he managed only 514 at-bats and a 700 OPS, 15 HR, and 66 runs scored.

Kevin Mench:

Mench posted two straight seasons of 25 HR and 70 RBI with the Rangers in '04 and '05, prompting the Brewers to demand that he be a key component in the trade that netted the Rangers Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. With the Rangers, Mench had been good for a long ball about once every 23 at-bats. With the Brewers that rate doubled, and he managed just nine more homers in '07 and '08, before dropping out of baseball entirely.

Milton Bradley:

And then, of course, there is Milton Bradley. Sure, Bradley showed a lot more promise throughout his career before his stop in Texas than most of these jokers, but 2008 was nonetheless a serious anomaly. Bradly, at the age of 30, posted career highs in runs (78), HR (22), RBI (77), walks (80), batting average (.321), on-base percentage (.436), and slugging percentage (.563). Hopefully, Jim Hendry can remember what happened next. Upon arriving in Chicago, despite making almost exactly as many trips to the plate (473 compared to 509 in Texas), his OPS dropped by more than 200 points, from 999 to 775.

Perhaps the Cubs front office is really convinced that the reason for the drastic drop in production demonstrated by these examples is not the exit from the friendly confines of Arlington, but rather the separation from Rudy Jaramillo, the former Ranger hitting coach they recently acquired. Don't drink that Kool-Aid. Here is the rank of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for Home Run and Run Production the last two seasons:

2008 - #1 in R, #5 in HR
2009 - #7 in R, #3 in HR

Now Wrigley Field isn't exactly a pitcher's paradise, but...

The thing that angers me most about this signing is that the Cubs are pretending that this solves the "centerfield problem" which has been plaguing the club for at least the last decade (some would probably argue that the Cubs have had a centerfield problem ever since they traded Rick Monday to the Dodgers prior to the '77 season). Marlon Byrd ain't no goddamn centerfielder. Yes, over the course of his career, Marlon Byrd has played more innings in center than anywhere else, but his teams have been constantly trying to change that. The Rangers put him out there last year in desperation, because Josh Hamilton was injured and Byrd was the next best option (at least until Julio Borbon came along). Marlon Byrd has never posted a range factor anywhere near the league average. In 2009, out of the twenty centerfielders who played as many innings as he did, Byrd finished 12th in range and 15th in UZR at -6.0. FanGraphs rated his arm as the worst among AL centerfielders.

While the rest of baseball is prioritizing defense, the Cubs have a left-fielder in center, a second-baseman at shortstop, and the adventurous Alfonso Soriano in left. Hendry has added another lengthy contract which simultaneously makes the team older, slower, and more right-handed. What a mess.