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Friday, April 30, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: Super Twos, Super To Use?

It would seem fairly certain at this point that the Pirates will delay Pedro Alvarez's arrival until around midseason, rather than risk his getting "Super Two" status and being eligible for arbitration prior to the 2013 season.  The incumbent third-baseman, Andy LaRoche, has been one of Pittsburgh's best hitters (933 OPS) and Alvarez appears to be suffering through some growing pains in his first month at AAA, managing just a 695 OPS (although with four homers).

The same goes for Jason Castro of the Astros, Brett Wallace of the Blue Jays, and Carlos Santana of the Indians.  With their teams not likely to be headed anywhere this October, it behooves the franchise to delay their development slightly in order to get an additional full-season of cheap production in the future.

Teams which do appear to have legit playoff aspirations, however, now face a very tough decision.  Do they promote a rookie who could help the ballclub immediately, perhaps providing those extra one or two victories necessary to prolong the season, or do they hold off a month or two in order to protect their future payroll?  Here a look at some of the top minor-league hitters:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Other Pitching Prospects

We may be yet a month or more away from the much-anticipated arrivals of Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman.  In the meantime, however, a number of top pitching prospects are taking advantage of injuries and April inefficiencies.  Here are the most noteworthy:

Brett Cecil - Blue Jays (1-1, 3.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 11 K, 12 2/3 IP)

Last week Cecil replaced the injured Brian Tallet at the backend of the Jays rotation.  His initial starting assignments were a bit unfortunate, on the road against the red-hot Rays and at home against the streaking Red Sox, but the 23-year-old faired relatively well, managing at least six innings on both occasions.  He struck out eight Rays (though he yielded a pair of homers) and held the Sox scoreless for the first five innings.  Next week he'll get a more favorable matchup against the Indians.

Cecil is a top prospect, who throws in the mid-nineties with a wicked curve.  He got half a season worth of work last year, going 7-4 with a 5.30 ERA and a very poor strikeout to walk ratio (1.82).  This year, however, he seems to have corrected that problem.  In two starts at AAA he struck out eleven while walking on two.  And in his first two starts in the majors?  He's struck out eleven while walking only two.  A small sample size, no doubt, but certainly encouraging.  Cecil should be owned in AL-only leagues and is a solid spot-start option against weaker lineups in the mixed leagues.  Trips to New York, Boston, and Tampa could be a little rough on him, but I expect him to hold onto his spot in the rotation, even after the return of Tallet and Dustin McGowan.

Jhoulys Chacin - Rockies (3-0, 1.69 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 21 K, 21 1/3 IP @ AAA)

Chacin got the call when Colorado had to send Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa to the D.L.  He's just 22-years-old, with nasty stuff, but like Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales at his age, he's wild.  Nobody can put a bat on him in Colorado Springs, but he's averaging upwards of six walks per nine innings in eight starts at AAA, dating back to last fall.  That won't fly in the show.

However, his first start comes against the free-swinging Giants, in San Francisco.  That's a favorable match-up.  Unless he's dominant, this is probably nothing more than a month-long audition, as De La Rosa, Hammel, and Jeff Francis are all likely to return sometime in June, if not before.

Jaime Garcia - Cardinals (2-1, 1.04 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 17 K, 26 IP)

Garcia has surged in front of Jason Heyward as the early NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner.  His walk rate (3.1 BB/9) is mild cause for concern, but otherwise his April record is fairly spotless, though we should note that he's faced only one lineup, Milwaukee, that's in the top half of the NL in scoring (the Brewers are, however, #1, and he shut them down).

There's no obvious back-up plan in St. Louis, so Garcia will have a long leash, even if he takes some lumps during his second run through the league.  Garcia clearly understands the Dave Duncan philosophy.  His groudball rate (71.2%) is currently tops in all of baseball.

Ian Kennedy - Diamondbacks (1-1, 4.45 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 27 K, 30 1/3 IP)

I know I've been writing about Kennedy every week for the past two months, but following another strong start this afternoon against the Cubs, I can't help but mention him again.  He's been pitching to contact in his past two starts and, as a result, has gone eight inning deep in each of them.  He's still giving up a disconcerting number of longballs (6 HR), but he limits baserunners (2.4 BB/9) and is capable of racking up strikeouts (8.0 K/9).  I think he's mixed-league worthy at this point, especially following strong outings against two fairly potent lineups (Phillies are #2 in NL, Cubs are #8).

Mike Leake - Reds (2-0, 3.25 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 18 K, 27 2/3 IP)

His starts haven't always been pretty, but so far Leake has been the most effective pitcher in the Cincinnati rotation, probably assuring that he won't be the one getting replaced by Chapman in the coming month.  Leake has kept the ball on the ground in the Great American SmallPark (59.3%) and has shown improved control in his last two starts (only three walks in his last fourteen innings, after giving up twelve walks in his first fourteen innings).  He throws lots of pitches with lots of movement, which makes for enjoyable viewing, but you do get the sense that the wheels will eventually come off, at least for a start or two.

Mitch Talbot - Indians (3-1, 2.05 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7 K, 26 1/3 IP)

Definitely the most overlooked rookie this month, Talbot has three victories, despite pitching in front of an anemic offense.  There is nothing about the 26-year-old's minor-league track record which suggests he can keep this up and the having more walks (11) than strikeouts (7) is rarely a path to success in the majors.  However, it's hard to argue that Talbot has had an easy time of it thusfar.  His wins came against the White Sox, Twins, and Angels.  Like his teammate, Fausto Carmona, he's been keeping his pitch count down by rolling lots of groundballs.  At the beginning of the season, Talbot looked like the odd man out, were Carlos Carrasco or Aaron Laffey to get off to a strong start at AAA, but for now his position is probably pretty safe.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ruben Amaro Digs the Long Ball

Preliminary reports indicate that Ryan Howard has signed a five-year $125 Million contract extension with the Phillies, making it quite likely he'll finish his career in Philadelphia.  By the time the contract runs out in 2016, Howard will be 37-years-old.

Ryan Howard hit 220 HR in his first five seasons of his career.  Nobody else has done that.  Ryan Howard has led the majors in RBI for three of the last four seasons, something which hadn't been done since Cecil Fielder did it in the early '90s.  He won the MVP Award in '06 and has finished in the top five in MVP voting every year since.  So, why is Rob Neyer calling this contract a "big bowl of wrong"?!?

First off, let's look at this from the Phillies perspective.  Howard is teddy bear.  A big, smiling, happy-go-lucky slugger who hawks cheesesteaks on national television and has his own outreach program for underprivileged kids.  Although he may not be as talented as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, or Barry Bonds, he has a squeaky-clean reputation, the only untainted player to have a 55+ HR season in the drug-testing era.  He fills up the stat sheet and in recent years he has dedicated himself to conditioning, thus improving his defense and his speed (he stole eight bases in '09!), and potentially prolonging his career.

What Neyer sees, however, is that even after all those improvements, Howard was 25th in the league in WAR in 2009 (4.9), tied with Dustin Pedroia, Ichiro Suzuki, and Nyjer Morgan.  He was eighth amongst first-baseman, trailing Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, and Derrek Lee.  His extraordinary HR and RBI totals are inflated by the Phillies homer-happy ballpark and the exceptional talent assembled around him, and balanced by his massive strikeout totals and declining walk rate.

Howard entered the league relatively late, at the age of 25.  He's significantly older than Fielder, Cabrera, and Gonzalez.  And, although he hasn't been in the majors nearly as long, he's actually slightly older than Pujols and Teixeira.

Despite his improved conditioning, there is always concern about how the aging process will effect a slugger with Howard's body type.  Big Papi is only the most recent reminder of the danger of severe and relatively early decline in, pardon the vernacular, "pudgy" players.  According to Baseball-Reference, the five most similar players to Howard up to age 30 (his current age), are Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, and David Ortiz.  Let's take those one at a time...

Sexson reached the bigs earlier, at the age of 23, and averaged 36 HR and 112 RBI per season with Cleveland and Milwaukee from '99 to '03.  He signed his megadeal (4 yrs./$50 Mil.) with Seattle at the age of 30 and posted two solid seasons (36 HR, 114 RBI, 875 OPS) before suffering a precipitous decline.  He managed only a 698 OPS and 33 HR in his final two seasons and was out of the game at the age of 33.

Prince's estranged father, Cecil, who was far more husky than either his son or Ryan Howard, was the only player to hit 50 HR in a season between 1977 and 1995.  Big Daddy's biggest seasons came in his late 20s, when he led the league in RBI for three consecutive seasons.  From '90-'93 he averaged 40 HR and 126 RBI, with an 861 OPS, in a loaded lineup that had him hitting behind Tony Phillips, Lou Whitaker, and Alan Trammell, and in front of Kirk Gibson, Mickey Tettleton, and Rob Deer.  Fielder signed his megadeal (3 yrs./$30 Mil.) at the age of 31.  His OPS remained more or less steady for three seasons, though he struggled with injuries and hitting in a less productive lineup.  His last good season (39 HR, 117 RBI, 834 OPS) came in '96, at the age of 32.  He lasted only two more years, never again hitting more than 17 HR, and was out of baseball at the age of 34.

Mo "Hit Dog" Vaughn, like Howard, had his first big season at the age of 25.  With Boston from '93-'97 he averaged 36 HR, 110 RBI, and an outstanding 974 OPS.  He won the MVP in 1995.  He signed a six-year, $78 Million contract with Anaheim at the age of 31 and gave them two solid, but slightly down seasons (865 OPS) before injuries and a notoriously bad trade with the Mets completely derailed his career.  He played only 165 games in the final four years of his contract and was gone from baseball at the age of 35.

Big Papi also blossomed late.  He was 27-years-old in his first season with the Red Sox.  In five seasons from '03-'07 he averaged 42 HR and 128 RBI per year, with a 1014 OPS, finishing in the top five in MVP voting every time.  Prior to the '07 season, at the age of 31, he signed a four-year, $52 Million deal.  He injured his wrist midway through '08 and hasn't been quite the same since (although there's still hope!).  He's currently 34-years-old.

Clearly, there's a trend.  Four MVP-caliber first-basemen.  Four contracts signed at age 30 or 31.  Four teams dissatisfied, sometimes disastrously so, within a couple of years.  We should keep in mind that there are some other factors to throw into the equation.  Cecil Fielder was a notorious boozer, who now readily admits he made questionable "lifestyle" choices, even during his athletic career.  Vaughn, Sexson, and Ortiz have been labeled with the scarlet "S," whether fairly or not.  While there would seem to be a trend when all their injuries are thrown together, each seemed somewhat flukish on its own.  

Which leaves Willie McCovey.

Stretch, of course, was playing major-league baseball at the age of 21, but his first dominant season came at age 25, when he led the league in homers with 44.  Free Agency was never issue for McCovey and the Giants, because he was, as Curt Flood so eloquently put it, "a well-paid slave," but his prime seasons stretched from '63 to '70, during which he averaged 36 HR, 99 RBI, and a 953 OPS.  Keep in mind, this was during a pitching era, so those numbers should be treated reverentially; his OPS+ for that span was 166.  He had injury-shortened seasons in '71 and '72 (he was 33 when he first hit the D.L.) and while wasn't quite the same thereafter, he was still very good.  From '73 to '77 he averaged 22 HR, 66 RBI, and a solid 856 OPS (138 OPS+).  Unfortunately, the legendary McCovey attempted to keep playing into his forties, though he was only a glimmer of his former self (see Jr., Griffey).

I think it's safe to say Philadelphia would be satisfied if Ryan Howard's career arch followed that of the Hall of Famer.  His work ethic and dedication will certainly be contributing factors, as will his ability to avoid major injury.  I will be rooting for him.


As a little postscript, I think it's necessary to point out that for the second time in his career, Ryan Howard (and his agent, Casey Close) has altered baseball's financial terrain.  A few years back his record-breaking arbitration award ($10 Million) contributed heavily to teams locking up marquee younsters like Evan Longoria, Justin Upton, and Ryan Braun to long-term deals before they even reached arbitration eligibility.  Now, his $25 Million annual salary will probably be the baseline for Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez, all of whom will hit the market after the 2011 season and all of whom can easily argue that they are worth at least as much as Howard.  I would say that in the wake of this contract and, to a lesser extent, the Teixeira signing of a year ago, Miguel Cabrera's eight-year, $152 Million deal, which runs through 2015, looks like a steal.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What happens in April stays in April? (Part Deux)

On Opening Day I introduced you to ten "borderline contenders," teams with moderately realistic postseason ambitions, for whom I believed April baseball really did matter.  Their record wasn't really the issue, so much as unproven aspects of their roster, the performance of which might provide insight into the team's long-term prospects.  These are the teams I've been following most closely this month and though May is still a week away, I'm prepared to offer some modestly confident analysis.

Arizona Diamondbacks: B

They are at the bottom of the their division at 7-9, but the D-Backs remain a very intriguing team.  They are fifth in the NL in scoring, despite the fact that their best player, Justin Upton, has gotten off to a terrible start (640 OPS).  Stephen Drew (902 OPS) and Kelly Johnson (1088 OPS) have been great, and Chris Young has shown improvement.  Arizona has power throughout the lineup, as well as a depth of talent in players like Gerardo Parra, Brandon Allen, Chris Snyder, and Cole Gillespie, which has already proved important following injuries to Miguel Montero and Conor Jacksion.

If the offense continues to rake, they D-Backs will be sneaky good, because Dan Haren isn't going to have a 5.19 ERA for very long and Edwin Jackson is looking sharp, despite modest results (1-1, 3.81 ERA).  He went eight innings against St. Louis on Wednesday and only threw 106 pitches.  His WHIP has remained low (1.23) and he's throwing in the high 90s, which makes for a pretty potent combination.  The progress of Brandon Webb and the development of Ian Kennedy weight heavily on this team.  If the rotation gets just a little deeper, the D-Backs could make the Dodgers and Rockies very uncomfortable.

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Four)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the players in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the owners fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

OOTP Predicts Ubaldo's No-Hitter

In the third part of my OOTP simulation series I'm looking at a lineup of players who piqued my curiousity going into the season.  My primary interest had to do with their fantasy profiles, so the stats I tracked were 5 X 5 roto categories.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Outrage You Can Taste

Yesterday evening, when Boston was down 5-0 to the Rangers in a game they eventually came back and won, I was delicately coaxing a friend and Red Sox fan back from the ledge, citing a tough April schedule, some unfortunate injuries, a predominant number of notorious slow-starters, and, most of all, the fact that it was only the 20th of April.

Ironically, this afternoon I find myself perched on the very same ledge following the announcement that the Cubs intend to move Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen upon the return of Ted Lilly.  That such a move is ASININE doesn't even begin to describe it.

First of all, Zambrano, despite a poor ERA, has not had a bad April.  He got torched by Jason Heyward and the Braves on Opening Day, but since then he has a modest 4.00 ERA, a pair of quality starts (in three chances), and an outstanding strikeout rate (25 K in 18 IP).  I daresay there isn't another team in all of baseball that would pull the plug on a pitcher showing that kind of stuff this early in the season.  Even including his ugly first outing, Big Z's strikeout rate is fifth in the major leagues among starting pitchers.

I realize that "Sweet" Lou finds himself in a tough spot.  His middle relief is truly dreadful and with Lilly returning he has to move somebody to the bullpen.  Superficially, at least, Zambrano has been the worst pitcher thusfar.  Tom Gorzelanny has only thrown nine total innings, but his ERA is 1.93.  Carlos Silva has made starts against the Astros (30th in MLB in scoring), Mets (21st), and Reds (17th), and thus is being treated like Jim Hendry's immaculate conception.  Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells have actually been legitimately good.

I sincerely doubt that Zambrano's tenure as a reliever will last particularly long.  Whether by injury or ineffectiveness, somebody will need replaced, probably in a matter of weeks.  Such would be the case no matter who was being moved.  It is never a disadvantage to have six competent starting pitchers.  It is ludicrous, however, to move the most talented and the most durable of the bunch into a role that he's neither familiar with, nor particularly suited to.  Zambrano's Achilles heel has always been wildness.  For his career he gives up 4.76 BB/9 in his first inning of work (his worst rate for any inning).  Does that sound like a guy suited to pitching in late and close situations?  The great joy of watching Big Z is usually that he gets better over the course of a game and that he seems to rarely tire.  These qualities are wasted in a reliever.

I didn't have the highest of hopes for the Cubs coming into the year, but I am still quite fond of this Pinella-era incarnation, despite last year's disappointment, as they've given us a pair of division titles and three straight winning seasons.  I find myself this afternoon, however, wishing the new owner would blow the whole thing up.  Fire Lou.  Damn sure fire Hendry.  Trade D-Lee and A-Ram and Lilly.  Release Soriano.  Release Fukudome.  Jumpstart the Starlin Castro era.

Somebody, I hope, will talk me down.  The season is yet young.

Fantastic Thoughts: NOW! NOW! NOW!

I was watching a Red Sox game yesterday evening in which I heard Jerry Remy, in all seriousness, utter the words "small sample size," which gives you a sense of just how deeply the vocabulary of sabermetrics has infected the Fenway faithful.  Rem-dog is right, it's still too early in the season to start making assumptions, especially, I would argue, about players with lengthy track records which dispute their current statlines.  However, from a fantasy baseball perspective, if you wait until the end of April to start making roster moves, you may miss out on this season's versions of Ben Zobrist, Joel Pineiro, and Nelson Cruz.

So, who are the flukes and who are the first-time All-Stars?  Here's what I'm buying:

Jeremy Hermida - OF - Boston Red Sox

The Marlins waited five years for their former #1 pick to break out, but his best season was '07 when he hit 18 HR with a solid 870 OPS.  He backtracked over the next two seasons, struggled with injuries, and was lapped by Cody Ross, Chris Coghlan, and Cameron Maybin.  Last November, the Marlins traded him the Red Sox for a pair of minor-league relievers.  Hermida looked destined to become a utility-man, but with Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron on the D.L., he has chanced into regular at-bats and, at the magic age of 27, in a much friendlier ballpark, with a friendlier lineup around him, there's no reason the long-awaited breakout won't happen in Boston.  Hermida already has 3 HR and 9 RBI in just eleven games.  His average may not be particularly pretty, but the power is legit and everything seems to be working in his favor.

Colby Lewis - SP - Texas Rangers

Lewis didn't even reach my radar until late in the spring, when his place in the Rangers rotation was confirmed.  Sure, his record in Japan was very impressive, but who really know how to convert those numbers.  For every Ichiro there is a Kaz Matsui, for every Dice-K an Irabu.  I took Lewis as a flier in a couple deep leagues merely because Ron Washington and Mike Maddux trusted him enough to sent Derek Holland and Brandon McCarthy to AAA.  So far, so good.  In three starts, Lewis has a 2.60 ERA and is striking out more than a batter an inning.  Granted, his competition thusfar has been Seattle (10th in the AL in runs), Cleveland (13th), and a struggling Boston lineup (11th), but I'm ready to recommend him in all formats, especially since his next five starts come against Detroit, Seattle, Oakland, Kansas City, and Toronto.

Martin Prado - 2B - Atlanta Braves

Prado's breakout actually began last season when he hit .310 after being handed a full-time starting gig around the beginning of June.  Any fears that he may have been playing above his head have been soothed by a .440 average in the opening weeks of 2010.  The main worry, from a fantasy perspective, is that Prado's average could be a little "hollow," as he didn't show much power or speed in the minors.  His eleven homers last year were his most ever at any level, by a long shot.  However, by showing good plate discipline and now hitting atop the Braves lineup, Prado is a good bet for 100+ runs and an average well above .300.    

Monday, April 19, 2010

I told you so... (Ubaldo Jimenez)

In what I hope will be an ongoing series of nasty, sophomoric posts, I'd like to congratulate myself for jumping on the Ubaldo Jimenez bandwagon a long, long time ago.

It's not like I was the one and only, but we Ubaldophiliacs were few and proud in the early stages of his career, as he struggled with his control and the misfortune of pitching in the Mile-High City.

Ubaldo numbered among my top sleepers heading into last season and in May of '09 I enjoined readers to "pick him up pronto" following a trio of quality starts which I cited as "evidence that Ubaldo's moving toward consistent control of his arsenal" and claimed "he has a much, much higher ceiling than Wandy Rodriguez, and possibly as high and Zack Greinke."

From that point forward, including his first three starts in 2010, Ubaldo has gone 15-8 with a 2.98 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and 8.32 K/9.

The fact that he surrendered six walks during his no-hitter has prompted some ignorant pundits (a.k.a. those PTI dimwits) to call his performance "flukish."  That's patently ridiculous, on a couple levels.  First off, baserunners are baserunners.  A 1.17 WHIP does not lie.  And, as has been widely reported, Jimenez didn't allow a walk after he went to the stretch full time in the sixth inning, which helped to keep his pitch count reasonable, so that he was still throwing 98 MPH to the last batter of the game.  Jimenez's control problems, which were notable early in his career, have all but vanished at this point.  His BB/9 in 2009 was 3.5, the same as Andy Pettitte's and well within the range of expectation for a guy with his kind of stuff.

Now that I've finished shoulder-slapping, the question is, have we seen the limits of Ubaldo's upside?  Jim Tracy is convinced that he'll be on hand for another Jimenez no-hitter before his tenure with the Rockies is over.  (Tracy is signed through 2012 and Colorado controls Jimenez until 2014.)  A couple months ago I rated him among the "21st-Century Cys," pitchers who I believe, on the model of Greinke and Cliff Lee, could unexpectedly surge to the front of their profession in 2010.  Is there a catch?

I don't believe so, but if there is, it could have to do with fatigue.  Ubaldo racked up 230 inning in '09, including the postseason, which was 31 more than he threw in '07 and '08.  That's hardly a Hamels-esque spike and if he was feeling any ill effects from the workload, it likely would've registered this spring (as it did for Hamels and Ervin Santana in '09, and Jair Jurrjens this year).  It is nonetheless something to keep an eye on, especially considering his pitch counts.  During the Clint Hurdle administration, Ubaldo was on a pretty strict 110-pitch limit.  He surpassed that total only six times in his first sixty starts with the Rockies (that 10%, by the way), and never went above 115.  Since Jim Tracy took over, Ubaldo has topped 110 pitches in 59% of his starts, and has thrown upwards of 120 on three occasions, including last week, when he threw a career-high 128 pitches.

Only four pitchers threw more total pitches in 2009.  They were Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and C. C. Sabathia.  What that suggests to me is the class of pitchers that Ubaldo ranks among.  But, one could equally claim that he has not proven his ability to sustain that workload to the extent those other pitchers have.  In 2008, Gil Meche, Edinson Volquez, and Ervin Santana ranked among that class and weren't the same thereafter (indeed, Meche and Volquez have yet to recover).  Jimenez's doubters will need to seem him repeat (and possibly improve upon) his 2009 campaign before they're willing to rate him among the elite starters.

If the National League weren't stacked with high-end pitching talent (Doc Halladay joins perennial Cy candidates Lincecum, Carpenter, and Santana) I might be tempted to more confidently proclaim his candidacy for the trophy.  Nevertheless, I do think he will earn his Cy eventually and certainly will not be among the those "flukish" pitchers like Bud Smith, Jose Jimenez, and Eric Milton who tossed no-hitter and then faded into obscurity.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Three)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the players in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the owners fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Orlando Hudson isn't saying...

First of all, Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Here are just a couple of the many things one could accurately say in tribute to the man who was, undeniably, the most important player in baseball history:

1.) Jackie Robinson was a tremendously skilled athlete whose success as a baseball player also depended on his ability to gain and maintain the respect of his teammates, many of whom viewed him with extraordinary skepticism.

2.) Jackie Robinson was never afraid to tackle the difficult and uncomfortable issue of race and when he did, his answers, though often impassioned and sometimes unpopular, were always reasoned and articulate.

As it happens, although there is a difference in the degree of both their athletic skills and the acumen of their thoughts, both those statements could also be used to describe Torii Hunter and Orlando Hudson.

Neither Hudson nor Hunter is probably headed toward baseball immortality, but both are All-Star players who, like Robinson, have built their reputations not only with sheer talent, but also hustle, heart, and humility.  Even those who are narrow-minded and reductive enough to depend on such a cliche have to admit that these are guys who "play the game right."

Both Hunter and Hudson have recently and rather mildly expressed concern regarding the position of African-American players in the game 63 years after Jackie Robinson began its integration.

Their outspokenness, however mediated, has spurred an eruption of message board malice and twittering ignorance.  Surprise, surprise.

Reading and responding to the hateful verbiage being spilled on Orlando recently, even by major media outlets, will only lead to ranting and rage, which to some extent dignifies patently the undignified opinions.

I will merely point out, however, that both Hunter and Hudson are thoughtful, good-natured players, who have been popular, even beloved, on every team they've played for and seem to be regarded favorably even by their opponents.  Those who seek to characterize them as "angry brothers" and lump them together with Milton Bradley, Elijah Dukes, and other temperamental black athletes, even as they petulantly protest claims of racism, practice it.  They reveal their bigotry in a particularly insidious and ugly fashion.  Of such commenters I will say only this, in the words of Samuel L., "Yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell."

The more intelligent and earnest men, like Rob Neyer and Tom Tango, who have sought to grapple with Hudson's statements by actually testing their validity, I offer some kudos.  I am persuaded, certainly, that many older players, including perhaps Jermaine Dye (who was Hudson's primary subject), bring with them a combination of injury risk, defensive inefficiency, positional inflexibility, and expense which make them an unwise investment for many teams.

I am all for general managers getting smarter, which I think they're doing, generally.  However, I'm not convinced that getting smarter always and necessarily requires closing the door on long productive (and, in some cases, legendary) players.  Certainly, one can understand how Orlando Hudson might wonder, what is it that Jim Edmonds and Jason Giambi possess that Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield don't?

When Rob Neyer notes (citing Peter Hjort) that black players make more money per WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Hispanic players, he implies that it discredits Hudson's accusation.  In those statistics I see, however, a different set of implications.

1.) African-American stars are still and will always be in demand (as all stars are), but when it comes to more middle-of-road or fringe major-league talent, teams seem tempted to go in a different direction, which explains why there were only five contracts given to African-American players during the past offseason, while 18 went to Hispanics and 33 to Caucasians.  Ever since the 1960s there has been the impression - voiced by many black players, including Curt Flood and Jackie Robinson - that the guys at the end of the bench or the back of the bullpen are predominantly white because management likes it that way.

2.) Hispanic players are not getting paid enough.  This aspect of Torii Hunter's statements was widely suppressed during the hoopla following his "imposters" interview.  Facing worse poverty and with fewer bargaining chips that American citizens, Latin American players, especially those who are very young or are fringe talents sign for, as Hunter puts it, "a bag of chips."  One of the reasons why there are people calling for an international draft and for greater regulation of the international free agent market is to fix this imbalance, which would work both to help Latino players get paid on the level with their domestic counterparts and allow more Americans who are borderline professional talents compete on an even playing field with their Dominican or Venezuelan equivalents.

We need to remember that their is nothing evil about "getting paid."  To establish, understand, and demand a wage equal to one's market value is part of being a responsible citizen in a free market economy.  African-Americans in all fields are often more sensitive to this as both responsibility and pressure because a.) they were denied access to it until relatively recently, b.) it is at the foundation of much classic civil rights rhetoric, and c.) it remains at the forefront of their cultural aesthetic (Floyd Mayweather, Barack Obama, and Jay-Z would never sign a contract for less than they're worth.  Why should Gary Sheffield?).

So, with all that in mind, here are two reasons Orlando Hudson has to be suspicious.  I won't hazard a guess as to when exactly a conspiracy of coincidences becomes a trend, but here are the facts:

Let's start with what can't help but be foremost in Hudson's mind: his own experience.  Over the previous four seasons Orlando has an 803 OPS (106 OPS+), 10.7 WAR, three Gold Gloves, and two All-Star appearances.  He is 32-years-old.  During that same exact same timespan, Placido Polanco has a 762 OPS (98 OPS+), 12.5 WAR, two Gold Gloves, and one All-Star appearance.  He is 34-years-old.

Although you may prefer one to the other, you must admit they are pretty similar players.  Yet Polanco got 3 yr./$18 Million deal (plus an option) this past offseason and has made upwards of $50 Million for his career, while Hudson has had to settle for consecutive one-year deals of $5 Million or less and has earned just about $20 Million for his career.  Setting aside whatever explanations and preferences you might have, ask yourself simply, is Placido Polanco more than twice as good as Orlando Hudson?

Let's also look past this years crop of unemployed black thirty- and forty-somethings.  This is not the first set of former All-Stars who have been unceremoniously and unwillingly ushered into retirement.  The list also includes, in just the two previous offseasons, Barry Bonds, Tony Clark, Royce Clayton, Ray Durham, Cliff Floyd, Tom Gordon, Kenny Lofton, Dave Roberts, Reggie Sanders, Shannon Stewart, Frank Thomas, Rondell White, and Preston Wilson.  I'm certainly not claiming that all of these players are/were still good enough to contribute, but that's a lot of players with a lot of history being told to hang up their spikes before they're ready.   Many of them - Bonds, Durham, Lofton, Sanders, etc. - were coming off season in which they had proven they could still be quite productive.

Hopefully, you can begin to see what Orlando might understandably construe as a pattern.  I am certainly not ready to accuse MLB of "collusion" in the case of Jermaine Dye or Gary Sheffield, nor do I think that is what O-Dog is suggesting.  However, the kneejerk urge to discredit his statements and the lack of imagination regarding how he and Hunter arrived at their conclusions reveals a racial taboo still ingrained deep within the sport.  Our national past-time has since Jackie Robinson (and even before, to be honest) provided an insightful synecdoche into the most tortured and the most definitive aspect of our nation: or racial heteronomy.  Their has been a growing inclination since the election of our first black president to believe we are entering a so-called "post-racial" America.  All O-Dog is requesting is that you look closer.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Out of the Park Baseball 11: Award Predictions

Based upon my 25-season simulations, heres how OOTP sees the major awards working out in 2010.


Joe Mauer (Twins) 28%
Alex Rodriguez (Yankees) 28%
Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) 12%
Evan Longoria (Rays) 8%
Mark Teixeira (Yankees) 8%
Billy Butler (Royals) 4%
Nick Markakis (Orioles 4%
Kendry Morales (Angels) 4 %
Ben Zobrist (Rays) 4%

No big surprise that the reigning MVP, Joe Mauer, and three-time MVP, Alex Rodriguez, are strongly favored, with perennial candidates like Miggy Cabrera, Longoria, and Teixeira most likely to unseat them.  Of the outliers, I though Ben Zobrist was the most interesting.  The OOTP simulator clearly agrees that his '09 breakout campaign was no fluke.  In fact, it could be just the beginning.


Albert Pujols (Cardinals) 52%
Chase Utley (Phillies) 12%
Pablo  Sandoval (Giants) 8%
Lance Berkman (Astros) 4%
Ryan Braun (Brewers) 4%
Adam Dunn (Nationals) 4%
Prince Fielder (Brewers) 4 %
Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies) 4%
Hanley Ramirez (Marlins) 4%
Joey Votto (Reds) 4%

In the unlikely scenario that Prince Albert doesn't three-peat as MVP, OOTP sees the NL as a wide-open race, with only Utley and Kung Fu Panda registering more than one win.  I was pleased to see Carlos Gonzalez, one of my fantasy favorites, taking home the award on one occasion (and performing consistenly well, as you'll see in my next OOTP post).  Joey Votto had the distinction of being the only player in either league who won a triple crown.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

SPH 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey (April)

As April began, bad news continued to roll in, as Jeff Francis joined the list of S.S.S. participants who began the season on the D.L.  Of our eight starters, only two made appearances in the season's first week.  The good news is, both pitched spendidly.

Freddy Garcia took a bit of a hard luck loss in his first outing, as his duel with Scott Baker was decided by a Jason Kubel two-run homer in the seventh inning.  Nevertheless, Garcia looked sharp, especially early in the game, as he threw the kitchen sink at the Twins, mixing in all his pitches and throwing in the upper eighties.  He did seem to fatigue a bit in the sixth and seventh as he allowed more baserunners, struggled with his command, and suffered a slight dip in velocity.  However, at that point in the game, particularly in April when arm strength is still somewhat in question, fatigue is fairly typical for any pitcher.  The White Sox should be very encouraged.

On the same day that Garcia had his strong showing against the Twins, Jeremy Bonderman was shutting down the Indians.  Bonderman was not allowed as long a leash, as he got pulled after only five innings and 91 pitches, but the results were solid.  He gave up only one hit, a Travis Hafner single in the fourth, and a couple of walks (also in the fourth), leading to one run, while he struck out five.  The Tigers gave him some early breathing room, as Magglio Ordonez hit a two-run homer in the first and they tacked on two more in the third.  Bonderman did touch 94 MPH at times, but more impressive was his new splitter, which he threw frequently and for strikes.

It should be noted that both Bonderman and Garcia, unlike most of the other pitchers in our survey, did make brief appearances at the end of 2009, so they were significantly ahead of everybody else in the rehab process.

Francis's injury apparently had nothing to do with his shoulder and he is expected to join the rotation within a couple of weeks.

Similarly, back stiffness has slowed the progress of Ted Lilly, but his arm has been strong in his extended Spring Training outings and the Cubs expect him to join the rotation before the end of the month.

Brandon Webb, whose return is the most anticipated of any player in this survey, had a cortisone injection on the first of the month.  He appears unlikely to rejoin the Diamondbacks before May, at the earliest.  He is playing catch, but not throwing from the mound.

Chien-Ming Wang was placed on the 60-Day D.L. to begin the season, meaning he won't be eligible to join the Nats until June.  His is throwing bullpen sessions and that timetable seems reasonable thusfar.

Erik Bedard is throwing pain-free bullpen sessions of around 50 pitches.  The Mariners are tentatively saying his is "ahead of schedule," which means he'll likely rejoin the rotation before the All-Star Break.

With the Blue Jays off to a hot start thanks largely to the performance of their young starting rotation, which posted five quality starts in six games during the first week, Toronto has no reason to rush McGowan, who dealt with some arm fatigue this spring as he worked his way back from major reconstructive surgery.  The Jays haven't announced a timetable, so waiting until the second half may not be unreasonable.

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Two)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the players in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the owners fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Out of the Park Baseball 11: Royals Win!

The kind people at OOTP Development passed along the most recent version of the baseball simulator, Out of the Park Baseball 11.  Although I'm by no means an experienced gamer, OOTP has piqued my curiosity on several occasions over the years and their product continues to get better and better, mainly by taking into account a range of variables which actually resembles the game of baseball.  For instance, OOTP simulates not only the major-league season, but a complete minor-league season as well, including a draft.  You can track the progress of Pedro Alvarez, Desmond Jennings, and Stephen Strasburg, or (in manager mode) you can eviscerate your farm system via a deadline deal in an effort to make a run at the pennant.  It tracks a wide variety of situational statistics and advanced metrics, not just the "baseball card" numbers.  Another OOTP's advantage is its late release date (mid-April), which means it comes with actual Opening Day rosters already in place.  Jim Edmonds is on the Brewers, Nate Robertson's on the Marlins, and Elijah Dukes is in the free agent pool.

You can entertain yourself with the OOTP software in many ways, including taking over a franchise and attempting to build it into a dynasty on a game-by-game basis; however, I focused on OOTP's aptitude for predicting performances in the 2010 season.  In a matter of three clicks, you can simulate the entire season. I performed this three-click sequence 25 times.  In the coming days I'll take a look at results at the outcomes for player awards, league leaders, and some blue-chip rookies, but today I'll give you the OOTP answer to the most interesting question: Who will win the 2010 World Series?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Cult of Halladay

I gave myself over to him completely on April 13, 2007.  In the fourth inning of a game against the Tigers, I realized that short of sex and drugs, there's nothing more pleasurable than watching Roy Halladay pitch.  The Tigers of '07, you may recall, were coming off an AL Pennant, and had a monster offense which would go on to finish second in the AL in runs scored.  In the fourth, Halladay was facing the meat of it for the second time: Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen.  A trio of professional hitters who would proceed to drive in 316 runs that season.

The inning got off to an auspicious start when Sheffield, clearly aware that whatever Halladay offered him was going to be in the zone, grounded a single through the right side on the first pitch of the at-bat, bringing Ordonez, who had already homered off Halladay in the second, to the plate with a man on.  Magglio won the batting title and finished second in the AL MVP voting that year.  He was clearly one of the most feared hitters in the league, but the moment he stepped into the box, Halladay ran a cut fastball across the inside half of the plate, right in his power zone, and Ordonez didn't even flinch.  The next pitch was a sinker diving toward the outside corner and Ordonez slapped it weakly to John McDonald who turned an easy 6-4-3 double play.  One pitch later, after Guillen bounced a cutter off the front side of the plate, allowing Greg Zaun to throw him out a first, Halladay was walking off the mound having retired one of the most lethal threesomes in the sport on a grand total of four pitches.  He would proceed to win the game by throwing a ten-inning complete-game which featured just two strikeouts and required only 107 pitches.

I can't say I really discovered the joy of Halladay until 2005, which was the year he joined my fantasy team in the longest-running keeper league I participate in.  He'd already won his Cy Young by that point, so of course I was aware of him, but I hadn't ever made any sort of effort to watch him pitch.  After all, he played for the profoundly mediocre Blue Jays.  By May, however, Halladay's starts had become a part of my weekly rountine.  Doc was cruising and in July he was named the AL starter for the All-Star game, two days before a Kevin Mench line drive broke his leg.  Halladay almost certainly would've won his second Cy Young that season, considering that the eventual field of candidates was rather weak (Bartolo Colon won with a 21-8 record and a 3.48 ERA) and at the All-Start break Doc had a 2.41 ERA and was on pace for 21 wins and 254 innings.

Since '05 I've missed only a handful of Halladay's starts and count myself among the growing number of baseball fans who are mesmerized by every pitch.  The Cult of Halladay is going to be adding many new members in 2010.  He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last week (check out the excellent article about Halladay's career and vaunted work ethic) and when he takes the mound for the Phillies on Opening Day he will be introduced to one of the sport's larger media markets.

Monday, April 05, 2010

What happens in April, stays in April? (Opening Day Primer)

Every year, around the middle of May, when the Yankees are sitting around or even well under .500 a few members of the New York media freak out.  They call for benchings, trades, and firings and for the obvious necessity of moving Joba Chamberlain to or from the bullpen.  Inevitably, however, Yankees management ignore the panicked Chicken Littles and by the All-Star Break they are right where the need to be, neck-and-neck with the Red Sox.

The Yankees, the Phillies, and the Rockies are all notoriously slow starters, perhaps because they deal with some cold weather in the spring, or maybe because they employ some key players - Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, etc. - who are known for having a rough time of it in April.  But these teams will not judge their seasons based on what happens in the first eight weeks.  Come August, I have no doubt they will all be in the midst of the pennant race.

New York (AL), Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota, and Los Angeles (AL), all of whom, coincidently, made the playoffs last season, can afford early inconsistencies with the knowledge that, barring catastrophic bad luck, they have all the pieces in place to be competitive over the long haul.   Many of the other  dozen or so franchises with postseason aspirations, however, will sink or swim based on what they can prove in April and May, not only in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of players stepping up to fill crucial roles.

So, while the casual fan finds April baseball games less than enthralling because they seem inconsequential in comparison with the high stakes of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I'll be closely watching these teams in the early weeks to distinguish the difference between contender and pretender...

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week One)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the players in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the owners fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.  

This week I'd like to make a couple additional points about streaming and particularly about teams which you draft with the intention of streaming from the start of the season.

The idea of streaming is to guarantee yourself two categories every week.  You still need to find a way to wrap up four more.  Obviously, the customary approach is to load up on hitting early and try to accumulate a strong corp of relievers later.  You can see the results of my "Stream Team" draft below.  I didn't take a pitcher until round nine.  I didn't take a starting pitcher until round twelve.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

BBA Introduces Goose Gossage Award

Yesterday the BBA introduced the Goose Gossage Award, which will operate something like a Cy Young for relievers, voted on every fall by BBA membership.

It remains to be seen exactly how voters will approach the award, but one of the things I like most about naming the award after Gossage is that he was a dominating reliever who was more than just a "closer."  Gossage routinely pitched multiple innings.  During his prime, from 1975-1985, he averaged 109 innings a season.  And, although he led the league in saves three times, he regularly pitched in non-save situations as well.  In what might be his finest season, with the Pirates in 1977, Gossage threw 133 innings in relief and made 72 appearances, less than half of which came in save situations.

Unlike something like the Rolaids Relief Man Award, using Gossage as inspiration for the award allows BBA voters to look well beyond the save statistic.  Last year, for instance, Heath Bell won the NL version of the Rolaids award based mainly on his 42 saves, which paced the senior circuit.  Granted, Bell was very good.  However, Jonathan Broxton was clearly a class above, as he led Bell in nearly every other category - ERA, WHIP, W, IP, etc. - and struck out an astounding 114 hitters in 76 innings, while holding opposing batters to a .165 average, best in the majors amongst pitchers who threw 60+ innings.

In 2008 one might've argued that the most deserving recipient in the NL wasn't a closer at all, but middle reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who led all NL relievers in ERA (1.69), WHIP (0.92), and Defense-Independent Pitching (2.04), otherwise known as DIPS.

Many thanks to the Gossage for lending his name to the award and I look forward to voting on it.

Mystifying Preseason Trades: Julio Lugo

The Cardinals confirmed this morning that they'll be sending Julio Lugo to Baltimore for a player to be named later.  The move was made possible, in part, by the fact that Brendan Ryan's rehab has gone much faster than expected and he appears on course to play Opening Day.  Cardinals skipper, Tony LaRussa, endorsed the move because it made his roster math a little simpler, allowing him to keep Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha, and Allen Craig, young players who have made strong showings this spring.  I'd like to offer an alternative viewpoint.

First of all, what surprises me about this deal is that St. Louis will get nothing in return.  It is highly unlikely that the player to be named later will be anything more than organizational depth.  Moreover, whatever St. Louis (and now Baltimore) gets from Lugo is absolutely free production, as the Red Sox are paying his 2010 salary in its entirety.  It's rare to have a useful veteran player like Lugo on your bench who costs you essentially zero dollars.  Lugo played quite well down the stretch for the Cardinals, hitting .277 with a 784 OPS.  He is easily as good an offensive player as Brendan Ryan, though Ryan is the superior defender.

Lugo was, however, the Cardinals best back-up plan at short, something which should be taken into serious consideration following Ryan's back problems this spring.  Felipe Lopez, who hasn't spent significant time at shortstop since 2007, and was never as strong there as he is at second base, becomes the alternative to Ryan.  Were Ryan to miss extensive time, the Cardinals up-the-middle defense would take a major hit, as Lopez would not only represent a more drastic decline at short than Lugo, but the team would also miss his defense at second base, where Skip Schumaker, a natural outfielder, would have to play full-time again.

Lugo was also perfectly suited to LaRussa's managerial tendencies.  Although primarily a shortstop, he has played extended innings at second and some time at third and even in the outfield.  Positional flexibility is something that LaRussa, who loves to play matchup baseball, covets.  Lugo was among his only middle infield options, while guys like Mather, Craig, and Stavinoha are very limited defensively.

When I previewed the NL Central this spring, and did my offseason prospectus for the Cardinals this winter, my primary concern was the Cardinals lack of depth.  They are playing without a parachute at several positions.  Obviously, an injury to one of their big four - Pujols, Carpenter, Holliday, and Wainwright - would be devastating, but now that they've parted ways with Lugo and Rick Ankiel, they could be seriously hampered by an injury to Ryan or Colby Rasmus, as Skip Schumaker is probaby the back-up centerfielder.  Perhaps John Mozeliak is planning on being as active this July as he was last year, when he reinvigorated the Cardinals by adding Holliday, Lugo, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz, but such reinforcements come at a hefty price and the competition for them is likely to be stiff.

Some pundits believe that the Cardinals path to the postseason is the easiest in baseball, but I disagree.  While it's true that no team in the NL Central made a big offseason splash, the Cubs, Reds, and Brewers all figure to be better than they were in 2009, thanks to the return of injured players (Aramis Ramirez, Joey Votto, etc.), the development of key youngsters (Yovani Gallardo, Jay Bruce, etc.), and the saavy addition of role-playing free agents (Randy Wolf, Orlando Cabrera, etc.).  In fact, it is the Cardinals who appear to have taken the biggest step backwards, having parted ways with Lugo, Ankiel, DeRosa, and Joel Pineiro.  What can they expect from David Freese?  Is Brad Penny a suitable third starter?  Will Ryan Franklin continue to be a dominant closer?  Can they really expect to again have two Cy Young contenders?

I'm certainly not rooting against or betting against the Cardinals, who usually find a way to exceed expectations, but I don't think they'll be able to run away and hide, as they did during the second half of last season.  Health and depth will play a major role in deciding the Central, and by gifting Julio Lugo to the Orioles, the Cardinals made themselves less prepared to compensate in both departments.