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

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Karmic Swindle

It's been a busy summer for me, so posting has been infrequent, and it will probably continue to be sporadic through the next couple months.  I did, however, want to weigh in on some of the deadline drama.

Most recently, Dan Haren joined the Angels in what will undoubtedly be the most flabbergasting trade of the season.  The D-Backs interim GM traded away Haren for a handful of borderline talents.  Joe Saunders is a proven major-league pitcher of the back-of-the-rotation variety who is poorly suited to Arizona's home ballpark.  Rafael Rodriguez is a young, fairly potent middle reliever with a low strikeout rate, who probably won't every have closer potential.  Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs are both longshots, teenagers who haven't advanced past A-ball.  Skaggs was a late first-round pick in 2009, so he's a premium talent, but you don't build blockbusters around pitchers straight out of high school, a notoriously unpredictable commodity.  This is a truly forgettable package to receive for one the top ten pitchers in baseball, who shill has three seasons left on his contract.

For starters, let's compare the trade to a similar one that happened just a few weeks ago, when the rival Rangers acquired Cliff Lee from Seattle.  In return, they got the Rangers top prospect (heading into 2010), Justin Smoak, and a former first-rounder, Blake Beavan, who is currently pitching quite well in AA (11-6, 2.98 ERA).

I will agree that Lee is a better pitcher than Haren, but the difference is nominal.  Here are their numbers over the last three seasons ('08-'10):

Dan Haren: 37-26, 3.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 1.1 HR/9, 6.75 IP/GS
Cliff Lee: 45-20, 2.82 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 5.38 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 7.22 IP/GS

Like I said, Lee is clearly the better pitcher, but the difference is not huge, especially when you take into consideration that Haren pitches at Chase Field, one of the most homer-happy ballparks in the league, while Lee has spent most of the last three seasons in pitchers havens (Cleveland & Seattle).  And, moreover, Haren's value is increased by the fact that he's two years younger than Lee and has three additional years left on his contract at below market value.  Haren will make $12.75 Million in each of '11 and '12, then has a club option at $15.5 Million in 2013.  With guys like John Lackey, A. J. Burnett, and Derek Lowe all making $15 Million or more per season in recent contracts, it's easy to assume that Haren could get well upwards of his current salary were he a free agent.  When Lee goes on the market this offseason, he will almost certainly gross over $100 Million.

Yet, somehow the Mariners got more in return for three months of Lee than the D-Backs got for three years of Haren.  That's just bad business.  But perhaps it's what the Arizona ownership deserves for firing Josh Byrnes.

Although the D-Backs have had a rough go of it in 2010, largely due to a disastrous bullpen and an underperforming rotation, Byrnes still brought together a very solid foundation of talent.  The lineup ranks 7th in the NL in scoring, despite down seasons from Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds, and an injury which cost Miguel Montero most of the first half.  With solid young pitchers like Haren, Edwin Jackson, and Ian Kennedy in the rotation and a fairly well stocked farm system, Arizona appeared only a year or two of development and a few deft moves away from serious contention.  Instead, ownership chose to scrap the best-laid plans because they did pay immediate dividends.

Now, they've traded away their most marketable commodity for pieces which don't make them better now or in the near future.  C'est la vie.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Some All-Star Roster Math For Your Holiday Selection Show Viewing

We've been hearing it ad nauseum for a month now: it's the "year of the pitcher."  Tomorrow, however, that impression will be made even more tangible by the All-Star Selection Show, airing on TBS.  So many pitchers are having dynamite seasons that a large percentage of fans are going to be surprised and horrified when their local Ace doesn't get the call, despite excellent totals.  It's almost certain that Joe Girardi and Charlie Manuel will be forced to leave off at least one guy with double-digit wins, at least one guy on pace for 200+ K, and probably several with ERAs under 3.00.  

One way to dull the sting of this, at least slightly, is a creative use of MLB's "Final Vote," through which the fans choose the 34th player on each side.  The last two seasons, both managers have used that ballot exclusively for position players.  This year, it would be nice to give kudos to a few more arms by making it a pitching ballot.  Another possibility is going with fewer relievers.  All-Star managers have generally reserved five or six out of their thirteen pitching slots for their league's top relievers.  This year, it might be wise to pare that back to four or five, as the "year of the pitcher" has not been as kind to relievers as it has to starters (the average starter's ERA is down 0.27 runs from '09, the average reliever's is down only 0.01).

Here are some of the most interesting selection storylines to watch for tomorrow:

Nepotism or Anti-Nepotism?

Almost every year one of the All-Star managers gets accused of choosing one too many of his own players.  This season, certainly, Joe Girardi could face such criticism if he went for Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, or Alex Rodriguez over other more deserving candidates.  Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano have been voted in by the fans.  Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are also shoo-ins at their positions.  Phil Hughes and C. C. Sabathia also have legitimate claims.  How many All-Stars can one team have?

Don't be surprised if you see both managers erring in the other direction.  The Yankees and Phillies primary goals are getting back to the World Series.  If possible, these managers may seek to give their own player a much-needed midseason vacation.  I expect either Hughes or Sabathia will pitch on the last day of the first half, thus preventing them from being available for the All-Star game.  Even if they are both selected, one will almost certainly be replaced.

To Stras or Not to Stras?

It's been the big debate at ESPN for the last week or so.  I certainly understand the temptation from the perspective of marketing.  The Golden Arm going head to head with the AL's best would make for good television, but take a long look at just a few of the NL's other borderline starting pitching candidates and tell me who off this list you would tell to stay at home because you prefer showcase a 21-year-old with half a dozen major-league starts.  Reigning two-time Cy-Young winner, Tim Lincecum?  Perennial Cy Young candidate and nine-game winner, Chris Carpenter?  The major-league strikeout leader, Yovani Gallardo?

The Other Rooks

Strasburg isn't the only rookie who could be headed to Anaheim.  Jaime Garcia is a pretty sure bet, as he is second in the NL in ERA.  Brennan Boesch is similarly among the AL leaders in several categories and should have his ticket punched.  Neftali Feliz leads the AL in saves.   Jason Heyward will likely be voted in, although injury will keep him out of the lineup.  Gaby Sanchez and Mike Leake are also worth of a long look.

Battling To Back-Up

Because of the fans tendency to elect at least a couple of infielders based on name recognition alone and the fact that each manager will likely carry only one back-up for most of the infield positions, there are often tough choices to be made for those spots.  Here are the most difficult this year:

NL C: Mike Napoli v. Jorge Posada
Both of these guys are probably more suited to DH, but with Victor Martinez on the DL, no other AL catchers are even close enough in the running to make defense a deciding factor.  I think Girardi goes with Napoli, both to satisfy the hosts in Anaheim and to give Posada more rest.  Such a choice will only fuel speculation of their feud in the New York papers.

AL SS: Elvis Andrus v. Alex Gonzalez
Alex Gonzalez leads AL shortstops in homers, RBI, and OPS, but he's slumped significantly since April, and faces stiff competition from Elvis Andrus, who leads AL shortstops in runs, AVG, OBP, and stolen bases.  Both are accomplished glovemen.  I expect, if it comes to it, Girardi will opt for the veteran.  Andrus, at just 21-year-old, is going to have many, many more shots at selection.

NL 3B: Scott Rolen v. Ryan Zimmerman
Z-Pack's recent slump combined with the fact that Rolen plays for a first-place teams will probably tilt this in favor of the Red, but both are excellent defensive players have outstanding campaigns.

So, an Indian, a Pirate, and an Oriole walk into a bar...

Many oppose the rule that every team must be represented at the All-Star Game, but I think it's great, because it rewards players who have little else to look forward to after their teams have been eliminated in May.  And, we get to see talents like Andrew McCutchen, who will be the Pirates lone representative, that don't get a lot of national recognition.  It also makes the roster math super complicated.  Here are some teams that will probably only get one roster spot, but have two or more equally deserving players.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Justin Upton v. Chris Young
They are both outfielders, their numbers are nearly identical, and they are clearly the best candidates on their team, so this one is going to be especially difficult for Charlie Manuel.  Upton has more cache and a better chance of hitting the best pitching the AL has to offer, but Young is a spectacular defensive center-fielder, something the NL roster may be otherwise lacking.

Baltimore Orioles: Nick Markakis v. Ty Wigginton
Neither separates himself dramatically from the other by pure numbers (and, really, Luke Scott would be right there with them if he wasn't a DH).  Nick Markakis is clearly the better player, but he is having a down year by his standards, with almost no power.  Wigginton, on the other hand, raised his modest game when given the opportunity to play everyday due to the injury to Brian Roberts.  His biggest advantage over Markakis and Scott is his ability to play all over the diamond, flexibility that could come in handy for the AL.

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol v. Carlos Silva
A depth of NL outfielders will probably keep Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd out of the running at that position, forcing Charlie Manuel to take a Cubs pitcher.  Silva is having a great season, but not in comparison to guys like Mat Latos, Tim Hudson, and Mike Pelfrey, one of whom he could be ousting.  There is a much stronger argument that Marmol has been one of the four or five best closers in the NL, though Francisco Rodriguez and Francisco Cordero might disagree.

Cleveland Indians: Fausto Carmona v. Shin-Soo Choo
Although both are having solid seasons, if it were based on pure performance, neither would rank among the top ten at their position (Choo would be borderline).  Because the outfield crop is not as deep as the starting pitching field, I think Choo has the upper hand.

Houston Astros: Matt Lindstrom v. Roy Oswalt
Take a look at the Astros hitting stats.  Wow.  They don't have a single player with an OPS even near 800.  This is probably a chance for Oswalt to audition for his potential suitors.  

Oakland Athletics: Andrew Bailey v. Trevor Cahill
Both are plenty deserving and there is a slim chance they could both make the squad, but I think Cahill has the leg up.  He's been absolutely dynamite since joining the rotation a month into the season, with 8 wins in just 13 starts and the league's fourth best ERA (2.74).

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista v. Vernon Wells
The resilient Blue Jays really deserve to be better represented, but I just don't see how it's going to happen.  Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum are both having excellent seasons, but will be thrown amongst a host of borderline candidates that have very similar numbers.  I mentioned Gonzalez's situation above.  So, it comes down to Bautista and Wells, both having very good seasons, especially in the power department.  I think Bautista gets the call, both because he's the AL leader in HR, making him a potential derby contestance, and because he could fill in as an infielder if necessary.

The Dangers of Co-Depency

With so many pitchers deserving consideration, it's going to be very difficult to take multiple pitchers from the same staff if they aren't head and tails above the other competition.  Here are some teams with co-Aces who might be suffering from separation anxiety.

Minnesota Twins: Francisco Liriano v. Carl Pavano
Mauer and Morneau will were voted in, so Girardi doesn't need another Twin, but Pavano and Liriano have both been excellent, well worth of selection.  Something tells me that Girardi will prefer the man who wasn't being referred to as "American Idle" by the New York press during Girardi's tumultuous first year as manager.

New York Yankees: Phil Hughes v. C. C. Sabathia
Both have double-digit wins and solid, though not spectacular, overall numbers.  The Yankees much-publicized desired to keep Hughes inning down might be a contributing factor here, but they also may be looking to reward him with his first All-Star nod.  It is equally tempting to try to keep The Big Sleep, renowned for this second half dominance, fresh for the pennant race.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain v. Tim Lincecum
Lincecum leads in strikeouts and victories, and he has that whole back-to-back Cy Young think going for him, but Cain has actually been the more consistent pitcher this year, as he 2.93 ERA and 1.14 WHIP attest.  A truly tough call, and it's possible they both could be left off.  Imagine that.

So, if I picked the rosters, this is what they'd look like (assuming voting closed with the same results as were posted at the beginning of the week):

Second & Final Cubs Post of the 2010 Season

Cubs fandom is the best modern analogy for the Greek conception of eternal suffering.  Like Prometheus, I am forever bound to them, with the knowledge that whether in April or October, every year a giant bird, strongly resembling Steve Stone, is going to voraciously feast upon my liver, cackling with delight.  Cubs fans are possessed of a Sisyphean fortitude (what Einstein would call madness) as every year we tremble in anticipation of a result different from the hundred and one which came before.  Cubs fans have been so perverted by their own masochistic experience of fandom that they cannot imagine rooting for a team like the Yankees or the Braves.  Our entire conception of sport is rooted in misery.  We prefer the Clippers, the Bills, Andy Roddick, and the French military.

Usually I wait until at least August to declare the season kaputt.  This year, it was over almost before it began.  The worse part of it is that Jim Hendry might actually keep his job.  I berated him throughout the offseason and I stand by my fury, but the half-season results of his recent acquisitions are pretty damn stellar.  Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley looks like a heist.  Marlon Byrd has been the Cubs best player.  It might be nice to have Jake Fox right now, considering the Cubs lack of pop, but he didn't exactly play gangbusters in Oakland, and has since been shipped to Baltimore, while Matt Spencer has played fairly well in AA.

Hendry certainly can't be blamed for the unforeseeable decline of Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, the utter breakdown of Carlos Zambrano, or the fact that the Cubs had a pretty tough interleague draw.  Hopefully, the Cubs new ownership will able to see past Hendry's recent good fortune.  He ignored a problem of morale and leadership which had existed before the arrival of Milton Bradley, and has only gotten worse since his departure.  He annually over-invested in players with sever and obvious limitations, especially in terms of age, platoon splits, and defensive acumen.  With one of the best revenue streams in all of professional sport, including a budget at the very top of his league, he has managed just three playoff appearances in nine seasons, has an overall record of 688-686, and, most importantly, he hasn't broken the curse.

It's not just Hendry, either.  Anybody with the slightest hint of objectivity can see that it's time to blow the whole thing up.  Thanks for the memories and all, but good riddance.  Pinella has lost the clubhouse and maybe his edge.  D-Lee, even if he repeats his second-half surge from a season ago, is now just one of those aging first-basemen who are among the most plentiful free agent commodities every offseason (see Huff, Aubrey; Glaus, Troy; etc.).  Big Z needs a fresh start, although it will probably mean eating some salary and getting very little in return.  Fukudome should be given away, maybe even released.  Anybody who's over 30 and can be traded, should be traded.  Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee could both fetch a decent return from pennant contenders, even though they will only be two-month rentals.  If not, the Cubs can hold them and take the draft picks when they hit free agency.  

The good news is, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, whether it is later this season or next spring, the Cubs actually have a decent young core to build on.  They clearly rushed Starlin Castro, but his potential is evident, and he could do next year what Elvis Andrus is doing for Texas this year, which is being a very, very good defender and leadoff hitter.  Andrew Cashner has looked promising coming out of the bullpen and might get a few starts in the second half.  Combined with Silva, Randy Wells, and Ryan Dempster, the Cubs have the makings of a rag-tag rotation.  Tyler Colvin has been better than anybody expected.  Geovany Soto is among the best backstops in the National League.  Carlos Marmol is one of the best closers in the game.  Josh Vitters is probably two years away, but Brett Jackson could get a cup of coffee in September, based on his 959 OPS split between A and AA, and might take over as a regular by the middle of 2011.

Even if they have to eat a sizable chunk of the money due to Zambrano and Fukudome, the Cubs should could still enter this offseason with more flexibility than they've had for several seasons.  Lee and Lilly alone are making $25 Million, Pinella another $10 Million.  The Cubs can use some of that money to fill in the gaps, but should probably plan on treating 2011 as a rebuilding season, which will take a little of the pressure off first-time manager, Ryne Sandberg.  Then, when Ramirez, Fukudome, and Silva open up another $40 Million the following year, they'll be primed to compete for a stellar class of free agents in 2012, one that could include Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Dan Uggla, Corey Hart, Carlos Beltran, and many more.

And a man with a striking resemblance to Ron Santo begins pushing his red, white, and blue boulder back up the hill.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Bailing Out Brian Sabean

The Giants front office needed some good news this morning, after Buster Olney reported in his survey of general managers that Sabean was roundly considered the most difficult to deal with.  One GM even told Olney he had difficulty getting Sabean to return his calls.  This can't possibly go over well with Giants fans, who have, for essentially half a decade, been waiting for Sabean to pull the trigger and bring in a legit middle-of-the-order hitter.  That he has not been able to pull off this task is indictment enough, but that he hasn't even been putting forth every effort to get it done is frankly unforgivable.  Shame on you, Brian Sabean.  Shame on you.

However, though it's hardly a blockbuster, the Giants did respond to this morning's report by announcing a trade.  Apparently Sabean returns Jon Daniels calls, because the two agreed to a deal which sent Bengie Molina and cash to the Rangers for Chris Ray and a player to be named later.  Unless you count the Mariners reacquisition of Russell Branyan, this is the first trade of the season involving a team (in this case both) which is gearing up for the pennant race.

As far as the Giants are concerned, this has to be considered a win.  They surprised everybody this offseason by resigning Molina and thus delaying the arrival of Buster Posey.  Molina made Sabean look good for about six weeks, but since the middle of May, a stretch of thirty games, his performance has fallen off dramatically, much as it did in the latter stages of 2009.  Over that span he's hitting .182 with a 436 OPS, 7 RBI, and two (that's right, 2) runs scored.  In doing so, he is essentially stealing at-bats from guys like Posey, Pat Burrell, Travis Ishikawa, and Nate Schierholtz, all of whom have been significantly superior hitters, in a lineup starved for runs.  This is definitely an improvement by subtraction, as it allows Posey (C) and Aubrey Huff (1B) to move back to their natural positions, thus opening up more at-bats in the outfield.

As an added bonus, the Giants receive a respectable veteran reliever in Chris Ray.  Ray has been having a minor renaissance this season in Texas, with a 3.41 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 35 appearances.  One would expect his numbers could even improve as he moves from a bandbox to a pitcher's haven and from the AL to the NL.  Unfortunately, this helps the Giants very little, as their bullpen was already amongst the best and deepest in the league and Ray is unlikely to see much more than mop-up duty, but with many other would-be contenders (Phillies, Reds, Angels, Red Sox) in need of relief reinforcements, Sabean might be able to convert Ray into a valuable utilityman, a sixth starter, or a B-level prospect.

For the Rangers, who remain among the hottest teams in baseball following a Vladimir Guerrero driven win in Anaheim last night, this may seem a bit desperate.  Granted, Ray was also a bit extraneous in their bullpen, which is also excellent, and catcher has been an accursed position in Arlington for the last couple seasons.  However, in June, Matt Treanor and Max Ramirez combined to hit .253 with a .377 OBP, .421 SLG, 13 R, and 17 RBI.  Those aren't stellar numbers, certainly, but they are respectable for the position and easily superior to Molina's.  He has 17 RBI as well, but for the whole year!  Perhaps the move to Texas will awaken Molina's bat, but I suppose what Jon Daniels sees, regardless, is a player with a long track record success working with young pitchers, definitely a valuable skill to bring to the Rangers, who enter the second half depending heavily on unproven arms like Colby Lewis, C. J. Wilson, and Tommy Hunter.

It's possible this trade could be win-win.  However, I think the major outcome here is that Sabean will be saved from evisceration in the San Francisco press-box every time Molina grounds into a double play while Posey and/or Burrell are sitting on the bench.  When the major upside of a trade is covering the GMs ass, that's probably not a good thing for the franchise.