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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fonz Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 03, 2010

GM Hot Seat: Ned Colletti, Los Angeles Dodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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