Monday, November 29, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers’ offense is good enough to compete, today. Built around the strong foundation of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, this is a lineup with some pop, and they got results, finishing fourth in the NL in runs scored and second in wOBA. However, on the mound, they’ve got some serious issues. Jeff Suppan, signed to the largest contract in team history on a four-year deal in 2007, was demoted to the bullpen and then released early in the season. Dave Bush, whose 31 starts tied him for second in the rotation, is a free agent. Manny Parra, whose strong 2008 gave Brewers fans hope he could top the rotation along with Yovani Gallardo, has been moving in the wrong direction since then, starting in the bullpen this season, moving back into the rotation for 16 starts, and then being demoted back to relief duties after putting up a 5.24 FIP as a starter. Right now, they’ve got Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson penciled into the rotation. Other than that, it’s anyone’s guess who will be taking the mound for the Brewers.

Fortunately, they’ve got some money to play with. Suppan’s contract was bought out, Trevor Hoffman has become a free agent after a disappointing season, and several other players have come off the books as well. Their payroll has been rising quickly, and after paying just over $27.5 million to field a team in 2004, 2010 marked the first time payroll has eclipsed $90 million. They have less than $30 million committed to their 2011 team so far, so while there are many holes to fill, they’ve got the cash to fill them and make a few splashes on the free agent market.

The first priority, however, should be signing at least two (and possibly three starters. They’ll need a veteran inning-eater to give them some quality innings. Carl Pavano could fit the bill. Pavano started 32 games last year and 33 the year before, with a FIP around 4 both seasons. Pavano’s never been a huge strikeout guy, but he was able to increase his ground ball rate last year to 51.2%, the highest of his career. Brewers’ middle infielders Rickie Weeks and Alcides Escobar are both plus defenders, so Pavano’s high groundball rate could play well for the team. However, Pavano is a type A free agent and he has been offered arbitration by the Twins, so he would likely cost the Brewers their second-round pick, as their first one is protected (it’s in the top half of the first round). If they are set on keeping that pick, they could have made a stronger push for Hiroki Kuroda, who would have been my top choice for them had he not already inked to remain in Los Angeles, or Jon Garland, who also signed with the Dodgers. At this point, Kevin Millwood is probably the best non type-A option who fulfills this need.

I’d also look to take a flier on one of the many reclamation projects out there. Taking a gamble on a scrap-heap starter like Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Jeremy Bonderman, or Chris Young could pay huge dividends if one of these players manages to stay healthy and effective, but Brandon Webb is the undisputed top pitcher in this category. Webb was shelved for 17 months after an elbow surgery, but all reports suggest his recovery is on track. The sinkerballer’s groundball tendencies would play well with the Brewers, and his ceiling is as high as any free agent starter’s not named Cliff Lee. As MLBTR’s Free Agent Stock Watch notes, he finished first or second in Cy Young voting each season from 2006 to 2008.

So the Brewers need two pitchers (at least) and my strategy would be to take one “sure thing” and then take a flier on a risk/reward type of guy. For me, their Perfect Pickups are Pavano and Webb.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Houston Astros

The Houston Astros will be looking to improve on the anemic offense they ran out in 2010. Their 608 total runs tied them for third to last in baseball with the Orioles, and their .115 ISO was better than only the Mariners. After El Caballo’s subpar season, the Astros should be looking to add an outfielder with some power, and this year’s corner outfield crop offers several attractive options. Some will undoubtedly fall through the cracks, and could provide great value buys for Houston.

For me, the best option could end up being Pat Burrell. “Pat the Bat” is 34, so he may still have some strong baseball in him. He’ll likely get lost in a relatively strong corner outfield free agent class, so he could be on the cheap side, and he put up 2.7 WAR in 96 games with the World Champion San Francisco Giants after being released by the Rays. He had 18 home runs with the Giants, so he could provide a sorely needed dose of power. He was pretty bad in his season and a bit with the Rays (-0.6 WAR in 146 total games between 2009 and 2010), but I believe in his resurgence. His BABIP and HR/FB were both in line with his career totals in his time with the Giants. He’s taken a bit of a dip in his line drive rate, as last season was his worst career total, but if he can get that more in line with his career total, he could have even more success next season. Burrell also had the best defensive season of his career last year, with a 4.9 UZR in left. I’d be surprised if that sticks, but if he can be a close-to-average defender, his offense can make him a valuable asset to a potential employer. Given that he will likely be fairly inexpensive both in terms of dollars and years, Burrell could be a great fit for the ‘Stros.

There will likely be several attractive options for the Astros, but they should be looking to pick up a corner outfielder with some power on the cheap. In this year’s class, the option that best fits that description may very well be Pat Burrell. That makes Burrell the Astros’ Perfect Pickup.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Chicago Cubs

This offseason, the Cubs must consider filling a hole that hasn’t been an issue for them for over five years. Since 2004, Derrek Lee has held down first base for the Lovable Losers. However, after moving Lee to the Braves on August 18th for three prospects, the Cubs were left with Xavier Nady and Micah Hoffpauir as first-base options. Nady entered free agency this offseason, leaving Hoffpauir penciled in as the starter. After a strong showing in AAA, the 30-year-old produced –0.5 WAR in 24 games between first base and the outfield. He’s been mediocre defensively in his limited time at first, putting up a –4.3 UZR in 45 games (30 starts) over the last 3 years. Though the sample size is small, he certainly doesn’t seem spectacular with the leather, and his bat hasn’t done much to make up for his defensive shortcomings. He had a .222 wOBA last year, and although his low BABIP and HR/FB may suggest a bounce-back, it probably won’t be enough to make him a productive first baseman on a large-market and big-money club like the Cubs. If Chicago wants to compete, they’ll need to add a first baseman who can anchor the middle of the order along with Marlon Byrd and Aramis Ramirez.

For me, they’ve got two main options, and which one they take really depends on where they feel they are as a franchise. If they truly believe they’re one big acquisition away, which they very well might, they should work to bring Adam Dunn to Wrigley. Dunn has consistently been among the top power producers in the league over the past seven years, with “consistently” being the operative word. Dunn had 46 home runs in 2004, then put up 4 straight seasons of exactly 40 home runs. Now, he’s just finished his second straight season with 38 bombs. Dunn has managed all this while playing 150 games or more in each of those seven years, so he’s been a model of consistency. With Dunn, you’re going to get a ton of strikeouts and the low batting average may be a turn-off for many fans, but he keeps his walks high enough to put up a career .381 OBP. Dunn’s walk rate actually dropped to a career low last year, at 11.9% (compared to a career 16.3%). This was mostly due to a career high O-Swing of 28.5%, over 10% more than his career 18.4%. If Dunn can cut back on the cuts he takes on balls outside the zone, he can get his walk rate back in line with his career totals and provide the menacing presence in the heart of the lineup he’s known to be.

Last year also brought another revelation for Dunn, as he played his first year as a regular first baseman, marking the first time he’s played more games at first than in the outfield. Possibly somewhat surprisingly, the defensive returns were actually pretty reasonable, as he put up a UZR of –3.3 in 153 games. His career first-base UZR is –14.4 in 347 games, so we’ll have to see whether this trend holds up, but it’s certainly possible that Dunn has been able to focus on playing first, having been relieved of outfield duties, and has been able to improve his glove through that increased focus.

However, if they believe they’re going to need a huge offseason to be a contender, they’ll need to limit their spending in free agency on any one position and instead take some big-risk, big-reward fliers that they believe could pay off huge, to the tune of Aubrey Huff’s 2010. For me, that conversation begins and ends with Carlos Peña. Peña is coming off his worst year as a Ray, in which he had neither skill (.326 wOBA, career .360) or luck (.222 BABIP, career .279, second worst to only Aaron Hill among hitters with >300 ABs) on his side. If the Cubs decide they believe in a bounce-back from the 32-year-old Peña, they will be hoping he returns to the form he had with the Rays from 2007-2009, when he put up 4.2 WAR per year. He has two skills in his toolbox; the ability to hit for a ton of power, and the defense that won him the 2008 AL Gold Glove at first. He’s hovered around average in UZR for the past few seasons, but a strong season with the glove and bat (and one that he’s certainly capable of) could make him a huge bargain for the Cubs.

If the Cubs decide they need an upgrade at first (and in my estimation, they could certainly use one), Peña and Dunn will best be able to provide the production they need in the middle of the lineup. For that reason, depending on the front office’s perspective and future outlook for the franchise, either Peña or Dunn are the Cubs’ Perfect Pickup. I still believe that they’re far enough away from being a true contender that I’m going to pick Peña, but I wouldn’t fault Jim Hendry and his staff for taking the optimistic path and going with Dunn. Or trading for Adrian Gonzalez. That’d work too.

I'd also like to stop for a moment and congratulate my former employers at Octagon for working out what looks like a great deal for both club and player in sending Victor Martinez to Detroit on a 4-year deal. Additionally, a big welcome back to the Bay to Aubrey Huff. Glad to have Huff-Daddy on board for the title defense.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Cleveland Indians

The Indians could use some improvement pretty much everywhere. Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore are locked into two outfield positions. Carlos Santana and Matt LaPorta are both highly regarded as prospects, so both will get every opportunity to succeed on this rebuilding squad. Other than that, the lineup is pretty much fungible. Outside of Fausto Carmona and Chris Perez, no pitcher has an ingrained spot either, so the Indians can really play the market and find value wherever they believe it’s available.

However, I think the position where they can best upgrade is third base. First of all, it’s a strong free agent class, with type A’s Adrian Beltre and Miguel Tejada, type B’s Felipe Lopez and Juan Uribe, and other interesting players including Jorge Cantu and Ty Wigginton. Offense is probably their biggest issue, as they scored only 644 runs last season (5th lowest in the league). Third base was a major issue, as Jayson Nix, penciled in as the starter at the hot corner, only put up 0.2 WAR in 78 games with the Indians last season, and –0.1 overall. Nix is 28 and has been below replacement level in two out of three seasons as a major leaguer. If the Indians can replace him with an offensive upgrade, I think they’ll definitely take the opportunity.

I’m going to suggest they take a run at Felipe Lopez. Lopez should be on the cheap side due to a weak 2010 and a strong market, and he looks poised for a big bounce-back. His .273 BABIP was far below his career .316, and in addition to playing third, Lopez has the versatility to play second and short. Lopez had a great 2009, putting up 3.9 WAR and 116 wRC+. Lopez may be my candidate for the player most likely to mirror Aubrey Huff’s 2010 next season, as he’ll be coming off a poor season but has shown in the past that he’s capable of being a very valuable piece for a strong team. He’s only 30, so he should still have some strong baseball left in him. He could provide a great return on what could be a very small investment by the Indians, making him a potentially very valuable player.

Lonnie Chisenhall, who I discussed in my Wait Til Next Year, will likely be ready within the next two years, but signing Lopez for a year to bridge the gap could allow the Indians to wait for Chisenhall to be ready and make the transition smoother. To improve the poor production they got from third base next year and add another productive asset in the lineup, the Perfect Pickup for the Indians is Felipe Lopez.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals are in something of a transitional period as a franchise. They haven’t been above .500 since 2003, when they were still in Montreal. They have been subject to relatively low attendance numbers the last few years, but they seem to be gaining an ever-growing foothold in the Washington market. This is a team with young talent (Strasburg, Harper) and established superstars (Ryan Zimmerman). They seem to be just a few pieces away from contending for the city of Washington’s first pennant since 1933, when the Washington Senators (the version that later became the Twins) took the AL. To really get them moving in the right direction and reestablish Washington as a true baseball town, however, I’m of the opinion that this team should try to make a big splash.

The place to do it, I believe, is in the starting rotation. Nationals starters 8.5 WAR in 2010 was the fifth-worst total in baseball, and their 4.40 FIP ranked them fourth-worst in the NL. Nats starters struck out just 5.61 batters per nine, third worst in baseball, and allowed a 20.5% line drive rate that was the worst in the game by almost a full percentage point.

The Nationals need a starter who can cause a 2008 election-sized splash in DC and put some serious butts in the seats. They need an ace to top the rotation while Stephen Strasburg rehabilitates after his Tommy John surgery that is projected to cost him most, if not all, of his 2011 season, and then take some pressure off of Strasburg by anchoring the rotation as Strasburg develops into the world-class hurler he’s expected to be. They’ve got some money coming off the books, with Adam Dunn and Christian Guzman (their two biggest contracts in 2010) becoming free agents, and they’ve increased payroll in each of the last four years, which gives me the sense that they’re trying to get their payroll more in line with other large-market teams.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, my suggestion for Nationals brass is to go after the biggest prize there is on the market. Adding Cliff Lee adds instant legitimacy to the team, showing fans and the rest of the league alike that the Nationals are serious about contending for a championship both now and in the future. I don't need to tell you how good Lee is; his numbers read like a video game. 7.1 WAR. 2.58 FIP. 18 walks in 212.1 innings. Lee is the biggest name on this year’s free agent market, and though many believe the Yankees will simply pay whatever it takes to get him, I have a feeling that the conversations at Yankee Stadium aren’t quite that simple.

Take a quick look at the Yankees future payroll obligations, specifically the 2013 and 2014 columns. In 2013, the Yankees will pay A-Rod 29 million dollars, CC just over 24, Teixeira slightly more than 23, 16 to AJ Burnett, and will almost certainly have Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera under contract for significant amounts as well. Joe Pawlikoski provides a very good description of the situation over at River Ave Blues, but essentially the situation boils down to this; in a few years, these players will all be getting tons of money for seasons in which most of them are already well over the wrong side of 30 and nearing 40 years old. While they may still put up big numbers, you simply can’t expect elite production from a 38 year old A-Rod or a 39 year old Jeter. By adding Lee, the Yankees would guarantee that they’ll be on the hook for upwards of $120 million dollars (and potentially a significant amount more) for 7 players in 2013, all of whom will be reaching the back end of their career. Unless they expect to continuously expand payroll from now until the end of time, this business model is simply unfeasible if the Yankees want to be competitive.

As the single most prized asset on the market, Lee will obviously have other suitors. However, if the Yankees aren’t able to continue to simply bid his price up, he may end up with a slightly less expensive contract than has been predicted for him, though he should still command five or possibly even six years, likely at $20 million per year or more. If the Nationals decide to truly go all-in for the prize of the offseason, it would be a move that could pay huge dividends both on the field and in the stands. Though they may be a dark horse in the war for the undisputed best free agent available, the Nationals’ Perfect Pickup is Cliff Lee.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Kansas City Royals

The Royals are a team that, despite their last-place finish, may not be far from contending. They are widely considered to have the best minor league system in baseball, so as long as they hold on to their strong prospects, they will have a shot to climb out of the cellar.

However, in 2010, their pitching was absolutely brutal. Their 11.7 pitcher WAR was 6th worst in baseball, and they allowed the second most runs of any team. To make matters worse, this is a club populated by below-average defenders, especially in the infield. Yuniensky Betancourt saw 1331 innings at short while putting up a –9.5 UZR, while Wilson Betemit had a –10.4 at the hot corner in just 455 frames. Mike Aviles was also below average as the regular second baseman, and Billy Butler was a –3.0 in 1102 first base innings (although Kila Ka’aihue performed admirably after taking over first-base duties near the end of the year). Their outfield isn’t great either, especially with David DeJesus now in Oakland.

They have already added Vin Mazzaro in the DeJesus trade, but should consider more pitching, as their rotation still essentially boils down to Zack Greinke and a bunch of pretty pedestrian starters. Luke Hochevar, their second starter, put up only 1.8 WAR this year. In fact, Greinke put up a better WAR (5.2) than the rest of the starting staff combined (4.6).

So the Royals need pitching. Preferably, they’d get a guy who has a history of racking up the K’s to avoid exposing their poor gloves as much as possible. For me, the best option for this low-budget team in a somewhat top-heavy pitching market is to bring Jorge de la Rosa back to Kansas City.

De la Rosa was a 0.9 WAR player with the Royals in 2007, but has since blossomed, putting up 2.4 WAR in 2008 and an impressive 3.7 with the Rockies in ‘09. He dipped to a 1.7 last season, but de la Rosa still has several productive years left, as he’s only 30. They’ll be able to compete for him, as Jose Guillen’s departure will free up 12 million dollars and other players, including DeJesus and Kyle Farnsworth, knock even more off the payroll. De la Rosa put up a K/9 of 8.36 last season, making him one of the best strikeout pitchers in this free agent class. He does get a lot of groundballs, but as was discussed earlier, that may not be the best thing for a Royals pitcher.

De la Rosa may command close to eight figures annually and several years, but for a pitching-starved team like KC, he could be a huge bargain. He may force the Royals to pay a premium in order to come to a non-contending team, but de la Rosa has been pretty damn good over the past three years, and I believe he can provide return on such a contract for the Royals. For that reason, he’s the Royals Perfect Pickup.

If they’re looking to go really wild card, Pedro Martinez is said to be contemplating a return after skipping the 2010 season. Martinez may be a big risk, but if he can return to form somewhat, he’s a strikeout machine. If the price is reasonable, the Royals could take a calculated risk by taking a flyer on Pedro.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Baltimore Orioles

Like many of the teams we’ve discussed so far, the Orioles have some very interesting young pieces, but still need to plug several holes in order to think about climbing the ladder in their division. In an interview last week, President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail said that the team would be looking hard into acquiring a middle-of-the-order hitter, but wouldn’t limit itself to one specific position. With Cesar Izturis and Ty Wigginton entering free agency, the team will have spots to fill at first and short, and could look into adding a corner outfielder to replace the anemic bat of Felix Pie (.313 wOBA last year, .307 career).

There’s really nobody particularly intriguing in the corner outfield market besides Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and the Orioles will not have the funds to stick with the bidding for the leaders of this free agent class. The shortstop market is also fairly unattractive, leaving first base as the best place to upgrade their lineup if they decide not to go after someone else in a trade.

My guess would be that they don’t have the funds to pick up an Adam Dunn or Carlos Peña. The top tier free agents will garner enough interest that they will have the option to go to a team at least on the verge of contending, and they’ll probably take it. However, there are still some fairly attractive options they can consider. They’ll probably take a look at Lance Berkman, Adam LaRoche, Derrek Lee, and potentially even consider bringing Aubrey Huff back to Baltimore if he doesn’t re-sign with the World Champion San Francisco Giants (that’s still fun to type, by the way).

For me, the best option of that group is Lee. Last year was a down year for Lee, and at 35, he’s not getting any younger. However, a closer look at his underlying stats suggest he may still have some productive years in him.

First of all, he put up 12.3 WAR in the 3 years before last season, and last season’s 2.0 was his worst total in a decade. His defense is still relatively strong, as he’s been above average according to UZR in each of the last 3 years. He BABIP’d .309 last year, .013 lower than his career .322 and his lowest mark since 2004. That’s despite putting up a 22.5% line drive rate, his best since his 2003 with the Marlins. Lee’s 12.1% home run/flyball ratio is 4.4% below his career 16.5%, suggesting that he can do better than his 19 home runs in 2010.

Lee’s not a sure thing, of course. His strikeout rate climbed to 24.5% last season, his worst since 2002. His .340 wOBA was his lowest mark since ’99. However, Lee is strong with the bat and glove and should come relatively cheap due to his age, his poor 2010, and the multitude of other strong first base options available. For a team like the Orioles, Lee’s the perfect fit… cheap, potentially a strong contributor on both sides of the ball, and able to provide leadership and guidance to a young team as a senior member of the clubhouse. He is Baltimore’s Perfect Pickup.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks are a pretty interesting team. They’ve got some good pieces in both the infield and outfield, as well as in the rotation. The had the best team UZR of any team in the league during the regular season. However, they also had the most strikeouts and worst bullpen WAR of any team in baseball. If they want to climb out of the cellar, that has to change.

I believe their bullpen issue can be solved largely internally. They’ve got a few strong young arms in the minors, and at this point it’s just a matter of which of them can be effective in the big leagues. It might take some moving around to figure that out, but they’ll get the right combination eventually.

However, they do have an opportunity to upgrade at first. With Adam LaRoche’s one-year, 4.5 million dollar deal expiring, the Diamondbacks can bring in a first baseman with a bigger bat, potentially sacrificing some of their defensive surplus to add some pop to the lineup. LaRoche struck out in 30.7% of his at-bats last season, ranking him third among regular first baseman (behind fellow free agents Adam Dunn and Carlos Peña. We’ll get to them later in the offseason.). The Diamondbacks set an all-time MLB record for strikeouts this season, and although it didn’t doom them to subpar scoring, upping their OBP by striking out a little less could go a long way toward helping the Snakes get back into contention.

To fill the gap, I’m going to suggest they go after longtime Chicago first sacker Paul Konerko. Paulie, as he’s affectionately known on the South Side, was a 4.2 WAR player last year, and because of his age and a fairly strong first base market, could come relatively cheap in terms of both money and years. Konerko struck out in 20.1% of his at-bats last year, which immediately provides a more than 10% improvement from the performance LaRoche provided last season. This contributes to Konerko’s .068 point advantage in OBP (.393 to .325), as does Konerko’s much stronger walk rate. Konerko will also add a good deal of power, as his .272 ISO was third among first baseman last year, far superior to LaRoche’s .207.

2010 was Konerko’s first real solid season in a few campaigns. He’ll probably experience a little bit of a drop in production simply based on the fact that last year was above his true talent level. His BABIP and HR/FB were both higher than his career averages, so he should see some regression. That said, last year was his first season in the last five years in which he was significantly below-average defensively, so I’m guessing his UZR climbs slightly from the –13.4 he put up in 2010.

Overall, Konerko will provide a boost in power and on-base skill from LaRoche. Though he may be a bit of a step down defensively, the glove-minded Diamondbacks should be willing to accept that to improve their offense and avoid breaking their own record for single season strikeouts. Konerko should be available for a reasonable price, and can fill the position until Brandon Allen proves he’s ready for big-league action. Though Allen has shown promise, he struck out in nearly half of his 56 major league at-bats in 2010. It’s a small sample size, but he’ll probably need at least a bit more seasoning in the minors before he can be an everyday first baseman for a contending ballclub. For this reason, and all the others outlined above, Paul Konerko is the DBacks’ Perfect Pickup.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Seattle Mariners

It’s no secret that the Mariners need some power. The big question is where they’re going to get it. The Mariners were last in the league in ISO at .104, and didn’t fare well in the more traditional metrics either, finishing last in home runs and slugging percentage.

The Mariners go into the offseason with two gaping holes to fill in their lineup. First of all, they will likely need a leftfielder to compliment Gutierrez in center and Ichiro in right. Michael Saunders led the team in starts in LF, with 77, but Saunders simply didn’t produce the kind of offensive numbers the Mariners will look for in a corner outfielder. Saunders has been on the M’s prospect radar for quite a while, but at 23 (he turns 24 next week), he needs to start turning his massive potential into tangible results if he wants to lock down a position in Seattle’s starting lineup. 0.3 WAR in 100 games this season simply doesn’t cut it. While Seattle has been said to be a potential player in the Carl Crawford sweepstakes, they’ll have a hard time bidding against high-budget teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels without expanding payroll past their means. My guess would be that they eventually are priced out of the market and are forced to look elsewhere for help.

The other main area of concern is behind the plate, where the Mariners tried out five candidates last season and still don’t have a grasp of who their starting backstop should be. Rob Johnson (61 games) and Adam Moore (59) got the lion’s share of the at-bats, but Johnson failed to break the Mendoza line, hitting .191 with a .261 wOBA, and Moore fared even worse, batting .195 and managing only a .224 wOBA that was the third worst in baseball among players with more than 200 at bats. Moore still has a bit of prospect potential, especially in the power department, but at this point the Mariners’ future behind the plate looks pretty grim.

For this reason, I’m going to say that the Mariners need to pick up a catcher with some power who can plug the hole at the position for the foreseeable future. They’re looking for a guy who can step in and produce from Opening Day, and as a team looking to reload after a disappointing year, they’ll be looking to keep their draft picks as much as possible.

As I’ll write about later in this series, I think Victor Martinez goes elsewhere. He’ll be expensive and would cost the Mariners a pick, assuming the Sox offer arbitration and he turns it down. The other Type A’s at catcher are Ramon Hernandez and AJ Pierzynski, but I don’t expect either to generate too much interest from a team like the Mariners. For me, the best fit for the M’s would be former Blue Jay John Buck. Buck hit 20 longballs in 118 games last season, so he could provide a much-needed boost in the power department. Buck’s .208 ISO from last season would be a more than 100-point improvement on the .101 Seattle got from behind the plate last season, and his .345 wOBA would outpace the Mariners’ catchers’ .250 by nearly that much. Buck is only 30, so while many executives might have issues with signing an older catcher to a long-term deal because catchers tend to break down earlier than players at other positions, this wouldn’t be a huge concern. Additionally, he’s a type B free agent because he didn’t get as many starts as many other catchers (his thumb was injured after it was hit by a foul tip. Not the type of thing that seems likely to become a recurring problem), so he wouldn’t cost the Mariners a pick.

Last year was a large jump in production for Buck, and I don’t think you can expect the same numbers from him next year. However, I think he’ll get pretty close, and while his defense behind the plate, strike zone discipline, and OBP abilities are suspect, the power is there. As long as the Mariners don’t pay for his 2010 production, and instead make a reasonable estimate of his abilities going forward, they should be getting a guy who will fit into the lineup and provide the pop they sorely need.

Buck was an All-Star in 2010, and it seems like he’ll probably end up signing for somewhere in the $4 mil per year for two or three years range. That’s very affordable for a catcher who can mash and has experience handling young pitching staffs, as Buck did in Toronto. Buck would be a great value buy for the Mariners and fill one of their biggest needs for the next few years, without costing a pick. For these reasons, Buck is the Mariners’ Perfect Pickup.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Pittsburgh Pirates

In this series, we’ll look at free agent pickups that would fit into each team’s budget, needs, and overall organizational goals. We’ll start at the bottom (by regular season record), with the Pirates, and go through each of the teams as we look at deals that could work out well for both team and player.

The Pirates have a strong offensive core, but one glaring problem. They were second to last in the league in outfield defense by UZR, with a –24.9 last season. A large factor in this is that their centerfielder of the future, Andrew McCutchen, hasn’t been much of a centerfielder. McCutchen put up a –14.4 UZR in 1290 CF innings last year, his poor numbers mostly due to his –12.1 run below average range. The only centerfielder worse than McCutchen, both in terms of range and overall, is Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. This could be a one-year blip, as McCutchen was a –1.3 run fielder in 2009, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Pirates may end up having to move him to right.

This is especially true when you consider the Pirates’ right field situation. Garrett Jones was the opening day starter, largely due to his 2.7 WAR season in 2009. However, in 158 games this year, Jones managed 0.1 WAR, so he wasn’t the answer. Ryan Church and Lastings Milledge got the next chance, but Milledge was good for only 0.7 WAR in 113 games, and Church was at –0.8 WAR after 69 games and was moved to Arizona in the Snyder deal. Delwyn Young was the next candidate, but he was also a below-average fielder and hitter, putting up a replacement-level 0.0 WAR. Ryan Doumit, the opening day catcher, took the next shot in right and proved to be an even worse option than the men who came before him, putting up a –5.1 UZR in 146 dreadful innings in right. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s the Pirates 5th regular right fielder of the season, and they haven’t had one with a positive UZR yet. John Bowker, a career minor leaguer with the Giants, came over in the deal that sent Javier Lopez to San Francisco, putting up –0.1 WAR in 26 games with the Pirates. All in all, six Pirates played more than 50 innings in right this season, none had an above-average UZR, and they combined for a –13.5 UZR overall. Moving McCutchen to right could be the answer, but that would open up a hole in center. 

Complicating things further, the Pirates have Gorkys Hernandez, a strong centerfield prospect, waiting in the wings to take over. Hernandez is 22 and spent this season in AA ball, but his season ended when his right ring finger got hit by a pitch, so he only played in 92 games last year. I’m guessing he’s either a midseason callup or the Pirates will want him to get one more full season to polish his game in the minors. That means they’d need a short-term replacement in center, who could play for cheap and play decent defense. Also, on a young team like this, clubhouse leadership could be a pretty big factor, as the Pirates brass will be looking for a player who can mentor their younger hitters.

The patch-job that immediately comes to mind is Jim Edmonds. Edmonds, now a 17-year veteran, has continued to produce at a high level both offensively and defensively and could add short-term value for the Pirates in center. He’s a 5-time gold glover, and despite a bad defensive year in 2008, he’s come back this season and produced in center to the tune of 5.2 UZR in only 52 games (He didn’t play in 2009 because he couldn’t get an offer he found to be acceptable). Edmonds has also put up a 133 wRC+ this season, suggesting there’s something left in the old man’s bat. Though Edmonds has discussed retirement, he put together 2.8 WAR in essentially half a season, so with that kind of productivity left, I’d have to assume he’d consider sticking around to play another season, especially if the Pirates allowed him to rest his legs by playing at first on occasion. 

Is it a sexy pick? Hell no. But if the Pirates are looking for a decent defensive centerfielder to patch the position until Hernandez is ready and mentor young outfielders McCutchen and Jose Tabata, Edmonds could be a great choice that wouldn’t eat up too much payroll. We’ll see whether McCutchen to right is even discussed as an option, but if the Pirates consider it (and they probably should, unless they truly believe he’ll have a strong bounce-back year with the glove), Edmonds seems like the best fit to replace him in center.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Plan for the Offseason

Howdy, folks. It’s 102 days until February 13th, the voluntary report date for pitchers, catchers, and injured players. That means we’ve got a long 3 months until baseball action. That doesn’t mean there won’t be serious movement in the baseball world. Free agents will be signed, trades will take place, and each team will attempt to build a potential championship squad, and I’ll be here to talk you through it all (or as much as a college sophomore can possibly cover).

That said, I’m going to be cutting back a bit for the offseason. I’m going to be posting every couple days, rather than daily as I’ve been doing so far. Between the reduced action and my increasingly busy class schedule, it just makes sense to lay off the throttle a tad. 

In addition to looking at the moves that actually happen, I’m going to be doing a series where I’ll look at what moves I think could make sense for teams, where they’ll maximize the value of both the player they’re adding and the players around him. It’ll be interesting to see whether these deals actually happen, but I’m going to base it less around the rumors about where guys will go and more about where they can be most effective.

The best way to keep up with me will be by following my Twitter account, @saberbythebay, but if you just check back to see if I’ve got a new post, that works too. 

I hope you enjoyed a very exciting postseason, including the unexpected twists and turns along the way. I certainly did, and I’m proud to say that I picked the correct winner in every single series (though I’ll admit I didn’t always have the right number of games). 

That said, what’s done is done, and while San Francisco’s parade is just hours from beginning, every front office in baseball has turned its attention to 2011. It’s a whole new season, and a whole new chance for the teams that couldn’t make it happen in 2010.

102 days isn’t that long. Just hang in there, and before you know it, the smell of fresh leather and the sound of bat on ball will be in the air once again.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

World Series Recap: Game 5 (The San Francisco Giants are World Champs Edition)

Wow. What a season. When I started this blog, on August 13th, the Giants were 3.5 games back of the first-place Padres in the West, with a less than 50% chance of making the postseason. A little more than a month before, they were 6.5 games back and in fourth place, ahead of only Arizona, and looking at a 12.1% shot at October action. Now, these “castoffs and misfits” are World Series champions. Think about the stars of this postseason for the Giants. Cody Ross, DFA’d by the Marlins and picked up off the scrap heap, most likely less because the Giants wanted him and more because they didn’t want the Pads to get him. Aubrey Huff, a free agent until January and a fallback plan once Adam LaRoche didn’t pan out. Edgar Renteria, series MVP, hit the DL three separate times this season, and in what is likely his last season he hits two of the biggest home runs in San Francisco’s history. Andres Torres, a career minor leaguer who spent time with the Tigers, Rangers, Twins, the Tigers again, and finally the Cubs, before being picked up off the scrap-heap and becoming one of the best players on the entire club.

And then, you have to give a shout-out to Giants’ brass for some fantastic drafting. With all the stars in this series, maybe the most important and least heralded member of the Giants’ organization was scouting director Dick Tidrow. Sure, take the shaggy-haired weed-smoking babyface every other franchise thinks is doomed to injury and won’t ever put up a 200-inning season. The country kid with a southern drawl out of Dothan, Alabama, somewhat overlooked in a draft full of high-school pitchers with tons of potential and more polished hurlers. The big lefty who, barely old enough to drink, pitched 8 shutout innings in the World Series to put the team a win away. The wild-eyed closer out of LSU with less stuff than many big leaguers but enough cajones to make him the best reliever in the game this season anyway. The shortstop-turned-catcher who became the first rookie backstop to hit cleanup in the playoffs. 

This game, this series, this month, this season, and this accomplishment will never be forgotten because it was a true team effort. Pitching. Defense. Unselfish offense. The blast to left that brought it all together. But it all started with Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee, facing off for a second time after game 1 did not produce the expected pitcher’s duel. This one, however, would be all about the men on the mound, as each was dominant from the start. Through 6 innings, this game had seen seven total baserunners on five hits, one walk and an error. None had reached second base. The pitchers had combined for ten strikeouts, and both looked ready to duel long into the night.

However, that wouldn’t be necessary. In the top of the seventh, Cody Ross led off, and after fouling off three pitches, slapped a single up the middle. Juan Uribe fouled off another two pitches before singling to center on an 0-2, marking the first time two baserunners had been on base at the same time all night. With runners on first and second and nobody out, this was an obvious sacrifice bunt situation. The only problem? Coming to the plate was Aubrey Huff, who in 5505 regular-season at-bats has not one sac bunt to his name. The only active player who’s hit more without a sacrifice bunt is Texas DH Vladimir Guerrero. By some act of god, Huff laid down a beautiful bunt and Cliff Lee had to make an acrobatic play back and to his left simply to record the out at first. 

So with one down, the Giants had men in scoring position and one out. Pat Burrell, who went 0 for 13 with 11 strikeouts in the World Series, came up and battled against Lee. He worked a full count before swinging through strike three for the second out of the inning. Lee’s strikeout of Burrell produced a .132 WPA, turning a situation in which the Giants expected to score into one where a base hit would be needed against a man who had allowed 3 all day before that inning. However, Renteria was feeling it. Apparently he’d told Andres Torres he was going to hit a home run before the game. Twice. After hitting three all season. Renteria saw two balls and was in the driver’s seat. Lee elevated a cutter slightly. Renteria hit it to left-center. David Murphy raced back but the ball cleared the wall by what seemed like inches, giving the Giants the three-run lead and making him only the fourth man to get the game-winning RBI in two different World Series clinchers (who can forget his game 7 11th-inning walkoff single for the Marlins in ’97?), joining Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Berra. Not bad company. 

Lincecum smelled blood in the water and went in for the kill. He struck out Guerrero to lead off the next inning. Nelson Cruz, however, showed that the Rangers were not done yet by hitting a deep drive to left that would leave the yard for a solo home run. After a long at-bat, Ian Kinsler was able to work a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. From there, Lincecum went beast mode. After two straight strikeouts, the Rangers had two innings to get two runs. The Giants went down quickly in the 8th and Lincecum took the mound, recording yet another strikeout (his 10th) to begin the inning. He then got two groundouts and the Rangers were down to their final three outs. 

To lock down the final frame, Brian Wilson jogged from the bullpen, beginning his evening by striking out Josh Hamilton looking after four pitches. Guerrero grounded to short and there was one out to go. Wilson got strike one with a slider on the inside corner. Ball one was a slider low and away. He got a swinging strike on a high fastball to put the Giants one strike away. He threw a fastball well outside and then a slider that broke just off of the outside corner to make it a full count. He then threw a slider high and inside. Cruz took a mighty hack and got nothing but air as Posey leaped out of his stance and ran to the mound to begin the celebration. Lincecum hurdled the dugout fence. Cody Ross and Aaron Rowand tackled each other in the outfield. Aubrey Huff tossed his glove and embraced Wilson and Posey on the mound. Bruce Bochy and Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti hugged it out. The bullpen ran in from the outfield to join the party in the center of the diamond. An extremely classy crowd applauded both a great season by their hometown Rangers and the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. 

For one last time, let’s see it by the numbers.
WPA Leader: Tim Lincecum (.463)
Lincecum was dominant, going 8 3-hit innings and allowing only one baserunner (Cruz, on his solo home run) to make it past first base. While the Giants have gotten dazzling performances from other pitchers this postseason, including Cain, Bumgarner, and several members of the bullpen, Lincecum proved last night why he’s the ace. In the biggest start of his career, against the best hitting club in baseball, Lincecum never gave the Rangers’ hitters a chance. Series MVP Edgar Renteria’s .258 led all hitters, giving him a .422 total for the series. 

Biggest Plays: 
When you hit a home run in the highest-leverage at-bat of the game, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. With the pressure on in a 3.39 LI situation, Renteria’s improbable home run produced a .355 WPA. This could be the end of Renteria’s long career in the big leagues. World Series MVP is one hell of a way to go out, and there’s no question Renteria earned it with his 7 for 17 performance in the Series. He OPS’d 1.209 and without his home runs in both games two and five this could have been a very different series. As I’ve noted, his regular-season performance obviously wasn’t worth what the Giants were paying him. However, when he does something like that, I feel like I have no choice but to take back everything I’ve ever said about Edgar Renteria and applaud him on one hell of a series.

The Goat:
Pat Burrell went 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts, capping a miserable series for him with a -.193 WPA in the final game. Josh Hamilton, the biggest threat in the Rangers’ lineup, was almost absent from this series, posting a 2 for 20 overall and going 0 for 4 with 2 strikeouts last night, as he didn’t manage to get a ball out of the infield. Burrell ended up with an atrocious -.422 WPA for the series, while Hamilton’s -.270 wasn’t much better.

So that’s it. The Giants are your World Champions. I can die in peace. I’d like to congratulate a legitimately strong and very classy Rangers’ team on their AL pennant-winning season. And thanks to you, my readers, for sticking with me through the first playoff experience for this blog. It’s been a fun ride. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll tell you my offseason plans for this site.

Monday, November 1, 2010

World Series Recap: Game 4

Game 4 of the World Series pitted Giants’ rookie stud Madison Bumgarner against the Rangers’ Tommy Hunter. Bumgarner’s been fantastic for the Giants this year, and the big lefty should be a lock for the starting rotation next year. Tommy Hunter hasn’t been quite as good for Texas (4.99 FIP), and some (including myself) believed Derek Holland should have gotten the start. However, Ron Washington decided that Hunter gave him the best chance to win, and gave him the game ball to begin this contest.

The Giants would threaten early. Andres Torres led off with a single and stole second to put a man in scoring position with no outs. However, after 3 straight groundouts, Torres was eventually stranded at third. The Rangers would also put their leadoff man on, as Elvis Andrus walked, but after a fielder’s choice the Rangers’ opportunity was erased by a great double play set up by the glovework of Freddy Sanchez. It was only the first of several spectacular defensive plays made by Sanchez last night.

The Giants would put runners on first and third in the second, but failed to capitalize. However, they did break out to a lead in the third. Hunter allowed a leadoff double to Andres Torres, and after a Freddy Sanchez groundout, Aubrey Huff bombed a shot to right-center to put the Giants up 2-0. The next few innings would be uneventful, but you really should take a look (if you haven’t already) at the throw Buster Posey made to nail Josh Hamilton trying to steal second to end the fourth frame. One of the best throws I’ve ever seen a catcher make, and he’s a rookie in the World Series. 

Hunter wouldn’t get past the fourth, as Alexi Ogando came in to start the 5th and produced Texas’ first 1-2-3 inning of the game. Ogando was well on his way to a perfect 6th as well, with two down and one strike on Juan Uribe before he threw the second pitch of the at-bat well outside. Ogando immediately walked off the mound, leaving with a left oblique strain without throwing another pitch. Darren Oliver came in and finished the at-bat for another perfect inning. 

The Giants would get a run off of Oliver in the following inning. After Edgar Renteria’s one-out single, Nate Schierholtz struck out looking. Andres Torres came up, and Bruce Bochy put the hit-and-run on in a one-strike count. Torres delivered with a one-hopper off the top of the right-centerfield wall to score Renteria, and the Giants were up 3-0.

Oliver would start the top of the 8th, but was relieved by Darren O’Day after inducing an Aubrey Huff groundout to start the inning. Buster Posey followed by hitting a fly ball that Josh Hamilton started to move to his right to make a play on. The ball started to carry and Hamilton went back… and back… and back… before watching the ball travel over his head and over the wall in dead center for a solo shot to make this a 4-0. 

Bumgarner shut down the Rangers in the 8th in what would be his last inning. The rookie absolutely flabbergasted the strong Texas lineup, and many Giants fans (myself included) would have liked to see him go for the complete-game shutout. However, Bruce Bochy decided to play it safe and bring in all-world closer and all-universe whackjob Brian Wilson to close it out in a non-save situation. Wilson avoided the torture that has become so familiar among Giants fans by pitching a 1-2-3 ninth, striking out two including Josh Hamilton to end the game.

Let’s take a closer look.

Giants vs. Rangers
WPA Leader: Madison Bumgarner (.472 WPA)
Bumgarner was lights-out last night. He became the youngest rookie ever to pitch a 6 inning or longer shutout in the World Series, and the fourth youngest pitcher ever to win a game in the Fall Classic. Bumgarner went 8 innings and gave up only three hits and two walks while striking out six. As with Matt Cain’s start in game 2, if the baseball world didn’t know about Madison Bumgarner before, it sure as hell does now.

Biggest Plays:
Aubrey Huff’s two-run smash to open the scoring against the team he grew up rooting for, less than 65 miles from his hometown of Mineral Wells, trumped all other plays in this contest, with a .165 WPA. Watching him run the bases is one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had as a baseball fan. In his 10-year career, Huff had never been involved in a playoff race until this season. Now, after pretty much every team gave up on him last offseason (remember, he wasn’t even the Giants’ first choice… they lost out on Adam LaRoche), he’s been a top-10 hitter in the NL this year and is OPSing 1.152 in the World Series against the team he spent his childhood cheering on. It doesn’t get much better than that. The unbridled joy on Huff’s face makes it easy to see why San Franciscans go so crazy for this team, after showing somewhat weak support for 2002’s World Series club. The personality of this Giants club is simply infectious. When you really boil it down, baseball is a game, and players are supposed to be having fun playing it. The Giants do as good a job as any team I’ve ever laid eyes on of reminding us of that fact. Also big were Andres Torres’ double to right-center in the 7th to score Renteria and Torres’ leadoff double in the third that bounced off the bag and over Mitch Moreland’s head.

The Goat:
Freddy Sanchez’s 0 for 4 makes him the worst player in this one according to WPA (-.118), but I think we can give him a reprieve for flashing the leather in spectacular fashion on several occasions last night. Rangers DH Vladimir Guerrero went 0 for 3 with a hat trick, as Bumgarner struck him out three times. Considering the fact that he doesn’t add any value on defense as a DH, he has to be the goat for this one.

Three months ago, Madison Bumgarner couldn’t legally drink champagne. Tonight, he’ll hope to celebrate in it as the Giants and Tim Lincecum will look to end this series against Rangers’ ace Cliff Lee. It should be a great game, so tune in and check back here tomorrow for a full write-up.