Monday, December 26, 2011

Call to the Pen: the Gio Gonzalez Trade

The Gio Gonzlez trade suggests that the Nats believe they're ready to compete for DC's first World Series in 87 years. The last time Washington brought home a championship, it was on the back of a Game 7 victory by inner-circle Hall of Famer Walter "The Big Train" Johnson to win the 1924 Series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Future of SBTB

Hey everyone,

I've been asked to begin writing for a new site, the Fansided network's Call to the Pen. Call to the Pen has nearly a dozen impressive writers covering baseball from a number of angles, and has been consistently putting up 100,000+ hits/month, so it's an exciting opportunity for me. Unfortunately, I won't be able to post my SBTB posts on CttP or vice-versa, so it will likely mean I'll be slowing down my posting schedule on here a bit, but I'll always throw out a SBTB post, tweet, and facebook link whenever I put up a new article. I will still be posting on SBTB, especially when I have a feature article I'm putting out that I've done a lot of work on. I hope you'll follow me over and continue reading my work at CttP. I'll be posting regularly on Sundays and intermittently otherwise.

My new post is on the Latos trade, which I don't feel was a great fit for either side. The Reds got a flyball pitcher who will hate Cincy's home park, while the prospects the Padres picked up directly block two key pieces of the team's future. Click here to check it out.


Monday, December 12, 2011

What’s the Best Player in Baseball Worth?

In a twist reminiscent of last year’s Cliff Lee negotiations, what appeared to be a two-team race for the services of Albert Pujols between the Cardinals and Marlins was upset by the entrance of a third “Mystery Team.” Though many believed the Mystery Team was simply a tactic Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano, was using to squeeze every possible dollar out of Pujols’ suitors, buzz around the mystery team rumor continued to grow. In the course of roughly 12 hours on Wednesday night and Thursday morning of the Winter Meetings, headlines such as “Pujols Deciding Between Cardinals, Marlins” and statements such as “Angels are definitely not in on Pujols” gave way to news that Pujols’ pact with the Angels was confirmed. Pujols will receive $254M over the next ten years, with his contract expiring in his age 41 season.

Signing a once-in-a-generation player to a Free Agent deal is always a difficult proposition because, almost by definition, there are very few players who can be invoked as comparables to the 31 year old Pujols and used to determine his long-term value. In analyzing Pujols’ contract, I will look at the aging curves of players approaching Pujols’ caliber to estimate a reasonable expectation for Pujols’ future production and determine whether he is likely to produce enough value to be worth the value of his massive contract.

I used Baseball-Reference’s Play Index (a nifty tool, if you haven’t played around with it) to find all expansion-era (post-1961) players who produced >50 WAR in their first 11 seasons while playing an offense-heavy position (1B, 3B, LF, RF). In his first 11 seasons, Pujols has put up an incredible 89.1 WAR, but looking at players in this group who eclipsed that mammoth total would leave you with… well, Pujols. Though he’s an outlier among outliers, the rest of this group is populated with Hall of Famers and all-time greats, and I believe the aging curve established by these players will provide some insight into how Pujols may age. Overall, this group included 20 players, but I removed Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, as both have just completed their 11th season in the Majors. I then looked at the average production among the players for each subsequent year after their 11th. Comparing this average production to the players’ three-year weighted (standard 5-4-3 weighting) average from their 9th to 11th seasons, we can determine how quickly a player’s contributions diminish as they age. Then, using Pujols’ 3-year averages as a starting point, we can depreciate his value based on these ratios and estimate his production in each year of his contract. Multiplying these values by $/WAR, with a 5%/year inflation rate added, gives us Pujols’ total expected value over the length of the contract. Got all that? Let’s dive in.

The 18 players included in the data set are: Barry Bonds, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, Ricky Henderson, Jeff Bagwell, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson, Ron Santo, Dick Allen, George Brett, Bobby Bonds, Todd Helton, Eddie Murray, Sal Bando, Pete Rose, Scott Rolen, and Chipper Jones. Most of these players, unsurprisingly, were not able to finish their 21st seasons in the Majors, so players are not included in the average for any year after their retirement. This may understate the likelihood that Pujols retires before the end of his contract, but I don’t see this as a major risk, especially considering Pujols’ incredible durability. Pujols has played 1705 games in his first 11 seasons, the best total for any player included in this data. Several active players also have not completed their 21st seasons, which was treated similarly to players who retired. Regardless, it’s difficult to project much production as Pujols nears and passes age 40, so these data aren’t as important as trying to estimate production for the first few years of Pujols’ contract.

Overall, the players averaged almost exactly 5 WAR in their 9th through 11th MLB seasons. After this point, their production dropped off by an average of 15% per year until the end of their careers. In total, taking the average production from each year produces an expected 27 WAR for players’ 12th to 21st seasons, or 5.44 times the players’ three-year average baseline.

Click to see data from comparables

Pujols’ three-year weighted average is 6.9 WAR, so we’ll use that as our starting point. The projected first six years of Pujols’ contract, through the 2017 campaign, seem to be something like what the Angels have in mind in signing Pujols, as this model suggests he will be in the 4-6 WAR range each season. After 2017, however, Pujols’ expected value drops precipitously, as the model projects less than 10 WAR total over the final four seasons of Pujols’ deal. After multiplying these WAR values by the $/WAR inflation rates, Pujols’ total expected value over the course of the deal comes out to $222M, $32M short of the total value of his contract. Although this is a fairly rough calculation, it offers a clear indication that Pujols could have trouble living up to the total dollar value of his massive deal.

Click to see the model's predictions for Pujols' production

So, if that’s the case, what’s the reasoning behind the Angels’ huge bid? Well, first of all, there are a ton of ways to calculate Pujols’ expected future value, and each one results in a slightly different evaluation. Additionally, since more recent data are weighted more heavily to improve the accuracy of our projections, Pujols' "down" (5.1 WAR) year has a large effect on Pujols' initial value and every subsequent value. If Pujols can prove 2011 was a fluke and return to producing 7+ WAR per year, as he did in nine of his first ten Big League seasons, his projected value will see a big jump throughout the life of the contract. However, even if Pujols doesn’t produce a full $254M worth of value over the course of his stay in Los Angeles, there are still reasons to believe this contract could be a win for the Angels.

Pujols’ value off the field, especially to the Angels, is huge. Since purchasing the Angels in 2003, owner Arte Moreno has positioned the team as a representative of the city’s massive Latino population, to fantastic results in attendance and revenue. If there’s any player that can be leveraged to market to that population, it’s Pujols. The team just signed a 20-year, $3 Billion TV contract with FOX Sports. While the deal was signed before the Winter Meetings, it certainly provides the funds needed to make big Free Agency splashes, as the Angels did with Pujols and CJ Wilson. It’s also not outside of the realm of possibility that the Angels and FOX had an understanding that, once their deal was agreed upon, some of the Angels’ new revenue would be infused into their future Major League payroll to increase TV viewership and fan interest. Additionally, Pujols will contribute as a veteran presence and respected leader, assisting with the development of the team’s young players both during his contract and afterward, as his contract includes the stipulation that he will serve as a consultant to Moreno for a decade after his retirement.

Although Pujols is unlikely to produce at a high enough level to justify his contract based on his on-field value alone, he provides so much added value in his other attributes that it’s easy to see why the Angels felt comfortable offering this huge deal despite his advanced age. Pujols is a franchise-changing talent, and the Angels hope that his total value to the franchise will far exceed the dollars he’ll be paid over the next decade.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mets' Decision to Keep Reyes Backfires

Just before the trade deadline, Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson faced a dilemma; Trade his shortstop, best player, and the face of the franchise, for prospects that could help the team in the future, or hold on to him and receive draft pick compensation if Reyes were to go elsewhere in Free Agency. Alderson decided Reyes had more value to the team as a shortstop than a trade chip, and decided to allow Reyes to finish out his contract with the Mets.

When Reyes hit the market this offseason, his departure seemed quite likely, and at this point is certain. The Mets’ offered Reyes five years at $80 million, which was not enough to prevent Reyes from inking last night with the Miami Marlins on a six-year, $106M deal.

From the Mets’ perspective, Reyes signing with the Marlins is basically a worst-case scenario. On the field, they’ll have to see Reyes suit up for their division rival 18 times per year for the foreseeable future. That’s not even the worst of it, though. At 72-90, the Marlins finished in the bottom half of MLB teams, meaning they have a pick in the first half of the first round that is protected from being given up as compensation for Free Agent signings. Additionally, the team has already signed Heath Bell, who is a higher-ranked Free Agent according to Elias’ rankings, despite Reyes receiving a contract for more than double the guaranteed money. Because of the new CBA’s reordering of Type A and Type B Free Agents, the Marlins will not need to give up their second round pick to the Padres, although the Padres still receive a compensation pick directly before the Marlins’ second-rounder. So, since Bell was a higher-ranked free agent under the old system, he bumps the Reyes compensation pick back a round, while the Marlins won’t have to actually give up that pick because of the changes to arbitration rules for relievers under the new system. This is a coup for the Marlins, who have exploited the shift in CBA arbitration policies perfectly, while the Mets get the short end of the stick, as their compensation pick for Reyes will be no higher than the Marlins’ third rounder, and could very easily drop from there.

The buzz around baseball suggests that the Marlins aren’t done spending. If they go on to sign another Type A Free Agent ranked higher than Reyes, the Mets’ compensation pick could be bumped back even further. The Marlins are still considered players for Albert Pujols, and to a lesser extent Prince Fielder and CJ Wilson, all of whom receive a better Elias score than Reyes and the signing of any of whom would result in the Mets’ compensation for their best shortstop in franchise history being a fourth round pick.

While trading Reyes might have been tough to swallow for the Mets’ fanbase, holding on to him has resulted in yet another obstacle to their returning to contention. The Mets should be looking to restock their farm system and add young talent through any means possible, in order to set themselves up to compete sometime around 2014 or 2015. By trading Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez at the deadline, they did so to a certain extent, but by hanging on to Reyes the Mets may have missed out on most of the value they could have gotten from their best trade chip.

This situation is quite unique, as it required the change in compensation systems and the Marlins’ decision to push for most of the top-tier Free Agents to line up. However, it offers a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding any Free Agent market and the old Elias Ranking compensation rules. For a team that needs young talent as badly as the Mets, holding on to Reyes to appease the fanbase for a few months was simply a risk they couldn’t take. Although I’ve been impressed by Sandy Alderson’s tenure with the Mets so far, taking the PR hit at the deadline would have been worth trading Reyes, as it now represents the difference between the prospects that might have been available in a deadline deal and the third- or fourth-round draft pick the team will now receive. If Reyes had signed for a team that would have resulted in the Mets’ receiving a first-round pick as compensation, the Mets still probably could have gotten more value for him in a trade. With a first-rounder as the best-case scenario, and the possibility for that pick to drop further, the team should have taken Reyes’ value in prospects when they had the opportunity. Instead, Reyes’ compensation represents another setback for the Mets in their push to return to the playoffs and emerge from the shadow of their crosstown rivals.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The New Inefficiencies: Scouting and Development

As many avid baseball fans are already aware, MLB has announced the signing of a new labor agreement that will govern baseball for the next five years. This new CBA extends baseball’s labor peace that reaches back to the 1994 strike, the longest such streak of the four major leagues after the NBA and NFL’s lockouts this year. The new CBA takes many significant steps forward. Players will be now be tested for Human Growth Hormone under the league’s PED policy, the ridiculous Elias rankings have been eliminated in favor of a system based on the salary teams are willing to offer arbitration candidates, and earlier deadlines will speed the offseason up and allow more time for free agency to play out as teams can more quickly evaluate their needs and potential solutions.

However, many analysts see the CBA as a step backwards for competitive balance, allowing large-market teams that can afford a large Major League payroll to prosper while teams with smaller payrolls now have less chances to make up the difference through intelligent resource allocation. By imposing a hard cap on international spending and creating a system that effectively amounts to a hard cap on the Amateur Draft, the new CBA means that small-market teams will find it much harder to make up their Major League payroll gap by signing and developing young talent.

Over the past couple years, several small-market teams have isolated draft and international spending as a market inefficiency that could allow them to compete with teams that can afford a larger major league payroll. Top draft spenders include the Pirates, Blue Jays, Nationals, and Royals, while the international market has been dominated by the larger-budget Mariners and Yankees with the Astros, Pirates, A’s, and Blue Jays just behind. These teams will no longer have the ability to outspend their competitors in these markets, so they’ll need to find new ways to stretch their dollars in order to compete with richer teams.

For these teams, the key to competing on a small payroll will always be an abundance of young, controllable talent. The Rays’ success, for example, relies on the production they get from players during their pre-arbitration and their arbitration-eligible seasons, as they are priced out of the market for elite free agent talent. Without an ability to spend big on amateurs to acquire that young, controllable talent, these teams will need to stretch the little money they are allowed in order to build their farm systems and produce cheap Major League talent.

If teams are no longer able to spend big in order to take advantage of the inefficiencies of the draft and international markets, they will need to find new ways to maximize the amateur talent they do acquire. For now, the focus of small-market teams will shift to their amateur scouting and player development.

With draft bonuses capped by the new system, teams are no longer charged with deciding whether a certain player is worth going “over slot” for, as the slot penalties go from a harsh tax on dollars spent over slot to the possibility of losing future draft picks. Now, teams will simply be looking to draft the best player available that they believe is ready to sign with a Major League organization. Since teams won’t be spending as much money on draft and international bonuses, they have the opportunity to reallocate some of this money toward their scouting department. With these additional resources, teams will give their scouts a better chance to properly evaluate amateur players, and the small-market teams hope that this will result in a continuous flow of talent to the big leagues.

Teams will also look to their player development staffs to get the most out of every draft pick. When a player is drafted, his team sets goals for his development and attempts to guide that player towards achieving those goals and becoming a big-league talent. In order to cull as many useful players from the draft and international market as possible, I believe teams will allocate more resources in researching player development and trying to optimize their system to get the most out of their amateur talent.

I believe this will also shift teams’ focus more towards younger players. For years, many have suggested that selecting high school players in the draft or signing younger international players may be an unnecessary risk, as due to their age and relative inexperience these players are unknown quantities. However, I’m currently researching data for another project that suggests that these players may not be exceptionally risky after all, and drafting them gives teams the ability to mold the player much more than they could an older prospect. By selecting young players with their limited amateur spending budgets and developing those players with the teams’ strategy in mind, small-market GMs will be continue to maximize the output of their spending on amateur talent even if that spending is now capped.

While MLB owners simply saw a place in the CBA where they could save some money, the draft and international spending caps actually act as a huge barrier to competitive balance. The new CBA removes a market inefficiency many teams saw as their avenue to compete with a smaller budget. Now that this inefficiency is no longer an option, small-market teams will look to improve their amateur scouting and player development systems. If they are unable to continue to produce a strong pipeline of MLB talent under the new spending constraints, this CBA will simply widen the gap between the rich and poor teams.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Relief Market Goes Nuts

Last week, reports surfaced that the Phillies were nearing an agreement with representatives for their free agent closer, Ryan Madson. Madson’s deal was said to be for $44M over 4 years and pending only the approval of team CEO David Montgomery. Those reports either turned out to be inaccurate or Montgomery never put his stamp on the contract, because less than a week later the Phillies penned former Red Sox stopper Jonathan Papelbon to a four year deal that, at $50,000,058 is the largest total ever guaranteed to a reliever. At $12,500,014.5 per year, the contract’s average annual value falls short of only Mariano Rivera’s last two extensions. Including Papelbon and Rivera, eight of the top ten contracts for relievers in average annual value have been signed in the last four offseasons (now including 2012 with Papelbon). Teams engaged in a bidding war for late-inning arms have driven up the price of the market, to the point where I believe most clubs would be better served using arms they can develop or acquire through trades and allocating their free agent dollars elsewhere. Several factors combine to make it very tough to believe that going after the top relievers on the market remains a good investment.

Total Impact
Simply put, relievers don’t have the opportunity to influence games that players at other positions do. No reliever pitched more than Alfredo Aceves’ 93 innings in 2011, and the vast majority of relievers were in the 60-80 IP range. While most relievers on average are most effective than starters per inning pitched, the gap in total innings means they can’t produce close to the same value. National League Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel led all relievers with 3.2 WAR; the next lowest position-leading total was Mike Napoli’s 5.6 WAR, best among backstops last season.

Market Competition
Over the last few years, the market for elite relief pitchers has blown up to drastically overstate the value of these relievers. Last season, ten relievers signed contracts for more than $10 million in guaranteed money, led by Rafael Soriano’s $35 million deal. In addition, many of these relievers cost their new teams a draft pick as a result of being Type A free agents under the Elias free agent ranking system. Since relievers tend to receive shorter deals, many more of the relief pitchers that hit the free agent market are ranked in the top 20% or the 20% below that, the cutoffs for Type A and B free agency. As a result, seven of the relievers signed in 2010 cost their new team a selection in the 2011 Rule IV Draft, out of a total 17 Type A free agents that signed elsewhere. Teams’ spending on the last couple drafts suggest that they now value their draft picks much more highly, so this is an important consideration for any team looking to bring in a free agent.

Volatility in Production
Largely because they pitch fewer innings and therefore produce a much smaller sample of data, reliever production is much more volatile than the production of players at other positions. This manifests itself as teams have a very difficult time determining which relievers are worth signing to multiyear deals for large amounts of guaranteed money. Of the ten relief pitchers who signed for more than $10 million last offseason, only three (Mariano Rivera, Joaquin Benoit, and J.J. Putz) were among the top 30 WAR producers last season. The only relievers who appeared in the top 10 WAR producers in both 2010 and 2011 were Sean Marshall and John Axford, suggesting that it’s very difficult to accurately predict which relievers will produce consistently from year to year and which ones are likely to stumble.

For payroll-conscious teams, I believe there are three main options. First, develop young talent to populate the back of the bullpen. Complimenting Kimbrel with the dominant arms of Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, the Braves are the current poster child for this strategy. Second, teams can look to the trade market to acquire back-of-the-bullpen talent. Besides signing Putz to a $10 million deal, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers traded for David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio last offseason and Brad Ziegler at the trade deadline, meaning the turnaround of the Diamondbacks’ relief corps can at least partially be attributed to this strategy. Finally, teams can exploit the general over-reliance on save numbers and sign strong relievers with little or spotty closing experience, confident that their success in the seventh and eighth innings will carry over to ninth-inning duty. Before this season, Kyle Farnsworth had 27 career saves in 11 seasons, and only one since 2007. However, the Rays saw Farnsworth’s underlying numbers and identified a potential closer, signing him to a $3.25 million deal and solidifying their bullpen.

Overall, the Papelbon deal presents too much risk from a team perspective to be considered a shrewd move. From the unpredictability of reliever performance to the large money guaranteed to players who impact a relatively small number of at-bats, the market for the most effective free agent relievers has become so expensive that it essentially removes most of the potential value of signing these players because of the large chunk of a team’s payroll that signing would require. By using a creative solution to fill their closing role and using their free agent dollars on players at more impactful positions, teams maximize the value of their payroll and give themselves a better chance to contend.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Baseball’s Buffalo Bills: Where Do The Rangers Go From Here?

Over the last two seasons, the Texas Rangers have proven to be the cream of the crop in the AL West, winning the division twice. They’ve taken advantage of their resulting playoff berths to emerge as the victors of the American League both times. However, on each occasion, the team’s season ended on a sour note, as they watched a National League club celebrate the World Championship glory that Texas has yet to taste in its 51-year history. Like the Bills, who lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 90s, Texas is developing a nasty habit of bringing their ultimate goal within reach and then falling just short.

Complicating matters is the fact that ace CJ Wilson hits the free agent market this offseason. With CC Sabathia agreeing to terms with the Yankees on the day of his opt-out decision, Wilson is now firmly situated as the best starter on the market with MLB experience, and probably the best overall starter (depending on how you feel about Japanese sensation Yu Darvish). With a number of deep-pocketed teams looking for rotation help, Wilson’s price tag probably won’t appeal to Jon Daniels and the rest of the Rangers’ brass. Even if Wilson does fit into the Rangers’ plans for 2012, they’ll have to think long and hard about how giving out a big contract to their ace might limit their ability to hang on to other core players as the team’s young studs mature. With an arbitration class projected by Matt Swartz’s model to cost the team an imposing $30M, Texas will have some tough decisions to make.

I believe that they’ll probably decide to let Wilson walk, as there’s been talk that they don’t want to give him more than 5 years and $75M. Wilson might be a candidate for a nine-figure deal, so if those are really the Rangers’ budget constraints Wilson will almost certainly receive bigger offers. And the truth is, that’s fine. The Rangers don’t need Wilson, as they’ll be able to compete based on their young core and incredible aptitude for player development. Perhaps no team has ridden the Latin American prospect gravy train with more results than the Rangers. The fruits of that labor will soon begin to surface in Venezuelan starter Martin Perez and Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin, with others such as Jurickson Profar and Engel Beltre a little further off. All of these players were international signees, for which the credit goes to Jon Daniels’ exceptional web of scouts working to find talent in Latin America.

These players will join an already well established core. As I mentioned in my ALCS preview, no other team had five or more players who produced 20 runs or more, and the five that did for the Rangers; Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, and Josh Hamilton; are all under Texas’ control for 2012. With these players in the fold, the Rangers’ powerful offense will only continue to improve as the team’s big-league and prospect talent matures.

The Rangers also have options to replace CJ Wilson. The aforementioned Perez struggled in 2011 at Triple-A, but his 3.98 FIP suggests his year wasn’t as bad as his 6.43 ERA would seem. If the Rangers decide Perez needs to spend some more time at Triple-A Round Rock (or even if they don’t), they could decide to convert Neftali Feliz into a starting role. While Feliz has been closing at the major league level for the last two seasons, he was a top prospect as a starter in 2009, and the Rangers’ rotation was full at the time, prompting the conversion into a short reliever. The Rangers’ success in converting Wilson and Alexi Ogando from the bullpen to the rotation could convince them to try it again with Feliz.

If the Rangers decide they want to make a splash, they could even consider going after Darvish, if he is posted for American teams to bid on. Daniels has gone to the trouble of making the trip to Japan in order to scout Darvish in person. He could deem Darvish a better investment than a big deal for his free agent ace, although as Dave Cameron has suggested the market for Darvish may overstate his true value to a team as a player who still has no experience in the best league in the world. I’d trust Darvish’s NPB stats as a better indication of his true skill level than, say, a prospect’s Triple-A numbers, but there’s still a talent gap between the top Japanese league and the Majors.

I think the Rangers have the talent and the player development processes in place to get over the hump in the near future and win the franchise’s first World Series. Though it won’t necessarily happen next year, the Rangers’ window of contention is wide open and will be for long enough that I’d be a little surprised if they don’t win a championship with at least a solid portion of their current core in place. Expect October baseball in Arlington to be a regular occurrence over the next half-decade. While they fell short in 2011 after coming a strike away on two separate occasions, they’re likely to taste postseason glory sooner rather than later.

Congratulations to the Cardinals’ organization on a magical year and a title that can only be described as equal parts improbable and incredible. With Albert Pujols hitting the market, they’ve got work to do, but whatever happens in those negotiations, flags fly forever. If this is the end of King Albert’s reign in St. Louis, they couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion.

Monday, October 17, 2011

World Series Preview: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

After convincing Game 6 drubbings in their respective League Championship Series’ clinched a World Series berth for both the Rangers and Cardinals, we’re left with quite an interesting matchup to decide baseball’s champion. The Rangers, a team with big bats throughout the lineup but some suspect pitching, return to their second straight World Series after winning the AL West by a comfortable 10-game margin. The Cardinals, on the other hand, took advantage of a Red Sox-scale September collapse by the Braves to earn their playoff berth on the last day of the season. The Cardinals are one of few teams in baseball that may be able to mash with the Rangers, as the Pujols-Holliday-Berkman core of their lineup will be able to take advantage of the Rangers’ cozy ballpark as effectively as the Rangers can. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington leads ESPN’s Park Factors with a 1.4 Run Factor and 1.5 Home Run factor, meaning roughly 50% more fly balls become home runs in Arlington as opposed to a league-neutral park. On the other hand, pitching will likely have the advantage in St. Louis, where park factors of 0.9 for runs and 0.77 for home runs suggest that games are unlikely to turn into the slugfests that might favor the Rangers. In an odd twist, Prince Fielder’s All-Star Game home run, which won the game for the National League, secures home field advantage for his division rival, as the Cardinals will have the advantage of four games at home should the series go the full seven.

Both clubs have benefited from major bullpen acquisitions this season, and have been leaning heavily on their bullpens to prevent their back-of-the-rotation starters from piling up innings when more effective arms are available. For St. Louis, trading rising star Colby Rasmus seemed like something of a head-scratcher, but the continued emergence of Jon Jay and the success of the other arms acquired in the deal may prove to be their ticket to a World Series. Jay, a promising centerfielder in his own right, has replaced Rasmus as the team’s everyday centerfielder. Edwin Jackson has impressed in the rotation, beating Roy Oswalt in a strong divisional series outing and earning a start in Game 3 of the World Series. Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, the other pitchers acquired in the trade, pitched three innings of one-run ball as part of the team’s seven-reliever bridge from Jackson’s minor blow-up in the first inning to the World Series in Game 6 of the NLCS. Rzepczynski has accumulated a 2.33 SIERA in 5.2 innings this postseason, while Dotel has amassed a 1.45 in 6.2 innings. When the Cardinals can piece together runs of 4+ runs from their bullpen, much of the stress on their rotation is relieved. Since this rotation is largely mediocre without the presence of Adam Wainwright, Tony La Russa has leaned heavily on Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez, Jason Motte, and Arthur Rhodes, in addition to the pitchers acquired in the Rasmus trade.

I’ve talked at length about the Rangers’ offense, and it seems likely that a new player will be able to step up and carry the team each day. In the series against the Tigers, Nelson Cruz filled that role, while Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, or any of a number of other sluggers are certainly capable of picking up the slack should Cruz cool off. The Rangers’ starters other than CJ Wilson aren’t exactly the types you’d expect to shut down the Cardinals’ lineup, but Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels has built a similarly effective playoff bullpen to minimize the potential negative impact of the team’s starting options after Wilson. A day before the trading deadline, Daniels picked up Koji Uehara from the Orioles for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. The next day, Daniels traded two pitching prospects, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Mike Adams, who may be the best setup man in the league. Adams has fashioned a SIERA of under 3 for each of the past four seasons, including a 2.40 this year. Daniels finished his external bullpen tinkering by adding Mike Gonzalez on a waiver trade, giving the team a second lefty option in addition to Darren Oliver. Alexi Ogando, an effective member of the Rangers’ bullpen in 2010, was transitioned to the starting rotation this year extremely successfully. However, in the playoffs, Ogando isn’t needed in the rotation, and he’s been effective in short-innings duty for Ron Washington. Ogando has pitched 10.1 innings in 7 appearances for the Rangers in the postseason, with a ridiculous 1.87 SIERA to show for it. Along with Uehara, Adams, Gonzalez, and Ogando, the Rangers also have the strongest parts of their 2011 bullpen available for late-inning duty. With closer Neftali Feliz, go-to lefty Darren Oliver, and playoff revelation Scott Feldman, the Rangers are well positioned to utilize their bullpen extensively.

I’d expect this series to be very exciting, with the potential for explosive offense at almost any moment. I think the Rangers have a slight advantage in the rotation, While CJ Wilson will have a fairly even matchup with fellow ace Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia will have an advantage over Colby Lewis in Game 2, especially in St. Louis. However, I think Derek Holland will give the Rangers a chance to win against Edwin Jackson, and though he’s somewhat unheralded, Matt Harrison has been Texas’ second-best pitcher this season according to WAR. He benefits from some fairly positive HR/FB luck (WAR is based off of FIP, so this isn’t taken into account), but if Harrison can continue to avoid gopher balls in Game 4, he should have a good shot against Kyle Lohse.

Once the teams’ bottom of the rotation starters are exposed in Texas, we could see some slugfests in Arlington, making these teams’ bullpens a focal point of the series as they try to slow down the big lumber in both dugouts. I think the deciding advantage in the series will be in both the teams’ bullpen and lineup depth, and Texas has the edge in both categories. Texas’ bullpen acquisitions allow the Rangers to bring ace relievers as early as the fifth or sixth inning and be assured of quality innings for the rest of the game, which is a luxury the Cardinals’ bullpen doesn’t give them. In addition, while the cores of these teams lineups may be comparable, the Rangers have an advantage lower in the lineup. Mike Napoli, who led all MLB catchers with a 178 wRC+ this season, hits sixth. Nelson Cruz, who hit an MLB record six homers in the ALCS to win the series MVP award, hits seventh. Though David Freese showed some offensive ability in winning the NLCS MVP, the Cardinals will counter the Rangers’ stacked lineup with Nick Punto and Yadier Molina. Though these players certainly have value, they won’t be able to match the offensive output of the Rangers’ role players. In the end, my prediction is that this series will come down to the Rangers’ offensive firepower and the Cardinals’ inferior bullpen, and Texas will slug its way to the first World Championship in the history of the franchise in the franchise’s first year under the principal ownership of pitching legend Nolan Ryan.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

NLCS Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

This year’s NLCS is a matchup of two NL Central squads that just plain don’t like each other. The Brewers and Cardinals have gotten into it on various occasions this season, and with a World Series berth on the line the tension only figures to increase.

The Cardinals’ 762 runs and wRC+ of 111 make them the best offensive team in the National League this season. The Redbirds bats are led by a trifecta of mashers in the heart of the order in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. This could be Pujols’ last year in St. Louis, as he’ll be a free agent after the season and there are several deep-pocketed sharks in the water who will look to lock up the Cards’ iconic first baseman. Pujols had his worst season as a pro, putting up “only” 5.1 WAR. Funny how being the 11th most productive position player in the NL can be considered a disappointment, but that’s the level of expectation that’s been set for the best hitter of the past decade. Holliday dealt with injuries this season, appearing in only 124 games, but mashed his way to a 154 wRC+ and 5 WAR when he was in the lineup. Since 2007, no outfielder has been more productive than Holliday, who has reached that plateau through ridiculous consistency; he’s produced between 144 and 156 wRC+ for each of the last five seasons. After two consecutive down years, Berkman put up 5 WAR in 2011 on the strength of a 159 wRC+. Berkman’s trademark power disappeared last season, and his 2010 ISO of .166 was his worst mark since his rookie campaign, but his .246 this year was right in line with his career average.

Opposing the Cardinals, the Brewers’ offense features Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Braun may be the frontrunner for the NL MVP after a huge season in which he led the NL with a 179 wRC+. As scary a thought as this is, Braun is continuing to improve as a hitter. For each of the last five seasons he’s had an increase in walk rate and a decrease in strikeout rate, with career bests in both categories this season. A more patient, more selective Ryan Braun isn’t exactly a welcome sight for opposing pitchers. Following Braun in the Brewers’ potent lineup is Prince Fielder, who like Pujols may be moving on after this season. Seeing Fielder in another team’s uniform will be a strange sight, as the remarkably consistent Fielder has missed only 13 games since his first full season in 2006, and only a single contest over the past three years. Fielder’s as prototypical as power hitters come, and his .267 ISO trailed only Mike Stanton among National Leaguers this season.

Both clubs are somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of run prevention, as the Brewers’ 638 runs allowed places them sixth in the NL, while the Cardinals’ 692 is ninth in the league. It’s almost unbelievable that the Cardinals have made it this far, as they lost their best starter before the season even started. Adam Wainwright, who has finished in the top three in NL Cy Young voting in each of the last two seasons, lost his 2011 campaign to Tommy John surgery. Without Wainwright, the Cardinals’ staff is led by Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Carpenter has stepped up in Wainwright’s absence with a 3.35 SIERA and 5 WAR. In Game 5 of the NLDS, Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay with a complete game 3-hit shutout, sending the Cardinals to the NLCS after a 1-0 victory. After a huge rookie year in 2010, Garcia has built on his success with another impressive campaign. Garcia’s 3.29 SIERA reflects his ability to do the two things that make pitchers successful; strike hitters out and induce groundballs. His 53.6% groundball rate is seventh in the NL, and he strikes out another 18.9% of batters, meaning less than 30% of at-bats against Garcia result in a ball in the air and the potential for serious damage.

With Fielder likely gone after the season, Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin tabbed 2011 as the team’s year to go all-in, cashing in some big time prospects to solidify his starting staff. First, Melvin sent Brett Lawrie to Toronto in exchange for Shaun Marcum in early December of last year. While Lawrie has impressed in his rookie season, Marcum has been a huge part of the Brew Crew’s retooled rotation. Marcum got roughed up in his first postseason start, but he’s been solid all year, and will likely match up against Edwin Jackson in Game 2 of the NLCS. Less than two weeks later, Melvin one-upped himself, sending a package of prospects and Alcides Escobar to the Royals for ace Zack Greinke. Greinke’s been a man on a mission since coming to Milwaukee, as he’s ridden a league-leading 28.1% strikeout rate to a 2.51 SIERA, also best in the league. His baseball card numbers don’t reflect the incredible year he’s having, largely due to some plain old bad luck, but when Game 1 begins it’ll be the Brewers ace on the mound. Greinke and Marcum complement the Brewers’ pre-existing ace, Yovani Gallardo. Having Greinke and Marcum in the rotation takes a ton of pressure off of Gallardo, and he’s responded with a career-best 3.07 SIERA. While the Cardinals’ bats were able to overcome the Phillies’ multiple aces, the Brewers arms’ may be an equally difficult test.

A big factor in this series will be the gloves behind these two impressive rotations. At –30.8 runs, UZR sees the Cardinals as the second worst defensive team in the NL this season. Meanwhile, the Brewers’ UZR of 10.2 makes them the fifth best defense on the Senior Circuit. If the Brewers’ gloves can help their starters out or the Cardinals’ defense becomes a handicap for their hurlers, that could be a deciding factor in which team will represent the NL in the World Series.

I’m going to take the Brewers to win in six games, with two wins coming from Greinke and one each from Marcum and Gallardo. With tensions running high, it’s almost impossible to tell what’ll happen, except that Chris Carpenter will probably talk smack and Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan will almost certainly do something completely ridiculous. I know I’ll be watching.

Friday, October 7, 2011

ALCS Preview- Texas Rangers vs. Detroit Tigers

While both National League Divisional Series will be going to a decisive Game 5 tonight, the Tigers and Rangers have each earned a berth to their league’s Championship Series. We’ll take a look at how these two teams match up to try to determine which club will represent the AL in the World Series.

Each of these clubs featured one of the more prolific offenses in the AL. The Rangers scored the third most runs of any AL team over the course of the season, while the Tigers scored the fourth most. However, the gap between them is larger than that statistic might indicate. The Rangers were the only team that was able to keep up with the big-money clubs in New York and Boston, as their 855 runs were only 20 behind the league-leading Sox. After the Rangers, there’s a large gap, as the Tigers scored 787 runs to finish fourth in the league. Advanced statistics suggest the gap between the teams’ offenses is a little smaller, as the Rangers’ wRC+ of 113 outpaced the Tigers by only 4%.

The Rangers’ offense got big production from some surprising places this year, while several of the players who carried the team to last season’s World Series have taken a step back. The team’s leader in offensive value was catcher Mike Napoli. Napoli spent 2010 splitting time behind the plate in Anaheim with Jeff Mathis. This offseason, Napoli momentarily went to the Blue Jays in exchange for Vernon Wells, although the deal was more about losing Wells’ massive contract and less about actually acquiring Napoli from the Jays’ perspective. Napoli was sent packing once again almost immediately, this time in exchange for closer Frank Francisco. Napoli’s taken advantage of his new opportunity in Texas, putting up 5.6 WAR in only 113 games through an impressive 178 wRC+. Napoli hit 30 home runs in 432 plate appearances during the regular season. The next lowest PA total for a 30-homer hitter was 525, nearly 100 chances more than Napoli. If you picked Napoli to lead the AL in slugging this year, well… I don’t believe you.

I discussed Ian Kinsler in my AL MVP post, but he deserves another mention, as he’s been incredibly valuable on both sides of the ball and had the most prolific offensive year of his career by a longshot. His 7.7 WAR was the best mark on the club. Adrian Beltre’s 5.7 WAR led the team’s position players other than Kinsler, and his 134 wRC+ was second only to Napoli. In his first season in Texas, Beltre earned the first installment of his big multiyear deal signed last offseason and then some, putting up big offensive numbers and playing the premium defense at the hot corner we’ve come to expect from him. It’s rare that 4.2 WAR is considered a letdown, but Josh Hamilton produced less than half as much this season as his MVP campaign in 2010. While his numbers may not make him an MVP candidate again this year, he’s certainly a dangerous hitter. After a season of unrest between Michael Young and his front office that ended with him requesting a trade, Young gave the Rangers some serious reasons to retain him. Young gave the team positional flexibility and another big bat in their deep, potent lineup. The Rangers were the only team in baseball with five players who produced 20 or more runs above average on offense, and that’s not even counting Nelson Cruz, who had a big down year after a breakout 2010.

While the Rangers do have a better lineup, the Tigers aren’t exactly slouches. Led by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers have a number of big bats in the middle of their lineup. Alex Avila’s breakout season was interrupted by a deep slump down the stretch and during the divisional series. The Tigers will have to hope he can bounce back during this series and continue to cement himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. Victor Martinez, acquired last offseason to protect Cabrera, has been effective in that role, as his 130 wRC+ this season tied a career high. Delmon Young, acquired on a waiver trade, has been a force in Detroit’s lineup over the final stretch of the team’s regular season, then set a franchise record with three ALDS home runs. However, he left Game 5 with an oblique strain after his first inning home run. If the injury is significant, Young could be done for the postseason. The Tigers will be hoping it’s only a minor ding. Jhonny Peralta led all AL shortstops with 120 wRC+. Peralta put up a career-high 5.2 WAR in an outstanding season.

C.J. Wilson is the clear ace of the Rangers staff. Wilson will hit free agency this season, and it’s been speculated that they’re likely to lose him to another team. Wilson’s 3.29 SIERA was 10th in the AL. He’ll be followed by Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Matt Harrison. Holland had something of a breakout this year, putting up 3.6 WAR. He was behind only Neftali Feliz among the Rangers’ top pitching prospects in 2009 before joining the big club, and may be beginning to realize some of that potential. Harrison also had a pretty big breakout campaign, putting up 4.2 WAR in 30 starts after never topping 0.7 in his previous three seasons in the majors. Harrison is one of two Rangers who successfully moved from the bullpen to the rotation this season, as Alexi Ogando’s success as a starter has been a big storyline for this team. Ogando has been moved back to the bullpen for the playoff. He performed admirably throughout the Rangers’ series against the Rays, culminating in a spotless eighth inning of Game 4 setting up Neftali Feliz for the series ending save. Ogando and Harrison’s success may pave the way for Feliz to move to the rotation next season, but the Rangers won’t begin to discuss that decision in earnest until the end of their playoff run.

Across the diamond, Justin Verlander put together one of the best seasons from any pitcher in recent memory. His last start of the season gave him a shot at being the first 25 game winner since Bob Welch in 1990. Not much else needs to be said about the Triple Crown winner, other than that the Tigers will pitch him as many times as they possibly can in this series and every time they do he will almost certainly give them a chance to win. Verlander will be followed in the rotation by Rick Porcello, as the Tigers used both Doug Fister and Max Scherzer in their Game 5 victory. Porcello and Scherzer are both young guys with big stuff, but who haven’t seen the results to match their potential yet. Both put up 2.7 WAR this season, Fister may end up being the most important acquisition by any team at this year’s trade deadline, although Hunter Pence will certainly give him a run for his money. Fister has produced 5,6 WAR this season, including 2.4 and a 2.63 SIERA in 70.1 innings with Detroit. These starters will hand the ball to the Tigers’ impressive bullpen, led by Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde. Valverde certainly has a tendency to make the ninth inning a bit of an adventure, but he’s 51-for-51 in save opportunities this season after closing out the ALDS in New York.

Home field advantage, which the Rangers clinched over the Tigers on the final day of the season, could be a huge deciding factor in this series. In the bandbox in Arlington, the Rangers’ potent office could take over games and simply out-mash the Tigers. However, in the expansive Comerica Park, the Tigers’ pitching will have a decided advantage. I think the Tigers will win at least two of their three home games, and I will be very surprised if Justin Verlander doesn’t give his team a fairly good chance to win at least one of the games in Arlington. If the Rangers can take the other three games in Arlington, that would likely set up a Verlander vs. Wilson Game 7 in Texas for all the marbles. In a deciding game, with the team on his back, it’s hard to bet against the best pitcher in the American League, so I’m going to take the Tigers to advance in what should be a thoroughly entertaining series.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The AL MVP Conversation

The American League MVP race this year is a little more complicated than the competition for the prize on the Senior Circuit. Using the same framework as with the NL to evaluate which players are or are not deserving candidates for the award, I’ll run through the top contenders and give you my pick for the best player in the AL this season.

Looking at the AL WAR leaderboard, the first obvious observation is that each of the top three producers in the AL are currently enjoying cold drinks and tee times. For Jose Bautista, missing the playoffs was no surprise. For Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, the realization that they wouldn’t be playing October baseball came at the end of the Red Sox September meltdown that has been well-documented elsewhere. At 9.4 WAR, Ellsbury was the biggest producer in the league by a full win. He certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s collapse; his September wRC+ of 176 was his second best of any month in 2011.

Ellsbury and Pedroia are in the mold of candidates I prefer, as they provide value on both sides of the ball. Both play premium defensive positions, play well above-average defense at those positions, and are offensive forces. Though Pedroia’s 2011 was better than his 2008 MVP campaign, Ellsbury was the best player on the Red Sox this season.

As recently as the All-Star break, Bautista would’ve been my choice for the MVP. However, he’s taken a step back during the second half, and while he’s still the best hitter in the AL, the gap between Bautista and the rest of the pack closed somewhat. Since he provides very little value on defense and plays for a team well outside the playoff picture, I’m gonna say this isn’t Bautista’s year.

After Pedroia, a trio of playoff bats populate the league’s WAR leaders. Ian Kinsler’s impressive 7.7 WAR paced the Rangers to a division title, as he put together one of the quietest 30/30 seasons in the history of baseball. Kinsler’s UZR of 15.0 may be somewhat suspect (as all single-year UZR numbers are), especially considering his 2010 mark of only 2.1. My guess is that his true defensive value is somewhere in between. As a second baseman with power and speed, that’s incredibly valuable.

Miguel Cabrera’s 7.3 WAR led the Tigers to the playoffs, and his 177 wRC+ was second only to Bautista’s. Cabrera’s always had prodigious power, but over the past two years he’s done a great job pairing that power with patience. After large increases in his walk rate in both 2010 and this season, Cabrera’s .448 OBP led the American League, which may come as a pretty big surprise to anyone who has followed his career up to this point. However, Cabrera plays bad defense at a position where the expected levels of offensive output are incredibly high. Though he’s one of the most impressive offensive forces in the league, a one-dimensional player isn’t going to be my MVP in a year with as many two-way contributors as this season.

The final position player I’ll discuss is Curtis Granderson. Granderson had a breakout year with the bat, producing the best power output of his career while bumping his walk rate to a career high as well. Granderson’s defense in centerfield graded out five runs below average, but his three-year average UZR is exactly league-average, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him a scratch defender. Granderson’s 146 wRC+ is second only to Ellsbury among AL players at premium defensive positions, and his 41 homers were second in the league.

It’s very rare that I see a pitcher as an MVP contender. When you only play in one out of every five of your team’s games, it’s difficult to have the kind of impact that everyday players can produce. However, Justin Verlander has spent all of 2011 forcing the issue. Verlander led the league with 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, putting up 7 WAR in the process. Verlander was the perfect combination of lucky and good. Along with his league-leading strikeout total, Verlander had a top-10 walk rate, and his 2.84 SIERA led the league. In addition, his .236 BABIP and 80.3% strand rate padded his numbers, creating a perfect storm of ridiculous awesomeness. Living in Ann Arbor, it’s tough not to hop on the “Verlander for MVP” bandwagon.

Unfortunately for the large majority of my peers at the University of Michigan, I’m going to go with the numbers and pick Jacoby Ellsbury as the deserving recipient of the AL MVP. Although the Red Sox missed out on the postseason, Ellsbury produced all year, and even more so when it counted. He put up some incredible numbers down the stretch, during the team’s most important games of the season, and although the team’s pitching fell apart, he provided a ton of value that really should have led the team to a playoff berth. Ellsbury produced a full win more than any other AL player, and nearly two full wins more than any player participating in the postseason. He played world-class defense at a premium defensive position, while putting up incredible offensive numbers across the board. Though Boston won’t have a shot at a championship this year, their centerfielder was good enough that I believe he should take home some hardware anyway.

I unfortunately got somewhat swamped at the beginning of the playoffs, and wasn't able to put together a playoff preview. When the divisional series are completed, I'll take a closer look at the championship series for both leagues. For what it's worth, I would've picked the Rays, Tigers, Brewers, and Phillies to advance to the ALCS and NLCS.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The NL MVP Conversation

With the NL races pretty much wrapped up, I’d like to take a look at the MVP race. This also provides an opportunity for me to discuss the way I approach the MVP award. Much of the disagreement about which players are the most deserving of the award stems from the fact that the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, which presents the award each year, doesn’t provide any specific guidelines for what “most valuable” actually means.

Many voters simply see the award as being for the player who added the most value to his team. Regardless of what any other player on his team accomplished, if that player is the best in the league, he should be the MVP. For the NL, you’d have a hard time arguing that that isn’t the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp. 2011 has been something of a lost year for Los Angeles, as ownership and attendance problems have crippled the team for essentially the entire season. However, Kemp has shrugged off the numerous distractions and acted as the offensive engine of the club, while Clayton Kershaw (who after Ian Kennedy’s win last night needs a win to match Kennedy and lock up the NL Triple Crown) has anchored the rotation. Kemp’s 8.3 WAR leads all NL hitters, and he currently leads the league in both home runs and RBIs as well, sitting only .006 points of batting average short of Ryan Braun and the first offensive NL Triple Crown since Ducky Medwick in 1937. While it looks like he’ll fall short, he’s still been the best player in the NL by the numbers.

However, the way I see it, that doesn’t necessarily make him the MVP. All wins aren’t made alike, and some are much more valuable than others. The Win Curve describes the marginal value of each win to a baseball team, and it shows fairly clearly that a team’s 85th win is far more valuable than either win 65 or win 105. If a player adds value to a team that doesn’t have much of a playoff shot, the extra wins that player might provide really don’t make much of a difference; functionally, there’s no major difference for a team that finishes with 64 or 65 wins. Similarly, for a player on one of the best teams in the league, winning 100 or 105 games likely isn’t going to be the difference between October baseball and October tee times. However, for a team in a tight race, every win is much more likely to decide the fate of that team’s season. The value a player adds to his team needs to be considered in the context of what that value means to that team, and whether the resulting wins are icing on the cake or that team’s ticket to the postseason.

With this in mind, two other NL outfielders on contending teams stick out to me as MVP contenders. Both will probably end up being the difference between their teams making and missing the playoffs, as they’ll lead their respective clubs into October after winning their divisions by reasonably tight margins. At 7.2 WAR, Ryan Braun trails only Kemp among NL position players. Both players provide all of their value on offense, allowing their skill at the plate to make up for a complete lack of defensive tools. Braun has averaged a UZR of –10.2 in left field over the past three seasons, while Kemp has put up –8.9 in center. Braun’s 177 wRC+ makes him the best hitter in the NL, and both add value on the basepaths. While their raw numbers suggest their seasons have been nearly equally impressive, the wins Braun created for the Brewers will give them a shot at a title. While it may seem unfair to penalize Kemp, as he has very little ability to turn the Dodgers into a contender singlehandedly, his play simply wasn’t in the same context as Braun’s, and therefore doesn’t have the same value.

There’s only one other batter who I believe has a compelling argument that his play was more valuable to his team. That batter is Justin Upton. Like Braun and Kemp, Upton has been a consistent contributor to the Diamondbacks’ lineup. Though he provides a similar speed/power threat to Kemp and Braun, Upton’s 141 wRC+ is a notch down from his competitors’ league-leading marks. However, Upton is less than half a win short of Braun according to WAR, largely because he also adds significant value on defense. Although single-year UZR values are the most commonly disputed component value of WAR, Upton has demonstrated through his three-year average of 7.9 UZR that his 10.1 mark this year isn’t just a statistical blip. For me, he’s Braun’s strongest contender, but Braun has been the most valuable player on the senior circuit.

Though the voting for these awards is often a bit of a head-scratcher, I’m convinced that Braun is the deserving recipient of the NL MVP, at least based on the way I define value. Voters may eventually decide Kemp’s raw numbers are too strong to ignore, or a pitcher like Kershaw or Roy Halladay deserves the award. However, when you consider the context of the value these players have provided, Braun played the best for his team when it mattered the most. As I define the award, that makes him the NL’s Most Valuable Player.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Arizona Wins the West

For all intents and purposes, the NL West race is over. Improbably, the Diamondbacks sit at the top of the division, a year after finishing dead last in the division and 27 games out of the playoff picture. Back in June, I said that I expected the D’Backs to stay in the race, but at that time it was still the Giants’ race to lose. Fortunately for Arizona, that’s what they did, as the champs are just 37-41 since that post, while the Diamondbacks are an incredible 48-30.

As with most teams, this turnaround can’t be attributed to a single player. Justin Upton is in the thick of the MVP race, and Miguel Montero has been one of the top catchers in the NL. The historically bad bullpen of 2010 has been reworked and currently sits at sixth in the NL in WAR, thanks to a combination of free agent signings (J.J. Putz), trades (David Hernandez), and essentially every other way a team could go about an overhaul, including adding impressive Rule V draft pick Joe Paterson. However, the team’s rotation has led the way, and after finishing 12th in NL starter WAR last season, the Diamondbacks’ rotation has risen to sixth with the 2011 regular season nearly complete.

Specifically, three of Arizona’s starters deserve credit for stepping their games up. Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy have continued their development and cemented themselves as true staff aces, while rookie Josh Collmenter’s deceptive delivery and impressive control have allowed him to provide a solid third option on the mound.

Hudson, 24, flashed his impressive skills last season on the way to a 3.64 SIERA and 2.3 WAR in 14 starts for the White Sox and Diamondbacks. Hudson moved to Arizona just before the trade deadline in exchange for Edwin Jackson in a deal orchestrated by interim GM Jerry Dipoto. Hudson’s absurd 1.69 ERA was fueled by incredible (and unsustainable) underlying numbers, especially his .216 BABIP against and 91.5% strand rate. However, 2011’s 3.41 ERA is essentially luck-neutral, as Hudson’s 3.56 SIERA shows that he’s for real. His strikeout rate has fallen by nearly a batter per game, but this dip has been offset by large improvements in both his walk rate and groundball rate. After a slight drop in his velocity last season, Hudson is once again averaging 93 MPH on his fastball, and has increased his velocity on the rest of his arsenal as well. Whether this is due to improved strength, conditioning, mechanics, or some other factor is unclear. Whatever the case may be, Hudson’s stuff is getting better, and his improved walk rate suggests he’s also learning the art of pitching. At only 24, Hudson has a lot of career in front of him. If he can continue this career trajectory, it’ll spell trouble for the rest of the NL West.

Sharing ace duties with Hudson, Ian Kennedy has reinvented himself in the desert. Kennedy’s 2.4 WAR in 32 starts last year wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was certainly a step forward from his early career struggles. As a top prospect in the Yankees’ organization, Kennedy was under the microscope, and may have had trouble handling the pressure. Though 2010 was a success as Kennedy’s first full season in the starting rotation, it was only an appetizer for what he has provided the Snakes this season. No matter the metric, Kennedy looks like a true ace this year. Like Hudson, Kennedy has done a better job of limiting his walks and inducing grounders, but unlike Hudson, it hasn’t been at the expense of his strikeouts, as he’s up to nearly eight K’s per nine innings. From his 3.34 SIERA to his 19-4 record, the old-school and new-school numbers are in complete agreement on Kennedy’s dominance this season.

Though both Kennedy and Hudson’s seasons are a positive development for Arizona, neither is a complete surprise, as both have shown impressive potential at various points earlier in their respective careers. More surprising is the success of soft-tossing rookie Josh Collmenter. Collmenter’s fastball is averaging 87.4 MPH, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch harder than 90 all season. Nonetheless, Collmenter has thrown the pitch nearly 70% of the time to great effect, as his deceptive mechanics make his fastball-changeup combo much more effective than his pedestrian velocity would suggest they should be. Though he won’t blow any of his pitches by hitters (7.9% swinging strike rate, below league average), he has found ways to be effective without pure stuff. With crafty pitching and consistent command, Collmenter has been a solid addition to the back of the team’s rotation, putting up a 3.55 FIP and 3.94 SIERA. Behind the team’s two young aces, he’s done exactly what the team has asked of him, and as a result the rookie might very well get a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of making an October start.

We can’t point to any one reason for the Diamondbacks’ worst-to-first turnaround, as they’ve made huge strides on both sides of the ball and from the top to the bottom of the roster. However, their rotation seems to be leading the way, as Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have been a dominant tandem at the top of the rotation and Collmenter has filled in admirably behind them. More help is on the way, as the word on the street is that third overall pick in the 2011 draft Trevor Bauer and top prospect Jarrod Parker will get called up for a taste of the pennant chase sooner rather than later. If both are ready to join the D’Backs rotation full-time in 2012, Arizona’s starting staff will be a force to be reckoned with. However, thanks to Kennedy and Hudson, Arizona is still focused on 2011, where their young aces will lead them into the playoffs as they hope to catch some October magic.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Reinvention of Brandon McCarthy

The first seven years of Brandon McCarthy’s career were mostly pretty pedestrian. He accumulated a total of 3.3 WAR in 56 starts, never eclipsing 1.3 WAR in a single campaign. He worked as a starter and out of the bullpen for the White Sox before being moved to Texas in the John Danks deal in 2006. McCarthy struggled with the Rangers, bouncing back and forth between triple-A and the majors and unable to post an ERA or SIERA under four in any of his four years in the organization. Last year, he spent the entire season with the Rangers triple-A ballclub and dealing with shoulder issues, and it would have been quite reasonable to assume that after six mediocre years, he might never make it back to the bigs.

Last offseason, McCarthy signed a $1,000,000 deal with the A’s, and was something of an afterthought as the team’s fourth starter behind Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez. However, McCarthy has reinvented his game, and in doing so outperformed his more heralded rotation-mates. McCarthy once showed serious potential; he was the White Sox top pitching prospect in 2004, according to Baseball America. So how has he rediscovered the form that caused him to be so highly rated as a prospect and established himself as the most productive starter in a very good rotation?

Though McCarthy’s calling card was his impressive control, for years it escaped him in the majors. McCarthy was actually rated as having the best control in the White Sox minor league system as a promising prospect, but walked more than 8% of batters for each of his first four full seasons. McCarthy’s career 16.2% strikeout rate is slightly below league average, so he doesn’t have the strikeout stuff to make up for his wildness.

Fortunately, McCarthy seems to have realized the offensive value of a base on balls, and with his rediscovered control is finally fulfilling the potential he showed back in 2004. After coming into 2011 with a career 8.8% walk rate, McCarthy has cut his walks to a Halladay-esque 3.8%. In fact, the only pitchers with better walk rates than McCarthy this year are Halladay, Dan Haren, and Josh Tomlin. Though Tomlin doesn’t strike out enough hitters to dominate like Halladay and Haren, McCarthy has enough stuff for his numbers to look more like the two pitchers ahead of him with a combined 11 All-Star appearances than the forgettable Tomlin.

In addition to avoiding the free pass, McCarthy has drastically changed his pitch mix. Before 2011, McCarthy had thrown his fastball at least 60% of the time in each of his previous seasons in the majors. He’d tried to use his slider (12.7% of offerings in 2009, his last major league year) and changeup (11%) to catch hitters off balance, but this year he’s pocketed both pitches (both under 3% of pitches) in favor of his newest weapon, a devastating cut fastball. McCarthy’s throwing his straight fastball only 44.3% of the time this year, instead using his cutter for 31.5% of his pitches, a number that increases to over 40% in two-strike counts. McCarthy’s showing incredible confidence with his new toy, and is using it and his curveball (18.9% of pitches, up from 11.4% in ’09) to mow down hitters in 2011.

McCarthy, like so many other pitchers in the past few years, has used the cutter to great results because it’s truly a multifunctional pitch. Its sharp, late-breaking action has allowed pitchers like Haren and Halladay, and others, to use it as an effective strikeout pitch. However, even when hitters do put it in play, the same late breaking action usually means the ball misses the bat’s sweet spot and instead induces weak contact. McCarthy’s benefited from his cutter in this respect as well, as his 47.1% groundball rate is by far the best of his career.

Though it’s certainly easier said than done, the formula for pitching success is quite simple. Pitchers who limit walks, strike out batters, and keep the ball on the ground when it is put in play have what it takes to be successful in MLB. McCarthy has finally learned how to prevent the base on balls and rediscovered the control that once earned him top prospect status, and along with an update to his arsenal, his new approach has turned him from an afterthought into one of the biggest pitching surprises of the season.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jose Bautista Goes Ballistic

On Friday night, Jose Bautista had a bad game. While it’s not a surprise for most players to have an off day, watching Bautista put up a hat trick with three strikeouts and then get himself ejected was quite a departure from the rest of his stellar 2011 campaign. At the center of Bautista’s ejection were the balls and strikes called by home plate umpire Bill Welke, a 12-year veteran.

On the bump for the Rays opposing Bautista and throwing the offerings in question was James Shields. “Complete Game James” lived up to his nickname for the tenth time this season, along the way inciting a tirade from Bautista in which he threw a bat, helmet, shinguard, and water bottle onto the field after being ejected following his third long walk back to the dugout of the game.

One aspect of Bautista’s game that makes him so exceptional is his incredible knowledge of the strike zone. Bautista’s 20.2% walk rate is by far the highest in baseball this season, a result of his ability to be selective and lay off pitches outside the zone while crushing balls in it. So if Bautista has a gripe with Welke’s strike zone, it’s worth investigating.

Fortunately,’s Pitch F/X tool allows us to pinpoint the location of these pitches in the zone, so we can tell if Bautista truly had a beef or if the frustration of facing a locked-in James Shields simply caused the best hitter in baseball to lose his cool.

In the first inning, Bautista’s ugly night started when he struck out without taking the bat off his shoulder, watching a fastball on the outside corner for strike three. Bautista turned around to Welke after the called third strike and expressed his displeasure with the call. However, Pitch F/X suggests the pitch, labeled pitch 6 in the linked image, caught the outside corner. Looking at these graphs can get a little confusing, but the thing to remember is that they’re all from the perspective of the catcher, so a pitch on the right corner is outside to a righty like Bautista. If Pitch F/X is to be believed, score one for Welke (and Shields).

In the third, Bautista struck out swinging on three pitches, Shields finishing him off with a curveball just below the zone. Pitch F/X suggests Bautista chased strike three, but with two strikes that’s not a pitch that he can lay off. His frustration was evident as he returned to the dugout having logged his 16th multi-strikeout game of the year in only the first three frames.

The final straw for Bautista was his 7-pitch at bat that concluded with a curveball on the outside corner. Bautista swung through the pitch for his third strikeout of the evening. He walked back to the dugout, swung his bat against the wall and began to throw anything within reach onto the field, all the while jawing at Welke, who sent him to the showers in short order. Once again, Pitch F/X appears to show that Bautista’s frustration was entirely of his own (and Shields’) creation, as Welke’s strike zone remained consistent to what he’d been calling all night.

The best hitter in baseball had an off night. Bautista’s become unaccustomed to nights like his game on Friday. He’d blame Welke’s strike zone, saying his displeasure was a result of his receiving unfair treatment from the umpire. Pitch F/X tells another story, however, as Bautista’s rough day appears to simply be a consequence of yet another dominant performance from Complete Game James.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cub Vote of Confidence Becomes a Long-Overdue Death Knell

Few words scare any team executive, coach, or even player quite like the dreaded “vote of confidence.” In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal study done last year, 20% of coaches who receive a vote of confidence from their boss are pursuing gainful employment within just the next month, while others are fired shortly thereafter. So when Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said that the plan was for GM Jim Hendry to stay on for the foreseeable future last week, Hendry might as well have simply started to clean out his office. Though switching GMs midseason can have drastic effects on the culture of the organization, the Cubs’ decision not to retain Hendry will likely be a boon to them as they approach the offseason. Though Hendry certainly proved he was a talented evaluator in his service to the Cubs over the last 16 years, his nine-year tenure as GM made it clear that he didn’t have equal aptitude for player valuation and the negotiation skills required of an MLB GM. He survived a vote of confidence last year, but was unable to do the same after another year of mediocre results.

Hendry has consistently been rated among the worst GMs in the league, and just a quick glance at his big-name signings makes it clear why. The last time Hendry made a big investment, it was his 2009 signing of Milton Bradley for 3 years at $10M per. Uglier contracts negotiated by Hendry include Carlos Zambrano’s 5-year, $91.5M deal and Alfonso Soriano’s 8-year, $136M monstrosity that is currently considered one of the biggest albatrosses in the game. So, with nearly $50M opening up in budget space for next offseason, including a projected $10M increase for their few big-time arbitration cases, the Cubbie brain trust decided they needed a new captain to steer the ship and perhaps decide whether Albert Pujols or another big-name free agent finds a home in Chicago.

The end result is that Hendry’s tenure was marked by expensive, underachieving teams. Cubs payrolls since 2009 have averaged $137.7M, and yet the team hasn’t made a playoff appearance in that span and are below .500 overall. They currently have the second highest payroll in the NL, even after dealing Kosuke Fukudome’s big contract to the Indians, but they’re the second worst team in the league, at 55-70. With the team heading toward what could be a huge offseason that will shape the fortunes of the club for years to come, the decision to find a new GM will likely be a boon to the franchise. Though Ricketts gave Hendry the vote of confidence last week, he had actually informed Hendry that he would be relieved of his duties on July 22, but Hendry stayed on to facilitate a smooth transition after the trade and draft signing deadlines. Immediate control will turn over to Assistant GM Randy Bush, but the team will begin their search for a long-term replacement as soon as possible. Hendry’s tenure did provide some success for the Cubs, but in the end he hasn’t done enough to turn dollars into wins, especially recently. The Cubs will look for a more statistically oriented GM, according to Tribune Cubs writer Paul Sullivan. The decision for the Cubs to start catching up with the rest of baseball from an analytical standpoint could be the first step to ending their century-long Series drought.

It’s too early to speculate on the list of GM candidates, but odds are that they could look just south to White Sox Assistant GM Rick Hahn, a very well-respected executive among baseball circles who would be an excellent choice to fill the void. Kim Ng, a former Dodgers Assistant GM and current Senior VP for Baseball Operations for the Commissioner’s office, would be an incredibly interesting name as well, as she’d become the first female GM in the history of major American sports. She’s exceptionally qualified, and has been interviewed for several GM jobs in the past, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if she was asked to contend for the position. With several enticing GM candidates filling other smaller executive positions throughout baseball, the Cubs will have a number of possible choices. Cubs fans should feel better about handing any of these candidates the reins than they would have had Hendry retained his position. Especially with such a crucial offseason coming up, the decision to part ways amicably with Hendry and find a new direction could allow his replacement to shift the club’s fortunes somewhat quickly, despite having $65M committed to Soriano, Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd, and Carlos Marmol for next season.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Buccaneer’s Bounty

As I’m sure many of you know, the deadline for teams to sign their Rule IV Draft picks was Monday night at midnight eastern time, and as is often the case many of the negotiations went down to the wire. With 24 hours to go before the deadline, two thirds of teams hadn’t agreed to terms with their first round pick, but when the dust settled at midnight only the Blue Jays failed to ink their top pick. The Jays picked Tyler Beede, a high school right handed pitcher, but Beede will be attending Vanderbilt after turning down a reported $2.5M offer.

Many teams made statements on draft day with aggressive picks. Yesterday was their chance to put their money where their mouth is, quite literally. No team stepped up and did so more convincingly than Pittsburgh, which broke several draft records in signing many of its top picks to slot-busting bonuses.

In all, the Pirates set a major league record after spending $17M to sign Rule IV Draft prospects. Nearly half of this sum was awarded in the $8M bonus to first overall pick Gerrit Cole. Cole is a prototypical power pitcher, pairing a high-90s fastball that can touch triple digits with a nasty slider and a plus changeup. He’ll join top 2010 draftees Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in what the Pirates hope will be a dominant troika of rotation arms sooner rather than later.

Despite Cole’s big price tag, most in the industry expected the Pirates to pony up and spend what was necessary to secure his signature. More surprising was the announcement that they had inked second-rounder Josh Bell for an astronomical $5M. Like Cole, Bell is a Scott Boras client. Bell sent a letter to the teams of MLB before the draft cautioning them that he’d be honoring his commitment to the University of Texas. However, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington drafted Bell anyway, respecting the old adage that “everyone has a price.” Huntington found Bell and Boras’ price, and although it was more than double what any player outside of the first round has ever been paid, Bell’s a great add for Pittsburgh. He’s a first round talent, so his demand for first round dollars wasn’t unreasonable, and I think Bell fits nicely into the Pirates young offensive core alongside young studs like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Though he’ll likely take a little longer to get to the big stage than Cole, who the team hopes to fast-track to the Bigs as early as next season, the Pirates succeeded in pulling two legitimate top prospects from this draft. With a strong major league core and an impressive minor league system already in tow, Huntington has set the Pirates up for sustained success over the course of the next few years. Though the road from the mediocrity the Pirates have experienced over the last nearly two decades to contention is long and difficult, Pittsburgh continues to take steps in the right direction. Monday’s signings were a significant step.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Grading the Trade Deadline

This year’s crop of deadline deals was widely expected to be one of the weakest trading markets in recent history, and in many ways, it was. So many teams in dire need of a shortstop or catcher simply couldn’t find suitable ones on the market, and teams looking to make big additions were met with astronomical prices in terms of dollars and prospects, a result of the bidding war caused by the lack of solid options on the market. In the end, several big names will be trying to propel their new employers to the playoffs and beyond. However, some of these players’ new teams will eventually look back at the huge prospect haul they gave up for a rental on a more established player with chagrin, as several of the minor leaguers moved will likely develop into contributing big-leaguers or even stars. So, which teams took good risks in an effort to put themselves over the top, and which mortgaged the future too heavily for their present returns to exceed the potential they gave up?

I’ll be taking a somewhat subjective look, then putting the trades under the lens of Victor Wang’s prospect value research to see how teams fared using a more objective method. Wang’s research values prospects based on their status in Baseball America’s top 100 and John Sickels’ prospect ratings, and though it’s not perfect, it’s the best method we have for determining prospect values. I’ll be using 3-year WAR average values for major leaguers, and projecting that over the course of the remainder of their contract, and assuming the standard 40/60/80 progression for arbitration cases. I’ve projected them to continue to accumulate WAR for 2011 at the same rate that they have so far this year, and used a fairly standard rate of $5M/WAR. There’s a lot of educated guessing involved here, but it’s a quick and dirty way to get a sense for the values of the players dealt heading up to the deadline.

The Deal: Astros trade Michael Bourn and cash to the Braves for Jordan Schafer and three minor league pitchers; Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, and Juan Abreu.
Braves: A-
The Braves added the leadoff presence and solid defense they were hoping Schafer would provide as he continued his development. Bourn is arbitration-eligible for the final time after this year, so the Braves have the CF position covered for the next two seasons.
Astros: B
The Astros won’t be making any waves before Bourn hits free agency, so even though this haul isn’t nearly as impressive as some of the other prospect bounties thrown around as the deadline approached, GM Ed Wade simply needed to get something of value in return for Bourn. He did, as they picked up several young players with the potential to be solid contributors to the next good Astros club.
The Money Math:
To Braves
Bourn: $4.4 this year ($1.5M remaining), projecting $6M for arbitration 3 next year. 1.5 WAR projected for this year, 4.9 for next year comes out to $24.5M projected surplus value.
Undisclosed amount of cash
To Astros
Schafer: $23.4M based on his 2009 BA prospect ranking, no WAR in nearly half of two years at the major league level, although he’s been much better this year than last. Gonna split the difference and say he ends up at something like $10M surplus value.
Oberholtzer: Grade C+ pitcher, 22 or younger: $2.1M surplus value
Clemens: Grade C+ pitcher, 23 or older: $1.5M surplus value
Abreu: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: 1.5M surplus value.
The Verdict: Assuming Schafer continues to improve and does become a 2-3 WAR guy in Houston, the Braves receive a total of $9.5M more than the Astros in surplus value. Subtract the money they sent over, and it gets closer. Consider that 6 WAR over the next two years is much more valuable to the Braves than it is to the Astros, and that the prospects are much more valuable to Houston, and I think this looks like a win-win.

The Deal: Mets trade Carlos Beltran to the Giants for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler
Giants: C-
This is a decisive win-now move by GM Brian Sabean, but given that the Giants have a rather large window of contention with their impressive stable of young arms, giving up an integral piece of the future may backfire. On the day they acquired Beltran, the Giants’ playoff odds were 97.9%, according to Baseball Prospectus. Though acquiring Beltran certainly could have been the move necessary to put the Giants over the top and allow them to repeat as NL West champs, they likely would have won the division without Beltran. The only question then becomes how much Beltran increases the Giants’ odds of making another deep playoff run. Basically, if the Giants don’t repeat as World Series Champs, Beltran likely won’t have added anything substantive to the team. Since the playoffs are essentially a crapshoot, they paid a lot for a guy who can only help them for one playoff race.
Mets: B+
In Wheeler, the Mets added a legitimate top prospect to go along with Matt Harvey, the team’s other promising arm. Since Beltran’s contract contained a clause that forbid his team from offering arbitration after this season, if the Mets had kept Beltran they would have lost him with no compensation, so he needed to get moved at the deadline. The Mets also tossed in some cash to pay Beltran’s contract, but GM Sandy Alderson moved an aging outfielder and a pending free agent on a non-contending team for a possible future ace. Something tells me in three years we’ll all be calling this the “Wheeler Trade.”
The Money Math:
To Giants
Beltran: 2 WAR, $6.5M
$4M, to pay most of Beltran’s salary.
To Mets
Wheeler: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (35 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value
The Verdict: Again, these are two teams with different goals, and Beltran’s 2 WAR in the remaining half of this season is more valuable to the Giants than the bigger numbers Wheeler will likely put up in the future. However, with the Giants’ surplus value sitting at $7.5M and the Mets projected at $11.9M (Wheeler minus the cash sent over), this looks like a win for Alderson. As is usually the case with trades involving pitching prospects, if Wheeler pans out, it’s a coup for the Mets, whereas if he flames out, the Giants have upgraded their lineup at minimal cost.

The Deal: Astros trade Hunter Pence to the Phillies for top prospects Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart and pitching prospect Josh Zeid.
Phillies: B
The Phillies needed to upgrade their lineup, and paid a huge price to do so. In Pence, the Phillies pick up a replacement for the scuffling Domonic Brown/ Ben Francisco platoon that had held down the right field position since the offseason departure of Jayson Werth. Pence is essentially a better, cheaper, younger version of Werth, providing the bat that ultimately moves the Phillies from being a strong contender for the NL Pennant to being the odds-on favorite. Pence will be Phillies property until 2014, as he’ll go to arbitration twice more as a Super Two.
Astros: B+
Tough to imagine the Stros getting much more in return for Pence. Singleton, a first baseman, is an all-bat masher, while Cosart is a hard-throwing starter with some control issues but undeniable stuff. They’re two very good prospects, but both come with a lot of risk. If both or either reach their considerable potential, this trade could be a huge part of the way back to contention for the Astros. If neither do, it’s a great pickup for the Phillies, getting a sure thing for a couple prospects who could struggle to produce in the majors. I’m guessing that the Astros do end up getting some value back in this trade, and the Phillies lock down the right field position for the foreseeable future. With the Phillies’ window of contention slowly shrinking as their rotation ages and the Astros’ perhaps a few years from opening up, this trade looks like it could be a positive for both sides.
The Money Math:
To Phillies
Pence: $6.9M this year ($2.3M remaining), projecting $9.2M next year, $11.5M for 2013. Projecting 1.5 WAR this year, 3.9 WAR next two years. Projecting $24M in surplus value.
To Astros
Cosart: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (43 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value
Singleton: Top 26-50 hitting prospect (41 in BA midseason update): $23.4M surplus value
Zeid: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: $1.5M surplus value
The Verdict:
This is a huge haul for the Astros, as they’re receiving a projected $16.8M in extra value from this deal. If Cosart and Singleton develop into productive major leaguers, this trade could lay the foundation for the next Astros playoff run. However, the Phillies needed to add a bat to their lineup, and although they may have been forced to overpay to do it, Pence certainly fits right into their short-term contention plan.

The Deal: The Cardinals trade Colby Rasmus (and Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and PJ Walters) to the Blue Jays for recently-acquired SP Edwin Jackson, SP Marc Rzepczynski, RP Octavio Dotel, and OF Corey Patterson. The White Sox were also involved in this deal, as the Blue Jays acquired Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen’s Fat Ugly Contract in order to move Jackson as the centerpiece of this deal. I’ll focus on the Blue Jays and Cardinals’
Blue Jays: A-
Alex Anthopolous bought low on Rasmus, managing to acquire the young centerfielder for no notable prospects and a few major league players that don’t have nearly the promise Rasmus has shown. If Rasmus can settle in in Toronto, the Jays may be just a few pieces away from considering the possibility of contending with the big wallets populating the top of the AL East.
Cardinals: D+
Rasmus had fallen out of favor with the Cardinals’ coaching staff and earned somewhat of a reputation as a dissenter, leading Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous swoop in and snare him, buying low much like he did in the Yunel Escobar trade this past offseason. It’s certainly understandable that the Cardinals would want to move a player they saw as disruptive in the clubhouse, but it surprises me that this was the best offer they received. Rasmus is a controllable player with a reasonably impressive major league resume and considerable promise. GM John Mozeliak may regret selling low if Rasmus begins to fulfill some of his potential after a change in scenery.
The Money Math:
To Blue Jays
Rasmus: $150,000 remaining this year, projecting $4M, $6M, $8M for arbitration 1, 2, and 3. 0.8 WAR projected this year, 3.1 for each of the next 3 years. Projecting $17M surplus value.
Teahen: $1.6M remaining this year, $5.5M next year. Projecting zero or negative WAR, so roughly -$7.1M surplus value.
Miller, Tallet, and Walters are basically washes. This deal is about Rasmus.
To Cardinals:
Jackson: $3M remaining, 1.4 WAR projected, $4M projected surplus value.
Rzepczynski: $150,000 remaining, $1M, $1.5, $2M projected for arbitration 1, 2, and 3. 0.2 WAR projected this year, 0.8 for each of next 3 years. Projecting $8.4M surplus value.
Dotel: $1M remaining, 0 WAR in 2011, projecting -$1M surplus value.
Patterson: $300,000 remaining, 0.2 WAR projected this year, $700,000 surplus value.
The Verdict: I think this makes the trade look better for the Cardinals than it actually is. The 3.1 WAR projection for Rasmus is very conservative, while none of the players the Cardinals received really have much in the way of upside.

The Deal: The Rockies trade Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians for a package of prospects including top arms Drew Pomeranz and Alex White.
Indians: B-
This is certainly an aggressive move by the Indians front office, suggesting that while almost no one expected the Indians to be contending at this point in the season, they now expect to push for the AL Central crown. This may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a hot start, as the Indians current playoff odds currently sit at 26.4%, but the Indians want to build on the momentum they’ve created, and they’re hoping Jimenez will be the difference in the tight Central race. With the Indians impressive group of top prospects, including Pomeranz, White, and infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, they looked to be in a good position to compete next year and beyond. In adding Jimenez, they’re making a strong statement that they’re playing for the present. In my estimation, their small chance this season isn’t worth the potential future studs they gave up, but the fact that Jimenez is cheap and will be under the team’s control through the 2013 season makes that loss much easier to stomach. Additionally, considering the high flameout rates of pitching prospects and the relatively higher long-term values of top hitting prospects, according to Wang’s research, the Indians had to be happy to pick up Jimenez without being forced to move either of their prize positional prospects.
Rockies: B
My feeling was that the Rockies could consider contending next year or the year after, so there was no need to get rid of Jimenez and his hugely team-friendly contract. However, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd was faced with an offer he could not refuse, and agreed to trade Jimenez for several arms he will hope can help replace Jimenez at the top of the rotation over the next couple years. Though the Rockies didn’t need to trade Jimenez, they correctly identified this as the moment at which his value is the highest due to the dearth of starters on the market and the relative abundance of contenders looking for a rotation upgrade. If White and Pomeranz (who is a PTBNL until August 15, when he can officially be named in this deal) pan out, this is a huge win for the Rockies.
The Money Math:
To Indians:
Jimenez: $1M remaining this year, $2.8M next year, $4.2M in 2013. Projecting 1.3 WAR this season, 5.3 for next two years. Projected $51.5M in surplus value, thanks to Jimenez’s ridiculous contract.
To Rockies:
White: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (47 in BA top 100): $15.9M surplus value.
Pomeranz: Top 11-25 pitching prospect (14 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value.
McBride: Grade C hitter, 23 or older: 0.5M surplus value.
Gardner: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: 1.5M surplus value.
The Verdict: Despite the huge haul, this looks like a win for the Indians, who pick up $17.7M in extra surplus value. The deal would have been much closer if Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd had pushed to force Cleveland to include a top positional prospect in the deal, as Chisenhall ($25.1M projected surplus value) or Kipnis ($23.4M projected) would have been bigger prizes than either pitching prospect.

The Deal: The Padres trade Mike Adams to the Rangers for pitching prospects Robbie Erlin and Joseph Wieland.
Rangers: A-
The Rangers needed a bullpen upgrade in order to entertain hopes of a return to the Fall Classic, and in picking up both Adams and Koji Uehara, they certainly got one. Erlin is a big price to pay for an 8th-inning man, but Adams is probably the best in the game, and Texas’ impressive minor league depth allows them to trade a few solid prospects and retain one of the more impressive minor league systems in the league.
Padres: A
The Padres played their situation perfectly, with Adams and former Padres pen-mate Heath Bell the most coveted relievers on the market, and engaged in negotiations with a number of different teams to insure they’d receive the maximum possible return for their late-inning aces. Though Bell seemed a lock to move in the days leading up to the deadline, the Padres eventually saw the Rangers’ offer for Adams as more enticing than anything they’d be able to receive for Bell and pulled the trigger. Though Bell has the closing experience, Adams was certainly the more valuable reliever, especially due to his being under contract for 2012.
The Money Math:
To Rangers:
Adams: $750,000 remaining in 2011, $3.1M projected for 2012. Projected 0.6 WAR this year, 1.6 next year. Projecting $7.1M surplus value.
To Padres:
Erlin: Grade B pitcher: $7.3M surplus value.
Wieland: Grade B pitcher, $7.3M surplus value.
The Verdict:
Erlin and Wieland are both very solid, if not outstanding, pitching prospects. While neither has the stuff to be a true ace, either could reasonably develop into a sold mid-rotation starter, which would make this trade a win for San Diego.

Going through these trades, two main trends surprised me. First of all, looking at the returns the Astros received for their outstanding outfielders, Pence’s haul was much larger than the one they received for Bourn. While Pence might be the better player, I don’t think the difference is as large as the prospect packages would suggest. I think the Pence deal is an overpay for the Phillies, while the Braves may have quite a steal in picking up Bourn without dealing any of their outstanding stable of top pitching prospects.

Secondly, essentially all of the prospect centerpieces of these trades are pitching prospects, with Singleton the only major exception (as well as the prospects the Mariners received for Erik Bedard). The volatility of pitching prospects seems to be pushing teams to sell their young arms now while their value is highest instead of attempting to develop them and risking their burning out or becoming ineffective. This is right in line with Wang’s research, which suggests that there’s no major difference in pitching prospects throughout BA’s top 100. This is largely due to the high flameout rate for young pitchers, as hitters are generally a much better bet to fulfill their potential. It’s been an exciting deadline, and deals aren’t over yet, as teams have another month to make trades after passing players through waivers. We won’t be able to grade the prospect hauls received at the deadline with any sort of certainty for at least a few years, but for now, it looks like most of the sellers got what they were looking for in young players who they hope will lead them to a brighter future.