Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are a prime example of the importance of a team’s bullpen. They’ve got Albert Pujols, who is probably the best player of our generation. They’ve got Yadier Molina, the NL Gold Glove winner at catcher for the last three years and a starter in the All-Star game for each of the last two. They’ve got Chris Carpenter, a former Cy Young winner who came in second to Tim Lincecum in voting for the award in 2009, and Adam Wainwright, who finished third in ’09 and then stepped up to second place behind Roy Halladay last season. However, each of these All-Stars watched 2010’s postseason from the comfort of their couches, largely due to the fact that the Cardinals’ bullpen was the third-worst in baseball last year.

Cardinals relievers put up only 0.3 WAR last season, led by Jason Motte’s 0.6. Closer Ryan Franklin had a WAR of 0.3, and other than that pretty much everybody was at or below replacement level. The bullpen put up only 6.74 K/9, worst in the NL. Clearly, it’s an issue, but so far, the only addition to the bullpen they’ve made is Brian Tallet, who was outrighted by the Blue Jays after putting up a FIP of 6.96 and –1.3 WAR.

Although this year’s relief market got a little crazy, the Cardinals should’ve dipped in and strengthened the weakest facet of a team with every opportunity to contend for a playoff spot. They’re already above $100 million in payroll for 2011, marking the first time they’ll break the 9-digit barrier. They added Lance Berkman for $8 million, and re-signed Jake Westbrook for $8 million this year and $8.5 million in 2012. That money could have been better allocated to the bullpen, either between a few pickups or by making a big splash on a multiyear deal for a big name.

They could have added any of a few guys on one-year deals for a chunk of that $16 million. Hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth will be making $3.25 million next year in Tampa, after putting up a stellar 3.06 FIP with 8.49 K/9 in 2010. Jon Rauch is getting $3.5 million after a 2.94 FIP in 2010. Digging deep into the bargain bin, Denny Bautista signed a minor league deal with the Mariners after experiencing a spike in his walk rate that jumped his FIP from 3.61 in 2009 to 4.68 in 2010. However, he’s got NL Central experience, as he spent 2009 with the Pirates, and his 11.76 K/9 was one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball last year. On a minor league deal, there’s really not a lot of downside, so he could have been a very solid add for the Cards.

However, if they wanted to dive in a little deeper, several ace relievers hit the market and received three-year deals for $4-5 million per year. While that’s a little steep, these are proven relief aces with the ability to singlehandedly solidify a bullpen. Rafael Soriano was probably out of their price range, but Joaquin Benoit, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier were all attractive options in the $15 million for three years range. Downs and Guerrier were both Type A’s, meaning they would have taken a draft pick to sign. For me, that makes them much less attractive options, as next year’s draft class is one of the strongest in years. Benoit went for $3.5 million more than Crain, but for me, the difference is worth it. Benoit had a FIP of 2.43 last year, with a stellar 11.19 K rate to go along with a strong walk rate and ridiculous peripherals across the board. Crain’s 3.45 FIP and 8.21 K/9 were solid, but I’d pay the extra million or so a year for Benoit. Though $16.5 million is a little absurd for a non-closing reliever, Benoit is the Cardinals’ Perfect Pickup, because on a team as relief-starved as St. Louis, he’d be worth the cash.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are playing some musical chairs this offseason, especially with the recent Vernon Wells trade, and they’re largely moving in the right direction. Gone are free agents John Buck, Lyle Overbay, and Fred Lewis. So is Wells, who went to Anaheim for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. Buck led the Blue Jays in games at catcher, as did Overbay at first, Lewis in left, and Wells in center. Rivera will take the lion’s share of games in left, and Napoli will take over behind the plate, while possibly filling in at first. Adam Lind will move back into the field after starting 120 games at DH last year, becoming the everyday first baseman, and Rajai Davis will slot in at center while Edwin Encarnacion will take over DH duties.

Encarnacion’s career wRC+ of 105 would make him a very pedestrian DH, and Lind’s only had 8 career starts at first, all in 2010. Though the early returns aren’t bad, I’d prefer to keep Lind in the dugout defensively and Encarnacion out of the lineup altogether. Lind has had one fairly good season in the bigs, in 2009, putting up 3.5 WAR while splitting time between DH and leftfield. Encarnacion, however, has never put up a season with better than 2 WAR, and at age 27 he’ll have to start producing soon if he ever wants to live up to his ranking as the best positional prospect in the Reds organization for 2005.

Keeping Lind at DH would require picking up a first baseman, but in this year’s free agent market features a strong 1B market with several options for GM Alex Anthopoulos, at least in the short-term. If they’re looking to become a long-term competitor in the AL East, they’re going to need a bit of starpower to stack up against fellow AL East first basemen Mark Texieira and Adrian Gonzalez, but that’s more of a project for next season, when Prince Fielder and possibly even Albert Pujols will hit the market. So if I were Alex Anthopoulos, I’d be looking for a first baseman who can fill in for a year before making a run at one of the big prizes of next year’s free agent class.

The strongest one-year candidate on the market is probably Lance Berkman. Berkman signed a $8 million deal with the Cardinals to play the outfield, but if his career numbers are any indicator he’d be better suited to a team where he could stick at first. Berkman’s put up a career 3.1 UZR/150 at first, including 3.7 UZR in 93 games at first last season. However, he hasn’t played in the outfield since 2007, and had a brutal –8.0 UZR in 32 games in the outfield that season. Berkman’s still going strong with the bat, as the 34-year old put up a 117 wRC+ despite a dip in BABIP (his .282 was by far his career low for a full season) as well as a career-low 12.1% HR/FB. Though some deterioration of the veteran’s skill certainly comes into play, especially considering his 16% LD% was his worst as a pro, I’m expecting somewhat of a bounce-back from Berkman. If he puts up 2.1 WAR, as he did last season, he’s a value buy for the Cardinals. If he matches his three-year average of 4.3 WAR/year, he’d be in the conversation for the best signing of the offseason. Keeping Berkman at first, and occasionally switching him with Lind to keep both fresh, would give Berkman a much better chance to do just that.

The Blue Jays’ Perfect Pickup is Lance Berkman, although they’ve still done extremely well for themselves in the aftermath of the Wells deal. They can move Napoli to first to achieve basically the same goals, and with Wells’ huge contract gone the Jays have much more money with which to make a run at one of the big fish in next year’s free agent pool. However, if they do decide to go with Lind and Encarnacion at first and DH, I don’t think they’ll be happy with the results, and with a low-risk free agent signing they could set themselves up for more productivity from both positions.

That said, the Blue Jays’ real perfect pickup may have happened in the recent trade. Napoli and Rivera are good pieces, sure. But the real win is the $75 million they’ll save over the next four years. Finding a taker for Wells’ albatross of a contract is going to be far bigger for the long-term future of this club than any improvement they can make in the present.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Colorado Rockies

The Rockies are much closer to contending than it might seem. Looking at their Pythagorean win expectation, this 83-79 ballclub should have had more like 86 wins, bringing them much closer to contention than the 9 games back they ended up finishing. However, they do have room to improve, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Rockies rotation, led by Ubaldo Jimenez’s 6.3, were best in baseball with 18.9 WAR. As you’d expect of a Coors Field-based team, their pitching was successfully based on inducing worm-burners from their opponents, at a 46.5% GB rate that tied them with the Phillies for fourth in the majors. With effective pitching, the Rockies do have some strength to build on, so they now need to fill in the positional players that will allow their pitching to thrive and get some support.

The Rockies 767 runs placed them 8th in baseball, and their wRC+ of 99 is essentially exactly average. However, unlike in football, basketball, or hockey, average doesn’t get you to the playoffs in baseball, so they should be working to improve their lineup and also improve their defense, which finished with –19.4 UZR overall last season. They’ve got some cash to work with, as Todd Helton gets significantly less expensive in 2011 (his previous contract was restructured in March of last year to redistribute the $19.1 million he was owed this year and his $4.6 million buyout for 2012 into $10.6 million in 2011, $6 million in 2012, and $13.1 million deferred up until 2023 at 3% interest (all of this is from Cots Contracts, which is a fantastic resource for MLB contract info). Brad Hawpe and Jeff Francis also came off the books, as did Jorge de la Rosa (though GM Dan O’Dowd resigned de la Rosa to a 2 year, $21.5 million contract with an $11 million option for 2013).

The Rockies should be looking specifically to improve their situation at second base, where Eric Young Jr. is penciled in as their starter. Young put up –0.4 WAR and has a career UZR of 0.8 in 301.1 innings at second. He had a wRC+ of 65 last season, and while he was a top-10 prospect for the Rockies in 2010, he’s may not be ready to take over the position full-time. While the Rockies seem to be content to start with Young starting the season at second, I’d probably look to bring in a more established option, as Rockies’ second basemen had an overall 0.3 WAR, fourth worst in baseball.

The second-base market is pretty slim this season, but does offer a few attractive options. Foremost among them is probably Orlando Hudson. Hudson’s only 33, and is coming off a 3.1 WAR season with the Twins. The year before he put up 2.9, so he’s been fairly consistent over the last couple years, and he was rewarded for it with a two year deal, the first time he’s known where he’s going to be for the next 365 days since 2008. He’ll be in San Diego, making $11.5 mil over two years.

He’s a great value, as for 3 WAR, today’s market would generally dictate a player would be paid close to $15 million dollars (market rate is about $5 million per win). Hudson’s put up a career 2.2 UZR/150 at second, and a fantastic 9.8 UZR in 2010, third best among all second basemen. He put up a wRC+ of 100, which makes him better than the large majority of second basemen.

Hudson is the Rockies’ Perfect Pickup because he allows them to immediately insert above-average play at a position in which they were extremely weak last season. They should be in the thick of things in the NL West, and the 3 wins or so they’d probably get from Hudson could make or break their playoff chances. While Young may be able to mature and become an effective hitter in the bigs, the Rockies should be looking to find a bridge to allow Young to develop until he’s ready to be a big leaguer. Hudson would be the perfect player to allow them to compete now, and he’s a great value if he performs at or even a little below the level at which he’s been over the past several years.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Oakland Athletics

I actually have very few issues with the way the A’s front office went about this offseason. A’s outfielders put up 3.3 WAR overall last season, a total that bested only the Dodgers. Coco Crisp was the only fly-catcher on the club with better than 1.5 WAR, so the A’s outfield was in desperate need of a major overhaul. However, instead of looking for help on what turned out to be an extremely player-friendly free agent market, GM Billy Beane turned to the trade market, picking up two of the most underrated and underappreciated outfielders in baseball.

First, Beane swapped starter Vin Mazzaro and minor league lefty Justin Marks for left fielder David DeJesus, who will be playing outside of Kansas City’s franchise for the first time in his professional career. DeJesus doesn’t exactly have a sexy skill set, and he won’t provide the power most teams are looking for from their corner outfield positions, but he can give the A’s a solid 2-3 wins most years based on solid all-around offense and strong defense. In addition, DeJesus was in the middle of a breakout year last year, with 2.6 WAR through 91 games before crashing into a wall on July 22nd, suffering a ligament tear in his right thumb which would cost him the rest of his season. If DeJesus is able to pick up where he left off, a 4-5 WAR year in Oakland isn’t out of the question.

Then, Beane added Josh Willingham in exchange for reliever Henry Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown. Willingham will be the A’s everyday right fielder. Much like DeJesus, Willingham has consistently provided above-average production as an extremely affordable corner outfielder. He’s been between 2 and 3 WAR in each of the last 5 seasons, and above 2.5 for each of the last 3. He’ll flash some power, and Willingham led all outfielders with more than 450 plate appearances with a walk rate of 14.9%, and he hasn’t struck out in more than a quarter of his at-bats in a season since his rookie year. Willingham is consistently underrated and underpaid, but Beane and his savvy talent evaluators will get their money’s worth.

I’d give the A’s a perfect pickup, but there’s no corner outfielder who offers the combination of skill and value the A’s will get from DeJesus and Willingham. For a team without the financial resources to make a run at Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, the Athletics did the best they could with a very top-heavy outfield market. Rodriguez is really the only interesting piece they had to give up, and the flamethrowing reliever still has control issues that could be a major barrier to his being successful in the majors. This has been a hugely successful offseason for the A’s, largely because they were able to mostly avoid a very player-friendly free agent market and instead take advantage of their minor league system to bring in new talent.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Detroit Tigers

Last season, the Tigers were a relatively middling offense, finishing seventh in the AL in wRC+ with a total of 105. They also had quite an obvious hole to fill, as their catchers put up the fourth-worst wRC+ in the league, by far their worst ranking at any position. Their wRC+ of 69 and catcher WAR of 0.7 gave GM Dave Dombrowski a clear goal entering the offseason, and one that he fulfilled rather quickly. Dombrowski needed to sign the best catcher available, and he certainly did, quickly inking Victor Martinez to the largest contract of the offseason up to that point, at four years and $50 million.

However, for Martinez to truly be the Tigers’ perfect pickup, the Tigers need to understand how they can best use him in order to maximize his value and give him the best possible chance to provide value equal to or exceeding the dollar value of his deal. Dombrowski has stated that Martinez will likely catch just 2-3 games per week, with Alex Avila continuing to be the team’s number one catcher. Much of Martinez’s value is lost by putting him behind the plate, as while Martinez was a 4.0 WAR player as a catcher last season, without the adjustment he gets for catching most of his games he’s pretty much Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero put up a triple-slash of .300/.345/.496, and ended up with a fairly pedestrian 2.6 WAR. Martinez’s triple-slash was .302/.351/.493, but he gets a positional adjustment of 6.4 runs in calculating his WAR, which explains the discrepancy between his WAR and Guerrero’s. If a player were to catch all 162 games (of course that would never happen), they’d get a positional adjustment of 12.5 runs, or more than a full win. An 162-game DH would have 17.5 runs removed from their total, or almost 2 wins. So the question then becomes, is Martinez the DH 3 full wins better than Martinez the catcher?

My guess would be that, no, he isn’t. Of course, Martinez will still be catching some days, and the argument for DHing him is that he’ll maintain his health and be able to have his big-bat impact in more games. I simply don’t buy that he will have enough impact from the DH spot to counteract the value lost by not letting one of the best offensive catchers in the game spend a majority of his time behind the plate. As a catcher, Martinez is an all-star and a world-class player. As a DH, he’s a pretty pedestrian player, quite comparable to other DHs who can likely be had for one-year deals, likely at half or less of Martinez’s contract’s average annual value.

The Tigers’ Perfect Pickup is the best catcher that they can get. That’s Victor Martinez, the catcher. They’ve done the important part by signing Martinez to a four-year deal. Now they need to do the easy part, deploying Martinez in the way that allows the team to maximize his value.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Florida Marlins

The Marlins have a great mix of up-and-coming prospects and established stars, but they do have a few positions they could certainly shore up. Like the Angels, who we looked at last time, the hot corner is foremost among them. However, the Marlins certainly don’t have the cash to go after a big name like Adrian Beltre, so they’ll have to get a little creative in filling the position. Marlins’ third basemen were the worst in the National League last season, compiling a total of 0 WAR overall. Wes Helms and Chad Tracy took the lion’s share of starts after Jorge Cantu was traded to Texas, but both ended up below replacement level and played below-average defense.

Overall, defense was a weakness for the team last year, as their -14.1 overall UZR was the 4th worst team mark in baseball. A defensive improvement would do wonders for the Marlins’ already relatively strong pitching staff, which suffered from a .310 overall BABIP against last season.

So the Marlins need a third baseman who is an upgrade over the incumbent Helms, both defensively and otherwise, and probably need to keep the payroll impact to a minimum. Though the free agent cupboard is relatively bare at the hot corner, I believe Juan Uribe could have been a great fit.

Uribe, coming off a World Championship season with San Francisco, is headed to Los Angeles on a 3-year, $21 million deal. However, he’s exactly what the Marlins need, as his wRC+ of 100 would be a huge upgrade over Helms’ 75, and also helps the Marlins on the defensive side of the ball, as he accumulated 2.6 UZR in 26 games (21 starts) for a career-high UZR/150 of 20.1. Helms put up –4.3 UZR in 90 games (50 starts) last year, and has a career UZR/150 of –9.3 at third, so he contributed to the Marlins’ defensive struggles.

Though Uribe might be a little on the expensive side for the Marlins, their pickups this offseason suggest that they could have fit him into the budget. They signed John Buck to a 3-year, $18 million deal earlier this winter, and currently only have $42,000,000 committed for 2011 after having a roughly $47.5 million team last year, so they may still have a bit of room to expand payroll. Though a catching upgrade was definitely a must for the Marlins, I believe they would have been better off taking one of the many catchers on the market that would have come at a lower cost than Buck and using the money to make a bigger improvement at third. Though last season was certainly a down year for incumbent catcher John Baker, he’s only a year removed from being a useful piece. My strategy as a Marlins exec would have been to sign a veteran on the cheap to handle catching duties (Ramon Hernandez or Yorvit Torrealba come to mind) and sign Juan Uribe, Florida’s Perfect Pickup, to upgrade what will now likely stand out as their weakest position this season.