Thursday, June 30, 2011

The WAR All-Stars: AL

With All Star fan balloting coming to a close at midnight on Thursday and the first round of All-Stars being announced on Sunday, it seemed to make sense to put together a slightly more sabermetric All-Star team. Using the top players by WAR at each position, I’ve filled out the rosters for both leagues. All-Star rules apply, so each team has a representative... if a team didn’t naturally have a player on the squad, I added whichever one of their players had accrued the most WAR to replace a borderline player, who I bumped from the squad. I’ll break the lists up by position and give you a bit of analysis as we go. AL today, NL next. Just a disclaimer… I’m not saying this should be the All Star rosters, or that these are the guys that necessarily deserve to play in the game, although in some cases that may be true. Just interesting to look at who’s provided the most value to their teams roughly midway through the season.

Alex Avila, DET
Matt Wieters, BAL

In a weak year for AL catchers, Avila has stepped up for the AL Central leading Tigers. He’s nearly a win ahead of every other catcher in the league. Wieters has been solid but unspectacular at the plate, but he’s adding value behind the dish by shutting down his opponents’ running games. Wieters has gunned down 21 of 49 would-be basestealers for a league-leading 43% caught stealing rate.

First Base:
Adrian Gonzalez, BOS
Mark Teixeira, NYY

Miggy’s a win ahead of Teixeira, but since Teixeira’s got the better glove by a longshot I’ve slotted him in as the DH and Teixeira as the backup first baseman behind Gonzalez. Adrian’s adjustment to the AL has gone just fine, thank you.

Second Base:
Ben Zobrist, TB
Howie Kendrick, LAA
Dustin Pedroia, BOS
Ian Kinsler, TEX

Currently, four second baseman have accrued more than 3 WAR. No other infield position has more than two players who have reached that plateau. Of course, using both of the two flex infield spots at the same position creates some issues at the other infield positions, as we’ve only got one backup each (though Cabrera provides a backup first baseman). Fortunately, Zobrist’s versatility got him this far, and this iteration of the AL All-Star team won’t let it go to waste. I’d highly recommend Jonah Keri’s recent FanGraphs article on Zobrist as a stealth MVP candidate. Kendrick has flown under the radar somewhat, but his 138 wRC+ and 10.1 UZR lead all second basemen (though the usual qualifiers about small-sample defensive stats certainly apply) despite his only playing in 68 games. Pedroia and Kinsler make it on the strength of combined positive value at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths. Incredible to have four AL second basemen without Cano, but despite his power, Cano doesn’t walk and these four second basemen have all been significantly better than him defensively.

Third Basemen:
Alex Rodriguez, NYY
Evan Longoria, TB

After 6 straight years of below-average defense, Rodriguez is putting up a bounce-back year, according to UZR, and has added almost a win on defense already. Definitely something we’ll want to check back on later in the year, as it could be a statistical blip or a sign Rodriguez is healthy and ready to get back to earning his ridiculous contract after playing in less than 140 games in each of the past three years. Longoria is tied with Youkilis and Beltre with 2.5 WAR, but he gets the nod since he’s done it in more than 20 less games. As usual, he’s producing in every aspect of the game.

Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE
Jhonny Peralta, DET

Cabrera came into camp and decided he was going to be the best shortstop in the AL. Just like that. Some things, you just can’t explain. He’s a new man with the bat and is putting together quite the highlight reel of impressive plays with the glove as well, though UZR rates him poorly. Nobody’s talking about Peralta, but his 144 wRC+ leads AL shortstops and he’s on pace to put up mid-20s homers, which he hasn’t done since 2008, when he was with the Indians. Peralta’s looking to match his 2005 career year, and he’s well on his way. If the Tigers win the Central despite almost no production from the hot corner and various other offensive issues, he’ll be a major reason why.

Jose Bautista, TOR
Curtis Granderson, NYY
Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS
Alex Gordon, KC
Brett Gardner, NYY
Denard Span, MIN
Matt Joyce, TB

Bautista is the best hitter in the league, though Granderson’s new approach at the plate this year is vaulting him into the conversation. Ellsbury and Gardner supplement their value at the plate with superlative defense. Alex Gordon, who finally doesn’t have to be "The Guy" in a lineup that now includes two of the top prospects in baseball, is responding brilliantly. Span’s having a great year in the field, and he’s cut his strikeout rate each year he’s been in the majors, including this one. He’s put up as much value as he did last year (2.6 WAR) in only 56 games, as he’s been dealing with concussion issues lately. Matt Joyce has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half, as his absurd 237 May wRC+ helped the Rays climb back into the race after their April swoon (as did Longoria’s return to the lineup). Carlos Quentin just misses the cut, so he’s your alternate if Span can’t make it back.

Jered Weaver, LAA
Justin Verlander, DET
CC Sabathia, NYY
David Price, TB
Felix Hernandez, SEA
Dan Haren, LAA
Gio Gonzalez, OAK

One of these things is not like the other thing. I originally just had the first six with the intention of taking nine relievers, but I couldn’t find an Athletic I wanted for the squad, so Jim Johnson loses his spot in favor of Gonzalez. Gio’s been good, but he clearly doesn’t fit along with this incredible rotation. Verlander has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since he came into the league, but this year he’s on another level. Weaver’s not quite on pace to match his league-leading K total from last year, but he forms a dominant tandem at the top of the Angels rotation with the chronically underrated Haren. Sabathia’s well on his way to his best season in pinstripes, although that’s partially due to an incredible home run suppression rate he may not be able to maintain. Price is on his way to a significant increase in strikeout rate for the second straight year. King Felix is also putting up a career high strikeout rate and his xFIP would be his best for a full season if he can match his production over the second half. He debuted in 2005, so it’s easy to forget that the guy is still only 25 years old. Scary thought for the rest of the AL, especially if the Mariners can get their prospects to produce in the majors. If they can lock him up, Hernandez-Pineda-Hultzen could be as good a top three as you’ll find West of Philly.

Mariano Rivera, NYY
Jonathan Papelbon, BOS
Jordan Walden, LAA
Sergio Santos, CWS
Al Albuquerque, DET
David Robertson, NYY
Daniel Bard, BOS
Glen Perkins, MIN
Vinnie Pestano, CLE

Using WAR gets a little wonky with relievers, as there are a ton grouped right around the one-ish WAR mark. You can basically mark down Rivera for an appearance in the Midsummer Classic before the season even begins. He’s bouncing back after a steep decline in strikeout rate last year. At this point, you basically just have to assume he’ll keep pitching until he’s eligible for Social Security (or the Panamanian equivalent). Papelbon’s actually been fairly unlucky, as his 3.90 ERA masks the fact that he’s been having one of the best years of his career. K rate up, walk rate down, and his xFIP is at a career-best 2.34. Walden’s been handed the closer’s role after an impressive rookie year, and the way he’s been pitching, he could be handling the ninth for the Angels for quite some time. His average fastball velocity of 97.6 MPH is the best in the AL. Santos was picked off the scrap heap in 2008. A converted shortstop, Santos took over the closer role when Matt Thornton faltered (Thornton’s better suited to being a lefty specialist) and hasn’t looked back. Albuquerque and Roberton ride strikeout rates of 14+ per nine onto this list despite being more than a bit wild. Bard is the closer-in-waiting in Boston should Papelbon go elsewhere in free agency next offseason. Perkins has the combination of strikeout stuff and the ability to induce groundballs that makes him a solid arm at the back of the bullpen, and Pestano’s strikeout rate is just a little behind Robertson and Albuquerque’s for the league lead, although he makes up for that by throwing more strikes. Both Perkins and Pestano’s sub-2 ERAs are the result of a bit of luck, but there’s also a whole lot of skill there, as both boast sub-2.5 FIPs.

This looks a whole lot different than the AL All-Star roster that will be announced Sunday, but that’s not the point. Ladies and gentlemen, these are your top producers of the (almost) first half of the season. Though many of these players won’t make the All-Star game itself, kudos to them on coming up huge for their respective teams thus far.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bautista Returns To The Hot Corner

Thursday night, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos announced that the team’s star right fielder, Jose Bautista, will be moving to third base until top prospect Brett Lawrie fully recovers from a broken left hand, sustained on a HBP just days before the Jays were planning to give him the starting job at third. Lawrie was expected back late this month, but his timetable has been pushed back as he still can’t grip a bat without pain, so he’s now expected to be out until August.

In the meantime, the Jays needed a patch at third, and their selfless slugger stepped in to fill the void by returning to his original position, which he played until the end of the 2008 season. In 2009, his first full season north of the border, Toronto relocated Bautista to the outfield, he went on a September tear to close out the season, and the rest, as they say, is history. He’s played 600 combined innings at the hot corner scattered over the past two years, although he hasn’t picked up his infield glove yet this season, so he’s not exactly starting from scratch. He started fielding grounders at third before the Jays’ Interleague contest in St. Louis last night, and could be starting at third by Monday.

Although switching a player’s position, especially when it’s your team’s best bat, is always a risky proposition, this was a move that needed to be made. Bautista has already fielded questions from reporters about whether the move will affect his swing, confidently asserting that he’ll maintain the same degree of offensive excellence. If he does lose any ground on offense, it’s more likely to be because it’s nearly impossible for anyone to keep up the level of production Bautista has given Toronto so far this season than because of his switch.

Of course, this move will alter the Blue Jays lineup in several other ways. Five Blue Jays third basemen have combined to be below replacement level this season, the primary culprit being Edwin Encarnacion and his -0.9 WAR. Encarnacion has put up an ugly but not completely unsightly (comparatively speaking) .250/.287/.364 triple-slash, but negated any value that might have had with an incredible -7.4 UZR in only 149 innings. Mark Reynolds and Chris Johnson have both cost their teams more at third, but both have done so in over 500 innings. The only possible explanation is that Encarnacion has been doing his shoe shopping with Jimmy Hoffa. The most valuable Blue Jays third baseman has been Jayson Nix, who has accrued a total of 0.4 WAR despite a pitcher-esque triple-slash of .173/.250/.316. Congratulations, Kroger. You’re at the top of the Delta pledge class.

Bautista won’t be fantastic defensively, but he wasn’t exactly a wizard in right, either. Over nearly 3000 career innings, Bautista has given up about 10 runs per 150 defensive games at the hot corner. In right, he’s been worth -4 runs per 150 games. Factor in the positional adjustment of +2.5 runs at third vs. -7.5 in right, and Bautista’s third base defense actually makes him more valuable, despite the fact that he’s further from being an average defensive right fielder than he is a third baseman. However, he may be rusty, as he hasn’t played the position yet this year, and there’s always the chance that having to put extra effort into his defensive shift will affect his bat. I think we can quite conservatively say it’s a wash in terms of Bautista’s overall value, although it’s likely to make him slightly more valuable.

However, add in the production they’ll get from their replacement right fielder to the fact that they’ll finally be getting something out of the hot corner, and it’ll be huge for the Jays lineup. Sliding into right field will likely be prospect Eric Thames, recently recalled after posting a .352/.423/.610 triple-slash for a wRC+ of 151 in Triple-A. Travis Snider was off to a poor start this season, but seemed like he was beginning to find his stroke before suffering a concussion after getting beaned a week ago in a Triple-A game. If Snider can continue to revive his season at the plate, he could also be a major beneficiary of the increased playing time for right fielders not named Bautista.

Though Lawrie’s extended injury timetable is certainly unfortunate, AA has done his best to turn the situation into a positive by deploying the best possible lineup given the players he had. He correctly diagnosed that that lineup did not include any of the players who had been manning third for the Blue Jays so far this year, and the team will benefit from giving regular playing time to any of several promising outfielders who will look to use this shot to get out from underneath the massive shadow of Bautista. Whichever of these outfielders does end up playing the field on an everyday basis, they’ll almost certainly provide more value than what the Blue Jays were getting from Encarnacion, Nix, and the rest of their ugly procession of third sackers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Prince Albert vs. The Prince

In what looks to be a strong free agent class going into next offseason, two players clearly stand above the rest. Albert Pujols does it all. Until this year, he was probably the best hitter on the planet, although now you’d probably have to hand that title to Jose Bautista. He plays great defense, hits for power and average, is nearly impossible to strike out (by far the lowest K rate among first basemen over the last 3 years), and has incredible plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly live up to his name… he’s not much with the leather, but with a bat in his hand the Brewers’ cleanup hitter is large (literally) and in charge. Weighing in at 275 lbs, Fielder is the second heftiest hitter in the majors, just behind 285-pound Adam Dunn. Fielder’s always been known for his impressive power, but he’s stepped it up a notch this season, and is currently on pace for career bests in a number of categories. Meanwhile, Pujols has looked decidedly mortal over the first two-plus months of the season, and last night left the Cardinals’ contest against the Royals in the sixth after sustaining an ugly-looking wrist injury on a collision at first base. Pujols reached out to catch a throw in the dirt as Wilson Betemit sprinted to beat out his grounder into the hole between second and short. Betemit ran into Pujols’ glove hand and the first baseman’s wrist bent back. Pujols immediately looked to be in agony, and left the game. The extent of the damage is unclear, but Buster Olney compared it to Cliff Floyd and Derrek Lee’s career-changing wrist injuries on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. He’ll have an X-ray and MRI today, but it’s universally assumed that the news won’t be good. So, with that in mind, I feel it’s time to start asking the question; Is Pujols the most valuable free agent first baseman set to hit the market?

The Case for Pujols:
Simply put, there’s a reason they call him “The Machine.” Pujols leads baseball with 52.9 WAR since 2005, is second to Ryan Howard in home runs, and leads the league in runs scored as well as all three triple-slash categories. He also leads by a considerable margin in wRC+, as he’s been 69% better than a league average hitter over that five-plus year span, and his 53.6 runs above average makes him the best defensive first baseman over that time according to UZR. He’s averaged 156 games played over the past ten full campaigns, failing to play 150 only twice, and playing in more than 140 games every year since he ascended to the majors in 2011. Up until last night, his durability was unmatched, although depending on the results of today’s MRI he could be looking at some serious DL time. Before this season, Pujols was expected to ask for a decade at $300 million or more on the free agent market, and possibly challenge Alex Rodriguez’s record for most guaranteed money, at $275 million.

However, with a disastrous start to the year, he won’t get nearly the dollars or years he expected. Disastrous, of course, is used only as a relative term. For most prospective free agents, hitting .279/.355/.500, while being on pace for 30+ home runs and 100+ runs and RBIs would have them jumping for joy heading into their offseason contract negotiations. However, for The Machine, the numbers that we’ve come to expect just aren’t quite there. Although some of this is simply due to bad luck, there are also a few underlying issues, a nearly 8% increase in ground ball rate and a reduction in line drive rate foremost among them. His defense has also been very average over the past few seasons, as he’s been 5.3 runs ahead of the average first baseman with the leather since 2009. This year, he’s only had 0.7 UZR, and although UZR numbers for single seasons (and especially parts of seasons) are notoriously unreliable due to the large samples of data needed for these stats to have predictive power, it’s a continuation of a trend that has the best player in baseball over the last decade looking more man than machine.

The Case For Fielder:
Though Fielder hasn’t had Pujols’ consistency, he’s been close. The big man (RIP) has proven to be quite durable, appearing in all but 13 of the Brewers’ games since his first full season in 2006. His 870 games played tie him with Adrian Gonzalez for most over the period, so any team that signs him can expect him to show up and produce on a daily basis. In that time, his 210 home runs rank him third behind Howard and Pujols, and his .389 OBP shows that he’s not afraid to take a walk. He ranks near the top of the league in most power categories, and his 141 wRC+ is in the top 10. However, this year, he’s taken his game to another level entirely. Fielder’s 20 home runs tie him for the NL lead, and he’s currently above a .300 average for what would be the first time in his career. He’s had OBPs above .400 for each of the last two years, but his current .418 would also represent a career best. He’s showing more power than he has since his breakout season in 2007, when he led the NL with 50 bombs, and his 180 wRC+ trails only Matt Kemp in the NL. Fielder’s actually been a positive with the glove this year as well (as I mentioned before, however, midseason UZR numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt), and although he’s essentially at zero, league average defense from Fielder would be an absolute revelation. However, maybe the most telling statistic for Fielder this season is his strikeout rate. After striking out in at least a fifth of his at-bats every year of his career up to 2011, he’s dropped his strikeout rate to below 15% while maintaining his always-impressive walk rate. If he continues to prove that he’s turned a corner in this regard, maintaining a whiff rate of 6.1% that would mark a career low by far, this is a very interesting (and extremely valuable) addition to Fielder’s toolbox. Although many have speculated Fielder won’t age well because of his body type, he’s still has some years to go before that aging becomes a major issue. At age 27 (28 next month), any team that signs Fielder will be picking him up just as he hits the prime of his career, making the expectation that he’d remain productive throughout the course of a long-term contract seem quite reasonable despite his Ruthian physique. Pujols, on the other hand, is 31, meaning that if this year is the start of a decline rather than simply a blip on the radar, a contract that lasts into his late 30s could leave his employers regretting their decision for a long while.

Right now, the prevailing thinking would suggest that Pujols’ sustained success has put him in line to be the best-paid free agent first baseman this season (assuming he comes back from his injury and provides something resembling his traditional production), despite his down year and age. Fielder will likely get close, and agent Scott Boras will certainly find big dollars for him somewhere, especially if he continues to produce at career-high rates. If I had to pull a number out of my nether regions, I’m going to say Pujols gets something like a seven-year, $200 million deal, while Fielder gets roughly the same money spread out over eight seasons. But if Pujols can’t prove his wrist is healthy by the end of the season, expect Fielder to be the most sought-after commodity on this year’s free agent market.

UPDATE: Pujols has been diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his left forearm. He'll miss 4-6 weeks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What The Heck? Snakes in the Grass Edition

Pop quiz: Name the top three offenses on the Senior Circuit. Nothing special, just the three NL teams who have scored the most runs so far this year. If you said the Reds and Cardinals, the NL Central’s two offensive juggernauts, well, that’s no surprise. Did you pick their division’s leader, Milwaukee? Wrong. The Rockies, led by Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez? Wrong again. One of the three NL East frontrunners? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have scored the third most runs in the National League. Think about that for a second. This was a team that finished eighth in the league in scoring last year, and then traded the guy who’s led them in home runs (Mark Reynolds) over each of the last three years in exchange for two relievers in order to solidify a bullpen that was statistically the worst in the league last year. A superlative like that generally requires some sort of qualifier, but I don’t think there’s any question that Diamondbacks relievers were unmatched in 2010 in their inability to hold what few leads their mediocre offense and unimpressive rotation could hand them. The Snakes’ bullpen won the triple crown by finishing last in ERA, FIP, and xFIP among all relief staffs. They were also the only team that received negative WAR from their bullpen. Just for good measure.

When new (to Arizona) GM Kevin Towers entered the team’s front office, he quickly and correctly diagnosed the necessity of a bullpen upgrade. Towers, a 15 year veteran of the San Diego GM position, spent both money and talent on improving his relief corps, and so far it’s paid off. Towers’ big acquisition of the offseason was new closer J.J. Putz, and unlike so many other expensive relievers who have faltered this season (see Soriano, Rafael, among others), Putz has been steady at the back end of the bullpen, with 18 saves and a 2.64 FIP that suggests he won’t be blowing more than his share of leads anytime soon. Towers inked Putz to a two-year deal with a team option for a third at only $10 million guaranteed, making Putz just the tenth most expensive relief signing of the offseason. This one’s looking like a real win for Towers. Also new to the bullpen are setup man David Hernandez, who has posted a sub-3 FIP in a setup role since coming over in exchange for Reynolds, and lefty specialist Joe Paterson, a Rule 5 pick stolen from the division rival Giants who has put up a 2.86 FIP against lefties this year.

The expectation was that these bullpen upgrades would come at the expense of an offense that lost not only Reynolds but also starting first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Nationals in free agency. To replace both starting corner infield positions, which produce a huge percentage of most teams’ offense, Towers spent a miniscule $6.45 million on two years of Geoff Blum and a year each of Melvin Mora and Xavier Nady. While that’s not exactly a trio of impact signings, the veterans do provide some value and stability. Well, they were expected to, anyway. Blum had knee surgery a week before Opening Day and hasn’t played a game yet, while Mora’s -0.6 WAR is the worst for any position player on the team.

To counteract this loss of production at the infield corners, several of the Diamondbacks have stepped up in a big way and carried the Diamondbacks offense to within half a game of the division lead at this point. Several D’Backs players are posting career-high offensive number, but as their young core enters their respective primes, that shouldn’t be a surprise and could certainly continue. Justin Upton (who, it’s easy to forget, won’t even be 24 until next month) currently stands at a career-best 134 wRC+, and is on pace to shatter the impressive 4.8 WAR he put up as a 21-year-old in 2009. When a team’s not getting production from the positions that would normally be big run producers, it becomes even more important to get offense from nontraditional positions. Shortstop Stephen Drew, in his age 28 season, is also posting a career-high 123 wRC+, and 27-year-old Miguel Montero is also on route to the best season of his career. Perhaps no player on the roster has been more surprising than Ryan Roberts, who has been extremely impressive with a wRC+ of 127 while splitting time between second, third, and left field. Roberts is something of a career minor leaguer and a journeyman, but his statistics over the past few years suggest the surprising utility man could continue making waves in the Snakes’ lineup. He should see much of the playing time at third going forward, as neither of the offseason signings charged with replacing Mark Reynolds have been doing much in that regard. In addition to their offensive contributions, each of these players have provided value on defense, and their contributions to this point total 8.9 WAR. Overall, the team’s defense has currently been 18.1 runs above average according to UZR, the second best glovework (behind Cincinnati) of any NL team.

Finally, though they’ve flown under the radar, the Arizona staff is led by possibly the most underrated pair of arms in baseball. On the whole, the Arizona’s staff hasn’t been particularly impressive, but things would be much worse without Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. Both are limiting walks to career-low rates in the low twos, and striking out more than 7 batters per nine innings. Hudson’s ERA currently sits at 3.82 due to an ugly start to the campaign, but his ugly fantasy numbers hide a 2.61 FIP. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s 3.23 ERA may be slightly luck-aided, but his career-best 3.66 FIP suggest that he may be beginning to harness some of the promise that made him a top prospect in the Yankees organization before coming over as a centerpiece of the Granderson/Jackson/Scherzer trade before last season. While Hudson and Kennedy anchor the rotation, several of the pieces around the (Josh Collmenter and Zach Duke in particular) have been strong so far and likely won’t embarrass themselves in the lower slots in the rotation. They’ll certainly be able to outproduce Armando Galarraga, who inexplicably got eight starts before being unceremoniously jettisoned to the minors. With their improved rotation, the Diamondbaks have produced a 3.81 FIP over the last month, which is likely much more in line with what we can expect down the road than the 4.21 they’ve totaled over the full year.

This team can hit, they play strong defense, and both their rotation and bullpen are much improved from last year. So can they stay in it? My inclination is that they can. This team will likely play .500 ball, or possibly a little better. The NL West wasn’t good to begin the year, and with both Buster Posey and Jorge de la Rosa done for the year, the two contenders have taken some pretty big steps back. Though I wouldn’t expect the World Champs to roll over, this will likely continue to be a tight race all year. The Diamondbacks haven’t played meaningful September baseball since 2008. They haven’t been involved in the postseason since a year before that. Expect the former to change this year. As for the latter, we’ll have to see, but it’s a distinct possibility.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 MLB Draft Roundup

I hope you’ve been enjoying my analysis of the more surprising teams in baseball this season. I’ve still got a few more to look at, so we’ll get right back to our regularly scheduled programming next week. The MLB Draft concluded today, so I’m going to go over a few teams who I thought stood out (both negatively and positively). Though most of these prospects won’t have a Major League impact for a year or two at least, if ever, the draft is one of the most exciting events in the baseball calendar. It never ceases to yield surprises, and provides hope for the future for even the most troubled of franchises. So, the winners and losers of MLB’s 2011 Rule 4 Draft:

Washington Nationals
The Nationals ended up with a great combination of upside, value, and fairly high floors. With their first pick, they were the beneficiary of Anthony Rendon’s slide. The Rice third baseman, universally considered to be the best college hitter in the draft, was assumed by most to be the second pick after Gerrit Cole. When the Mariners decided to tab Virginia starter Danny Hultzen instead, Rendon fell into Washington’s lap at the six slot, and the Nats took advantage. Later in the first round, GM Mike Rizzo and his brain trust added Kentucky starter Alex Meyer to their organization with the 23rd pick. Meyer has had some control problems, but is large and projectable and has a slider that can only be described as filthy to go along with a mid-90s fastball. With the first selection in the sandwich round, the Nats nabbed Brian Goodwin, a community college outfielder with five-tool potential. In the third round, Washington took Matt Purke, a southpaw from TCU who had merited strong consideration for an early selection before being shut down with shoulder bursitis this spring. Purke was selected in the first round by the Rangers in 2009, but decided to go to college, so it’s obvious he’s got talent. If he can put the injury behind him and get back on track, Purke could be the steal of the draft.

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox, as they often do, made it known that they’re willing to pay big bucks for the right skills by tabbing several players who fell because of signability issues. With the 18th pick, the Sox took UConn starter Matt Barnes, who might have been a much earlier pick in a draft without so much impressive right-handed pitching. Barnes has a low-90s fastball that he can pump up to 96, a solid curve, and a changeup that will allow him to find success against lefties as well as righties. I’m sure Theo Epstein and Co. were ecstatic to see him fall this far… I was very surprised to see him get past out of the first 15 picks, and many projections had him going top-10. With the 26th pick, Boston took high school catcher Blake Swihart. Swihart’s bat is his calling card, as he’s shown the ability to both hit for power and get on base at a high clip, but his defensive skills may move him out from behind the plate, a la Kansas City’s Wil Myers. Swihart looks to be a tough sign, but Boston hasn’t had a problem with that in the past, the most recent example being Anthony Ranaudo last year. In the sandwich round, they took Henry Owens, a high school lefty out of southern California who had been considered a possible first rounder. Owens is huge, at 6’6”, and projectable, and throws a low-90s fastball, a strong curve, a biting slider, and a fairly effective changeup, all of which he commands well. Later in the compensation round, Boston selected South Carolina centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who has struggled due to injury this season but has impressive power for his small stature and one of the best outfield arms in the draft.

Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay cashed in on its glut of draft picks, going with the best player available in many cases. Though they may not be able to sign all of their early selections due to cash constraints, they’ll get enough to add to an already impressive minor league system. The Rays got great value in their first selection, taking high school righty Taylor Guerrieri. The hurler out of South Carolina has an impressive mid-90s fastball with movement to go along with an upper-80s cutter, as well as a plus curveball. He’s also got the makings of a useful changeup, though he hasn’t needed it at the high school level. Guerrieri fell because of his commitment to South Carolina and some reports of attitude problems, but the talent is there, as some scouts called him the best high school starter in the draft, including Dylan Bundy. Seven picks later, the Tampa’s shrewd front office tabbed LSU centerfielder Mikie Mahtook, a potential above-average hitter with a solid glove to match. Mahtook doesn’t have the speed of a prototypical centerfielder, but with strong instincts and an accurate arm he could stay in center or likely be an above-average defender at a corner. The NCAA’s switch to new bats brought offense down considerably this year, and Mahtook’s ability to maintain his offense at a high level with the new bats contributed to him being a consensus first-rounder. The Rays had 8 picks in the sandwich round, of which I was most impressed by their second-to-last. Vanderbilt lefty Grayson Garvin, a mammoth 6’6” starter with a fastball that sits around 90 to go with a strong change and a big curve, could have huge upside for Tampa. Experts say Garvin still has some projectability and if he improves his conditioning could add a little more oomph to his fastball. Another win for Andrew Friedman and his always-impressive front office.

Potential Winners
Cleveland Indians
With the eighth pick, Cleveland took high school shortstop Francisco Lindor. Lindor had been considered a possibility to go as high as two to the Mariners, and he’s got a sweet glove that will certainly stick at short. He’s shown impressive strike zone discipline that only figures to improve as he ages, as well as a strong hit tool when he does swing the bat, suggesting he could be a future leadoff hitter. To top it off, he’s even got some pop, as he won the 2010 Aflac All-American Home Run Derby, and could produce double-digit homers at the big-league level as he ages. The real question for the Indians is their next pick, Dillon Howard. Howard is a prep righty who throws a low 90s fastball with a ton of movement and a curve and changeup that both should be weapons at the Major League level. He’s got strong command and is almost certainly a first-rounder based on talent alone. However, the draft isn’t just about talent. Howard slipped to the second day because of signability issues, which are certainly well-founded, as he’s being advised by Scott Boras. If the Indians can sign Howard for a reasonable price, this has to be considered a strong draft for Cleveland.

Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks had two of the first seven picks, and their selections did not disappoint. With the third pick overall, the Snakes selected Trevor Bauer, who statistically was the best starter in the NCAA this year (and is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, along with Danny Hultzen and Taylor Jungmann). Bauer has drawn Tim Lincecum comparisons with his diminutive size and unorthodox delivery. However, the results are there, as is the stuff, and he could follow in his idol’s footsteps in taking the NL West by storm after tearing up the Pac-10. With the seventh pick, the Diamondbacks shocked the world by taking prep righty Archie Bradley out of Oklahoma. Bradley is projectable and has the stuff to be a future ace, and based on his talent it’s a great selection. However, the seventh pick is the D’Backs compensation pick after Barret Loux failed his physical last year, so if they don’t sign Bradley, they won’t be compensated next year. This gets interesting, as Bradley is a two-sport star committed to playing QB and pitching at football-crazy Oklahoma University next year. There’s no question that in Bauer and Bradley the D’Backs picked up two of the most exciting arms in the draft. The real issue is how much that college commitment is worth to Bradley, and how much the Diamondbacks will be forced to pay to buy him out of it. Bradley’s got as much leverage as a draftee can possibly have, and at an unprotected slot that’s a huge risk for the D’Backs to take. However, since they did select him, I have to assume they’re fairly confident they can get Bradley to sign on the dotted line, which would make Kevin Towers’ first draft as Arizona’s GM a rousing success. The Diamondbacks took two more interesting pitchers in the sandwich round, grabbing Kent State lefty Andrew Chafin and his plus fastball and devastating curve, then taking Coastal Carolina righty Anthony Meo, who could have a strong future as a potential closer. However, this draft will hinge on the signature of Bradley.

New York Mets
For the first time in years, the Mets drafted for upside, taking Wyoming prep outfielder Brandon Nimmo with the 13th pick. Nimmo’s high school didn’t have a baseball team, so he’s mostly been seen by scouts at showcases and private workouts, and the Mets obviously liked what they saw. Nimmo’s a lefty who can hit for power and makes solid contact, and has decent speed and a solid arm in the field. He won MVP honors at the Under Armour High School All-America game last summer, so despite coming out of relative obscurity, he was firmly on the radar of scouts throughout baseball. He’s reported to have high bonus demands, something that probably wouldn’t fly with Omar Minaya at the helm, considering that the Mets spent the fifth-least of any team in baseball on draft bonuses over the last three years. However, it’s a new regime, and Sandy Alderson and right-hand man Paul DePodesta appear to be willing to write a big check to get the guy they want. In the sandwich round, the Mets picked up prep righty Michael Fulmer, another solid player and a projectable pitcher with huge upside. Like Nimmo, Fulmer’s an Arkansas commit, and like Nimmo, I expect the Mets to pay what is necessary to convince Fulmer to start his professional career as soon as possible. The Mets balanced their two upside picks on day one by selecting a solid stable of college pitchers on day two, headlined by NC State’s Cory Mazzoni and Baylor’s Logan Verrett. Assuming they can ink Nimmo for a reasonable price, this marks a strong start to the rebuild of the Mets’ mediocre farm system.

Pittsburgh Pirates
As I’m sure you know, the Pirates took Gerrit Cole with the first pick in the draft. Cole’s a high-upside starter with a blazing fastball. He’s certainly got a chance to develop into an ace for Pittsburgh. I won’t say much more about him. What is interesting, however, were Pittsburgh’s first two picks on day two. With the first selection of the second round, the Bucs grabbed Josh Bell, who considered to have one of the best prep bats in the draft. Bell is a switch-hitter with power and contact ability from both sides of the plate and a strong defender at either corner outfield position. However, he fell because of exorbitant bonus demands, as he sent a letter to the Major League Scouting Bureau urging teams not to pick him because he would be honoring his commitment to the University of Texas. In most cases, this isn’t so much an “I’m not going to sign” as it is an “I might sign, but you’re going to need to give me a king’s ransom and possibly a small island in the south Pacific.” If the Pirates are willing to cough up enough to meet Bell and Boras’ demands, likely for top-10 money, Bell could be donning black and yellow despite his Texas commitment. In the third round, Pittsburgh took Indiana’s Alex Dickerson, a lumbering outfielder who will likely be a first baseman long-term. The tool of interest is his bat, as Dickerson’s shown ability to hit for contact as well as big power. In 2010, he won the Big 10 triple crown as a sophomore, so if his bat can translate, he could ride it to the majors. The big question for Pittsburgh is whether they can ink Bell… if they can, this will certainly be a draft to remember, especially if Cole fulfills his impressive potential.

New York Yankees
The Yankees didn’t pick until late in the sandwich round, at 51, and when they did, it wasn’t all that impressive. With his first pick, Brian Cashman tabbed Dante Bichette Jr., who will live up to the “Bronx Bombers” moniker by hitting for a ton of power, but probably will do little else. A third baseman, Bichette Jr.’s glove is unimpressive, and he almost certainly won’t put up the kind of on-base numbers his father did. Though Jr.’s pop is impressive, it wasn’t enough to land him in Baseball America or Keith Law’s top 100 draft prospects. For a team that has the money to bust slot to get game-changing talent, he doesn’t profile to be a difference-maker.

Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays had five day one picks, but their returns don’t seem to be particularly inspiring. With the 21st pick, Toronto took Tyler Beede, a Massachusetts prep righty with a refined delivery, which he uses to throw a low-90s fastball, a somewhat slurvy breaking pitch, and a decent changeup. His command is good, but the stuff is overshadowed by the other arms in this deep pitching class. He figures to be a tough sign, as he’s committed to Vanderbilt. I’d probably say he’s the least likely of the first rounders to sign, just ahead of Swihart, but the Jays spent a lot of money on the draft last year, so if they’re willing to do so again they could get Beede. I’m just not sure he’s worth it. The Jays got Dwight Smith, son of a former Cub by the same name, in the sandwich round. Smith is an advanced high school hitter who profiles as a corner outfielder, but doesn’t seem to have any particularly special tools. However, the Blue Jays did get a pickup on day two that could make this class look a whole lot better. Daniel Norris, generally considered the best prep lefty in the class, fell to Toronto at 74 because of major signability concerns. Norris commands his low-90s fastball well, and has a sharp curve that could be plus in the future as he learns to command it. He’s impressed scouts with his mound presence and makeup. If the Jays can add him to the organization despite his lofty price tag, he’s likely to be their best player in the class. In addition, the Jays picked up Texas A&M reliever John Stilson, who many considered to be a first round possibility until recently, when he tore his labrum and needed surgery. If he can return from his injury with his skills intact, Stilson could prove valuable as a third round selection.

Los Angeles Dodgers
With the Dodgers under MLB stewardship, the rumor is that they will be unable to break slot to sign their picks. It definitely showed, as they picked mostly players they’re sure they’ll be able to sign. This was exemplified by their first-rounder, Chris Reed, a lefty from Stanford who was the school’s closer this season. Though Reed’s fastball-slider combo is certainly solid, most teams would like to do better than a reliever with the 16th pick in a draft this deep.

Worth Noting
San Francisco Giants
The Giants had a baffling day one, first taking Joe Panik, a shortstop from St. John’s who was seen almost universally as a second-day draftee, then picking Kyle Crick, a projectable high school righty from Texas. Panik barely made Keith Law’s top 100, squeaking in at 98, so it was quite a shock to hear his name called 29th. Law ranked Crick 68th, so his selection at 49 wasn’t as big a surprise, but there were almost certainly better arms on the board. However, their day two looked much better, as they took catcher Andrew Susac and first baseman Ricky Oropesa in the first two rounds of the day, and Susac’s batterymate Josh Osich in round six. Susac is a catcher from Oregon State who can flash some power at the plate and has at least a decent chance at making a career as a backstop. He’s also a local product, having grown up just outside Sacramento. Many thought the Giants would take a catcher with their first pick after Buster Posey’s injury, and although their day one picks were somewhat (to say the least) off the reservation, I was happy to see they didn’t make a knee-jerk reaction to their catcher of the future’s unfortunate situation. Oropesa is a corner infielder from USC with a huge bat, and although the lefty doesn’t have many other particularly impressive skills, he’s improved his contact ability enough that he’ll have a chance to ride his raw power to the big leagues. Take note, Yankees… this is late enough to take a flyer on a guy with power and not much else. In the sandwich round, you can do better. Osich is a southpaw starter at Oregon State, though many believe his future could be at the back end of the bullpen. He’s got a mid-90s fastball that could touch 97 if he’s used as a short reliever, and a solid changeup with sinking action. Osich threw a no-hitter against UCLA this season. He looked to be dealing with some sort of injury last time out, as he was pulled from his start against Georgia in the regional championship after only an inning and was throwing without the velocity and command Beaver fans are used to seeing. However, this is likely only a slight bump in Osich’s road, one that could land him in the big leagues fairly quickly if he is switched to a relief role.

Thanks for reading (I know this was a long one, but with over 1500 picks over the last three days, there’s a lot to digest). I wish these future professionals luck as they begin their pro careers, and look forward to following them on their respective roads to the big leagues.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What The Heck? Pesky Buggers Edition

Well, it’s finally draft day. It’s certainly an exciting time for fans of the Pirates (who will have the first selection, and will almost certainly add UCLA starter Gerrit Cole to their already-impressive stable of young arms). Anyone interested in the Diamondbacks organization must be thrilled as well, as the Snakes will add two premium talents with the picks 3 and 7. However, there may be no club with more reason to look forward to the 7 PM Eastern start of the Rule 4 draft than the Tampa Rays, who will select an incredible 12 times in the first 90 picks and look to augment what already stands as one of the better farm systems in baseball.

Though the Rays are excited to have this glut of picks, they have come at a price. Six of the Rays’ first and second round picks come as compensation for losing Type A free agents Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, and Grant Balfour. Another four compensate the loss of Type B free agents Brad Hawpe, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls. That’s a lot of major-league talent to replace, before even considering the loss of Carlos Pena as a free agent who didn’t qualify for Type A or B status, as well as Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, who were traded away in the offseason. All told, only 3 players from the Rays 2010 Opening Day lineup were Opening Day starters this season.

With the team that won the AL East last season almost entirely deconstructed, it was nearly universally assumed that the Rays would be right back in rebuild mode, waiting for the prospects gleaned through their offseason trades and tonight’s draft picks to have an impact in order to contend with the big pockets in their division once again. However, if GM Andrew Friedman has taught us anything, it’s to respect the value of “The Extra 2%” (the title of Jonah Keri’s new book on the Rays, which is fantastic if you haven’t read it. I’d highly recommend it). Friedman made what moves he could in free agency under the tight restrictions of the (comparatively) miniscule budget allowed to him, made sure that major league talent was acquired alongside prospects in the Garza and Bartlett trades, and pretty much took a leap of faith in promoting several former part-timers to everyday roles.

Friedman’s moves have worked out extremely well, and although the Red Sox and Yankees may have considered the AL East to be something of a two-horse race before the season began, the pesky Rays (and their payroll, a quarter of the size of Boston’s and a fifth of the Yankees’) sit four games back and simply will not go away. Do they have what it takes to repeat last season’s improbable division title?

In some ways, it seems like the Rays may be playing a bit over their heads, as they’ve scored less runs than either of their major division rivals and allowed more runs than the Yankees and the same total as the Red Sox. Their wRC+ of 98, below the big league average and well back of the Yankees and Red Sox 115 and 113 marks, respectively, show that the Rays simply don’t have the offensive firepower of their bigger-budgeted foes. The teams are more even in terms of their run prevention, as although the Rays certainly have flaws in their starting rotation, it may very well be the best in the division. Though the loss of Garza certainly dealt a blow to Tampa, they replaced him with rookie Jeremy Hellickson, and Hellickson has looked up to the task so far. Meanwhile, both Boston and New York have dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness in their rotations, and the Yankees especially could have trouble keeping up the returns they’ve seen from their starters so far. Relying on Bartolo Colon as a major part of a big-league rotation has proven to be a recipe for failure over the last decade or so.

The Rays have taken a large step back in the bullpen. Their xFIP has risen nearly a third of a run, from last year’s 4.15 to a 4.47 in 2011. With all the pieces they lost, this is hardly a surprise, and they’d be in much worse shape if it weren’t for impressive results thus far from free agent pickup and de facto closer Kyle Farnsworth. Each other reliever is within a tenth of a point of 0 WAR, so Farnsworth has singlehandedly kept the bullpen above replacement level this year.

Offensively, many of the Rays’ bigger contributors have been buoyed by Lady Luck thus far. Matt Joyce, who leads the team in WAR at 3.1, is currently leading the AL with a .388 BABIP. Joyce, who came over from Detroit in the Edwin Jackson trade in 2008, is almost certain to slow his production slightly. However, now that Evan Longoria has recovered from his early-season injury woes, this regression won’t prove nearly as fatal, as Joyce helped carry the team while Longoria nursed his oblique. Ben Zobrist continues to mash the ball and is on pace to nearly double his production from last year, a somewhat disappointing campaign after his breakout 2009. Since returning from the DL, Evan Longoria has been Evan Longoria, and this team certainly looks better with their superstar at the hot corner. Second baseman Sean Rodriguez has shown improved patience so far this season, leading to more walks and making him a viable top-of-the-lineup hitter. However, this team’s offense isn’t going to be able to keep pace with the powerful Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays, however, have a secret weapon, one that allows them to not only approach but exceed the much higher-priced teams in Boston and New York. Tampa has been fantastic with the leather this season, accumulating a team UZR of 24.4 that ranks as the best in baseball. They’ve gotten defensive contributions from essentially every position. Evan Longoria has been a wizard with the glove, leading the team and all major league third basemen with a 7.8 UZR despite missing significant time. Zobrist has contributed mightily at second, as have Matt Joyce in right and Sam Fuld in left. The Rays might not be able to keep up with the Red Sox and Yankees, but it won’t be for lack of defensive effort. If things continue to go wrong in their divisional foes’ rotations, the Rays could once again contend for the division crown. Even if they don’t, the Rays’ ability to keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox to this point shows that defense is still highly underrated in baseball, and it can make good rotations (like the Rays’) look like great ones.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What The Heck? Something's Fishy Edition

The NL East, home to three of the league’s top four records, is turning into something of a dogfight. Atop the division, to no one’s surprise, sit the Phillies and their four-ace rotation. Four and a half games back, the Braves young core, deep pitching staff, and league-best bullpen are very much in the race. Between the two, however, the surprising Florida Marlins have managed to keep up with their higher-salaried rivals, to the disbelief of many. Are the Fish truly contenders or is this simply an extended early-season hot stretch that will see them fade down the stretch?

Right off the bat, their run totals show that something’s a little out of whack for the (soon to be Miami) Marlins. Having scored 220 runs and allowed 215, we’d expect a record around .500. Currently, they’re nine games ahead of that pace. According to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings, the Marlins’ 3.9 wins over their first-order expectation (based simply on their runs scored/runs allowed differential) is the biggest gap between expected and actual wins for any team up to this point. A huge reason for this disparity is the Marlins’ current advantage in squeakers; they’ve won a ridiculous 14 of the 19 one-run games they’ve played so far this season.

However, there are some bright spots that should provide hope for a strong future in Florida, even if they don’t figure to keep pace with the Braves and Phillies over the balance of this season. Gaby Sanchez, whose All-Star resume is currently much stronger than nearly anybody realizes, has taken a big step forward even after a reasonably productive 2010. Last year, the durable Sanchez missed only one game, and put up 2.3 WAR by doing a little bit of everything. He got on base at a decent clip, flashed some power, and played decent defense at first. This year’s he’s essentially taken his game up a notch in every category. He’s started every game at first, is showing more patience with an increased walk rate and diminished strikeout rate, and has become much more selective, reducing his offerings at pitches outside the zone. He’s increased his power output, following up on his 19-homer 2010 campaign with nine already this season. Sanchez’s 152 wRC+ trails only Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera among first basemen… not bad company. He’s also added value with the glove, putting up a solid 2.1 UZR so far this year. All told, he’s already matched his 2010 production level in less than a third of the appearances.

Outfielder Logan Morrison has been equally impressive with the bat, although his durability has hampered his ability to produce on the same level as Sanchez. Despite missing nearly a month between late April and early May recovering from a sprained ligament in his foot, Morrison has been extremely productive as the team’s everyday left fielder. He’s accumulated 1.5 WAR in 32 games as the Marlins’ everyday left fielder, hitting seven home runs and putting up a .254 ISO. He also leads the NL in Twitter activity, with over 7,500 tweets and nearly 30,000 followers since joining in November of 2009. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s about 15 tweets a day over the past two and a half years. If @LoMoMarlins keeps hitting like this, he could soon challenge @NickSwisher (over 1.3 million followers) for MLB Twitter superiority.

Mike Stanton is showing no signs of a sophomore slump after his impressive rookie campaign in which his 22 home runs and .248 ISO led all first-year players. After his massive numbers in 100 games last year, Stanton’s now played 50 and is on pace to match his home run total while taking steps forward in several facets of his game. First and foremost, Stanton was a hacker last season, finishing third in the NL with a 34.3% K rate behind notorious strikeout machines Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn. However, he’s dropped his strikeout rate more than 5% in 2011, while raising his walk rate by a percent. For Marlins supporters who would like to see Stanton get on base a bit more in addition to him impressive power, this is an encouraging development.

Quick, name the top two NL pitching WAR leaders over the past two years. As you likely guessed, number one is Tim Lincecum. Number two would probably surprise you if this weren’t an article on the Marlins, but of course it is, so you know Josh Johnson’s been the second-best pitcher in the league since 2009. Johnson’s currently on the DL with shoulder inflammation, and the Marlins’ rotation looks a lot less imposing without its ace at the helm. After an impressive 2010 in which he put up a 2.41 FIP in 28 starts, Johnson is currently well on his way to an equally strong campaign. Assuming his DL stint cures his shoulder issues and he returns relatively quickly, expect Johnson to make a strong case to finish behind Roy Halladay for the NL Cy Young this year.

Stepping up to fill Johnson’s shoes in his absence, and impressive behind Johnson all year, has been Anibal “The Animal” Sanchez. Sanchez’s strikeout rate has skyrocketed this season to more than a K per inning pitched, driving his FIP down to 3.01. At 1.7 WAR, Sanchez is looking likely to follow his breakout 2010 campaign with an equally impressive 2011. With Ricky Nolasco also putting up solid numbers, this rotation isn’t all that far behind the incredible arms boasted by their main competition for the NL East crown.

The back end of the Marlins’ bullpen is also looking fairly strong so far. Leo Nunez currently leads the league with 19 saves. GM Michael Hill identified the bullpen as a major concern heading into the offseason, and targeted relief help in moving Dan Uggla and Cameron Maybin. Through these trades, the Marlins added Edward Mujica (from the Padres) and Michael Dunn (from the Braves), and both have been impressive thus far.

Overall, the Marlins will probably not be able to stay competitive with the high-powered Phillies and Braves this season. However, don’t count them out for next year. As they move into their new ballpark in 2012 and officially become the “Miami Marlins,” the Fish could consider a free agency splash in anticipation of the increased revenue expected whenever a team enters a new home. The Marlins have been fairly competitive considering they currently sit at a payroll of slightly less than $57 million, $30 million back of the Braves and less than a third of the Phillies total salary. If they are willing to open their wallet a little and jump from the 7th lowest payroll in baseball, they could make some waves.