Thursday, December 14, 2006

Moves you may have missed. Or not cared about.

You folks have probably read all that there is to read on Alfonso Soriano and Daisuke Matsuzaka, so there probably isn’t all that much more I can add to the discussion. There have been some lesser moves that may make a difference in 2007. And moves that may not.

Atlanta acquires reliever Rafael Soriano from Seattle for starter Horacio Ramirez.

Normally, it’s a good idea to pick up a starting pitcher in exchange for a reliever. This is one of those exceptions, and John Schuerholz may have quietly picked up one of the biggest steals of the offseason. Three years removed from arm surgery, Soriano threw 60 innings in relief for Seattle, with a 2.25 ERA, 65 strikeouts, and only 21 walks. Perhaps the Mariners were scared off by the season ending concussion, and feared that they may have a Matt Clement situation. However, all reports are that Soriano is throwing comfortably, and Clements demise seems to be as much about arm trouble as it was the Carl Crawford liner off the side of the head in 2005. Only three years ago, scouts named Soriano the most likely reliever to become the next Johan Santana, making the transfer from little known setup man to stud starter, because of his spectacular stuff. The Braves seem set on having Soriano in the bullpen though, which is fine as well—he’s immediately the most talented reliever they’ve had since John Smoltz. With the problems the Braves have had a closer since Smoltz moved back to the rotation, Soriano is a great bet to assume the 9th inning role, and score at least 35 saves. Fantasy players take note, this is one of your sleepers for next year.

If the Mariners did feel Soriano was a risk, perhaps it would’ve made sense to try to acquire an innings eater type, who could rack up a solid season in Safeco Field. However, Ramirez is likely a bigger injury risk than Soriano, while not being nearly as good a pitcher. Ramirez has failed to reach 80 innings in two of the last three seasons with a variety of arm troubles. The season he stayed healthy, he had a 4.63 ERA in 202 innings, with only 80 strikeouts, 67 walks, and 31 homers allowed. Safeco will help depress that homer number, but in the more patient American League, teams like the A’s and Rangers who he will see several times will take advantage of his inabilility to put people away. Those poor K/BB numbers in the NL are likely to translate even worse into the AL.

So, while both players may offer the same injury risk, Soriano offers the reward of being an elite closer, while Ramirez, at best, isn’t likely to replace the production of Gil Meche. Another poor move in what has been a pretty awful tenure by Mariners GM Bill Bavasi.

Royals sign pitcher Gil Meche for 5 years, $55M.

Almost every offseason, a really really bad team signs a player who isn’t good to a huge contract, and there is a glut of stories praising them for being willing to show fans they care by being willing to spend money. It’s all a crock. Fans don’t really care, during the season, whether or not their team has spent money. They care whether or not their team is winning.

Signing Gil Meche does not show a commitment to winning. It shows a commitment to spending money. In four years since his return from injury, Meche has not had a park-adjusted ERA above league average even once. On the ERA+ scare, where 100 is average, he’s scored a 97, 86, 85 and 97. Meche turned 28 in September, and pitchers suddenly figuring it out at his age is exceedingly rare, unless they’re put with a Leo Mazzone or Ray Miller level pitching coach. Meche is often compared to Jason Schmidt, who DID figure it out at roughly Meche’s age, so I suppose there is hope, but the comparison with Schmidt againt the comparison with the hundreds of similar pitchers who didn’t figure it out at the same time is a pretty strong weight to the negative. The silver lining is the huge jump in his strikeout rate this year, from 5.2 per 9 IP in 2005 to 7.5 per 9 in 2006. If his ERA can begin to follow that improvement, Meche may make the jump to slightly above average pitcher, but the Royals are betting against huge odds that Meche will make such a significant improvement.

Of course, a slightly below average starter is a HUGE improvement for the Royals, whose rotation last year was somewhere in the neighborhood of abysmal. So, the thinking goes, if they have the money, why not spend it to improve their team? Which may be fine, but why commit to five years? If the Royals had signed Meche for a two-year commitment on the chance he breaks out, it wouldn’t be a big deal, as they wouldn’t be tying up funds for the future. But as it is, if Meche doesn’t make that leap, don’t you think they’d want that money to give an extension to Alex Gordon, baseball’s #1 prospect, if Gordon is anything close to the player he looks like? The problem isn’t the $11M on Meche in 2007, as maybe they don’t have any better use for that money. The problem is that $11M in 2010 and 2011, when they should be hoping to be competitive.

Cubs sign Jason Marquis to a 3 year, $21M deal.

Now, this is a deal that looks more reasonable on the surface, but actually may be just as bad as the Meche deal. According to, Meche and Marquis are actually each others most comparable players, and both are the same age (Marquis is actually a month older.) The problem is that Marquis is clearly going in the wrong direction. While there are some signs with Meche to at least consider him worth betting on, In the last three years, Marquis has gone into a tailspin. His ERA has gone 3.71, 4.13, 6.02. His K/9IP has gone down: 6.2, 4.3, 4.4. His K/BB have gone down: 1.97, 1.44, 1.28. And his HR/9IP have gone up: 1.2, 1.3, 1.6.

Marquis is heading backwards in a hurry, and the fact that he’s going to a much worse pitchers park could make things ugly. I’m talking mid 7’s ERA ugly. This is all made worse by the fact that Marquis apparently isn’t all that nice a guy. He badmouthed Mazzone on his way out the door in Atlanta, got progressively worse every season under Duncan, and moaned about not being on the playoff roster for the Cardinals, despite the fact that one of the biggest reasons they won the World Series was the decision not let Jason Marquis pitch in the playoffs. Forget the fact that $7M isn’t all that much money in today’s market. All things considered, I’d take a chance with just about any Triple A journeyman over Marquis. He’s the Cubs headache now.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Offseason begins

This is shaping up to be the most interesting and expensive offseason since 2000-2001. With so many teams being profitable, new revenue sharing money coming in, and so many contracts ending, expect to see some contracts that appear mind boggling. I'll probably go through a list of what teams need sometime next week. Until then, here are some things that have come up.

-Guillermo Mota tested positive for steroids. I've seen a few articles attributing his late season success to performance enhancers, but to my knowledge, it just doesn't work that quickly. Though the argument I've heard that it could've acted as a placebo in the short term, making him feel stronger and alert seems like a valid position. The problem is, we really don't know what kind of effects different performance enhancers really have on baseball players, since there really isn't an ethical experiment that exists where we could measure the effects. We're never going to know everyone or even most of the people who have used in the past, and there's nothing George Bush, George Mitchell or Sherlock Holmes can do about that.

-I'm still of the opinion that 50 games is a bit harsh for a first offense, especially combared to the 10 games one gets for doctoring a baseball, something we DO know the effects of. On the other hand, 100 games for a repeat offender and 150 for a three-timer are too leniant. I'd' probably go with something along the lines of 25 games for the first offense, one season for the second, two seasons for the third, lifetime for the fourth. But that's just me. I'd also be in favor of testing those who do test positive much more frequently. Once someone fails once, they should be subjected to biweekly tests, during the season AND offseason. I'm less inclined to worry about a players privacy rights once they've broken the rules.

It matters little, because the steroid testing is a joke anyway, without blood samples. Heck, from what I've read, hair samples would be more likely to show traces of HGH than urine.

-Every year, the Gold Gloves get more recognition than they should, because the writers just don't take the time to research who the best fielders are at that position. So I suppose I'm exacerbating the problem. Derek Jeter won his third gold glove. A lot of people have taken the time to say that Alex Gonzalez was the player who was actually deserving, and that Jeter won based on name recognition. Neither player was especially close to being the best defensive shortstop in the AL this year. Michael Young had 113 more assists than Jeter (494-381) and 28 more putouts (241-214), despite the fact that Jeter was playing behind baseballs most profound groundball pitcher every fifth day. Assist and putout numbers can be misleading, but rarely when a guy is making 20% more outs in the field than another, from the same position, then it seems likely that he's the better player.

Here's what strikes me. Young makes the play in the hold and has the strong arm, like the other top shortstops in the league. When I watch the Rangers, though, Young has more balls hit directly at him than any shortstop I've seen since Cal Ripken. This isn't luck, not over the course of seasons. Young is just so superior at positioning himself, that he's not making enough spectacular looking plays. It's easier, though, for Gold Glove voters to vote for whoever they did last year.

-Interesting column by Rob Neyer a couple days ago, saying that the Tigers should trade a young arm to get a top bat at first base or DH. It's true that they are going to need to upgrade those positions significantly, playing in the toughest division in baseball. Trading young pitching isn't the way to do it, though. Young, inexpensive, healthy pitching is the most valuable resource in baseball, so unless the Tigers can get a truly elite player in return, it just doesn't seem worth it. First base and DH are the easiest positions to fill with lower-level trades and free agent signings. The Tigers plan is not just to compete in 2007, but also for years beyond. At this point, even if they do regress to 85 wins next year and miss the playoffs, their long-term outlook is among the best of any in baseball.

Much of the Tigers offseason plan likely revolves around Carlos Guillen. If they feel he can be more productive and be in the lineup more often by moving him off of shortstop, then that's an easy choice. He hits like a good corner infielder, so it's not like they'd get the usual hit from a team trying to move a shortstop there. Plus, he'd probably have the range to be a Gold Glove level 1B with some work. All things equal, their lineup is better with him at SS, as they'll be more likely to find an effective 1B than SS on the open market. If he knees won't hold, though, then all things aren't equal.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Post Game 2 World Series Notes

-Was Kenny Rogers cheating? Goodness, it certainly looks that way. I find it hard to believe that he'd have the same clump of dirt on the same place on his hand for two different games. And if it wasn't something illegal, why did he wash it off? It's really a non-issue at this point, though. There's nothing LaRussa can say about it without sounding like sour grapes, and so far he's been smart enough to avoid anything more than intentionally vague comments.

-The Cardinals need to do a better job of getting people on base ahead of Albert Pujols. So far he's been up eight times with a grand total of two people on base. Eckstein has been discussed before, and they're pretty clearly not going to move him, but they've used the likes of Scott Spiezio and Preston Wilson in the #2 spot so far this postseason. To me, Edmonds should be the top candidate. He gets on base, can threaten you with homer and double power, and still has enough speed to score from first on a double. More importantly though, he hits into very few double plays, a very important role for a two-spot, and one that managers don't seem to consider enough.

-Why Doug Jones in the 9th in Game 2? I'm not saying it because of the result, it just seems to me to be another situation of a manager managing to the save statistic, rather than the save statistic being an accurate reflection. Leyland had two better options, in my mind. The first is to go with Rogers, and give the entire bullpen a night off. If he wanted to go to the pen, though, why not Zumaya? He's already been up three times, and he's a guy who needed to work. Surely it would have made sense for the Tigers to see how his wrist would respond in that role, rather than in a higher leverage situation later on in the series. Instead, Jones got the work on consecutive days.

-For anyone asking, yes, it is perfectly acceptable to that when a Yankee fan says they need to trade A-Rod for someone who is "clutch in the playoffs," you suggest trading him for Jeff Weaver or Kenny Rogers.

-Despite the Cardinals problems with lefties, I still don't like the choice for the Tigers to go with Robertson rather than Bonderman in game 3 (and therefore, if necessary, game 7). The Cardinals may have problems with lefties, but Bonderman is the strikeout guy and is the one pitching better so far this postseason. I'm willing to give Leyland the benefit of the doubt on this one, though.

-Talking too much about players being "clutch" based on one or two hits leads to things like Yadier Molina (.216/.264/.329 against RHP this year) being allowed to bat with his team down by two with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in game two of the World Series, with Chris Duncan (.318/.390/.644 against RHP) sitting on the bench.

-How Taguchi is he?

-I'm worried that I might blow out my shoulder just by watching Fernando Rodney's delivery.

-Carlos Guillen needs to bat higher than 5th. He's the best hitter on the Tigers. By a lot. Talk of him having to move off a SS in the future isn't as big a problem as it may seem, because he hits like a first baseman. If it weren't for durability concerns, I'd probably rate him as the best hitting shortstop in the game. In 90 less PA's than Jeter (who had by far his best year since 1999), he had two more doubles, 2 more triples, 14 more homers, two more walks 15 less strikeouts (a rate of about 1 per 100 less than Jeter). Yet Jeter will probably win the MVP, and Guillen will finish around 8th. Anyway, through two games of the World Series, Guillen is at .714/.750/1.143, and through the playoffs, he's .432/.488/.703. And the Mariners traded him for Ramon Santiago. Ouch.

-I'm higher on Jeff Weaver's chances for next year after his mediocre performance in Game 2 than I was after his good outings in the division series and the NLCS. For a long time, the book on Weaver was that he was fine once he got into a groove, but would blow up as soon as trouble began. On Sunday, when he got in trouble, he wasn't yelling into his glove or any of the stuff we'd come to expect from him over the years. He just worked through and made good pitches. He'd be smart to resign with the Cardinals, as it's becoming pretty clear that Duncan has connected with him.

-The term "must-win" is overused in the playoffs, but a loss in game 3 with Carpenter pitching would hurt the Cardinals much more than the Tigers, who have the significant edge in starting pitchers the following two nights. Even losing home-field advantage, I still favor the Tigers, because their pitching is so strong, and because I don't think the Cardinals will put enough people on base for Pujols to allow him to win the series on his own.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Playoff Predictions

I hate to whine, but do the Yankees really need to be in the prime time slot every single night? World Series ratings this decade have shown pretty conclusively that the Yankees do NOT draw on a national level, as the 2004 and 2002 series have garnered the highest ratings, while the 2000 and 2003 have had the worst. Baseball fans don't want to hear about "Yankee mystique" every night, they want to see the best matchups. Today's best matchup is Santana against Zito, which will be on at 10:00 am for those of you who live in the A's market.

This isn't mindless Yankee bashing. One of the reasons the NFL has surpassed MLB is because of marketing. This is often seen as the marketing of individuals, but the NFL does a superior marketing of all its teams, as well. Flip on Fox's Sunday afternoon game. I would venture to guess, that, over a 16 week season, their 4:00 games will feature between 16 and 24 different teams. Same with Sunday Night Football. Now, go to Fox's Saturday afternoon baseball. It's the Red Sox or Yankees or a Chicago team every single week. 2005 was the worst. Every other weekend, we had the Red Sox against the Yankees both on Fox Saturday, and again on ESPN Sunday Night.

There are marketable personalities and compelling stories outside of these three markets, but MLB and the networks don't seem terribly interested in lining them up.

On to the predictions...

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Mets.

Have you seen the Mets starting rotation for this series? Take out John Maine, and Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel still have a combined age of roughly 195. Without Pedro, this is a very unimpressive rotation, but the loss of Pedro would be a bigger deal if Pedro had been a good pitcher this season. From mid-May on, he was alternately injured and ineffective, and the Mets still had the most wins in the National League.

The Dodgers rotation is strong. Lowe and Penny were a good 1-2 combination all season, and Maddux was excellent down the stretch.

On paper, the two teams match up pretty evenly, but my inclination right now is to go with the Mets. Carlos Beltran had one of the best postseasons in recent memory in 2004, nearly single-handedly carrying the Astros all the way to a Game 7 against a much stronger Cardinals team. He's coming off of a huge season, and, when you factor in his strong CF defense, he's arguably the best player in baseball.

Down the lineup, the Mets have the star power in Beltran and Wright, as well as two other very good players in Carlos Delgado and the miscast-but-still-valuable Jose Reyes. Their depth is a concern, but Randolph doesn't use his bench as much as some other NL managers. Meanwhile, with Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano and Bradford, the Mets have a very strong bullpen, with Heilman especially valuable in a postseason series because of his ability to pitch multiple innings.

The Dodgers lineup is balanced, but Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent are no longer stars. Leftfielder Andre Ethier and catcher Russell Martin, two rookies who were so valuable to Los Angeles throughout the summer, seemed to fade in September, particularly Ethier.

Given the Mets stronger bullpen and defense, and the fact that they seem to have players more likely to carry the team, I'm giving them the very narrow edge in the Series.
Mets def. Dodgers, 3-2.

San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have backed into the playoffs, and they're a great bet to back out pretty quickly, even against the mediocre Padres. The Cards are basically a three man team, and while Pujols is baseballs best hitter, and while Carpenter may be the NL's best starter, that's just not going to be enough. In fact, this is probably the worst team to find its way into the playoffs since the expanded divisions in 1995. (Now that I've said that, considering my other predictions for this year, I'd encourage every single person who's going to read this--yes, both of you--to wager double your net worth on the Cardinals. I've just made them a can't lose).

The Cardinals chances are best summed up in the fact that Jeff Weaver is going to start Game 2 for them. I can think of about 200 pitchers in baseball that I'd prefer to start a playoff game. The combination of Weaver being a mess under pressure, and not all that good in the first place doesn't make for a great combination.

The Padres will get through on strong starting pitching and enough fair hitters to light up the stiffs that St. Louis will throw out there.
Padres def. Cardinals, 3-1.

Minnesota Twins vs. Oakland A's

The Twins are a trendy pick right now, and it's easy to see why. They have likeable, good young players, the best pitcher in baseball, and were on fire in the second half. Consider me on the bandwagon. Joe Mauer is my MVP this year, one of baseballs best hitters playing the hardest defensive position in baseball. And, unlike Victor Martinez, Mauer is a plus at the position--in fact, he's such a plus, he has a good chance to win the Gold Glove. Justin Morneau isn't the league MVP, but he may win because of voters obsession with RBI. He is a devestating young hitter, though, likely one of the top 10 in the American League. Joe Nathan could well be THE player to break out on the national scene, one of the elite closers in baseball. And Johan Santana is baseball's best pitcher by a pretty huge margin.

What does Oakland have? A fairly good team, if not one that looks like a championship contender. Frank Thomas worked himself into the MVP race in the second half with a series of clutch homers, and their pitching staff is a force to be reckoned with, if Rich Harden is healthy. Unfortunately, Rich Harden didn't appear healthy in his last start, Barry Zito didn't have a great second half, and for reasons I can't really comprehend, Esteban Loiaiza is starting game 2, ahead of Danny Haren.

Minnesota has the better lineup, better defense, better bullpen, and, if not better starters, then a more solidified starting rotation heading into this series. It's a best of five, so anything can happen, and the A's are due a bit of luck, but there's no rational reason to pick against the Twins here.
Twins def. A's, 3-0.

New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers

After sitting in first place nearly all season long, the Tigers fell out on the very last day of the season, losing in extra innings to the Kansas City Royals, of all teams. The Tigers lineup was in such disarray in the final month that they actually had Neifi Perez, who has a .298 career OBP, leading off.

The Tigers pitching staff is the real deal, though. Verlander, Robertson, Rogers and Bonderman is the best front four in the major leagues. As important as that is made to be, how many World Series did the Braves win during their run? Like those Braves teams, these Tigers have great starting pitching, great defense, an underrated bullpen, but a bit of a mismatched lineup. Only Carlos Guillen had a VORP of over 30--though it was WELL over 30, at 67.0. After that, Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Ivan Rodriguez and Marcus Thames were the only players in the 20's. They're not a good team at getting on base, finishing 12th in the AL with a .329 OBP, behind the much-maligned Royal offense.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are sort of the complete opposite--the best team in the AL at getting on base and scoring runs, but not so great at keeping the other guys from scoring. Chien-Ming Wang somehow turned his hard slider, 76 strikeouts and some smoke and mirrors into 19 wins. There was talk about whether the Yankees were putting softer dirt around home plate in his starts to make his grounders slower in getting to the holes. If that is the case, it worked, as he had a 3.03 at home, while putting up only a 4.35 on the road. After Wang, the rotation is shaky. Mussina battled injuries and inconsistency in the second half after an excellent start to the season. Randy Johnson continued his descent from "Hall of Fame stud" to "mediocre innings eater with a temper." He's apparently going to try to pitch through a herniated disc. That doesn't sound like a great idea for either him or the team, but I'm not a doctor.

It seems to me that the Yankees have too much offense, though the Johnson injury has evened the odds quite a bit. I feel like Game 1 is huge in this series, for both teams. Don't like the matchup, though. Wang tends to succeed most against impatient teams that will drill first pitch sliders into the ground. The Tigers fit that profile.
Yankees def. Tigers, 3-2

From there...
Twins def. Yankees, 4-2
Mets def. Padres, 4-2

Twins def. Mets, 4-1.

From a non-rooting standpoint, Twins against Yankees is very compelling. If you had to pick one thing that the Yankees do well, it would be their hitters ability to be patient and get ahead in counts in order to get good pitches to hit. If you had to pick one thing the Twins do well, it would be their pitchers ability to throw strikes early and get hitters into tough counts. Always fun to see two teams that match up like that.

Also, as I said above, Wang was much better in New York than on the road. If the Yankees series with the Tigers goes to five games, Wang will be starting that Game 5. Unless the Yankees get out to a huge early lead, Wang may not be available until Game 3 of the ALCS. Something to watch for.

As far as the national league goes, the Padres are a well-rounded team, but I can't see them getting to World Series with that lineup unless Peavy starts pitching like an ace again. I have to think that whichever team comes out of the Dodgers-Mets series is going to be the heavy favorite to be Quadruple-A champ.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trading Season Begins

After what seems like a year and a half of rumors, Aubrey Huff was finally traded today. The Devil Rays all-time leader in just about every hitting category will get a taste of his first pennant race, going to the Houston Astros for two Double A players, SS Ben Zobrist and P Mitch Talbot.

The Astros are only 3.5 games out of the wild card at the All-Star break, despite the fourth fewest runs scored in the National League. Acquiring a bat was a major priority, and Huff will move straight into the right field spot that Jason Lane had been occupying. Four of the eight starting position players for the Astros had negative VORPs in the first half: Lane (-3.7), Willy Tavarez (-6.2), Adam Everett (-7.5) and Brad Ausmus (-8.1). So while Lane hasn't been the worst hitter on the team, he was in the lineup for his bat, unlike the other four. Tavarez's speed is necessary in Minute Maid Park's vast outfield, Ausmus is the unofficial team captain, and Everett has probably surpassed Andruw Jones as the best defensive player in basball, coming in an Ozzie Smith-esque 21 runs above replacement in the first half. So Lane was the obvious choice to go. Lane's season has certainly been a disappointment. Following what appeared to be a breakout, Lane had serious trouble making contant, walking, striking out, or getting hit by a pitch in 94 of his 224 plate appearances.

At first glance, Huff seems to have fallen off his 2002-04 peak, but upon closer look, he may be able to play near that level. After his terrible slump througout 2005, Huff started slowly, going 4 for 22 before going to the DL. On June 9th, Huff was still struggling badly, hitting .178/.272/.264 with only two home runs. In the month since, he's hit .416 with six homers. It's possible that this run has been a fluke, and Huff won't be the same player he was two years ago, but even 2005 Aubrey Huff, as mediocre as it was, will be an improvement over 2006 Jason Lane.

Will this get the Astros back to the playoffs? Alone, of course not. If Clemens can pitch like a #2, if Pettitte can come back to form, if Ensberg snaps out of his slump, and if Everett and Tavarez start providing any offense at all, then this move could be what puts them over the top. You can make a strong case that, as things stand, the Astros have the third best team, top to bottom, in the NL. While they stand only 3.5 games behind Los Angeles for the wild card, there are another four teams in between them. If the Astros can take care of the Reds and Brewers in head to head play, the NL West teams very well may beat on each other enough for the Astros to make a run.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Red Sox/Yankees notes

Actually got the chance to go to last nights game between Boston and New York. For all the hype, it looks an awful lot to me like the Chicago-Cleveland series is a matchup of two much better teams, and a very intriguing one because of the contrasting styles. Boston-New York will get all the attention here as well, at least for today.

The Red Sox were able to win 7-3 last night, by piling 18 people on base throughout the course of the game, seven by way of walks. Meanwhile, Tim Wakefield kept the Yankee bats silent, other than a three-run fourth inning, capped by a two run single by Robinson Cano that rolled through the infield at a torturously slow pace.

The wind had a major effect on the game, as it knocked down likely home run balls by Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, and the newly acquired Doug Mirabelli. The wind wasn't strong enough to stop the crushing blow, however--a three run homer by David Ortiz into the Boston bullpen off former Sox reliever Mike Myers. This was the first, and only extra base hit of the night by either team. This seems like the time to go through the league a couple teams a time, to see where they stand.

A month into the season, and neither seems to be playing much like a championship contender. The Yankees have the second best run differential in baseball, behind only the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox have actually allowed more runs than they've scored. The likely conclusion from that is that the Yankees have actually outplayed Boston, by a fairly significant amount, and therefore are likely to continue to do so. There are other ways to look at it, though.

New York

As far as the Yankees are concerned, they have a few players that are playing as well as they can play, completely blowing away any reasonable projections for them. Derek Jeter (.396/.505/.637) and Jason Giambi (.328/.542/.812) are the most notable cases. Neither are going to continue to hit like THAT. Also, Robinson Cano's .329 average is based almost entirely on singles--he has just six extra base hits. High batting averages based on a lot of singles tend to produce lots of fluctuation. Until Cano proves that he's a Tony Gwynn type, with a true nose for singles, I'm going to expect that number to drop significantly as well. Because he produces few walks or homers, Cano needs to hit around or above .300 to remain a productive player.

So who is going to pick up the slack? Two people who have been mentioned as underachieving so far this year are Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Rodriguez has a low batting average (.261), but has maintained a high OBP, at .394, right about in line with where his recent career numbers have been. His power will jump a bit--expect his SLG at the end of the year to be closer to .575 than .466, but he hasn't been making outs at any higher rate than he his been in the past, therefore a jump in power isn't going to make that much of a difference. Jorge Posada's numbers are actually up from last year, so the Yankees should be happy if he can just maintain what he is doing, reversing a notable pattern of decline since his 2003 peak.

So that leaves two positions that have been underproducing for New York, with an opportunity to pick up any slack at all: LF and DH. LF Hideki Matsui has struggled mightily after signing a contract extension this offseason. .247/.327/.409 is not what anyone had in mind. According to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system, that's right around the 10th percentile of what should be expected from him. Why the dropoff? He hasn't hit a lick against lefthanded pitching so far this year. After doing quite well against lefties his first three years in the league, the bottom has fallen out this year hitting .194/.256/.222 against them. While 36 at-bats isn't a substantial sample size (particularly when weighted against the other 650 PA's in his career that say he CAN hit lefties), it does show us what the problem has been. As nice a story as his consecutive games streak is, a day off here or there against a tough lefty may do him some good.

As far as the DH position goes, Bernie Williams has had a nice career, and he's arguably been the most important player in the postseason for the Yankees, outside of Mariano Rivera. I'm not going to sit here and tell him that he should retire--if he enjoys playing baseball, and the Yankees will give him a couple million to do it, why should he retire? But his time as a productive baseball player are over. Mercifully moved out of centerfield three years after Peter Gammons himself called him the worst defensive CF in baseball, Bernie's bat has declined to the point where he'd have trouble holding a roster spot even if he ran like he did when he was 25.

So where does help come from? Clearly not within the organization--their bench of Stinnett, Cairo, Crosby and Phillips is likely the worst in baseball, for two reasons. The first being that none of them are young, the second being that none of them have that one single skill they excel at to make them a useful bench player. A good bench isn't necessarily made up of the best players, but the ones whose skills lineup in a way to do something the starter cannot. With that in mind, expect the Yankees to be on the lookout for a righty outfielder who can spell Matsui and DH from time to time. This team is only a couple injuries away from having a significant hole at the bottom of its superstar lineup.

Of course, the more important questions about the Yankees success revolve around their pitching, a problem that came to the forefront last night, when they allowed 18 Red Sox to reach base, while only striking out one batter. In a game against a division rival, they went to the quintet of Chien-Meng Wang, Aaron Small, Tanyon Sturtze, Mike Myers and Scott Proctor? Would a single one of these men make the White Sox roster? Considering that they're having trouble finding innings for Brandon McCarthy, described by some as a "tall Roy Oswalt," that seems pretty unlikely.

The Yankees rotation has actually been pretty good so far. Mike Mussina isn't likely to maintain a 2.31 ERA or continue to strikeout a person per inning, but even with a dropoff, this could be his chance to finally get that 20 win season. Going into free agency and turning 38 in December, that would likely get him paid well into his 40's. Randy Johnson's performance to this point can best be described as erratic. Fortunately for him, he's had a couple bad starts on days with minimal competition (see: Josh Towers). The real concern with Johnson is that his K-rate has fallen below 7.0 per nine innings, signalling continued decline. No pitcher lasts forever, and last season now looks like the start of a decline phase, rather than a simple off-year.

The rest of the rotation is going to be the key, clearly.

Shawn Chacon has pitched great a couple times, and been whacked around a couple times. If the wind is blowing in at Fenway again tonight, that's a good sign for him, as even if hangs a couple curves, it'll take some real power to get it out of the park. The concern with Chacon is that he simply doesn't strike out enough guys to be successful. He simply cannot continue to strike out 4.5 per 9 innings, as he did last year in both stops, and continue winning. So far this year, his K rate is up to a more reasonable 6.0, a number that he can win with if he keeps the walks down and the ball in the park.

Chien-Meng Wang's sophomore effort has been disappointing. Not to keep harping on the strikeout rates, but his was among the worst in baseball last year, which was strange considering that he can throw as hard as 93 with good sinking action. He's increased only from 3.6 to 4.1, while his walk rate has jumped from 2.5 to 3.6. If you're walking too many people, and striking out too few, your chances of success are between slim and none. Going forward this season, watch those numbers. If his K rate isn't above 5 by late July, expect him to have an ERA around 6.00. It's simply impossible to sustain success when you can't make batters miss. The bright side is that he's allowed only one home run in 35 innings. While most pitchers need a strikeout rate of at least 5.5-6.0 to succeed, the ability to keep the ball in the park gives him some leeway.

Finally, Jaret Wright. You know, a lot of people in baseball disagree on a lot of different things. However, one thing that just about everyone agreed on was that signing Jaret Wright to a 3-year, $21M contract was just really, really dumb. With an ERA of over 7, and nothing to indicate an ability to be any better, he's a strong candidate to be released when Carl Pavano gets healthy. If Pavano doesn't get healthy or return to form, expect the Yankees again to go outside the organization. Pitching is much harder to trade for that hitting in-season, though, so Pavano's health could be a key to the Yankees hopes.

As far as help within the organization, Aaron Small made his Yankee debut last night, and was roughed up. It's wise not to put stock in the fact the he pitched poorly on a cold night in Boston. It probably IS wise to put stock in the fact that he pitched poorly for five different teams from 1994-2004. Sean Henn, who was rocked in a cameo last year, has an ERA over 5.00 in his first three Triple A starts. He's not the answer, but there's a good chance he'd at least outperform Jaret Wright if/when they decide to give Wright the boot.


The good news is that they're in first place in the AL East. The bad news is that they've been outscored. Saved by their 5-2 record in one-run games, this is a team that's underachieved on the field, but overachieved in the standings relative to what they've achieved on the field, leaving them... exactly where they should be.

On the offensive side of the ball, there's been a major power outage. They're fifth from the bottom in team homers with only 27, and last in the division. David Ortiz has hit 11 of those 27 homers, meaning the rest of the team has combined for only 16 in over 900 PA's. A rate that puts them worse than every team in the league, other than the Royals. Ouch. The Red Sox are certainly doing their job getting on base, but the lack of pop has led to their leading the league in men left on base, while being only in the middle of the pack as far as scoring.

Is there a solution? Probably nothing that time won't cure. Manny hit all four of his homers on the recent nine game road trip, following one of the longest droughts of his career. Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, and Trot Nixon have all hit the ball well and gotten on base, but none have hit for the power they'd like to see. Jason Varitek struggled while fighting a glute injury, but is reportedly healthy now. Lowell, Nixon and Varitek are all likely to hit 20 homers if healthy, while Youkilis should add another 10-15.

Centerfield has been a soft spot for the team. After losing Coco Crisp on day five, they've sorted through Dustan Mohr, Adam Stern, Willie Harris and Wily Mo Pena. Pena offers tons of power, but can't handle the position defensively. Stern was stretched as an everyday player in the lineup, but is ready to play the position defensively at the major league level. Mohr and Harris are nice backups to have as long as your starters don't get hurt. Settling on Pena to play there for the next two weeks is the best option of the four. His strikeouts and defense are likely to annoy Boston fans, but not as much as his raw power will make them happy. It will never happen, but they may do well to try Nixon there. He doesn't have the speed he did five years ago, but he is still faster than Pena, and he's rated very highly defensively. There are two potential drawbacks. The first is the fact that Nixon's gotten more and more injury prone throughout the years. The second is that he's made up for his declining speed with increasing smarts in his defense. He takes good routes to balls, and positions himself very well. It's an open question as to whether he would be as productive at the different angles of center field. There's also the argument that, in Fenway Park, RF defense is just as important as CF. Either way, Nixon isn't moving.

The middle infield has been a sore spot. At 2B, Mark Loretta was responsible for the most exciting moment of the young season for the Red Sox, a two-run walkoff homer off Eddie Guardado on Patriot's Day. Overall though, the Red Sox planned on getting an on-base and doubles machine, not the paltry .217/.278/.243 numbers that he's produced. A Silver Slugger Award winner in the NL just two years ago, Loretta should bounce back. If not, Dustin Pedroia looms in Triple A. Rated by Baseball Prospectus as the #11 prospect this offseason, by 2007, he could very well bat second for many teams. The Sox would rather get him some PA's in Pawtucket, rather than start his service-time clock running, but he'll be up for good in September at the latest.

The SS problem may be harder to fix. Gonzalez was acquired both for his glove, and for the potential his power could return to the form of 2004 and earlier. The Sox took a chance on both parts of the underachieving left side of the 2005 Marlins infield. So far, Lowell has been a pleasant surprise, while Gonzalez has his so poorly (.186/.275/.243) that he's started losing playing time to Alex Cora. Pedroia was drafted as a SS, and has been playing there some in Pawtucket, since his return from the DL two weeks ago, but the Sox see his future at 2B. Beyond that, the pickings are slim, and there aren't likely to be a whole lot of great options out there at the trade deadline. If Gonzalez continues to struggle, trying to pry a guy like Jason Bartlett from the Twins could be one answer.

As far as the pitching staff goes, there's been a wide gap between the good and the bad.

For starters, Curt Schilling has been everything the Sox could've dreamed. He looked an awful lot like a guy who was finished last year, and in his first six starts of 2006, he's rebounded to the tune of 4-1, 2.88. The supporting peripheral numbers are there as well. A 40/7 strikeout to walk ratio in 40.2 innings signals that he is pitching in form. At this point, there's nothing to suggest anything less than an all-star appearance.

Trading Josh Beckett was the big move of the offseason, and he'd been the toast of the town until last Thursday's start against the Indians sent his ERA up more than two runs. Looking at the numbers as a whole though, there are worries. Most notably, his strikeouts are way down from his time with the Marlins, only 21 in 32 innings. There has been a lot of talk recently about how the gap between the American and National Leagues seems to be increasing, and Beckett may be a victim of that. He pitches against the Yankees tonight, and his control certainly will be on display, as the Yankees take more pitches than any team in baseball.

Tim Wakefield has only a 1-4 record, but has actually pitched very well. After last night performance, he has a solid 3.89 ERA, and he also has his personal caddie, Doug Mirabelli, back in town. There's not a whole lot to discuss with Wakefield. At the end of the season, chances are he'll have an ERA in the low fours, and double digit wins. He's a perfect mid-rotation starter, providing above average innings, at a reasonable cost, while likely being the lowest injury risk of any pitcher in baseball.

Matt Clement has not been so good. Following a rough second half last year, he's got an ERA over 6.00, and a walk rate of 4.6. He's likely to settle down and pitch better, but Boston has a notoriously short leash with its starters. The fact that Boston moved so hard to trade him in the offseason probably didn't help his confidence much. A guy with a reputation for inconsistency, at the Red Sox would almost welcome that now, in lieu of being consistently bad.

The #5 spot in the rotation has become quite an issue. After David Wells' injury, it's been held by Lenny Dinardo. While minor league numbers, and his time in the majors before this year told us that Dinardo was a good bet to become a solid starter, he certainly hasn't pitched like it. He has an ERA above 7.00, and only 8 K's along with 4 HR's in 18.1 innings so far. On a team that didn't have championship aspirations, he'd be allowed to stay in the rotation and work out the kinks. In Boston, he's a great bet to be traded. If a team has their eyes open, they could pick him up for next to nothing. Wells has been taking shots for his knee, but there is little optimism that he'll be able to come back (as well as rumblings that not everyone necessarily wants him back).

One advantage the Sox do have, however, is a great candidate to take the spot sitting on their own roster. Jonathan Papelbon has been among the best pitchers in the league this year, but the Red Sox desperately need a way to find him more innings. Whether it's by moving him to the starting rotation or by using him more creatively in the bullpen, the Sox would do well to find a way to get at least 120 innings out of him.

While the urge to keep him in the closer role is understandable, Keith Foulke's resurgence could make shifting Papelbon much easier. After a couple rough outings early, Foulke has an ERA in the high threes, along with a very nice 18/2 strikeout to walk number, in 17 innings. Between Foulke and Mike Timlin, the Sox have options.

If they do choose to keep Papelbon in the bullpen, their options for starters are limited. Abe Alvarez, is one. You may remember Alvarez as the pitcher who wears his cap towards the side, in order to correct for his legal blindness. After a strong Double A in 2004, Alvarez's strikeout rates have not carried on to Triple A. While his 2.17 ERA is inviting, much of that seems to be because Triple A hitters struggle with pitchers who change speeds and mix pitches well. The hitters that are able to deal with a guy like Alvarez become major leaguers--where they beat up on pitchers like Alvarez, who lack the strikeout pitch to put them away.

Jon Lester is considered the long term answer. He has a high ERA at Triple A, near 6.00, though it has been skewed by a couple rough outings. One positive is that he's striking out more than a batter per inning, carrying over from his time at Portland last year, where he led the Eastern League in strikeouts. The other positive is that he's 22 years old, in Triple A. The Red Sox will not rush him, but don't be surprised to see him get a chance after the All-Star break to establish himself in some role, much like Papelbon did last fall.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Indians scalp Boston

It's hard to win every year. The Boston Red Sox haven't had a losing season since 1997, and won the World Series a mere 15 months ago. Reading their newspapers and listening to their fans though, it doesn't seem to be enough. The idea that they could possibly finish in third place one year led to radio talkshow hosts and newspaper writers ripping the team for tearing apart the ballclub, and most recently, for losing their star center fielder.

When Johnny Damon left, the Red Sox were left with a gaping hole in centerfield. They were supposedly on the verge of getting Jeremy Reed from the Mariners when the Damon signing was announced, at which point, it seems the M's upped their price. Since then, super-prospect Andy Marte's name was thrown around in every deal imaginable until yesterday, when he, catcher Kelly Shoppach, pitcher Guillermo Mota and a player to be named later were shipped to Cleveland for CF Coco Crisp, C Josh Bard and P David Riske.

While centerfield was a legitimate need for Boston, and it was filled, this trade reeks of being a panic deal. The Boston front office didn't think they could sell their team as rebuilding. How could a team with a $115M payroll be rebuilding? Of course they should be competitive every year, as the thinking seems to go.

The Red Sox will be competitive this year, and, with their resources, should continue to be competitive. As a friend said to me earlier, there's a fine line between trying to be competitive every year, and targeting a year to win. Instead of being competitive though, this team had the chance to put together a team that would be great, with Marte at the forefront and been a legit title contender from 2007 going forward.

Really, to call Marte a prospect is a bit of a misnomer. He'd have been in the majors on nearly any team by midseason last year if the Braves didn't have Chipper Jones in front of him. He hit .275/.372/.506 22 homers in 389 AAA AB's last year, while, at 21, he was also one of the younger players in the league. People scoffed that he was unproven, but minor league numbers for hitters tend to translate very well to the major league level. To boot, Marte was rated the #1 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus before the 2005 season: "Marte has that rare combination of high upside and low risk. No one else on this (top prospect) list has that."

Crisp is undoubtedly a useful outfielder, but he's a bit of a tweener. He's not a good defensive centerfielder, but his hitting stats aren't really strong enough for him to be a plus corner guy. At center, his bat will be a plus, and it's not impossible that he'll outproduce the man he's replacing in 2006, and fairly likely that he'll be the better player a couple years down the road. Still, his star potential is low, while Marte's is through the roof.

When making a trade, teams tend to deal from their strengths. Boston completely neglected that. They're an old team, with no power potential in the high minors, and an overstock of mid-rotation starters. It seems hard to believe that they wouldn't have been able to find a replacement level placeholder for a guy like David Wells or Matt Clement, to tide them over until next offseason.

Which brings us to why the trade was such a mistake for Boston. After 2006, they won't have Mike Lowell's contract on, as well as Trot Nixon's. There are always good outfielders available, and almost never very good 3B. By keeping Marte in place, they'd have had a cheap, productive player (and, possibly a cheap STAR player), who wouldn't even be eligible for a raise until 2009. When you have cheap players at key positions, you can go out and buy a Cliff Floyd, and, when you have the Red Sox pockets, you can even overpay a little for him.

Cleveland meanwhile, is smiling from ear to ear. They added a LF in the highly underrated Jason Michaels, a 30 year career backup with a lifetime .291/.380/.442 line in 808 AB's. If he can maintain close to that OBP, then he could actually be an upgrade over Crisp, who posted a career-high of .345 last year. More importantly, they can take Aaron Boone, an absolute out machine in 2005 (.299 OBP) and replace him with a young stud of a 3B in Marte.

As far as the other players are concerned, Riske is a better pitcher than Mota, though Francona's ability to handle a bullpen is an open question, and the Indians have depth in their bullpen, as well as starters who go deep into games. The catcher exchange is almost laughable. The Red Sox apparently wanted a "proven veteran" to be their backup catcher, while the Indians seem to be more interested in having someone who is a good baseball player as theirs. Shoppach's not a top prospect, but his upside is Javy Lopez before his inexplicable late career power surge. Bard's upside is that he could beat out John Flaherty for the chance to catch Tim Wakefield, and hit as high as .240 with no walks or power. That's not entirely fair, as Bard does have an excellent defensive reputation, and is a fairly capable backup as long as your starter never gets hurt. Shoppach, however, won't embarrass himself if the Indians are without Victor Martinez for an extended period, and could be leveraged into a pitcher at midseason.

All things considered, with Crisp solidifying CF, the Red Sox should win around 90 games. If Schilling and Beckett both stay healthy, and Papelbon is allowed to start, they could take the division. The Indians though, now have to be considered the favorites in the American league. They had the best run differential in the American League last year, with a young improving team that rocketed in the second half thanks largely to guys like Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore. They upgraded third base substantially, didn't take a major downgrade at any position, and many of their young players are good bets to continue improving. The AL Central is a tough division, but these guys were the class of it going in, and they're even better now.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Quick Hits

I haven't updated in quite some time, so I figured I'd throw some random notes from the last couple weeks up there.

Cincinnati Reds sign P Grant Balfour to a 1-year contract for 340,000.

Balfour is hardly front-page news, and pitching for the Reds, the impact will be minimal. It's compounded by the fact that he is likely to miss the first half of 2006 after missing all of 2005 with reconstructive elbow surgery. Still, considering the going rate for useful pitchers, finding one that is above league average for the league minimum is an inspired move. In 65 innings over his last two years, Balfour has a 4.27 ERA, pitching in one of the tougher pitchers parks out there, translating to an ERA+ of 110. He's also struck out 72 batters in that time. His record is really only tempered by control concerns (he walked 35 in those two seasons). While the sample size is small, he has a history of success in the minors as well, notably in 2003 when he had a 2.41 ERA and a 87/16 K/BB ratio at Triple A Rochester.

Balfour has an injury history, but what is the risk vs. reward here? If he can't come back, or can't pitch as well when he does, the Reds will be merely out of the league minimum salary, and it's not like giving him the innings to find out is going to cost them in the standings in a big way. If he does pitch well, it's a complete bonus, and he will still be Reds property through 2008. An inspired signing by a franchise that has a recent history of overpaying for below average talent. Also, a strange nontender by the Twins, who, as a "small-market" team need to be on the lookout the most for cheap talent.

Sammy Sosa is in discussions with the Nationals about a one-year contract.

Anyone here want to try and think of a worse fit than a declining slugger whose single remaining positive is his ability to hit baseballs out of the ballpark, and sticking him in the worst home run hitting park in the majors?

Don't be too surprised if the Nationals great luck from 2005 turns completely around and they are looking up in the standings at the Marlins this coming September. Their chances rest on the health of Nick Johnson, and how many at-bats they can give Ryan Zimmerman.

Kevin Millar signs a one-year, $2.1M contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

On the one hand, he's a slow, poor defensive first baseman who is clearly in his decline phase. On the positive, he's a guy who can still hit a fastball. His value is no longer as an everyday player, and Terry Francona's insistence on playing him every day very nearly cost the Red Sox a playoff spot. On the other hand, in a division that seems to be stocking up on fastballers, Millar has a place, if Perlozzo has some ingenuity. As part of a standard righty/lefty platoon, Millar will be useless--he historically hits righties much better than lefties. If they can platoon him with a guy who can hit the softtossers in the league, play a good defense, and run the bases acceptably well, then Millar could actually help the Orioles. Interestingly enough, that description applies to Jeff Conine, also recently signed by the Orioles. They're not going to combine to be Albert Pujols, but with the Orioles getting big offensive production from sources that other teams do not (2B and SS), they merely need to be passable at 1B. If the cards break well, Conine and Millar are more than passable.