Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Surprises & Disappointments 2006

Before I look at the 10 most surprising (and disappointing) players of the year, let's look at some quick news from around baseball:

  • Apparently I spoke a bit too soon when I declared the Cardinals a sure thing in the NL Central. They certainly looked like a sure thing a while ago, but since then the Cards have lost 6 straight games . . . and the Astros have won 6 straight, leaving them just 2.5 games back in the division. Don't get me wrong -- a 2.5 game lead with six to play is a pretty healthy lead. But it's getting a little too close for comfort in St. Louis, a team that's certainly not anyone's idea of a shoo-in for the playoffs.
  • The Athletics are also taking their sweet time clinching. Their magic number is 2, but they have also delayed getting anything done. They lost the last two games of their series against the Angels. The Angels won their game Monday night, meaning that the A's will have to wait until Tuesday at least to clinch. The A's could still lower their magic number to 1 (thereby clinching a tie for the division title), but they blew a 9-6 lead to the Mariners in the 9th inning and are currently fighting it out in extras. The A's are still comfortable with a 6-game lead, but they too are making things a little too interesting.
  • On the plus side, the rest of the AL playoff field is set. I thought that the AL playoff race would turn out to be the most interesting, but first the Red Sox and then the White Sox collapsed, removing any sense of drama from the last week of the regular season. The Tigers clinched a postseason spot on Sunday, and the Twins clinched one on Monday. The Tigers have a one-game lead in the division, and the only question left is who will win the division and who will win the Wild Card. The division-winner would draw the A's, while the Wild Card would have to play the Yankees (who look like favorites to win the pennant). The Twins have clinched their 4th playoff spot in 5 years . . . I guess owner Carl Pohlad and Commissioner Bud Selig were right -- the Twins can't compete in that ballpark (sarcasm fully intended). The Tigers are the biggest surprise of the year, and if any franchise really needed to make the postseason, it's the Tigers. They're making their first postseason appearance since 1987, a very long 19 years that included a dreadful 119-loss campaign in 2003 . . . just three years ago. And Selig says there's no competitive balance in baseball . . .
  • On the NL side of things, it's not any clearer than it was when last I wrote. The Mets are in, and the Cardinals are, as I said before, struggling. That leaves the Padres, Dodgers, and Phillies to fight over the last two spots. The Padres currently have a 1.5-game lead over L.A. in the NL West, which would make them a pretty good bet to make the playoffs. The Dodgers and Phillies are currently tied for the Wild Card. It's anyone's guess who will win, making this the only truly exciting race left -- that is, the only "win or go home" race that's still really close.
  • In a pretty amazing display of fan solidarity, some 1,000 fans walked out in the middle of an Orioles game to protest the tenure of owner Peter Angelos. More than any other owner in baseball, Angelos has proven to be an impediment to his team's chances of winning. He's kind of like a young George Steinbrenner, except without all of the success. Angelos constantly interferes with the team's operations and undermines his subordinates. Angelos' response to the protest was to declare its organizer, Nestor Aparicio (nephew of Hall-of-Fame shortstop Luis) "a very unimportant person." Angelos went on to say:
    Whoever joins that protest has no comprehension of what it costs to run a baseball team. When you get down to facts, putting together a team that can compete in the AL East means having a payroll between $100 million-$110 million. That money comes from the consumer, and I have chosen to keep ticket prices to a minimum.
    Our payroll is $75 million, and our ticket prices average $22. Some of the teams we compete against charge an average of $45. We're going to have to match the competition. How to do that is a decision I will make in the future.
    Not only did Angelos try to make the unconvincing (and easily debunkable) argument that ticket prices are directly tied to a team's payroll, he made the veiled threat to fans that he might raise ticket prices in the future, presumably out of nothing more than spite. (It should be noted that Mike Flanagan, Baltimore's head of baseball operations, had a much more diplomatic response to the protest -- look at the end of the article). As Maury Brown wisely points out at Baseball Prospectus, Angelos' claims that his prices are "at a minimum" are false -- Orioles ticket prices are slightly above average. His claim that it takes $100 million+ to contend in the AL East has some merit, but is ultimately irrelevant. The Orioles' team payroll is a good deal higher thanthat of current Wild Card leader Minnesota. And the Red Sox, who have the #2 payroll in all of baseball, are currently in third place in their division.
    Angelos has reached the point where he's managed to alienate the fans, the players (due to his contentious negotations, few players seek out Baltimore as free agents), and other owners (Angelos' attitude has made him no friends, especially when he stood out as a labor-friendly owner during the 1994-5 strike). The only reason anyone deals with him is because they have to. You can't fire the owner, no matter how much everyone involved with the game probably wants to.

Now that we've dealt with that, I hereby give the 10 most surprising and disappointing players of 2006. Once the season is over, and we know for sure who stands where, I'll make a similar list of teams.
(Note: I use the terms "surprise" and "disappointment" in a general sense. Francisco Liriano certainly had a great rookie season with Minnesota, but he wouldn't really qualify as a "surprise," because he was expected to be a great pitcher. Ditto for other players such as Justin Morneau, Justin Verlander, and other people named Justin. Albert Pujols' MVP-level season wasn't really a "surprise," nor was it from Derek Jeter or Travis Hafner. Also, while some players might be termed "disappointments," they might miss my list if they were a disappointment that a reasonable analyst could have foreseen. Reggie Sanders was indeed a disappointment for Kansas City, but it wasn't really out of line with what we expected him to do. So he misses the list.)

10 Most Surprising

10. Jonathan Papelbon
Everybody knew Papelbon would be good -- but this good? Not only did Terry Francona use Papelbon in a more effective way (on orders from the front office, no doubt), Papelbon was just plain excellent. He was the best closer in baseball making noise for the Cy Young before injuries ended his season on September 1. As it is, Papelbon finished with a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves with 75 K and just 13 BB in 68.1 IP. Of his 59 appearances, 18 of them were for more than one inning. This means that he was often brought in for more than one inning (which makes sense), coming in early if the situation called for it (ditto). I don't have any precise stats on when he came in and h0w he was used compared other closers, but it seems to me that the Red Sox took a great young closer and made him even better just by using him more effectively.

9. Jermaine Dye
Dye is someone that the White Sox took a flyer on a few years ago; he had been good in the past, but had never really recovered from a broken leg suffered in the AL Division Series. Dye's performance this year is, of course, not the sign of some amazing age-32 renaissance, but likely due more to a spot of good luck.
That said, the White Sox could care less why Dye is hitting so well (316/386/622), and Dye is indeed a fine player who deserves a career year. He's got one now, and it's just too bad the Sox weren't able to capitalize on it (see Disappointments).

8. Jim Thome
Another Chicago hitter who made a comeback from injuries and ended up hitting far better than anyone expected him to. Unlike Dye, Thome had a much better track record as an elite hitter; but he was also two years older. After a dismal 2005 in Philadelphia, it looked doubtful that Jim Thome would ever hit like the old Jim Thome again.
Then he came to Chicago. He's hitting 290/418/605 this year, which is only slightly better than his career batting line of 282/409/565. It's even more amazing, though, considering his age and his injuries. Another surprise for the White Sox. In general, you could call the entire White Sox offense a surprise (with quality contributions from other guys like Paul Konerko and Joe Crede) and most of their pitching staff a disappointment (see below).

7. Freddy Sanchez
Freddy Sanchez was, once upon a time, a pretty good prospect. He was drafted out of college by the Red Sox in the 11th round of the 2000 draft. Sanchez was a shortstop then, and hit quite well for the position, rising through the minor league system until running into the roadblock named Nomar. As he got older and struggled in his brief major league trials (and with Nomar entrenched at short for the time being), the Red Sox included him in a mid-season trade to Pittsburgh for Jeff Suppan in 2003. Suppan struggled with the team, then left as a free agent. It turned out to be a pretty good deal for the Pirates, because they also got relief prospect Mike Gonzalez, who just turned in a fine season as their closer.
But Sanchez didn't turn out nearly as well. He started 2004 at Triple-A Nashville. At age 26, he should have dominated; instead, he hit a terrible 264/326/360. Despite that, the Pirates promoted him to the big leagues for good in 2005. It's not certain why they did this, but the Pirates aren't known for their depth of talent, nor do they consistently do the smart thing anyway. Sanchez actually did better than expected as a sometime-second baseman for the 2005 team, hitting 291/336/400 in 453 ABs. But at age 27, he was no longer any kind of prospect and was looking at a career as a backup (or, for the Pirates, a starter).
Then came 2006.
So far in 2006, Sanchez is hitting 342/376/471. To call this a surprise would be like calling the 1906 San Francisco earthquake a surprise. The only thing that's kept this season from being completely dismissed as a fluke is Sanchez's early history as a good-hitting prospect.
The snag is, however, that most of Sanchez's great performance is tied up in his batting average. More than most other offensive indicators, batting average is subject to luck. This is for the simple reason that batting average is more dependent on balls which are put into play, and so it depends a good deal on the opposition's defense. Therefore, batting average as a skill is less "pure" in the sense that it represents a solid, consistent underlying reality. That isn't to say that batting average is random, of course; but it's easier to "luck into" a good batting average than it is to luck into 40 home runs or 100 walks.
All that aside, the Pirates should be thrilled with Sanchez's performance. He's just the sort of player small-market clubs salivate over: a former prospect who has an improbably good year. The mistake that most teams make (and which the Pirates probably will make as well) is expecting the improbable to happen again next year. When a player like Sanchez has a career year, you let someone else sign him to a big, stupid contract. I doubt, though, that the Pirates are this intelligent, or if they even care that much.
So it's most likely a mistake to think that Sanchez is really a good hitter. The residents of San Francisco didn't bear down and wait for the earthquake to happen again in 1907, did they? Neither should the Pirates expect Sanchez to hit anything like .342 ever again.

6. Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano had some really great seasons in New York. He was actually similar to Derek Jeter; a good athlete who could hit like a king, enough so that his defensive shortcomings were glossed over. Soriano's difference was that he was all power and little else, whereas Jeter has everything but a 40-home run swing. The other difference was that Soriano was even worse at second than Jeter was at shortstop. And with Soriano's arbitration salary likely to break the bank, the Yanks traded him to Texas for Alex Rodriguez.
Texas should have been Eden for Soriano; a far better hitters' park than Yankee Stadium, especially for right-handed hitters. Instead, Soriano somehow managed to hit worse in Texas than he did in New York, even without taking into account the favorable ballpark. Not only did Soriano's power dip, but so did his batting average, which also put a dent in his OBP (Soriano only draws a walk when the pitcher has had a few drinks and can't physically see the plate). Soriano was still a valuable player (his Texas years: 280/324/484 in 2004, 268/309/512 in 2005) but his stolen bases and home runs were counteracted by terrible defense, a lower batting average and the same woeful plate discipline.
When Soriano was traded to Washington in 2005, I hung my head for him. If his offense was suffering that much in Texas, an AL hitter's paradise, what would it look like in Washingt0n, a cavernous NL ballpark? Without his power, what would Soriano be? He'd be a left fielder, that's for sure; a position where his offense would no longer be considered "good for his position" but merely average. I thought he would turn into Jacque Jones with stolen bases, and I had visions of 260/310/450 dancing in my head.
I was wrong.
I was unbelievably, astronomically wrong. Against all odds and all sense of logic, Soriano has had probably his best year ever at the plate. He's currently hitting 283/355/572. He's the first person in baseball history to have 40 homers, 40 doubles, and 40 stolen bases in the same season. Yes, that factoid is mainly trivial, but it does tell you that Soriano is slugging the crap out of the ball in one of the toughest parks in the league.
I don't think Soriano is going to continue down this unlikely career path -- he'll be 31 next year, after all -- but that doesn't diminish his unlikely accomplishments this year. The rest of baseball, who had forever overrated Soriano's ability, now had it right. And it was I who was left to come up with the excuses.

5. Chris Coste
Coste is a surprise in the purest sense of the word -- something that absolutely no one saw coming. A surprise in the "Disney might make a movie out of this" sort of way. Let me set the scene.
Coste played college ball at Concordia College, Moorhead in North Dakota. He went undrafted in the amateur draft (and with 50 rounds, even the mascots get drafted by somebody) and played in the independent leagues for a few years. In 1998, the Pirates took a flier on him, which isn't any sort of promising sign. He didn't make the team and went back to North Dakota. In 1999, the Indians signed him. He bounced around their system before getting released in 2001. Two weeks later they re-signed him (I don't know the details there) and released him a year later. He got a sniff from the Brewers and Red Sox before landing with the Phillies in 2004.
Coming into 2006, Coste was 33 years old. He was not unlike a couple thousand fringe minor league players who bounce around the lowest levels of several franchises before giving up and going into real estate. 99.99% of those players never even make the majors, let alone contribute.
Say hello to the 0.01%.
Coste had taken up residence in Triple-A, and although he'd been invited to Spring Training the past three seasons, he never caught on, not even for one at-bat. It was back to Triple-A for Coste. But the Phillies were having catcher trouble; Mike Lieberthal was injured and despite his clever retro-moustache,

Sal Fasano was hitting like . . . well, Sal Fasano. Desperate, the Phillies had no choice but to call up their veteran minor league Triple-A guy who was probably more of a coach than a player at that point, anyway. At least he'd be able to tell his grandkids that he played in the big leagues.
But then Chris Coste started to hit.
He got off to a slow start, but then he went on a roll during the summer, including a July where he might as well have been a vintage Mike Piazza (372/426/651). With a week left in the season, Coste is hitting 322/368/494.
Everything I said about Freddy Sanchez applies here times ten; the odds that Coste will hit this well again are beyond remote. But for a while at least, 33-year-old Chris Coste got to live a dream. And if the Phillies win the Wild Card, maybe he'll have a couple more left to live.

4. Frank Thomas
From the dream world we move on to harsh reality. And things d0n't get any harsher than Frank Thomas' exit from Chicago, with GM Kenny Williams publicly calling him a crybaby that no one would miss. While his words probably had merit, Frank was still a potential Hall-of-Famer looking to get back some respect after several difficult, injury-plagued seasons in Chicago. The guy who looked like an organizational lifer was a free agent, and he ended up in Oakland.
And thank God for the A's that he did.
Frank Thomas isn't hitting as well as he used to, but considering how great he used to be, he's doing just fine (269/380/545). Not only that, but Thomas has been the only reliable bat for the A's all season. Thomas didn't come cheap, but his contract was loaded with incentives that kicked in only if he stayed healthy and produced. He did both, and I doubt Billy Beane regrets a dollar of that contract now.
More important than that, Thomas has gone a long way toward resurrecting his case for the Hall of Fame. Many observers felt that he had already earned his spot by being one of the best players of the 90's. But voters have short memories, and if you end your career poorly, they're not likely to remember how great you used to be. Thomas may well have turned himself from a fringe candidate into a first-ballot HOFer this year. His 38 home runs are only 5 shy of his career high of 43, set in 2000. It also brings him up to 486 for his career, making 500 home runs a lock. 500 homers may not be a guarantee for Cooperstown anymore, but it's a pretty damn good start. And it would all look even sweeter with a World Series ring.

3. Chien-Ming Wang
All season long, sabermetricians (myself included) have been saying that Chien-Ming Wang isn't really this good. No one (and I do mean no one) can succeed over the long term with such an amazingly low strikeout rate. After a while though, we just have to throw up our hands and accept it for now.
Wang had a promising rookie year in 2005, coming up to a Yankee team that desperately needed starting pitching. He complied by making 17 starts and posting a respectable 4.02 ERA in 116.1 IP. However, his BB:K ratio was 32:47. The walks weren't a problem; but anyone who strikes out that few batters probably isn't as good as a 4.02 ERA. If he were playing in front of a great defense in Dodger Stadium, maybe; but Yankee Stadium ain't Dodger Stadium, and Alex Rodriguez ain't Ron Cey (at least not anymore). So we all predicted that, like hundreds before him, Wang's promising ERA would be brought back to reality by his low strikeout rate.
Well, it hasn't happened yet, and I've stopped waiting. Wang's ERA this year has been even better, at 3.57. He's been very durable, making 32 starts so far and throwing 212 innings. He's probably been the best pitcher on the entire team (except maybe Mussina), and the Yankees were a team that really needed another good starter. It was all the sweeter, by the way, that Wang came out of the Yankee farm system instead of as a high-priced free agent.
But Wang is still striking out less often than Kid Rock at the grand opening of Skanks R Us. He currently has 72 Ks in his 212 innings, which is actually a worse rate than he had last year. He doesn't allow many walks nor many homers, so he has survived. But someday -- I swear -- his low strikeout rate will catch up with him.
Bill James made the claim once that no pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate has had a consistently successful career. He then set out to prove himself wrong and was almost entirely unsuccessful. Sure there are some guys like Walt Terrell who will have some good years, but you just can't find consistency over the long term with a below-average strikeout rate. While I admit that Wang may have an improbable career a la Terrell, I just don't think it's likely, especially with the defense behind him.
(Just to note: many pitchers who were perceived as low-strike0ut guys really weren't. Even guys like Greg Maddux, who didn't have dominating stuff and often used the defense to his advantage, was above-average at striking out hitters. In every season where he threw at least 200 innings, Maddux struck out at least 136 batters; he was usually over 170 -- even topping 200 in 1998. So he doesn't compare to Wang at all. The people that Wang does compare favorably to are one-year wonders like Randy Jones. And if you go back historically, keep in mind that we're comparing them to the league-average. Cy Young didn't strike out a lot of batters, but then nobody did in 1895).

2. Gary Matthews, Jr.
Other than Coste, Matthews is probably the purest fluke I have listed here. Since I've been rather verbose when speaking about the above players, I'll keep Matthews' discussion short. His 2006 season: 317/376/503. His career numbers: 264/337/420. Matthews' age: 32. The odds that this season are a fluke: 1,789,654:1. The joy of seeing a stupid GM give him a big contract this winter: priceless.

1. Dan Uggla
Uggla is sort of like Coste, except that he's a much bigger surprise who actually might be for real. Here is what the Baseball Prospectus staff had to say about Uggla in their pre-season annual: "the results [of his promotion to the majors] should be predictably Uggla." Their PECOTA system predicted a 237/296/371 hitting line for him, right in line with what a career minor leaguer would do as a full-time big-leaguer.
Uggla is hitting 282/339/483. Not only is that a couple light-years beyond his prediction, it's also not obviously a fluke. Uggla has broken the record for home runs by a rookie second baseman, notching 26 so far. As I said before, home run rate is more closely tied to underlying ability and thus not easily lucked into. Uggla isn't someone like Freddy Sanchez who's all batting average and little else; there's substance here that indicates he might be somewhat for real. He's certainly not getting done any favors by hitting in pitcher-friendly Dolphins Stadium.
The analyst in me says, of course, that regardless of the particulars, Uggla is a fluke. It's not like he's some former hitting prospect who's recaptured his former glory. Uggla never could hit that well. Most of his minor league numbers can be explained away because he was significantly older than the rest of the league. And that's not a small point; if Uggla were 23, this renaissance would be easier to swallow. Since he's 26, it's not.
While it's possible that Uggla isn't completely a fluke -- I'd expect him to show some power again next year -- it's doubtful that he's really this good. It would be a real wonder of the world if Uggla went on to be an All-Star regular; his more realistic future is as a low-end second baseman with some power. But since he's a good bet to win the NL Rookie of the Year and since no team but the miserly Marlins would have installed him as their starting second baseman in the first place, I rate Uggla as my #1 Surprise -- the most Unlikeliest of Unlikelies, if you will.

Honorable Mention: Michael Cuddyer, Clay Hensley, Hanley Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Ryan Howard

10 Most Disappointing

10. Matt Clement
Matt Clement was supposed to be a steal for the Red Sox. Even though they signed him to a pretty healthy contract, Clement was a pretty underrated pitcher -- a guy with high strikeout totals and the ability to stay healthy. So when, in 2005, he posted a 4.57 ERA and dropped 50 K despite throwing more innings, it was a disappointment. When he posted a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts in 2006, it was a disaster.
In his three seasons with the Cubs, Clement averaged about one strikeout per inning pitched, the sign of a great pitcher. He was durable, throwing more than 200 innings twice and 181 the other year and was not overly prone to the gopher ball, despite pitching in Wrigley Field (averaging about 20/season, good for the Friendly Confines). But since he pitched for the Cubs, his W-L records those years were 12-11, 14-12, and 9-13. Most teams perceived him as an innings-eater and little else, whereas the Red Sox knew he was really a solid #2. He wouldn't replace Pedro Martinez, but he would come close -- and at a much lower price.
I really don't know what happened to Matt Clement after that. I guess you could blame part of it on Fenway Park, but he's not really giving up a lot of home runs, no more than he did at Wrigley. His strikeout rate took a big hit, but is still above-average. He hasn't been seriously injured, not unless he's been hiding it. He did suffer some problems in 2006 that ended his season early, but it's unclear how much of that was due to injury and how much due to his frickin' 6.61 ERA.
Clement still has a year left on a contract that now looks like a pretty big mistake. It's possible that the Red Sox will just give up on his chance of pitching in the AL and trade him back to some NL team. It's understandable from their point of view, but it may also be a chance for an NL club to get a bargain-bin guy while his stock is down. But if there's anything we've learned about Clement, it's that there's no such thing as a sure thing.

9. Brad Wilkerson
I'll save time and embarassment by saying that everything I wrote about Alfonso Soriano applies inversely to Brad Wilkerson. Wilkerson went from an NL pitcher's park to an AL hitter's park and looked like he was finally going to make everyone notice what many already saw: Brad Wilkerson was a fine hitter. I predicted as much, right here on this very blog. I would link you to the archive, but it's too embarassing. It's too embarassing because Soriano and Wilkerson were traded for each other. Therefore, my mistake doubled in consequence, as the players went off in directions exactly opposite from that which I had predicted.
Against all odds, Soriano flourished and Wilkerson floundered (222/306/422). I can't explain it, except to hope that maybe it's a fluke that will set itself right next year. Otherwise, I'm going to look pretty foolish.

8. Jeff Weaver
Jeff Weaver had already proven a disappointment to the New York Yankees. They traded to get him from the Detroit Tigers, thinking they had a hot young pitching prospect. What they got was a thorough disappointment. So they traded Weaver to the Dodgers as part of a deal for Kevin Brown.
Weaver was able to make the Yankees regret it, though. Part of it may have been that Weaver's laid-back style was better suited for L.A. Part of it may have been that the Yankees traded for the most brittle pitcher in the world after his first healthy season in years, thinking he'd magically healed himself. Brown hadn't healed himself, and Weaver made a solid name for himself in L.A. He still wasn't an elite anything, but Weaver was a reliable pitcher with the Dodgers, soaking up innings and keeping his team in games.
As a free agent this year, Weaver fell through the cracks, not able to agree with a team on a price. As luck would have it, the Angels "suddenly" realized they had a hole in their rotation (which is like "suddenly" finding out on your 5-year wedding anniversary that you had married a goat) and went after Weaver. Weaver got a good 1-year deal from the Angels. He could stay in L.A. and stick with the low expectations; the Angels just wanted him to go out there every 5 days and keep his team in the game.
Somehow, Weaver was able to prove a big disappointment for the second time in his career. The first time, it was a fall from elite pitcher to merely average. This time it was a fall from average to dreadful. Weaver posted a 6.29 ERA with the Angels before getting traded to St. Louis. (In a coincidence noted prominently in the sports pages, Weaver was replaced by his younger brother Jered, who pitched brilliantly). In St. Louis, it was only marginally better: a 5.21 ERA in 14 starts.
Not only is Weaver giving up more home runs (he's almost equalled his 2005 total despite pitching about 100 fewer innings), his strikeout rate is falling. Put those two together, and you've got a bad sign; bad sign for Weaver's future, and bad sign for the Cardinals, who are stuck running him out there every 5 days because they couldn't think of anything better.
Weaver is a free agent again after this season, a situation that should reveal his unfortunate fall: he will be a fringe/5th starter just looking to catch on with a low-end, 1-year deal.

7. Bobby Crosby
Many commentators picked Bobby Crosby as their pre-season AL MVP prediction. I personally think this had more to do with Crosby's attitude and "grittiness" than his actual abilities with bat and glove, but he was still a fine young player. He was no MVP, but he was the Rookie of the Year in 2004, hitting 239/319/426. If that sounds like a pretty lousy hitting line for a ROY, it is. But then it was a slow year for AL rookies, and it's not like they're going to call off the award for that year.
Crosby was also a fine defender, and his offense improved to a more acceptable 276/346/456 in 2005. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 84 games and 333 ABs. The injury bug hit Crosby again this year, but his skills did not survive so well; thus far, he's hitting 229/298/338. Not only did this leave the A's with a gaping hole at shortstop (to go with several similar holes in their weak lineup), it called into question the short- and long-term future of their "Shortstop of the Future." Crosby's past wasn't any reason to call him an MVP, no matter how much he may get his uniform dirty or create his own cheers in the dugout.
Now, unfortunately, his present is also called into question by his injuries. One year of injury trouble is understandable for anyone. But two straight years could be a sign that someone is ::gasp:: injury-prone. It's also never a good sign when a player's skill set mostly evaporates (nor was it a wise decision for the A's to let Crosby bring his so-called "bat" to the plate 358 times).
Crosby says that he could be back in time for the ALCS, if the A's get that far (see? He plays through injuries. He's a "gamer." MVP!). The unfortunate question is if the A's even want him back; it's probably better for everyone if Crosby stays at home and tries to get healthy for next year, especially since his presence 0n the field isn't much more valuable than that of a well-trained mascot.

6. Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder disappointed Cardinal fans in 2005 when he failed to pitch like the "ace" he was supposed to be. But, just like Weaver and Clement, he proved that things can always get worse.
Now Mulder does have the excuse that he has struggled with injuries this year. That would help explain his 7.14 ERA and 19:35 BB:K ratio in nearly 100 innings. But it's small comfort, because Mulder's decline began the last half of 2004 in Oakland and has merely continued, bottoming out this year. You can't blame it all on the injuries.
It's been an awful trade for the Cardinals, one of the few true stinkers on Walt Jocketty's record. It also shows the problems inherent when you try to trade for an "established" pitcher. Mulder was, indeed, "established," but that just means that he used to be a great pitcher; his recent past didn't suggest anything as rosy for the future. "Established" pitchers also tend to be older; their career is declining, and they're more expensive. So it was a poor move when Jocketty traded for the established Mulder, giving up pitching prospect Dan Haren. Not only has Haren gone on to outpitch Mulder in both years since the deal, he is, of course, a much better long-term solution, being just 26 years old. Add in the fact that the Cards gave up (at the time) big-time hitting prospect Daric Barton, and the Mulder trade becomes one of those things you just want to forget ever happened.

5. Brad Lidge
Lidge was supposed to be the next "uber-closer." In 2004, he set a new record for strikeouts by an NL relief pitcher by whiffing 157 batters in just 94.2 IP. His 2005 was a bit more human ("just" 103 K in 70.2 IP), but he was still a true relief ace. Then, in Game 5 of the NLCS, Lidge gave up a decisive home run to Albert Pujols. The Astros lost the game, but went on to win the pennant. In the World Series, Lidge gave up a walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik in Game 2. This was significant, because during the regular season, Podsednik had hit exactly zero home runs. Many speculated that this trauma would cause Lidge to lose confidence. I frown on "intangible" explanations to baseball issues, but I have to say that this one is mighty convincing given what's happened to Lidge.
"Confidence" could explain part of it -- Lidge has given up twice as many home runs as he did last year (10 to 5) despite pitching almost the same number of innings. He's still a strikeout machine -- 99 in 69.2 IP, or almost exactly the same rate as last year. But his walk rate has risen too, which doesn't go well with an increased home run rate.
Personally, I don't think that all of that is enough to explain the train wreck that is Lidge's 5.56 ERA. I think Lidge has likely been unlucky, combined with the dampening effect that a couple bad outings can have on your ERA, especially if you don't throw many innings. The disturbing trend in Lidge's stats must be watched closely, but I would wait before I threw in the towel (the Astros are reportedly thinking of trading Lidge). Confidence may be a part of it, but his strikeout rate suggests that there's still a lot of the old Brad Lidge left, and if this is true, then his confidence problems can be addressed without panicking.

4. Felix Hernandez
"King Felix" he was called last year. He was the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden, at least that's what every baseball commentator told me. If ever there were a consensus "can't-miss" prospect, it was Felix. He had everything it took to dominate, combining a great fastball with nasty breaking stuff to become a strikeout master -- all before reaching the legal drinking age. Barring an injury or overwork, Felix was supposed to pass Johan Santana and become the best pitcher in baseball.
Not so fast.
Felix's 2.67 ERA last year has ballooned to 4.65 so far this year. While his strikeout and walk rates have remained intact, he's been hurt by a big jump in home runs allowed (2005: 5 in 84.1 IP; 2006 22 in 184 IP). What was supposed to be a Dwight Gooden season circa-1985 became a Dwight Gooden season circa 1992, Live from Sing Sing.
It's easy to look back in hindsight and criticize everyone's overeager praise of Hernandez. And I must admit that there was every reason to believe that he was the next big thing. Despite the fact that he's younger than my first set of baseball cards, Felix is in the majors and producing, which is a great sign in and of itself. And although 2006 represents a step back for the wunderkind, it's probably nothing more than a speedbump on the road to a very productive career.
3. B.J. Upton
Speaking of wunderkind players underwhelming in the majors . . . well, that's pretty much the whole story with Upton. He was a top-notch prospect who stuck around in the minors for a while as a result of the Devil Rays' great one-two punch of awfuldom: incompetence and cheapness. As for the latter, the Rays didn't want to rush Upton to the majors, because once he got there, it would start the clock ticking on his arbitration time. The D-Rays' front office wanted to make sure that Upton was ready before they started counting down his 6 years 'til free agency.
The count of incompetence is harder to fathom. Upton came up as a shortstop, but it turned out that he was very bad at the position. He made a ton of errors and just wasn't suited to it. That's not such a big problem, really. Many people start out as shortstops and then move elsewhere (Mickey Mantle, for one); shortstops tend to be such good natural athletes that they can handle most any position on the diamond. It seemed like just a question of where they would shift Upton; to third base (in place of Aubrey Huff) or the outfield (already crowded with prospects)?
The Rays' solution was not to shift him at all. Even the most obtuse observer of the game could tell that Upton just wasn't suited to shortstop, but the Rays kept him at Triple-A for parts of three seasons and even hired Ozzie Smith to work with him, all in an effort to make him a shortstop. Upton positively wore out Triple-A pitching, and despite the fact that he was plenty ready for the majors in 2004 at age 20, the Rays didn't call him up to the majors for good until August of 2006 for criminy's sake. Oddly enough, Upton was struggling through his worst season in Triple-A (269/374/394) that saw him lower his strikeouts (which the coaches were big on) but also lower his power (which they weren't). In the majors, Upton has so far hit a thoroughly underwhelming 237/283/282. With the trade of Aubrey Huff, Upt0n has moved over to third base and isn't doing too poorly on defense.
While the Devil Rays must be criticized for jeopardizing Upton's development due to their mismanagement, it's still most likely that Upton will start to hit again. It's easy to forget that even after all this time, he's only 22 years old, quite young for the majors. He's hit everywhere else, so he will hit soon enough in the majors. Once the D-Rays can settle on a position for him, they should get the young stud they were hoping for.
(It must be noted that Upton's attitude has been called into question as another reason for his extended stay in the minors. He also criticized upper management for leaving him in Triple-A in September of 2005. He was mostly correct, but talking bad about your boss to the press is never a good career move).

2. Coco Crisp
Last on the list of predictions I wish I hadn't made, we have Coco Crisp. I went on record before the season as saying that Crisp was a better long-term solution in center field than Johnny Damon. Sure, Crisp wasn't as good as Damon, but he was younger and cheaper, and he was also an underrated hitter and defender.
All of that was pretty much true at the time, but it's clear that I overrated both Crisp's ability to handle center field defensively and his batting skills. Granted, he was in a tough situation; Boston is never a good place to overcome adversity. He was also stuck in a very difficult outfield. Someone (I think it was Rob Neyer) once complimented Carlos Beltran's defense in center field by saying that there was no greater distance in the world than that between Cliff Floyd (left field) and Shawn Green (right field). The same could be said of Manny Ramirez and Wily Mo Pena, and Crisp wasn't the man to cover for their ineptitude.
But Crisp wasn't all bad, at least not until he got injured. Nagging injuries have limited Crisp to just 105 games this year, although when he has played, he's hit a bare 264/317/385, this after hitting a solid 300/345/465 in Cleveland last year.
Crisp's tale isn't really as bad as some of those above him, I guess; but the disappointment is magnified by the difficult position of having to follow Johnny Damon's act and having to do it in Boston, where -- as Peter Gammons (I think) once said -- fans take a slump personally.

1. Mark Buehrle
The #1 pooh-bah on the list of disappointments is Mark Buehrle. Buehrle captures the full spectrum of a true disappointment for several reasons:
1) He was a very good player
2) He was not just good but reliable, for a number of years
3) His team needed his contributions, moreso than usual
4) His team was in the playoff hunt
5) His struggles played a big part in eliminating them from playoff contention.
Mark Buehrle just seemed like one of those guys who always had a good year. While he wasn't as good as Johan Santana or Roy Halladay, he was as durable a pitcher as anybody since he got started in 2000. He's thrown at least 200 innings for 6 straight seasons (who can say that nowadays?) and despite less-than-stellar peripheral stats, was always one of the 10 best pitchers in the league. He could contend for a Cy Young in a good year, but mostly he was a reliably good pitcher. 200 innings and an above-average ERA were just a walk in the park for Buehrle for six straight years.
Well, I guess everybody has a bad year eventually, and Buehrle's came in 2006. His ERA had wavered from year to year, but his peripheral stats stayed the same: a few homers (not too bad for Comiskey), some walks, and an average number of strikeouts. They'd given him an ERA of no more than 4.14 in every full season of his career, including 4 years below 4.00 and 2 years below 3.50. Buehrle's 2006 ERA is currently 4.99.
This can partly be explained by Buehrle's declining strikeout rate. He was never a big strikeout guy, not even at his peak, but he was above-average most of the time. But this year he's managed just 98 Ks. The result has been a higher ERA, due in part to a career-high 36 home runs allowed. Buehrle's also on pace to throw fewer innings than he has in any other full season. But this isn't a sign of less durability; it's a sign that when your ERA is near 5.00, your manager doesn't want you out there for 8 innings.
I think Buehrle will make a turnaround; his track record is such that he's almost guaranteed to. Although he's a victim of more than bad luck, as his peripherals would indicate, he should bounce back just fine next year. But that's small consolation to the White Sox, who will miss the 2006 postseason precisely because their highly-praised pitching staff collapsed.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Giles, Rondell White, Tim Hudson, Jose Guillen, Ronny Cedeno, Brian Giles, Josh Beckett, Freddy Garcia

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Down to the Wire

Things are becoming clearer in the pennant races around baseball. As the days count down to October, it becomes a clearer postseason picture, although some races are still very close and some even becoming closer. (All stats are through games of September 19).
New York Mets clinched
The Mets clinched the division on Monday with a win over the Marlins. This was no big surprise to anyone not in a coma, as the Mets tied this one up months ago. They're currently the only team that has clinched a postseason berth.
In the postseason, I think the Mets are the obvious favorites in the NL and stand a better chance in the Series than many people will give them credit for. They have a very strong lineup, ranking second only to the Phillies in the NL in runs scored (780). And while they've struggled to fill out the back end of their rotation, they've done a great job of pitching; their 4.06 ERA is second only to the Padres in the league. They also have one of the better defenses in the league; put those two together, and you have 4.06 runs allowed/game, again second only to San Diego.
The Mets' biggest weakness this season has been their starting pitching, particularly their lack of depth. Going into October, however, that doesn't figure to be a big weakness at all. Their two main pitchers, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, each got some time off due to minor injuries during the season, which should mean that they won't be as tired going into October. They won't have to worry about finding a 5th starter and may be able to do without a 4th starter most of the time. This means that they can set a rotation of Martinez, Glavine, and either John Maine or Orlando Hernandez and stick with it. The back end of the rotation will cease to exist, and the Mets will have more arms in their already-stellar bullpen.
I think the Mets are the favorites for the NL pennant, and the only thing that will really keep them from competing in the Series will be weakness at the outfield corners or a possible starting pitching meltdown.
1. St. Louis (80-69)
2. Cincinnati (74-77) 7 GB
3. Houston (72-78) 8.5 GB
St. Louis' magic number to clinch the division is 6. The only thing that would keep them from doing so would be a big comeback by either the Reds or the Astros, neither of which is likely at all. So the Cardinals, mediocre though they have become, should end up as the NL Central champions.
If we can assume a Cardinal victory, they'll be in trouble in October. Since the NL West and NL Wild Card are both still in flux, it's impossible to guess who will be facing whom in the first round. If the current standings hold, it would be the Mets facing the Wild Card Dodgers, and the Cardinals facing the Padres.
The NLDS itself should be underwhelming. The Mets will -- barring an upset -- plow through their competition. And the other two teams will just be fighting for the right to get savaged by New York in the NLCS. It will also mark the first time (I believe) that two teams with less than 90 wins have met in the postseason. So whether the Cardinals face the Dodgers, Padres, or Phillies, it won't be a pretty sight.
Do the Cardinals stand a chance? Perhaps. They've gotten slightly better pitching in the second half, which has helped them create some distance in the division. Their 4.48 ERA is 8th in the league (the league average is 4.49), but their fine defense actually means that they're better-than-average at preventing runs.
If the Cardinals had their 2004 offense, then better-than-average would be fine on defense. But they don't. Their 4.9 runs/game makes them 7th in the NL, far behind the league-leading Phillies (5.30). Not only are the Cardinals missing Jim Edmonds due to post-concussion syndrome, but they're sporting a lineup with a gaping hole at catcher and only moderately better production at second base and shortstop. The emergence of Chris Duncan has given the Redbirds three above-average hitters, joining Pujols and Rolen.
So what the Cardinals have is a slightly above-average team that just happens to be good enough to back into the NL playoffs this year. While it's possible that they could squeak by the Phillies or Padres in the first round, there's almost no chance that they'll win the pennant.
* -- The Reds' loss to the Astros Wednesday afternoon lowered the Cards' magic number to 5.
1. San Diego (79-71)
2. Los Angeles (79-72) 0.5 GB
3. San Francisco (74-76) 5 GB
San Francisco isn't really a factor in this race, although they're still in the hunt for the Wild Card. This means that the race comes down to the Padres and Dodgers.
It's hard to believe that the Dodgers were able to blow what seemed like such a good lead in this division. Especially considering that the Padres are no '27 Yankees -- or '87 Yankees, for that matter. But the Dodgers have been an incredibly streaky team.
Most of the Dodgers' value this season has been in their offense -- a flip-flop of the traditional Dodger team makeup. Not only have they gotten a resurgent season from Nomar Garciaparra to go with good work from J.D. Drew (underrated x10) and Jeff Kent, they've gotten a huge contribution from their rookie class. Catcher Russell Martin and Outfielder Andre Ethier have led a charge of young Dodgers that saved this team from oblivion. It's doubtful, though, if players like Martin and Ethier are as good as they looked a few months ago -- which may partially explain the Dodgers retreat to mediocrity.
While the Dodgers haven't gotten great pitching, it's been good enough to get them by. Their 4.27 ERA is 4th in the league, although that's partially due to friendly Dodger Stadium. But if the Dodgers can go into the postseason with a starting rotation of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Greg Maddux, and Chad Billinsgley, they'll be in great shape to contend for the NL pennant.
While the Padres do have the 0.5 game lead, it's still hard to buy into them as a legitimate threat. They would head into the postseason with a starting rotation of Chris Young, Jake Peavy, Clay Hensley, and either Woody Williams or David Wells, both of which have thrown well despite their advancing age. The Padres have a fine bullpen, anchored by closer Trevor Hoffman and supported by solid arms such as Cla Meredith (0.82 ERA), Scott Linebrink, Brian Sweeney, Jon Adkins, and Alan Embree. Even considering the Mets, the Padres might have the best pitching staff in the NL. Their league-leading 3.93 ERA has a lot to do with Petco Park, yes, but this is still a team that can limit the opposition's offense very well. Note also their defense -- one of the best in baseball, with a .713 DER.
All that is well and good, because the San Diego offense is woeful. Even considering their home ballpark -- OUCH! They've got a good center fielder in Mike Cameron and a good catcher (though not defensively) in Mike Piazza. Other than that, they don't have anybody acting as a real offensive presence. Dave Roberts is hitting well (297/364/400), but not by the standards of a left fielder. You could say the same for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (298/352/499), although if he were in a neutral park, he would look a lot more like a star. Todd Walker has done a good job plugging the hole a third (305/393/438 since coming over from Chicago). But other than that? Nothing. The Pads have a perfectly average middle infield of Josh Barfield and Khalil Greene. But with the possible exception of Gonzalez at first, they're just not getting their offensive production from the places they need it. After a 2005 where he was the team MVP, RF Brian Giles has seen his batting average evaporate (from .301 last year to .269 this year). Even if they ended up in a hitter-friendly park like Philadelphia in the NLDS, it's hard to see the Padres hitting well enough to win, even considering their top-flight pitching staff.
So who's going to win the West? Damned if I know. These teams are so close right now that it's impossible to predict the future. Their schedules for the rest of the season aren't so far apart that you could pick a clear favorite. But if only because they've already got the 1/2 game advantage and because I think they're more reliable, I'm going to go with San Diego.
1. Los Angeles (79-72)
2. Philadelphia (78-73) 1 GB
3. San Francisco (75-76) 4 GB
4. Florida (74-77) 5 GB
I left out Cincinnati (5.5 GB), Atlanta (6 GB), and Houston (6 GB), not just because they've got so many teams in front of them, but because none of them are likely to play particularly well over the next two weeks.
Here it's essentially come down to the Dodgers and Phillies. The Giants and Marlins are both potentially still in it, but with only 12 (or so) games left on the schedule, a 4-game deficit is a LOT, especially when you've got two or three teams in front of you. So we'll leave the Giants and Marlins aside.
We've already talked about the Dodgers, who are up against the pitching-heavy Padres in the race for the NL West. Their opponents in the NL Wild Card chase are the polar opposite: the hitting-heavy Phillies.
The Phillies lead the league with 5.3 runs/game. You could argue that they're not really better than the Mets, on account of ballparks, but they're still a damn good-hitting team. They're primarily powered by Ryan Howard (313/414/671), Chase Utley (300/369/513), and Pat Burrell (252/377/484). They've got a durably decent presence at shortstop (Jimmy Rollins, 274/334/462), center field (Shane Victorino, 279/343/403), and right field (David Dellucci, 291/371/547). "Primary" catcher Mike Lieberthal hasn't hit in years (279/324/482 this season), but backup Chris Coste (314/363/479) has done a surprisingly good job. You could argue about the relative merits of Rollins or Victorino, but the Phillies are getting great production from three positions, and at least average production from every other one, with the glaring exception of third base, which has been manned primarily by Abraham Nunez (211/292/271) and Jose Hernandez (268/323/369) since the trade of David Bell (278/345/398 before the trade). In my opinion, the Phillies have the best lineup in the NL after the Mets. And, since both teams are in the same division, they would not face each other in the NLDS. If he Phillies win the Wild Card, they would at least be able to hold off on facing the Mets until the NLCS.
But of course, the other "shoe" that will drop here is the Phillies' pitching. The Phillies were blessed when Cole Hamels emerged as a valuable starter, because they haven't had more than one good starting pitcher in years. That "one" this year was Brett Myers, who managed to pitch around an arrest for domestic violence and still manage a respectable 4.04 ERA in 176 innings, along with a stellar 57:165 BB:K ratio. If they make the playoffs, though, the Phillies will have to have somebody else in the rotation after Myers and Hamels. And the pickens is slim. Their best option is Jamie Moyer. Moyer isn't great, and his style of pitching is very ill-suited to Citizens Bank Park, but he's been successful thus far with the Phillies, notching a 3.79 ERA and only 5 HR in his 6 starts since being traded from Seattle.
After Moyer, the Phillies could go with Jon Lieber, who, after getting off to a wretched start, has at least been mediocre since July. After that, their best option is Ryan Madson. Madson has had, shall we say, some ups and downs this year. Here is Madson's monthly ERA totals: 8.05, 4.05, 5.71, 7.08, 3.00, 9.64. Yes, it would be great if the August (3.00) Madson shows up, but you don't want to risk seeing September Madson (9.64 ERA, all in relief, as he lost his spot in the rotation after July. The only other pitchers to get more than 10 starts this year are Randy Wolf (5.47 ERA) and Gavin Floyd (7.29 ERA).
But perhaps the Phillies could make up for their rotation woes with a dominant bullpen. Closer Tom Gordon got off to a great start this year, but after getting injured, it's questionable how effective he'll be in October. Behind Gordon, the only pitcher who's been really effective has been Geoff Geary. Geary's been so effective, in fact, that he's already been used in 75 games, throwing 85.1 IP. Geary's had a good September and hasn't shown any signs that the workload is getting to him, but it's difficult to count on any relief pitcher in October after they've thrown 90+ regular-season innings.
This is especially important, because Geary's the only thing holding the Philly bullpen together. After Gordon and Geary, the pitchers seeing the most time out of the bullpen have been Aaron Fultz (4.79 ERA), Rick White (5.16 ERA), and Arthur Rhodes (5.32 ERA). Unlike the Mets, the Phillies won't be able to save their weak and weary starters with a killer bullpen.
With the Mets clinched and the Cardinals nearly so, that leaves (essentially) the Dodgers, Padres, and Phillies battling for two postseason spots. The Dodgers and Padres have the advantage, since they have two ways to get into the postseason. With the Phillies, it's either the Wild Card or nothing. No team has a notably easier schedule the rest of the way, although the Phillies will be hurt by having to play 6 more games against the Marlins. Neither the Dodgers nor the Padres will face any such burden; in fact, both have the advantage of a 3-game series against the Pirates at home.
All that being said, I'm going to go for the Padres as the NL West Champs and the Dodgers as the Wild Card. This is not any sort of final announcement; it's simply my best guess at this point. The Phillies are perfectly capable of stringing together some quality starts and slugging their way to the Wild Card. But as it looks now, it just doesn't seem likely.
Projected NLDS match-ups:
Mets .vs. Dodgers
Cardinals .vs. Padres
The Yankees' magic number is 1, so they will likely have clinched their division by the time you read this. The only real excitement left in the AL East is the race for second place (Boston is 2 games ahead of Toronto) and seeing whether the D-Rays will lose 100 games (they're at 94 losses with 10 games to go).
1. Detroit (90-61)
2. Minnesota (89-61) 0.5 GB
3. Chicago (85-66) 5 GB
It's all over bar the shouting for the White Sox. The only chance they have left is with a 3-game series against Minnesota at the end of the season -- except it's at the MetroDome. So much for a repeat.
So we're left to wonder whether Detroit or Minnesota wins the Central. Even in the absence of Francisco Liriano, I'm picking the Twins.
The only thing that made the Tigers what they are was their pitching. Their hitting was average-to-decent this year; they made their name on homers but little else. They looked like clones of the '05 White Sox, and it worked well enough for them as long as they were pitching. The Tigers are still leading the AL with the fewest runs allowed per game, 4.05 (for that matter, they're leading all of baseball -- even the NL teams). That's phenomenal; but it doesn't mention the recent trends. In July, the Tigers were tied for 3rd in the AL in runs allowed (with Seattle) -- but the Twins were even better, ranking 2nd behind the Angels. In August, the Tigers were tied for 2nd in the league in runs allowed -- tied with the Twins (the A's were first). So far in September, the Tigers are 6th-best in the AL in runs allowed. The Twins are far better, ranking second (only to Toronto).
So we've established that while the Tigers were the best-pitching team in the first half, they have not been the best in the second half. And, most notably, they've been worse than their division rivals, the Twins.'
Why have the Tigers been so snake-bitten? What happened to their pitchings staff? Their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, posted a 6.83 ERA in August and a 5.09 mark so far this month; this is likely due to fatigue on his young arm, or perhaps simply a sign that he wasn't as good as he looked in the first half. The other half of the dynamic duo, Jeremy Bonderman, posted a 5.40 ERA in August and a 5.74 mark in September. Nate Robertson had a terrible summer (5.97 ERA in July, 4.61 in August), but has turned it around in September (0.82). Kenny Rogers is the only Detroit pitcher who has noticeably improved since the All-Star Break, which is odd since Rogers is the oldest -- 41, to be exact. So even though the Twins are starting greenhorns like Boof Bonser and Matt Garza, bombed-out veterans like Carlos Silva, and the star of George Romero's next zombie movie (Brad Radke), they're still doing a better job than the Tigers at preventing runs.
Are the two teams offensively similar? Very -- the Tigers are scoring 4.93 R/G, only slightly worse than Minnesota's 4.99, and essentially better when you consider the difference in the two ballparks. But are the Tigers the better-hitting team? Let's compare lineups:
C -- Joe Mauer
1B -- Justin Morneau
2B -- Luis Castillo
SS -- Jason Bartlett
3B -- Nick Punto
LF -- Lew Ford/Jason Kubel
CF -- Torii Hunter
RF -- Michael Cuddyer
DH -- Rondell White/Phil Nevin
C -- Ivan Rodriguez
1B -- Sean Casey
2B -- Placido Polanco
SS -- Neifi Perez
3B -- Brandon Inge
LF -- Craig Monroe
CF -- Curtis Granderson
RF -- Magglio Ordonez
DH -- Marcus Thames
To me, the Twins have a clear advantage. Not only do they have two legitimate studs (The M&M boys, Mauer & Morneau) to the Tigers' none, they also have better depth. Guys like Castillo, Bartlett, and Punto aren't going to make any All-Star teams, but they've actually been more productive than the Tigers' woeful combination of Polanco, Perez, and Inge. Both Polanco and Inge have suffered terrible slumps this year, whereas Perez has always been bad (and may end up costing Jim Leyland his Manager of the Year Award, not to mention the NL Central title). Both teams have solid outfields with weak production from left field (although the Tigers are getting more from Monroe, by far). The contributions at DH tend to favor the Tigers, although Phil Nevin has been an upgrade for Minnesota, whereas Detroit took a step back when they released Dmitri Young.
What the offensive stats really suggest is the same thing the pitching stats did: the Tigers got off to a hot start and then faded, whereas the Twins have done the opposite. That evens out when you consider the overall season, but since we want to know who is better now, the answer is the Twins, and it's not even close. If the Twins fail to pass the Tigers, it will surprise me, and will still leave them as clear favorites for the Wild Card.
1. Oakland (87-63)
2. Los Angeles (81-70) 6.5 GB
Like the Cardinals, the A's division title is just a matter of time. Their magic number is 6, and it would take a huge comeback from L.A. to even make a dent in that. The A's have a great pitching staff and a fine defense. Their hitting sucks, but thank God for Frank Thomas (279/392/566, 38 HR).
1. Minnesota (89-61)
2. Chicago (85-66)
As I said before, it's just a matter of time before the White Sox officially bow out. Their trouble is that they took a near-perfect 180 from last year. They went from a pitching-dominant team with some offense to an offense-dominant team with some pitching. They did a great job of focusing on their offense and improving it this offseason (their 5.45 runs/game is second only to the Yankees). But good God, what happened to their pitching staff? We could have predicted some decline from last year, but no one could have seen this catastrophe coming. There's not much they can do now, except to focus on next season.
Projected ALDS match-ups:
Yankees .vs. Tigers
Twins .vs. A's

Sunday, September 10, 2006

NL Options

So a day turned into a week. My apologies. In regards to my last entry, Dustin Hermanson is far from retired -- he's back pitching with the White Sox. And Casey Blake's option, which I was all but certain the Indians would pick up -- is apparently a "foregone conclusion" to be denied, according to Baseball Prospectus' Christina Kahrl. When in doubt, trust the BP writers before you trust me. I guess I need to keep my ear a little closer to the ground.
Also, please excuse the cramped nature of this and several previous entries. I try to separate paragraphs or segments with a space, but they disappear whenever I post the entry. Isn't Blogger just a dream?
Onward. (Salary figures again courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts).

John Smoltz, Braves
2007 Age: 40
2007 Option: $8 mil. club option
Smoltz has been frustrated with the Braves, because Atlanta management has yet to make a decision regarding his 2007 option. It's uncharacteristic for Smoltz to speak out against the club, equally so to make statements to the effect that he doesn't feel obligated to finish his career in Atlanta anymore.
Why have the Braves taken their time? That's a tough question. The obvious answer is that the Braves aren't sure yet whether they want to go for it in 2007, or take a more conservative approach and build their young team for 2008 and later. If they take the latter approach, then there would be little reason to pay $8 million to a 40-year-old.
However, the Braves haven't shown any indication yet that they're ready to give up on 2006, let alone 2007. Even after every reasonable person had given them up, the Braves were still trading for talent, acquiring questionable properties like Danys Baez (2nd in the NL in blown saves) and Daryle Ward late in the season. So it's hard to reconcile both sides of the team's behavior.
My two cents is that if the Braves stand a chance to contend in 2007 (and considering the sorry state of the NL, they just might), they should pick up the option. Not only would getting rid of Smoltz be a big PR nightmare, it would also hurt the team in its most vulnerable spot: starting pitching. For all the attention and hoopla given to the Braves' struggling bullpen, their starters have been nearly as awful, with the sole exception of Smoltz. If the Braves are willing to limit his innings and keep him around until September, he's pitched well enough to earn his $8 mil.
I think the Braves should pick up Smoltz's option.
And I think they ultimately will. For a team that prides itself on "heart" and "tradition," like the Braves do, it would be a big surprise for them to make such a ruthlessly cost-cutting move. Unless they decide to give up on 2007, or unless the messy transfer of ownership causes them to lower payroll, I think they'll keep Smoltz around.
The Florida Marlins don't have any options pending for 2007.
Tom Glavine, Mets
2007 Age: 41
2007 Option: $5.5 mil. player option ($3 mil. buyout) increases by $1 mil. for 180, 190, and 200 IP in 2006.;
$12 mil. club option ($3 mil. buyout) increases by $2 mil. for 180 IP in 2006
Glavine has thrown 172 innings so far this year. He's scheduled to make about 3 or 4 more starts this season, maybe less if the Mets decide to rest him for the playoffs. I'll pencil him in for about 190 IP, but less than 200. This means that his player option will bump up to $7.5 mil and his team option to $14 mil.
That's a whole lot of money to spend on a 41-year-old pitcher. Glavine is as durable and reliable as they come, and although he's not as effective as he used to be, 200 innings of a 4.00 ERA is nothing to sneeze at, even in the National League. That said, there's no way Glavine is worth $14 million. Even though starting pitching is probably the Mets' biggest weakness going forward, they'd be much better off spending that money on Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt than on Glavine.
I think the club should decline his option.
And my guess is that the club will decline their option. I don't know what kind of money Glavine would fetch on the open market, but I imagine he would pick up his $7.5 mil. player option and stay in New York in his pursuit of 300 wins. He has 288 right now, and New York would give him the run support to easily notch the 10 or 12 necessary next year to reach the milestone.
Jamie Moyer, Phillies
2007 Age: 44
2007 Option: Mutual option; undisclosed salary
Yes, Jamie Moyer's one old dude. But if his 2007 option is for a reasonable price, the Phillies should pick him up. He hasn't exactly been grand this year (4.32 ERA split between Seattle and Philly with just 97 K in 187.1 IP), but the Phillies are pretty desperate for starting pitching. Moyer is a big risk, as is any 44-year-old, and his pitching style isn't a great fit for hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park, but if he comes cheap, he's worth the risk.
I think the Phillies should exercise the option, but only if it's a low-end deal.
And I think the Phillies will. Moyer's a treasured veteran, and he knows GM Gillick from their days in Seattle. He may not be able to back it up in the field like he used to, but I imagine that Gillick is well aware of the team's starting pitching problems. He just needs to avoid committing too much money to Moyer when the club is perfectly capable of pursuing a big name like Jason Schmidt.
Jeff Conine, Phillies
2007 Age: 41
2007 Option: $2 mil. mutual option, plus incentives; option vests with 450 PAs (plate appearances) in 2006
This club is not short of corner outfielders, and so I normally wouldn't recommend picking up Conine's option. However, Conine's option has already vested, as the Phillies must have known it would have when they traded for him. Conine isn't a bad hitter (270/328/409 this year), but he's pretty sorry for a corner outfielder with defensive limitations. And since the Phils already have Pat Burrell and David Dellucci (and Shane Victorino on the bench), there's no reason to toss away $2 million on Conine. But they already have. Granted, $2 mil. isn't a whole lot, but you'd like to have room for more on your bench than a $2-million fifth outfielder with few remaining abilities.
Conine's option has already vested.
The Phillies also have an option on Aaron Rowand for a $3.25 mil. player option or $5 mil. club option. The club should, and will, exercise it. But since Rowand's still arbitration-eligible, he's under the Phillies' control anyway.
Brian Lawrence, Nationals
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $5.7 mil. club option
As bad as the Nats' rotation looked this year, and as bad as it projects to be next year, they still aren't desperate enough to throw nearly $6 million at a pitcher as marginal as Lawrence. Lawrence showed some signs of decency in pitcher's parks in San Diego (4.19 ERA in 2003, 4.12 ERA in 2004), but had an awful 2005 before injuries shelved him for the entire 2006 season. His low strikeout numbers, plus his recent injury, are enough to suggest that he's worth little more than a minor league deal. And he ain't getting any younger.
I think the Nats should decline his option.
And I think the Nats will decline his option. As unpredictable as Jim Bowden is, and despite his penchant for throwing incomprehensible amounts of money at marginal players, even he won't be silly enough to pay this much money to a guy like Lawrence. Won't he?
Ryan Drese, Nationals
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $3 mil. club option
Speaking of throwing money at marginal players, we have Drese. Drese had a career year with Texas in 2004, posting a 4.20 and going 14-10. Clever men, however, pointed out that he had struck out a woeful 98 batters in 207.2 innings and, at the age of 28, wasn't nearly as good as he looked. When he got off to a terrible start in 2005, this opinion seemed to be confirmed.
But Jim Bowden is not a clever man.
Not only did Bowden claim Drese off waivers from Texas (understandable), he signed him to a two-year contract extension for $2.5 mil. with a $3 mil. 2007 option (JPS -- just plain stupid). Since then, Drese has surprised no one (save for Bowden) by pitching like you'd expect a 30-year-old, low-strikeout guy to pitch: very poorly. Drese made 11 starts last year (4.98 ERA), limited to 59.2 innings by injuries and ineffectiveness. This year so far, Drese has earned his $1.75 million by throwing 8.2 innings with a 5.19 ERA (8 walks, 5 strikeouts).
I think the Nats should decline his option.
And I think they will. Even men as dense as Bowden and Frank Robinson (recently voted the MLB's worst manager in a poll of the players) can see that Drese is at best a minor leaguer. But we can't predict when Bowden's next stupid act will come -- and it may come with Drese. Who knows?
Kerry Wood, Cubs
2007 Age: 29
2007 Option: $13.5 mil. mutual option ($3 mil. buyout)
The Cubs would have to be absolutely, positively crazy to spend $13.5 million on Kerry Wood. Wood's 2007 option vests with at least 400 IP from 2005-06. He's actually thrown 85.2 IP in those two years. This is, of course, Wood's problem. Unfortunate as it may be, it's doubtful that Kerry Wood will ever be a truly healthy pitcher again. If Wood ever spends another full season in the majors, it will likely be as a reliever/closer, where his use/abuse can be carefully controlled. Wood hasn't pitched a full season in three years, since his 2003 campaign. His durability and his effectiveness have gone down the tubes since then.
I think the club should decline his option. I don't know the exact nature of the mutual option, but if the Cubs can decline their part of the option and buy him out for $3 mil., they're much better off. Wood, of course, won't make anything like that anywhere else in baseball.
And I think the club will decline it. As much as it would be a tragic end to a "what might have been" career in Wrigley, the Cubs have to know that $13.5 million is a lot of damn money. Instead, Wood will stand as a shrine to the importance of handling a young pitcher's health well, and a lasting monument to his manhandling at the hands of Jim Riggleman, Don Baylor, and Dusty Baker.
It should be noted that Aramis Ramirez has the right to void his contract after this season and become a free agent. Why the club would put such a clause in a contract with such an important player is beyond me, and it should be noted that the contract was signed under GM Jim Hendry's watch. Ramirez has given vague assurances that he wants to stay in Chicago. But the club is currently in last place -- behind the PIRATES -- and will likely end the season there. The early returns on 2007 are equally depressing, with the added turmoil of a likely-fired manager, and maybe GM as well. Ramirez may assure fans now that he will stay in Chicago, and if I had to guess, I think he probably will (for about $11 mil. for two more years). But I also wouldn't be surprised if Ramirez jumps the sinking ship and enters a free agent market devoid of an impact third baseman.
Jason Johnson, Reds
2007 Age: 33
2007 Option: $3.5 mutual option, plus incentives
Yes, the Reds are desperate for pitching, which is why GM Wayne Krivsky has traded for every pitcher in the Western Hemisphere not nailed down (rumors that the club entered negotiations with 87-year-old Bob Feller are thus far unsubstantiated). All those pitchers and contracts are going to come back to bite Krivsky, who apparently was never introduced to the concept of a "long-term plan" during his years in Minnesota. Chief among these is Johnson, a pitcher who is now almost completely useless and not likely to get any better at his age. Johnson's main talent at this point in his career is durability. But if you're posting an ERA above 6.00, no one wants you to be durable. To be fair, it's likely that Johnson will revert closer to his career ERA of an even 5.00 next year. But there are a couple dozen pitchers who can post an ERA like that willing to work for less than $3.5 million (luckily, Johnson hasn't pitched enough for any incentives to kick in). The Reds are desperate for pitching, yes, but that doesn't mean that you can abandon the concept of fiscal responsibility and good sense.
I think the Reds should decline Johnson's option.
But I think they will pick it up. I really don't know about this -- even Krivsky should see that Johnson is easily replaceable by cheaper, younger pitchers -- but he also may panic yet again and overpay for pitching help. We'll just have to see.
Rich Aurilia, Reds
2007 Age: 35
2007 Option: $2 mil. mutual option ($100,000 buyout)
That buyout will increase to $200,000 if Aurilia reaches 450 PAs (which is likely). I'm surprised that the Reds haven't already picked up his option, signed him to an extension, and given him a parade so far. Aurilia has a great reputation in Cincinnati as a great "clutch" hitter and a scrappy ballplayer that sets an example for the whole clubhouse.
Well, in lieu of a rant, I'll just state that "clutchiness" isn't nearly as valuable as people think it is. And everyone who thinks that a club will stop winning if they lose that one "scrappy" clubhouse leader is unfamiliar with history.
Thankfully, for Reds fans, Aurilia has hit well enough this year to justify his pay. After a fair 282/338/444 performance in 2004 (which nonetheless nearly won him the team MVP award) , Aurilia has hit 307/353/539 this year in over 100 games. Aurilia has killed lefties this year, and when you consider that he's also a versatile guy who can play all over the infield, he's worth $2 mil. to have on the bench. The big problem for the Reds (and their fans) is that Aurilia has been playing in place of Edwin Encarnacion (293/375/513) at third. And this should never, ever happen, especially for a team that needs to focus on the future while contending now. There's no excuse for sitting Encarnacion on the bench when Aurilia could easily slide over to shortstop and replace the god-awful Royce Clayton (Krivsky trade acquisition). The Reds have been blinded by Encarnacion's 22 errors at third. While Edwin is no great shakes at the hot corner, it's a short-sighted team that thinks the solution is to take his bat out of the lineup. If you think defense is more important than hitting, then of course you're going to finish below .500 and self-destruct your way out of the Wild Card race.
I think the Reds should pick up Aurilia's option. I don't think Aurilia will hit nearly as well as he did this year, but he should still wear out lefties, and he's a handy guy to have on the bench.
And of course the Reds will pick up his option. Team officials are lining up to perform sexual favors upon him even as we speak.
Juan Castro, Reds
2007 Age: 34
2007 Option: $1 mil. club option
Get this -- the option voids with more than 500 PAs in 2006. Which is about right -- the more Castro hits (career 232/271/340), the more the team suffers.
What can you say about Castro? He is a fine defensive shortstop. But even getting a fine defensive shortstop isn't worth putting up with a 248/275/350 hitting line (his 2006 numbers in Minnesota and Cincinnati). If Castro were used strictly as a defensive replacement in the late innings with his at-bats limited, then maybe he'd be worth $1 mil. But it's doubtful that Jerry Narron and Reds management are that self-aware. In fact, since Clayton departs after this season as a free agent, Castro may well end up as the team's starting shortstop in 2007. That's a prospect that should give Reds fans severe gas -- the last time Castro was the team's starting shortstop was in 2004, and he hit an abysmal 244/277/378 which, despite his good defense, still made him one of the league's worst shortstops. It's another stinging indictment of GM Krivsky, who traded away the Reds' shortstop of the future Felipe Lopez who, despite defensive shortcomings, was at least a decent hitter, and was at least going to be around for the near future. Instead, Krivsky got Royce Clayton, who is not only much worse than Lopez, but is leaving as a free agent after the season. So the Reds are left without a starting shortstop, which could very well leave them stuck with Castro in 2007. Ugh.
I think the Reds should decline Castro's option.
But I think the Reds will pick it up. $1 million isn't a lot of money, no, but it's better spent on good players, rather than on guys like Castro. Guys like Castro are the kind of guys you settle for when there's no other choice, not a guy you go out of your way to select for 100 games+ of service.
Jeff Bagwell, Astros
2007 Age: 39
2007 Option: $18 mil. club option
Yeah, right. Bagwell's career is basically over, and the Astros have pretty much already accepted his retirement. Getting Bagwell's contract (which paid him $17 mil. this year for zero ABs) off the books will be an enormous boon for Houston. Combine that with the $22 million they'll save by not bringing Clemens back (assuming, of course, that they don't bring him back), and the Astros will have some money to spend going into 2007. Here's hoping GM Tim Purpura spends it wisely.
I think the Astros should decline Bagwell's option, and of course they will.
Trever Miller, Astros
2007 Age: 34
2007 Option: $1.3 mil. mutual option (option vests with 50 appearances in 2006)
Miller has already appeared in 56 games this year, so consider this option vested. Miller has served as the Astros' LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY) this year, and has done well (3.32 ERA, 49 K in 43.1 IP). Of course, limiting him to just 43.1 IP isn't a great way to get maximum value from him, but then that's an argument for another day (darn you, Tony LaRussa).
Francisco Cordero, Brewers
2007 Age: 32
2007 Option: $5 mil. club option
While the trade for Carlos Lee was a surprisingly unfruitful one for Milwaukee (is Kevin Mench really the best they could do?), GM Doug Melvin did at least salvage something by picking up Cordero. The Brewers were in need of a closer, and they scavenged a good one from Texas. Cordero had lost his job by blowing 9 of 15 saves in Texas and posting a 4.81 ERA. But although his level of blown saves was high, GM Melvin wisely pegged him as someone who could be counted on to rebound in the future. Cordero's strikeout rates have been very, very high for years, and despite pitching in Texas, he's managed a reasonable walk rate and a very low home run rate (just 30 HR allowed in 433.2 career IP!). He's no Mariano Rivera, but for a team looking for a cheap, undervalued closer (which is an oxymoron these days), you can't do much better. Cordero has thus far justified the move, posting an 0.51 ERA and going a perfect 11/11 in saves for Milwaukee.
I think the Brewers should pick up Cordero's option.
And I think they will. $5 mil. is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a low-income team like the Brew Crew. But considering how much closers are overvalued in today's market, he's a great bargain for a team looking to break through to contender status.
Damian Miller, Brewers
2007 Age: 37
2007 Option: mutual option; $3.75 mil. club option / $2.25 mil. player option
Miller is one of the few cases where you could argue that GM Melvin paid too much for a free agent. Catcher had been an issue for the Brewers for a number of years, and while Miller was no Mike Piazza, he was considered a decent hitter and a good handler of pitchers. Unfortunately, he's been thoroughly average for the Brewers (by catching standards), with his 252/325/394 2006 performance even worse than 2005.
Mistakes, though, are in the eye of the beholder. Miller made just a little over $3 million both years in Milwaukee, so you could argue that Melvin got exactly what he paid for. And while I couldn't really advocate dropping even more cash ($3.75 mil.) on Miller at age 37, it may be better than any other catching option the cash-strapped Brewers have.
I think the Brewers should decline Miller's option. Not that he's that bad a bargain, but his skills are diminishing as he gets into his late 30's.
But I think the Brewers will exercise his option. This is a big question mark, as I don't know what other options GM Melvin has in mind. But ultimately, I think he'll opt for the reasonably-priced veteran, even as he does get older.
Jeromy Burnitz, Pirates
2007 Age: 38
2007 Option: $6 mil. mutual option ($700,000 buyout if club declines)
Would you believe that Burnitz is now the highest-paid player on the Pirates, making $6.7 million this year? If you made a list of the highest-paid players on each club, I'd venture to say that Burnitz is the worst, and it's not even close. The sad part is that the Pirates signed him to that 1-year deal when every modestly observerant commentator saw someone who was declining rapidly. Burnitz did hit 258/322/435 for the Cubs last year, but that's not an especially impressive number for someone limited to playing the corner outfield spots. It was also fueled by homer-friendly Wrigley Field, giving Burnitz 24 long balls that provided him with most of his value. His transfer to PNC Park hurt him even more than predicted, as he's now hitting a god-awful 232/290/426. He's basically a worse version of his 2005 self, with only his homers providing any value -- but he's only hit 16 this year. I said it was a bigger drop than anticipated, but it's certainly not unheard of for a 37-year-old. The only person who seemed to be surprised was GM Dave Littlefield.
The Pirates are the NL version of the Royals; completely ignorant of their relative place in the standings, they keep signing short-term veteran filler for far too much money. Those veterans serve only to block better young players, eat up payroll, and depart after pushing the team to 70 wins. The only reason Dave Littlefield still has a job is that Pirates management is either too incompetent or too lazy to fire him.
I think the Pirates should decline Burnitz's option.
And I think they will. Even the Pirates aren't that stupid.
Jim Edmonds, Cardinals
2007 Age: 36
2007 Option: $10 mil. club option ($3 mil. buyout)
Here's a really tough question. Should the Cardinals plunk down big money for such a big injury risk as Edmonds? On one hand, Edmonds is still an elite offensive player and a fine center fielder when healthy. On the other hand, this year has called into question whether Edmonds will ever be really healthy again, not to mention the fact that he's nearing 40.
It's easy to say that the Cards should just decline Edmonds and spend their money elsewhere. But 1) can they really replace him, and 2) are the Cards in a safe enough position to let such a good player go? As to question number one, the answer is no, not cheaply. There are no budding center fielders waiting to break into the majors in the Cardinals' system. There are some players who could be traded for at the right price, but it's doubtful that someone like Coco Crisp would be even be worth the trouble for St. Louis.
As to question #2, the answer is once again a resounding, "No." The rest of the Cardinal outfield is currently comprised of Chris Duncan and Juan Encarnacion. Encarnacion is barely mediocre as a corner outfielder, and Duncan's amazing 2006 (303/366/569) is so out of character that no one is willing to predict that he'll do so well again next year. The Cards' have a woeful middle infield of David Eckstein and ___ at second base (pending free agent Ron Belliard at present) as well as the lightest-hitting catcher in baseball in Yadier Molina. The only offense the Cardinals are getting (apart from Duncan) is from third baseman Scott Rolen (who is also an injury risk on the wrong side of 30) and, of course, Albert Pujols.
I believe that the Cardinals are so desperate for offense that they need Edmonds enough to pay him big bucks. They're also right in the middle of the win nexus, where one or two moves could mean the difference between another NL Central title and a descent to .500. Edmonds is an injury risk, yes, but because his upside is so good, and so desperately needed in St. Louis, I think he's worth the money.
I think the Cardinals should pick up Edmonds' option. Yes, I know that $1o mil. is a lot of money, and that you can get yourself a pretty good player for that kind of dough. But unless the Cardinals can find a good, young, very productive source of offense to replace Edmonds, then he's worth more than whatever Preston Wilson-clone they're likely to replace him with.
But I think the Cardinals will decline his option. The Cardinals have soured on Edmonds since he's missed so much time this year with post-concussion syndrome. Tony LaRussa has even gone so far as to publicly imply that Edmonds is milking his injury. If LaRussa wants to see a man run around center field with vertigo and come to bat with double vision, he's welcome to it. But LaRussa's great fondness (read: weakness) is for scrappy players like David Eckstein who play every day, get their uniform dirty, etc. without actually producing squat at the plate. GM Walt Jocketty needs to step in and say that while Edmonds may not play more than 120 games next year, he's a billion times better than So Taguchi, despite LaRussa's inclinations to the contrary.
Preston Wilson, Cardinals
2007 Age: 32
Option: $24 mil. through 2007-09 ($500,000 buyout)
In the future, I think the term "Colorado contract" will enter the popular lexicon to describe a high-paying, bizarrely-termed contract to sub-par players. But while Wilson benefited from a Colorado contract in the past, this option is part of the 1-year deal he signed with the Astros. What the hell Houston GM Tim Purpura was smoking that day, we'll never know. And unless he convinces Walt Jockett to take a "hit," the Cardinals will most assuredly decline the option.
I think the Cardinals should decline the option.
And I think they will, just because $8 million/year is a lot of money for a moderately-talented center fielder who can't field the position anymore.
Luis Gonzalez, Diamondbacks
2007 Age: 39
2007 Option: $10 mil. club option
Much though Gonzalez has meant to the D-Backs, he's just not an elite player anymore, and while he's a great guy to have in the lineup (277/364/467 even at his age), he's not worth $10 mil. to a club with many younger, cheaper options. Gonzalez is probably the all-time greatest Diamondback, which may seem like small praise but probably means a lot to the people of Phoenix. However, considering the D-Backs' youth movement and the rumors that they've been trying to trade Gonzo, I imagine that they'll decline his option. They may still try to re-sign him to a 1-year deal at a lower price, but that depends on how much of a pay cut Gonzo is willing to take. There's new management in Arizona, as well as a flock of talented (and cheap) young kids in the farm system.
I think the D-Backs should decline Gonzo's option.
And I think they will, although I wouldn't bet against the possibility that they negotiate a new deal for less money. It depends on how sentimental GM Josh Byrnes is, and if Gonzo still wants to play another year if it means taking a near-50% pay cut.
Jeff DaVanon, Diamondbacks
2007 Age: 33
2007 Option: player option based on active days on the ML roster; if he reached 180 days, the option is $1.25 mil.
I don't know where to go to look up a player's service days, but my guess it that DaVanon, who hasn't played in the majors since August 5, has only managed enough days to bring his option up to the $1 million range.
That said, you could do a lot worse than to have Jeff DaVanon as your fourth outfielder. Since catching on as a switch-hitting utility man with the Angels, DaVanon has been one of the best-hitting fourth outfielders in the majors. He kills righties especially, hitting them up for a 308/383/495 batting line this year. A lot of his value is due to hitting in hitter-friendly Chase Field, yes, but DaVanon is still a bargain for a bare $1 million. The only reason I foresee that the D-Backs won't keep him is if they have too many outfielders. The club has youngsters Chris Young and Carlos Quentin penciled in for the 2007 starting lineup, and if they choose to bring back free agents Luis Gonzalez and/or Eric Byrnes, that could leave DaVanon out in the cold. But hey, if you're the Diamondbacks, what a good "problem" to have.
Since DaVanon's option is a player-option, however, Arizona will have to wait on DaVanon's decision. Then, they can either keep him, trade him, or release him.
I think the D-Backs should keep DaVanon. If not -- if they do have too many good outfielders -- they could get a good return for someone with his skills.
And I think the D-Backs will keep him. Especially if they lose Gonzo and Byrnes, the D-Backs could use somebody off the bench who could fill in on a regular basis, even moreso with two rookies in the lineup. DaVanon comes cheap, but earns it at the plate.
Jason Jennings, Rockies
2007 Age: 28
2007 Option: $5.5 mil. mutual option ($100,000 buyout)
This is your basic no-brainer. A team that really needs pitching? Check. A fairly cheap, yet valuable pitcher? Check. A pitcher who can pitch at Coors Field? Check. Granted, Jennings' lower ERA in 2006 is partially --perhaps mostly -- due to the changing nature of Coors Field into damn near a pitcher's park. Jennings' ERA at Coors (3.16) is actually better than his road ERA (3.75). His strikeout rate and home run rate are pretty much the same in both places as well. Yes, a lot of this "improvement" is due to the changing nature of Coors Field. But you can also look at it another way -- the change in Coors has finally let us see that Jason Jennings really is a good pitcher. He's no great shakes -- but for less than $6 mil., the Rockies will take him.
I think the Rockies will exercise his option.
And I think they will. For years, the Rockies have blamed Coors for the fact that they've never developed good pitchers from their farm system. Well, now that excuse is out the window, and the team would be crazy to let one of the good ones get away.
Ray King, Rockies
2007 Age: 33
2007 Option: $2.85 mil. club option
Why is an aging middle reliever getting a nearly-$3 million option? Coors Field. Rockies management has historically treated Coors like an active volcano -- if they sacrifice enough dollars each year, it won't kill them. Well, if the 2006 trend holds and Coors Field is finally tamed, that excuse is gone. So, too, will be the excuse for every bad Colorado contract. We'll finally get to see what GM Dan O'Dowd really looks like.
On a thoroughly unrelated note, I must add that King is a fairly portly fellow. Bill James once said, in regards to Cecil Fielder's acknowledged weight of 290, that it "leaves unanswered what it would be if he put his other foot on the scale." I feel that way about King's acknowledged weight of 240. Granted, his mlb.com picture isn't very flattering; it makes him look like Abdullah the Butcher.
I think the Rockies should decline King's option; not that he's a bad pitcher, but surely he can be gotten for less than $2.85 mil.
And I think the Rockies will decline it. In truth, I honestly don't know what the Rockies will do -- it all depends on their disposition toward King, who's pitched relatively well this season (3.85 ERA, which isn't all too impressive in the new Coors Field, with an unimpressive 16:18 BB:K ratio.
Jose Mesa, Rockies
2007 Age: 41
2007 Option: $3 mil. club option ($500,000 buyout)
Ray King's contract looks positively glorious when compared to the monstrosity doled out to Jose Mesa. At least King had a recent track record of good performance -- Mesa entered 2006 having lost his job as the closer with the Pirates. When the f'n Pirates have given up on you, it's safe to say that your ship has sailed. But the Rockies saw fit to plunk down $2.5 million to Mesa, plus this option. Mesa wasn't going to be their closer -- Brian Fuentes already had that job -- he was just going to be a middle reliever. Not only that, but I recall specifically the Rockies mentioning something about Mesa's "veteran experience" -- or somesuch -- being important for their young team. The same "veteran experience" led the 2004 Pirates to a 72-89 record -- and then it led the 2005 Pirates to a 67-95 record . . . I guess you'd see where I'm going with this. It's hard to argue that Mesa's making some clubhouse contribution when his team is 5.5 games worse the year after he arrives.
But I guess I'm ignoring the "veteran experience" and presumed leadership that led Mesa to threaten the life of former teammate Omar Vizquel when Vizquel blamed Mesa for the Indians' 1997 World Series loss. To my knowledge, Mesa has never retracted his own personal fatwa of "Death to Vizquel," making one wonder if he has the mental stability required in working with other people. I can envision this little dialogue:
Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle: "Hey, Fuentes, how come you're late for the team bus?"
Impressionable young pitcher Brian Fuentes: "Hey, Skip, I would have been here earlier, but it's not my fault. I was waiting for Jose to get out of the shower."
Jose "The Ayatollah" Mesa: "I will kill you and your children!"
Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle: "I think the reason we lost this game 7-6 was because Jose came into the game in the 9th inning with a 6-0 lead and gave up 7 runs."
Mesa: "I will roast your entrails and sautee your spleen!"
Just a thought.
I think the Rockies should decline Mesa's option.
But I think the Rockies will pick it up. Mesa has posted a 3.39 ERA, although granted, this is the "new" Coors Field. Plus his BB:K ratio is an ugly 33:33, and at the age of 41, we can't expect his magic to go on forever. Certainly not at $3 million a pop.
Byung-Hyun Kim, Rockies
2007 Age: 38
2007 Option: undisclosed amount; $250,000 buyout
Last year, Kim was one of the few moderately effective Rockie pitchers. So you'd think the colossal shift of Coors Field to a pitchers' park would help him, right? Apparently not; Kim has a worse ERA than he had last year. This could just be a function of turning 37. Or it could mean that Kim was a bad pitcher last year, Coors or no Coors. Either way, he's a guy the Rockies should keep around, but only on a minor-league, low-end deal. If his options calls for any amount of big guaranteed money, it should be declined. I don't foresee many clubs clamoring for Kim's services.
I really can't comment for certain on whether the Rockies should -- or will -- pick up Kim's option without knowing how much money it's for, or even if it's a club option at all.
Mike DeJean, Rockies
2007 Age: 36
2007 Option: $1.5 mil. mutual option; $150,000 buyout*
* --mutual option becomes player option if DeJean is traded
Boy, the Rockies like their options, especially with relievers. To be fair, it does take a lot of convincing for a pitcher to sign with Colorado as a free agent. The problem is that the Rockies tend to go for former closers who've lost most of their value -- like DeJean and Mesa. Yes, they're cheap -- but they're cheap for a reason. Once DeJean was anointed with the title of "closer," however briefly (2 seasons in Milwaukee), he became that much more valuable to gullible GMs. I must admit that DeJean pitched well with the club after signing with them in July of 2005. But for a 36-year-old with DeJean's checkered history, that should merit a low-end deal, perhaps with incentives. It should not get him a guaranteed $1.3 million this year with an even bigger option for 2007. DeJean went out this year and pitched his age; that is, he threw 1.2 innings and got injured, never to pitch again in 2006. Suffice to say that he's not worth a $1.5 million gamble this year.
I think the Rockies should decline DeJean's option,
And I think they will, if only because his year-long injury has forced the issue.
Eric Gagne, Dodgers
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $12 mil. club option
Oh, the difficult choices that a GM must make. And this time, no, that's not meant sarcastically.
Eric Gagne wasn't just an elite closer from 2002-2004 -- he was an elite closer of legendary status, posting three of the best relief seasons in recent history. He was also amazingly consistent, not just in racking up saves, but in pitching exactly 82.1 IP every year. He also struck out 114, 137, and 114 batters in those three seasons. Sandwiched in the middle was a well-deserved Cy Young Award in 2003.
Thinking they were set for the immediate future, the Dodgers signed Gagne to a 2-year, $19 million extension with a 2007 option. But it's never that easy, is it? For that $19 million, the Dodgers have gotten exactly 15.1 innings pitched from Gagne. That's more than $1 million per inning. Not only has Gagne been slowed by injuries, but his tendency to rush back to the majors too soon has only made them worse. Now, at age 31 and two years removed from his last healthy season, it's doubtful that he'll ever be as good as he once was.
I think the Dodgers should decline Gagne's option. It's a risky move, especially if Gagne signs with another team and rebounds. But surely the Dodgers could manage to sign Gagne to a deal for less money -- if it's laced with major incentives based on innings pitched. But since Gagne's agent is Scott Boras, the Dodgers may end up losing him to some dumb-ass team willing to pay him like a superstar. In my opinion, though, that's a risk the Dodgers have to take. $12 million is too much money for someone with Gagne's injury history, especially when they have several good (and cheap) young hurlers like Takaishi Saito -- who has already taken Gagne's place as closer and done well.
And I think the Dodgers will decline his option. I'm very hesitant in making this prediction; firstly because Gagne has become a marquee attraction in Los Angeles, and secondly because GM Ned Colletti has shown no grasp of the concept known as "the future" and is perfectly capable of tossing away big money on big names. But $12 million is a lot of cash, even for someone as dense as Colletti. If Gagne had only missed one year, I think the Dodgers would pick him up. But after two straight years of nothing for $19 million, I think the Dodgers will decline and try to re-sign him to an incentive-based deal.
The Dodgers are also on the hook for a $300,000 buyout of Jose Cruz, Jr.'s contract, after designating him for assignment this August.
Mike Cameron, Padres
2007 Age: 34
2007 Option: $7 mil. club option ($500,000 buyout)
Let's make this short: Cameron provides offense that the Padres desperately need. He's hit 261/346/471 this year and has actually hit better at Petco Park rather than on the road. He's still a fine center fielder, although he is an old 34, given his injury history. That said, though, $7 million isn't a lot to ask for a good hitter at a key defensive position on a team that really needs one.
I think the Padres should pick up Cameron's option.
And I think they will. There's no one else on the team ready to push Cameron off his spot. He's been the best player on the whole team this year, although that says more about the disappointing nature of the club than it does about Cameron's prowess.
Mike Piazza, Padres
2007 Age: 38
2007 Option: $8 mil. mutual option; $750,000 buyout
Piazza's 2006 deal was laced with incentives, one of which assured him a $50,000 bonus for winning the Gold Glove. They might as well have added another $50,000 bonus for being elected President and one more for walking on the moon.
Piazza has been one of the Padres' best hitters in 2006, but there are some odd trends there. He's faded since the All-Star Break (290/348/504 before; 264/321/488 after). That could be just luck, or it could be the effects of catching on a 37-year-old. On the bright side, Piazza has hit enormously well on the road (337/371/565), indicating that he's a better hitter than Petco Park has made him out to be. That's a dubious distinction for the Padres, though, as it doesn't matter much how good Piazza "truly" is when he's hitting 218/305/424 at home.
I said before the season that the Padres picked perhaps the worst circumstances in which to exploit Piazza's value. They had him continue as a catcher, despite the fact that he's 37 years old and a liability defensively, and they also put him in a park that would nearly kill off his power. I was right, but it's a credit to Piazza that he's still managed to hit well in spite of these circumstances. Will he continue to hit well next year, well enough to earn $8 million? I don't think so. He's such a defensive liability and such a candidate for a major injury that we just can't guarantee he'll keep hitting like David Ortiz on the road.
I think the Padres should decline Piazza's option. This is a big risk, which will look stupid if Piazza signs for some team in an offense-heavy ballpark and makes the All-Star team. But given what we know now, I think Piazza is too much of a risk. If they could work out another deal for less money, but equally laced with incentives, then absolutely I'd bring him back. But the acquisition of Josh Bard makes that a much less likely move.
Which is why I think the Padres will decline his option. Under any other circumstances, I think the Padres would pick up Piazza's option. But Josh Bard will be 29 next year, making far less than $8 million, is a damn sight better than Piazza defensively, and is hitting 317/396/486 this year. I don't think he's really that good as a hitter, but even if he's vaguely that good, he's a better bargain than Piazza. There's always the chance that the Padres will take the easy choice and bring back the All-Star who can still hit, but I think that the acquisition of Bard makes it easier for them to cut Piazza loose.
Scott Linebrink, Padres
2007 Age: 30
2007 Option: $1.75 million club option
Linebrink's 2007 option vests with 100 appearances in 2005-06; it also may escalate to $2.25 million based on undisclosed incentives. Linebrink's option was guaranteed many moons ago; he made 73 appearances last year, and has made 62 so far this year. He's not nearly as good as he was last year, when he was baseball's best setup man at a 1.83 ERA and 70 K in 73.2 IP. But he's still pretty darn good: 3.62 ERA with 56 K in 64.2 IP despite allowing 9 HR. He's not as good as he looked in 2005, but he's worth $1.75 million, especially as an insurance policy in case Trevor Hoffman starts showing his age.
Steve Finley, Giants
2007 Age: 42
2007 Option: $7 mil. club option; $1 mil. buyout
Finley's been pretty poor this year: 247/320/388 is bad even for a center fielder. But he's practically the Comeback Player of the Year given how wretched he was for the Angels in 2005 (222/271/374). The Angels and Giants traded bad contracts in the off-season, with the Giants taking Finley and the Angels taking Edgardo Alfonzo. Unlikely as it may have seemed, the Giants won out, getting at least replacement-level production from Finley, despite his $6.5 million salary.
But is Finley likely to be this "good" next year? Don't bet on it. Saying that 42-year-old center fielders don't age well is like saying that Bill O'Reilly isn't a member of the Al Franken Appreciation Society.
I think the Giants should decline Finley's option.
And I think they will. But you know what? I'm not absolutely sure. Giants GM Brian Sabean has shown a positive fetish for older players in recent years. He claimed when he started this geriatric shopping spree that the veteran leadership would get him to the playoffs. Guess what? The Giants are still a team that's only as good as Barry Bonds. And while you could argue on behalf of the Omar Vizquel or Moises Alou deals, there's nothing to say that Sabean's penchant for pensioners has been anything but a failure. The Giants haven't made the postseason since 2003, the year before Sabean went off on his senior citizen manhunt. This despite the fact that the NL West has collapsed like a flan in a cupboard.
The Giants also have a mutual option on pitcher Jamey Wright for $2.5 million. This one doesn't even deserve a full discussion. Wright is a great guy to sign to a minor league deal as an emergency starter, but he's not even worth 2.5 million Canadian dollars. But who knows? Wright's turning 33 in December, so he's just entering his "prime," according to the Dusty Baker/Brian Sabean school of thought.
Still plenty of issues bouncing around the baseball world, and I'll be back soon to discuss them. Until then, be sure to catch those fly balls and ponder the great inaccuracy of baseball fielding rules.