Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ringing in 2-007 with a vodka martini

With the holidays come and gone, there have been some major free agent signings that I haven't gotten a chance to touch upon. I've been enjoying time with my friends and family but now can wrap up the last transactions of the calendar year. Sorry for the delay, but bloggers have lives, too. Well, actually we don't, but . . . you know what I mean.

  • The biggest news, of course, is that prize left-hander Barry Zito signed a 7-year, $126 million deal with the Giants. The deal is the richest ever given a pitcher (AAV -- Average Annual Value -- of $18 million), and one of the longest, with only the 8-year deal given to Mike Hampton surpassing it.
    Where to begin? I guess a comparison to Hampton would be most apt. Not that the two situations are really similar -- Zito's going to the easy league and staying in a pitcher's park -- but let's remember the success rate of pitchers signed to contracts this long. It's Zito, Hampton, and Kevin Brown, and boy, that's not good company for young Barry. (I have to mention -- Zito's #1 similarity score through age 28 is none other than Hampton himself; take it for what it's worth).
    Remember that Kevin Brown looked like a safe 7-year investment at the time of the deal. Brown was a good deal older (33 when he signed; Zito is 28), but was also much better and much more reliable. Brown built up a reputation as a solid pitcher with Texas before becoming arguably baseball's best pitcher from 1995-1998, with ERA+ numbers of 136, 214, 150, and 160, consecutively. Brown signed the deal and gave the Dodgers two good years (1999 and 2000) before injuries turned him into Mr. Brittle. After 2000, Brown's seasonal IP were: 115.2, 63.2, 211, 132, 73.1. That 211 was a fine 2003 with the Dodgers that got him traded to the Yankees, where he reverted to form and finished his career in 2005.
    Although their styles of pitching aren't at all similar, and the five-year age difference is a huge difference, I think we can see Zito's deal working out in a similar fashion. Zito likely won't experience his deterioration as soon as Brown did -- the deal runs through his age 35 season -- the net effect may be similar: two good years and a lot of wasted money. Zito isn't remotely as good as Brown was at his peak, so even if he maintains his current value, he won't be worth $18 million a year. And no sane person would bet that much money for 7 years on something as unpredictable as a pitching arm.
    There are three main problems with this deal: 1) Zito isn't nearly as good as the Giants (and the press) think he is, and neither he -- nor any other pitcher -- is worth gambling $126 million on 7 years into the future; 2) Zito's 2006 performance is troubling, indicating a loss of stuff and with ill omens for the future, and 3) Zito's environment won't be as helpful in San Francisco.
    Point #1: Even if Zito maintains his current level of performance for seven years (something no one can safely predict), this deal won't be worth it. Zito is an above-average, durable pitcher who was really good for one season (2003), won a Cy Young Award he didn't deserve, and has been overrated ever since. None the less, he makes 34 starts a year and manages an above-average ERA (his ERA+ numbers since '03: 129, 105, 116, 116). His strikeout rate is above-average, but he also gives up a lot of walks and home runs (Zito has finished in the AL's top 5 in walks allowed every full season of his career but one). So the Giants are paying $18 million per year to an above-average innings-eater.
    This point was summed up well by Keith Law on ESPN Radio. He was asked if he'd ever looked at Zito and seen one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Law answered without hesitation, "No." I would add "absolutely not." He might have been back in 2003 when his fastball and curve were working so well, but not since and most likely not again. Why you would give the biggest contract in history to the tenth of twelfth best pitcher in the AL (and the second-best on your team, behind Matt Cain) is beyond me.
    Point #2: Zito's never really been the same since 2003, and it's not looking good. I'm not a scout (obviously), but most everything I've heard since then has been about the trouble he's had getting the curve over for strikes and the lost zip on his fastball. From what I've seen -- and admittedly I don't see the A's much -- that's pretty accurate. The scouting reports jibe with the numbers, which show that not only is Zito settling back into the "comfortably above-average pitcher," there are signs of trouble ahead. This may not mean serious trouble, but it would certainly make it unlikely that Zito's every going to break through and pitch like an ace again, even though he's sure as hell getting paid like one.
    Point #3: San Francisco isn't really the best setting for Zito. It's not that bad, certainly; it's big and roomy to suit Zito's fly-ball/walk tendencies, and it's in the weak league, which should give Zito a boost in ERA regardless of what he does. Many commentators point out that Zito will be pitching a lot not just in San Francisco, but in other roomy ballparks in Los Angeles and San Diego. That's true. He'll also be pitching a lot in Colorado and Arizona, where pitchers like Zito go to die. Let's not forget that.
    And, as many have pointed out, Zito will not have the benefit of a strong defense behind him, especially in the outfield. The A's have been one of baseball's best defensive teams in recent years, and this was never more true than in 2005, when they had Jay Payton, Mark Kotsay, and Milton Bradley covering ground for Zito. It's a long, long fall down to the level of Barry Bonds, Dave Roberts and Randy Winn. (Roberts isn't bad, but he's got a lot of room to cover.) He also won't have the benefit of Oakland's generous foul territory (a foul out in Oakland is an 8th-row souvenir and a do-over for the hitter in most ballparks).
    But this isn't just an odd fit for Zito, it's an odd choice for the Giants. The Giants, who have already leveraged big money on winning right away, can't really afford to stretch their payroll to the breaking point, and yet they've done exactly that. Zito is an improvement over the other guys in that he's about ten years younger and will be around for more than a year or two, but the benefit of a long contract is also a risk and a weakness; name one team that has ever looked back on a big, long-term deal with anything but regret about the last year or two (or four). You need look no further than Hampton and Brown, or most every other player given a contract in Zito's pay range. The only pitcher who's really justified such a blockbuster contract is Pedro Martinez.
    I'm not a political scientist, and I'm not a scout. But I know two things for damn sure: Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy, and Barry Zito is no Pedro Martinez.

    What's the bright side for the Giants? The "optimistic" view is that Zito will reverse his downward trend in peripherals and give the Giants solid work. Zito will certainly get a cosmetic boost from moving to the NL, and he could even manage a career year or two and contend for another Cy Young. He won't make the Giants contenders (at least, not by himself), and he won't push them to the World Series (neither Brown nor Hampton made it to the postseason until after they were traded away).
    But it's highly doubtful that Zito's couple of good years will outweight the other 5, especially as he reaches his mid-30's and the risk factor increases exponentially. The Giants have made a big mistake here, and this could prove to be the mortal one for Brian Sabean's career.
  • The other "big" pitcher left on the market, Jeff Suppan, signed a four year deal with the Brewers for $42 million. The deal is pretty much in line with what other pitchers have been making this offseason. While I don't think the deal is a big mistake, I have several reservations.
    The big thing that many commentators have pointed out is Suppan, who relies very heavily on his defense, is going to be very disappointed with the "D" in Milwaukee. Think of the confidence Suppan must have had to turn around and see an infield of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and David Eckstein. What will he think when he takes a look at Prince Fielder's glovework at first? How will he adjust to the Merry Misadventures of Rickie Weeks at second? Corey Hart isn't bad, but he's not Scott Rolen; and if Bill Hall ends up at shortstop, God help us all. I saw one computation that had Suppan gaining a half-run of ERA simply due to more balls in play turning into hits. Suppan isn't a bad pitcher, and he's done quite well with the Cardinals, but I wonder if the Brewers know what he looks like in translation?
    All that said, I can understand why GM Doug Melvin made this deal. I think he's one of the most competent GMs in the game, and so I can give him the benefit of the doubt. He knows that pitching is his biggest weakness, especially if Ben Sheets is injured again. He's got a lot of major league-ready hitters, but no pitchers ready to step in and fill that #3 role. He sees that the NL Central is soft and weak, and he knows that a team with his payroll doesn't get a lot of chances like 2007. So I can certainly understand the logical reasoning behind this decision.
    I understand it, but I disagree with it. I think Melvin may have been too enamored of Suppan's Postseason Halo and not observant enough to see that his 4.12 ERA last year was an ensemble effort; remove the ensemble, and you're left with a 32-year-old low-strikeout pitcher with a 4.50 ERA. That's not bad, but it's not worth $13 million. Tomo Ohka may not be famous, but he's about 80% as valuable as Suppan at 25% of the price.
    The Suppan deal won't be the biggest disappointment of the offseason by a longshot. But it's a rare misstep for the Brewers, which is unfortunate. I have to admit; I'm kind of rooting for them to shock the world and win the division.
  • The Rangers and White Sox completed a semi-challenge trade last Saturday. The Sox sent erstwhile 5th starter Brandon McCarthy to Texas along with minor leaguer David Paisano in exchange for top pitching prospect John Danks and minor league pitchers Nick Masset and Jacob Rasner.
    I'm interested as to why the White Sox made this trade. McCarthy was penciled in as their #5 starter next season, but now that position will be filled by Gavin Floyd, Charlie Haeger, or perhaps even young Danks. McCarthy was a promising young pitcher whose only real achilles heel was home runs, and that's a problem in Chicago (it's also a problem in Texas, but there you go). After making room for McCarthy by trading Freddy Garcia, Chicago GM Kenny Williams has now traded McCarthy away as well. But the more I think about it, the harder it is to determine if the Sox made a good move. McCarthy wasn't the Sox' golden boy; their pitching staff will survive just fine without him. And John Danks is a good-looking young pitcher with a solid minor league track record; his ERAs haven't yet caught up to his strong peripherals, but he's also a 21-year-old at Triple A. He turns 22 in April with the potential to make the big leagues quickly. McCarthy is two years older than Danks, which is a pretty major distinction, especially since he's already spent time in the big leagues; the Sox control Danks for 6 major league seasons starting next year. Maybe that's the determining factor that would make the Sox get rid of a pitcher who could be better and more reliable than Danks. But that's debatable; Danks is good. I guess you could argue either way about which is the better pitcher short-term or long-term, but it seems to me that the White Sox gave up some short-term assurance for a riskier long-term prospect -- but one with (possibly) more potential. And since the Sox are just gambling with the #5 spot, it's not a big deal (at least for now).
    This is, essentially, a challenge trade, with Kenny Williams betting that Danks will mean more to the team than McCarthy. It also weighs toward the Sox in that they're also getting some good spare parts. Nick Masset will be 25 next year and made it all the way to the majors with Texas. There's not a whole lot to get excited about, but even if Masset is just a solid arm, hey -- those have value, too. Rasner is a starter that the Rangers took in the 7th round of the 2005 draft; an organizational soldier, if anything. Paisano, the Sox' other player involved, is also in the low minors. He's got some potential, but it's way in the future.
    As for the Rangers, I guess they feel the opposite; that they'd rather have the short term boost of Brandon McCarthy rather than gambling on Danks. To be fair, McCarthy does have a solid minor league track record and should have no trouble filling in as a #3 pitcher in the big leagues. He's young and healthy, too. The troubling thing for me is his tendency to give up fly balls. That won't do him any favors in Texas, although Chicago is a fair home run park in its own right. I've read a lot of commentary dismissing McCarthy's potential in Texas, but I think this is an overreaction; Texas really isn't much worse than Chicago when it comes to inflating offense, so it's not like McCarthy's pitching on the moon. And these were the same commentators who gave McCarthy high marks as a White Sox starter.
    So who won this deal? I really don't know. There's a lot we still don't know about Danks and McCarthy, and it's likely that the Rangers and Sox know more than I do. There are other factors involved in this as well, particularly concerning Barry Zito. The McCarthy trade was probably insurance in case the Rangers didn't sign Barry (and they didn't, as it turned out). Who knows? Right now, I'm inclined to favor Brandon McCarthy, but then I tend to favor the more proven commodity. Danks has the potential to surprise me and make this trade worthwhile. As it is, I think this is just one of those trades that you have to wait on, at least as far as I can see. I'd be interested to get a good scouting report on all the players involved to see if there's something I'm missing.
  • Reports came in today that the Orioles signed free agent Aubrey Huff to a 3-year, $20 million deal.
    Well, we can all debate as to whether or not Huff is worth that much money. I'm not sure, but I think he probably is for a team that really needs a corner infielder/outfielder swing man who hits lefty, especially if you're a contender with a hole to fill.
    For many teams, this signing would be perfectly reasonable. But for the Orioles, it's another in a long line of useless signings that is fast establishing them as one of the most inept franchises in the game.
    The biggest question I had was this: where the hell is Huff going to play? The press releases I found made no specific mention. I ask because there's no spot open in the lineup. First base is filled by free agent Kevin Millar (ugh), third base by incumbent Melvin Mora (look out below), left field by free agent Jay Payton (shall I pack your bats for the road trip, Mr. Payton, or just not bother?), right field by rookie sensation Nick Markakis (stud), and DH by incumbent Jay Gibbons (why overachieve when you can just settle for mediocrity?).
    Where does Huff fit in to this picture? He's not an untalented guy and could even be more useful than several of the guys slotted into the lineup. But unless the O's make a trade, they've just spent $20 million on a bench player.
    With most teams, I would take this signing as a pretty good sign that they're going to trade someone. Few teams intentionally overcrowd their lineup with expensive free agents. But you can never give the O's the benefit of the doubt when it comes to logic and good sense.
  • It's been a month since the J.D. Drew deal was announced and, unless I slept through the announcement, the deal still hasn't been finalized. I said before that I think the deal will get done, just because it's in everyone's best interests. But a month of silence can't be ignored.
  • The Marlins signed Aaron Boone to a one-year contract worth a little less than a million dollars. This isn't a bad deal for Florida; they could use some backup for Miguel Cabrera at third, and Boone has his uses as a bench player. His days as a starter are probably over, but he's worth a shot off the bench, especially at a rock-bottom salary.
  • The Reds traded for Jeff Conine from the Phillies. They didn't give up a lot to get him, mainly just spare parts, and will likely use Conine as Scott Hatteberg's platoon partner at first base. You could do worse than to have Jeff Conine on your team, but I'm still not sure the Reds are aware of what their real problems are.
  • The final numbers on Marcus Giles' deal with the Padres: one year, $3.25 million, with a club option worth $4 mil. for 2008. I'm still not sure what Schuerholz was thinking when he cut Giles, but he sure gave Kevin Towers one hell of a Christmas present.
  • Big, BIG news on the legal front: federal authorities have subpoenaed the test results from the MLB's confidential substance abuse tests of 2003.
    In 2003, as negotiated in the CBA, baseball initiated a confidential drug testing system to measure the use of steroids in baseball. Although positive tests were high enough to automatically trigger a full random drug-testing policy, they weren't nearly as high as the "25-50%" figures being bandied about in the news.
    The tests were done under the agreement that the results would be confidential; samples would not be linked to individual athletes and no disciplinary action would be taken (the Union, of course, insisted on these parameters).
    Enter the federal government.
    The feds recently raided the lab that held these old samples and also acquired the super-confidential coding system that connected the samples with the players. It seems that in their quest to mount a perjury case against Barry Bonds, they were looking for evidence of a positive steroid test (it's doubtful that the feds were targeting anyone else, except possibly Giambi and Sheffield). Although I don't see what good this raid would do for the government's case. If Bonds tested negative, that really hurts their case. And if he tested positive, so what? Bonds has already admitted to using PEDs, he just claims that he wasn't aware he was using them.
    At any rate, the player's union sued, claiming that the tests were confidential and the government's raid was an invasion of privacy. In a scary ruling, the courts decided against the union. Union head Don Fehr has promised to appeal the ruling, but right now it's very possible that the government can keep the samples and use them as evidence.
    This is a terrible blow for the Players' Union. With the players and the results now linked, the names of the positive tests will come out eventually, and that won't accomplish anything at all except to make a few dozen ballplayers' lives a living hell.
    And I can't help but feel that the Union itself is somewhat to blame. When the Union agreed to the confidential testing, they must have known (I hope) that Major League Baseball has, of course, no power to fight a federal subpoena. The feds could give a damn about a confidentiality agreement between the MLB and the MLBPA; in a criminal case, a subpoena trumps it all. Don Fehr must have known on some level that any assurances he got about confidentiality weren't backed up with any muscle. He should have known that he was about to agree to the systematic documentation of illegal activity among his union members, which would leave him totally vulnerable to federal subpoena, something Bud Selig has no power to control. Was Fehr really so unaware of this danger?
    Fehr's argument is on the basis of privilege and constitutional rights. That's difficult. He agreed to forfeit the consitutional rights of the players so that they could submit to the drug tests. That was fine. But letting other people read the results -- that's an invasion of privacy? The MLB has a right to your urine, but the federal government doesn't have the right to subpoena evidence of criminal activity? What logic is that?
    The more substantive argument is that since the feds seized the samples from a medical lab, they violated the players'/patients' right to medical privacy, i.e. "doctor-patient privilege." But this isn't really a case of a patient and doctor's privileged records. The feds aren't issuing subpoenas for Barry Bonds' latest medical checkup. The MLB and their contracted labs can hardly be granted the same privilege as a "doctor" who deals with the players as patients. Don Fehr disagrees; according to an AP report, Fehr said that if the ruling "is allowed to stand it will effectively repeal the Fourth Amendment for confidential electronic records."
    Strong words. But does the privilege really apply here? However useless the information might be to the feds, and however damaging it would be to the players, is there a legal basis for arguing that the raids violate the 4th Amendment? Hard to see. Among the things I'm not an expert on is constitutional law (most of my knowledge thereof was gleaned from AP US History class and Law & Order episodes). But is there precedent for the government getting subpoena power over employer/employee drug test results? With more and more companies testing employees for drugs, that must have gone before the courts by now. If the precedent was set that the government has no right to those records, then Fehr's case is solid. If the precedent is that an employer/employee confidentiality agreement is no match for a federal subpoena, then his case is toast.
    On a personal level, I consider myself to be a strong supporter of civil liberties. And I'm troubled by the invasive nature of drug testing. I certainly don't want my previous remarks to suggest that I want the government seizing these records. On the contrary. However, given the legal system as it is, there doesn't seem to be a strong legal argument to prevent them from doing so. It's a shame, but then welcome to post-9/11 life.
    And above all, I personally think that Don Fehr should have been ready for this.

We'll end today's entry with those strong words. We've covered a lot of topics, and somehow I've managed to tell everyone about all the things I'm not an expert in. That's not a good way to built a reputation for excellence, and they may revoke my claim to "whiz kid" status.
But that leads me to my next article: my New Year's resolutions (for baseball).

I'll see you then. Have a safe and happy New Year.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Best Case/Worst Case

In the spirit of the new year, and having finished my "official" team-by-team outlook, I decided to lighten things up with a look at some possible headlines in the coming year. So let's go team-by-team and look at the "best case" and "worst case" scenario for 2007.

Atlanta Braves
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Florida Marlins:
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and in other news . . .

New York Mets:
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Philadelphia Phillies:
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Washington Nationals:
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Chicago Cubs:
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Cincinnati Reds:
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Houston Astros:
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Milwaukee Brewers:
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Pittsburgh Pirates:
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St. Louis Cardinals:
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Arizona Diamondbacks:
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Colorado Rockies:
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Los Angeles Dodgers:
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San Diego Padres:
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San Francisco Giants:
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Baltimore Orioles:
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Boston Red Sox:
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New York Yankees:
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Tampa Bay Devil Rays:
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Toronto Blue Jays:
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Chicago White Sox:
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Cleveland Indians:
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Detroit Tigers:
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Kansas City Royals:
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Minnesota Twins:
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Los Angeles Angels:
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Oakland Athletics:
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Seattle Mariners:
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Texas Rangers:
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Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Looking Ahead: Texas Rangers

2006 W-L Record: 80-82
2006 pW-pL Record: 86-76
Runs Scored: 835 (4th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 784 (8th in AL)
Free Agents: Rod Barajas, Mark DeRosa, Adam Eaton, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews, Jr., Kip Wells

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Mark Teixeira
2B -- Ian Kinsler
SS -- Michael Young
3B -- Hank Blalock
LF -- Frank Catalanotto/Brad Wilkerson
CF -- Kenny Lofton
RF -- Nelson Cruz
C -- Gerald Laird?
DH -- Jason Botts?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Kevin Millwood
Vicente Padilla
Brandon McCarthy
Robinson Tejeda
Edinson Volquez/Kameron Loe

2007 Proj. Closer: Eric Gagne

The Ranger offense appears to be in fine shape. The 2006 club wasn't quite as potent as anticipated, but in some ways they compensated. Where Mark Teixeira and Brad Wilkerson slumped, Gary Matthews and Mark DeRosa had unlikely career years. Adam Eaton got injured, but Vicente Padilla stayed healthy. The team traded for Carlos Lee and didn't even have to give up much to get him. That looks like a lot of turnover among their free agents, but the core group of contributors is still there. The Rangers appear to have a potent lineup, and although the outfield could use some juice, they'll probably be just fine.
The Texas infield returns intact from 2006. First baseman Mark Teixeira had a bit of an off year in '06 (282/371/514 is an off year for him), but should make a strong return in 2007. Second baseman Ian Kinsler is what the Rangers expected; a thoroughly capable hitter (286/347/454) and defender (-3 FRAA) who should man the position for the near future.
At shortstop, the Rangers have Michael Young. Young has always hit well for the position, and 2006 was no exception (314/356/459). But in the past, Young was a defensive liability. A former second baseman, Young shifted to shortstop when Alfonso Soriano came to town. That gave the Rangers arguably the worst middle infield in baseball. Young wasn't a bad second baseman, but at shorstop, he was agonizing. He was among the league's worst from 2003-2005, posting an FRAA of -16, -14 and -14 in those years.
But last year, Young's FRAA flipped to a Gold Glove-caliber +20. This was no illusion. Although the change doesn't appear as dramatic, other metrics have Young making a sizable improvement defensively. Win Shares has him improving from 4.3 fielding WS in '05 to 7.7 last year, a whole win unto himself. It's really hard to say what's actually going on here. It's unlikely that Young made a sudden improvement in defense at age 29, and even if he was that good in 2006, it's tough to predict what will happen in 2007. With defense, it's difficult to separate the underlying reality from the system of measurement. Part of this improvement could be due to the subtraction of the woeful Soriano to his left (defense does have an interdependent quality). But if pressed, I'd say that Young is more likely to be a below-average infielder next year. It's hard to imagine that he just suddenly got a lot better, although his case is eerily similar to that of Derek Jeter, who did maintain his defensive improvement.
At third base, the Rangers have the only real disappointment in the entire infield. It's sad, too, because he was supposed to be a rising star. None the less, Hank Blalock's career has hit the skids, and it's hard to see why. With almost no change in playing time, Blalock's power, patience, and batting average have all dropped from the high levels of performance he set in 2003 and 2004. Last year, Blalock hit 266/325/401, below-average for a player in Texas' offensive haven. This was a step down from 2005 (263/318/431), which was a step down from 2004 (276/355/500). Blalock's power has been cut nearly in half; in 2004 he had 73 extra-base hits, but he fell to just 45 last year. It's highly unusual for such an all-around wonder to succeed so well at such a young age (Blalock hit the game-winning homer in the 2003 All-Star Game at age 23) and then suffer a plunge in quality for no apparent reason. It seems like Blalock should bounce back eventually, but it's not looking good. Blalock may, unfortunately, share a page in the history books with contemporary Sean Burroughs as unexpected failures.
The Ranger outfield has been their weakness for years, as they've failed to find good hitters, especially in the outfield corners. And while the 2007 squad isn't that scary, it does have the potential for improvement. Time in left field will likely be shared between Frank Catalanotto and Brad Wilkerson. That would make for a fine platoon if both men weren't lefties. Catalanotto has had good success in Toronto as a platoon player, hitting 300/376/439 last season. But his success was mainly due to a platoon; 91% of his at-bats were against righties, and he hit just 237/348/342 when he did face lefties.
One possible solution would be to combine Catalanotto with Nelson Cruz. The Rangers seem determined to give the 27-year-old Cruz a spot in the starting lineup, but Catalanotto's need for a platoon mate could override that commitment. Plus, the Rangers have the advantage of redundancy in the outfield; even if you combine Cruz/Catalanotto in left, you can put Wilkerson in right and have Jason Botts as your full-time DH. Wilkerson had the worst year of his career struggling through injuries in 2006 (222/306/422), but the 252/358/448 lifetime hitter should be able to bounce back with solid offensive production to g0 with his defensive versatility.
Botts, who will get at least some playing time at DH, is a product of the Texas farm system. He's the classic big ol' sugger, with lots of power and lots of strikeouts. But Botts has already shown good plate discipline and has nothing left to prove in the minors (2006 in Triple-A: 309/398/582). His defense will limit him to DH, but he should hit well enough to hold down the position, even if only part-time.
In center field, the Rangers signed Kenny Lofton to a one-year contract. Lofton isn't going to give you a lot, but he does provide defense and solid offense from the position and is a far better investment than outgoing CF Gary Matthews, Jr. Plus, Lofton's 1-year agreement leaves the Rangers free to pursue one of the big-name center fielders coming on the market in the 2007 offseason (Andruw Jones, anyone?).
Behind the plate, the Rangers will replace the overrated Rod Barajas with Gerald Laird. Laird isn't much of a hitter (although he hit 296/332/473 in '06), but is a good defender and a good placeholder until hot prospect Taylor Teagarden is ready (around 2008-9).

There isn't the star power here that we associate with the Texas offense, and their friendly home park probably makes them look better than they are. But they're well-set with at least adequate production at every position and decent depth as well. If they can get pitching support, they could be considered a dark horse candidate for the postseason.

Of course, we've been saying that for years. The Rangers haven't had a really good pitching staff in over 20 years. In fact, the Rangers are rarely even above-average. In 1983, the Rangers posted an ERA+ of 122, the best in the league. Since then, they've only topped 102 four times in 23 years. The Rangers have only been strongly above-average 4 times since 1983, and they haven't been excellent since (their highest ERA+ since was 111 in 2004). It becomes very dull and repetitive to say that the Rangers need pitching every offseason, but it's still as true as it ever was. The Texas pitching staff was adequate in 2006 (ERA+ of 102), but with a poor defense and a lineup that's merely good, it will take a lot more than that to solve things.
Making matters worse, the Rangers' efforts to solve their pitching problems since '83 have led to catastrophe more often than not. The most notable example is the 5-year contract handed out to Chan Ho Park in 2000, one of the worst free agent deals ever. While the Rangers haven't repeated the Park fiasco since, they've committed a lot of money to pitchers that just aren't worth it.
The Rangers are paying Kevin Millwood Park-esque money; he's entering the second year of a 5-year, $60 million deal. Of course, Millwood is a better (and more proven) pitcher than Park, and what with inflation and all, the deal isn't that bad. But it's a backloaded deal, meaning that Millwood will earn $11 million in 2009 (at age 34) and $12 million in 2010 (if his option vests).
It must be said that the Millwood deal looks a lot better in light of what's happened this past offseason. But for their troubles, the Rangers did not get an ace (as they were hoping); they got an above-average pitcher whose durability is questionable. Millwood's ERA in 2006 was 4.52, although considering his ballpark, he did pitch fairly well (ERA+ of 102). His peripheral stats were basically unchanged from his 2005 season (2.86 ERA, ERA+ of 143). This could mean that Millwood was unlucky in 2006, or that he was lucky in 2005. Probably both.
The Millwood deal won't kill the Rangers, but it should be said that they're counting on him to be something that he's not: a #1 starter. Only with the salary inflation of the past few months does this deal look acceptable.
Much less acceptable is the deal given to Vicente Padilla. The Rangers traded for Padilla before 2006 and saw him put up a 4.50 ERA. He has similar peripherals as Millwood, except that his BB rate is much higher and his K rate is slightly higher. What Padilla doesn't have, however, is any sort of reputation for reliability. I discussed Padilla's deal when it went down, and my reaction is still that he's not reliable enough to pay $11 million a year. It's true that the contract is one of the more reasonable of those given out to free agent pitchers this offseason, but I'm still skeptical. The only extenuating circumstance here is the Rangers' desperation for starting pitchers -- even those who are just decent. And that desperation is the result of their own negligence.
The Rangers have Brandon McCarthy pencilled in as their #3. I'll be discussing the McCarthy deal in more detail later, but in short he's a big boost to their rotation. They may have given up too much to get him, but McCarthy's advantage is that he's already established himself at the big-league level. The trouble here is fly balls; McCarthy gives up a lot of them, and Texas isn't the place for that.
It will be the same bunch of shmoes filling out the back end of the rotation, with the possible exception of young Edinson Volquez. Volquez is one of the Rangers' top pitching prospects (yes, they do have some), and the closest to contributing at the big-league level. He threw 33.1 innings with the big club in 2006, but those are best forgotten (7.29 ERA, 17:15 BB:K ratio). Volquez does have a bright future, but he also has a troubling increase in walk rate to explain. Even at Triple-A last year, he was walking a lot of hitters (72 in 120.2 IP). This set a new career high for him by a mile; his combined 89 walks in 154 IP last year were far more than his previous career high of 41, set in 127.1 IP in 2004. The result could be that he begins that season in Triple-A.
If Volquez doesn't make the rotation, it will likely be the unimpressive if adequate combination of Robinson Tejeda and Kameron Loe filling things out.

In the bullpen, the Rangers made a big splash by signing Eric Gagne to a 1-year contract. This is a big risk, but it's a relatively cheap one and one that could pay off well. It's odd, though, that the Rangers got Gagne when they already had a closer in Akinori Otsuka. Otsuka is a bit old (35 next year), but is reliable and did quite well in his first season in Texas last year (2.11 ERA, 11:47 BB:K ratio). It's not that Gagne isn't a risk worth taking, it's just that it seems to me that the Rangers could have put that money to use elsewhere. And there is the very real possibility that Gagne will get re-injured, or that he just won't pitch nearly as well as he used to.
One benefit of the Gagne signing is that it gives the bullpen more depth, with Otsuka moving to a setup role. The Rangers should be able to fill out a competent group behind them, with returning favorites Ron Mahay and Rick Bauer along with some of their rising young pitching talent.

In the end, though, there's very little chance that the Texas pitching staff will be much better than it was last year. They added some upside with the acquisition of McCarthy and Gagne, as well as the continuing development of their prospects, but the realistic expectation just isn't much more than average to above-average -- the same as always.

Offseason Game Plan:
Now that I've finished my "Looking Ahead" series, the offseason is virtually over. I did not anticipate this, as there are usually a few big names stuck around after the New Year. But for whatever reason, everything happened really fast this year. Barry Zito (Giants) and Jeff Suppan (Brewers) are gone, and now the biggest names left out there are guys like Mark Mulder, Cliff Floyd, and Eddie Guardado.
So there's not much that the Rangers can do. The good thing is that there's not much they should do. The Rangers are basically stuck with what they've got, and unless they can find a good deal for Hank Blalock, this is what they're going to be taking into 2007.
There's a lot of encouragement to be found in the Rangers' Pythagorean W-L record of 86-76 last year. This suggests that the team already was above-average, and just needs to take a small step forward to enter the land of 90 wins, and thus contention. However, I'm pessimistic that the Rangers were really that good in 2006, and I'm also fairly pessimistic about how much they've really improved for 2007. The Rangers should be considered as an outside shot for the postseason -- if everyone hits like they should and the rotation stays healthy, it's not unreasonable to see them winning 90 games -- but it's highly unlikely that the Rangers can pass all of the other AL teams that are hovering around the 90-win mark.
Only four AL teams can make the postseason, and right now I'd say that the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Indians, White Sox, Twins, Tigers, Angels, and A's are better teams than the Rangers. It's important to remember that; the Rangers are about the 10th-best team in the AL. Even if they shock everyone and pass three or four of the teams on this list, that means that they're going to be watching the postseason on TV once again.
There is hope for Texas; they have young pitching prospects, a core of offensive talent, and the money to buy more offense. But it's a very tall order to expect them to be contenders as soon as next year.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Looking Ahead: Seattle Mariners

2006 W-L Record: 78-84
2006 pW-pL Record: 78-84
Runs Scored: 756 (13th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 792 (9th in AL)

Free Agents: Carl Everett, Gil Meche, Eduardo Perez, Joel Pineiro

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Richie Sexson
2B -- Jose Lopez
SS -- Yuniesky Betancourt
3B -- Adrian Beltre
LF -- Raul Ibanez
CF -- Ichiro Suzuki
RF -- Jose Guillen
C -- Kenji Johjima
DH -- Jose Vidro?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Felix Hernandez
Miguel Batista
Jarrod Washburn
Horacio Ramirez
Jake Woods?

2007 Proj. Closer: J.J. Putz

Well, it's no secret that the Mariners need some work. They especially need someone to goose their offense or something; even considering their park, they aren't scoring runs and don't look to be scoring many more in the near future. Compound that with a front office who's made a name for itself this offseason by making really bad trades, and I don't think there's any reasonable way to see the M's as contenders in 2007.
It's always tough to recover from a 99-loss season, but it's even tougher when Plan A pretty much turns out to be a failure. The M's tried to aggressively improve their team by paying out big money to Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. With those two in the lineup, the Mariners managed to score exactly 1 run more in 2005 than they did in '04. The improvement to a 69-93 record was due mainly to the relative improvement in the pitching staff.
But we'll get to that later. The M's are stuck with the Beltre and Sexson contracts, although neither look quite as bad as they did at the time. Seattle made the same mistake many teams are making, in that they were paying a player to match their peak performance on a yearly basis. That just doesn't happen. And while Beltre and Sexson are both good enough, neither one has been enough to lift the Seattle lineup out of the doldrums. This is an object lesson for teams looking to improve a really bad team through one or two big splashy signings.
In between these decent but expensive corner infielders, the M's are playing a punchless pair of glovemen. Yuniesky Betancourt, the shortstop, had the reputation as a good-glove/no-hit type and pretty much lived up to the hype (289/310/403). Even worse, Betancourt's glove wasn't as good as expected. FRAA rates him at an ugly -13 FRAA. Other metrics aren't as negative; his 5.4 fielding Win Shares were 6th in the AL. Either way, it's pretty clear that young Betancourt has to carry a Gold Glove if he wants to keep the starting job.
Jose Lopez has more promise with the bat than Betancourt, although it should be noted that he's never really produced at the major league level (career 265/300/392) and has never been able to bring his bat with him from Tacoma. He's still young yet, so the M's shouldn't be in any hurry to get rid of him.
Unfortunately, his defense may force the issue. Lopez has never been great with the glove, but his -18 FRAA in 2006 made him an utter liability. And unlike Betancourt, this may not be a mirage; Lopez doesn't have Betancourt's pedigree with the glove, and the other defensive metrics seem to support the idea that he's not that good (his 2.8 defensive Win Shares rank 11th among AL second basemen). Lopez is the kind of guy who would be tolerable if you were getting your production elsewhere, but he could get pushed by the middle-infield prospects in the system, especially if the team can't get a good upgrade anywhere else in the infield.
The outfield situation is a lot less depressing, but still troublesome. The only sure thing is Ichiro. Ichiro was most closer to form in 2006, hitting 322/370/416 with such strong defense that he was shifted to center field to replace Jeremy Reed, another disappointing prospect (doesn't that sound familiar?). I'm not really sure how the shift to center will affect Ichiro's defense, but it will make his offense more valuable. And besides, this team has a whole lot to worry about besides Ichiro -- well, except for his impending free agency (after 2007).
We're likely to see Raul Ibanez manning left field, which isn't phenomenal news, but it's good for this team. Ibanez is still productive (289/353/516) and reasonably priced, at that. The M's could use a few more of those.
In right field, the M's took a gamble and acquired Jose Guillen. Guillen has often been compared this offseason to Carl Everett, the team's abortive DH solution from last year. But I'm more optimistic about him than some. He does have the attitude, yes, but he's also younger than he seems (31 next year) and still has the chance to be productive. His 2006 was a loss, yes, but he hit well in cavernous RFK Stadium in 2005 (283/338/479). And even if some of that is lost in translation, the M's are only committing $5.5 million to him, with a mutual option for 2008. So even if Guillen fails, the M's won't be in too much trouble; they can shift Ichiro back and go with Reed in center or promote Jones from the minors.
The other productive/cost-effective player in the lineup is catcher Kenji Johjima. Johjima profiled as an above-average hitter, and that turned out to be accurate (291/332/451). Concerns about his defense were apparently ill-considered. The ascension of catching prospect Jeff Clement could create some conflict here, but having too many catchers is a good problem, and the M's haven't had too many of those lately.
The M's were looking for an upgrade to DH Ben Broussard. But somewhere along the line . . . I don't know, I guess the "up" part was lost in translation, and the Mariners eventually made a strong downgrade by trading away relatively valauble prospects Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto for Washington's Jose Vidro.
I spoke about the Vidro trade recently, so you can visit the link to get my reaction. Suffice to say, the Mariners don't need to be paying old guys to clog up a lineup that's already proven to be pretty inadequate.

And that's about it. The Mariners had the second-worst offense in the AL last year, and I can't find any evidence that they're about to improve by any significant amount. They've already got plenty of money committed to Ichiro, Beltre, and Sexson. They've got some productive guys that are relatively cheap, such as Johjima and Ibanez. And they've got some unproductive guys who are relatively cheap (Vidro). Most of their young hitters are either a year or two away from making a big impact or have such a low ceiling that it's not worth getting too excited.
Example: Baseball America recently rated the Top 10 Prospects in the Seattle system. Most of them are pitchers, and most of them are in the low minors.
The only real hopes for 2007 are #1 Adam Jones and #2 Jeff Clement. Both have made it to the major leagues, but both appear as though they need more minor league seasoning. Jones could easily come up if Jose Guillen explodes, but with the acquisition of Kenji Johjima, there's no pressing need for Clement, a catcher.
For a franchise in such desperate straits, you need better production from your farm system, so that there is no pressing need to spend money on free agents. But the M's farm system has fallen on hard times in recent years, with the long line of injured pitching prospects especially ugly. There's not a lot of help coming up from below, and there's not a lot of help available from the free agent market. Unless the Mariners get really lucky in one of those two areas, they're not going to threaten the Angels or Athletics anytime soon.

It would be nice if I could turn around and make glowing comments about the Mariners' pitching staff. After all, neither Oakland nor the Angels are a whole lot better offensively; they may have much better upside, but the A's only outscored Seattle by 15 runs last year; the Angels by only 10.
But while both of those teams have a fine pitching staff to back them up, the Mariners have squat. There is some room for optimism, and it's very possible that they can improve over 2006. But there's just not enough here to compensate for the lineup.
The M's should be able to count on better production from ace Felix Hernandez. We all got a bit ahead of ourselves with the whole "King Felix" coronation and forgot that it's not that easy with a 20-year-old kid. But the good news is that Felix's peripherals were still strong in '06. His 4.52 ERA just doesn't jibe with his 60:176 BB:K ratio and 23 HR allowed in 191 IP. Felix Hernandez circa 2005 is still there, but we're going to have be a bit more patient before engraving his Cooperstown plaque.
The M's did make one move this offseason that should somewhat help the team. They overpaid to get Miguel Batista, but never the less, they're getting a pretty reliable LAIM. His BB:K ratio is troubling, but then it's always been that way. Seattle shouldn't expect a strong #2 in Batista, but if they're just hoping for a solid innings-eater at the back of the rotation, then they've got their man.
The trouble is that there are no good arms to support King Felix. Batista is a slightly overpaid LAIM, and Jarrod Washburn is an even more-overpaid one (2006: 4.67 ERA, 55:103 BB:K). Both men are capable of a surprise year where they pitch like a #2, but that's wishcasting; the more realistic scenario sees them both as supporting actors.
The M's don't have a lot to back these guys up. The most likely candidates are Horacio Ramirez (acquired in another bad trade), Jake Woods, Cha-Seung Baek, and Ryan Feierabend. None of them have much breakout potential, leaving the M's in bad shape if their 1-2-3 starters don't work like clockwork.
It should be noted that the M's have been rumored to be in the Barry Zito hunt. It doesn't seem likely that Zito will land in Seattle, which is probably best for the M's. They don't need to pay any more superstar salaries to non-superstars. If they were right on the cusp of contending, maybe; but they sure as hell aren't.

The bullpen was seriously weakened by the loss of Rafael Soriano (for Horacio f'n Ramirez?!), but the M's do still have J.J. Putz to close. Putz seems a lot younger than he really is. He'll be 30 years old next year despite only pitching three full seasons in the majors. But they were good seasons. His 2006 campaign established him as one of the best closers in the league. Putz managed a 13:104 BB:K ratio and a 2.30 ERA, saving 36 games for the M's. Both the ERA and the K rate are way out of line with his previous major league production. Putz certainly has the stuff of a dominant closer, but we should be suspicious that his 2006 results were such an aberration.
Soriano would have been a great setup man/insurance policy, but apparently the Mariners decided they'd rather have a bad starter with a history of injuries. And now that Soriano's gone, there aren't many sure things in the Seattle 'pen. Young Mark Lowe had a good debut in the majors last season and should have a bigger role in '07. Young Jon Huber seems to have taken well to his conversion to relief, and while he doesn't have a high ceiling, he could be useful. Julio "Mr. Flyball" Mateo will return in '07, as will George Sherrill and Jake Woods (if he's not a starter). This isn't a bad group of guys, but neither is it in any way intimidating.

The addition of Washburn and now Batista to the pitching staff has added a lot of salary without adding a whole lot of upside. Both pitchers would be great guys to supplement a good group of young starters, but they're miscast as #2 guys, and they're especially overpaid for a team with little hope of making the postseason. Add to that the loss of prospects in Mr. Bavasi's December to Dismember trades, and you've got to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find much optimism for this pitching staff, or this franchise, for that matter.

Offseason Game Plan:
Well, since the offseason is mostly over, it's too late for me to tell Bill Bavasi to exercise caution. That bus has left the depot.
I would have encouraged the Mariners to explore trading away players like Sexson or even Washburn if they felt they could get a good return in prospects. Instead the Mariners are getting rid of the few prospects they have to make a completely unrealistic run for the 2007 postseason. This smacks of a desperate man afraid to lose his job. And in fact, I wouldn't expect Bavasi to finish the season as the team GM, unless lightning strikes or they find a faith healer who specializes in pitching arms.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Looking Ahead: Oakland Athletics

2006 W-L Record: 93-69
2006 pW-pL Record: 85-77
Runs Scored: 771 (9th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 727 (3rd in AL)

Free Agents: Jay Payton, Frank Thomas, Barry Zito

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Dan Johnson
2B -- Mark Ellis
SS -- Bobby Crosby
3B -- Eric Chavez
LF -- Nick Swisher
CF -- Mark Kotsay
RF -- Milton Bradley
C -- Jason Kendall
DH -- Mike Piazza

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Rich Harden
Dan Haren
Joe Blanton
Esteban Loaiza
Joe Kennedy?

2007 Proj. Closer: Huston Street

The Oakland defense tied for 2nd in the AL in fielding percentage (.986) but were 6th in DER at .688. This could indicate the declining range of aging guys like Mark Kotsay and Mark Ellis, as well as injuries to key defenders Chavez and Crosby. But even if it's not quite as good as it looks, the Oakland defense is fine; the problem here is the offense.
The A's 9th-place finish in runs scored was the result of a roster stretched to its limits by injuries. Not only did the A's see regression from defensive stalwart Mark Ellis (249/319/385), they had to deal with the increasingly dismal output of guys like Jason Kendall (295/367/342) and Mark Kotsay (275/332/386).
But even with these guys bringing up the rear, the A's were supposed to be contenders with the rest of their lineup. Unfortunately for them, that didn't quite work out the way they'd hoped.

Despite getting good defense from Eric Chavez, the third baseman just isn't hitting like an MVP (241/351/435 in '06; career 271/350/489) and probably never will. When he's healthy, that's fine. But if he struggles with injuries again, as in 2006, the A's don't have the depth to replace his output.
The same can be said of Bobby Crosby. Crosby, a big-time prospect, suffered through yet another injury-plagued season (229/298/338) that was even worse than 2005, when he was also injured. It's easy to stay positive about Crosby since he's still young (just 26 next year) and does have a decent major league season under his belt (a 239/319/426 2004). But Crosby has yet to hit really well in the majors, and since 2004, he hasn't been able to stay in the lineup. Neither of these things bode really well for a guy who was supposed to be a future MVP. The A's need him to be productive to avoid another quick playoff exit.
First baseman Dan Johnson didn't have the high expectations of Crosby, but he was supposed to be a solid-hitting first base option like he was in 2005 (275/355/451). Instead, he was barely adequate (234/323/381) and got shipped to the minors. With prospect Daric Barton stalled (259/389/395 at Triple-A), The A's had no choice but to shift Nick Swisher to first and spend far too much time playing Jay Payton in left (296/325/418). Johnson should bounce back next year, and he's still got that 2005 swing left in him, but this was another step back on a team that couldn't afford any more of them. Combined with the injuries/regression suffered by 2B Mark Ellis, and the Oakland infield was effectively decimated in 2006. In the postseason, instead of a strong Johnson-Ellis-Crosby-Chavez infield, the A's were forced to play Swisher-D'Angelo Jimenez-Marco Scutaro-Chavez, with the punchless Payton in left field. Little wonder then that the Tigers swept them.
Swisher, who split time between left field and first base, was one of the few bright spots for the team. The team of Moneyball fame finished with a merely average .340 OBP, but that was no fault of Swisher's; the 25-year-old paced the team with 97 walks and also swatted 35 homers. He helped fill a big vacuum, and it was lucky for the A's that one of their young hitters was finally coming through.
Fiery trade acquisition Milton Bradley spent most of the time in right field, but the injury bug bit again, limiting him to 96 games. Bradley performed quite well, hitting 276/370/447 with the team, but it was little consolation; it was a case of "another one bites the dust" with Bobby Kielty forced to replace him.
The other Special Ks, Kotsay and Kendall, were unimpressive, as mentioned above. So the team went through most of the season with only Swisher (and sometimes Chavez and Bradley) contributing from the field. The team that looked like it had strong depth was instead held back by numerous injuries and disappointments, and their lack of depth (especially in the middle infield) was what people remembered.
Fortunately for Oakland, they had an insurance policy at DH. Now coming into 2006, no one would have predicted that Frank Thomas -- of all people -- would be the most reliable and productive hitter on the ballclub, and yet that's exactly how things turned out. Thomas only played 137 games, but he made them count; he hit 270/381/545, with a team-leading 39 HR and 114 RBI. He almost single-handedly kept the team afloat and resurrected his chances for Cooperstown, all for a relative pittance.

The A's will get to re-boot and try again next year, with the same cast of characters (sans Thomas) out to prove that they weren't overachieving when they reached the ALCS last year. The A's offense has a lot to prove. They must stay healthy, simply because there is little room for error; with most of the roster injury-prone, new manager Bob Geren will have to play mix-and-match with hopefully better options than Mark Kiger in 2007. A lot of people will have to step it up if the A's want to fight off the Angels and repeat in '07, with the most obvious being Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby.

The Oakland pitching staff saved the offense last year, and there's every indication that they can do the same thing this year. Injuries struck here, too, as erstwhile ace Rich Harden made only 9 starts the entire season due to injury. Projections are still good for Harden, but his injury history is long enough now that Billy Beane should have visions of Mark Prior dancing in his head.
The good news is that even without Harden, the A's pitching staff survived. Barry Zito led the team in ERA at 3.83, despite a career-high 99 walks and a surprising 27 HR allowed (Oakland played as a pitcher's park in 2006). With Zito headed out as a free agent, the mantle of "backup ace" falls to Danny Haren, who should bear the burden quite well. Haren is, in fact, a better pitcher than Zito in the present and future. Haren will be just 26 next year and is coming off a season where he led the A's staff in innings (223) and strikeouts (176). His HR allowed were troubling (31), leading to a less-than-stellar 4.12 ERA. But Haren is the real deal; a strong #2 who can step in as a temporary ace if Harden falls again.
Behind Harden and Haren, the A's have two perfectly acceptable LAIMs. Esteban Loaiza got off to a woeful start, but -- while he didn't justify his brand-new contract -- he pitched well enough, managing a 4.89 ERA in 26 starts. Injuries may have played a part in Loaiza's struggles, although he doesn't have much potential to go under 4.50 in ERA at age 35.
The LAIM with the better growth potential is Joe Blanton. Blanton came on the scene with a strong rookie seaosn in 2005 (3.53 ERA in 201.1 IP), but his low strikeout rate caught up with him (116 K) and his 2006 ERA fell all the way to 4.82. The real Blanton is likely somewhere in between, and -- at age 25 -- he'll be cheap and productive for a while yet.
If Rich Harden can stay healthy and somewhat replace the departing Barry Zito, there's no reason to think that the 2007 starting rotation will be any worse than the 2006 squad. They've got the guys out there to eat up innings, but they would certainly like a better showing from everyone, at least in terms of runs allowed. They're losing depth along with Zito -- Joe Kennedy will likely step into the #5 spot -- but they may not be losing any quality at all.

The Oakland bullpen took a similar path as the rotation. Despite the troubles facing closer Huston Street, the A's managed to surround him with a fine cast of supporting players and ended up with a solid staff. Street regressed from his unlikely brilliance in 2005 (1.72), seeing his ERA nearly double to 3.31. Street's poise is real and was documented past the point of insanity in 2005. But his stuff is debatable. It's doubtful that he's going to assume the mantle of Mariano Rivera as the game's best closer, as the 2005 hype suggested. But even if he settles in as an above-average guy, he'll be valuable. And there's every reason to indicate that he can do that and more.
Behind Street, the A's have competent setup man Justin Duchscherer (2.91 ERA), Kiko Calero (3.41) and young Chad Gaudin (3.09). The A's wrote the book on the fungibility of closers and setup men, and their current pen is not only cheap, but very cost-effective. Behind those three, the team has long man Kirk Saarloos, Ron Flores, and a couple other options out of the 'pen. If the A's fail to repeat in '07, it will not likely be the fault of the bullpen.

Offseason Game Plan:
The A's have already nabbed Mike Piazza to fill the Thomas void at DH; they just need to hope that he's the 2006 version (332/372/564 on the road) and not an earlier version (251/326/452 overall in '05).

The A's could use a better insurance policy than Kirk Saarloos for the possible Harden injury. But considering the going rate for starting pitching, it's not likely that the team will do anything more than nibble at the free agent periphery. GM Billy Beane has even been involved in rumors trading away a starting pitcher, such as Blanton or Haren.
Really, though, it all comes down to the options. While the team needs better depth, the problem is mostly with the incumbent personnel. There's not a lot you need to change about a lineup that still includes Nick Swisher, Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez, Milton Bradley and Piazza.
Top priority is keeping everyone healthy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Winds of Change Are Blowin'

At least in baseball, it doesn't get quite this bad.
  • Reports are that the Yankees have agreed to a contract with Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa. The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun puts the value of the deal at about 5 years, $20 million. Add to that the Yanks' posting fee of $26 million.
    This seems like a good deal to me. Even taking the posting fee into account, the Yanks will be paying about $9 million a year for Igawa (less when you consider that the posting fee doesn't count toward the luxury tax). This is the going rate for an above-average starter, which Igawa seems to be. In fact, since he's relatively young and is (I think) better than he looks, he should be a good addition to the Yankee rotation. The Yanks now have a tentative rotation of: Wang, Mussina, Pettitte, Igawa, and Randy Johnson. This means they have the luxury of phasing in star prospect Phillip Hughes whenever they wish and could actually be trading away a starting pitcher mid-season.
  • Vernon Wells did indeed sign the 7-year, $126 million deal offered by the Blue Jays. I'll save this discussion for later when I can go into more detail, but I think people have deluded themselves into thinking that Wells is better than he is. It also commits Toronto to a lot of money which really limits their maneuverability in the coming years.
  • The Mariners made the second really bad trade of their offseason when they sent prospects Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto to the Nationals for Jose Vidro. Vidro is washed up as a hitter (289/348/395 last year) and has become a loss at second base. He's signed to a silly contract that's a remnant of the Montreal Expos era. I wouldn't trade away a box of paper clips for Jose Vidro and his contract.
    But the Mariners decided to trade away Chris Snelling, a promising (if injury-prone) young outfielder, and a fair relief arm in Fruto to get him. Vidro won't be displacing Jose Lopez at second base, and so will be the team's DH.
    Now you're probably thinking that a DH should be a good hitter. You're also thinking that if someone is a decent hitter for a second baseman, they're going to suck as a DH. Keith Law predicts that Vidro will be the worst DH in the league, and I agree. He's displacing Ben Broussard, who's no Dave Winfield, but is a much more valuable hitter than Vidro.
    This is yet another terrible deal for the Mariners that smacks of desperation and could easily seal the fate of GM Bill Bavasi.
  • The Devil Rays agreed to a perfectly reasonable contract with Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura: 3 years, $7.7 million. Not bad for such an above-average guy, especially considering their posting fee was minimal.
  • As many people expected, the Tigers signed pitcher Jeremy Bonderman to a contract extension. The deal is for 4 years and $38 million, and is absolutely reasonable by any standard. The length of the contract covers Bonderman's entry first couple years of free agency, but is still relatively short enough to allow the team some wiggle room if the hard-worked youngster gets injured. And $9.5 million per year for one of the top 10 or so pitchers in the good league is well below market value.
  • The White Sox traded 1B/OF Ross Gload to the Royals for relief pitcher Andy Sisco. Okay, try to help me understand this. The Royals are amazingly crowded with 1B/OF types, most of whom are far better than Ross freakin' Gload. Andy Sisco is a young relief arm who is still a bit raw, but has good potential, and should be a valuable (and cheap) part of the Sox bullpen. Is Allard Baird still secretly running the Royals?
    The White Sox also signed up free agent Toby Hall to a 2-year deal to be their backup catcher. Hall doesn't hit well even for a catcher (career 265/301/384) and isn't particularly gifted on defense. It's not a lot of money, but I still wonder what makes people seek out Toby Hall.
  • The Red Sox made some maintenance moves to fill out their roster. They got reliever Brendan Donnelly from the Angels for a prospect, and they signed reliever J.C. Romero and backup catcher Doug Mirabelli to one-year deals.
    At 35, Donnelly's a bit old, but he's also got a reliable track record as an above-average big-league reliever. It's better that the Sox get him instead of making another Julian Tavarez-esque boo-boo.
    J.C. Romero is just 30, but is coming off a wretched season with the Angels (6.70 ERA in 48.1 IP). But Romero is usually solid, and so long as there's nothing lingering from his 2006 season, he should be a perfectly acceptable LOOGY. These two moves still leave unanswered who will be the Boston closer in 2007. The Red Sox are certainly capable of thinking outside the box, but there aren't any desirable closer-type relievers left on the market. The Sox have talked to several teams about a trade but haven't gotten anywhere yet (although they're in the running for the Pirates' Mike Gonzalez). I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up shifting Papelbon back into the role, if only for a year.
    As for Mirabelli, the Sox could probably do better for a backup catcher and really shouldn't go this crazy over a guy who can catch a knuckleball, especially after last year's fiasco.
  • The Giants signed Ryan Klesko to a one-year deal. Apparently, they were running low on Defensively Useless Old Guys With Nothing Left in the Tank.
  • Rumors have Marcus Giles headed to San Diego to join brother Brian on the Padres. This looks like a good deal for the Pads by any standard, as they get Giles, a well above-average second baseman. The Padres also have Todd Walker, who accepted the team's offer of arbitration, but that's not such a problem. Walker can serve as an insurance policy for young third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and is also a valuable backup guy and pinch-hitter.

More to come, no doubt, as we're still Waiting for Zito(t).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Looking Ahead: Los Angeles Angels

2006 W-L Record: 89-73
2006 pW-pL Record: 84-78
Runs Scored: 766 (12th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 732 (4th in AL)
Free Agents: Darin Erstad, Adam Kennedy, J.C. Romero

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Kendry Morales/Robb Quinlan
2B -- Howie Kendrick/Brandon Wood
SS -- Orlando Cabrera
3B -- Chone Figgins
LF -- Juan Rivera
CF -- Gary Matthews, Jr.
RF -- Vladimir Guerrero
C -- Mike Napoli
DH -- Garret Anderson

2007 Proj. Rotation:
John Lackey
Jered Weaver
Bartolo Colon/Joe Saunders
Kelvim Escobar
Ervin Santana

2007 Proj. Closer:
Francisco Rodriguez

There's plenty of room for shifting around in that starting lineup, especially with Figgins, the human patch, on the roster. There's about 4 or 5 guys on the roster who can play first, and two or three different third basemen. Rivera could shift to center, but neither he nor ideal DH Anderson are a good long-term solution there. The middle infield is also a bit crowded; along with second baseman Kendrick, you have minor league shortstops Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, and Sean Rodriguez. None of these prospects have broken into the majors yet, but they could get there soon, which would put resident shortstop Cabrera on the trading block.
But any way you mix them up, this is still not a dominant offensive ballclub. Most of the hope for the lineup lies in the admittedly talented prospects littered across the infield. The Angels have had terrible luck getting things to work so far, but the new wave of middle infielders looks like it can help turn things around.
The Angels have Casey Kotchman, Kendry Morales, Dallas McPherson, and Robb Quinlan as potential corner infielders. Ideally, that's a fine arrangement of prospects that should produce at least two guys who can produce. But it hasn't worked out that well so far.
Kotchman looked like a monster, hitting for big averages with good plate discipline in the minors. It would be expected for him to take a while before handling the big leagues, but his 2005 stint looked like it showed good progress (278/352/484 in 47 games). But injuries limited him to 32 games combined between Triple-A and the majors last year. Kotchman will just be 24 next year, so there's still reason for optimism, but it has to be tempered somewhat with the ugly reality of his big-league career so far.
Morales, who looks like the starting first baseman, is a Cuban defector who's shown good offense in the minors. Morales spent the first half of 2006 at Triple-A, hitting 320/359/520. Granted, Salt Lake City is a hitter's park, and you'd expect a learning curve in the majors. But even taking this into account, Morales' second half has to be disappointing (234/293/371). Morales is also just 24 next year, so there's still some good potential there. And he at least has good health on his side.
With the signing of Gary Matthews, it looks like Chone Figgins will get shifted to third base. Figgins is a useful player who can play a number of different positions, steal some bases, and play good defense. The problem is that he's just not a very good hitter (267/336/376 in '06). The Angels may have some better third basemen on the roster, and they'd be well-advised to look into trading the overrated Figgins.
The Angels entered 2006 hoping that Dallas McPherson would take over the job of everyday third baseman. He was promoted to the majors despite a top-heavy 250/307/596 batting line in Triple-A, and he did indeed struggle in Anaheim (261/298/478 in 40 games). McPherson was promoted aggressively in the Angels system, and it's possible that being jerked around has had an impact on him. He hasn't had a good showing since 2004, where he split time between Double-A (321/404/660) and Triple-A (313/370/680), with an unimpressive MLB debut (225/279/475). McPherson began 2005 at the bottom of the Angels' system, but still managed to get a showing in the bigs, despite a Triple-A stint that's unimpressive in context (278/349/704 in just 14 games).
Add onto that his highly disappointing 2006, and it's getting harder to lo0k on the bright side with McPherson. He'll be 27 next year, and he still hasn't performed well in the majors. There are extenuating circumstances in his case, but he's getting farther removed from his last good season.
Robb Quinlan has filled in at both first and third base. Quinlan also has good potential, but unfortunately, he's hasn't been healthy and productive at the same time in years. 2004 was a relatively good season for Robb; he performed well in Triple-A and then hit well in 56 games in the bigs (344/401/525). But that was only 160 ABs, and the next year he struggled in the bigs (231/273/403 in 54 games). Quinlan made it into 86 games last year and hit 321/344/491, which has to be considered a victory, even if it was just 234 ABs. Quinlan will be 30 next year, and it's doubtful that he'll serve as anything but support for the other guys on this list.
Pressed for a third baseman, the Angels in 2006 turned to Maicer Izturis, who actually hit well (293/365/412). But it's highly unlikely that Izturis can produce like that again (career 265/335/377).
Surely the Angels will get a couple of these guys to hold their own and produce. But it's no sure thing; they thought it would happen last year, but it didn't.
Things are rosier in the middle infield, thanks to the arrival of some highly-regarded prospects. Orlando Cabrera is still clogging up shortstop. He's still a good producer (282/334/404 in '06), but he's about to become very superflous given his salary and the push he'll be getting from the prospects, especially uber-slugger Brandon Wood.
At second base, the Angels brought up Howie Kendrick last year and look to be sticking with him. Kendrick hit well enough in the minors that the club tried him at first base some in '06. But with Adam Kennedy gone, it looks like Kendrick will be taking over second. Kendrick will be 24 next year (what fascination do the Angels have with the Class of '01?) and while he didn't hit too well in the majors (285/314/616), he's got the potential to become one of the better 2Bs in the league (which is a pretty low standard, granted).
In the outfield, the team is surprisingly bereft of prospects. It looks like Juan Rivera and Garret Anderson will fill in the LF/DH spots. Rivera is a useful hitter obtained from the Nats who is quite valuable as an outfield/DH swingman. He's perfectly capable of hitting like an everyday player (310/362/525 in '06), although last year's numbers are likely a bit inflated. As for Anderson, he's degenerated into a pretty useless player, whose defense is limited and whose offense is simply inadequate for LF or DH (280/323/433 in '06).

In center field, the Angels tried the novel solution of signing a free agent. They signed Gary Matthews, Jr. to a 5-year, $50 million contract. His $10 mil. per year is fourth-highest on the team, behind Guerrero, Colon, and Anderson. And it's possible that he'll be the worst value of any player on the team, with the possible exception of Anderson. Matthews is a good fourth outfielder who has somehow managed to convince the Angels that he's an All-Star. At age 31, Matthews went to Texas and hit 313/371/495. Now considering that this is Texas, and that his career batting line is 263/336/419, we could safely say that this was a career year, right? But no; the Angels are going to pay Matthews on the assumption that he can produce 5 seasons of All-Star baseball, as opposed to the one season he's managed so far in his career.
The Angels didn't have a pressing need for a center fielder. They could have shifted Figgins to center and played one of the corner infielders at third. But for some reason, they decided to drop $50 million in one of the worst ways imaginable.
Catching for the Angels will likely by Mike Napoli. Jeff Mathis was supposed to be the #1 catching prospect for the Angels, but Napoli broke through in 2006 and hit 228/360/455 at the big club. It's highly doubtul that Mathis can hit like that, although he has a better defensive reputation. My guess it that Napoli has the job so long as he can hit the ball. And there's a lot worse things in life than having two genuine major-league catchers.

There's a lot of strong potential in this lineup, which is why the Angels are considered to be strong contenders in 2007 and for the near future. But even if the lineup doesn't live up to the hype, the Angels can always fall back on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

That starting rotation is scary good. Not only is Lackey a legitimate #1 and Weaver a legitimate #2, but the team has great depth and every opportunity to lead the league in ERA.

As for Lackey, he has broken through to the "ace" position in a short while, but there's every reason to believe he's for real. Lackey took off in 2005 and provided a fine repeat performance in 2006, notching a 3.56 ERA in 217.2 IP with 190 K and just 14 HR allowed. Lackey will be just 28 next year, and should anchor the rotation for the foreseeable future. He's definitely one of the more underrated pitchers in the game.
Behind Lackey is young Jered Weaver, who came upon the scene like a sensation in 2006. If the Angels had been hitting the ball worth a damn, they could have made the playoffs and given Weaver a shot at the Rookie of the Year. Weaver only pitched 123 innings, but managed a 2.56 ERA and a 33:105 BB:K ratio. Weaver was a star in college at Long Beach and showed off strong numbers in the minor leagues. The only real worry is that Weaver enjoyed a BABIP of .239, which was easily the luckiest in the league. You can chart this up to good defense and small sample size, but it could also be a sign that Weaver enjoyed a fair amount of luck last year. Still, even if he does take a step back, he should be a reliable starter, and the Angels have the depth to compensate.
Kelvim Escobar is another underrated pitcher. He has the reputation of a mid-level starter, but is actually a strongly above-average guy with a good strikeout rate. Escobar (who will be just 31 next year) threw 189.1 IP in 2006, with a 50:147 BB:K ratio and a 3.61 ERA. If this guy is your #3 starter, you're in fine shape. It should be noted that the Angels wisely signed Escobar to a contract extension early in the season, and so didn't have to deal with the slaary inflation of the offseason.
The #4 pitcher on the staff will be young Ervin Santana, although he could move up. Santana's name has been involved in a lot of trade rumors lately, but it looks now like the Angels will be keeping him. This is good news. Santana is young (24 next year) and has shown good break-out potential. Even if he stalls and repeats last year's performance (4.28 ERA in 204 IP), he'll still be a big asset.
The #5 spot will likely go to Bartolo Colon, although it's impossible to count on him considering his injuries and conditioning. Colon struggled through injuries last year, making 10 starts and posting a 5.11 ERA. He turns 34 in May, and the Angels would be wise not to count on Colon for very much going forward. His 2005 Cy Young was a minor fluke, and his stamina is such that he's not a good bet to stay healthy as he ages.
The Angels do have a backup in Joe Saunders. Saunders, who will be 26 next year, isn't a big-time prospect, but he held his own in 13 starts last year, managing a 4.71 ERA and a 29:51 BB:K ratio. That's not exactly awe-inspiring, but if your #6 starter is this good, then you're in good shape.
And the Angels' rotation has as much upside as any other in the league. Even if they do experience some speedbumps (regression from Weaver, injuries to Colon), they've got the depth and the personnel to compensate. The rotation is the biggest reason to consider the Angels contenders in the AL West.

The Angel bullpen is anchored by Francisco Rodriguez. I've heard a lot of comments from scouts expressing concern about K-Rod's violent delivery, believing that it could lead to major injury in the future. We have to keep that in the back of our minds, but we also have to consider that the youngster is still one of the elite closers in the game. Last year he posted a 1.73 ERA in 73 innings, striking out 98 and walking 28.
Behind K-Rod, the Angels have Scot Shields, the rubber-armed setup man who's shown good consistency. The Angels may feel that Shields' reputation has grown so that they can shop him around for a trade, but that hasn't happened yet. Behind these two, the Angels have taken a step back from their previous years of dominant bullpens. Stalwart Brendan Donnelly pitched well enough (3.94 ERA in 60 IP) and even Hector Carrasco, as unlikely a hero as there ever was, threw 100.1 innings with a 3.41 ERA.
Although it may not be as fearsome as it was circa-2002, the Angels have a good track record when it comes to assembling bullpens. All the major pieces are already there, so it just comes down to filling in the gaps.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Angels really don't have anything to do. They were rumored to be in on the Manny Ramirez trade, which would certainly be an upgrade over Garret Anderson. They may want to add some stability at the infield corners, but the roster is crowded enough with those guys as it is.
The Halos were rumored to be pursuing Barry Zito, and in recent weeks have come out as strong possibilities. I really don't see the wisdom of signing Zito. The Angels have a very, very strong bullpen, with three very good young pitchers (Lackey, Weaver, Santana), one 30-year-old gem (Escobar) and plenty of hope to fill out the back (Colon, Saunders). There's no need to overspend on a super-expensive free agent that doesn't in any way fill a pressing need. If you'll look back at the runs scored and runs allowed, you'll see that the Angels' #1 problem is offense. Their #1 priority should be improving their offense. Spending $50 million on Gary Matthews isn't going to help your lineup much, and spending $100 million on Barry Zito would be a tremendous waste of resources, as the Angels are one of the few teams in baseball that don't need any more starting pitchers.

Even if the Angels do nothing before Spring Training, they have to be considered a dark horse candidate to upset the A's in the AL West.