Saturday, February 13, 2010

N.L. East Offseason – Team by Team

Atlanta Braves

Nov. 13:  Braves sign Tim Hudson to a 3-year deal for $28 MM, with a club option for 2013.
The only question here is how well you expect Tim Hudson to age.  Based on Hudson’s track record, he’s easily worth 9 million per, even for his age 34-36 seasons.
But Hudson is coming off Tommy John surgery that limited him to 29 starts over the past two seasons.  They were 29 good starts, but that is still troubling for someone entering his mid-30’s.  It would be great to have him for one healthy season before committing to a multi-year deal, but the team doesn’t have that luxury.  While Hudson may never be an ace again, this contract isn’t likely to turn into an albatross, although I think I said the same thing about Derek Lowe’s deal.

Dec. 2:  Braves sign Billy Wagner to a 1-year deal for $7 MM, with a club option for 2011.
The key here is, for me, the one-year commitment (with a mere $250K buyout of the ‘11 option).  Wagner looked good last year in his return to the Mets and Red Sox, but he’s also a 38-year old who relies on his power.  And it’s not clear how frequently he’s going to be able to work.  Still, this isn’t a bad deal for a closer, especially since they’re got other options if Wagner doesn’t work out.  Such as …

Dec. 3:  Braves sign Takashi Saito to a 1-year deal for $3.2 MM.
Considering that Saito’s major league career consists of four stellar seasons and that he can close in a pinch, I’m not much worried about the fact that he turns 40 in two weeks.

Dec. 12:  Braves DFA Ryan Church and Kelly Johnson.
I can understand the loss of Church, whose arbitration-boosted salary would exceed his value as a fourth outfielder.  But I was somewhat surprised to see Kelly Johnson cut loose.  Granted, the ascendance of Martin Prado in 2009 made this decision easier, and the team already has enough outfielders.  More than anything, perhaps this reflects the team’s belief that Johnson’s 2009 struggles weren’t just an anomaly.

Dec. 22:  Braves trade Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino.
I was not thrilled to see the Braves trading Vazquez, who is signed to a good deal for one more year at $11.5 MM.  I realize that the Braves had one too many starting pitchers, but this problem is of their own making.  Couldn’t you have kept Vazquez, let Tim Hudson walk, and bring the kids along while saving money?  But as far as consolation prizes go, Vizcaino is pretty impressive.

Jan. 5:  Braves sign Troy Glaus to a 1-year deal for $1.75 MM.
This strikes me as a great bargain.  Glaus was limited to just 32 games with the Cardinals last year, but here’s how the 33-year-old did in the four seasons prior: 
2005 ARZ 37 258 363 522
2006 TOR 38 252 355 513
2007 TOR 20 262 366 473
2008 STL 27 270 372 483
Even if Glaus hasn’t fully recovered, and even if hesuffers the early decline his skill set seems to suggest, he’ll be a good, cheap source of offense for a team that needs it.

Florida Marlins

Dec. 9:  Marlins trade Matt Lindstrom to Astros for two prospects.
The Marlins are mercenaries, yes, but other teams could learn from their super-efficient way of handling middling, arbitration-eligible talents.  In all seriousness, this team could contend if ownership gave a damn.

Jan. 21:  Marlins sign Josh Johnson to a 4-year contract extension worth $39 MM.
Johnson hasn’t accumulated a lot of big, flashy numbers, but he’s been quite good for a number of years now and will prove a steal at this price if he stays healthy.  I just wonder how much of this he owes to the MLBPA

New York Mets

Dec. 3:  Mets sign Chris Coste and Henry Blanco to one-year contracts worth $650,000 and $750,000, respectively.
The Mets are looking to corner the market on marginal catchers.  Blanco, at least, has the defensive chops for the backup job, but even that’s a lot to ask of a 38-year-old career backstop.  Considering that the team also has Omir Santos under contract, you’ve got three roster spots there taken up by about 1/3 of an actual everyday catcher.  As if that weren’t alarming enough, the Mets were also rumored to be pursuing Bengie Molina and Yorvit Torrealba in their quest to assemble the hydra of backup catchers.  It looks like the Giants and Padres, respectively, will be saving the Mets from themselves on that count.

Dec. 28:  Mets sign Kelvim Escobar to a one-year contract worth $1.25 MM.
The Mets have had trouble keeping pitchers healthy.  How much trouble?
The World War II film Enemy at the Gates is set during the Battle of Stalingrad.  In the opening scene, we see thousands of raw recruits rushed to the Russian front.  Supplies are thin and attrition is high, so the officers only give out one gun for every two soldiers.  The thinking is that the soldier without a gun can wait and take one from a dead comrade.
I thought of that film today as I was reading about the Mets’ Spring Training complex.  It seems that the team is inviting 50 pitchers to camp, but the clubhouse is only stocking 25 baseballs.
(This is not meant as a comment on the team’s trainers, but rather their particular brand of bad luck combined with an interesting choice of player personnel.)

Jan. 5:  Mets sign Jason Bay to a 4-year contract worth $66 MM, plus a club option for 2014.
A lot of people are cautiously optimistic about this deal, with their concerns focused on two main points:  Jason Bay’s defense and Jason Bay’s knees.
The defense has been an ongoing concern surrounding Bay in recent years, thanks mainly to the fielding stat du jour, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).  Bay’s UZR has been abysmal over the past three years, rating at –11.5 with Pittsburgh in 2007, a wretched –18.4 with the Pirates and Red Sox combined in 2008, and a slightly less awful -13.0 with the Sox in 2009.  That means that, in 2008 for instance, Bay cost his team nearly 20 runs (two wins) with his poor defense.  Bay’s offense (according to WAR, the uberstat favored by that year was worth 32.2 runs above replacement, which is quite good.  But his hideous defense offset that by more than half, leaving him with a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 2.9, which is good enough but not enough to merit this contract.
The problem with this evaluation is not just in my concerns about WAR (which I don’t think accurately reflects the replacement level), but moreso my concerns about UZR.  UZR doesn’t claim to be the final word on defense, and it was developed by people who are much smarter than I.  As a statistic, however, it varies widely from year to year, which would be expected from any number taken from such a small sample size as an outfielder’s defense in one season.  I’ve also heard some question as to how well WAR accounts for ballparks.  This could explain why Bay’s numbers went all Greg Luzinski in Fenway, but then they weren’t too hot in Pittsburgh, either.
If you look at Bay’s UZR per 150 games over his entire career, it comes out to –7.9.  That’s pretty bad, but it’s a full win better than his single season totals.  Granted, it’s problematic to smooth over the ups and downs of a career with one number; it may well be that Bay’s defense has gotten a lot worse in recent years.  But it seems more likely to me that Jason Bay is a bad defensive left fielder, rather than a truly execrable one.
So our concerns about Bay mainly center around his offense, and that’s where his knees come into the picture.  Reports surfaced recently that the Red Sox backed off of Bay because of concern about his knees.  The outfielder apparently balked at contractual language aimed at indemnifying the team from injury, which led to his departure for Flushing Meadow.  These may or may not be true, and a subject such as this just isn’t something we can guess at without having more intimate knowledge.  But it isn’t cause for celebration, either.
Whether you look at WAR or not, Bay’s offensive numbers have been impressive over the past few years.  Aside from a dismal 2007, Bay has been providing elite-level offense since he arrived in the majors.  His career 280/376/519 batting line is well-rounded enough, but how can he be expected to age?  This is especially important, since his contract is heavily backloaded, with the Mets owing just $6.5 MM for his age-31 season next year and escalating to $16 MM for his age-34 season in 2013.
Will Bay be worth that much?  I don’t really think so, but then I don’t think it will be a disaster, either (unless his knees really are that bad).  My complaint isn’t so much with his contract, but the team that gave it to him.  The Mets are already a top-heavy collection of fragile superstars, and while Bay helps them, he’ll also end up adding to their money woes as an expensive, aging slugger with no DH to hide him.

Jan. 22:  Mets trade Brian Stokes to the Angels for Gary Matthews, Jr. and cash.
Money isn’t a big issue here, since the Angels will be picking up most of Matthews’ salary just to rid themselves of the worst free agent contract in franchise history.  The real question is why the Mets want Gary Matthews, even at a discount?
Matthews made a really great catch in a game back in 2006, which convinced a lot of people that he was a great center fielder.  But he can’t play center – at least not very often and not very well – so he’s not your ideal fourth outfielder.
Unfortunately, neither can he hit very well.  2006 was a great year offensively for Matthews, too, as he hit 313/371/495 in Texas.  But his batting average had never been above .275 for a full season before.  And since then, he has become an outfielder who doesn’t play center, doesn’t hit for power, doesn’t hit for average and doesn’t draw walks:
2007 579 252 323 419
2008 477 242 319 357
2009 360 250 336 361
Gary Matthews has spent the last two years hitting like a backup infielder, and now the Mets want him to help fill Carlos Beltran’s shoes?  It doesn’t matter if you’re getting a discount on salary, spending a roster spot on a player with this history is totally unnecessary.

Philadelphia Phillies

Dec. 1:  Phillies sign Brian Schneider to a two-year contract worth $2.75 MM.
The Phillies’ interest in Schneider is more than a little baffling.  He’s not a bad choice for a backup, but to commit a roster spot to him for two years is excessive.  Schneider’s offense has been terrible for the past four seasons, so he’s not even a particularly attractive backup catcher.  He may be a swell guy and all, but the mistake behind a move like this is a poor understanding of your options.

Dec. 3:  Phillies sign Placido Polanco to a three-year contract worth $18 MM, plus a mutual option for 2013.
Speaking of baffling decisions, you have this contract.  The Phillies have, with premeditation, decided to commit to Polanco for three years as their starting third baseman.  Polanco’s offense wasn’t bad for a second baseman, and his strong defense there made him an asset.  Moving him to third makes his defense and his offense less valuable.
The problem here isn’t necessarily money, as $6 MM per year isn’t too bad for Polanco even if he ends up as a utility player.  The problem is the three-year commitment to a 34-year-old plus the plate appearances that could go to an actual everyday third baseman.
I don’t expect Polanco to be a big disappointment, especially not in his first year; the Phillies were, after all, able to live with Pedro Feliz.  In some ways, though, that’s worse; they may not be able to see their mistake until it’s too late.
The Phillies didn’t used to be such a win-now team.  But with multi-year commitments to aging non-superstars like Polanco, Schneider and Raul Ibanez, plus the emptying of the farm system in the Lee/Halladay deals, they’re setting themselves up for a crashing return to mediocrity in 3-4 years.  This is why I’m not inclined to endorse current GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., even after winning a pennant in his first season in the job.

Dec. 15:  Phillies trade Kyle Drabek, Travis D’Arnaud and Michael Taylor to Blue Jays for Roy Halladay and $6 million cash.  Phillies go on to sign Halladay to a 3-year contract extension (2011-2013) worth $60 MM, with a vesting option for 2014.
Dec. 15:  Phillies trade Cliff Lee to Mariners for Phillipe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and Juan Ramirez.
First of all, let me say that getting Roy Halladay for 3/60 is unbelievable.  I think it was Joe Sheehan at BP who first expressed shock that this humongous bargain wasn’t being commented on enough.
But the extension is separate from the trade(s) here.  Essentially, the Phillies gave up Drabek, D’Arnaud, Taylor and one year of Cliff Lee for Aumont, Gillies, Ramirez and one year of Halladay.  I consider this to be really overpaying.
That’s a complicated transaction, so let’s simplify it a bit.  Would I trade one year of Cliff Lee for one year of Roy Halladay?  Sure.  Halladay’s more of a proven commodity and comes with an AL East pedigree.  Not that Lee is anything to sneeze at, as he’s been one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons.
My complaint is that the Phillies felt the need to make such a trade at all.  It didn’t seem likely that Philly could sign Lee to an extension, whereas Halladay gave them a bargain.  That’s something to consider.  But why not just keep Lee?  Or, if you really want to trade him, can’t you get back something better than that?  I do value Halladay over Lee, but not enough to make up for the significant difference in value between the three players Philly gave up and the three they got.
GM Ruben Amaro’s response to these concerns was unsatisfactory on every level.  He basically said that he didn’t want to implode the farm system, and that’s why he traded Lee.  Well, A) no one’s forcing you to implode anything, and B) you’re not exactly getting pure gold from Seattle.
My theory –- and it is simply that – is that the Phillies talked themselves into a corner when it came to trading for Halladay and then talked themselves into another one when they pawned off Lee.
Look, this team is built to win now, and this was clear even before the farm system was emptied.  You’ve signed Raul Ibanez to an absurdly long and lucrative deal, and you’ve signed Shane Victorino – a good but not irreplaceable player – to a three-year extension.  You’re also looking at Jimmy Rollins’ advancing age (and declining OBP) as well as the impending doom of Ryan Howard.  Put simply, they’ve got a whole lot of guys that they may not want once they hit their mid-30’s.  The only two players in the majors that represent significant long-term assets are Chase Utley and Cole Hamels.  Even assuming that Rollins ages well and that Howard avoids the John Mayberry career path, you’re still looking at a crash in teams wins after three years or so.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed that Amaro has done so little to alter this course.  I don’t mind playing for the here and now when you’re trading for Roy Halladay, but it’s the guys like Ibanez and Polanco that just mystify me.

Jan. 21:  Phillies sign Joe Blanton to a three-year contract extension worth $24 MM.
Blanton eats innings and keeps you in the ballgame, and the going rate for that these days is about $8 million per.  Blanton, a fly-ball pitcher who doesn’t notch many strikeouts, has transitioned quite well from Oakland to Philadelphia.  30 homers is a lot for any pitcher to give up, but if you can keep your ERA around 4.00, it’s not fatal.  And for all my worries about low K rates, he actually went from fringe-average to above-average this past year, raising his K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings) to 7.5 (where his career average was near 5, and 6 is adequate).

Jan. 33:  Phillies sign Shane Victorino to a three-year contract extension worth $22 MM.
I’m much less enthusiastic about this deal.  Victorino isn’t a good choice to commit three years to (he’s 29), and he’s just not all that good.  He’s certainly not bad, but I wouldn’t think that “not bad” should be your standard.
Victorino has hit well for a center fielder.  He’s managed a career line of 284/347/428, which is good for the position. But it’s not quite so good when you consider his hitter-friendly park; he’s a career 277/333/417 hitter on the road.
Now if Victorino were a whiz with the glove, I’d be fine with the deal.  But he’s not – quite.  Baseball Prospectus has him listed with 58 FRAR (Fielding Runs Above Replacement) for his career, which is about average (and that includes time spent in right field).  Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating has him listed at 10.6 UZR in center field for his career – which is quite a bit worse, actually.  John Dewan’s Plus-Minus system (which judges a player against the average rather than the replacement level) has Shane at –3 runs saved in center field for his career (although that improves when you factor in his throwing arm).
Whether you want to digest the complex stats or not, it’s fair to say that while Victorino may not be that bad, he isn’t that good – which leaves you wondering what the team is paying for.  And ponder this – the team is guaranteed to have Ibanez and Victorino roaming the outfield for three more years, Jayson Werth – one of the most underrated players in baseball – is free as a bird after this year.  Although considering that the team is throwing around extensions like party favors, Werth is sure to get one eventually, right?  Right?

Jan. 26:  Phillies sign Carlos Ruiz to a three-year contract extension worth $8.85 MM, with a club option for 2013.
Really?  Three years?  No, it’s not a lot of money, but if a player – ANY player -- is worth less than $3 million on an annual basis, why in the world do you need to lock him up for three years?  You yourself believe – if I may draw a conclusion from the contract – that he’s a pretty replaceable player, and yet you apparently can’t bear the thought of actually replacing him.
These are contracts that BAD TEAMS give out.  They reward average or middling players on good teams with overblown contracts until – guess what? – the team isn’t good any more.

Washington Nationals

Nov. 13:  Nationals promote interim manager Jim Riggleman to full-time* manager.
I would continue my previous point about rewarding mediocrity, but instead I’ll just point out that even the front office must know that 2010 is a lost cause.
* – Full-time isn’t the best phrase, but I couldn’t think of a better one.  Normal manager?  Everyday manager?  Or just Manager manager?  Wait – wasn’t Manager manager a character in Catch-22?

Nov. 19:  Nationals name Davey Johnson senior advisor to the general manager.
I have no knowledge about this specific situation.  But in the past, when a famous ex-manager is hired as “special” anything, the current manager should start preparing his resume.  He may not be doomed, necessarily, but his potential replacement is near indeed.

Dec. 8:  Nationals acquire Brian Bruney from Yankees for a player to be named later.
Apparently, the Nationals wanted to save money on a closer, so they picked up Bruney as a candidate for the job.  Well, they will be saving money but again – another clue as to management’s expectations in 2010.

Dec. 11:  Nationals sign Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year contract worth $6 MM.
The stated reason for hiring Pudge – and I’m not saying he’s washed up, but he’s doing ads for Snuggles – was to mentor the young catchers in the system as well as pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg.  You know, there’s a word for people you pay to mentor players – they’re called coaches.  Except coaches don’t make 6 million dollars.  Or take up a roster spot.

Dec. 22:  Nationals sign Jason Marquis to a two-year contract worth $15 MM.
I could just file this under “writing off 2010,” except that $15 million is a considerable amount of money.  Marquis will be the team’s ace, but that’s not a compliment.  If they really just wanted someone to suck up innings, those guys come a lot cheaper than this – and for just one year.
Keith Law said about Marquis – or maybe it was someone similar – that there’s a word for players like this:  NRI.

Dec. 24:  Nationals sign Matt Capps to a one-year contract worth $3.5 MM.
Like I said, it’s a good thing the Nats got Bruney so they didn’t have to overpay some “established closer” like Matt Cap— … aw, damn.


NOTE:   All info on contracts is courtesy of the invaluable website Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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