Archive for October, 2008

The 2008 All Free Agent Bargain Team

For most of the past week, I’ve been looking at some guys who I would target as potential free agent bargains this winter. Wrapping it up, let’s take a look at the All Free Agent Bargain Team, position by position:

Catcher: Dave Ross
First Base: Ben Broussard
Second Base: Orlando Hudson
Shortstop: Rafael Furcal
Third Base: Joe Crede
Left Field: Rocco Baldelli
Center Field: Ryan Langerhans
Right Field: Juan Rivera

Starting Pitcher: Derek Lowe
Starting Pitcher: Randy Johnson

Relief Pitcher: Jeremy Affeldt

There’s actually a pretty decent crop of buy low opportunities this winter. No matter what your team needs, there’s a couple of options that won’t cost an arm and a leg. From pitchers to put your team over the top, middle infielders to add both offense and defense, or guys with some power who can turn on a fastball, smart GMs will be stocking their roster with these guys over the winter, and reaping the rewards in 2009.

The Mike Jacobs Trade

Yesterday, the Kansas City Royals acquired Mike Jacobs from the Florida Marlins for reliever Leo Nunez. The Marlins, always in cost-cutting mode, weren’t particularly interested in taking Jacobs to arbitration this winter, and with a team full of bad defenders, opening up first base to hide one of them seems like a pretty good idea. Plus, Nunez’s sparkly 2.98 ERA and 94 MPH fastball have them thinking that he could be a potential late inning reliever. Even though they’re wrong on that count (Nunez’s combination of lots of fly balls and no strikeouts make him a pretty lousy reliever), moving Jacobs before he costs them too much money makes sense for Florida.

But from the other perspective, why on earth does Kansas City want Jacobs? Yes, his power is appealing, and he’s better than his .299 OBP in 2008 would suggest, but even as a .270/.330/.490 guy (which is basically what Marcel has him projected at for 2009), he’s just barely better than a legue average hitter. If we call him +5 runs offensively, then subtract 10 runs for the position adjustment, he’d be a -5 run player if he played league average defense. But he doesn’t – he’s one of the worst defensive first baseman in the game, racking up +/- ratings of -12, -10, and -27 the last three years. Even if we consider 2008 to be an outlier, we’d have to estimate his defensive value at around -10 runs compared to an average first baseman, which we then add to his previous -5 rating, and all of the sudden, Jacobs is about 15 runs worse than a league average first baseman.

That’s replacement level, or just barely above it. Bad defenders who can put up an .800 OPS in the majors are just not that hard to find. All Kansas City had to do was look internally. They already have a similar player in Ryan Shealy, plus Kila Ka’aihue, and Billy Butler, so Jacobs just adds a fourth power hitting DH type to the Royals roster. And, to top it off, he’s going to be the most expensive of the group while potentially being the least productive.

I know the Royals are trying to put a competitive team on the field to draw fans, but this isn’t the way to do it. If Dayton Moore keeps trying to patch the roster with guys like Jacobs and last year’s Jose Guillen signing, he’s just going to prolong the mediocrity. This isn’t how you build a winner.

A Minor Review of 2008: The Indians

The Graduate: Ben Francisco | Born: October 1981 | Outfielder

Despite going the college route before signing his first pro contract, Ben Francisco took seven years to solidify a spot in the Majors and was a 26-year-old rookie in 2008. He had a solid, but unspectacular, season in Cleveland and hit .266/.332/.438 with 15 homers in 447 at-bats. Francisco also posted rates of 8.2 BB% and 19.2 K%. His power potential is average for a corner outfielder. Francisco hit right-handers and southpaws equally well in 2008.

The Riser: Carlos Santana | Born: April 1986 | Catcher

Stolen from the Dodgers in mid-season for aging Casey Blake, Carlos Santana adds to the glut of catchers in the Cleveland system. That said, his defence behind the plate is very much a work in progress as he began his pro career as an outfielder/third baseman. Santana, who has been catching for just two seasons, made 19 errors in 2008 and caught 34 of 126 base stealers. On the positive side, he is athletic enough to play other positions if he does not improve quickly enough for his defence to catch up to his bat. Offensively in 2008, Santana hit .323/.431/.563 in High-A ball for the Dodgers and .352/.452/.590 at the same level for the Indians. In total, he scored 125 runs, drove in 117 and hit 21 homers. He also walked more than he struck out (89-85).

The Tumbler: Adam Miller | Born: November 1984 | Right-Handed Pitcher

It’s now at the point where you wonder if Adam Miller will ever be healthy enough to pitch a full season. Coming out of high school in 2003, there were two very talented prepsters with the last name Miller: Adam and Andrew. Adam signed with the Indians as the 31st overall selection and Andrew, who made it widely known he planned to go to UNC, snubbed the Rays. Despite going the college route, and beginning his pro career three years later than Adam, Andrew has already played parts of three Major League seasons. Adam has yet to make an appearance in the Majors. Since 2003, Adam has managed just one health season – 2006 – when he went 15-6 at Double-A and allowed just 128 hits in 153.2 innings. He had a potentially solid 2008 season going at Triple-A in 2008 before injuries struck again. Adam had a 1.88 ERA in six starts. After pitching just 94 innings in the last two seasons, it is about time the Indians tried Adam as a late-game reliever.

The ’08 Draft Pick: Cord Phelps | Born: January 1987 | Second Baseman

Cord Phelps is an offensive-minded second baseman who features and advanced bat and could make it to Cleveland in a hurry. The switch-hitter batted .312/.378/.454 in 141 short season at-bats. He posted rates of 9.6 BB% and 15.6 K%. His .142 ISO was respectable for a middle infielder but some expect him to move to third base at some point in his career.

The ’09 Sleeper: Hector Rondon | Born: February 1988 | Right-Handed Pitcher

Hector Rondon has shown steady improvements over the past three seasons since coming over to North America. The Venezuela native allowed just 130 hits in 145 High-A ball innings in 2008. He also posted rates of 2.61 BB/9 and 9.00 K/9. Impressively, his strikeout rates have improved each year as the level of competition gets stronger. Rondon can hit the mid-90s with his fastball and also features a curveball and change-up.

Up Next: The Milwaukee Brewers

Highlight #1: Sabathia, ‘Nuff Said

Well, here we are, my top highlight of the 2008 season. In third place was Chipper Jones and his quest for a .400 batting average that kept us all entertained well into June, and second place involved everyone, including the notoriously tough Phillies fans really pulling for Junior Griffey to hit that 600th home run. First place, however, is a no-brainer for me, and goes to CC Sabathia’s absolutely incredible performance this season. And I’m not just talking about his statistics in a Brewers uniform, but while with the Indians as well.

CC started the season rather poorly, as after four games, his numbers were: 18 IP, 32 H, 27 ER, 14 BB, 14 K, an OPS of 1.170, and a 13.50 ERA. Over his next 14 starts, all with the Indians, Sabathia allowed just 25 earned runs, two less than his total in the initial four. He walked just 20 while striking out 109 and allowing only 85 hits in 104.1 innings. This resulted in a .591 OPS against and a 2.16 ERA. It is irresponsible and incorrect to ignore his atrocious first four starts, but he managed to put together a tremendous 14-start stretch before even landing a plane ticket to Milwaukee.

Following the trade with the Brewers, Sabathia had a somewhat wild first start in the senior circuit but followed it up with three straight complete games, one of which was a shutout. In these three starts, he amassed 27 innings, allowed just 15 hits and three earned runs, walked just three hitters and struck out 26 of them. All told, in 17 starts with the Brewers, he threw seven complete games, produced a K/BB ratio above 5.0 (128/25), and a 1.65 ERA.

Put together, he made 35 starts, threw 253 innings, walked 59, fanned 251, and surrendered 2.70 earned runs per nine innings. In case you are curious just how good he was following those four atrocious starts to begin the year–or just how bad those four starts were–here are his stats from starts #5-35: 235 IP, 191 H, 45 BB, 237 K, .570 OPS, 1.88 ERA, 5.27 K/BB, 2.45 FIP. Again, it is incorrect to ignore those starts, but this what Sabathia did from the end of April until the end of the season. He virtually willed the Brewers into the playoffs, and made four straight starts to close out the season on three days rest. His numbers in that span? 28.2 IP, 24 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 26 K, 1.88 ERA.

With the Brewers, he surrendered 4 ER just once, never venturing higher than that number. Three earned runs were allowed twice; Two earned runs on four occasions; 1 earned run six times; and no earned runs in four different starts. That is domination. His lowest game score was 43 and he produced a game score of 70+ in seven of 17 starts for the Brewers. I have never followed a pitcher, or watched each of his starts, for a team other than my own, except for Greg Maddux prior to this season. From the time Sabathia joined the Brewers, though, I found myself tuning into each and every one of his starts, growing more and more impressed with each passing pitch. His tremendous season, especially with Milwaukee, is my top highlight of the 2008 season.

Highlight #3: Bonds’ No-Show

As Eric mentioned a few days ago, all of us here are recapping some of our more memorable moments from this season part. To lead off my own such list, I don’t have a moment per se, but actually a lack of a moment. The moment I am talking about is the first plate appearance from one of the top hitters of 2007, one of the top three hitters of all time and the man possessing the all time home run record.

Barry Bonds made zero trips to the plate in 2008. He had a 4.88 WPA/LI in 2007, nearly 44 BRAA, and created 10.29 runs per 27 outs. He posted an OPS of 1.045 last season. It would be one matter if Bonds had voluntarily retired, but to see a player of such magnitude, of such ability, who was showing little signs of not being able to sustain a high level of performance through 2008 at least be forced out of the game is astounding. Almost as astounding as the near total lack of coverage it has received. This is arguably the best player ever in baseball history and not a single team was interested enough to give him a one-year deal? It’s far too bewilderingly.

It’s sadly now impossible to talk about Bonds without the issue of steroids coming up. I understand why that can be a hot button issue for some and why some might be perfectly happy to see Barry Bonds no longer playing baseball because of it. Putting that aside though, isn’t it incredibly suspicious that there wasn’t any interest from any team? Not during the offseason, not during Spring Training when the first spate of injuries came down, not when the first teams that thought they would be contenders turned into pumpkins, not when the trade deadline came around and not when the teams with likely postseason hopes had their final chances to add a big bat in the hopes of some October magic.

Will Bonds be back for 2009? It seems unlikely at this point, but his zero at bats in 2008 was one the most memorable parts of this season for me.

Highlight #2: Griffey’s Standing Ovation

My second top highlight of the 2008 season was one that I am unsure if many even got to see. Whether or not Sportscenter aired the clip or not escapes my memory, but it involved the Phillies playing the Reds, and the reaction of the notoriously tough Philadelphia fanbase and their reaction to Junior Griffey. Ken Griffey, Jr, is now essentially a replacement player, with poor defense and about average offense, but in the beginning of June, he stood right outside the entrance to the 600 HR club, and had trouble earning his membership.

In the first two games of a three game set with the Phillies, the Reds opted to sit Griffey, though he did make pinch-hit appearances, much to the pleasure of the Citizens Bank Park faithful. In fact, the fans actually booed Phillies reliever Tom Gordon when his lack of control prevented Griffey from having a concrete shot at his milestone home run. This was not my highlight, however, as that came the very next game.

Cole Hamels was on the mound for the Phillies and Griffey got the start for the Reds. Cole had long been a fan of Griffey’s and had said before the game began that he honestly would not have minded being the pitcher to give up #600, joining a large list of other pitchers who had previously fallen victim to the sweetest swing in the majors.

In his first at-bat, Griffey hit a double off the wall to the delight of the Phillies fans, a shot that came very close to leaving the yard. His next two at-bats, both prefaced with very loud applause, resulted in somewhat weak groundouts. With Hamels cruising through the game, keeping the Reds firmly off the scoreboard, Griffey would have just one more at-bat. Trailing 5-0, Griffey led off the top of the ninth inning. As he stepped to the plate, a resounding applause spread across the stands. It became quite clear that they were pulling for him to hit his 600th home run.

As Cole took a few steps towards the plate to get a new baseball, you could see him mutter something to Griffey, to which Junior smiled. Hamels would later admit that he asked Griffey what pitch he wanted to say and where he wanted it to be placed. Hamels soon delivered a fastball on the inside corner that Griffey seemed to get all of, launching it towards the centerfield fence. Shane Victorino played it brilliantly, racing back. Literally standing at the wall, Victorino pulled the ball in, inching Hamels closer to a shutout and keeping Griffey milestone-less for at least one more game.

Griffey smiled as Shane made the catch, though his expression bore resemblance to one of slight disappointment. As he made his way back towards the dugout, just about every fan in attendance rose to his or her feet and gave Griffey an absolutely thunderous ovation. Griffey seemed to be in shock. He had experienced applause in his previous plate appearances, but nothing like this. With each step towards the dugout the ovation grew, and he tipped his cap to the fans. Afterwards, in the locker room, he was choked up while giving an interview, recounting the experience, thanking everyone for the support, and struggling to put a word on how it felt. He eventually settled with a simple “It was…. it was awesome.”

He hit #600 soonafter, but, for me, watching notoriously tough fans show him more love than some of their own players was one of the most exciting things I have ever seen in a baseball game.

Free Agent Bargain: Japanese Position Players

If there’s one group of free agents that, over the last five years, has been the most consistently undervalued by the market, it is clearly position players from Japan. Take a look at the following players who have come over, how much their teams paid them per season (posting fee included if applicable), and their average WPA/LI during the contract.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners – 2001 to 2003, $9 million – 2.0 WPA/LI per season
Kenji Johjima, Seattle Mariners – 2006 to 2008, $5 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season
Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees – 2003 to 2005, $7 million – 2.1 WPA/LI per season
Tadahito Iguchi, Chicago White Sox – 2005 to 2007, $2.75 million – 1.1 WPA/LI per season
Akinori Iwamura, Tampa Bay Rays – 2007 to 2009, $4 million – -0.1 WPA/LI per season
So Taguchi, St. Louis Cardinals – 2002 to 2004, $1 million – 0.0 WPA/LI per season
Kazuo Matsui, New York Mets – 2004 to 2006, $7 million – -0.2 WPA/LI per season
Kosuke Fukodome, Chicago Cubs – 2008 to 2011, $12 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season

Obviously, WPA/LI doesn’t adjust for position or defense, but the conclusion is still obvious – as a group, these guys have been a massive success. The original contracts for Ichiro, Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura, and Johjima especially were ridiculous bargains. Not one of them cost their team more than $10 million per season, and all of them were above average players, including Ichiro and Matsui proving to be all-star caliber players. Even the so called busts, such as Kaz Matsui, were reasonably productive players at a not ridiculous price.

Maybe Fukodome’s contract from last winter signaled a shift in how teams view Japanese position players, and they’ll be fairly valued going forward, but there was a huge undervaluation of Japanese players for six solid years, and it’s hard to imagine that it all disappeared in a single winter. While I’ll leave the specific names of potential bargains to those who know NPB ball better than myself, it seems wise that teams looking for a good bargain would target that segment of potential free agents as an opportunity to find a quality player at a lower than expected cost.

Free Agent Bargain: Derek Lowe

For our final free agent bargain, we take a look at another starting pitcher who simply doesn’t get the recognition he deserves – Derek Lowe. I’ve written about him several times this year, but it bears repeating: Lowe had the 7th best FIP of any starting pitcher in baseball this year. Better than Brandon Webb. Better than Johan Santana. Better than breakthrough stars Ervin Santana and Ryan Dempster or established aces like Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt.

Lowe was tremendous for the Dodgers this year, continuing his run as a durable, front line starter. Because he’s one of the most extreme groundball starters in the majors and he’s learned how to command his sinker, his success is built off limiting walks and home runs. He did both of those better than almost everyone else in baseball, which makes up for the fact that he posts just average strikeout rates. Getting batters to swing and miss is great and all, but it’s not the only way to succeed – Lowe has gotten so good at the other aspects of baseball that he doesn’t need to blow hitters away. Weak groundballs turn into outs with enough frequency too.

Because of his age, Lowe isn’t going to be in the market for the five to seven year deal that CC Sabathia will be looking for. The length of the contract we should expect Lowe to get is three or four years, which makes him more attractive than others on the market just for that reason. How much should Lowe get?

If we assume that Lowe’s true talent level will see him give up 4.25 runs per nine innings next year, and we project him to throw 200 innings, that makes him about 38 runs above a replacement level starting pitcher. Given that, we can call him a +3.5 to +4 win pitcher. Given an expected going rate of about $5 million per win this winter, we’d expect Lowe to get something like $17.5 to $20 million per year if he was valued correctly.

I highly doubt that Lowe will get that much money, though – the perception of his abilities across the game don’t match his actual abilities, and I’d put the expected range of his salary at about $15 million per year. If I’m right, Lowe’s going to be worth about $2.5 to $5 million in asset value to whoever signs him for 2009.

Teams like Atlanta, who are considering giving up the farm for the right to pay Jake Peavy the same amount that we’re projecting Lowe will sign for, should look at him as a viable alternative – similar caliber of pitcher, similar money, and you get to keep all your prospects.

Highlight #3: Chipper’s Quest For .400

The 2008 season is officially in the books, capping my first full season covering baseball everyday. What a season it was, as well, with all sorts of events and storylines making for one extremely entertaining seven months. With that in mind, all of us here at Fangraphs are going to discuss some of our favorite moments of this past season. For me, one of the best parts of this season occurred in the early stages, and it involved following Chipper Jones and his quest for a .400+ batting average.

Nobody has posted a batting average of .400+ since 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406. Granted, batting averageis a relatively meaningless stat from a pure evaluative standpoint, but the idea of someone posting one of .400 or higher resonates in the minds of fans whenever somebody comes close. Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977; George Brett hit .390 in 1980; Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994; but nobody was able to reach Williams’ mark of .406 since then.

Through 20 games, Chipper Jones had 34 hits in 79 at bats, en route to a .430/.466/.709 line. After 40 games, he was 64-156, for a .410/.475/.679 line. And after 60 games, which took us past the halfway point of June, Chipper had recorded 93 hits in 222 at bats, producing a line of .419/.504/.676. From June 12 to July 9, Jones struggled, going 15-66, for a .227/.370/.424 line, ultimately ending his quest for the gaudy .400 batting average.

Overall, he finished with a slash line of .364/.470/.574, still fantastic numbers. With a batting average of .364, he fell just shy of Mickey Mantle’s .365 batting average record for a switch-hitter in a single season. Chipper won the batting title in the senior circuit, becoming the first switch-hitter to do so since 1991, when fellow Brave Terry Pendleton led the league. Chipper finished strong as well, hitting .408/.561/.612 in September to close out the season. And in medium leverage situations, Chipper did hit .408, so he managed to surpass .400 in one aspect of the season, but regardless, his quest for .400 well into June is my third highlight of the 2008 season.

Season in Review: Atlanta Braves

A continuation of the series of retrospectives looking back at the regular season and how teams fared. They will be presented, from first to last, in order of their run differential as given by the BaseRuns formula and adjusted for strength of schedule, which I feel is the best measurement of a team’s actual talent level.

Number Eighteen: Atlanta Braves

Last time when we looked at the Texas Rangers, I remarked how they registered about the exact same (there was a slight decimal difference) amount of runs scored and allowed according to BaseRuns, but that they were on opposite ends of the ranking spectrum. This time around with the Braves we have the epitome of a matched team. The Braves ranked 17th in BaseRuns scored with 753 runs and ranked 18th in BaseRuns allowed with 751 runs. Now that’s equality.

Despite a seemingly poor rating on offense, the Braves actually had a decent collection of bats. Their league and their park both suppressed offense which makes them come across as a bit worse then they actually were. Notably, Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and (while he was there) Mark Teixeira formed a tremendous offensive infield, possibly the best in baseball. Where the Braves fell down was in the outfield especially with Jeff Francoeur who took a big step back this season.

The Braves also had a serviceable bullpen, keeping away from black holes and having a few new names. Jeff Bennett who hadn’t pitched a full season since 2004 with Milwaukee, game in to toss nearly 100 innings with a nearly 64% groundball rate. Buddy Carlyle moved from the rotation and saw his groundball and strikeout rates move way up.

The rotation did see the heralded (okay, not really) return of Mike Hampton. However old war horses Tom Glavine and John Smoltz both went down with injuries along with Tim Hudson. Given all that it’s hardly a surprise that the rotation faltered a bit. That they didn’t outright collapse is a testament to a pair of surprises. Jair Jurrjens and Jorge Campillo, both of whom have been covered extensively here. They provide some hope for next season as they wait to hear on how their injured brethren recover.


I can’t believe it.

As a baseball analyst on several highly trafficked websites, it is important to stay objective when covering the whole league. I know there have been several times when I have broken from this mold to show love for my Philadelphia Phillies, and I have to say this is probably the best sports moment of my life. I always wondered what it would be like to have a team you devote so much of yourself to, to come away with a championship, and to be honest, my eyes were teary for several minutes following that 0-2 slider to Eric Hinske.

First, I don’t care about the viewing audience of this World Series, as several writers have discussed. This was a very fun series of baseball to watch, as was this entire post-season. This game five was quite unconventional, but it made for one entertaining three and a half innings of baseball. Ryan Madson did not want to know whether or not he would be “starting,” instead hoping that he would get his call via the bullpen phone in order to keep his normal routine in order. Geoff Jenkins experienced an extremely reduced role following an injury and had not seen consistent playing time in several months. He comes up and smacks a 3-2 double to right-centerfield to kick things off.

Jimmy Rollins bunts him over and Jayson Werth singles him in on a popup that narrowly missed Akinori Iwamura’s glove. Then, somehow Rocco Baldelli muscled that Madson fastball over the left-field wall, a point at which my hope began to diminish. JC Romero then managed to induce a BJ Upton double play and a Carlos Pena flyout before Pat Burrell, hitless in 13 World Series at bats, barely misses a home run, instead settling for a double. After that, Pedro Feliz, of all people, knocks in what amounted to be the game-winning run.

Even when Brad Lidge came in, my breath still had to be held. He may have been “perfect” in save opportunities, but as those who follow the team know, his saves never tend to be easy or stress free. When Evan Longoria popped out, my confidence increased exponentially, but the Fernando Perez stolen base helped cancel some of that out. With a runner on second, and one out, I swore Ben Zobrist’s line drive was going to fall in, as my heart nearly stopped. Two outs. In steps Eric Hinske, who absolutely demolished a home run in his previous World Series at bat.

As he swung over the 0-2 slider, I did not know how to react. I knew I was happy, but the emotions inside me did not manifest themselves in the form of jumping up and down or streaking up and down my elderly neighborhood. I smiled. I laughed. My eyes became teary for a bit. I finally got to see the team I pull for the most win a championship. Pat Burrell likely won’t be back, and who knows what will happen with Jamie Moyer, or whether some of the players currently on the roster will return or not, but regardless, this team has firmly entrenched itself as one of the best the city has seen, and it is a great feeling.

Congratulations to both the Rays and Phillies for reaching this juncture, and I can only hope these two meet again in October sometime soon.

Free Agent Bargain: Randy Johnson

Moving back to the mound in our series on free agent bargains, we find an interesting name – the tallest player in baseball and a sure fire Hall of Famer, you wouldn’t think Randy Johnson would fly under too many radars. But that’s the state of the game – overemphasis on ERA as a tool to evaluate pitching, and for whatever reason, a premature willingness to put great talents out to pasture.

Sure, Randy Johnson may not be what he once was, but he’s still a pretty terrific starting pitcher. Check out his standing among his peers this year:

8.46 K/9, 6th best in NL
2.15 BB/9, 11th best in NL
3.9 K/BB, 3rd best in NL
3.76 FIP, 15th best in NL

Or, if you prefer, his closest comparable pitcher in the NL this year was Cole Hamels – their walk rates are nearly identical, Johnson’s got a slightly higher K/9, and Hamels has a slightly lower HR/9, but the final product is almost exactly the same. Can you imagine what kind of money Cole Hamels would get if he was a free agent this winter? Now, obviously, there’s a huge age difference, and Johnson’s not going to be pitching for another 10 years like Hamels will be, but their current value is almost identical.

Despite all this, and the fact that he’s unlikely to ask for a long term deal given his age, the D’Backs are still talking about only being interested in Johnson if he takes a significant pay cut. That’s just nutty.

Even if we expect Johnson to regress significantly, giving up about 4.5 runs per nine innings, and only throw 150 innings next year, he’d still be 25 runs above a replacement level starting pitcher. He’s easily worth $10-$15 million a year for a single year, and considering how well he’s fought off decline, a two year deal shouldn’t even be out of the question.

Randy Johnson’s still a pretty terrific pitcher, and teams who just see him as an old guy with back problems are going to miss out.

A Minor Review of 2008: The Reds

The Graduate: Johnny Cueto | Born: February 1986 | Right-Handed Pitcher

The Reds received some solid performances from rookies in 2008 and Johnny Cueto was no exception. Despite the 9-14 record, Cueto pitched 174 innings and allowed 178 hits. He posted rates of 3.52 BB/9 and 8.17 K/9. Cueto needs to work on his consistency and avoiding the long ball (1.50 HR/9). He mainly relies on his low-to-mid-90s fastball and slider, but also features a hard change-up (averages 84 mph).

The Riser: Daryl Thompson | Born: November 1985 | Right-Handed Pitcher

After batting injuries throughout most of his career, the once-promising Daryl Thompson showed his potential again thanks to two straight (relatively) healthy seasons. He made three Major League starts in 2008 and struggled by allowing 20 hits and seven walks in 14.1 innings. His numbers, though, in Double-A and Triple-A were excellent so he is a good bet to have a bigger impact in Cincinnati in 2009. Thompson features a low-90s fastball, slider, curveball and change-up.

The Tumbler: Pedro Viola | Born: June 1983 | Left-Handed Pitcher

Pedro Viola was a late bloomer out of the Dominican Republic and did not make it stateside until the age of 23 in 2007. He made up for lost time and rocket through three levels that year before settling in Double-A. Viola returned to Double-A in 2008 but struggled with being too hittable. He allowed 88 hits in 82.1 innings and posted rates of 3.94 BB/9 and 9.18 K/9. He has a low-to-mid-90s fastball but his secondary pitches are fringy.

The ’08 Draft Pick: Alex Buchholz | Born: September 1987 | Second Baseman

A sixth round pick out of the University of Delaware, Alex Buchholz is an offensive-minded second baseman, who was converted from a college third baseman. He was assigned to Rookie Ball, despite his age and experience, due to a plethora of infield talent in the system. Buchholz dominated and posted a line of .396/.460/.604 with 15 doubles in 134 at-bats. He also posted rates of 10.7 BB% and 18.7 K%. He should begin 2009 in A-ball and could move quickly.

The ’09 Sleeper: Kyle Lotzkar | Born: October 1989 | Right-Handed Pitcher

Kyle Lotzkar, a Canadian, was selected in the 2007 supplemental first round due to an impressive repertoire that features a low-to-mid-90s fastball, solid change-up and improving curveball. The big issues with Lotzkar, who has limited pitching experience, are his command and control. In his second season, Lotzkar allowed just 29 hits in 37.2 innings and posted rates of 5.73 BB/9 and 11.95 K/9. He allowed just two home runs. His season was cut short by a stress fracture in his elbow, which should be healed by the spring. Fellow Canadian prospect Adam Loewen had his pitching career ended by a stress fracture, while White Sox closer Bobby Jenks was able to rebound from a similar injury early in his pro career.

Up Next: The Cleveland Indians

Free Agent Bargain: Dave Ross

As we move behind the plate for today’s free agent bargain, we take a look at a guy with one of the most inconsistent track records of any player in baseball – Dave Ross. Take a look at his seasonal batting lines:

2003: .258/.336/.556, 140 PA
2004: .170/.253/.291, 190 PA
2005: .240/.279/.392, 138 PA
2006: .255/.353/.579, 296 PA
2007: .203/.271/.399, 348 PA
2008: .225/.369/.352, 182 PA

That’s a weird set of numbers. In 2003 and 2006, Ross was pretty close to the best hitting catcher alive. In 2004, 2005, and 2007, he was replacement level. In 2008, he abandoned his normal skillset, hitting for about half as much power as usual but walking twice as often. That made him a decent player, but nothing like what you’d expect from his historical record.

So, what do we make of Ross going forward?

His contact problems are always going to depress his batting avearage – when you’ve got a 30% K%, you’re just not going to hit for much of an average. Even with the inconsistency, we can be sure that Ross is going to strike out a lot and not hit for much of an average. His value lies entirely in his secondary skills.

As for the ridiculous walk rate he displayed last year, that seems to be a direct response to a change in approach. Over the last four years, Ross has cut back significantly in how often he swings, seeing his Swing% go from 50.96% in 2005 to 42.74% last year. Despite a big cutback in how often he swings, he’s still making contact at essentially the same rate, so he’s not just staring at hittable strikes. It seems like that his 12% BB% over the last three years is more likely to continue than for him to revert back to his free swinging ways of 2003 to 2005.

So, what about the power? His ISO the last three years are .324, .197, and .126. Not exactly trending the right way, especially for a catcher who will be 32 next year. However, if we were looking for evidence that he wasn’t hitting the ball hard anymore, his career high 24.5% LD% in 2008 seems to rule that out. He just hit a lot of doubles instead of home runs last year, which naturally drove down his slugging marks. But considering that 12 of his 32 hits were still extra base knocks, it seems unlikely that his power is just disappearing at a rapid rate.

The Marcel projection system seems to be in agreement with these assessments, pegging Ross as a .232/.330/.421 hitter in 291 plate appearances next year. While the average is low, the secondary skills are still very strong, and project Ross as an above average hitting catcher for 2009. Not bad for a guy who was released outright in August.

There are quite a few teams who could use some added punch from behind the plate in 2009. If they can get over their obsession with batting average, Dave Ross could be a very low cost, short term option to provide some walks and power at a position where both are rare.

The Harangutan

The Cincinnati Reds may have struggled to compete over the last several seasons, but there were still several bright spots. One of these positives was the right arm of ace Aaron Harang. A former Athletics prospect, Harang emerged as a durable and extremely effective pitcher for the Reds, compiling some of the best numbers in the senior circuit from 2005-07. In that span, he made 32+ starts each year and amassed a minimum of 211.2 innings pitched. His K/9 rose from 6.93 to 8.47, while his BB/9 with intentional walks removed dropped from 2.04 to 1.80 before settling in at 1.90 in 2007.

Harang’s WHIP of 1.27 in 2005-06 dropped to 1.14 in 2007, and his strand rate ranged from 73.8%-74.6%, three marks well above average. Additionally, his ERA decreased from 3.83 to 3.73. Unfortunately for Harang, his HR/9 rose from 0.94 to 1.09, and his FIP “rose” from 3.67 to 3.71. In 2005-06, his FIP was better than the ERA, however in 2007, they were essentially identical. Regardless, it is hard to argue that he seemed on the verge of several all star berths as one of the best righthanded pitches in the National League.

This season, however, he suffered a setback. In 30 games, 29 of which were starts, he only tossed 184.1 innings, and experienced worse numbers pretty much across the board. His K/9 decreased by one full strikeout to 7.47, while his unintentional walk rate rose to 2.20. This increase in walks, coupled with a .317 BABIP resulted in a 1.38 WHIP, his highest in any full season. Additionally, his 4.78 ERA and 4.79 FIP were significantly worse than anything over the previous four seasons. How did this happen? Well, it’s easy to point to a lack of luck, but was that really the case?

Harang’s HR/9 skyrocketed to 1.71, way up from the 1.09 in 2007, so perhaps his performance really was the result of bad luck. Unfortunately, his dropoff in strikeouts also contributed to the higher FIP, as his walk rate did not necessareily rise that much. The .317 BABIP, as well, while much higher than average, is actually in the same range as his marks in 2004-06, when he was able to produce quality seasons, and his strand rate of 73.6% is not only above average but right in line with his 2005-07 rates. And even though the HR/9 rose to 1.71, his HR/FB was just 13.9%; while 13.9% is definitely above the average of 10-11%, it was not as if this rate soared to 17-20% or anything along those lines. One way to check if poor luck with regard to the home run aspect of controllable skills affects the FIP is to look at the normalized version of the metric. Via The Hardball Times, Harang’s xFIP was 4.38, meaning yes, he was a bit unlucky, but still significantly worse than 2005-07.

This past season saw his highest percentage of flyballs in a full season at 44%, so he threw more balls in the air, and a higher percentage than usual left the park. This should regress moving forward, but the dropoff in strikeouts does signal some sense of a dropoff. He lost some velocity on the fastball, but nothing drastic enough to claim a large role in the much poorer 2008 campaign. Is Harang as bad as he performed in 2008? No, not by a longshot, but there was a serious performance decline here that cannot be chalked up solely as bad luck, which could have to do with some type of injury, or could signal the start of his decline. He will likely be much better next season, but the potential award winner from 2005-07 may be gone for good.

Season in Review: Texas Rangers

A continuation of the series of retrospectives looking back at the regular season and how teams fared. They will be presented, from first to last, in order of their run differential as given by the BaseRuns formula and adjusted for strength of schedule, which I feel is the best measurement of a team’s actual talent level.

Number Seventeen: Texas Rangers

Say hello to either the most balanced or the most unbalanced team in the majors in 2008 depending on how you view it. The Rangers had the widest disparity between their ranks of runs scored and runs allowed allowed, finishing first in the former and last in the latter. On the other hand, according to BaseRuns the Rangers came in with 917 runs scored and… 917 runs allowed.

The offense was legit, even after adjusting for the launching pad that is Arlington. The Rangers did a fantastic job of avoiding black holes in the lineup. Ben Broussard and German Duran were about the only exceptions and they were minor at that. Countering their meager negative contributions were massive positive contributions from newcomers Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton, and Chris Davis. Marlon Byrd had another fine season as well, showing some results after all the potential in Philadelphia and Washington.

On the flip side of those players additions at the plate were their detractions in the field. The Rangers ranked dead last or, at minimum, well below average in most every advanced defensive metric. They were so pitiful that they wiped out a healthy chunk of their offensive gains.

On the pitching front, the bullpen was a mixed bag with a few bright spots amongst a mostly drab collection. Luis Mendoza and Frank Francisco were both helpful members and Jamey Wright was about dead average which, over the amount of innings he kept away from the worse members of the pen, counts him among the better relievers.

The rotation, on the other hand, could have used a huge helping of just average. One of the worst overall units in baseball this past season, the Rangers’ starters did see slight rebound years from Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, but given their sad state in 2007 that’s not saying much. Even that small piece of good news has a cloud behind it in that both of their groundball rates saw a decline this year, painting a potential bad sign for things to come.

The Frustration Continues

Over the summer, I wrote a post discussing the idea that Javier Vazquez is the most disappointing pitcher in baseball. Sure, he has had success, and he always has exhibited great stuff and the potential to dominate, but something is missing. After eleven seasons in the big leagues, he has proven himself capable of being productive, but nowhere near the award-winning caliber of production that so many analysts saw in him for a while. His controllable skills and peripheral statistics are always very good, but they just do not seem to translate into extremely solid measures of run-prevention.

Consider this: from 2000-2008, there are only six starting pitchers who made at least 190 starts, with a K/9 above 8.0 and a BB/9 below 3.0, and Vazquez has the highest inclusive ERA of them all at 4.11. For good measure, the others are: Pedro Martinez (2.99), Randy Johnson (3.25), Jake Peavy (3.25), Roger Clemens (3.34), and Josh Beckett (3.78). Something tells me that Vazquez does not exactly belong in the same conversation as these other five all stars and/or future hall of famers. Regardless, the fact remains that he has always been able to strikeout plenty of batters, routinely fanning around, if not more than 200 a season, while vastly limiting his walks.

He has made 32+ starts for nine consecutive seasons, surpassing 200 innings in all but one of those years, when he amassed 198 innings with the Yankees in 2004. In fact, he leads the aforementioned six pitchers in innings pitched by a great margin, trails only Johnson in total strikeouts and complete games, and is virtually tied with Pedro with a 2.24 BB/9; Pedro’s was 2.16, so not much of a difference.

These controllable skills translate into very nice FIP marks throughout his career, but Javy’s ERA consistently exceeds his FIP. And, when his ERA is technically lower than the FIP, it is much closer to being the same than definitively better. This season was no different than many years past, as Vazquez started 33 games, threw for 208.1 innings, posted an 8.64 K/9 and 2.64 BB/9, with a 4.67 ERA and 3.74 FIP. Now, his BABIP rose to .328 this season, from .297 in 2007, which increased his WHIP to 1.32, the highest it has been since 1999. Couple that with a well below average strand rate of 68% and we see that he allowed many more baserunners and was not able to prevent them scoring at the league average rate.

He is generally about even when it comes to percentages of groundballs and flyballs, and he has not lost any velocity on his pitches. In fact, he has actually gained velocity on some offspeed deliveries. Javy’s WPA/LI pegs him at a bit over nine wins above average for his career, and since 2000, he has been above average in that regard in all but one season, which was not the 2004 season with the Yankees. Instead, the following season, his 2005 campaign with the Diamondbacks is considered below average via context-neutral wins.

Vazquez signed a three-year extension that will keep him under contract until 2010, earning $11.5 mm. This appears to be who he really is, and the potential tag should be all but gone by now, which is very disappointing given how durable and effective he seems capable of being. I asked before and I’ll reprise my question: is there any pitcher in recent history as frustrating and/or disappointing as Javier Vazquez? To clarify, I am talking about pitchers that have been virtually as durable as him and not frustrating in the sense that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have been frustrating and disappointing. Instead, someone who has been out there all the time, has the potential to dominate, still posts great peripherals, but just seems to be missing something from pushing him over the top.

Free Agent Bargain: Joe Crede

So, this time, I swear, the free agent bargain is actually a free agent.

Much like with Juan Rivera, this potential bargain was a tremendous player in 2006 – he hit .283/.323/.506, good for a 0.71 WPA/LI in 586 plate appearances. The power overcame the low on base rate, and he was a somewhat above average hitter. Meanwhile, John Dewan’s +/- system had him at +31 plays at his position, a staggering total that profiled him as an elite defender. As a third baseman, the combination of above average bat and remarkably awesome glove made him one of the game’s under-appeciated stars.

I’m guessing that practically no one has figured out that I’m talking about Joe Crede, because he certainly didn’t get much publicity for his outstanding 2006 at the time. As defensive performances get more notoriety, however, we can look back at that season and recognize it as one of the best under-the-radar seasons in recent history.

However, in 2007, Crede’s balky balk finally went out, and he had to undergo season ending back surgery. Those back problems cut his 2008 season short as well, and over the last two years, he’s been limited to just 551 plate appearances while playing through pain. His reliability is a real question, and the White Sox are expected to go another direction in their quest for a full time third baseman.

Now, I’m not a doctor, so don’t take this as any kind of endorsement of his future health. For all I know, his back problems could be career ending. However, if they’re not, and the medical people can figure out how to keep him on the field, his 2008 performance should assure potential GMs that Crede can still play.

The power is still there – he had a .212 ISO, built on 36 extra base hits in just 335 at-bats. His contact rate was identical to his 2006 performance, so it doesn’t appear he had to adjust his swing to compensate for the pain. Contact and power are the building blocks of a good hitter, and Crede’s abilities in those areas didn’t seem to suffer when he was on the field.

Defensively, it’s pretty much the same story. He’s played just over 1,200 innings at third base the last two years, basically a full season’s worth of games, and +/- has him at +24 plays over that time. Even as a step down from his +31 in 2006, it’s a great rating. You could conservatively drop his true talent level to +15, accounting for more aging, and he’d still be among the very best hot corner defenders around.

In terms of on field skills, Crede projects as something close to a league average hitter with defense that’s worth +1.5 to +2.0 wins above an average third baseman. Over a full season, that would make Crede a +3.5 to +4 win player. If he was completely healthy, we’d expect him to get something like $15 million a year in a long term deal.

But he’s not healthy, and so he’s not going to get anything close to that. It’d be shocking if he got anything beyond a one year offer with a team option for 2010. But if he can stay on the field, even for 100-120 games a year, he’s got the abilities to play at an all-star level. Right now, he’s Milton Bradley with less attitude problems, and there are probably quite a few teams who wish they would have taken a chance on Bradley last winter.

It all depends on his health, because there shouldn’t be too many questions about Joe Crede’s abilities to help a winning team when he’s on the field.

A Minor Review of 2008: The White Sox

The Graduate: Alexei Ramirez | Born: September 1981 | Infielder

Signed this past winter after leaving Cuba, Alexei Ramirez had an up-and-down season after surprising everyone – including the White Sox – by making the club out of spring training. He hit .290/.317/.475 with 21 homers in 480 at-bats. The wiry infielder also drove in 77 runs. Ramirez needs to work on his patience and pitch selection as he posted rates of 3.6 BB% and 12.7 K%. He also needs to work on his base stealing after getting caught nine times in 22 attempts.

The Riser: John Ely | Born: May 1986 | Right-Handed Pitcher

After making his 2007 debut in Rookie Ball, the former third round pick out of Miami-Ohio University skipped two levels and pitched in High-A ball in 2008 with success. In 145.1 innings, John Ely allowed 142 hits and posted rates of 2.85 BB/9 and 8.30 K/9. Like a lot of young players, Ely struggles with consistency and had two really bad months, including July when he posted a 9.67 ERA and allowed 35 hits and 15 walks in 22.1 innings. He gets a lot of movement on his pitches and his best offerings include a low-90s fastball and a plus change-up.

The Tumbler: Jack Egbert | Born: May 1983 | Right-Handed Pitcher

The 2008 season was supposed to be a big one for Jack Egbert, who had been proving people wrong for a number of seasons. But the right-hander with a high-80s fastball (as well as a solid breaking ball and change-up) struggled at Triple-A and saw his HR/9 rate jump from 0.13 in 2006 and 0.17 in 2007 to 1.04 in 2008. His posted rates were still solid at 2.85 BB/9 and 8.12 K/9, although the strikeouts fell off about 1.00 K/9 from 2007. Already 25, Egbert needs a fast start to 2009 to prove he can remain in the starting rotation.

The ’08 Draft Pick: Jordan Danks | Born: August 1986 | Outfielder

Jordan Danks could have been a first or second round pick coming out of high school, but he sent a letter to every club stating that he was 100 percent committed to playing for the University of Texas. Regardless, Chicago drafted him in the 19th round but failed to sign him. Four years later, with Danks’ draft status having taken a hit with a modest college career, he was again selected by the White Sox. He came to terms with the club as a seventh round selection and joined his brother John as a White Sox player. Danks posted solid numbers in his debut, albeit in just 10 games. He is loaded with athletic gifts but scouts question his ability to hit good pitching.

The ’09 Sleeper: Aaron Poreda | Born: October 1986 | Left-Handed Pitcher

Aaron Poreda was drafted 25th overall in the 2007 draft, after a solid college career at the University of San Francisco. The 6’6” left can dial his fastball up into the mid-90s, but his secondary pitches are still lacking. He posted solid numbers in his first full pro season despite having just one consistently-dominating pitch. In 161 innings combined between High-A and Double-A, Poreda allowed 148 hits, showed better than expected control with 40 walks (2.26 BB/9) and struck out fewer than expected batters with 118 Ks (7.39 K/9). On the positive side, his strikeout rate climbed significantly in Double-A (almost 2.00 K/9). If he can consistently throw strikes with his slider – look out.

Up Next: The Cincinnati Reds

Trade Bargain: Endy Chavez

Today, we take a look at the third undervalued free agent (my bad, he’s signed for ’09) this winter, who will be able to help a team win some games without requiring significant dollars or a long term commitment. The next name on the list is Endy Chavez, the polar opposite of the outfielder we profiled yesterday.

See, Chavez isn’t much of a hitter. He hit .267/.308/.330 last year, and for his career, he’s got a .680 OPS and a -4.95 WPA/LI in 2,274 PA. That makes him about one win below an average hitter per full season. Considering he’s already 30, it’s unlikely he’ll be improving with the bat much. He is what he is – a slap hitter without much power who doesn’t draw walks.

But he also might just be the best defensive outfielder alive today. He’s certainly in the discussion, at least. John Dewan’s +/- system ranked him as +19 during his time between LF and RF this year – in 600 innings! In what accounts to about a half season of playing time, Dewan’s system judged Chavez to be almost 20 plays better than an average defensive corner outfielder who plays an entire season. That’s just a huge, huge difference.

The reason, of course, is that Chavez isn’t really a corner outfielder. He’s a CF who has spent time in the corners because of Carlos Beltran’s presence on the Mets roster, and on pretty much any other team in baseball, Chavez is a CF. In fact, over the last three years, Chavez has accumulated about 360 innings in CF, and +/- gives him a +10 ranking in that time. +10 plays compared to other center fielders in about 1/4 of a season’s worth of playing time.

It doesn’t matter which system you look at – the results are all the same. Chavez is projected to be +10 to +20 runs better than an average CF over a full season, and something like +25 to +30 runs over a corner outfielder given regular playing time. The guy can cover ridiculous amounts of ground.

That defense counteracts all kinds of bad hitting. If a team sees him as a CF, and gives him 600 plate appearances, he’ll probably be a -1.5 win hitter, a +3 win defender, and a +0.5 win baserunner. Add it all up, and you’ve got a +2 win player, or approximately a league average center fielder.

Endy Chavez – league average player at a premium position. You won’t find too many teams who think he’s that good, but the defense is more valuable than almost all of them realize. He could hit .230 and still be a useful major league player, and right now, he’s established a track record of good enough hitting to be worth an everyday job. Look for some smart team this winter to snatch him up (in trade!) and turn him into the outfield version of Adam Everett.