Archive for January, 2009

Varitek Ends Up Where He Left Off

“There will be a buyout with the team option, but Paul Maholm should also offer a discount for signing a secure deal, so three years at about $14 million would normally be my guess, with a team option for $9 million and a $1 million buyout.” – Me on Thursday

On Friday morning the financial details were finally leaked. Maholm actually signed a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $14.5 million and came with a $9.75 million club option for 2012, the buyout for that option is $750,000. I would say that was a pretty close guess, although I did undershoot it a bit.

Moving on, the Jason Varitek free agency escapade came to a close finally in the only way that it seemed possible (aside from retirement), re-signing with the Red Sox. After the year Varitek had in 2008, he was always going to face a depressed interest, but combined with the plummeting free agent economy and made worse by teams being thrifty not only with their money but with their draft picks as well, a perfect storm was created for Type A free agent Jason Varitek that led to just two realistic conclusions.

Because of that, the Red Sox got a pretty sweet deal out of Varitek. $5 million for 2009 and a mutual option for 2010 that should guarantee Varitek at least $3 million should he choose to exercise it after the team declines. Make no mistake, Varitek was bad last year, but even in that season, the sheer scarcity of catchers made him worth $5.6 million by our measure.

There’s a real chance that Varitek is done, and that he may even get worse from his 2008 line (his BB/K and LD ratios were well down), but most projection systems see a slight bounce back in offense this season and he’s right on the edge around two wins as a projection. That upside (term being used loosely, but not sarcastically, here) helps balance out the collapse potential and overall, it’s a good deal for Boston.


Sophomore Mets

The New York Mets organization received key offensive contributions from two rookies in 2008, which helped the club finish second in the National League East division. Neither Daniel Murphy nor Nick Evans was considered amongst the club’s top prospects. Murphy checked in on Baseball America’s Top 30 Mets prospect list at No. 15 and Evans sat at No. 20 (This list was compiled prior to the Johan Santana trade, which cost the organization four of its top seven prospects).

Last season, Murphy appeared in 45 games for the Mets and hit .313/.397/.473 with an ISO of .160 in 131 at-bats. The 23-year-old left-handed batter posted a reasonable walk rate of 12.1 BB% and a strikeout rate that was on the high side for his skill set at 21.4 K%. Murphy, a Florida native, was originally selected out of Jacksonville University in the 13th round of the 2006 draft and played mostly at the hot corner in the minor leagues. His power, though, is below average for the position. Murphy spent his MLB debut in left field for the Mets.

Despite his solid build (6’3” 210 lbs), his bat does not profile well in a corner outfield spot, either, with a career minor league line of .290/.352/.444. The Mets organization realized this and sent Murphy to the Arizona Fall League (AFL), after the 2008 season, to learn second base. Defensively, he had some hiccups (four errors in 15 games) but Murphy also showed enough promise to give incumbent second baseman Luis Castillo reason to be worried about playing time in 2009. Offensively in the AFL, Murphy hit .397/.487/.619 in 63 at-bats.

Evans also has a chance to play regularly in 2009, despite modest debut numbers last season. Only Carlos Beltran and, perhaps, Ryan Church are assured of 500-plus plate appearances in 2009, if healthy. Evans, a right-handed hitter, was a surprised call-up in 2008 and hit .257/.303/.404 with an ISO of .147 in 109 at-bats (50 games). The 22-year-old Arizona native was originally drafted in the fifth round out of high school in 2004 and spent the first half of 2008 in Double-A.

Evans has raw power, but he is still learning how to tap into it. He also does not walk much (8.1 BB% in Double-A, 6.0 BB% in the Majors). The big problem with Evans, offensively, is that fact that he hit just .135/.150/.189 against right-handed pitching, which is downright awful. He killed southpaws, though, with a line of .319/.380/.514. Evans is going to have a hard time playing everyday if he cannot improve that – and it’s something that haunted him in the minors too, although not as dramatically.

Defensively, Evans spent the majority of his time in the minors at first base (284 games out of 313). However, all but three of his appearances in the Majors came in left field. Despite his inexperience, he displayed average range and did not make an error. Evans has a higher upside than fellow sophomore Murphy, but the latter is more Major-League ready.

Murphy certainly appears ready to play everyday at second base for the Mets, and could be one of the biggest surprises of 2009. Evans, though, could use some more time in the minors to work on his approach at the plate (as well as against right-handed pitching) and log some more innings in the outfield. He may be pressed into regular duty, though, if players like Cory Sullivan, Jeremy Reed, and Bobby Kielty underwhelm in spring training.


Justin Upton’s Future

Yesterday, in the post about the players who have had comparable seasons to Matt Wieters Double-A performance last year, one commenter brought up Justin Upton, who didn’t have a chance to have a comparable performance because he got himself to the majors as a 19-year-old. And, since I angered a lot of D’Backs fans the other day, I figured I’d make it up to you by presenting the list of MLB players who have made it to the majors (and got at least 100 AB) at age 20 or younger since 1980, and how their MLB careers ended up shaking out.

Here’s the list of players.

Roberto Alomar – Hall Of Famer
Adrian Beltre – All-Star
Miguel Cabrera All-Star/Maybe HOF
Luis Castillo – All-Star
Wil Cordero – Useful Role Player
Carl Crawford – All-Star
Ken Griffey Jr. – Hall of Famer
Gregg Jeffries – All-Star
Andruw Jones – All-Star
Jose Lopez – Useful Role Player
Lloyd Moseby – Useful Role Player
Jose Oquendo – Useful Role Player
Aramis Ramirez – All-Star
Edgar Renteria – All-Star
Jose Reyes – All-Star
Alex Rodriguez – Hall Of Famer
Gary Sheffield – All-Star/Maybe HOF
Ruben Sierra – Useful Role Player
B.J. Upton – All-Star
Justin Upton – ?

That’s a ridiculous list of talent. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, though – there’s perhaps no better proxy for talent level than ability to rise through the minors rapidly. If major league teams can become convinced of a player’s ability before his 21st birthday, he’s probably going to have a career somewhere between All-Star and Hall Of Famer.

That’s especially true if you display power at a young age and can still get to the majors quickly. Guys like Luis Castillo, Edgar Renteria, and Jose Reyes aren’t very good comparisons for what Justin Upton will likely become – instead, his comparables are more in the Beltre/Sheffield/Cabrera/Sierra/Ramirez range. When Ruben Sierra is your downside, and Gary Sheffield is your upside, you’re a pretty fantastic young player.

Don’t let his struggles in the second half deter you from realizing that Justin Upton is one of the premier talents in all of baseball. The odds are very good that he’s going to be a superstar.


Maholm Hurts His Wallet by Pitching for Pittsburgh

And the tide rolls on with Paul Maholm inking today what has been reported as a guaranteed three-year deal, buying up his arbitration years, with a fourth-year team option covering what would have been his first foray into the open market. We do not have a leak on the financial terms yet, but that will not stop me from estimating his fair value and then making a prediction on the figures.

Maholm has shown steady improvement the last three years, and tRA* is the most optimistic on him, projecting him to be worth a little under 3 wins next season, which would be his highest value to date (tRA loves the ground ball rate and the increased percentage of missed bats that Maholm generated in 2008). Marcel and CHONE are more pessimistic but not dramatically so, pegging Paul at 2.8 and 2.5 wins respectively.

The two sides had already exchanged figures for Maholm’s first arbitration hearing; the Pirates submitting $2.65 million and Maholm $3.8 million. That would give us a clue that the first year value is probably going to be about in the middle of those, around $3.2 million. That would lean toward an $8 million open market valuation and a three-year arbitration total of just under $15 million. There will be a buyout with the team option, but Maholm should also offer a discount for signing a secure deal, so three years at about $14 million would normally be my guess, with a team option for $9 million and a $1 million buyout. However, given the trend of contracts signed this winter by arbitration-eligible players, if I were pressed to estimate as best as I can, I would knock a million off of the guaranteed money.

For what Maholm is projected for, Maholm is worthy of about $20 million give or take a million to buy out his arbitration years and a touch over $30 million with the team option picked up. Even at his submitted figure of $3.8 million for his first year, that comes out to a open market value of $9.5 million, which would be more akin to his 2007-level of performance and not his once-more-improved 2008 level. It must be hard to build a solid case for a pitcher like Maholm in arbitration since he doesn’t strike out many batters (about league average) and by dint of pitching for the Pirates is hard-pressed to reach double digits in wins. But he keeps the ball on the ground and limits walks enough to make him a valuable pitcher. Whether the Pirates or Maholm know it or not, Pittsburgh benefits from this arrangement and based on what we know so far, they are certainly taking advantage.


A + Replacement >= B

Yesterday, Dave discussed the Jon Garland signing, largely criticizing the acquisition based on the fact that they failed to offer Randy Johnson, a superior pitcher even at this stage, a deal as lucrative. While I am not going to continue the discussion about that particular signing, the idea arose that 200 innings from Garland is less productive than 120 or so innings from Johnson should he sustain injuries. This reminded me of something Tango posted last year showing that Albert Pujols’ numbers were almost equivalent to the production of Mark Teixeira and Jeff Francoeur combined. Whew, spelled both correctly.

All too often, injury-prone pitchers are written off as ineffective. This could not be further from the truth as certain pitchers who fit this mold are wildly productive in the time they spend on the field. Even though they fail to stay healthy enough to log 200 IP in 35 GS, they end up posting some very solid numbers.

Take a look at Ben Sheets, for starters, who produced a 2.43 FIP in 106 IP back in the 2006 season. He made 17 starts, with a 9.83 K/9 and 0.93 BB/9, good for a K/BB of 10.55. Even with a .344 BABIP and 67% LOB, Sheets still managed a 3.82 ERA. All told, his half-season produced +4.0 wins. In the same season, the aforementioned Garland produced +3.9 wins in 211 innings. Yes, Sheets was slightly more productive than Garland even though he pitched almost exactly half of the innings.

This is not the only example either. In 2007, Randy Johnson made just 10 starts, pitching in 56 innings. His 3.20 FIP and 5.54 K/BB helped him produce +1.6 wins that season. In one-fourth of the season, he produced more than 200 innings of Tom Glavine, or 170 innings of Boof Bonser. His win value also surpassed the combined output of Kip Wells, Livan Hernandez, and Scott Olsen in ~520 IP.

Granted, we never know what would have happened if the injured pitchers lasted the entire season. Still, do you really believe Johnson and Sheets would have declined so rapidly that their statistics would drop them into the average category? When pitchers with half of a season or so of statistics are evaluated, the most common reaction is to think they could not possibly be as productive as innings-eaters who stay on the field. This simply is not a universal truth. 106 IP of Ben Sheets in 2006 (+4 wins) + 105 IP of Replacement Level pitching (+0 wins) is equal to, or greater than, 211 IP of Jon Garland (+3.9 wins).

Examples like this will not always surface, but injury-prone pitchers do have value, even if that value is only seen for half of a season.


Wieters Is Really, Really Good

So, for those of you who don’t follow minor league prospects all that closely, there’s this kid in the Orioles system named Matt Wieters. He’s good. He’s everybody’s #1 prospect. No one thinks he’s going to be anything less than a star. After all, he’s a catcher who just demolished Double-A pitching (.365/.460/.625!) in his first year as a pro and gets raves for his work behind the plate. What’s not to like?

However, I’m not sure people realize just how special the season that Wieters just had in Double-A really was. Here is the list of players who have hit had comparable offensive seasons in Double-A at age 22 or younger in the last 30 years.

Jose Canseco, 1985, age 20: .318/.406/.739 in 211 AB
Bob Hamelin, 1989, age 21: .308/.454/.640 in 211 AB
David Wright, 2004, age 21: .363/.467/.719 in 223 AB
Pat Burrell, 1999, age 22: .333/.438/.631 in 417 AB
Doug Jennings, 1987, age 22: .338/.459/.608 in 464 AB
Ben Grieve, 1997, age 21: .328/.455/.610 in 372 AB
Vladimir Guerrero, 1996, age 20: .360/.438/.612 in 417 AB
Miguel Cabrera, 2003, age 20: .365/.429/.609 in 266 AB
Eric Chavez, 1998, age 20: .328/.402/.612 in 335 AB

Okay, so, Hamelin and Jennings are around to remind us that he’s not a 100% mortal lock for stardom, but even including those guys, they totaled 33,620 major league at-bats and combined for a .283/.377/.501 mark. That’s an .878 OPS as a group. You know how many major league catchers have posted a career OPS of .878 or higher? Two – Mike Piazza and Mickey Cochrane.

I’m not saying that we should just enrhine Wieters in the Hall of Fame right now. There’s some chance that he’s going to be this generation’s Doug Jennings, after all. But it’s far, far more likely that Wieters is the best position prospect we’ve seen in quite a while – a catcher who hits like a DH and has the glove to be an asset behind the plate. That’s a remarkable player. Maybe we should start bronzing his plaque after all.


Five + Five = Success for the Yankees

A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the impressive pitching depth that has been compiled by the Boston Red Sox, mostly at the Major League level. The New York Yankees organization, a division mate of the Sox, also has some nice depth on hand in case injuries strike the Major League starting rotation.

With a few weeks to go until spring training, the Yankees’ rotation currently includes free agent signees C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett, holdovers Andy Pettitte, and Chien-Ming Wang, as well as Mr. Can-Do-It-All Joba Chamberlain. That is a pretty formidable rotation if everyone is healthy and pitching up to their potential.

But as we all know, in the game of baseball no organization is safe from the injury bug – especially when it comes to the pitching staff. We also need to keep in mind that Chamberlain has never pitched more than 118.2 innings in a season – and that was at the University of Nebraska in 2005.

Luckily, the Yankees have at least five young starting pitchers who will be a phone call away at the organization’s Triple-A affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes/Barre: Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, and Eric Hacker.

Hughes has been, in a word, disappointing. Injuries and general ineffectiveness have taken a toll on his reputation amongst fans in New York but there is good news. He’s only 22 years old, which is something that is easy to forget. And although he posted a 6.62 ERA in 34 big league innings in 2008, Hughes’ FIP was just 4.34 and he may never have actually been healthy last season. He also had a 4.46 ERA (4.35 FIP) in 72.2 MLB innings at the age of 21. The projection systems for 2009, including Bill James, CHONE and Marcel, vary somewhat, but they all suggest reasonable production for a 23-year-old starting pitcher.

Kennedy, like Hughes, faced pretty high expectations after being selected out of USC with the 21st overall pick of the 2006 draft. A number of teams avoided the right-hander in the draft because his success in college came despite dominating stuff. The same can be said for his minor league success, which includes an eye-popping 1.99 ERA in 226 innings. Kennedy has been a different pitcher at the Major League level. He sports an 8.17 ERA (5.45 FIP) and has allowed 50 hits in 39.2 innings. With a little more experience (and possibly a little more use of his breaking ball), he should become a pretty successful No. 4 starter, if nothing more.

Aceves appeared out of nowhere in 2008, after previously being expunged from the Toronto Blue Jays Dominican Summer League team. In one season, the right-hander rose from High-A ball to the Majors. The problem, though, is that Aceves pitched far more innings in 2008 than he ever had before, having played in short-season leagues. His 170.2 innings could be seen as a warning sign for 2009. As well, his 2.40 ERA does not look quite as rosy after looking at his FIP (4.80) and strikeout rate (4.80 K/9).

Marketing opportunities abound with Phil Coke. The 26-year-old left-handed pitcher has put up some nice minor league numbers. He had a solid Major League debut in the bullpen for the Yankees and allowed just eight hits in 14.2 innings. He also posted a 0.61 ERA (1.63 FIP) in those 12 games. There are not a lot of southpaws that can average 93 mph.

Hacker, 25, was a recent addition to the Yankees’ 40-man roster and he follows along the same path as Kennedy, as a starting pitcher who has posted nice minor league numbers despite lacking an awe-inspiring fastball. You can also lump southpaw Chase Wright into that category. After making a forgettable MLB debut in 2007, Wright spent all of 2008 in the minors and was recently removed from the 40-man roster. Both Hacker and Wright could develop into middle relievers at the Major League level.

Obviously the Yankees’ Big Five in the rotation look pretty good on paper going into the 2009 season. The Live Five (plus one) don’t look too shabby, either.


UnBusted Prospects

One of the bigger issues of disagreement between the statistical community and the mainstream media is the predictive power of minor league performance. It’s still widely believed that minor league statistics aren’t very useful, and that there is a significant collection of players who can hit well in Triple-A but will be exposed in the majors. It’s true that there are career minor leaguers beating up on younger pitching, but that group is much smaller than usually believed.

However, it’s not that rare to see a player come up from the minors, where he’d been destroying the ball, and fall on his face in the major leagues. Last year, for instance, we saw some disastrous performances from Chin-Lung Hu, J.R. Towles, Brandon Wood, Wladimir Balentien, and Jeff Clement. These guys have all experienced success as hitters in the minors, but all struggled mightily in short term looks at the big league level.

For most organizations, the reaction to such a performance is to go find another option. The Dodgers re-signed Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal rather than giving Hu another shot. The Astros have been in the market for a veteran catcher all winter. The Angels kept Chone Figgins despite trade interest. The Mariners acquired Endy Chavez to play left field.

Organizations aren’t the only ones. Fans, too, often give up on players who don’t immediately hit like they did in the minors, as they only see the struggles and usually didn’t see the successes. However, giving up on a young player with a good minor league track record based on a few hundred at-bats is hardly ever the right call. 2008 shown with examples of this very thing.

Carlos Quentin posted a .320 wOBA in his first 454 major league plate appearances over two seasons after posting a .419 wOBA in Triple-A. His power was written off as a product of Tucson, and the D’Backs essentially gave him to the White Sox. Whoops.

At least Quentin hit a little bit, though, even if he was a disappointment. Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, racked up an astonishingly bad .221 wOBA in his first 303 plate appearances as a major leaguer. In ’07, he hit like a weak pitcher in the majors, even after tearing up Triple-A the whole year. Never a top prospect, it would have been easy to write him off as a career minor leaguer, but the Rays gave him another chance in ’08, and he responded with a .364 wOBA in 227 PA. The leap in performance from ’07 to ’08 would be about +10 wins if both performances came in a full season of work.

Also rebounding from a bad major league debut was Elijah Dukes, who combined personal troubles and off-field problems with a .190 career batting average headed into 2008. While he still showed walks and power, a .190 average over 200 PA is going to raise questions every time, and it certainly didn’t help convince Tampa Bay that he was worth the trouble. However, he was one of the true breakout stars of 2008, posting a .382 wOBA over 334 PA.

You can add these three to the list of quality major leaguers who overcame the busted minor leaguer tag. The lesson to be learned – don’t judge a player with a long history of success on one bad season. Talent shines through, even if not immediately.


Braden and the Wolf

Reputations are interesting in the sense that they can alter our perception of a player. For instance, Jon Garland, who just signed a questionable deal with the Diamondbacks, has the reputation of a durable, grounder-inducing pitcher. This reputation is sound given that he routinely logs 200+ IP in 33+ GS, but it also masks his shortcomings. Adversely, the reputation for falling prey to injuries can mask a player’s true production level. Just look at Ben Sheets: 130 IP of Sheets at the top of his game is more productive than 200 IP from someone like Garland.

And the lack of a reputation prevents similar pitchers from being acknowledged. Which brings us to Braden Looper, an average or so pitcher who projects to perform similarly to this past season in 2009, performance similar to that of Garland’s. Despite the similarities, Looper lacks the reputation or track record of being extremely durable. I have seen perhaps two teams expressing even cursory interest in the veteran. The track record set by Garland may be worth the extra interest and salary, but this is interesting nonetheless.

If Looper throws 185 IP with a 4.54 FIP, down from the 199 at 4.52 in 2008, he would still be worth right around +1.65 wins. No, this isn’t going to light the world on fire, but he isn’t going to cost much, especially in this economy, and the return is not going to be that far off of someone like Garland. Looper would have made more sense for a team like the Mets than Tim Redding, yet his name never even surfaced.

Randy Wolf’s recent reputation comes as an injury-prone pitcher. From 2005-07, he managed just 43 starts coming off of Tommy John Surgery. Still, in 18 starts during the 2007 season, Wolf produced +1.7 wins. Last season, in 33 GS and 190 IP, he produced +2.0 wins. It seems safe to say that Wolf is, at worst, a +1.8 win pitcher next year. Exceeding the league average production in 2008 is not out of the question, either, given that he has now pitched a full post-surgery season.

Garland, Looper, and Wolf all project quite similarly to each other in 2009. Despite this, Looper’s lack of a reputation and Wolf’s supposed inability to stay on the field are important enough to teams that these pitchers are rarely mentioned. If a team seeks a decent 4th or 5th starter to fill out their rotation, one that does not come at too steep of a price, either of these two is likely to be just as productive as Garland, if not better.


Cubs and Ms Swap Disappointments

A.k.a. This good move stuff takes some getting used.
A.k.a. Heilman and Olson are racking up the frequent flier miles.

Today the Mariners potentially solved their glut of Major League back-rotation starting pitchers by shipping off Aaron Heilman, acquired from the Mets earlier in the winter in the J.J. Putz blockbuster. Heilman is now on his way to the Cubs of Chicago in exchange for infielder Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson, who himself was just recently acquired from Baltimore for outfielder Felix Pie.

From the Mariners perspective, this could not have worked out much better for them. Heilman was going to be hard pressed to make any impact on the big league team given his position of wanting to start, but not being good enough to do so. In exchange for him, the Mariners get Ronny Cedeno whom the Cubs have soured on, but has a phenomenal minor league track record as both a hitter and a defender and Garrett Olson who boils down to being a lefty, much younger, version of Heilman, albeit with less Major League success, but one with options left that allows the Mariners to give him some more seasoning down in Triple-A while they do their best to move Carlos Silva or Jarrod Washburn out of the way.

For the Cubs, well, they managed to clear some room on their 40-man roster I suppose. Heilman is probably a better option for 2009 and can serve as a swingman on the staff, moving in and out of the rotation as need be, but that is the best that I can come up with for them. There’s no doubt that this trade is a win for the Mariners, and the best that I can give the Cubs is a pass. They have turned Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno, two huge prospects as little as a year ago, into Aaron Heilman.

And no, that is not going to help them get Jake Peavy. Any rebuilding team would be far more interested in Cedeno and Olson than Heilman.


THT 2009 Season Preview

I would like to interrupt tonight’s regularly scheduled programming to inform you about one of the best pre-season books out there, The Hardball Times Season Preview 2009. Friends of Fangraphs, the THT staff does incredible work on a daily basis and their pre- and post-season publications are among the best on the market. The book is billed as featuring everything one would need to win his fantasy championship, but fantasy or not, the information presented is still very valuable.

David Gassko recruited some of the best team-oriented bloggers to specifically write about their respective teams. Each writer penned an essay, answering numerous questions regarding playing time, outlook, and recap, as well as brief commentary on each member of the team. I happened to write the Phillies chapter.

In addition to the teamwide essays and commentaries, the Season Preview 2009 features THT’s own projections for the upcoming season, an injury outlook from expert Chris Neault, and information on rookies to look out for courtesy of fantasy guru Derek Carty. The Hardball Times has a sterling reputation for providing top of the line baseball analysis and the 2009 Season Preview belongs in any fan’s baseball book collection.


D’Backs Sign Garland. Why?

At the beginning of the off-season, the Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly offered Randy Johnson a contract for 2009 that would have paid him around $4 million or so. Realizing that it was a low-ball offer, he decided to pass, and the D’Backs told him to go find another employer. He ended up signing for $8 million to pitch for the SF Giants because he wanted to stay in the NL West and pitch close to his home in Arizona.

So, allow me to scratch my head and wonder why on earth the D’Backs would then turn around and guarantee that they’ll pay at least $8.75 million for Jon Garland. If you can figure out something that Garland is better at than the Big Unit, I’d love to know what it is.

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Garland posted a 4.76 FIP in 196 2/3 IP last year, which made him a 1.9 win pitcher. Since 2002, he’s been worth 19.4 wins, due to his durability and ability to throw strikes. Johnson posted a 3.76 FIP in 184 IP last year, which made him a 3.8 win pitcher. Since 2002, he’s been worth 34.9 wins, due to his awesomeness.

The highest FIP Johnson has ever posted, in his entire career, is 4.29. That was back in 1990, when he was still trying to figure out how to throw strikes in the big leagues. Since 1992, he’s posted a FIP over 4.00 just once, when it was 4.27 with the Yankees in 2006. He rebounded in 2007 with a 3.20 FIP, and was among the league leaders again last year. Jon Garland has never posted a FIP below 4.00. Ever. Only once, in 2005, did he post a FIP (4.24) that was lower than the worst of Johnson’s career. At his absolute best, Jon Garland is worse than Randy Johnson at his absolute worst.

Deciding that you want Jon Garland instead of Randy Johnson is a disastrous decision. Yes, Johnson is old, but he’s still an excellent major league pitcher. Garland is a #5 starter whose best skill is not getting hurt.

In a market where good pitchers are signing for bargain rates, the D’Backs just paid non-bargain rates for a bad pitcher. Congratulations, Arizona, you’ve officially screwed up your entire offseason.


Sean Rodriguez Needs to Seize the Day

It is never easy to project the future for a prospect. It is even harder to predict a Major League career for a Los Angeles Angels’ minor league player due to the large number of offense-friendly environments that the club’s minor league affiliates play in.

Sean Rodriguez has put up some interesting power/speed numbers in the minor leagues, including 24 home runs and 16 stolen bases in High-A ball at the age of 21. His triple-slash line was .301/.377/.545. Those numbers placed him onto the prospect radar, but he was playing in an excellent hitter’s environment in Rancho Cucamonga.

The next season, the former third round draft pick hit just .256/.348/.427 with 15 home runs and 17 stolen bases in Double-A. He posted mediocre walk rates in both 2006 and 2007 of 9.4 BB% and 9.7 BB%. The strikeout rates were disappointing at 27.3 K% and 25.6 K%.

Rodriguez rebounded at Triple-A in 2008 and hit .306/.397/.645 in 248 at-bats. He banged out 21 home runs, but stole just four bases. The shortstop-turned-second-baseman earned a promotion to the Majors but he looked lost as his approach and plate discipline let him down. He managed a line of .204/.276/.317, along with rates of 7.7 BB% and 32.9 K%. His BABIP was .284 and his line-drive rate was 11.7%.

Defensively, Rodriguez made just two errors at second base in 423.2 innings. He showed average range for a second baseman and could improve as he becomes more comfortable with the position.

He is not going to hit for a high average in the Majors, but Rodriguez has the potential to hit 15-20 home runs and steal as many bases. From a comparison standpoint, he is not all that different from former Blue Jays and Cubs (along with a collection of other teams) shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who retired in 2006. He managed 10 or more home runs in eight of his first nine seasons and also stole 10 or more bases four times. Gonzalez’ 14-year career line was .243/.302/.391, with rates of 9.1 BB% and 25.0 K%.

That’s about what you can expect from Rodriguez, with perhaps slightly higher on-base and slugging percentages, unless he does something Gonzalez never did – make adjustments. With some instability in the Angels’ infield, it is a great time for Rodriguez to make a play for a regular gig. The club has no set regular at shortstop or third base, and second baseman Howie Kendrick has not played more than 92 games at the Major League level in the past three seasons. That said, Rodriguez has his work cut out for him; he is noticeably absent from the organization’s depth chart, which makes one wonder just how valued he is in the system.


Acquiescing Abreu

Our thoughts here on Bobby Abreu are not exactly news. At this stage in his career, Abreu is a solid hitter on the decline who plays poor defense at a corner outfield position. There are several players who fit this description still available on the market, which supply and demand in economic theory suggests will drive down their price. Add onto that how teams are seemingly becoming more fiscally responsible this winter and it comes as no surprise that Abreu’s desired 4-yr/$60 mil or whatever deal is terribly unrealistic.

Jerry Crasnick reported yesterday that Abreu would “be willing to settle” for deals similar to Raul Ibanez and Milton Bradley. The latter two signed deals hovering around 3-yr/$30 mil. Ibanez, though perhaps lesser of a hitter, is a solid comp for Abreu, as both are getting up there in age, losing offensive value, and watching their defensive values drop from bad to awful.

When Adam Dunn, six years younger and more productive offensively, is struggling to land a multi-year deal, the likelihood of Abreu signing an Ibanez/Bradley deal again is very unrealistic. Then, today, reports surfaced that Abreu would be willing to accept a 1-yr deal. I’m not sure how this qualifies as a conscious decision from Abreu. He has to accept a 1-yr deal if he wants to play baseball in the major leagues this season. Nobody is going to sign him to a multi-year deal in this climate.

Perhaps he and his agent can feel better about themselves since taking the initiative makes it appear as if they have arrived at this conclusion, but they were forced to accept a 1-yr deal. As a rightfielder, Abreu projects to around +1.45 wins. As a DH, closer to +1.9 wins. The positional adjustment for DH is stiffer than it is for corner outfielders, but Abreu’s terrible defense added onto the adjustment comes out worse than the DH adjustment.

As a corner outfielder, his fair market value for a 1-yr deal is $6.5 mil. At DH, $8.6 mil. I can see him signing a 1-yr/$10 mil contract, but things could easily go the other way based on what happens with Dunn, Manny Ramirez, Garrett Anderson, and Ken Griffey, Jr. No matter how one chooses to dissect Abreu’s eventual signing, if he signs for anything more than $6.5 mil as a corner outfielder, he better exceed his projection for the sake of the team. The best bet for any interested parties is to put him at the DH spot where his lack of defensive ability can be hidden.


Twins Sign Kubel. Why?

The Twins avoided arbitration with Jason Kubel yesterday, signing him to a two year contract that the Star-Tribune claims is for about $7 million and contains a team option for 2011 that is worth $5 million. So, the deal is either 2/7 or 3/12 for Kubel’s final two years of arbitration or his two arb years and his first year of free agency. Most people will probably consider that a good deal for the Twins – getting a useful bat under team control for reasonable prices without a long term commitment.

I’m not so sure. As R.J. noted this morning, the Pirates just signed Eric Hinske to a one year deal worth between $1 and $2 million. In what world is Jason Kubel a significnatly better player than Eric Hinske?

Kubel’s last two years show a pretty stable skillset – aggressive hitter with above average power, will take some pitches, and absolutely awful in the field. His wOBAs in 2007 and 2008 were nearly identical (.342 and .345 respectively) and are basically what we can expect from Kubel going forward. Heading into his age 27 season, Kubel is what he is – a guy with a decent bat and no defensive value. His career UZR in the OF is -18.9 in 1,375 innings, and the Twins seem to have recognized that he’s a full time DH for the rest of his career.

What’s a DH with a slightly above average bat worth? A little bit more than half a win above a replacement level player. In 2007 and 2008, Kubel accumulated a total of +1.2 wins in 983 PA. Given everyday playing time at DH, we can estimate he’ll be worth between 0.5 and 1.0 wins for 2009.

Compare that to Hinske (the guy who had to settle for a one year deal as a role player on a terrible team) – the offensive skillset is practically identical, but Hinske can actually play a competent 1B/OF. The offensive difference in their CHONE projections add up to 2-3 runs over a full season, but the defensive gap is clearly much larger. It’s hard to make a case that Kubel > Hinske.

Yes, Hinske’s five years older, but MLB is full of players with that skillset. Minnesota could have just used Hinske this year, then found his clone next winter, and so on and so forth. Same reward with none of the associated risk that goes with multiyear contracts.

I know, I know, it’s only $7 million over two years. But it’s a needless use of resources. The Twins budget isn’t that of the Yankees or Red Sox, so to contend, they need to maximize the return on all the dollars they spend. Especially in this economic climate, where good players can’t find contract offers, giving a multiyear deal to Jason Kubel doesn’t maximize the return.


Pinch a Penny and Sign Eric Hinske

Many teams will be labeled as “The new Rays” throughout this spring. The problem is the new Rays will not be competitive in 2009. Instead, this organization is still undergoing chances in its framework, necessitated changes based on a decade of incompetence thanks to prior management. This team dealt two of its starting outfielders last season for questionable returns. They’ve restrained from giving in to pressure to sign free agents, opting instead to amass young talent through trades, the Rule 5 draft, and the amateur draft.

By now you should know the team, it is the Pittsburgh Pirates, and if you were unaware of the change, then read on.

The popular opinion in Pittsburgh is that the Pirates need to re-sign Doug Mientkiewicz for reasons that extend beyond his win values. Recent reports link the Pirates to Eric Hinske. As a Rays fan, I’ve seen quite a bit of Hinske, and frankly I’m a bit befuddled on how he’s failed to attract much interest prior to the Pirates. Hinske came cheaply for the Rays last season — a non-roster invitee who would make 800k for appearing in the majors – and figures to come similarly cheaper in this market.

Hinske’s allure to the Pirates is undoubtedly his bat, willingness to come off the bench, and ability to play overall league average defense at the four corners. Mientkiewicz played first, third, and right field for the Pirates in 2008 and batted left-handed, there’s a clear match here, except potentially in price.

Over the last three years, the two are near mirrors – Hinske averaging ~0.97 wins and Mientkiewicz ~0.93. If the Pirates can land Hinske for any amount less than Mientkiewicz is asking, they should jump on it. Heck, if they convince Hinske to simply take Mientkiewicz 2008 salary of ~1.075 million he’ll get a pay raise and they’ll get a contract likely to succeed.

Yeah, Mientkiewicz is popular with the fans, and yes, they run the risk of looking “cheap”, even if they can use the money saved towards filling other holes, but kudos to Pittsburgh. In the past they probably would’ve overpaid for the qualities Mientkiewicz brings to the team, instead they’ll find those same qualities and at a price better suited for their situation.


Another Day, Another Contract: Ubaldo Jimenez

More signings! More more more! We’re not even going to have a free agent market in the future because every player will get locked up through their age 30 season or beyond and with the rising intelligence of GMs across the league, the bottom will fall out of the market completely!

Okay, maybe not, but it’s not the most improbable thing that I will ever utter here. Anyways, on to today’s inking, Ubaldo Jimenez and the Colorado Rockies came to an agreement on at minimum a four-year deal with a pair of club options. If those are turned down, the deal covers Jimenez’s final two club-control years plus his first two arbitration years. The club options cover his final arbitration and first free agent year.

It is a little rare, though becoming less rare, to see long term contracts covering pre-arbitration years and we do not have a good framework like we have for the arbitration rewards, so for the time being, I am just going to assign those seasons a half million value. Therefore, the minimum of this contract, two club control and the first two arbitration years, adds up to one market year plus an additional one million dollars. If the club options are exercised then we add the final arbitration year (0.8) and a full market year, bringing the total market years to 2.8, still plus the additional million bucks.

In an effort to better visually display the projections, I put them all in a chart this time around, reproduced below. As I have mentioned, I have three main methods for coming up with pitcher projections: I take CHONE and Marcel straight from here at FanGraphs, and I complement those by looking at the pitcher’s tRA* from the past year from StatCorner to see if that indicates anything divergent to the other two.

In Ubaldo’s case, Marcel and CHONE form a bracket on projection between 2.3 and 3.1 wins for 2009. On the deal without the club options that means that a fair value deal, under the assumption of $4.5 million per win, would come in between $10.3 and $13.5 million, while the Rockies are actually on the hook for just $10 million. With the club options exercised, fair market would dictate $27 to $36 million while Colorado would be forced to pay just $22.75 million.

Add another data point that teams are continuing to get great deals in locking up their young talent and avoiding arbitration and getting a few market years in well.


Twins Team Win Values

So far, we’ve looked at a couple of teams who were less successful than we would have expected at turning their win values for 2008 into on the field wins, mostly due to situational hitting and pitching. Boston and Texas both played better than either their records or their RS/RA would show, and that should be encouraging to their respective fanbases with regards to 2009.

On the flip side, though, there’s the Minnesota Twins. They traded away Johan Santana, watched Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva cash in via free agency in other cities, and yet still managed to improve from 80 wins in 2007 to 88 wins in 2008, turning themselves into a surprise contender for the AL Central. If we were to use the standard deviation from pythag, we would simply concede that the Twins were a legitimate winner, as their 89 pythag wins was right in line with their 88 actual wins.

However, their team win value total for 2008 was just 80.5 wins. Based on the context-neutral performances of their players, they were a .500 ballclub, mostly due to an offense that just wasn’t that great. Their 12.8 batting runs above average was 9th best in the American League, but they were 3rd in the AL in runs scored at 5.09 runs per game.

Just like as before, let’s take a look at the situational context.

Bases Empty: .697 OPS, 11% below average
Men On Base: .811 OPS, 4% above average
Runners In Scoring Position: .826 OPS, 6% above average
Bases Loaded: .837 OPS, 2% above average

When a single wasn’t going to be worth much, the Twins didn’t do much, hitting like a band of Triple-A infielders. When they had a chance to drive men in, though, they turned into a pretty nifty bunch of run producers. Because their offensive distribution was so heavily skewed towards hitting in situations that would produce runs, the team ended up finishing 3rd in the AL in runs scored despite an offense that simply wasn’t that good.

While watching your team capitalize on a huge portion of their run scoring opportunities is exciting, it’s not a great recipe for success. If the Twins want to keep winning in 2009, they’re going to have to just hit better, rather than rely on turning up the offensive jets only in certain situations.


It’s Tea Time for Teagarden

Former Atlanta Braves prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a little more press behind his name but, when the dust settles, Taylor Teagarden could very well be the Texas Rangers’ No. 1 catcher for the 2009 season.

Teagarden, 25, burst upon the Major League scene in 2008 by powering out six home runs in only 47 at-bats, which helped him achieve a slugging percentage of .809 and an ISO of .489. This is also the same catcher that maintained a .300 batting average while hitting 27 home runs between High-A and Double-A in 2007.

The most encouraging part about Teagarden’s potential is that he used to be considered a poor offensive player who would make a living in the Majors based solely on his work behind the plate. Don’t believe me? Take a look at his scouting report from Baseball America, which was written prior to the 2005 draft:

“The best defensive catcher in the draft, Teagarden has exceptional skills behind the plate… The consensus is that he could handle defensive responsibilities in the Majors right now… The question with Teagarden always has been how much he’ll produce at the plate, and he picked up the tag of a light-hitting catcher in high school.

Teagarden laid those concerns to rest almost immediately after being taken in the third round of the amateur draft out of the University of Texas. He hit .281/.426/.635 in 96 short-season at-bats after signing late in the year (He was a Boras client).

Unfortunately, Teagarden blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery in the winter of 2005/06 and missed the majority of the 2006 season. He returned in 2007 and jumped up to High-A ball where he spent a fair bit of time as the team’s designated hitter. He hit .315/.448/.606 in 292 at-bats and earned his promotion to Double-A where he hit .294/.357/.529 in 102 at-bats.

Back behind the plate full-time in 2008, Teagarden’s bat slipped a bit at the upper levels of the minors – at least in terms of average. In 16 Double-A games, he hit just .169/.279/.305. Promoted to Triple-A, Teagarden improved to .225/.332/.396 in 187 at-bats. His undoing at Double-A and Triple-A has been his strikeout rates. In 2007 at Double-A his rate was 38.2 K% and it was 39.0 K% in 2008. At Triple-A, his strikeout rate was 31.6 K% and, despite his small-sample-size success, it was 40.4 K% at the Major League level.

Obviously those rates are not going to lead to success with the batting average. On the plus side, the power has improved and he has continued to take his fair share of walks. Teagarden had a walk rate of 18.9 BB% in High-A in 2007 and 13.0 BB% at Triple-A in 2008.

He may only hit .260-.270 at the Major League level, but Teagarden will get on base and will provide power. In fact, his power could be even more impressive than another top college catcher, who was known more for his bat. Here is what BA had to say, again before the 2005 draft:

Southern California’s Jeff Clement is the best-hitting college catcher in this year’s draft crop, and Teagarden outhit (.309 to .275) and outslugged him (.473 to .435) with wood bats on Team USA last summer.”

As for the defensive side of things, Teagarden’s abilities were slowed by his Tommy John surgery in 2005/06 and his inability to play regularly behind the dish in 2006. He also missed about three weeks early on in 2008 due to elbow soreness. However, he is still an above-average defender and he threw out 50 percent of base stealers (five of 10) at Double-A in 2008 and 36 percent (20 of 55) at Triple-A. Teagarden also made just one error and allowed two passed balls in 57 games at the senior level.

Teagarden is definitely a better defender than Saltalamacchia and he could very well top the former Braves’ career offensive line of .261/.327/.399.


Rangers Team Win Values

Yesterday, we talked about team win value totals, and how they won’t always match up with pythag win projections due to their context neutral nature. Today, I want to look at an example of why this is useful information, and how conclusions about a team’s true talent level based on RS/RA can be faulty.

Let’s talk about the 2008 Texas Rangers. They won 79 games, finishing nearly at a .500 record, despite the fact that they were outscored 967 to 901. Using the pythagenpat formula, you’d get 75 projected wins, so an analysis based on pythag might say the Rangers were lucky to win 79 games based on how they played. However, the total win values of their roster for 2008 paints them as an 84 win team. That’s significantly better than both their pythag and their actual record.

The difference, as usual, is situational performance. The Rangers allowed 98 more runs than the second to last AL team in run prevention, the Baltimore Orioles. Even when you include a park factor to make up for the environment they play in, they were still clearly the easiest team in the league to score runs against.

Now, it’s true, their pitching wasn’t very good. But it wasn’t far and away the worst in the league either. Their 4.83 FIP is actually substantially better than the Orioles 5.14 mark. Yes, Baltimore had a better defense and played in a less offensive-friendly park, but those don’t explain a 100 run difference in runs allowed when Texas’ pitchers posted a FIP of .3 runs better.

The difference can be found in situational pitching. The Rangers were unbelievably terrible at stranding runners – their LOB% of 65.7% was 3% worse than the next worst team, the Colorado Rockies. Look at these situational lines.

Bases Empty: .766 OPS, 5% below average
Men On Base: .874 OPS, 12% below average
Runners in Scoring Position: .891 OPS, 13% below average
Bases Loaded: .878 OPS, 8% below average

With no one on base, the Rangers were just not very good. Put a runner on, though, and they become disastrously terrible. Rallies just piled on top of rallies, and the runs came through like a flood.

There’s good news for Texas fans in this, though. FIP is more predictive from year to year than situational performance, so while their inability to leave runners on base hurt them in 2008, we shouldn’t expect that to repeat itself in 2009. They’re still not likely to be good at stranding runners (their pitchers aren’t really good at anything else, either), but they likely won’t be historically bad again.

This is one of the things that the team win values can highlight for us. The Rangers might have given up a lot of runs, but the way they went about giving up those runs shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an indictment on the future abilities of their pitching staff. With a better expected situational performance, we can expect Texas to do a better job of keeping runs off the board even if their pitching and defense don’t improve at all.