Archive for September, 2013

Why the AL Teams Won’t Win It All

The regular season was supposed to be over today, but thanks to the Rangers and Rays, there are still six American League teams standing. Each of the six has a path to a November parade. Each team has hope, and the beauty of the postseason is that anyone who got here has a real chance to win.

However, almost all of them will fail. Despite their strength, there can only be one champion. Today, with hoping rising in different cities, we look at the achilles heel for each team and note that, if they fail, this significant flaw may very well be the reason why.

Texas: Weak left-handed bats

What follows is a complete list of Rangers hitters who posted a wRC+ greater than 100 — meaning that they performed above the league average — against right-handed pitching this year:

Adrian Beltre, 134
Geovany Soto, 126
Nelson Cruz, 122

That’s it. That’s the whole list. It’s two right-handed hitters and the team’s backup catcher. Soto isn’t likely to play much against RHPs in the postseason, and his numbers were basically a fluke anyway, so the Rangers can essentially run out two above average hitters against righties, and that’s only if they lean heavily on a guy who spent the last two months sitting on the sidelines serving a PED suspension.

Their best left-handed hitter against righties this year? Leonys Martin, who posted a wRC+ of exactly 100 against RHPs. He’s followed by mediocrities like Mitch Moreland, A.J. Pierzynski, and David Murphy. Those are not hitters that are going to scare anyone into taking out their right-handed specialist relievers, so any team with a decent bullpen of power right-handers is going to be able to go right after the Rangers without much fear.

Given the expanded bullpen options each team has in October, that’s a real problem, and it’s one that could end up sending the Rangers home early.

Tampa Bay: The rotation isn’t actually very good.

The Rays have been a pitching development factory for years, constantly churning out quality young arms and providing enviable depth. Every year, it seems, the team is bursting at the seems with too many good starting pitchers. This year, though, their rotation has actually been a bit of a problem.

The Rays starters posted a 3.82 ERA this year, and after you adjust for league and park effects, that rates as almost exactly average among the 30 big league teams. By FIP, they’ve been even a little worse than that, and their ERA is propped up slightly by the fact that their defense helps save some runs from scoring.

They still have David Price, and Alex Cobb has emerged as a real weapon, but it gets a bit dicey after that. Matt Moore’s got a shiny ERA but he still walks everyone and his peripherals suggest not to expect a similar performance in the postseason. Jeremy Hellickson is the opposite, getting terrible results from his mediocre BB/K/HR numbers after a few years of being a guy who outperformed his FIP. Chris Archer might be the best bet of the trio, but even he’s more decent than good. Once the Rays get past Price and Cobb, things are going to start tilting in their opponent’s favor very quickly.

Cleveland: Chris Perez.

There isn’t a team still playing that should have less confidence in their closer than the Indians. Perez has never been an elite relief ace, always skating by racking up white-knuckle saves and looking like he was on the brink of disaster at any given moment. After a solid enough first half, the wheels have come off the last few months.

Since the All-Star break, opponents are hitting .287/.355/.595(!) against Perez, as he’s allowed a disastrous seven home runs in just 27 innings of pitching. For a pitcher who basically has made his name on inducing weak contact — his walk and strikeout rates have always just been okay — the recent string of dingers has brought anxiety to any ninth inning lead. Keeping hitters from hitting the ball hard has really been Perez’s primary strength, and if he’s not doing that, then he’s not the guy you want protecting a lead in October.

The good news for the Indians is that home run rate is particularly fickle, and this is the kind of problem that could magically disappear. But pretty much every other team left has a dominating shut down ace at the end of their bullpen, and the Indians have a guy who they hope won’t keep pitching as badly as he has for the last few months.

Oakland: Bartolo Colon’s magic act can’t last forever.

Bartolo Colon, at age 40, finished second in the American League in ERA. The only other time in his career he posted an ERA under 3.00 was in 2002, back when he threw in the mid-90s and could reach 100 at times. Now, he throws 89 mph fastballs on nearly every pitch, and while the results he got from that plan were incredible, there’s just no way this can keep going on forever.

Specifically, Colon can’t keep stranding runners like he has. Here are opponents performance against him, split out by the position of the baserunners:

Bases empty: .276/.300/.369
Men On: .238/.275/.370
RISP: .185/.217/.309

With no one on, Colon was good but not spectacular. With men on base, he was very good. With men in scoring position, he was Clayton Kershaw. Except, you know, he’s not Clayton Kershaw. The primary driver of the difference in performance in those situations is batting average on balls in play, which is often a better measure of defense and luck than pitching skill. Colon’s BABIPs by those same three states: .314, .263, and .212.

Colon is not going to keep holding good hitters to a .212 BABIP with men in scoring position. That’s just not a sustainable number, or anything even close to it. Some of those balls in play are going to start finding holes, and when they do, his ERA is going to spike. Colon isn’t a bad pitcher, per se, but he’s not a 2.65 ERA ace either. His performance in the regular season is one of the main reasons the A’s won their division, but they should not count on his regular season success carrying over into October.

Detroit: Miguel Cabrera’s body.

Miguel Cabrera, when healthy, is the best hitter on the planet. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been healthy for several weeks now. Cabrera’s been dealing with abdominal soreness for most of September, and more recently, his knees have been acting up. And he doesn’t look like he’s getting better.

Cabrera, despite playing through the pain most days, managed just two extra base hits in September, racking up one double and one home run. He slugged .333 for the month. Even when he hits the ball hard, he doesn’t seem to have enough speed to get to second unless the ball gets over the wall. He’s been reduced to a singles-and-walks guy, and that’s not the hitter that the Tigers need him to be in the playoffs.

Perhaps adrenaline will kick in, or Cabrera’s just been taking it easy with his team’s playoff chances all but assured. Maybe he’s going to get a second wind and remember how to pull an inside fastball. Lately, though, Miguel Cabrera has just looked, well, broken. He’s a big man, and bodies like his don’t tend to last forever.

The Tigers need to hope that Cabrera’s body is more bruised than broken, and that their franchise player can get back to being the dominant offensive force he can be when he’s healthy. Because without that guy in the middle of their line-up, they probably aren’t going very far.

Boston: Clay Buchholz is not actually back to 100%.

Here are Clay Buchholz’s 2013 strikeout rates, by month:

April: 27%
May: 25%
June: 18%
July/August: On DL
September: 17%

Before Buchholz got hurt, he was beastly, striking out one-fourth of the batters he faced and posting a 2.46 FIP. In his four September starts since coming off the DL, he struck out one-sixth of the batters he faced and posted a 3.88 FIP. His 1.88 ERA in those four starts since returning might make it seem like he didn’t miss a beat while spending a couple of months on the shelf, but he hasn’t pitched like the same guy who was destroying hitters in the first couple of months of the year.

The stuff backs up the reasons for concern. At his peak in May, Buchholz’s fastball was averaging 93-94; in his last start, he averaged 90 and topped out around 92. From the results, it looks like everything is just fine, but Buchholz is not throwing the same way he was early in the year.

Without Buchholz as an ace, the Red Sox rotation looks a little shaky. And there are real reasons to think that, given what we’ve seen of Buchholz recently, he’s not likely to pitch like an ace in the playoffs.


Is There Any Carry Over to a Big Finish?

The 2013 season will end for 20 of the 30 big league teams on Sunday, and a majority of those teams have been out of the playoff race for quite some time. For rebuilding clubs or teams whose seasons didn’t go as they planned, the last few months of the year have been about playing for pride. Managers will motivate their players to continue working hard by talking about ending the season on a high note, so that when everyone reports to spring training the following year, they feel good about how they finished strong the year before.

This year, there are three teams who are going to miss the playoffs but are certainly ending on a high note; the Angels, Royals, and Nationals. Each one came into the season with postseason aspirations but have fallen short of the mark due to a poor first half performance. Since the trade deadline, though, all three have taken off. Here are their records through the first four months of the season, and then their records down the stretch.

Team Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1
Washington 0.481 0.627
Anaheim 0.453 0.566
Kansas City 0.510 0.564

If these teams had played all season like they have over the last two months, the Nationals would have won the NL East and the Royals and Angels would be in serious wild card contention. For the final 60 games of the season, these teams have played like they belong in the postseason. But will it help them in 2014?

Recent history says no. Below are the teams that finished strong in each of the last three seasons after poor starts that kept them from playoff contention, only now, we’re also going to list their record in the following year.

Team Year Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1 Win% Next Year
Milwaukee 2012 0.456 0.610 0.453
Philadelphia 2012 0.447 0.593 0.453
San Diego 2012 0.419 0.561 0.472
Los Angeles 2011 0.449 0.630 0.531
Baltimore 2010 0.308 0.586 0.426
Houston 2010 0.427 0.542 0.346

Of the six teams that made dramatic improvements in the final two months of the season, five of them finished below .500 the next year. None of the six made the playoffs in the year following their strong push to the end the season. In fact, their overall average winning percentage in the following season (.447) was much closer to their early season struggles (.417) than their late season surge (.587).

Logically, we shouldn’t be that surprised by these results, given that the time period of poor play is twice as large as the period of time in which the teams played well. If a Major League club struggles for four months and then succeeds for two months, we should still place a larger emphasis on the four months because the sample is twice as large. As humans, we tend to place a very strong emphasis on recent performance, but the evidence does not suggest that we should abandon what we learned early in the year simply because these teams made a good impression to finish the year.

The Angels played poorly for four months because their pitching was atrocious and their two high paid sluggers were severe disappointments. Those problems have not just magically disappeared. Same for the Royals and their inability to score runs. The Nationals are probably the most likely of the three to contend next year without major improvements, but even they should not be simply counting on their end of season run as a sign of things to come. All of these teams need to improve in the off-season, and should not be tricked into thinking that 2014 will pick up where 2013 left off.

Baseball just doesn’t work that way. Earl Weaver had it right when he said that momentum was the next day’s starting pitcher. A team’s ability to play well is minimally, if at all, impacted by their results the day before. By the time an entire winter has passed, and the team reconvenes for spring training, the impact of how a team finished the prior year is completely non-existent, at least in terms of predicting wins and losses for the next season.

It’s better to play well down the stretch than to fall apart entirely, but don’t read too much into late season performances. You are almost always better off looking at a team or players entire season rather than slicing it into arbitrarily smaller sections in order to spot a trend. All the games count, not just the most recent ones.


The Reds Need Home-Field Advantage

There are 162 games in a major league season, spread out over six months, and the mantra you hear from managers and players is almost always the same: Take it one game at a time.

That’s almost always good advice, serving to shepherd an ever-changing group of 25 players through the highs and lows of a long season, but in certain situations that kind of calming effect is no longer appropriate. With more than 98 percent of the season in the books, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in exactly that position, entering a series that’s more than just about adding to the season-long win total — it’s a face-to-face battle to see who hosts the one-game NL wild-card matchup between the same two teams on Tuesday.

(The Pirates are technically still alive for the NL Central division title as well, which may give them added motivation, but it’s beyond unlikely; not only would Pittsburgh have to sweep the Reds in Cincinnati, but St. Louis would have to drop three games at home to the last-place Cubs. Don’t hold your breath on that.)

Even though the Pirates have a one-game edge, the Reds would own the tiebreaker if they win two of three this weekend in Cincinnati. So whichever team wins the series gets to host the wild-card game on Tuesday. And while both teams would obviously love to host, the Reds have a bit more to gain playing on their own turf.

Road-fearing hurlers

On the surface, these are two very evenly-matched teams. Both squads have 97 wRC+, and in terms of run prevention, nearly-identical ERAs (3.29 to 3.35 in favor of the Bucs). Though the Reds won four of the previous seven games between the two in Cincinnati this year, each side scored 21 runs apiece; in Pittsburgh, the Pirates went 5-4, despite being outscored by eight runs. (Two of the losses were via shutout.)

No road warriors

Liriano has a much larger home-road split this year.

PITCHER HOME ROAD
Liriano 1.47 4.33
Latos 2.77 3.48

 

That makes any added edge either side can pick up crucial, and both likely wild-card starters — expected to be resurgent lefty Francisco Lirianofor Pittsburgh and Cincinnati ace Mat Latos — would benefit from games at home, because each have pitched much better in the home whites this year.

In two previous starts this year at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, Liriano allowed a line of .250/.348/.500 and three home runs — one more homer than he gave up in 11 starts at home, where he allowed just a puny line of .174/.249/.225. Liriano has completely dominated left-handed hitters this year (.321 OPS against), which bodes well against the Reds’ lefty-heavy lineup, but his problems at Great American, a more hitter-friendly park than PNC, can’t be ignored.

Latos made three starts at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and not only was it the only visiting park that he allowed more than a single home run in, his total of four allowed is half what it was at home, where he started 14 times.

The Aroldis factor

Reds fans may also hope for a home game beyond the obvious reasons because it may allow for a more effective usage of elite closer Aroldis Chapman. Though this clearly falls into a larger “old school-vs-new school” debate — and Reds manager Dusty Baker is firmly old-school — a source of frustration for many Cincinnati supporters this year has been Baker’s reluctance to use Chapman in non-save situations on the road, even allowing his team to lose with inferior pitchers on the mound while Chapman watches from the bullpen.

To cherry-pick just one example of many that directly impacted this race, the Reds lost 5-4 in Pittsburgh in 11 innings on June 2 without Chapman — who had pitched only once in the previous week — entering the game. Instead, Alfredo Simon, an effective reliever who is nonetheless far from Chapman’s level, was pushed to a third inning of relief and eventually allowed the winning run as Chapman waited for the “save situation” that never came.

Baker manages much differently at home in the ninth and extra innings, when there is no longer an opportunity for a save, like he did on Wednesday by using Chapman in the ninth with the Reds down 1-0 to the Mets. Whether by coincidence or not, Chapman performs much better at home both in 2013 (.169 wOBA against as opposed to .371 wOBA on the road) and over his career (.214 wOBA at home, .270 wOBA on the road), which combined with Baker’s tendencies, makes the Reds closer much more dangerous in Cincinnati. Of all the reasons why the Reds need the game at home, this one is the most crucial.

Pirate pandemonium

Off the field, there’s a slightly different approach to this series in Pittsburgh than there is in Cincinnati, where the Reds have hosted playoff games twice in the last four seasons. After waiting more than two decades for the next good Pirates team, Pittsburgh fans have already seen the end of the 2013 home regular season schedule, which wrapped up on Sunday when the Pirates lost to these same Reds 11-3.

It would be a cruel taunt if the Pirates finally broke that streak to make it back to the playoffs and found the reward was merely to extend the season-ending three-game trip to Cincinnati into four, without even so much as a home playoff game for the long-suffering fans who’d been patient for so long. So whatever stock you want to put in soft factors such as extra motivation from the crowd, you’d have to think that Pittsburgh’s fan would bring the noise a little bit more than Cincinnati’s.

Will simply gaining the home field for the wild-card game guarantee a victory? Of course not; the home team won about 54 percent of the time across MLB this year, and 54 percent is a far cry from 100. But for two teams that are so evenly matched, every little edge — Liriano’s larger home-road split, the Pittsburgh fans, Baker’s usage of Chapman — can have an enormous impact in a single game. That’s what makes this weekend’s series so important, both teams could use home-field advantage, and the Reds could use it a little bit more.


Who is Winning with Old Guys?

Last week, we looked at the teams that were getting the most production from their young players, noting that the Atlanta Braves are blowing away the field in contributions from players under the age of 25. Today, we’re going to do the reverse, looking at teams that are relying heavily on older players, and might have to start making plans for replacements in the near future.

These teams have gotten the most production out of players in their age-32 season, which means that they were 32 or order on July 1st. For reference, all listed player ages are as of that date, so players who turned 32 after July 1st are not counted in these groupings.

1. Boston Red Sox, +21 WAR

The Red Sox rebirth has been well chronicled, as they remade their team last off-season through a series of smart free agent signings. However, the plan also called for the team to lean heavily on older players, and no team in baseball has gotten as much production from guys headed towards the end of their careers as the boys in beantown.

Koji Uehara is 38. David Ortiz is 37. Ryan Dempster is 36. John Lackey is 34. Shane Victorino and Jake Peavy are 32. There is a significant part of the team’s roster that shouldn’t be counted on for long term production, and with players on the wrong side of 30, the end can occasionally come quickly. While Ortiz is unlikely to forget how to hit any time soon and Uehara looks better than he ever has, the team won’t be able to keep getting this level of production from these guys forever. Eventually, Father Time will catch up.

Of course, part of the reason the Red Sox were willing to acquire so many long-in-the-tooth veterans is that they have spent the past few years stockpiling young talent, so help is on the way. With top prospect Xander Bogaerts and young arms like Brandon Workman already contributing to the big league team, the Sox future seems to be in pretty good hands. But make no mistake, there is a changing of the guard coming. The Red Sox of a few years from now likely won’t look anything like the team that is headed for the postseason now.

2. New York Yankees, +14 WAR

While the Yankees haven’t received the same level of production from older players as Boston has, this is probably the scariest number for any team, because the Yankees don’t have a Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings. In fact, the +14 WAR they’ve gotten from older players represents more than half of their total team WAR on the year, so they’re actually getting carried by end-of-career players like Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera.

The changing of the guard that is going to happen in Boston is already happening in New York, but unfortunately for the Yankees, there doesn’t appear to be a new guard ready to replace the old ones. New York is going to have to keep pushing for production from the younger part of the old guy pool, hoping for more value next year from guys like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.

Given the dearth of under-25 production, the Yankees probably need something closer to +20 to +25 WAR from their older core in order to contend next year. The Red Sox managed to pull it off this year, but the fact that no other team in baseball is even close to getting that kind of production from aging players probably tells you all you need to know about the likelihood of repeating that trick. The Yankees are still the Yankees, and they still have a lot of money, but this roster has some serious problems.

3. Texas Rangers, +13 WAR

You might not think of the Rangers as an old team, since they’ve been infusing young players like Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Elvis Andrus, and Leonys Martin into their core for the last few years. And they still have high hopes for Jurickson Profar, who spent a good chunk of the year in the big leagues at age 20. However, once you get past those few core players, it becomes pretty clear that the Rangers have been more reliant on aging players than you might first think.

Adrian Beltre is 34, and the team’s best player. His defense is showing some signs of erosion after 15 years of elite performance, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to keep up this level of performance forever. Joe Nathan, at age 38, had one of the best seasons of his career. A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz were both useful role players who are set for free agency, and Cruz’s absence was offset by the acquisition of the 32 year old Alex Rios.

The rotation is young, and Profar could be a big boost if they can find a spot for him, but this team is sneaky old, and is going to have to start replacing some productive players in the not too distant future.

4. Philadelphia Phillies, +11 WAR

Not a big surprise to see the Phillies here, as they have one of baseball’s oldest rosters after years of pushing for World Series titles. They’ve collected a large number of veterans over the years, many of them highly compensated, and that group simply wasn’t able to produce enough to offset the lack of young talent that has been flowing into the organization.

The Phillies still have some quality players, like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and kept star second baseman Chase Utley in the organization with a mid-season contract extension, but the Phillies veteran core is no longer good enough to carry the team to the postseason. This team needs some productive young players, and soon.

5. Toronto Blue Jays, +8 WAR

Jose Bautista, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle aren’t spring chickens any more, which is one of the reasons the Blue Jays didn’t trade away veterans for prospects at the trade deadline. While they fell flat in 2013, there are still pieces in place that make a 2014 run a real possibility, and they don’t have lot of time to waste while Bautista is still an impact hitter.


Don’t Blame Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish “doesn’t fight,” wrote one Dallas-area media member earlier this week as the painful September slide of the Texas Rangers continued. “He’s crumbling under the pressure” and “not mentally tough,” added multiple fans commenting on the site of the Dallas Morning News.

It’s not particularly difficult to understand why Rangers fans are so agitated right now, because for the second season in a row, their team is collapsing down the stretch and ceding control of a division they once dominated to the rival Oakland Athletics. After consecutive World Series defeats in 2010 and 2011, the 2012 Rangers squandered a season-long run in first place by succumbing to a sweep in Oakland in the final series of the season.

This year, they spent 95 days atop the West and were within a half-game of first as recently as Sept. 6, but after dropping nine of 12 — including another sweep at the hands of Oakland — Ron Washington’s team now finds itself 6 1/2 games behind the Athletics and on the verge of being knocked out of a playoff spot entirely.

There’s no shortage of places to put that blame, but the bulk of the frustration seems to be landing on Darvish, mainly because the Texas ace hasn’t pitched the Rangers to a win in any of his past six starts dating back to early August — including two painful losses against Oakland. So Darvish, as the narrative goes, doesn’t have “the will to win” and isn’t living up to his ace billing, right? Well, not quite.

No support

When Darvish lost to Oakland last Saturday, he struck out 10 and walked one in seven one-run innings, yet the Texas bats couldn’t muster anything against Bartolo Colon, and the Rangers lost 1-0. When Darvish lost to phenom Gerrit Cole and the Pirates on Sept. 9, he also threw seven one-run innings before leaving with a cramp, but the Texas offense again disappeared in a 1-0 loss. The losses made Darvish the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1989 — and only the fourth in the past century — to lose by a 1-0 margin four times in a single season.

Not only is the perception that Darvish has somehow been struggling inaccurate, he actually has been one of the best pitchers in the American League down the stretch, which means that the right question is not “why can’t Yu Darvish win,” it’s “would the Rangers even have been in the race without him?”

In 11 starts since the All-Star break, Darvish has allowed more than three earned runs only once, while holding opponents to two runs or fewer seven times. In the second half, he ranks fourth in the AL in ERA, fifth in WAR, eighth in FIP, first in strikeout percentage and first in batting average against. Those half-season rankings are similar to what he has for the full season, and only the presence of Max Scherzer and his 19-3 record is going to prevent Darvish from getting the recognition he deserves in the AL Cy Young balloting.

As Darvish heads into Thursday night’s start against Matt Moore and the Rays, he’s actually on pace to have a historically significant season. Over the past century, his current 11.9 strikeouts per nine mark has been topped by only three qualified starters — Randy Johnson, who did so six times, and once apiece by Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood. There’s more to life than strikeouts, of course, but it’s difficult to look at the pitcher who is missing bats and not allowing runs and think that he’s your main problem here.

The real culprits

Rather than Darvish, Texas fans would do well to focus their contempt on Derek Holland, who just lasted a combined 7 2/3 innings in two September starts against Oakland, allowing 10 runs (nine earned). Or perhaps aim their vitriol toward failed midseason trade acquisition Matt Garza, who has allowed four or more earned runs in seven of his past nine starts — including six earned runs in a loss to Tampa Bay, their main wild-card competition, Monday night.

They might especially look at an offense that has scored just 55 runs in September, which is tied for the third fewest in baseball with the dreadful White Sox and Mariners. Texas has been struggling to support Darvish or any of its starters thanks to slumps by Adrian Beltre(.238/.304/.254), Ian Kinsler (.222/.253/.333, plus two outs on the bases Monday night) and Mitch Moreland (.154/.283/.410), and also because of the PED suspension to Nelson Cruz that deprived them of one of their top hitters.

Other than shortstop Elvis Andrus and outfielder Alex Rios, who came over from the White Sox in July, not a single regular Texas hitter is hitting at even a league-average rate this month. In the past seven games — all losses — they had played entering Tuesday, the Rangers never even held a lead. That’s not a typo — in seven full games, at no point did the Rangers have more runs than their opponent at any point.

It goes without saying that Darvish had nothing to do with most of those games, because this has been a team effort. Speaking after the most recent Oakland loss, the frustration from Darvish was evident, as he told reporters, “I can’t control it. I can’t do anything about it,” and “as a pitcher, you can’t control how many runs are scored. Am I going to go into the lineup and help the lineup? I can’t.”

Perhaps that’s a level of honesty that most aren’t comfortable with, because that borders dangerously close to the line of throwing your offense under the bus rather than simply spouting the company line that “we all need to do better as a team.” Maybe that’s why Darvish is taking the brunt of the blowback for this, or maybe it’s just mostly coming from those who still actually put importance in pitcher won-loss record despite all evidence to the contrary. Still, “crumbling under the pressure?” Far from it.


The Braves Are Loaded

Every Major League team wants to win, but at the same time, each organization has to constantly balance maximizing wins in the present with maintaining a stockpile of talent and financial flexibility for the future. Loading up on expensive veterans might have a short term payoff, but in time, those old players aren’t going to be enough to sustain a competitive team, and if those players are making big money in their decline years, things can get ugly in a hurry; just ask the Phillies.

However, some organizations have figured out how to both contend and build for the future at the same time. In order to look at which teams have done the best job of getting value from young talent that they can build around in the future, I’ve broken down every team’s total FanGraphs WAR into three age groups: young players (25 and under), in their primes (26-31), and aging veterans (32 and up). Today, we’re going to focus on the teams that have gotten the most value from players no older than 25, giving them a core nucleus to build around both now and in the future.

Atlanta Braves, +24 WAR

The Braves are destroying every other team in baseball in production from young talent this season, and they boast perhaps the best crop of young Major Leaguers in the entire game. On the position player side, they are led by three 23-year-olds in Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman. The “old guy” in the middle of their order is Justin Upton, who played most of the year at 25 before turning 26 a few weeks ago. Their rotation boasts both Mike Minor (25) and Julio Teheran (22), while Alex Wood (22) has provided value both as a starter and a reliever. Oh, and they have some guy named Craig Kimbrel (25) who is okay at closing out games.

The Braves have the best record in baseball, and they’re doing it with one of the youngest group of core players in the sport. Other teams that have similar aged players in key positions are focused solely on rebuilding and accumulating experience, while the Braves are riding their host of young kids to a potential World Series title.

The Braves have long been known as a player development machine, but the group they’ve put together might just be their most impressive collection yet. 60% of their total team WAR has come from the young player group. For comparison, the Braves have gotten more production from players 25-and-under than the Mariners, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Blue Jays, Cubs, Padres, Astros, Yankees, and Twins combined. 10 big league franchises, several of them in full on rebuilding mode with a primary focus on acquiring and developing young talent, and even if you put them all together, they don’t have enough good young players to match what the 2013 Braves have amassed.

The Cardinals, Rays, and others deserve the praise that is regularly heaped upon them, but let’s not overlook what Frank Wren and his staff have done in Atlanta. This is a great team built around players who aren’t likely to get worse any time soon.

Anaheim Angels, +14 WAR

This is almost entirely Mike Trout. In fact, Trout’s +10 WAR would rate as the 6th best mark of any team’s under-25 total all by himself. Having the very best young player in baseball — and maybe the best young player anyone has ever seen — is obviously a huge advantage, but Trout isn’t the only young talent the Angels have, even if it feels that way sometimes. Garrett Richards has developed into a pretty interesting pitcher this year, while Kole Calhoun is establishing himself as a nice option in the outfield for the future.

But, at the end of the day, this is basically Mike Trout’s team. If they can keep him and build around him, then there’s hope for the Angels, because he is the single most valuable asset in the game. There’s plenty wrong in Anaheim, but Mike Trout covers a multitude of sins.

Colorado Rockies, +13 WAR

This one might be a bit surprising, because the marquee players for the Rockies are in-their-prime guys like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. We don’t necessarily always think of the Rockies as a team stocked with young talent, but they’ve gotten some really good seasons from Jhoulys Chacin (3.09 FIP while pitching half his games in Coors Field), Tyler Chatwood (3.57 FIP), Nolen Arenado (elite defense at third base), and Wilin Rosario (105 wRC+ while “catching”, even if he probably belongs at first base).

This is basically the opposite case of Anaheim, where they have one superstar young player and then a huge cliff. Beyond even those four, the Rockies have gotten value from guys like Corey Dickerson and Rex Brothers, so there’s a base of talent in Colorado that extends farther than Tulo and CarGo. It didn’t lead to a winning season this year, but it looks like there are some better days ahead for the Rockies.

Los Angeles Dodgers, +12 WAR

Yasiel Puig has been the Dodgers best under-25 hitter, producing +4 WAR in less than a full season’s worth of playing time. Their second best under-25 hitter? Clayton Kershaw, edging out backup catcher Tim Fedoriwicz in performance relative to his peers. On the offensive side, this is an old team with one phenomenal young talent.

The pitching is similar, as Kershaw is not only the best under-25 pitcher in baseball, he’s probably the best pitcher in baseball period. And he’s the only young starter to provide value in LA this year, but the young bullpen — led by Kenley Jansen — has been excellent. Almost all of the team’s performance from young players has come from those three players, but those are three pretty nifty pieces to build around.

Arizona Diamondbacks, +12 WAR

Like with LA, this is primarily driven by one star hitter (Paul Goldschmidt, +5 WAR) and one star pitcher (Pat Corbin, +4 WAR). They’ve gotten some production from the likes of A.J. Pollock, Didi Gregorius, Trevor Cahill, and Randall Delgado, but Goldschmidt and Corbin have really carried the brunt of the load.

The good news for the Diamondbacks is that there is reason for optimism for players beyond just those two. Adam Eaton had a disappointing rookie season, but his minor league track record is very strong, and if he’s completely healthy next spring, he could take a big step forward. Likewise, young arms like Tyler Skaggs might be more ready to contribute in 2014 than they did in 2013. The Diamondbacks have a solid young nucleus, and with Goldschmidt, they’ve got a franchise player to build around.


It’s Not the End In Pittsburgh, It’s the Beginning

Whenever you read about the Pittsburgh Pirates these days, you hear about 2013 being “the end”. With their win over Texas on Monday, it was officially the the end of more than two decades of losing baseball, dating back to the Barry Bonds / Doug Drabek Pirates of 1992. Barring a massive collapse over the next two weeks, it’s soon going to also be the end of a playoff drought going back to that same season, the one that ended on Sid Bream’s infamous slide home.

As the NL Central race heats up, the Pirates have been treading water, having lost 16 of 30 games over the last month of play — though after being swept by St. Louis, they just finished off a sweep in Texas on Wednesday. The magical season, the one that has seen them spend 52 days in first place to date, might not even end with a single home playoff game in front of the Pittsburgh fans, should they be unable to hold off the Reds and Cardinals and end up with the second wild card spot. (The Pirates and Reds face off six times in the final nine games of the season, the closest we’re likely to get to must-watch baseball in the National League this year.) Wouldn’t that end up being the most Pirates way possible to end the streak?

Yet for all of the discussion about what the Pirates are in position to end, the state of this franchise is about far more than the ghosts they’re about to excise. 2013 isn’t the end. It’s merely the beginning, because this organization is being built for the long haul, not just to poke above .500 for one year before falling back off. (Looking at you, 2003 Royals and 2009 Mariners.)

The story starts, as it should, with the team’s best player. 26-year-old Andrew McCutchen is, by at least one measure of WAR, the second-most valuable player in baseball behind only Mike Trout. A true five-tool player who is considered by many to be the frontrunner for the NL Most Valuable Player award, McCutchen is also notable for doing what past generations of Pirates stars hadn’t. He decided to stay, signing a $51 million extension prior to last season that buys out two years of his free agency and keeps him under team control through the 2018 season.

McCutchen doesn’t turn 27 until next month, making him the senior member of an outfield that could potentially be overflowing with talent over the next few years. Starling Marte, 26 in October, has been worth more than four wins in his first full season, stealing 36 bases (along with 13 failed attempts, which is admittedly poor) to go with an above-average .344 wOBA and solid defense. If Marte manages to get four more extra-base hits (he’s been dealing with a hand injury lately), he’ll be just the third Pirate since the end of World War II to put up a season of 35 steals and 50 extra-base hits.

While the Pirates have had trouble all season long filling right field next to Marte & McCutchen — they’ve used 10 players there, and only four clubs have had less cumulative production from the position — that could change relatively soon. Gregory Polanco, who turns 22 on Saturday, moved up to #17 on Keith Law’s midseason Top 50 Prospects list while playing at three minor league levels, including Triple-A Indianapolis, and could see time in Pittsburgh as soon as next year. Polanco has stolen 78 bases over the last two seasons, so when he arrives, the Pirates will have three of the youngest, fastest, and most talented outfielders in baseball roaming the grass at PNC Park.

While the outfield is where the star power is on offense, it might be difficult to compete with the coming one-two punch in the starting rotation that Pirates fans have been dying to see since the team used back-to-back top-two draft picks on pitchers in 2010 and 2011. Righty Gerrit Cole, who turned 23 just last weekend, arrived in Pittsburgh earlier this summer and has proven more than effective, pitching to a 3.48 ERA / 3.18 FIP in 16 starts and allowing more than three earned runs just once.

Cole was already a highly-touted prospect, but even he has shown improvement in his brief time in the big leagues. Over his first eight starts, Cole relied mostly on his sinker and his fastball and had difficulty missing bats, striking out just 29 in 48.2 innings. In his last eight starts, he’s dialed down the sinker usage to take more advantage of his full arsenal, and the results have been clear — in a nearly equal 49.2 innings, he’s struck out 46 hitters, a much better rate. Cole’s adjustments made for national news on Monday night when he outdueled Texas’ ace, Yu Darvish, and struck out nine Rangers over seven scoreless innings — including striking out the side in just 11 pitches in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Taillon, meanwhile turns 22 in November and was the number two pick out of high school in the 2010 draft. Ranked ranked as a consistent top-fifteen prospect, he should make his debut next year. After years of wasting first round picks on the low-upside likes of Brian Bullington, Daniel Moskos, and Brad Lincoln, the team is finally reaping the rewards of smart, focused drafting. Imagine what we might have been saying about the future rotation had they been able to sign Mark Appel, their top 2012 pick who returned to the draft and went number one overall to Houston this year?

Along with 25-year-old starter Jeff Locke, 26-year-old third baseman Pedro Alvarez — both first-time All-Stars this year, though neither without their flaws — and 26-year-old lefty reliever Justin Watson, the Bucs have built up a core of excellent young talent that they can build around. With prospects like shortstop Alen Hanson and pitchers Tyler Glasnow & Luis Heredia on the way, the Pittsburgh pipeline should continue to provide reinforcements.

It takes more than just prospects to win, of course and general manager Neil Huntington is going to have to continue to pull rabbits out of his hat like he’s done recently with the successful low-risk acquisitions of important pieces like A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli, Garrett Jones, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, & Mark Melancon. He might even have to package some of those young players for the additional elite bat this offense probably needs.

Even if it’s taken far longer than fans might have liked, Pittsburgh is finally a destination where free agents might consider coming if they want to contend. That might be a win just as big as any of the 84 they have so far this year, and it’s why things are just getting started for the Pirates.


The MVPs Who Won’t Get Votes

The AL MVP is going to be Miguel Cabrera, barring some kind of historic upset that would seemingly require a late season felony conviction of some sort, and even then, he might still win the award anyway. The outcome of the NL MVP race isn’t quite as clear, but it will very likely come down to Clayton Kershaw, Yadier Molina, or Andrew McCutchen. These are the players who are going to receive recognition for their efforts in contributing to a team’s success, and rightfully so; they’re all having fantastic seasons and are worthy candidates.

But, baseball is not basketball, and the impact any one player can have on a team’s final record pales in comparison to the sum of his teammates; just ask Mike Trout how realistic it is for even the game’s very best performer to “carry” his team to the postseason without assistance. The reality is that good teams are made up of numerous contributors. So, today, let’s talk about some of the guys who deserve recognition on MVP ballots, even if they aren’t going to occupy one of the few spots.

Russell Martin, C, Pittsburgh

While McCutchen is the star and pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano get the spotlight, Martin might be the biggest factor in the Pirates success this year. Signed for a relative pittance — $17 million over two years — after the Yankees decided they didn’t want him back, Martin has been a revelation in Pittsburgh.

The bat is more solid than spectacular, but a 109 wRC+ from an everyday catcher is well above average for the position, and unlike many other good hitting catchers, he doesn’t get a break from the toll of catching by spending time at first base or designated hitter; in fact, Martin ranks 7th in the majors in innings behind the plate, which is where his value really comes through.

Martin leads the majors in runners gunned down stealing, with 33 baserunner kills to his credit in just 76 attempts, a spectacular 44% caught stealing rate, and it’s not the Pirates pitchers doing a great job of holding runners; Pirates catchers not named Russell Martin have allowed 37 stolen bases on 43 attempts, a 14% caught stealing rate that is in line with the awful performance the Pirates had as a team last year before bringing Martin in over the winter.

And that’s just the running game. As Jared Cross wrote earlier this week, catchers can have a significant impact on the called strike zone by the way they receive the ball, and while that piece focused on Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, Martin also excels at this skill, coming out at +19 runs according to Cross’ evaluation.

Martin currently ranks 12th in the NL in FanGraphs version of WAR even though framing runs are not yet included in the calculation. If you give him any bump at all for his contributions to turning balls into strikes, he easily flies into the top 10, and if you give him the full 19 runs that Cross estimated, then he’d actually end up #2, behind only McCutchen.

And when you look at the Pirates staff — with cast-offs like Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon, and Jason Grilli — taking starring roles for the best run prevention unit in baseball, it’s hard to not notice that Martin is the common link between all of them. His arrival has transformed the Pirates defense, and that is the unit that is carrying them to the postseason. He won’t get many MVP votes, but he deserves recognition for being one of the primary catalysts on the best story of the year.

Yunel Escobar, SS, Tampa Bay

Escobar’s back story is as much about his conflict with teammates and team personnel as it is about his performance, which hasn’t exactly been consistent either. The Braves tired of him in 2010, shipping him to Toronto simply because they didn’t want to be around him anymore, and the Blue Jays shipped him to the Marlins in the Mega Deal of the Winter in part because he performed terribly last season. The Marlins had no interest in keeping him, however, and only took him to offset some of the salary they were forcing the Blue Jays to take on in Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, so Miami dumped him on the Rays before he ever suited up for them.

Acquiring Escobar for a fringe prospect has turned out to be one of the primary reasons the Rays are in line to take a wild card spot, as he has returned to prior excellent form on the field and has apparently fit right into the Rays unusual clubhouse atmosphere as well. With a 104 wRC+ and terrific defense, Escobar leads all American League shortstops in WAR, and his presence has allowed Ben Zobrist to shift back over to his more natural positions, strengthening the team’s defense across the board.

And Maddon is a fan of Escobar’s personality, even if others haven’t been before. A month ago, Maddon told MLB.com:

“It’s entertainment, man, and this guy entertains,” Maddon said. “You watch before the game how he energizes the dugout before everyone takes the field. He’s always up. He’s upbeat. He brings a lot of positive energy to us.”

The players say they like him. The manager likes him. There is no evidence of dissent in the Rays clubhouse, and of course, Escobar is performing on the field. While his reputation might not ever completely dissolve, Escobar’s 2013 season is showing that in baseball, one organization’s trash can absolutely be another team’s treasure.

Chris Johnson, 3B, Atlanta

It’s always going to be referred to as the Justin Upton trade, as the Braves traded away Martin Prado and a group of prospects to land Arizona’s talented young right fielder over the winter, but the second piece that came east in that trade — third baseman Chris Johnson — has been just as important as the guy who they made the trade to get. Consider their performances side by side:

Johnson: .330/.366/.466, .361 wOBA, 131 wRC+
Upton: .262/.354/.469, .358 wOBA, 129 wRC+

By WAR, Upton leads +2.7 to +2.6, which is a tie, for all intents and purposes. Johnson isn’t a very good defensive third baseman, and there’s no way he’s going to keep hitting .330 in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s been an excellent offensive player for the Braves in 2013, and is one of the primary reasons that their offense has been so good even with prolonged slumps from the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward landing on the disabled list. Johnson is hardly the most recognizable player on the roster, but his contributions shouldn’t go unnoticed.


Why Boston won’t implode in 2013

On Sept. 1, 2011, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. On Sept. 1, 2013, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. But for Boston, which moved up three spots to third in the ESPN Power Rankings this week, the starting rotation’s poor work that caused the disastrous 2011 implosion is a thing of the past. This year’s rotation is not only just as talented but also deeper.

The depth is the key here. In September 2011, the Red Sox’s rotation was running on fumes. Its starting five had pitched well in July and August, but things crashed and burned in September. Like this year, the Red Sox lost Clay Buchholz in June 2011. But unlike this year, Buchholz never pitched again. (Buchholz is expected back later this month and has already made one rehab start.) That forced the team to first hand the ball to Andrew Miller, who quickly proved that he should never be trusted as a starter again — in his 40 1/3 innings in the rotation in June and July, he struck out 25 and walked 25 and posted a 5.36 ERA.

After Miller, the team turned to trade deadline acquisition Erik Bedard. Bedard pitched better, but he wasn’t durable. An injured lat and knee forced him from the rotation on Sept. 3, and when he returned to the rotation on Sept. 20, he was a disaster — he allowed seven baserunners in a start that lasted just 2 2/3 innings. He gave it one more go seven days later in the penultimate game of the season and struck out six in a better effort, but still went only 3 1/3 innings.

When Bedard couldn’t take the ball in early September 2011, the team was forced to turn back to Miller, and the results were predictable. He tossed just 6 1/3 innings in his two September starts, allowed 11 runs and walked more hitters than he struck out. The Sox lost both games, and he was pushed back into the bullpen, where he has remained — and thrived — ever since.

Bedard’s injury on Sept. 3 left the team thin, and the situation only got worse two days later when Josh Beckettrolled his ankle at the Rogers Centre. Beckett would need to skip his next start, and in stepped Kyle Weiland. A third-round pick in 2008, Weiland had been a nonentity until ’11, when he punched out 23.5 percent of the hitters he faced in Triple-A Pawtucket. Still, he wasn’t ready for prime time. He got two spot starts in July and bombed the audition — he allowed nine runs in 10 innings and struck out four against five walks. But Boston had nowhere else to turn in mid-September, and Weiland got the ball once again. In his three September starts, he never escaped the fifth inning, and the Sox lost all three games. In his final outing on Sept. 19, he coughed up three homers to the Orioles in 4 2/3 innings. Of the 456 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings in the majors that season, only eight posted a worse FIP than Weiland’s 6.55 mark.

When Beckett was able to take the ball again on Sept. 16, it was with great relief. The team had lost six of its past seven and had allowed 60 runs in those seven games (for an abhorrent 7.5 runs per game). And for that one night, Beckett was fine — he tossed a quality start and struck out seven against one walk, and the Sox rolled. But working on regular rest his next two times out, it was clear that he was gassed. On Sept. 21, he struck out eight and walked just one, but he also allowed six runs as the then-lowly Orioles roasted the Red Sox for 13 runs total. Still, eight strikeouts … not bad, right? There was hope. But in his final start, Beckett’s average fastball velocity would dip under 93 mph for the first time in 11 starts, and the Orioles let him have it again. The next year, his average fastball would fall to 91.2 mph, and now after a May injury this year, his days as a quality pitcher seem long behind him.

Heading into this season, that is also how things looked for John Lackey. Demonized along with Beckett in the beer-and-fried-chicken fallout following the 2011 season, Lackey was chugging on the fumes of his fumes that September. He allowed at least four runs in all five of his starts that month and didn’t go past six innings in any of them. His 9.13 ERA that September was easily the worst full-month mark of his career, and after it he needed Tommy John surgery. When he came back this year, little was expected of him, even when he showed up to Sarasota, Fla., looking fit and trim. And for a minute, it looked like he would deliver little, as he left his first start with arm trouble and missed most of April. But since his return, he has been both a revelation and a rock in the rotation. He hasn’t quite been vintage Lackey, but he has been as good as he was in 2009 and 2010, and that isjust fine and dandy like sour candy.

 

Boston’s 2013 Rotation

Pitcher K/BB FIP- fWAR
Felix Doubront 2.22 85 3.1
Jon Lester 2.42 91 3.1
Clay Buchholz 2.79 59 2.9
John Lackey 4.06 91 2.8
Jake Peavy 4.35 94 2.1
Ryan Dempster 2.04 112 1.2

 

Lackey is part of a rotation that already runs five-deep with dependable starters, and if Buchholz is as good as he was in the first half when and if he returns later this month, the Sox will suddenly have more starters than they can pitch. The logical cut would be Ryan Dempster, who has easily been the worst of the bunch this season (see chart at right). But while Dempster hasn’t performed as expected this year, having him as a sixth starter is a lot more comforting than having to turn to Miller, Weiland or Alfredo Aceves, as the Red Sox did in 2011. And if for some reason they need more than these six guys — which is unlikely, considering the active quintet has made 40 of the team’s 43 second-half starts — they can turn to Brandon Workman. A prospect who graduated in midseason, Workman was touted by Baseball America as having the best curveball and the best control in the farm system this year, and he has delivered as advertised — he has struck out 37 hitters and walked just 12 in his 34 innings in Boston thus far.

Looking at the seasons month by month, the 2011 starting rotation never posted a FIP under 4.00. This season, the starting rotation has had three such months, including the past two. The normal five members of the rotation have made every start since Aug. 6, when Steven Wright got a spot start. Entering Sunday, Boston starters had tossed 11 straight starts with a Game Score of 50 or better.

The Red Sox are as equally well-positioned in the standings this September as they were back in 2011, but in 2011 the floor was crumbling beneath them, and they didn’t have enough quality reinforcements to help them find their footing. This season, the Red Sox may not have a true ace, but if Buchholz comes back soon, they have as many as seven quality options in the rotation from which to choose. This puts them on much more stable ground than September of ’11, when no member of the rotation posted an ERA under 5.00. Boston still has to go out and win it and has a tougher September schedule than do the Tampa Bay Rays, but don’t be fooled — this season’s starting rotation is nothing like 2011’s, and the rotation’s quality and depth should help Boston cruise to its first division title since 2007.


A Great Free Agent Class For Those Who Like Risk

With all the new television money flowing into the game, Major League teams have ramped up pre-free agent contract extensions, keeping the best players away from the open market. When the off-season rolls around, you’re going to hear a lot of talk about what a lousy group of players are available, especially if Robinson Cano ends up staying with the Yankees. However, there’s one area where this free agent class is actually quite interesting: broken but perhaps fixable formerly great pitchers.

Among the hurlers who will hit the open market this year: Roy Halladay (2010 NL Cy Young), Tim Lincecum (2008/2009 NL Cy Youngs), Dan Haren (three time All-Star, finished 7th in 2011 Cy Young), and Josh Johnson (two time All-Star, finished 5th in 2010 Cy Young). Just a couple of years ago, this quartet would have made up the best rotation in baseball, as they combined to throw 749 innings and post a 2.67 ERA in 2011.

Over the last few years, though, things haven’t gone so well, especially this season. Over 419 innings, these four pitchers have combined for a 5.22 ERA. Halladay didn’t look like himself last year, and spent most of this season on the DL with a shoulder problem. Johnson was lousy for the Blue Jays in the first half and will end up missing the final two months of the season with a forearm strain. Lincecum has stayed off the DL, but his velocity is still missing and his ERA over 4.50 for the second straight year. Haren was so bad in the first half that the Nationals stashed him on the DL just to give him a break, and while he’s been better since, his 4.66 ERA overall is not what the team was hoping for when they signed him as a free agent.

In each case, the results these guys have posted make them look like a shell of their former selves. However, in each case, there’s reason for some optimism about the future, and a team with a significant appetite for risk could potentially rebuild their entire rotation in one fell swoop this winter.

ERA can often be a misleading indicator of future performance, and especially in one or two year samples, a pitcher’s FIP and xFIP will often give you more of an idea of what they’re going to do in the future. We’ve already noted that these pitchers have all been lousy by ERA this season, but FIP and xFIP tell a pretty different story in each case.

Tim Lincecum: 4.55 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.39 xFIP
Josh Johnson: 6.20 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 3.59 xFIP
Dan Haren: 4.66 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 3.81 xFIP
Roy Halladay: 7.92 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 4.58 xFIP

Lincecum, Johnson, and Haren all grade out pretty well by xFIP, which is based on their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates. Halladay’s numbers aren’t as good, but his 2013 season covers fewer than 50 innings so far, and an off-season of resting his shoulder may allow him to come back stronger next year. Even including Halladay, the group’s collective FIP is 4.24, and their xFIP is 3.66, so some significant positive regression may be in store.

Of course, that regression is not guaranteed. Among the pitchers who posted a much higher ERA than xFIP last year was Joe Blanton, who was a total disaster for the Angels this year. Lincecum was on the list last year as well, and while he’s been better this season than last, his ERA is still much higher than his xFIP. There could be sustainable problems that are driving higher hit and home run rates for each of these four hurlers, and especially for pitchers who have health issues, their results can’t be entirely ignored.

However, in each case, these guys have a long track record of big league success. It isn’t a question of talent, as each have proven themselves more than capable of dominating Major League hitters when they’re healthy and locating their pitches effectively. None of these guys are Joe Blanton. As recently as two years ago, these were four of the elite pitchers in baseball.

Perhaps age and injuries have permanently broken them, and I wouldn’t expect any of them to turn back the clock and pitch like they were 27 again. However, as their underlying peripherals mostly show, the rumors of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated. For teams willing to take risks on short term bets for aging, past-their-prime starters, this winter looks like one of the best crops in recent history. You’re not going to rebuild your franchise around one of these guys, but if a team is looking for a rotation boost in 2014, there are several very interesting options to be found.