Two on Two: 2006 NL East Preview
The Two on Two series stay on the right coast and concludes with the NL East. Here with us today to preview the division that the Atlanta Braves have owned for the past decade are Mac Thomason of Braves Journal and Jeremy Heit of Metsgeek.
Is this the year that the Tomahawk chops or drops? For the answers to this question and a whole lot more, read on...
Bryan: Mac, to start off this chat, I have to ask you: did Bobby Cox sell his soul to the devil? That's the only answer I have for the Braves winning the division again in 2005, given their injuries and lackluster (preseason) outfield.
Mac: It's been speculated. Part of it is that Bobby (even before he met up with Leo Mazzone) always has gotten better than expected efforts from his pitchers, and kept them healthy. Another is that he keeps a stable clubhouse, more than any contemporary manager, and so players are kept in a state of "relaxed readiness."
Bryan: Whatever it is, the Braves certainly got the most out of their talent again last year. Things didn't turn out the same way in New York, did they Jeremy?
Jeremy: No, not quite. It was a promising year in some respects though. David Wright's continued rise to super-stardom, Pedro Martinez's great year and both Cliff Floyd and Jose Reyes staying healthy.
Bryan: Definitely. And while the Mets didn't spend a lot of time in contention, the Braves did have to fight off runs by the Marlins and Phillies. Could two organizations possibly have gone in more different directions in one winter?
Rich: Are you talking about the Mets and Braves? Or the Marlins and Phillies? The Mets appear to be making a push for it now, while the Braves seem content on going with their youth. The Marlins are restocking--something I don't necessarily disagree with--and the Phillies might be betwixt and between.
Mac: Well, the Braves can't spend like the Mets, but they don't have to, because of the depth the farm system has recently developed. Still, the Braves were actually as stable as they've been in several years, the only major move in the ML roster being Edgar Renteria in for Rafael Furcal. Other than SBs, they're actually very similar offensive players.
Jeremy: On the other hand, the Mets can spend, and as Omar Minaya has shown the last two offseasons, he loves to do that. They were essential moves though. The Carlos Delgado trade gives the Mets their first bona fide hitter at the 1B position since John Olerud. And Billy Wagner gives them the shut-down closer they lacked last year late in games with Braden Looper. Omar also liked to stay active throughout the off-season with smaller trades, some of which were better than others.
Bryan: The most interesting tactic I saw from the Mets this winter was the Johnny Damon-type acquisitions. Hurt your rivals while making yourself stronger.
Jeremy: Yes they did. The acquisition of Billy Wagner from the Phillies forced them to have to downgrade to Tom Gordon, while the Mets were also able to take advantage of the Marlins and use their money to get Carlos Delgado and Paul LoDuca while giving up solid prospects, but not top-tier ones, namely Lastings Milledge.
Mac: Well, I should point out that this strategy dates back to Tom Glavine, though that didn't work out so well for the Mets. Though they certainly need a good effort from Tommy this year.
Jeremy: Well, last year's second half revival from Tommy gives the Mets hope that he can provide that kind of performance for a full year. For the first time as a Met, he consistently at least attempted to throw some inside pitches while mixing in a curveball. I'm fairly confident he will give the Mets what they need from him this year, though for the first part of the contract, you are correct, it did not work out that well.
Bryan: That is not true, however, for Pedro Martinez, who was dazzling in his Mets debut. Pedro is really the only (current) star on this staff, so I have to ask: is his toe the most important body part in baseball?
Jeremy: It definitely is to me, though that is quite biased. If it isn't the most important, it is definitely one of the tops. The Mets need a top-notch performance from Pedro to anchor the staff to have a chance to contend for the NL East title
Mac: I agree, though Tim Hudson's oblique muscle is a strong second, even though I'm not quite sure where it is. As an aside, I felt that the Mets were a little too blase about the bottom of their rotation considering all the other moves they made.
Bryan: Let's talk about the rest of the Met pitching staff. The decision to move Aaron Heilman to the bullpen is one, I think, that won't make it to June. He's too good for that.
Mac: I think there may be a bit of a reverse-Fenway (or now, reverse-Coors) effect there, where they're overrating some of their pitchers and underrating their hitters -- though their bad hitters were still pretty bad. For the life of me, I don't know what Peterson sees in Victor Zambrano.
Jeremy: Neither does any Met fan. I also disagree completely with the Bannister/Heilman move, though I'm not sure he will make it back to the rotation by June. If Steve Trachsel doesn't pitch well, Victor Zambrano bombs out or Bannister fails, I could see the Mets going after a pitcher at the deadline instead of moving Heilman back. Omar seems fixated on a strong bullpen, moving Heilman back there even after he traded away two starting pitchers just to get relief help.
Mac: You really need another lefty, you want Horacio Ramirez?
Rich: Hey, Mac...you mean the guy you like to call HomeRam?
Bryan: Problem is, Minaya simply doesn't have a lot of chips from which to deal.
Jeremy: It's a huge problem. Lastings Milledge is the chip, and he is, by all accounts, an untouchable.
Bryan: Moving to the offense, there is another player with whom his contract's start looks to be a disappointment: Carlos Beltran. Is he simply an example of being intimidated by New York?
Jeremy: It is quite tough to say. On one hand, he definitely seems liked he was pressing at the plate. But, you must remember, he played with a quad injury for a great deal of the year. I think he'll be OK this year, but that may be the optimist in me. His numbers will never look as good as they did in KC and Houston, just because of the Shea park effects. I also think if Willie Randolph bats him second, that will be a huge help to him.
Mac: I thought at the time that the Beltran signing was a mistake and that the Mets should have gone after Delgado then, because they had Mike Cameron, who's what, 95 percent of Beltran at his best? And was far better last year. At the same time, Beltran wasn't that bad -- not good, but for a CF with his defense he was a positive contributor even with a below-average OPS.
Bryan: Well, they sort of made up for that mistake by signing Delgado, who should have a big year. Say what you will, but not many teams can match a four hitter combination (including Beltran) like the Mets have.
Jeremy: Unfortunately, it's the other four hitters and their production that worries me with the Mets.
Mac: I loved Willie Randolph as a player, Yankee or no, but I can't believe that a guy with his playing skills thinks Jose Reyes should be leading off.
Bryan: Yeah, no matter how Willie wants to twist and contort Reyes, he's a different player than Jimmy Rollins.
Jeremy: Unfortunately, who else would they have lead off? Beltran? LoDuca? The other options don't seem that appealing. If Reyes ever learns some pitch selection, which is a big IF, he would be a fine lead-off man because of what he can do with his speed on the bases. Unfortunately, for now, while he is still working on that, it is on-the-job training in the 1 spot.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's move onto Rollins and the Phillies. After a long tenure hanging mostly in the middle of the division, Philadelphia enters the year with a new GM and a few new pieces. What do you make of the Phillies this year?
Mac: I take the Phillies very seriously; I picked them to win the wild card over the Mets by a game or two. Everyone's writing them off because they lost Billy Wagner, but the difference between him and Gordon can't be more than a game or two. And they get Ryan Howard in the lineup for a full season, and they don't have any real lineup holes -- not everyone's a star, but nobody will kill them.
Jeremy: I have the Mets barely edging out the Phillies for the wild card, but I agree with Mac. I really like their lineup and feel that if they put both Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd in the rotation over Ryan Franklin, they could have a very solid starting staff. It just seems to me this team always tends to underachieve, and I can't shake that notion in having them not make the playoffs this year.
Bryan: Madson seems to be in a similar spot to Aaron Heilman. He's totally not being utilized to his full potential.
Mac: They also have a really serious park effect there, and I don't think they have a handle on the quality of their starters, who aren't great but aren't bad either.
Bryan: Personally, I think their downfall might be that bullpen, because outside of Madson, I don't see a lot to like. Gordon and Arthur Rhodes are risky people to depend upon.
Jeremy: Arthur Rhodes usually seems to be OK as long as he isn't facing the mythical aura behind the 9th inning and closing. I think it will be interesting to see how Gordon performs as a closer after years of setting up Mariano Rivera.
Mac: He has 116 career saves, which is more than the entire Braves' bullpen. I'd be more worried about the plunge he had in his strikeout numbers last year.
Bryan: As far as the offense goes, all the early season hype will be aimed at Rollins and his streak. But I think the other players up the middle are the key to the Philly offense.
Mac: Chase Utley terrifies me. He's the scariest player in the division to a Braves fan, not Delgado or Miguel Cabrera. By the end of the season, certain Braves pitchers just walked Utley if there was anyone on base. And I believe one of those pitchers was John Smoltz, which gives you some idea.
Jeremy: As for Aaron Rowand, I think he'll give them a solid bat, but his defensive contribution will be enormous.
Bryan: They need it with Pat Burrell in left covering about 20 feet, and Abreu's range is decreasing a bit in right.
Rich: Which Bobby Abreu is going to show up this year? The one before he won the HR derby at the All-Star game or the guy who hit .260 with six dingers in the second half?
Bryan: Sooner or later the game's most underrated player is going to head for decline, but I do believe he will be solid this year. This is much like the Phillies this year, a team that is well balanced all around, but special in no particular area.
Jeremy: I agree, which is why even though a lot of the talk in the division focuses on the Mets and Braves, the Phillies could definitely be dangerous.
Mac: About right. They've won 86 games three times in the last five seasons and 88 last year. I expect about the same.
Bryan: Alright, let's move onto the Marlins, who are special in one area: the youth. Florida's firesale will certainly hurt their W-L record and attendance, but what do you guys see it doing in the long term?
Mac: I think that there's a comment in Baseball Prospectus about all the Marlins' moves being defensible individually, it's just that all at once they're a disaster. Still, they have the best player in the division (Cabrera), maybe the best pitcher (Dontrelle Willis) and probably the best short-term prospect (Jeremy Hermida), which is a nice base.
Bryan: And the sight of Joe Girardi managing from a Major League bench is enough to keep me entertained.
Mac: Until Torre re-signs him for the stretch run.
Jeremy: There is definitely a nice young base, but what happens when they have to start paying these guys? It just seems like the Marlins will forever be in this type of cycle.
Bryan: Yeah, it seems like the Marlins need a new city and another new ownership group. If they trade Miguel Cabrera at year's end, as some have rumored, the ship will have officially sunk.
Mac: Well, one World Series win every few years looks pretty good to me at this point, and I expect to you, too.
Bryan: One thing I want to focus on is the fact that the Marlins used their trades to stockpile pitchers, viewing it as a depleted market. Though their outfield looks even worse than the Braves did in March last year, is this the type of methodology that will pay off?
Mac: It's probably easier to find outfielders than pitchers, though young pitching is such a risky market I can't really approve of gutting the team in exchange for it.
Jeremy: I think it is one of those wait and see things. As Mac says, young pitching is a risky market. I'm a big fan of Yusmeiro Petit and think he'll end up as a solid middle of the rotation starter, but a guy like Gabby Hernandez is so far away that who knows at this point.
Bryan: Well, let's talk about what they have this year. Are the likes of Jason Vargas and Sergio Mitre enough to give Joe Girardi a respectable club?
Mac: Their starting rotation might be okay. Willis is great, of course, Brian Moehler's not really a #2, but he's not bad in the middle of the rotation, Vargas and Mitre are adequate. The bullpen looks pretty thin, though, and they can't really afford to rush the kids to fill that hole.
Jeremy: I don't think there is much of a chance. This team just doesn't have enough pitching behind Dontrelle Willis, who looked quite shaky in the WBC himself. They have some interesting young hitters beyond Cabrera like Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez and Hermida, but I just don't see it happening. Too many holes.
Mac: And they have probably the worst infield in baseball. Jacobs is the only one who looks half-competent. They have Wes Helms at third base, whom I've seen enough of, thank you.
Rich: I don't expect fans will see much of Helms at the hot corner this year, not with Cabrera around.
Bryan: While I agree with Jeremy about the holes, there is something about young managers/former catchers that seem to maximize effort from their players. That, I say, belongs to the Nationals.
Jeremy: I happen to disagree and think the Nationals will finish higher than the Marlins, but I don't think it will be by that much. I just don't understand what Jim Bowden has been thinking all off-season, which was culminated by the Ryan Church decision a couple of days ago.
Mac: I thought that the environment in Washington, which basically makes any pitcher look okay, would be one where Bowden could thrive. He always could find good hitters in Cincy, it was just that he couldn't tell a pitcher from a hole in the ground. But he seems to have lost the eye for hitters as well.
Bryan: Yeah, he's versatile. I agree with Rob Neyer that the Alfonso Soriano trade could end up as one of the worst of all-time, and the Church move is a head scratcher. This was a Rookie of the Year candidate last June.
Mac: Nobody looks good in that situation but the Rangers. Soriano is not a good enough hitter for an outfield corner anyway, and he'll probably hit about five homers at home this year.
Jeremy: The whole entire Soriano thing has been a debacle from the actual trade to the whole spring training spat.
Bryan: Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen are all solid on the corners, but you have to really squint to see a successful offense here.
Mac: And the good hitters they have (Johnson and Guillen) are fragile. I mean, Guillen actually caught a wrist injury from Johnson.
Jeremy: I really like Zimmerman and I think he'll have quite a nice year, so much so that he'll end up as the rookie of the year. But, the offense is suspect outside of him, Guillen and Johnson. Because, what can they expect out of Jose Vidro this year?
Bryan: An injury to Vidro and then the Soriano thing is really going to blow up.
Jeremy: The pitching will be interesting. I'm a fan of John Patterson, but behind him and Livan... Ramon Ortiz? Tony Armas? When does he ever stay healthy?
Mac: I know I've said this before, but it's certain that Bowden doesn't understand park effects, and that his pitching (other than Patterson) wasn't very good last year. Livan was the definition of "league average innings eater".
Rich: Well, he ate...scratch that...he pitched a lot of innings last year. A MLB-leading 246 1/3, to be exact.
Bryan: Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, John Patterson and Chad Cordero are the types you build around, but they simply have the wrong man to execute any rebuilding process.
Rich: I'm not defending Bowden by any means here. But it's tough to run a franchise when you don't have a real owner. I mean, no matter what you do in life, you need a time horizon. The Nationals don't know if they are coming or going.
Bryan: This is, of course, the opposite situation as to what we see in Atlanta, with one of the game's best GMs. This winter, however, Schuerholz was probably able to take some time off thanks to his great farm system.
Mac: Well, he did make the Marte-for-Renteria trade, which I didn't really like but won't hurt the team in the short term. He traded Johnny Estrada, who he didn't need anymore, for a couple of pitchers who might help. Other than that, he stood pat. I think that the hope is that some of the rookies from last year will improve and give the Joneses some help. And that Chipper stays relatively healthy.
Bryan: Yeah, the ability that the Braves could stand pat was that fantastic group of youth. Francoeur is the first name that comes to mind but there is a good chance he is outperformed by Kelly Johnson and Brian McCann, who I think is on the cusp of a monster season.
Mac: McCann was actually my favorite of the group, though I like Johnson a lot too, and Francoeur should be great down the road.
Jeremy: I am afraid of Francoeur. As a Met fan, I get this feeling he is the next Chipper Jones. I know he has issues in his game, but he just seems so natural sometimes.
Mac: The player Francoeur gets compared to is Dale Murphy, but he reminds me more of Juan Gonzalez. Same holes in his game, same just freaky power. Remember, Juan Gone was a CF in his youth. He doesn't even really need to walk, just lay off the really bad pitches.
Jeremy: He has such great power and such a strong arm in rightfield. I think the Braves will be fine when it comes to finding hitters, especially now that Matt Diaz can see out of both eyes.
Bryan: The rookies also will be balanced with a solid crop of veterans. Andruw and Chipper Jones are about the two easiest players to depend on ever, and Edgar Renteria should be solid in his return to the NL.
Mac: What worries me is that if Adam LaRoche struggles again they'll wait too long to pull the trigger without Julio Franco in reserve.
Rich: Well, Julio has hung in there for at least five more years than anyone could have reasonably expected ten years ago. He's kind of like the Energizer Bunny or, heck, the Braves. He just keeps going and going and going. But, like the Braves, you have to wonder how long either will last.
Bryan: The question really isn't the offense, it's the pitching. Mac, I wonder what type of impact you think Mazzone's loss will bring to the club?
Mac: A lot of the pitchers were relieved to see him go, it seems, because he was hard on them. What I hope is that they'll respond well for a time with the pressure off. What I fear is that they'll fall into bad habits. Not Smoltz and Hudson, but the kids.
Jeremy: It will be quite interesting to me to see what happens. I hope, as a Met fan, that Leo leaving means a regression in the Braves pitching performance, but Roger McDowell seems like a solid pitching coach and the young kids still have Smoltz and Hudson to look up to.
Bryan: I actually like this pitching staff better than most, because I see quite a bit of depth. If Thomson or Ramirez don't perform well, in steps Davies or James; if Chris Reitsma struggles, how about Joey Devine or Blaine Boyer?
Mac: I figure Reitsma will be Reitsma. He will be good for a few weeks, then he will struggle, and Devine will take the job. Hopefully, he can hold it and the revolving door will stop.
Rich: The Braves need Smoltz to be Smoltz because Hudson is no longer Hudson. And Thomson, Sosa, and Ramirez are no better than league average as far as #3-5 go.
Mac: What really worries me is that we're in a division with Delgado, Floyd, Howard, Utley, and Abreu and we have one southpaw starter, who isn't very good and gives up lots of homers.
Jeremy: I really wouldn't be shocked to see Ramirez displaced at some point this season. I just don't see him pitching well at all this year. But, as you note Bryan, the Braves have young starters ready to step in.
Mac: I like Davies a lot, as does Cox, and the Braves are going to do something (a trade, or a move of Sosa or Thomson to the pen) to get him in the rotation.
Bryan: It's just that, on contrast to last year, this Atlanta team seems to have some nice depth. Has to be comforting, eh Mac?
Mac: Depth is great. I really like the bench they've assembled, which for the first time in forever doesn't have any useless players. Wilson Betemit is probably one of the best bench players in baseball, one who really should be starting somewhere. But the Braves need him to insure against an injury to Chipper or Renteria. If Francouer struggles, Diaz or Johnson can step in. If McCann flops or gets hurt, they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia in wait.
Jeremy: The depth the Braves have scares me a lot because their injury concerns can be more easily taken care of then someone, say, like the Mets, who have pretty much depleted their starting pitching depth.
Mac: The only really irreplaceable player is Andruw Jones, but he never leaves the lineup.
Bryan: So much has to be said about the Braves ability to develop players. Their starting lineup is almost entirely made of homegrown players, which speaks volumes.
Mac: In an interleague game last year, the Braves had ten homegrown players in the lineup, seven of them rookies.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's finish it off with some division predictions. How do you guys see it finishing, 1-5?
Mac: Braves, Phillies (WC), Mets, Marlins, Natspos. The first three teams will be within five or six games. The last two will be about 30 games back.
Jeremy: Braves, Mets (WC), Phillies, Nationals, Marlins. Like Mac, I think the first three are tight and the last two are way behind.
Bryan: I must admit that I came into the chat ready to pick the Mets, but I'm going to go with the Braves first. Mets (WC), Phillies, Marlins and Nats for me.
Rich: I thought I was going to like the Mets a couple of months ago. But they still have too many holes in my mind. I think this division is much weaker than most. That said, I'm going with the Braves, Phillies, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins.
Mac: I wouldn't really be surprised by any order for the first three, only if one of them was way off.
Only The Agent Was Free
Last September, I republished an article written by my Dad for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram about Sandy Koufax's perfect game. The title of that entry was "It Was Forty Years Ago Today..." Well, in the spirit of 40-year anniversaries, I bring you two more specials from the "Best of George Lederer" series.
Here are the articles exactly as they appeared in the Long Beach newspaper on March 30 and March 31, 1966.
FINAL OFFER REFUSED Dodgers Give Up on Big 2 By GEORGE LEDERER
After the Dodgers all but gave up hope in signing Koufax and Drysdale, the future Hall of Famers agreed to end their 32-day holdout. Dad was right there to bring his readers the news.
'THE GREAT HOLDUP' ENDS Sandy, Big D Sign for ONE Year By GEORGE LEDERER
Believe it or not but Sandy Koufax started the second game of the regular season on Wednesday, April 13, 1966 vs. the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium. He was knocked out of the box in the fourth inning with the following line:
IP H R ER BB SO 3 5 5 1 2 2
The Dodgers lost the contest, 7-6, yet Koufax was spared the loss. He threw six shutout innings four days later, beating the Chicago Cubs, 5-0. Sandy tied a career-high by giving up 13 hits in his fourth start and lasted only 1 1/3 innings two outings later, before running off eight consecutive complete-game victories--a period in which he gave up only 43 hits and nine runs (six earned) while striking out 75 batters and allowing just 13 walks.
Koufax finished with the most wins (27) and the lowest ERA (1.73) of his career. In what turned out to be his final season, Sandy led the league in W, ERA, K (317)--the Triple Crown of pitching--as well as IP (323), GS (41), CG (27), and SHO (5). He was credited with the most victories in the NL by a left-hander since 1900 and set a ML record with his fifth consecutive ERA title. Koufax won the Cy Young Award (which was only given to one pitcher in all of baseball back then) and placed second--behind Roberto Clemente--in the NL MVP voting, despite garnering more first-place votes than anyone else.
Drysdale started the fourth game of the season on Friday, April 15, 1966 vs. the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers won, 4-2, although Drysdale didn't figure in the decision.
IP H R ER BB SO 6 8 2 2 1 3
Interestingly, in a sign of the times, the Dodgers drew only 24,049 for Koufax's start and 28,596 for Drysdale's. The latter won fewer than half as many games (13) as Koufax and his ERA (3.42) was nearly twice as high. With the exception of Don's final season when he only pitched 62 2/3 IP, his ERA+ of 96 was the lowest of his career. Big D's batting (.189/.211/.264) even suffered in 1966, a year after hitting .300 with 7 HR!
I don't know if Drysdale earned his pay that year, but Koufax certainly gave the Dodgers a pretty good return on their investment in his swan song season. I wonder what he would be worth today?
Two on Two: 2006 AL East Preview
Today, the Two on Two previews move from one coast to the other (sorry, Texas). Left to right across your computer screen. With us today to discuss the AL East are Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter and Patrick Sullivan of The House That Dewey Built. Cliff and Patrick (aka Sully) joined us last year and are the first pair to repeat as guests in our series.
When it comes to the AL East, some might call such a chat a review rather than a preview. Pull up a chair and find out what the four of us have to say about the Yankees and Red Sox. Oh, and the other three teams, too.
Rich: Last year, Boston and New York finished the regular season tied, yet New York was awarded the division title due to winning their season series. Fair or unfair?
Cliff: As it turned out it was irrelevant. Neither team got home field advantage during the ALDS because Boston lost the tiebreaker with the Yankees and was forced to settle for the Wild Card and the Yankees lost another tiebreaker with the also 95-67 Los Angeles de Los Angeles de Anaheim. Then both teams lost in the first round. In fact, the only real impact it had, other than bragging rights for fans of the now eight-consecutive-time AL East Champion Yankees was that the Red Sox were able to claim Hee Seop Choi off waivers before the Yankees got their shot because the tiebreaker put the Sox ahead of the Yanks in the waiver order.
Patrick: I sort of just thought the season series gave them a seeding tiebreaker (so to speak). The benefits of determining a champion the traditional way, with a playoff, are not worth jeopardizing teams' pitching staffs when both have already qualified anyway. But then, I am a fan of the team that lost the tiebreaker.
Rich: I wonder how Joe McCarthy, Miller Huggins, and Casey Stengel feel about running AL East pennants up the flagpole at Yankee Stadium?
Cliff: You know, I've been at the last three home openers and I'm not sure they actually do that. I think they only run up AL and World Champion flags, but I'm not 100 percent sure.
Patrick: An AL East championship is grounds for a Kevin Millar hoe-down up here.
Cliff: Not anymore.
Cliff: For both of us. If only he went to the NL.
Rich: OK, now that we have settled last year's score, let's take a look at how the AL East is shaping up this year.
Patrick: Well, I think the Yanks and Sox are the definite class of the division again, but Toronto is not far behind. Boston has a wider variance in outcomes both to the upside and the down, but New York looks more solid at this point to me.
Cliff: Yeah, I don't think much has changed. The Yanks and Sox are very tight, they'll likely finish a close one-two, but either could collapse. Toronto, despite making a lot of noise, isn't meaningfully better, and the Orioles will disappoint anyone who expects them to win more than 75 games. If anything's changed, it's that the Devil Rays suddenly have a pretty nifty offense, which actually isn't all that different from the second half of 2005.
Bryan: It's been a long, long while since the division has had any change, Cliff. Is the philosophy we saw from the Blue Jays this winter going to help them do anything but draw more fans?
Cliff: There was a philosophy there? All I saw them do is spend money. But to answer your question, no.
Patrick: Cliff and I disagree on the Jays. I am not sure how an 88-win Pythag team like the 2005 Jays makes the changes they did and doesn't make some real noise in the division.
Cliff: The thing that's most overlooked about the 2006 Jays is the loss of Orlando Hudson. Having a healthy Roy Halladay for a full season will go a long way, but their bullpen and the remainder of their rotation, especially Mr. Gustavo Chacin will see a significant regression as a result of both natural correction (most of the pen was way over it's head last year), and due to the loss of Hudson's defense behind them. That will reduce their run prevention and cut into that impressive Pythagorean showing.
Patrick: Fair points...but a full year of Halladay and the additions more than make up Chacin's regression and Hudson's absence. Also, Jason Frasor, Vinny Chulk and Justin Speier are all live arms setting up B.J. Ryan. Scott Schoeneweis is a pretty good LOOGY too.
Rich: Wow, Chacin hasn't gotten this much press since his birth announcement!
Cliff: Chulk's K/9 dropped to 4.88 last year and Schoeneweis is an established mediocrity (career: 5.02 ERA, 5.13 K/9, 3.52 BB/9). A.J. Burnett is already hurt. Troy Glaus was a bat they needed, but other than him and Ryan, whom I view as a guy headed for a collapse just due to his mechanics, I don't see much added value.
Rich: I'm not suggesting that Toronto has caught and passed the Yankees and Red Sox, but I wouldn't dismiss them either. Cliff, was that you really saying that "all Toronto does is spend money?"
Cliff: Yeah yeah, who is the Yankee fan to talk? I get it. But where's the plan in what Toronto did this offseason? They overpaid wildly for the initial boys and two of their four major acquisitions have nasty injury histories. Besides which, why throw money at Bengie Molina when they had a smart inexpensive option with Gregg Zaun?
Patrick: I don't dispute that their plan is a bit tough to discern. But I am really just concerned with their 2006 chances at this point, and they look pretty good to me.
Cliff: We're not talking about the Yankees, we're talking about the Blue Jays. I don't work for the Yankees, you know. I'll tell you what I do like about the Jays going into the season. Their duel platoons in the outfield corners (Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson in left, Alexis Rios and Eric Hinske in right), is a fantastic way of maximizing their resources. That is, if Hinske can actually play the outfield.
Bryan: It's hard not to like that whole offense, but I agree that Hinske in right and Hudson not at second will do damage to their defense. In a long season it's the little things that make the difference, and a decline in defense and lack of depth might be what kills Toronto.
Patrick: Sure I'd agree with that. I happen to think they will come in third, but I also think a division title is just as likely as a sub-80 win season.
Rich: I don't think Toronto will be 16-31 in one-run games this year. How much better they will be than last year, I'm not sure. But they won't be worse.
Bryan: One team many are choosing to drop a bit in the standings -- though I don't necessarily agree -- is the Red Sox. Is this a transition year in Boston, or has management found a way to mix youth with a winner in 2006?
Patrick: I think Boston has done a nice job putting a good team on the field for 2006 while making sure their future remains bright. They have added two cost-controlled mid-20's contributors in Josh Beckett and Coco Crisp and two other young role players in Hee Seop Choi and Wily Mo Pena. With respect to whether or not they have found a winner, if they can win 95 games with Curt Schilling posting a 77 ERA+ and Keith Foulke a 75 ERA+, then they will be just fine.
Cliff: Beckett's injury history concerns me as much as Burnett's, as does the fact that both are leaving that roomy pitchers park in Miami for high-run environments. But as I said up top, I think the Red Sox will hang with the Yankees all year. What I find most interesting about Boston right now is that they have tremendous depth on the bench and in the bullpen, but some shaky starters, primarily on the left side of the infield and in the rotation.
Rich: Hmmm. I think Boston's starting rotation is actually pretty good. They go six deep by my math. I would take Beckett over any starter in the division this side of Halladay and Randy Johnson. I think he will be just fine. Remember, he is additive to the team that won 95 games last year.
Bryan: I think Beckett is on the short list of AL Cy Young candidates, but I also think this team will be better once they realize Jon Lester over David Wells, Craig Hansen over Keith Foulke, and Dustin Pedroia over Alex Gonzalez.
Patrick: I don't see much evidence that Lester is ready to supplant Wells. I do think we will see Hansen at some point this year and I am not sure on Pedroia. But I am comfortable that Alex Gonzalex can at least replicate what Edgar Renteria contributed to last year's club.
Rich: I wouldn't hold it against the Red Sox this year that they have one of the best groups of prospects in all of baseball. These guys will just make Boston that much stronger in 2007 and beyond.
Bryan: There is no doubt about that. Boston has the brightest future of anyone in the division, I think. But in terms of 2006, I still believe the Red Sox aren't utilizing these prospects enough. I'm not faulting Boston's developmental department, which should now be lauded as one of the Majors best, but for the trust issues they still have in some youth. That could change in a few months, though.
Cliff: Agreed, I'd be surprised if Gonzalez lasts past the All-Star break and if Hansen isn't back with the big club by then. Speaking of which, the Sox should ditch J.T. Snow in favor of Choi (whom is reportedly ticketed for triple-A because he has options left) yesterday.
Patrick: The Sox have a phenomenal roster. We will see if Terry Francona can do a better job of using it then last year.
Rich: His job in terms of filling out the lineup card should be rather simple in my mind. Pena or Choi should be starting every game. Period. But they should never both start the same game.
Bryan: Let's move onto another organization with a bright future, guys, the Devil Rays. It's hard for ownership to keep telling their fans to be patient, but this winter seems to have shown there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Cliff: Everyone made a big deal about how the Yankees kept losing to the D-Rays last year, but they all ignored the fact that the Rays had one of the best offenses in baseball after the All-Star break and one of the best second-half records in the American League. That offense will only improve this season with Joey Gathright finally getting a starting job. Their pitching, however, is another story entirely.
Patrick: The Devil Rays need pitching badly. When they get a little bit, they'll be competitive. Until then, they won't. I think Scott Kazmir's progress will be interesting this season. Victor Zambrano's on the other hand, won't.
Cliff: That trade just keeps killing the Mets. They traded Jae Seo to make room for Victor Zambrano? Brutal.
Bryan: Rich's K/100P stat tells us that Kazmir's path to stardom is right around the bend. Still, Kazmir becoming an ace won't hide the fact that a rotation needs 4, or at least 3, other starters.
Cliff: I read something anecdotal about Seth McClung correcting a mechanical flaw this spring related to how he moves his glove hand through his motion that has supposedly yielded fantastic results, but I'll believe it when I see it over a full season. Second to that, Casey Fossum had solid peripherals last year, but I find it hard to believe that he's become a front-line starter.
Rich: Tampa Bay's pitchers, for the most part, are young and inexperienced. They have some good arms in the system though that should yield decent results down the road.
Bryan: And, for the first time in ages, the new Devil Rays front office makes me believe Tampa actually knows they have a lack of pitching depth. This alone speaks volumes.
Rich: Well, Bryan, the Devil Rays are likely to get a top-flight pitcher in this year's draft, which, as you so well know, is full of pitching talent.
Bryan: Yes, and I'm looking forward to them making better draft day decisions than Wade Townsend.
Patrick: Well, with the competent offense Cliff alluded to earlier and guys like Delmon Young and B.J. Upton on the way, this offense doesn't figure to slow down for years to come.
Rich: I think Tampa Bay is going to be a really fun team to watch. I would be a bit worried if I was a Baltimore fan.
Cliff: Hey, any of you guys still high on the Orioles? Heh.
Cliff: Welcome back to Earth, Sully. The Orioles are one of the worst franchises in baseball and have been for the better part of a decade.
Bryan: Things are at least looking a bit better for the O's this year, however, thanks to the loss of Sosa and Palmiero. Brian Roberts won't give the same production, but even Nick Markakis can be better than Sosa.
Rich: It makes no sense to put Markakis on the 25-man roster at this point, especially if he's not going to start. And what's up with heading north with just two catchers, when one of them (Javy Lopez) is supposedly going to play first base and DH?
Patrick: So many questions about the way the Orioles go about their business. Kevin Millar is all I have to say.
Cliff: Actually, that's the answer to the second part of Rich's question. They say Kevin Millar will be their emergency catcher. As for the first part, from what I've heard, Markakis is going to start in center. If that's true, it means that Luis Matos is out of a job, or that the soon-to-be 40-year-old Jeff Conine will be riding pine. If I'm an Orioles fan, I'm hoping for the former.
Bryan: One thing we can probably depend on, thanks to Leo Mazzone, is an improved pitching staff, even with the loss of B.J. Ryan.
Rich: Yes, our good friend JC Bradbury has studied the Mazzone Effect and concluded that, on average, Leo lowers staff ERAs by 0.60 runs per game. If that holds true this year, the O's would give up 100 fewer runs (which works out to 10 wins)!
Patrick: A part of me wants to really believe in these O's. Their offense should be good and their pitching improved with considerable upside in the lefty/righty tandem of Bedard and Cabrera I just think too much can go wrong with these guys. They rely too much on oldish players and their stars are on the decline.
Cliff: I couldn't find this offense you were talking about last year and I can't find it this year either. Mora's coming back to earth, Roberts has already done the same, hitting .274/.351/.419 after the All-Star break last year before his catastrophic elbow injury. That puts all the weight on Tejada and he showed last year that he's not willing to bear that burden. Meanwhile, Mazzone may help the starters, but their pen is falling apart. I'm bullish on Chris Ray as a closer, but Aaron Rakers just hit the 60-day DL with a labrum injury. Todd Williams is already hurt. There's just not much there for Mazzone to work with.
Bryan: It also isn't the best, which, despite a lot of failures, the Yankees have worked hard at building towards. Last year the rotation wasn't very good at all; do we think that could change this year?
Cliff: The Yankees' rotation is a mess, to be completely honest, but it's a deep mess, and that may be it's saving grace. Johnson should improve despite his age. Chien-Ming Wang could as well. Both he and Shawn Chacon have shown indications this spring that they'll be missing more bats this year -- Wang via his heater, Chacon via his nasty sea-level curve and a fine change. After that, you get into the injury concerns: Mike Mussina (elbow), Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano (any and everything). But what most folks don't realize is that the Yankees have a nice trio of 25-year-old starters in Columbus in Matt DeSalvo, Darrell Rasner (a gift from Jim Bowden) and Sean Henn. Expect one of those guys to be this year's Chien-Ming.
Rich: For the Yankees' sake, let's just hope they don't wing the wang number when they call for help in Columbus.
Patrick: Well Cliff's got all the contingency plans covered but I think the Yanks have a lot of problems on the pitching side of things. I don't see another Aaron Small coming down the pike for them. I do, however, think Randy Johnson is going to have a great year.
Cliff: Another Aaron Small won't come down the pike for anyone anytime soon. That was a major fluke.
Bryan: I'm a Johnson buyer too, but I don't even think Small himself will have a good year. The Yanks are almost a lock to be looking for pitching at the trade deadline, and you know everyone will want Eric Duncan or Phil Hughes.
Cliff: Sully, Bryan and I agree on Johnson. I also happen to think that the Kyle Farnsworth and eventually Octavio Dotel combo will give them a devastating Big Three in the bullpen, which could ease the burden on their starters, who had no room for error last year.
Rich: I like Farnsworth but will be watching closely to see if he can handle the pressure of the Big Apple. Dotel is nothing more than a crapshoot at this stage. However, it doesn't get mo better than Mariano Rivera.
Cliff: Meanwhile they've got the best offense Joe Torre's ever had.
Patrick: Well, the Yanks offense is going to pound again but I really don't get the 1,000-run offense talk I hear from the talking heads. Johnny Damon helps, but everyone in the lineup except Robinson Cano is another year past their prime. It's a very good offense, but not an historic one by any stretch.
Rich: The Yankees have a lot of big names in their lineup. Damon, for one. I've got Coco Crisp over Damon this year in OPS+. Any takers?
Cliff: Damon will be hurt by leaving Fenway, that's for sure, and Crisp is still climbing toward his peak. I'm not going to fight you on that.
Bryan: Not from this end. But to the Yankees' credit, Damon is an improvement upon last year. The offense should be just about as good as last year, but I don't think it will be much better.
Rich: The good news for the Yankees is that the offense doesn't need to be better. They scored the second most runs in baseball last year. This team can still mash.
Cliff: Still, runs on either side of the ball count toward the ultimate objective.
Bryan: Yes, the Yankees offense will be just fine even if it doesn't improve. It's all about whether the pitching staff can fight off a run from the Red Sox and even, yes Cliff, the Blue Jays.
Rich: Bryan just mentioned the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. Is that how this division is going to finish (once again) this year?
Cliff: Yup, that's the top three, though I might put a larger gap between two and three than most. I'll mix it up with the bottom two, however. I think the D-Rays will slip past the O's and it will be a while before Baltimore manages to return the favor.
Patrick: Well, you guys know mine, same order as always: NYY-BOS-TOR-BAL-TB.
Bryan: I have been predicting the Sox to upend the Yanks for years. I think it will happen this year, with the Yanks finishing a close second. The Jays win 87 or so, while Tampa and Baltimore tie for last place.
Rich: I guess this really is a two on two. But it's different than I might have expected. I'm going to side with Bryan here--at least with respect to his top three teams. Boston, New York, Toronto, followed by Baltimore (one last time) and Tampa Bay.
2006 Minor League Preview: The Graduates
As a hobby, following prospects is a lonely, lonely practice. Each year, dozens of the players that you have evaluated since their prep days become Major Leaguers and enter the world of objectification through statistics. They graduate from the minor league ranks, graduate from 'prospect' labels.
Last year, 29 players that ranked in my 2005 Top 100 made such a graduation, becoming eligible in Rookie of the Year voting. No longer can we sit back and wonder whether Felix Hernandez' delivery will hold up through a full Major League season, or if Ryan Howard's power potential will be realized. These questions are becoming answers in front of our eyes.
In part one of my series to preview the 2006 minor league season, I want to look at the best players that will be making such a jump this year. Thanks to preseason reports, I have faith that 16 members of my top 100 will be on a Major League roster on Opening Day. Some are being thrust into full-time roles, learning on the run, while others are being weaned into Major Leaguers. While still others (found at the bottom of the article) might still be on Opening Day rosters or be called up before June, these 16 are the mortal locks to become this year's set of graduates.
For each of the sixteen players, I have tried to provide you with a multitude of information to discern who might be the best in 2006. First, the players are ranked in the same order (and preceded by the same number) in which I ranked them in my 2006 WTNY prospect list. After the player's name and organization, there are three categories given for each player. One is the role, the information given from the most recent reports I could find about where the player will start the season (fantasy owners can thank me later). Second, the 'projection/comps' category provides the weighted mean and top 3 comparable players that are found in Baseball Prospectus 2006, contrived by their famous projection system: PECOTA. Finally, I quickly conclude with a look at the player's Spring Training, and while it might not have much predictive value, will provide some reasoning for their place on active rosters.
2. Jeremy Hermida: Florida Marlins
Role: Starting Right Fielder, #2 hitter
4. Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers
Role: Starting First Baseman, Middle of Order
5. Francisco Liriano - LHP - Minnesota Twins
Role: Back of bullpen, middle/long relief; 6th starter
8. Matt Cain - RHP - San Francisco Giants
Role: Fourth Starter
12. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B - Washington Nationals
Role: Starting Third Baseman, #5 hitter
13. Justin Verlander - RHP - Detroit Tigers
Role: Fifth Starter
16. Conor Jackson - 1B - Arizona Diamondbacks
Role: Starting First Baseman, #5 hitter
20. Scott Olsen - LHP - Florida Marlins
Role: Fourth/Fifth Starter
22. Jon Papelbon - RHP - Boston Red Sox
Role: Middle relief, 6th starter and 2nd/3rd closer option
23. Joel Zumaya - RHP - Detroit Tigers
Role: Back of bullpen, middle/long relief; 6th starter
30. Nick Markakis - OF - Baltimore Orioles
Role: Starting Outfielder (CF?), towards bottom of lineup
33. Brian Anderson - OF - Chicago White Sox
Role: Starting Centerfielder, back of lineup
36. Hanley Ramirez - SS - Florida Marlins
Role: Starting Shortstop, leadoff hitter
59. Jeff Mathis - C - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Role: Starting Catcher, back of lineup
62. Ian Kinsler - 2B - Texas Rangers
Role: Starting Second Baseman, back of lineup
HM. Josh Barfield - 2B - San Diego Padres
Role: Starting Second Baseman, back of lineup
Without question, the sixteen players listed should be considered the favorites to compete for the Rookie of the Year trophies in 2006. They have the combination of what should be a full season's worth of playing time, in addition to a well-established prospect pedigree. Outside of this sixteen, there are two categories: the rookie fringe prospects, and the prospects yet to be rookies.
For example, one player that did not rank among my top 100 prospects, though Baseball Prospectus gives a good chance to win the Rookie of the Year is Florida Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs. The former catcher enters the year with a guaranteed job and a PECOTA weighted mean prediction of .265/.324/.491. With Carlos Delgado listed as his second-highest comparable, Jacobs could be the type of late bloomer that foils any prospect list.
The ultimate example of a player in this category -- though one who has a 0% chance of winning the Rookie of the Year -- is the White Sox new southpaw reliever Boone Logan. Officially being named a member of the Opening Day roster provides icing on the cake of a Spring in which Logan yielded just one run in 10.1 innings. I should mention, since I didn't in my Arizona trip review, that I did catch one of his 7 appearances, and his ability to provoke ground balls should actually help a bullpen that is currently near shambles. With respect to Josh Barfield, Logan is the story of the spring: a simple arm angle change takes a former Rookie League bum to the World Champions' Opening Day roster. There have been worse movies in Hollywood.
There are dozens of players in this category, some of whom just missed my top 100 (Joey Devine, Josh Willingham), others of whom garnered no consideration (Dan Uggla). However, with somewhat lacking histories in the minor leagues, these players have an onus to prove they belong that most of the top prospects listed above don't. Many players fold under this pressure, succomb and prove they don't belong, while others blossom into everyday Major Leaguers. That's why we watch.
Our final category was the one responsible for the NL Rookie of the Year race last year. Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur spent last September battling for the award, though each started the year in the minor leagues. The names etched upon the Rookie of the Year trophy is flush with players in this category, those that waited to make their debuts but caused little time in making their presences felt. If 29 players from my 2005 prospect list were considered rookies last year, and 16 definite graduates are listed above, I'll close today's piece with a look at the 13 prospects most likely to start the year in the minors, but to have their names highlighted in boxscores by June.
For what it's worth, I believe the NL Rookie of the Year race -- so hyped with Hermida, Fielder, Cain and Zimmerman all in the Majors -- will be a runaway for Prince. As Ryan Howard proved last year, chicks still dig the longball. The American League is a harder race to handicap, far more prone for a late call-up making the big difference. Still, I can't bring myself to predict anyone but Francisco Liriano, who will tantalize voters in the second half with some of the game's most electric stuff.
These are the players the minor leagues will be without in 2006, the players so influential just a year ago. In the next parts of this series, we'll look at those about to jump on board, and those ready to tantalize prospect evaluators this year.
Two on Two: 2006 AL West Preview
Our season previews roll on today, as we stay out on the left coast to preview the AL West. In the hot seat with Rich and Bryan today are Tyler Bleszinski (Blez) from Athletics Nation and Rob McMillin from 6-4-2. Before we begin, here's a quick look at our previous division previews:
And with that, away we go...
Bryan: Guys, in recent years this has become little more than a two-team division. Seattle and Texas have flirted with success in certain years, but neither come close to the recent consistency of the Angels and Athletics. Obviously, this speaks volumes about the abilities of Billy Beane as well as the Stoneman/Scioscia duo. This is a two-part question, first what gives those teams such great success (beyond Moneyball and Angel-speed cliches) and do you see anything over the horizon in Dallas and Seattle?
Tyler: I know Rob disagrees with me on this one, but I think Texas makes a jump this year. With Ian Kinsler coming in, a slight improvement in the rotation, Brad Wilkerson joining the team and a mashing offense that's built for that ballpark, I think they leapfrog the Angels this season. But not for long because the key to the Angels and A's success will largely be the draft and a solid farm system. And the Angels will rise again in 2007 with all of those great young kids they have.
Bryan: So success in the West is a product of proper player development?
Tyler: In the A's case, definitely. They had four players in their first full years -- Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher, Huston Street and Joe Blanton -- who were major contributors to their success last season. The Angels time is coming for their farm system to flex their muscles. In part, it will happen this year with Casey Kotchman and possibly Dallas McPherson.
Rich: I wouldn't bank on McPherson contributing much this year. He is unlikely to break camp with the club and will find it difficult unseating Chone Figgins at third unless, of course, Figgy returns to his role as a super sub again.
Rob: The 2004 and 2005 Angels won their respective divisions for almost completely different reasons; the 2004 squad because of its good offense (three players with 119 or more OPS+) and mediocre pitching, and the 2005 team almost exclusively because of its superior pitching. Unlike Tyler, I don't see the Rangers really contending until they figure out guys like Kevin Millwood aren't worth the kind of money the Rangers gave him and R.A. Dickey doesn't belong in any major league rotation until he can figure out how to get his knuckleball over the plate.
Tyler: The truth is that the Rangers have to overpay for pitching to get anyone to come to that ballpark.
Bryan: The Rangers are, like the Angels, at an advantage because of team payroll. However, this hasn't correlated to direct success. Is it just bad front office decision-making?
Rich: Well, there is a new sheriff in town -- and I don't mean Kevin Malone. John Hart stepped down as the team's general manager and Jon Daniels stepped up. At 28, Daniels is now the youngest GM in the game.
Tyler: I think the Rangers front office is making better decisions now. Getting rid of Alfonso Soriano in favor of Wilkerson was a very good move and Millwood, while they overpaid, will also help.
Rob: Yes, I think the Rangers are victims of some none-too-smart decisions. That doesn't mean they'll keep making them, though; like Tyler, I liked the move to unload Soriano to a GM dumb enough to force him to left without asking first. But I'm far from sold on the idea that the Rangers' pitching problem is mostly about money. Their park is hot -- always bad for pitching anyway -- and it has some well-known wind tunnels that conveniently happen to be jet streams in the power alleys.
Bryan: Yeah, some pitchers can succeed in the park, but it's tough to come up with a staff full of 'em.
Tyler: The Rangers major problem is that home ballpark. While it helps the offense become prolific, it's also scared off any potential pitchers since the Chan Ho Park debacle.
Rob: Even when they were a good team in the mid-late-90's, they never had superior pitching, but they had guys who could wallop the ball into Tierra del Fuego.
Tyler: One big mistake the Rangers made was letting go of Kenny Rogers. I understand why it had to be done, but he figured out how to pitch there when few have. And the Tigers paid too much to get him, but that's the market for starting pitching right now.
Rob: Totally agree on the Rogers situation, and that's why I think they won't contend -- Millwood hardly looks like a replacement for Mister Camera Smackdown Guy.
Bryan: Well, let's talk about the rotation they do have. Millwood will be an improvement at least, and Adam Eaton has big potential. At the back end, the Rangers are showing a touch of depth with Vicente Padilla and Kameron Loe.
Tyler: Eaton concerns me. He had scary bad stats last year at Petco Park, which many believe is the antithesis of Arlington. But the improvement should really come as a result of improvements in the overall team defense with Wilkerson and Kinsler there when talking about the rotation as well. Soriano was just brutal out there.
Rob: Kinsler may be an improvement -- we won't know until he actually plays at the major league level for a while. But I'll buy that, even if he's only league average, he'd be a big boon compared to the sieve that was Alfonso Soriano.
Bryan: Personally, I think the key to the Rangers will be the success of that bullpen. Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Joaquin Benoit and Akinori Otsuka all need to pitch well for great success.
Tyler: I agree because of the nature of that ballpark. So many games are decided later. But the thing is, the Rangers don't need their pitchers to be perfect unlike the A's and possibly even the Angels because of their offense.
Rob: I don't know about that, Tyler. Between David Dellucci, Mark Teixeira, and Michael Young, you've got a fine lineup, and maybe throw in Wilkerson if you think he can be a 120+ OPS+ guy. But it doesn't seem to me to be a recipe for winning anywhere else than Amerimash Park.
Tyler: You left out Hank Blalock, Rob. I know he didn't have the best year last season, but he's bound to improve this year.
Rich: It would be hard for Blalock not to improve on his numbers last year. He was just plain awful on the road (.231/.276/.335), in the second half (.236/.283/.375), and against lefties (.196/.228/.356). By the end of the year, southpaws were sending limousines for Blalock to make sure he made it to the away games on time.
Rob: PECOTA agrees with you, guys -- I guess Blalock's disappearance last year had fooled me into thinking he had peaked early, but at 25 it's unlikely.
Tyler: What could make a difference would be if the Rangers continue to play Rod Barajas over Gerald Laird. Even though Laird hasn't shown it yet (he's only played 81 games at the MLB level) he has the much higher ceiling offensively.
Bryan: The catching position is certainly their weakest position offensively. However, with 8 other solid spots in the lineup, good defense behind the plate might be more important.
Rob: Tyler -- could be. But I'm still skeptical; they have to keep runs off the board, and this is a pretty tattered pitching staff.
Bryan: Let's go from the division's worst staff to the best, the A's. With a deep rotation, 1-5, the A's will be difficult each day of the week.
Tyler: I'm not sure Rob would agree with that. The Angels have a quality rotation as well. But it's true, and the A's rotation is actually almost eight-nine starting pitchers deep now. For the first time in many, many years, the A's have replacements in case Rich Harden or another starting pitcher goes down. The A's have Kirk Saarloos, Joe Kennedy, Brad Halsey and even John Rheinecker or Chad Gaudin waiting in the wings in case of injury.
Rob: The A's have a good team this year, no doubt about it. In fact, I'm picking them to win the division. They have a good 1-4 and a fifth starter who could be a number three on some second-division teams and a young guy in Bobby Crosby who can rake in the middle of the infield. They've got three starting center fielders in Milton Bradley, Jay Payton, and Mark Kotsay, and as Tyler mentions, remarkable depth in their rotation.
Tyler: That isn't an ideal situation, but they're better equipped than last year when they were picking up Ryan Glynn off the waiver wire to take emergency starts.
Bryan: Decisions are just so, so difficult for the A's this year. Oh, who to pitch behind former Cy Young winner Barry Zito: Rich Harden or Dan Haren?
Tyler: This is Harden's year to break out. Almost all of the health reports on him this year have been glowing. He's even backed off on his weights routine. Haren will also be solid, but he can have problems with consistency because he depends on hitters swinging at that nasty splitter.
Rob: Break out? What more does he need to do? By the way, Tyler, next time you talk to Billy, you need to tell him to stop getting pitchers whose names are so similar -- Harden/Haren? That's almost as bad as Sarumon/Sauron.
Bryan: Personally I don't think the name of the hurler will matter much this season. Any pitcher could succeed with an outfield defense that will make doubles an impossibility.
Tyler: You're absolutely right about the defense, and you didn't even mention the infield. Mark Ellis and Crosby are one of the top double-play duos in baseball. Eric Chavez is a five-time Gold Glover (though we all know how much that means) and Dan Johnson is a decent first baseman. Then you add the outfield defense to that mix, some of these pitchers won't play with a better defense behind them their entire careers. The major question mark with the A's this year is health. Can Crosby and Harden stay healthy? Will Bradley be healthy? Will Chavez's ongoing shoulder issues hamper him? Notice I didn't even mention Frank Thomas.
Rob: Rate2 gives Chavez a 105 score -- he's still above average, though not as good as he was a couple years ago. Nobody expected you to mention Thomas, Tyler. It's pretty obvious that Beane doesn't expect him to necessarily be a lynchpin of the offense.
Bryan: The question, I guess, will be how health affects the offense. Still, I think it's good enough to win the division. Milton Bradley in a loving environment could be a big run producer.
Rich: The A's offense is plenty good. They scored nearly as many runs on the road last year as Texas.
Tyler: My feeling is you're going to see a Bradley close to the 2003 Cleveland Indians Bradley.
Rob: Bradley's health is far more important; if he doesn't stay in the lineup, bad things happen. I also think, having seen him play some, that he shares with Darin Erstad a tendency to injure himself from overhustling. Plus, he's just plain fragile. Remember the injury that kept him out of the Dodgers lineup last year: a busted ring finger ligament! How freakish is that?
Tyler: Still, even so, the A's have depth that they haven't had in years. If Bradley does go down for an extended time, the A's have Jay Payton.
Bryan: The A's depth will give Billy a chance to be Billy during the season. During the season, Beane can use that depth to fix the A's weaknesses. However, at this point, I'm not sure the A's have any weaknesses.
Tyler: I think they're missing a true LOOGY. And in this division with Teixeira, Blalock and even Garret Anderson, I think you need a quality LOOGY.
Rich: That's minor in the scope of things. The Angels haven't had a lefty in the bullpen in years.
Tyler: Joe Kennedy could evolve into that, but he's probably going to be more a Justin Duchscherer-type from last year.
Rob: I was astonished at how badly Kennedy performed last year, considering he was leaving Colorado. 4.45 ERA?
Tyler: Not that spring stats mean much considering their small sample size, but Kennedy seems to be thriving now that he knows his role. He's got a 0.96 ERA in Arizona.
Bryan: Still, I can't see Kennedy or any LOOGY having a large impact upon the A's chances. Oakland's division, and pennant, chances depend far more on the likes of Bradley and Eric Chavez.
Tyler: The A's season is dependent on three players to me: Crosby, Street and Harden. They lose any one of those players for an extended period of time and the drop-off in talent really hurts them.
Rob: Bryan was saying how the division has become a two-team race between the Angels and the A's in the last couple years. It's my opinion that if it becomes a three-team race, it'll be the Mariners, not the Rangers, who get there first.
Bryan: Seattle is certainly headed in the right direction, and for one reason: Felix Hernandez. There is no more exciting talent in the division than Felix, who is good health away from dominating each team's #1.
Rob: The M's have a very good bullpen -- in fact, their cumulative ERA was just a couple points behind the Angels' -- a once-in-a-lifetime starter in King Felix, but after that the story gets very unpredictable. Their 2-5 rotation guys are either old and inconsistent (Jamie Moyer) or young and inconsistent (everyone else). Outside of Richie Sexson, unless Adrian Beltre returns to something like his 2004 form, they don't have what Tyler calls a scary monster in their lineup.
Bryan: They overpaid for Jarrod Washburn, to be sure, but he will be a positive influence in the rotation. He's a similar style to Moyer, but he has a much better upside.
Rich: I think we saw Washburn's ceiling last year. Expect him to be nothing more than an average pitcher over the life of his contract, with more downside than upside.
Rob: Washburn was a mistake; he won't be healthy, he won't repeat his ability to strand the numerous runners he allows on base, and he's going to be a real albatross by the last year of his contract.
Tyler: I'm sorry, but any team that has Jamie Moyer as their opening day starter is not going to contend. They're also depending on Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro, both of whom had ERAs in the 5's last season. Truth be told, I actually like the Rangers rotation better than the Mariners right now with the natural exception of Hernandez.
Bryan: With Jeremy Reed out for two months, the Mariners will be in a pretty bad spot the first 8 weeks. Either Matt Lawton, Willie Bloomquist or Joe Borchard is going to be getting a lot more ABs than they deserve.
Rob: And I don't like that the injury appears to have been to one of the small bones in his wrist. I always think of Nomar's post-wrist-injury hitting, and cringe.
Tyler: Yes, they have a bona fide ace in Felix Hernandez and the offense will be better this year with Beltre likely improving, but you're right in that they have no depth.
Bryan: I like Beltre, too. He was one of the best hitters in the WBC, and has continued to play well in Spring Training. I have both Sexson and Beltre pegged for 30 home runs.
Rob: I dunno, Bryan. Having seen Beltre swing and miss at too many low outside sliders when he was with the Dodgers, and then hearing he's doing the exact same thing with the M's, well, I wonder if he'll ever be consistent.
Rich: Beltre will never approach his 2004 career year, but he should certainly improve upon his inaugural season in Seattle.
Rob: His early Spring Training numbers are encouraging for Seattle, though. Yeah, depth is a real problem for this club, although I confess to being surprised that the Mariners are in the middle of the pack as far as farm system rankings go. Most of their truly good players are still years away, though.
Bryan: In reality, I think the lack of depth will kill them. There are a few exciting talents at the top, but there is not nearly enough depth to really succeed. I look for a few good runs, but besides that, another last place finish from Seattle.
Rob: Totally agree. I see this division going down Oakland-LAA-Texas-Seattle, but it may be a lot tighter than that, and I could easily see the Rangers and Mariners flip-flopping if the right circumstances occur.
Bryan: Let's talk about Washburn's old team, the Angels. Signing Jeff Weaver on the cheap was a good move, I think, but I'm not sure they have the offense to succeed. Young players could definitely change that if they gel quickly, though.
Tyler: The Angels have an impressive rotation, the thing that concerns me about that team is its offense. There's Vladimir Guerrero and then there is everyone else.
Rich: Yeah, I think signing Jered to a $4 million bonus was a very cheap signing. Oh, you mean Jeff? Well, that was a good move, too.
Tyler: It usually takes a younger player a little longer to adjust to the majors. I think Casey Kotchman is going to be great, I just don't expect it to happen immediately. So, I agree, the pitching and bullpen will once again be solid, but the offense will struggle.
Rob: Even at the rate he was hitting last year, you could see him being a 20-30 home run guy. He's doing well in Spring Training. But definitely for the Angels, getting longballs out of the kids is going to be the key to the season. This is a rebuilding year, no doubt about it.
Rich: I don't think the Angels are viewing 2006 as a "rebuilding year" at all. Like the Atlanta Braves have shown more than once over the years, Arte Moreno's team is simply trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by slipping a couple of youngsters into a lineup that is still expected to contend.
Bryan: I think this is a team destined to succeed in 2008. They have to figure a few things out, for example, whether McPherson is the future at the hot corner. Or, how to get rid of Orlando Cabrera soon.
Rich: I'm not worried about these so-called problems in the least. These things have a way of working themselves out.
Tyler: Angel fans can take solace in the fact that they've got Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and all those youngsters just waiting to make a huge impact on the AL West in 2007 and beyond.
Rob: The Angels look like they have depth, but it's illusory in some ways; what happens if, as many old and melancholy Angels fans hope, Tim Salmon makes the team? With Erstad and Anderson already begging for at-bats from the DH position, they now have three DH's, and four if Kendry Morales and his non-glove make a push for the big club in midseason.
Rich: I don't believe Erstad will get many at-bats as a DH. Anderson, Juan Rivera, and perhaps Salmon and Morales (if either makes the team), but not Ersty.
Tyler: I also don't buy the argument that the Angels didn't do anything this offseason. Angel fans should be rejoicing that Stoneman didn't deal away any young talent for Manny Ramirez. Allowing the young kids an opportunity is doing something intelligent.
Bryan: Stoneman really needs to figure out the right way to blend these veterans and young prospects. It will be his success in this regard that determines the Angels W-L record in 2006 and 2007, I think.
Rob: I'm a little less concerned, having seen the pitching, that they have sufficient bullpen depth; the recent announcement that the team "wants a left-handed bat" and is willing to give up Kevin Gregg and/or Esteban Yan to get it is really code for, "here, take my junk." They're not terrible, but given how well Jason Bulger did this spring (prior to a game or two ago), and some of the other guys' success, the bullpen looks like it's set.
Tyler: Rob, is this the year that K-Rod's funky delivery lands him on the DL?
Rob: Could easily be. And, I'm going to make a prediction: he'll be out of baseball beyond 2010. He refused to change his mechanics in the minors, and now that he's in the Show, he's showing the same recalcitrance.
Bryan: Well, the Angels bullpen is so good that a short Francisco Rodriguez stint on the DL isn't the worst thing in the world. Scot Shields is probably one of the 3-4 best relievers in the division.
Tyler: I also wonder about Shields being overworked. The guy personifies rubber arm, but eventually that type of use burns you out. Bobby Crosby named Shields as the toughest pitcher he's faced in the major leagues when I interviewed him recently.
Rich: Maybe that explains why Bobby is 0-fer vs. Shields.
Rob: Shields had started to tire around the time of the late August Blue Jays series last year, when the team had something like two or three extra-inning games, including an 18-inning nightmare. He absolutely can be overworked. And Scioscia, who learned at the foot of Tommy Lasorda, a master of overworking pitchers, while not quite as bad as his instructor, sometimes has the same tendencies.
Tyler: That's exactly what concerns me about Shields and K-Rod. Scioscia and Dusty Baker both come from that school. It's also why I don't think Kelvim Escobar lasts. And, how many games before Erstad gets injured in center field?
Rob: My bet is 40 games, which ought to be enough time for Dallas McPherson to get hot in the minors, and Figgins to move back to center, where he will probably be the team's starter through 2010.
Bryan: It seems as though the Angels are totally dependent upon health. And with Vlad not even entering the season 100%, they look to be in a lot of trouble. This team has the upside to win the division, but that would be pushing it.
Tyler: Yeah, Erstad getting hurt might actually HELP the Angels. I agree 100 percent, Bryan. I think depth comes into play so much in a 162-game schedule and for once, the A's have the most depth in the division.
Bryan: Well, let's go through our projected standings. I am going to go with the A's first, with the Rangers, Angels and Mariners rounding out the division.
Tyler: I see the division shaking out this way: OAK-TEX-ANA-SEA.
Rich: I like the A's here, followed by the Angels, Rangers, and Mariners.
Rob: Here's how I see it shaping up: Oakland, LAAoA, Texas, Seattle.
Tyler: But I also think this is going to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in baseball. Each one of the teams, except the Angels, will be improved.
Rob: Tyler -- how do you get off saying that? Finley's out of center, Erstad's in a position where his bat isn't expected to produce much, and Kotchman has a real chance of being a 20-30 home run guy.
Tyler: I think we've seen the best of Adam Kennedy last year, Anderson is on the decline, the catching can be a question mark. When I said improvement, I meant win totals. I don't imagine they would top 95 wins. I think the A's will top 88, the Rangers will top 79 and the Mariners will top 69.
Bryan: But, of course, the answer to the dozens of hypothetical questions we posed today will determine who lives up to their potential, and who does not.
Derek Zumsteg's guest column on the The Irrational Market prompted a discussion about the Chicago White Sox in the comments section. One reader claimed the White Sox were the worst team in the last 40 years to win the World Series and others had various takes and spins on the South Siders.
I'll be the first to admit that I underestimated the White Sox last year. I selected them to finish fourth in the AL Central. I was even skeptical after the team broke out to a fast start but began to respect the Pale Hose as the season progressed. It wasn't difficult for me to realize that I was wrong: the White Sox were much better than I had thought. In fact, I became such a believer that I picked the White Sox to beat the Red Sox in the ALDS. However, Chicago did me two better by beating the Angels in the ALCS and the Houston Astros in the World Series.
The White Sox won it all in convincing fashion. The team finished the regular season with the most wins in the AL and the second most in the majors. They swept the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs, then won the pennant by winning four of five (including four consecutive complete game victories by a quartet of starting pitchers) against the best of what the AL West had to offer, before sweeping the Astros in the World Series. Put it all together and the White Sox went 11-1 in the postseason, tied with the 1999 Yankees for the best playoff record under the current format. Since divisional play began, only the Cincinnati Reds in 1976 had a better winning percentage with a 7-0 record.
To suggest that the White Sox weren't a great team is ignoring the facts. We can form our own opinions going into a season or quote Pythagorean records but the bottom line in measuring how successful--or unsuccessful--a team is (or was) is based on actual wins, place in the standings, and performance in the playoffs. Period. It is simply a mistake to do otherwise. If we want to use Pythagoras for predicting future performance, fine, go for it. But the bottom line isn't about having the biggest run differentials; it is about winning games.
I mean, at some point, we have to put away all of our other tools and subjective reasonings and pay respect to the team that actually wins games on the field. This debate reminds me of one of my favorite stories of all time.
After Notre Dame beat USC in a football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the 1920s, the losing coach told reporters that the Trojans had more first downs than the Fightin' Irish. Upon returning to South Bend and reading the newspaper account of the game, Knute Rockne, Notre Dame's legendary coach, sent his counterpart a telegram with the following message: "The next time you want to play for first downs, let me know." [Update: According to research performed by Bob Timmermann, the game in question may have been the 1925 Rose Bowl between Notre Dame and Stanford, not USC.]
No baseball team won more games than the White Sox last year. And they were the only team in the postseason that won its last game. You see, the Sox may not have led the league or majors in first downs but they led in what mattered: wins.
Mike Hollman of Orioles Think Tank recently interviewed me about the state of the Birds, including the team's starting pitchers (Daniel Cabrera, Bruce Chen, and Erik Bedard), the bullpen, Jay Gibbons, Melvin Mora, and its prospects. I even shared my short- and long-term projections for the Baltimore franchise.
OTT: I'm sure a lot of people would like to hear that better times are ahead. Care to indulge us?
The full transcript can be found here. Enjoy!
The Irrational Market
I love watching sports odds. For all the pre-season hype and predictions, all the column inches wasted on how some guy's having a great spring, the fat guy lost weight, the youngsters look good, and the managers says no one has a guaranteed spot, this is where you can see what the real weight of baseball opinion is, because it's where people are staking their money. We can churn out all the expected runs scored/allowed standings, run simulations with Diamond Mind Baseball's predictions, but the actual market-based is the most interesting.
That's because there's only one reasonable reaction to looking over the lines as I write this: people are crazy. The White Sox are 4-1 to win the World Series. Four to one. I know they're the defending champions, but this makes no sense.
Consider for a second the odds that they'll even get a playoff berth. If they were a strong team (say 90 wins strong) in a really weak division, they might have a 75% chance of getting to the playoffs. But the line...the line essentially says that not only are they a strong team in a weak division, they're going to breeze through the playoffs.
Or, rather, consider that the playoffs are a series of coin flips, for ease of demonstrating how wacky this is.
White Sox make the playoffs: 75%
You want 10:1 odds or higher then. To get to the point where a 4-1 bet becomes even rational, you have to believe that the White Sox are a 90-win team in a really weak division, and that they're going to be far superior to their competition in every playoff round. And in recent years, we've seen great teams - truly great ones - lose playoff series to teams that were pretty clearly their inferior. This would be a bad bet if we knew, ahead of time, that the White Sox would win 100 games.
And that's obviously not the case. Is there that much money behind this? Is being the former champion such a big deal that everyone from Chicago put some money behind a repeat? I wish I could short that bet, but unfortunately, there's no derivatives market for sports betting that I'm aware of. That's probably a good thing.
I was curious, though, after I saw that - where else is does the market's belief about playoff chances clearly diverge from mine?
Who the Money's Behind
Top eight teams, by odds offered:
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 13-1
Strictly from the betting so far, here are your division winners:
AL East: Yankees
NL East: Mets
Boston and the Cubs win the wild card.
That's an entirely reasonable set of predictions, even as I look at the odds themselves and wince.
Sooooo...a lotta people from the Greater Los Angeles area putting money on their home team in Vegas, huh? You look at the Dodgers, they've got a great chance to get into the playoffs, and once there, hey, who knows? Other than that, though, none of these look like they've got a positive expectation.
Red Sox, same deal, but the odds aren't good. The Yankees even more so. I wouldn't take the Cubs bet until I know Prior's fine, but if you figure he is, they're about the same bet as the Cardinals, really.
Good Money After Bad, AL
Teams contending but not favored:
Cleveland Indians, 14-1
Again, the baffling AL Central. Both the Indians and Twins are better teams than the White Sox, but they're getting much longer odds, the Twins almost irrationally so. I'd chalk this up to a contraction discount, but they're a good team. Even if you figure that the wild card's going to the East, and it's a race between the Indians, White Sox, and Twins, the Twins are by far the lowest valued.
That's a little baffling. Almost baffling as the A's. Even while their offense looks weak, they're going to run a stellar pitching staff out there. They're clearly the pick of the AL West litter, but if you give them a 50/50 chance to make the playoffs, they still come out ahead on the odds. Do people really think that Beane's...(uhhh, is this a family blog?) stuff doesn't work in the playoffs?
Similarly, it's odd to see that two .500 teams, the Mariners and Rangers, are both long shots, and the Mariners are by far the least favorably viewed. This illustrates something interesting, which I'll come back to in a second.
Good Money After Bad, NL
Atlanta Braves, 22-1
Phirst things phirst: that line is evidence that the bettors know what they're doing. The Phillies aren't going anywhere with Ryan Phranklin in their rotation. That guy's going to get absolutely brutalized in that park. If you're a season-ticket holder, please - get out from under those games as early as possible. And try to sell to people you don't know. Take it from someone who dumped Ryan Franklin tickets on people for years: the disappointed look of friends and family and the wrecked trust just isn't worth it.
Anyway, not to pound this too much, but the Astros and Brewers, who are in a division with two really strong teams and no patsies at all, get the same odds as the Twins, who are in a decent division and have a good shot to end the year with the best record in the AL Central. I don't get it. I can see that the NL wild card berth might go to someone who's not that good, but the imbalance is strange.
Compared to some of the other bets, that 15-1 for the Giants is silly.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 80-1
The Walking Dead
Teams offered at 100-1 or better:
Arizona Diamondbacks, 100-1
Interestingly, this is not all dead money. Even the slight inefficiencies aren't worth taking these odds on, since the 5% chance a team like the Diamondbacks might grab a berth in a weak division is still not worth it once they get through the playoffs.
But take the Tigers. They should be around .500 team in a division where 85 wins might win the division. Give 'em a 10% chance to make the playoffs, and suddenly those are decent odds. They're not good - once you figure they're going to have to run the playoffs against much stronger competition, you start to look for 175-1 or higher, which you won't get.
Moderately Interesting Conclusion
There are cases where the opinion looks quite strange to someone trying to predict next season. With a few exceptions, it's last year's standings, with a few significant moves:
The Blue Jays move up, and there are some other moderate movers with modest moves, but, by and large, only extremely large moves in the off-season cause the perception of a team's chances to change. In general, a team has to win - and win a lot - before they can be perceived that way.
This suggests an immediate applicability to teams: if the perception of a team lags a year behind and huge off-season acquisition binges can only make people pay so much attention, then it's likely, as is frequently speculated, that the effects of winning lag a team. A contending team may see some bump in perception during the year, but there's only so much a team can do - if the Blue Jays can spend that much money and be regarded as having half the chances the Red Sox have, well, they're going to have to show a lot on the field to start building confidence in their prospects for competing.
It means that short-term acquisitions may not be the boon teams think they are, most importantly. Signing a washed-up designated hitter to a $3.4m contract because you think fans are going to respond is a waste of $3.4m, because at the end of the year the team still stinks, the fans still think the team stinks, and they didn't all vomit with excitement and rush to buy season-ticket packages when you announced the deal.
Fandom appears to be extremely conservative and comfortable to wait and be surprised when things turn out differently then last year.
In the meantime, there's money to be made for those willing to look ahead.
Derek Zumsteg writes for the Seattle Mariners-centric site U.S.S. Mariner, but has been published in all kinds of random places, and does all his own stunts. His first book will be out in a year, which doesn't help you at all. He does not, as far as you know, bet on sports himself.
[Additional comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Two on Two: 2006 NL West Preview
Our Two on Two 2006 season previews move West this week, following the AL Central and NL Central. In the ring with Rich and Bryan today are two of the senior writers/bloggers on the Internet: Geoff Young (Ducksnorts - Padres) and Jon Weisman (Dodger Thoughts). Enjoy...
Bryan: Well guys, we have gotten to the point where criticizing the NL West's futility in 2005 has become cliche. Still, it's worth noting that after years of the AL Central being the worst in baseball, the NL West passed right by them last year. What I want to know is, was this simply a one-year aberration or is this a problem that isn't going away?
Jon: Can it be a two-year aberration? The coveted prospects in Arizona and Los Angeles will just be beginning to transition to the majors in 2006. San Francisco and San Diego should struggle with growing old despite having a hot pitcher here and there, while Colorado will continue to struggle with being Colorado. The law of averages could certainly help the NL West this season, but odds are that at most, one team will pass the 85-victory mark. Division-wide respect could be another year away.
Geoff: I think Jon nailed it. The California teams are too old, and the non-California teams are too young. The Dodgers and Giants brought in some name guys, and the Padres moved a lot of bodies, but for the most part we're looking at the same bunch of mediocrity that we saw in 2005. Although the positions may change, I don't see a 90-win team in the division. The good news is that I do think the problem will go away in 2007, when some of the good young talent in Arizona starts to make an impact and the Padres no longer have to pay the likes of Ryan Klesko and Chan Ho Park.
Rich: The NL West isn't dead. It's just taking a nap. That said, the division figures to be slightly better this year, if for no other reason than improved health. Looking out a year or two, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could be among the elite teams in the league if their farm systems are as good as advertised. So I don't think we are talking about a Rip Van Winkle snooze here.
Bryan: Good point regarding the farm systems, Rich. While the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have the opportunity at plenty of implementation in the coming years, the Giants and, to a lesser degree, the Padres are aging and aging fast. Are the next two seasons going to be the last stands for these organizations, after which Arizona and Los Angeles start trading division titles? Or, is this thought simply too assuming?
Jon: Well, some teams rise from the dead quicker than expected, and some teams stay dead for a century or so. So who knows? It is hard for me to imagine a world where Arizona and Los Angeles alone play division-title keepaway. But getting back to this year ...
Rich: The Diamondback and Dodger farm systems aren't going to pay big dividends this year. Oh, we might see a few players get a chance to show their stuff, but I wouldn't expect much, if any, impact from these youngsters in the here and now.
Bryan: Yeah, it's funny, the two rookies that might be best in the West this year are Matt Cain (Giants) and Josh Barfield or Ben Johnson (Padres). Barfield has been one of Arizona's best hitters so far, so you'd have to think he will get the majority of 2B at-bats. The offense around him is pretty solely dependent upon aging, with Mike Piazza, Ryan Klesko, Brian Giles and Vinny Castilla all paramount to the defending champs' success.
Geoff: Beyond Barfield (if he wins the job) and Khalil Greene, the Padres do have a pretty old offense. Of course, that changes next winter when all the contracts run out. From there it's a question of how quickly Grady Fuson is able to revitalize the farm system. It's funny: all the teams in this division are on the cusp of rebuilding. The only thing really holding anyone back from committing to a complete overhaul is the fact that everyone else is in the same boat, so why not hedge your bets and try to do something right now? After all, as we were reminded last year, someone has to win the NL West.
Rich: Yes, indeed. Let's take a look at each team, starting with last year's NL West champs--the 82-80 San Diego Padres. Is the team better or worse this year?
Jon: At best, they're not much better. Many of the folks they brought in are aging, declining players. Mike Cameron is a good player, but not an acquisition to pin your hopes on. There probably isn't any pitcher in the division I'd rather throw out there in a single game than Jake Peavy, but I don't know that San Diego has a complete starting rotation. I think the Padres will need some pleasant surprises.
Geoff: The team is certainly different. Better or worse remains an open question. As Jon notes, the Padres aren't young and the pitching staff has holes. I agree that San Diego will need some pleasant surprises. Unfortunately that's a lot to ask when you're talking about a group that for the most part is on the wrong side of 30 (by quite a bit, in many cases). I look at this team and see 75-85 wins. Sadly, that might be enough.
Rich: Well, 85 may be enough to take the division. But 75 certainly won't, no matter how bad the West might be this year. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85?
Geoff: No, 75 probably won't - the '94 Rangers were an aberration. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85? How much time have you got? Chris Young needs to prove that last year's fade down the stretch was a fluke, and at least one of Shawn Estes, Chan Ho Park, or Woody Williams needs to provide league average production or better. The aging vets on offense need to stay healthy and reasonably productive. Khalil Greene needs to step up his offensive game a bit. And then - you know, I liked this question better before I'd really stopped to think about it. The biggest problem facing the Padres this year is that they didn't address their deficiencies in the starting rotation. I think for the Padres to succeed this year, their pitching needs to be better than it looks on paper, and not just by a little.
Jon: Park was doing well has a reliever in the World Baseball Classic - I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad one.
Rich: As long as the Padres aren't footing the bill this year, it seems to me that Park is more likely to surprise to the upside than the downside, especially as a middle reliever. I also think Young has some upside, if for no other reason than going from a hitter's park in Texas to a pitcher's park in San Diego.
Bryan: Peavy and Young at the top of the rotation. Williams and Estes in the middle. Let's just hope that Dewon Brazelton isn't the fifth starter. But does any team in the division have a quality fifth starter?
Jon: If you ignore the fact that Brett Tomko is a questionable No. 4, I think the Dodgers have potential in the back of the rotation with Jae Seo and, perhaps later this season, Chad Billingsley. With Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez, the Dodgers make a mockery of the whole No. 1 - No. 5 designations. Every day is No. 3 or No. 4 day!
Rich: Yeah, I don't understand why Tomko has been handed a spot in the rotation and Seo has to beat back D.J. Houlton and
Jon: Not in the rotation, because Seo held his own in the increasingly respected (at least outside of Dodgertown) WBC. But the last spots in the Dodger bullpen are up in the air. The Dodgers would probably prefer Sele go to Las Vegas, but he might ask for his release rather than face the slot machine bats down there. Geoff - maybe San Diego would like to trade Brian Giles for him???
Geoff: Hmmm, Sele was pretty good in 1998, which seems to be the theme of the current Padres rotation. As for Park in the bullpen, why not? If that happens, I'd expect Clay Hensley rather than Brazelton to get the #5 spot. Or Andy Benes. Or Tim Lollar.
Rich: Nomar Garciaparra was pretty good back then, too. In fact, Ned Colletti and Grady Little have put together a Dodgers team that is a cross dresser between the Red Sox and Giants of old.
Jon: Yeah, what are you gonna do? It's also got a lineup that's about as vulnerable to injury as last year's was. But this Dodger team should take at least a small step forward - it starts the season without the holes of Jose Valentin and Scott Erickson, and with a more mature group of prospects to back everyone up. Still, the Dodgers' fortunes may depend most on whether Lowe, Penny and Perez can be more effective.
Bryan: And, certainly, how much they can get out of their veterans. This team is extraordinarily dependent upon veterans like Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton and (his body older than his actual age) J.D. Drew. In my eyes the Dodgers chances are as dependent upon (trainer) Stan Johnston as anyone else.
Rich: True. In the investment world, we would tab the Dodgers as a "high beta" team. If things go awry, I wouldn't be surprised if LA only won 70-75 games. Conversely, if everything goes as planned, LA could win 85-90 games. I know you could drive a couple of big trucks through that range, but it suggests to me that the Dodgers are perhaps the most difficult team in the league to gauge.
Jon: Amen to that. Last year, I went out on the short, sturdy limb that the Dodgers would win between 80 and 100 games - and I still crashed.
Rich: Some folks got hurt (so to speak) more than others. Mixing trees and walls here, do you think Humpty Dumpty has been put back together again?
Bryan: My vote is that in this division, the answer is yes. As dependent as this team is on health, there are a lot of pieces for a winning ballclub. I think the Rafael Furcal acquisition, if a few too million per year, is going to be fantastic. With a little help from the farm system, a la Jeff Francoeur, I see little reason the Dodgers can't be the Braves of 2006.
Rich: We'll see, Bryan. I know Little and Cox are buddies, but who's going to impersonate Schuerholz and Mazzone? Oh well, let's talk about that other team in the West with all those rookies. The Diamondbacks. Are their youngsters ready for prime time yet?
Geoff: I like a lot of the young position players Arizona has assembled but as with the Padres, I wonder about the rotation. Beyond Webb I'm not seeing a whole lot unless Russ Ortiz somehow rebounds.
Jon: I've gone wrong a good part of the past several years underestimating Arizona, so I'm loath to belittle them when they've got prospects percolating. I'll also question their starting rotation - as well as their overall home run power - but they've got enough of an X factor that I can't count them out.
Rich: To the extent that anyone likes Arizona, I believe they are either premature in their thinking or guilty of looking at the D-Backs with their heart. This is not a very good ball club right now. Heck, they weren't a very good team last year. They just happened to outplay their Pythagorean record by 12 games. I mean, these guys gave up 853 runs last year. Only the Rockies and Reds allowed more. In fact, Arizona was more than a half a run behind the 13th-worst team in run prevention. And what do they do? Replace Javier Vazquez with Orlando Hernandez? I'm sorry guys but even in as weak a division as the NL West, I don't see where the Diamondbacks stand a chance--at least not this year.
Geoff: Put me in the "not going to underestimate them again" camp with Jon. Yes, the team has a lot of holes, but they had those holes last season and finished second in the division. And I'm pretty sure, Rich, that I would have been at the front of the "I don't see where they stand a chance" line this time last year. Fool me once...
Bryan: It's hard for me to not think the Diamondbacks pitching staff will not improve this year. Yes, they lost Javier Vazquez, but he had a down year in the desert anyway. It's quite possible that Dustin Nippert could jump in the rotation and provide equal or improved production. Factor in a better season from Brad Halsey, a better than 6.89 ERA from Russ Ortiz and more of the same for Brandon Webb, and it isn't quite so horrendous. Still, it also isn't enough to win this division.
Rich: OK, I guess I'm the bear in this group with respect to the Diamondbacks. One other point, they traded Troy Glaus and certainly aren't going to get the same level of production out of Tony Clark (.304/.355/.636) they got last year. Who's going to take up the slack? Eric Byrnes? Jeff Davanon?
Geoff: Well, they've upgraded at catcher and second base, and I think if Jackson and Drew get material time, they could help fill the gap left by the departure of Glaus. I also don't believe Chad Tracy's season was a fluke. Not that any of this guarantees success for Arizona, just that in March, it's too soon to count them out just yet. On the other hand, there is still the matter of pitching. Which I guess brings us to the Giants.
Jon: Guess so. And in contrast to the Diamondbacks, I think the Giants have some starting pitching potential, led by Jason Schmidt, Matt Cain and Noah Lowry, and I'll take Matt Morris as a No. 4 over the Dodgers' Tomko.
Bryan: It's a good rotation if, and only if, Jason Schmidt is healthy and himself, neither of which he was last year. Lowry is as quiet an All-Star as there is on the West Coast, but he is no ace. Cain has all the potential in the world, but it's hard to imagine too much in 2006. Schmidt needs to eat innings and take on the best that other teams have to offer.
Jon: But with Barry Bonds unlikely to play maybe even 120 games and other aging players speckling the roster, don't you think there will be some low-scoring days at the park north of Candlestick?
Rich: As long as "guess" is the watchword here, I guess it depends on how many balls end up in the McCovey Cove. And only one player is capable of depositing home run balls into as many kayaks as -- dare I say his name? -- Barry Bonds.
Bryan: There is no question that Bonds is going to have to bear a lot this season in the way of heckling, and if history repeats itself, even threats. There are two directions he could go -- proving everyone wrong, or folding under the pressure.
Geoff: Assuming Bonds is able to do anything this year, has there ever been an older starting outfield in baseball? The biggest offensive threats on this club will be 40+ by the end of the season. Honestly, I have a tough time gauging the Giants. Schmidt pitched last year like he was back in Pittsburgh. Morris is good for innings but he hasn't been much better than league average in a few years. Seems to me they need a lot go right to make an impact.
Rich: The Giants have a lot in common with the Dodgers. Both teams are pretty old. However, if healthy, Schmidt is better than any Dodger starter and Bonds is better than any Dodger regular. But those are two big IFs, let me tell you.
Geoff: Agreed on both points. So, no love for the Rockies?
Jon: Honestly, I'd like to see them do well. I'd like to see baseball thrive in that ballpark, in that state, in that time zone. I'd like not to think that baseball is being played somewhere you just can't win. But they just can't seem to get a collection of impact players going. The team isn't talentless, so if injury demons take out the division's other four teams, stranger things have happened than Cinderella wearing ski boots. But the bigger issue is that Colorado has just got to figure out how to get true quality players there - not phantoms.
Rich: And to think that Clint Hurdle is the manager with the second-longest tenure in the division! I doubt if Hurdle is to blame for Colorado's woes, but it's definitely unusual--especially nowadays--for a skipper to finish fourth three straight years, then last and still have a job. But here's what I find so interesting: the Rockies are 171-143 (.545) at home and 105-207 (.337) on the road under Hurdle. Until the Rockies find a way to win away from Coors Field, they will never 'mount to anything.
Bryan: It's interesting you point a finger at Hurdle, but Dan O'Dowd does not get a mention. Coors Field can make ordinary players look like stars, ordinary lineups look impressive. But the reality of the matter is this team hit .232/.299/.359 on the road last year, when we saw the real sides of Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Cory Sullivan and Clint Barmes. It's odd that Hurdle has been here for four years, but far stranger that O'Dowd has lasted more than half-a-decade. Me thinks ownership has, like many fans in Denver, simply fallen asleep.
Geoff: Here's a depressing thought: The Rockies haven't finished higher than fourth in their division since 1997. Not even Kansas City or Pittsburgh can make that claim. I guess the real questions are whether it's even possible to win in Colorado and, if so, how one goes about doing it. Also, where is Marvin Freeman when you need him?
Rich: Well, the Rockies have proved they can win in Colorado. The problem is that they have never shown an ability to win on the road. Todd Helton and Matt Holliday tied for the club lead in home runs on the road with SEVEN. The bottom line is that the Rockies lack talent more than anything else. There appears to be some hope down the road in the form of Ian Stewart and Troy Tulowitzki but neither is likely to make their debuts until 2007.
Geoff: Yeah, those are some bad splits. One thing I've long suspected (without any proof) is that a secondary effect of the Rockies' extreme home environment is that it hurts them when they leave Coors Field because they are constantly having to adjust to different conditions. I wonder, regardless of talent level, to what degree it's even possible to field a consistently winning club that plays half of its games in an extreme environment and the other half in places where it's trying to adapt to more "normal" conditions. My complete space cowboy theory is that they should play in a pressurized dome in Colorado, which unfortunately negates many of the benefits of having a team in such a beautiful location. Honestly, I think that has got to be the most challenging place to try and build a competitive ballclub.
Rich: I agree. I think Denver should stick to football.
Jon: I'm not ready to give up on the Rockies forever. I still think it's mainly a talent problem. How many true stars have come through there in the past few years? Todd Helton and ... (gulp) Mike Hampton? If the Rockies can learn not to get fooled by mountain mirages and actually put together some good people, they might win some games, home and away. Tampa Bay had a home/road split in winning percentage of .160 last year (.493/.333) - not much less than Colorado's - but no one argues that the Devil Rays' playing environment is unwinnable. I'm not convinced a team loses two out of three on the road because of air pressure. I think it's more likely because they aren't that good anywhere.
Of course, for this year, what's done is done. These are your Rockies, and they still face an uphill battle. And the best thing they've got going for them is that the hills of the NL West won't be as high as they are in other divisions.
Bryan: It's more than an uphill battle against a short hill, Jon. This Rockies team has NO chance of success given their starting rotation, much less inadequacies in their lineup. I love Jeff Francis as much as the next guy, but he may not be the breed of pitcher to succeed in Denver. I'm not really sure what that breed is, however. I've always liked the idea of the Rockies using only relievers. Look for another season with Colorado towards the bottom of the MLB in ERA.
Jon: So, predictions? I'll go with the Dodgers in a rough-and-tumble rumble.
Bryan: Jon, I know it's a bad division, but you forgot to mention the other 4 teams! Who do you have in slots 2-5? Personally, I like the Dodgers, too, and see them modestly chased by San Diego and San Fran. Give Arizona a year off to get some pitching, and give Colorado five to leave town.
Jon: I was trying to avoid having to be more specific. With no conviction, I'll say San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego and then Colorado behind Los Angeles.
Rich: Gosh, Jon, I was hoping we wouldn't even have to pick our favorite to win the division, much less rank all five teams. I believe it is a three-horse race among the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres. If everyone is relatively healthy, then I like the Giants. But I don't say that with a lot of conviction either. I feel better about qualifying my prediction to add that whichever one of these three teams has the fewest number of days - or the lowest amount of payroll dollars - on the DL will take the division. How's that?
Jon: I think that's great, but Bryan is going to disown you!
Rich: I know, I know. OK, I'll close my eyes and go with the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.
Geoff: Much as I hate to admit it, I think that - if healthy - the Dodgers are the team to beat, followed by the Padres, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. I could see Colorado finishing ahead of Arizona. I'm crazy that way.
Mr. Smith Goes Back to Arizona (Act 2)
To repeat, there are significant perils in Spring Training analysis. Sample sizes dilute both statistics and scouting. Behind-the-scenes factors make the whole picture hazy.
In other words, this is a dangerous game. But that isn't about to stop me, so long that each reader takes my comments with a few handfuls of salt. My trip to Arizona last week allowed me to watch eight Major League Baseball teams, four in each league. I was left with dozens of impressions quickly scribbled into a notebook, some of which I wrote up yesterday.
This is a compilation of the rest of those visceral opinions. One note before moving onto the National League...
San Diego PadresSeen: 3-5 loss to Rockies
Milwaukee BrewersSeen: 4-8 loss to Royals
With J.J. Hardy not in the lineup, the Brewers bad infield defense was exposed. Koskie is an improvement over Russ Branyan, but not over Jeff Cirillo, who will receive less playing time this year. Bill Hall wasn't great at second, and is still light years better than Rickie Weeks, who might even be worse thanks to an oblique injury. But the worst of all is definitely Fielder, who will have a lot of hitting to do to overcome his inefficiencies. Luckily, few players looked better with the bat in this game than Prince.
Chicago CubsSeen: 7-6 win vs. Angels; 2-4 loss to Mariners
The streak ended with Ryan Theriot in the seventh inning, and the Cubs would have far more success the rest of the game with minor leaguers exuding patience. The first innning, and after the seventh, the Cubs were impressive. From innings 2-7, they were no better than a last place offense. 21 straight hitters.
Rich Hill was far worse, allowing five runs in two innings of work. Vladimir Guerrero aside, the whole Angel team hit (or walked) Hill pretty hard. Most surprising to me was the Angels aggressiveness on the bases against a southpaw like Hill. It worked however, which was less an indication of catcher Geovany Soto, but instead Hill's weakness to hold runners on. Until he gains control his fastball, Hill has a long road ahead.
Colorado RockiesSeen: 7-6 win over White Sox; 5-3 win over Padres
To recap, guys I liked this trip: Neal Cotts, Joe Borchard, Mike Napoli, Denny Bautista, John Buck, Khalil Greene, Steve Andrade, Jake Fox, Brian Dopirak, Cory Sullivan. Guys I didn't: Bobby Jenks, Brian Anderson, Vladimir Guerrero, Jeremy Reed, Chris Young, Tomo Ohka, Bill Hall, Aaron Cook. Mix together with salt.
Mr. Smith Goes Back to Arizona
Spring Training is a wonderful experience to watch, a fun blend of veterans and rookies, a loose atmosphere in comfortable environments. I am not sold on the fact, however, that Spring Training provides any real indication of the upcoming season, even from a scouting perspective.
But that has not stopped me for trying. Last year, I looked flat-out stupid by criticizing the likes of Barry Zito, Lyle Overbay, Bartolo Colon, Jon Garland, and to an extent, Derrek Lee. There were some guys that swayed me opinion too positive: Jamie Moyer, Jason Schmidt, Chin-Hui Tsao, Ryan Drese.
If nothing else, this proves that I am more than a baseball fan than a scout. However, a fan can sometimes see things just as a scout would; we see positives and negatives from every game. In the last week I saw five baseball games in my return to Arizona, featuring four American League teams and four from the National League. In the next two days, we will be going over the impression I was left with from all eight.
Chicago White SoxSeen: 6-7 loss to Colorado
Shortly after the game I mentioned to someone that Jenks looked awful. His fastball control was awful, as he threw just 13 strikes in a 31-pitch inning. His fastball velocity wasn't the same, and while I didn't have a radar, I will venture that Ringolsby's reports seem exaggerated. Jenks problem was that he hardly flashed a curveball that he threw often in warm-ups, a likely indication that he isn't quite ready for the season.
With Dustin Hermanson in pain, a leftie spot up for grabs and uncertainty from the closer, the White Sox bullpen could be the team's most discernable April weakness. Until he proves otherwise, I suggest you pass on Jenks.
Los Angeles Angels of AnaheimSeen: 6-7 loss to Cubs
First-round picks in fantasy baseball are very important, and back problems have a history of lingering. Put these two together, and I suggest you pass on Vladimir Guerrero in the first round of your draft. Let someone else make that mistake.
Seattle MarinersSeen: 4-2 win vs. Cubs
Kansas City RoyalsSeen: 8-4 win vs. Brewers
The other reason is that the KC defense should be much, much better this year. This was evident at the end of the second inning, when a Corey Koskie would-be-single up the middle was snared by Mark Grudzielanek and then thrown to Doug Mientkiewicz, who made a fantastic swoop. With Angel Berroa and Mark Teahen on the left side, this infield will be very good. Royals pitchers might benefit if their numbers were better, and this infield has that potential.
Still, after watching him struggle a bit in the fifth, I have to wonder if Bautista would just be better in the bullpen. Trying this out, however, is a luxury the Royals cannot afford.
Tomorrow I will be back with the National League teams on the trip. Feel free to leave any spring impressions of your own below.
More than anything, I like to read articles and books with insightful writing and analysis. I enjoy them all the better when I also know the author. In Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think), I have found a book that offers everything dear to me.
Dayn Perry, the author of Winners, is not a new name to those of us who spend time reading baseball articles online. He writes for FoxSports.com and Baseball Prospectus. Dayn has also contributed two guest columns to Baseball Analysts.
Winners is a detailed look at the 124 teams that made it to the playoffs from 1980 through 2003. Dayn sorts out the myths from reality by examining the strengths, weaknesses, and common threads of these successful ball clubs. He shares their strategies and principles while entertaining readers with stories of great teams and players.
Courtesy of Wiley, the publisher of Winners, you can read the first chapter (pdf file) in its entirety to get a flavor for Dayn's storytelling ability and analytical prowess.
I had the chance to interview Mr. Perry during the past week. I hope you enjoy it as much as I liked his first book.
Rich: Winners. How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones. Nice title. Why couldn't you have left it at that, my friend? I mean, was the parenthetical comment (and It's Not the Way You Think) really necessary?
Dayn: That was the publisher's decision. I'm with you, though--I'm a little put off by haughtiness in titles, and I think the whole shtick is a little played out. However, I think the book itself is substantially more modest in its delivery.
Rich: The book is more than modest. The book itself is a great read. I'm not even against the parenthetical subtitles in the chapters as I believe they help frame the discussion at hand.
Dayn: Yeah, I think those were actually a bit helpful in terms of giving the reader the lay of the land. What can I say? I suppose subtitles are a tricky business. I do, however, prefer the humble approach when it comes to titling. My affection for Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" notwithstanding.
Rich: Being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, what made you choose Derek Jeter as the coverboy of Winners?
Dayn: Another publisher's decision. Still, when you think of quintessential winning ballplayers in the modern era, Jeter's bound to come to mind. He's also eminently recognizable--even with his nameless back to the lens.
Rich: You claim there's no such thing as a player who "knows how to win." If so, how can Jetes be considered a "winning ballplayer?"
Dayn: On the other side of this, I think there are players who wilt under the glare of, say, Yankee Stadium or the World Series or the All-Star Game or against Roger Clemens or whatever. We all have situations that gum up our ability to respond with poise and efficiency. So, yeah, I think there are players out there who might be quality "low-leverage" ballplayers but might not be ideally suited to the wide stage, however the wide stage is defined. Reminds me of a great line from a Tom Drury novel I read in grad school: "I'm not a loser, but I've lost things."
Rich: In your opening chapter, entitled "The Slugger," you make the case that hitting for power is more important than getting on base. Has anyone banned you from sabermetric circles yet?
Rich: You make the point that isolated power (ISO), which is slugging average minus batting average, has an even stronger correlation to winning than SLG. That means extra base hits are really the most important, single stat of 'em all.
Rich: Your work points out that winning teams were better at preventing runs than scoring runs. Does that mean pitching and defense are more important than hitting in building a successful team?
Dayn: Yeah, but it's by a rather narrow margin. Specifically, since 1980 teams making the playoffs have ranked higher in their league and bettered the league average by wider margin in runs allowed than in runs scored. Please forgive that crime of syntax right there. That sort of dovetails with the traditional notion that pitching and defense win games, but the vehemence with which that's parroted overstates the relationship. They're both vital, of course, and most teams can't get by if they brazenly neglect one or the other. One of the recurring discoveries was that balance is vital--a balanced rotation, a balanced bullpen, a balanced lineup, and a balanced team. Winning teams tend to be solid to very good at everything as opposed to unfathomably awesome at one element of the game and rather lousy at another. There are exceptions, of course, but those are, well, exceptions.
Rich: I agree with you. I think balance is the key to a winning baseball team. Heck, I think balance is the key to life. That said, which championship teams have been the most unbalanced?
Rich: Oh great, Dayn. That'll do wonders for Bert Blyleven's chances of getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
Rich: I am, too. And don't think for a moment that I didn't notice the two full pages you devoted to Bert in "The Veteran and the Youngster (or, What Teams Can Learn from a Bottle of Wine)."
Dayn: He certainly warrants them. Like you, I'm a shrill advocate for Blyleven's election to the Hall of Fame. And I hope, at the very least, I demonstrated that he's the greatest Dutch-born player in the annals of the sport.
Rich: Your book is much more narrative than just numbers. Although I love stats, I really liked how you told stories about so many different players, from Pedro Guerrero in the first chapter to Darrell Evans in one of the later chapters. Those were fun reads.
Dayn: Thanks, Rich. That was certainly by design. I don't enjoy reading books that are driven by something other than a narrative, and reams and reams of numbers, while useful for reference purposes, aren't all that interesting. So the book has stories, anecdotes and profiles throughout. The numbers undergird all the conclusions, but stories make the book, I hope, an interesting read.
Rich: Kevin Towers gave Winners a ringing endorsement. If he hired you as assistant general manager, what words of wisdom would you have for Kevin in the aftermath of your studies on how to build a championship ball club?
Dayn: Well, Kevin already has a highly capable and skilled assistant GM in Fred Uhlman Jr., but I'll bite anyway ... (Let's keep in mind that many of these suggestions are best implemented early in the gestation period.) I'd bolster the middle-relief corps, I'd be less hesitant to platoon veterans like Ryan Klesko and Vinny Castilla (Russ Branyan would've been a great fit for this team), and I'd spend some dough to shore up the back of the rotation. Vague enough?
Rich: All of your ideas sound like winners to me.
Dayn Perry's new book "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think)" is now available at Amazon.com and major bookstores.
Another Casual Friday
With just about two weeks left until the 2006 season begins, the middle of March is normally a time to start counting down the days to opening day (while filling out and monitoring your NCAA brackets). In the meantime, the World Baseball Classic will divert and capture the attention of baseball fans for the next several days.
We were both fortunate to see baseball games this past week, one of us basking in the Arizona sun with the other performing his patriotic duty, rooting for the good ol' US of A. With the Major League season just a hop, skip and a jump away, here are a few notes to lead us into the weekend...
Rich: A couple of months ago, I made a decision to purchase a strip of tickets to the WBC games in Anaheim. After attending games on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, I have no regrets. Well, I regret the fact that the U.S. team lost two of three games and failed to advance to the semis in San Diego, but I'm glad I was there.
Bryan: Boy Rich, I'm jealous that you got to see competitive baseball.
Rich: I'm not sure how much I saw, Bryan. The people in front of me spent more time standing and waving American and Mexican flags than watching the games. It kinda felt as if I went to the zoo and a baseball game broke out, to be honest.
Bryan: I can't really complain...
Rich: You're not allowed to complain. Just me.
Bryan: As I was saying, the Angels entered the ninth inning today with Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Kendry Morales due up. A prospect fan's dream. I'll have the full report next week, but I will say that the Angels' opponents, the Cubs, have been more of a nightmare lately. Mark Prior's injury comes as no surprise, and while his diagnosis isn't too frightening, for once the Cubs need starting pitching.
Glendon Rusch, Rich Hill and Jerome Williams entered Thursday with a 8.18 ERA. Fans will have faith in Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux, but the comfort ends there. With an offense that was going to be questionable no matter what, the Cubs pitching staff now has very little wiggle room. With each passing day, my win prediction for the 2006 Cubs seems to drop.
Rich: Mine wasn't very high to begin with so I'm not going to adjust anything. I've got the Cubs at about .500. You know, the same as Team USA. Do you realize the Americans were 3-3 and could have been 2-4, if not for that botched call at third base against Japan?
Bryan: Yeah, that's as surprising as the Koreans getting through the first two rounds undefeated. Good for them. Good for baseball.
As far as spring training goes, if you are curious about how your favorite prospect has played this spring, I would suggest this article at the official Minor League Baseball site. My first point is to stress that numbers are just small sample sizes this early on, and everything must be taken with a grain of salt. However, I also remember spring trainings of yesteryear, when players like Russ Martin and Prince Fielder (both mentioned in this article) raised a lot of eyebrows.
Brewer fans should rest assured that Fielder is generally a slow starter. He really improved as the AAA season went on last year. The Brewers should also be made aware of this, so that there are no temptations to use Corey Koskie and Bill Hall on the corners. Fielder is one of the four leading preseason candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year (an article that demands to be written later), and a bad Spring Training should hardly dillute such thoughts. Everyone of my fantasy teams will have Fielder and Brian McCann on the bench.
Rich: I'm not as high on Fielder as you are, Bryan. But I'm biased. I remember seeing him at P.F. Chang's in Newport Beach with his Dad when Cecil was playing for the Angels in 1998. Prince was a big boy back then. He was only 14. I don't know what it is, but I just have a hard time thinking of him as a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate. Oh, I'm sure he will hit for power...I just don't know if the rest of his game will be strong enough to support anything less than 30 or 35 home runs per season.
Bryan: I also want to point out that Joey Devine is mentioned in this piece, growing in fame for striking out 14 batters in his first seven innings this March. The Braves' closer spot is one of the most watched positions in fantasy baseball, and Devine should probably start getting major attention in fantasy leagues. I thought Blaine Boyer would land the job originally, but it appears to be a matter of time before Devine is pitching in the ninth. This is, of course, a good time to mention that Blair Erickson and Mark Melancon -- college baseball's two best junior closers -- currently have 54 strikeouts in 44 innings.
Rich: If we're talking prospects, you best be tipping your hat in the direction of Evan Longoria. The rap on him last year was that he didn't walk much. Well, guess what? The MVP of the Cape Cod League has drawn 19 bases on balls in 90 plate appearances. He has a .527 on-base average. Oh, and Longoria has only struck out five times thus far. This guy is a surefire top ten pick. But he's a third baseman, not a shortstop.
Bryan: Speaking of college baseball, I'd like to point out an article by Dave Cameron at The Hardball Times. Cameron is really the first to enter a full report on the North Carolina duo's season, which has been absolutely fantastic. Daniel Bard has certainly passed Ian Kennedy in my rankings (Joba Chamberlain has, too), and is really competing with Max Scherzer for the second spot.
Andrew Miller, however, is by far the best player in this draft. This is another topic I will have more on soon, but Cameron details the heavy two-seam fastball that Miller has perfected, resulting in pretty ridiculous groundball rates. This draft has gained a lot of criticism for not having that one, great player, but my vote is for such talk to stop. Miller is an injury risk, I know, but he would be one of the top ten pitching prospects in baseball right now. Simply put, the Kansas City Royals must, must, must draft and sign the Tar Heel southpaw.
While we are on the topic of the draft, let me point out the fact that Matt Antonelli hit his seventh home run of the season this week. In 72 at-bats, the Wake Forest third baseman has 24 hits, 48 total bases, 17 walks and seven steals. He's a freak athletically, a former high school player of the year in football and hockey (ironically not baseball). He is a good third baseman, but probably has the ability to move to centerfield and possibly even second base. Antonelli made the 20 spot in my Sports Illustrated preview article, but his stock is way up since then. In a draft extremely thin on position players, I would be shocked to see Antonelli not drafted in the top 30.
Rich: Well, Bryan, I see where I am 12-4 in my college hoops pool. And the good news is that all of my Sweet Sixteen teams will be playing this weekend. That's a lot more than what Team USA can say.
Long-Term Free Agent Contracts: A Historical Perspective
As the old English proverb goes, hindsight may be 20/20, but there's a lot of evidence that signing another team's free agent to a long-term, big money contracts is poor business. My interest in this topic was set in motion last year when the Dodgers shelled out Darren Dreifort money to perennially-injured outfielder J.D. Drew, 5 years $55 million. Right away you heard the cries: "DePodesta waaaaay overpaid," "He'll never live up to that contract," and then the comments regarding his walk year being a "free agent push."
When Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi doled out a combined $102 million to free agent hurlers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan this off-season, similar comments were heard uttered. Perhaps J.P. just likes guys with initials for first names (look for F.P. Santangelo to get a coaching job). It's hard to fault Ricciardi though, as the Blue Jays needed a closer and a front-line starting pitcher and got arguably the best of each that were available (sorry Billy Wagner fans).
All this got me thinking: exactly how true is the statement that signing another team's free agent to a long-term, big money free agent contract is often a losing proposition? It's easy to look back on some of the more noteworthy and controversial contracts of the recent past and wonder, "What was that GM thinking?" As a Dodger fan, I was thrilled that the team added Kevin Brown to the rotation after the 1998 season. So what that they spent $105 million over seven years on a 34 year-old pitcher? It wasn't my money. Brown, of course, was coming off a great 1998 in which be put up a WARP of 9.9 while pitching the Padres to the World Series. He then went on to have good seasons for the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000 (WARPs of 7.7 and 7.9) before being hurt for a good portion of the following five years. I won't even get into the Dreifort contract.
I thought it would be interesting to dig into the numbers and determine whether the "walk year" phenomenon held up to the underlying data. I hypothesized that the good deals would balance the Kevin Brown-type deals and that there might be a slight regression in terms of the free agent's year-by-year performance over the life of the contract as the player aged.
In order for this analysis to encompass an adequate amount of data, I selected all free agent contracts signed during the 2000-2004 off-seasons that met the following criteria: 3 years or more in length at a minimum of $5 million per year OR 4+ years and a minimum of $15 million total. Totals much less than that wouldn't impact a team's budget too significantly, save the bottom-feeders such as the Devil Rays and Royals.
Hitters Pitchers Total players in sample 29 17 Average age when signed 30.5 yrs 31.6 yrs Average contract length 5.7 yrs 4.1 yrs Average total contact $55.5M $43.7M Average annual salary $9.7M $10.7M
Contract Yr Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 OPS 0.914 0.831 0.830 0.802 EqA 0.307 0.290 0.283 0.273 VORP 48.1 40.4 36.9 27.6
The good signings: Alex Rodriguez (although at $25 million, you could make the argument that he's still overpaid), Manny Ramirez (see A-Rod comment), Hideki Matsui, Cliff Floyd, Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero, Richie Sexson, Johnny Damon, Ellis Burks (at least until the final year of his 3 year $20 million deal), Ray Durham, Carlos Delgado (so far).
The bad: David Segui, Todd Hundley, Edgardo Alfonzo, Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Roger Cedeno, David Bell, Kaz Matsui.
The in-between: Moises Alou, Tino Martinez, Mike Cameron, Jim Thome.
Jury is still out: J.D. Drew, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Jason Giambi, Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez (although there is an argument to be made that this already is a bad signing).
As one might expect, the data gives credence to the oft-uttered "contract drive" theory. Clearly, free agent hitters had excellent years in their walk year and followed that up with ever-increasingly worse years. The biggest offenders (a.k.a. the guys who took a dive) were, by far, catchers Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley. After posting a terrific .954 OPS in 2000, Hundley signed a lucrative four-year $23.5 million with the Cubs and proceeded to put up OPS numbers of .642, .722, and .735 in several injury-riddled years with the Cubs and Dodgers. Johnson, meanwhile, put up a .961 OPS, also in 2000, before signing a five-year $35 million deal with the Marlins (back when they had money). He never came close to 2000 again, posting OPS totals of .771, .670, and .775 between 2001-2003.
More recently, the Dodgers' Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran had career years in 2004, posting OPS numbers of 1.017 and .927, respectively. Those years netted Beltre $64 million over five years from the Mariners while Beltran, the prize acquisition last season of the Mets, took $119 million on a seven-year deal. 2005 OPS totals?: Beltre: .713 and Beltran .744. Not exactly what the Mariners and Mets were hoping for. David Bell was given a four year $17 million deal by the Phillies after he hit 20 home runs in 2002, but he's been nothing but a headache for the Phillies since the signing and now they can't give him away.
Guys that continued to build upon their free agent year with their new teams (note that "N/A" refers to future years - i.e. Guererro has been an Angel for just two years):
Contract OPS Year Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Carlos Delgado 0.907 0.981 N/A N/A Richie Sexson 0.915 0.910 N/A N/A Vladimir Guerrero 1.012 0.989 0.959 N/A Miguel Tejada 0.808 0.894 0.864 N/A Alex Rodriguez 1.026 1.021 1.015 0.996 Manny Ramirez 1.154 1.014 1.097 1.010
Unlike some of the guys whose performance took the proverbial dive after signing a big-money free agent contract, these superstars of the game proved to be worth the money. I think it's worth noting that none of the players who suffered declines after signing their deals (particularly Beltre, Beltran, Bell, Hundley, Johnson, and Roger Cedeno) have ever been classified as true superstars. Beltran is the closest, but even he had never had a .900+ OPS season prior to 2003. Seems safe to say that the superstars have been, in most cases, worth the big investment.
Pitchers have been an even riskier investment, and perhaps that isn't surprising given their greater injury risk.
Contract Year Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Stuff 14.3 12.4 5.0 (0.4) DERA 3.71 4.02 4.43 4.57 VORP 41.6 22.4 21.6 16.4For those unfamiliar with the metric "Stuff," it is a measure of a pitcher's overall dominance and factors in strikeouts, home runs allowed, runs allowed, walks, and innings per game. A 10 equates to a league average pitcher. For reference, in 2005, Johan Santana had a 44 Stuff rating while a seemingly mediocre pitcher such as Brian Lawrence had a 6.
The good signings: Mike Mussina, Jason Isringhausen, Tom Glavine (barely), Greg Maddux, Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon.
The bad: Aaron Sele, Keith Foulke, Kevin Appier, Andy Ashby, Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Steve Karsay, Chan Ho Park.
The in-between: Kelvim Escobar.
Jury is still out: Carl Pavano, Pedro Martinez.
While it's not surprising that our pitchers' years following the signings of new contracts show a decline, the speed at which that decline occurred was a surprise. By the second year of their new contracts, the 17 pitchers in our sample had seen their average VORP sliced nearly in half and by the third year they were teetering on replacement level status. Hitters meanwhile had seen their VORP decline by approximately 23% by the second year. Worth noting here is the impact that a specific pitcher had on these results. His name: Chan Ho Park. After winning 33 games between 2000 and 2001 while making the All-Star team in his last season as a Dodger (2001), Park signed a five-year $65 million contract to go from pitching in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium to its polar opposite in Arlington. His new environs coupled with the pressure of a $65 million contract, combined to result in an increase of nearly two full runs in the Korean's ERA (3.79 as a Dodger to 5.76 with Texas and San Diego). Could A.J. Burnett be the next Park? History tells us it's a possibility. J.P. Ricciardi is gambling $55 million that Burnett will help Toronto close the gap in the AL East. In Ricciardi's defense, the team's locale basically forces the team to overpay for free agents.
So what conclusions can we draw from all this?
It is likely that teams will continue to view the later years of a long-term deal as essentially "sunk costs." For instance, the Mets know that it's highly improbable that Billy Wagner will be worth eight figures in 2009, but it took adding the extra year to get the benefit of what are likely to be very good 2006 and 2007 seasons. Unfortunately for most teams, it's the type of deal that would bust budgets in and of itself, so the Wagners of the world will be reserved for the big-market teams only.
David Regan is a freelance writer whose previous work has been published at a variety of sources, including Baseball Prospectus, InsiderBaseball, and RotoAmerica.com. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and questions via e-mail here.
Editor's Note: Bryan is off in Arizona this week catching some Spring Training games, so he recruited someone to take his spot in the weekly rotation. Matt Jacovina, from Warm October Nights, is in to write a fun minor league piece that we're sure answers all your dreams.
Most every profession, hobby or scene has a time of year when all devoted effort comes to fruition during a glorious, celebratory finale. For politicians, it occurs in early November on Election Day. Model railroad lovers get their week in the spotlight at the NMRC. Teenage girls aspiring to show as much of their midriff as possible, meanwhile, gather and indulge in their style of dress whenever Lindsay Lohan plays a show at a nearby venue.
Prospect mavens are no different and every off-season treat themselves to a nice helping of lists. Top 10 prospects for each team, top prospects at individual positions, and, of course, top 100 overall lists. It's a satisfying ending to a long season of pondering whether Hanley Ramirez is overrated or if Carlos Quentin being hit by a few dozen pitches a season puts him at a higher injury risk.
As a fan, all seems fine. Lists may not be the most sophisticated tool for prospect analysis, but you don't care since they're just so delightful. But each year a sudden surprise comes from the inclusion of a few new names. Alex Gordon is cool; you've seen his college stat line, and wow. You've probably even seen him on television. Jay Bruce? Okay. You can appreciate 5-tool high school talent in conjunction with a small sample size of professional at-bats being ranked towards the back of a top 100 list.
But wait. You've made it to the top of the list, with only the very elite left to be ordered, and there's a high school draftee with no professional at-bats ranking near the pinnacle of baseball players unable to rent cars: Justin Upton. You know his big brother well and have heard that the talent level is similar, but seeing your longest running source position him above AA-tested favorites like Jeremy Hermida and the golden-armed Francisco Liriano is simultaneously frustrating and tantalizing. You don't doubt his talent, but watching his brief scouting video over and over doesn't give much of a glimpse into his future. Like Jason Giambi, should the Yankees ever attempt to bunt him over to third base, you're in a pickle.
In order to resolve such problems with the uncertain, EA Sports has produced a tool capable of creating an alternate reality where Justin Upton, instead of taking the big bucks and a chance to play professional baseball, attends college, where we'd all be given the opportunity to see what he could do with an aluminum bat. Surely after three years of development in the public eye we'd have a better handle on why he's considered one of the greatest young talents in baseball.
There are tons of caveats for regarding this as more than a for-fun, "what if?" scenario including: the subjectivity of creating Justin Upton. I tried to be as thoughtful as possible in assigning his abilities, utilizing heavily both B.J. Upton's minor league statistics and his tendency settings from MVP Baseball 2005, scouting reports, comparisons to many other players in the game from Ryan Zimmerman to Chad Flack, and Google's image search for the finishing touches. The other obvious problem is that we're talking about a video game which is intended to excel in game play, not used as an accurate simulation engine. Also, the rosters for the 2006 season are oddly composed of 2005 players, and incoming freshman are computer generated, meaning the type of competition he'd have faced in real life is different from in the game. But, hey, it's something to pass the time until the season begins.
The following are the yearly chronicles of Upton's journey through college, playing baseball for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. I'm assuming his digital counterpart also learned a few things along the way, and possibly even created a trendy Facebook page, but no such reports were available. Maybe in next year's game.
After turning down a potentially record setting signing bonus with the Arizona Diamondbacks in order to pursue a college education -- or perhaps as a means of rebellion against simply following in the footsteps of brother Bossman -- all eyes were on Justin. Stephen Drew's big freshman year was the comparison point most journalists came up with; it sounds like a lot of pressure, but next to the claims of him being the next Ken Griffey Jr., it wasn't so bad. Upton's college career began February 11th, and his first at-bat was a nice summary of his skills: he hit a ball hard into the gap, yet was able to stretch it out into a triple thanks to his incredible speed. Overall, however, February and most of March was rather quiet for Justin and the Wolfpack: Upton's average stayed comfortably above .300, but with the team losing, it was hard to not be slightly unenthused about his debut. Realists kept things in perspective, though, reminding that he was a freshman hitting like a legitimate college cleanup hitter.
Starting late March, Upton stepped up his game and looked more comfortable at the plate. His strikeouts dipped while his walks increased and his power was becoming more apparent. In early May, during a weekend series against UNC, he held his own against Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, drawing two walks with a knock against Miller, and getting a base hit and eventually scoring the game's only run against Bard. After struggling when facing Cesar Carillo in April, it was comforting to see him hold his own against top-notch hurlers. At the end of the regular season, he was named the 2nd best shortstop in the ACC behind Tyler Greene.
Going into the ACC tournament, the Wolfpack had something to prove, after struggling through the first two months of the year. Thanks to the offensive explosions of Upton and first baseman Aaron Bates, they accomplished their goal and took home the tournament championship. In the deciding game, Upton went 4-for-5 with a home run, 4 runs and 7 RBI's. Yeah, yeah, aluminum bats, but that sort of performance is impressive even in a wiffle ball game. Unfortunately, the NCAA regionals didn't go as well, and in the third game, NC State was eliminated by the University of Central Florida, despite Upton taking Mike Billek deep for a three run shot.
Justin's final line for the season was .372/.445/.616, with 47 strikeouts against 32 walks, 11 home runs, 16 doubles, 6 triples, and a disappointing 11 stolen bases to 5 caught stealings. For the more traditional, he had 48 RBI's and 52 runs. Pessimists pointed out that he fell short of Stephen Drew's freshman campaign where he hit .402/.457/.750, but everyone else was very impressed by his maturity at the plate. More importantly, he appeared to be getting better as the season went on, a sign that he was quickly adjusting to pitching considerably more advanced than he faced in high school. A sophomore slump looked about as likely as Justin deciding to forsake baseball altogether.
Justin Upton was always a strong kid -- even bigger than B.J. at the same age -- but he didn't let contentment get the best of him, adding even more muscle to start the 2007 college season. February was an unusual month for NC State, as the offense was rather quiet while the pitching carried the team. The consistently low scoring games didn't correlate with Upton's performance, however: he only hit two round trippers, but opposing pitchers couldn't get him out, and his batting average hovered around .500 for the month, in which he walked more than he struck out. March brought more of the same, although he did endure a brief slump. Yes, apparently he is mortal.
April proved to be Justin's best month since joining the diverse ranks of hopeful writers, scientists and binge drinkers in college. This particular burst of brilliance made it clear why he had been considered the best amateur in the game before the 2005 draft. Towards the end of the month, it was near impossible to get him out; his improving plate discipline made it difficult to strike him out, and anything over the plate was fair game to be crushed. To top it off, in the beginning of May against the eventual player of the year, Max Scherzer, Upton was able to accomplish the rare feat of taking him yard, although the Wolfpack still lost the game to #1 ranked Missouri 3-2.
NC State was eliminated quickly from the ACC tournament, but lead by Upton's seemingly unstoppable bat, they pummeled the competition in the regionals and super regionals. The College World Series, Justin's biggest stage yet, began with the best game of his career: 6-for-6 with 2 home runs in a 13-7 victory against Rutgers. He put in another fine performance in a blowout against Notre Dame, going 3-for-5 during an 11-0 victory. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack could only split the next two games against the Irish, and were then beat twice by Georgia Tech, ending their underdog run at the title.
Glory in Omaha was narrowly missed, but that didn't deter from Upton's dazzling season. His batting line almost requires a second glance to make sure it doesn't accidentally contain his OPS instead of another statistic: .430/.514/.733, in 73 games, with 17 of his extra base hits being home runs. He was named first team All-American at shortstop, and was a runner-up to Scherzer for player of the year. Such a high batting average may seem like an aberration in many cases, but it shouldn't be too surprising after arming Justin with an aluminum bat, considering his astounding bat speed and pitch recognition. Not even the harshest of critics had anything negative to say about Upton's year; his talent was major league ready as just a second-year college student.
With excitement very high for a repeat of 2007, February brought a bit of disappointment to baseball fans when Justin bruised his ribs in the first game of the season and sat out for a week to be sure he was fully healed. The Wolfpack struggled even after his return, thanks to much of the team's talent leaving via the 2007 draft. Upton was slow in heating up after returning, and didn't look like himself at the plate until late March, when both he and NC State began to pick up steam. By the end of April, Justin was hitting everything thrown to him and looked just as impressive as ever.
May was another impossibly good month for the young slugger, and he raised his average back to the suddenly standard .430 range. Pitchers could only take solace in knowing he'd soon be drafted and finally have to face competition that actually had the ability to get him out. The ACC tournament was a bust for the Wolfpack, who were eliminated after two games. In the first game of the regionals, Justin Upton helped his team to an 8-4 victory over Southern University with his two bombs. In an anticlimactic end to his college career, the Wolfpack dropped the next two games, and didn't qualify for the super regionals. That didn't take away from Upton's tremendous season, of course. His final line was .436/.508/.718 in 60 games, with 15 home runs, 3 triples and 15 doubles. Considering his slow start, his finale was even more striking.
Though he entered college as a polished hitter, Upton's contact rate (as well as power) increased with experience. Combining his upside with performance, he'd almost certainly have been the #1 overall pick if the game allowed players to be drafted during their junior year. Unless maybe a cheap team had the first pick and digital Scott Boras was his agent. In the end, Justin Upton did enough to be remembered as having among the strongest three year careers for a shortstop in college history.
After seeing a few Justin Upton at-bats this spring, I don't think this simulation is too optimistic despite being very impressive. His incredible tools have already begun producing baseball skills, and they certainly justify the high ranks he's been receiving on prospect lists. A college career similar to this one is far from outside his abilities. Incredible bat and leg speed and a comfortable approach at the plate highlight his status as an elite prospect. Defense is much more difficult to judge, although his great speed and strong arm will ensure that the Diamondbacks find somewhere for him to play. One oddity about his video game counterpart was low stealing percentages, which I don't think will have any correlation with real life performances: his speed should produce a lot of stolen bases against minor league catchers.
So, were some Justin Upton rankings aggressive? Absolutely. But he's the type of youngster who deserves the hype, for better or worse. One of the most riveting stories in minor league baseball for the year will be his transition to professional pitching. It's a safe bet that he'll excel at times, but the extent of his success is the type of unknown that makes the prospect scene so exciting in the first place.
High Risk, High Reward
Unlike many academicians, I've never been one to believe that there is a 1:1 correlation between risk and reward. High risk doesn't necessarily mean high reward, nor does high reward mean high risk. However, there is a group of players Antonio Alfonseca could count on one hand who qualify as high risk and high reward this coming season.
Don't confuse these players with guys like Nomar Garciaparra or Frank Thomas. Garciaparra, in my judgment, is certainly a risky bet at this stage but can no longer be thought of as someone who could deliver a high reward. Thomas, on the other hand, is a relatively low risk (at least in relationship to the contract he signed), yet is unlikely to post more than moderate rewards for his new employer or fantasy owners.
Instead, what we're looking for are players who can make or break their teams. If healthy (and in uniform), the chosen six could put up MVP or Cy Young-type seasons. If not, well, they will serve to do little more than to frustrate anyone who has banked on their success.
Bonds was an even bigger wild card last year. Nobody really knew if he was going to sit out the first month or half or the entire season. As it turned out, Bonds played only 14 games and had just 52 plate appearances. He was a major disappointment for Giants fans as well as fantasy owners who gambled and took him early in their drafts.
Although Bonds is far from completely healthy this year, he is planning on being in the lineup on opening day. Whether his tender right knee can hold up all season is the question at hand. The Giants are likely to go as far as Barry takes them. If Bonds plays 120 games, he will be worth an early-round pick in most fantasy drafts. If he plays 140 games, he could be the MVP.
Bonds hit his first home run of the spring on Sunday. Just be sure you don't draft him with the expectation that he will be the Bonds of old. But don't completely dismiss him either. Advice: if you can't resist the temptation of taking Bonds, make sure you get a quality fourth outfielder as a hedge.
Drew played just 72 games in his first season in Los Angeles. In J.D.'s defense, he only missed nine games during the first three months. However, he had the misfortune of breaking his left wrist when Brad Halsey hit him with a pitch last July. Drew missed the rest of the campaign, giving his detractors plenty of ammunition to second guess Paul DePodesta's decision to sign the man who has a reputation for being fragile.
When Drew is in the lineup, he is one of the most productive offensive players in baseball. J.D. put up a .286/.412/.520 line with 15 HR and more BB (51) than SO (50) in half a season. If Drew's spring stats (7-for-15 with two triples and two home runs) are any indication, his wrist appears to be fully healed.
A healthy Drew will make new GM Ned Colletti look a lot smarter than his predecessor. The risk to the Dodgers is twofold: (1) if J.D. plays well, he has the ability to opt out of his contract; (2) on the other hand, if Drew gets hurt and/or plays poorly, he sticks around for the last three years of his contract and collects the remaining $33 million owed to him.
Griffey played 128 games last year, the most since 2000. Be mindful of the fact that Junior has averaged fewer than 90 games over the past five seasons. Importantly, he turned 36 in November and is heavier and slower than ever.
I would be surprised if Griffey hit .300 with 35 HR again. He is a much better bet to go yard 35 times than hit .300. Junior has cranked three homers in the WBC but two of them came against South Africa in a 17-0 romp.
Griffey will hurt the Reds defensively in center field. He is more suited to be a designated hitter at this point in his career and would be more likely to avoid the disabled list if allowed to ride a stationary bicycle in the clubhouse between at-bats.
Honorable mention: Jeff Kent and Jim Thome.
Clemens holds all the cards here. The Rocket is unsigned and is the only person who knows whether he will play this year. Clemens said he plans to retire after the World Baseball Classic, yet reserved the right to change his mind this spring or summer.
If Roger wishes to pitch for the Astros, he will have to wait until May 1 to sign a contract. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers are supposedly in the mix as well. No matter which direction Clemens chooses, don't look for him to return until at least May. I wouldn't be surprised if Clemens sat out even longer, although I would be shocked if he hung up his spikes for good.
Clemens won't add to his Cy Young Award collection this year, but he is likely to be more valuable to his real baseball team than to his fantasy owner -- if he chooses to play.
Prior is one of the best pitchers in baseball when he takes the hill. He has struck out more than a batter per inning in each of his first four seasons in the big leagues and is averaging 10.6 K/9 for his career. Mark ranked fifth last year (among those with at least 10 GS) with 6.65 K/100 pitches. Number one? None other than teammate Kerry Wood (7.27 K/100).
Prior and Wood, when healthy, give the Cubs one of the best starting rotations in the league. They both pitched 211 innings in 2003 but neither has thrown more than 166 frames since. Whether Dusty Baker is to blame or not is one thing but recognize that history is not on the side of Mark or Kerry approaching 200 innings this year.
Prior's chances of making his first regular-season start on April 5 at Cincinnati will hinge on his ability to throw 80 pitches before that date. He has yet to pitch in a spring training game. However, Prior reportedly threw about 35 pitches on Sunday in a two-inning simulated game at HoHoKam Park. The outing was behind closed doors so that might tell you something. Remember, you've been warned.
Sheets is much better than generally believed. Despite a 12-14 record in 2004, the former #1 draft pick was one of the top pitchers in the NL that season. His numbers weren't quite as good last year, but they were more than respectable.
Ben's fastball has been known to hit the upper-90s and his curve ranks among the best in the biz when he's got it working. He is as talented as they come but is a health risk to both the Brewers and whoever drafts him in fantasy pools.
Sheets was disabled twice last year, once with an infection in the inner ear and later with a torn muscle in his right shoulder. Furthermore, he left in the first inning of his most recent spring start due to a muscle irritation in his right side. Team doctor William Raasch examined Sheets over the weekend, diagnosing him with a strain of an adjoining muscle. He will undergo physical therapy and is hopeful of throwing from the mound later this week. Watch him closely and track his progress.
Honorable mention: Curt Schilling, Jason Schmidt, and Kerry Wood.
Classic in the Making
"...this will be huge. There's no doubt in my mind, the more I watch it. There are so many good subplots here, so much going on. So far it's maybe been better than I thought. I admit I went in believing it would be good, but this has really, really been good."
When it's all said and done, a history lesson on Selig's tenure as commissioner will reveal a very rocky road. Selig is infamous for his blemishes, still hated in so many circles for the 1994 strike among other problems. Yet his influence on the game has also resulted in numerous positives; his legacy is more positive than many of us can admit.
I'm willing to say that in a few years, Selig's most substantial imprint on the game will be his ability to instill March Madness into the national pastime. As we spend Monday filling out our brackets and arranging office pools, it is as good a time as ever to review how we have reached the new Elite Eight.
The second round began on Sunday as all eight teams played, beginning to shed light upon which teams will be advancing to the Final Four. Korea won a well-fought pitching battle 2-1 over Mexico thanks to a (who else?) Seung Yeop-Lee first inning home run. Puerto Rico is the only other squad still undefeated, as the team capitalized on mistakes by the Dominican Republic to win 7-1. These teams are, realistically, just one win from the Final Four.
After those two, many would agree the next two talented are the United States and the D.R. The Americans wake-up call came early in the tournament, and the team has played much better since losing to Canada. If the American starters can work 4-5 innings, few teams are more difficult to score against in the late innings. With a win over Korea today, one has to believe the Americans will advance to San Diego.
The most dramatic game of the tournament should be at 2 p.m. eastern today, as the 3-1 Cubans take on the Dominican Republic players with the same record. One has to favor the loaded Dominican lineup in the match-up, but the lack of a deep pitching staff could come back to hurt them. The subplots that this game will, without doubt, produce are exactly what Selig was talking about in the opening quote.
Officially, though I'm hardly going out on a limb, my (current) Final Four prediction is the United States, Korea, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Cuba is really the only bracket buster left, barring a dramatic Mexican finish.
With Monday set to be the most exciting day yet in the tournament, here are a few notes I have had thus far...
Furthermore, if the Twins had any question whether Francisco Liriano was ready for the Major Leagues, his tournament thus far should answer such qualms. The Dominican southpaw has struck out six batters and showcased the power arsenal that led to such a dominant 2005 season. Finally, for those that doubted the resumes of Jae Seo, Javier Vazquez or Bartolo Colon, their tournaments should change your mind. Seo in Dodger Stadium is particularly intriguing.
No bandwagon has gained in size during this tournament like Chan Ho Park, the sudden tournament leader in saves. The Korean has allowed just one hit while striking out five in three innings, surely making the Padres consider alternate roles for Park. With Akinori Otsuka out of town, the bullpen is a little more thin in San Diego, and Chan Ho could (shockingly) be the answer to such problems.
Instead, those honors went to the Canadians, who beat up on the fearsome American threesome of Willis, Al Leiter and Gary Majewski. I was most frustrated with Willis, who looked awful despite facing a lineup with EIGHT left-handers. Given every chance to succeed, Willis failed, which certainly can't put Larry Beinfest -- whom is centering his rebuilding around Willis and Miguel Cabrera -- at ease.
Thanks to Japanese Baseball, we can identify Nishioka as a very good prospect. 2006 will be the switch-hitter's age 21 season, as well as his third with the Chiba Lotte Marines, after having become their number one draft pick. His numbers so far -- which average out to about .263/.315/.395 in two years -- aren't great, but bear in mind his fantastic fielding (.994 F%) and speed (41 steals).
His numbers bear a lot of resemblance to those of Tadahito Iguchi when the White Sox second baseman was five years older. Any maturity at the plate -- and the WBC indicates it is coming -- should make Nishioka as anticipated as any Japanese player in the next five years.
In the coming weeks, I promise to release another set of breakout prospects to supplement my article already posted at Baseball Prospectus. However, one of the players I'm already on record for backing -- Brad Harman -- was the Australian shortstop in the WBC. He left the team's best hitter, which I'm hoping translates to a big sophomore season in the minor leagues.
I'm off to Arizona this week in what is becoming an annual tradition. With four or five games in tap for four days, I promise to have a full report next week. While I'm gone, please spend your time watching the World Baseball Classic. Whether you hate to do so or not, do your part in making Bud Selig look like a genius.
Un-Weaving Some Prior Comments
I'm going to preface my diatribe below by saying upfront that I have no reason to dislike Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. This is not a personal issue. Rather, I'm taking the time to set the record straight because Goldstein not only mischaracterized my stance on Jered Weaver and Mark Prior recently but did it in such a condescending manner that I felt the need to respond.
For the record, I sent Goldstein an email, informing Kevin that I was "very disappointed in one of (his) initial columns at BP" and letting him know that his comments were "inaccurate" and "patronizing." I asked him to run a retraction if he couldn't show me "where I ever said Weaver was as good as Prior, much less better than him." He chose not to, saying "I feel the link I used showed that."
Don't Believe The Hype: In 2003, Jered Weaver had one of the best seasons statistically of any pitcher in recent college baseball history. Pitching for Long Beach State, Weaver had a 1.63 ERA in 144 innings, while accumulating more than twice as many strikeouts (213) as baserunners allowed (81 hits, 21 walks). This caused people to make the dangerous mistake of judging a college player solely by his statistics, and some started to say Weaver was as good as, if not better than, the last college super-pitcher, USC's Mark Prior. Those people didn't talk to the scouts, who saw a pitcher dominating with good stuff and excellent command in a pitcher-friendly park, as opposed to Prior, whose pure stuff was off the charts. Weaver's 3/4 arm slot was also a concern, as that family of pitchers has a tendency to struggle against good lefthanded hitters. Weaver took nearly a year to sign, and now that he's pitched in the pros, all of those concerns have come to light. In the Texas league, lefty batters hit .278 against him, and in the small sample-size Arizona Fall League, his platoon splits were downright ridiculous (.220 vs. RHB, .365 vs. LHB). Add in an incredibly low groundball-to-flyball ratio (0.36) in the regular season, and you have a pitcher who's hard to project as more than a No. 3 or 4 starter. In the end, if he hits his ceiling, he's basically his brother.
No, I didn't make the "dangerous mistake of judging a college player solely by his statistics." I simply pointed out the similarities between the two pitchers and was the first writer to compare Weaver's and Prior's stats. The season was just 1 1/2 months old at that time, yet I made a comparison that stood three months later. I was way ahead of Goldstein or anyone else.
Nope. Wrong again. And, Kevin, if you want to address me, I'd prefer "Rich" rather than "some." Oh, and don't link to my article if you weren't referring to me directly.
"Those people?" Man, that really irritated me. "Didn't talk to scouts?" Really? Hmmm. This is where Goldstein tries to put me in my place as if I am just a naive stathead who has no clue about stuff, ballpark adjustments, etc. I saw every game that Weaver pitched at home in 2004 (and it was 2004 when "Weaver had one of the best seasons statistically of any pitcher in recent college baseball history" and not 2003 as Goldstein stated) -- as well as his outing vs. UCLA at Petco Park -- plus several more during his freshman and sophomore seasons. I also have talked to many scouts about Weaver and have an extensive portfolio of articles that covers all these matters.
While waiting for Goldstein to show me where I ever said "Weaver was as good as, if not better than, the last college super-pitcher, USC's Mark Prior," I'd like to re-print what I actually wrote:
The similarities are startling. Both were born and raised in Southern California. Jered hails from Simi Valley and Mark is from San Diego.
I then compared their college records season-by-season and concluded with the following summary:
The two pitchers had similar freshman seasons, the Long Beach State 49er eclipsed the USC Trojan in their sophomore campaigns, and Jered is on pace to equal or better Mark's outstanding junior year.
I began reporting on Weaver after I attended his first home game (vs. USC) in February 2004. I went as a fan and only decided to turn that outing into a news story when Baseball America's Pitcher of the (previous) Summer struck out the first ten Trojans he faced, including four in the third inning. I sat directly behind home plate among a sea of major league baseball scouts, surrounded as I wrote "by more radar guns than at a California Highway Patrol convention." I spoke to a Kansas City Royals scout sitting behind me, the first of many that I would engage that year.
Top of the sixth: Weaver strikes out the side, racking up his sixth, seventh, and eighth Ks of the night. "Another one bites the dust" is heard over the PA. In between half innings, I ask the scouts where they think Weaver will be drafted and the younger one tells me, "Top half of the first round". That's a pretty safe bet. I ask him what he likes most about Weaver and he says, "Good arm...good arm angle...good movement".
While on the topic of scouts, I spoke to Bill "Chief" Gayton, the scouting director for the San Diego Padres, at Petco Park minutes after Weaver mowed down the UCLA Bruins for his sixth win, allowing one hit and no runs while striking out 15 batters.
Gayton, who was featured in a three-part series on mlb.com prior to the 2002 draft (Part I/Part II/Part III), told me after the game that Weaver was under consideration as the Padres #1 pick but said there was "still a lot of time between now and the draft." I asked Gayton if he thought Weaver could pitch in the majors in 2005, and he nodded "yes." However, he believes Weaver will be in no hurry to sign with or without Scott Boras acting as his agent due to the number of innings that he will have pitched at that point over the past year.
After Weaver beat the University of Arizona for his seventh win, I reported that "he hit 92 and 93 on the speed guns on occasion but was not his usual overpowering self." Importantly, I wrote, "More than anything, Weaver knows how to pitch. His stuff is good but not great for a big leaguer. The scouts like his size (6'7", 205), outstanding command, ability to change speeds, and mound presence. I think Weaver projects as a 6 or 7 K/9 type pitcher, not an 8 or 9 guy despite his collegiate record."
For comparative purposes, I ran a screen showing MLB pitchers who had averaged 6-7 K/9 and fewer than 3 BB/9 the previous season. Prior was not on this list. Instead, I highlighted six pitchers (including Ben Sheets before his breakout season in 2004) plus his brother Jeff. "Given their similar builds, looks, and styles, one cannot dismiss the possibility that Jered may also be comparable to his older brother Jeff, who was an outstanding college pitcher in his own right at Fresno State."
While providing a pitch-by-pitch account of Weaver's fifth start in 2004, I may have been the first to report that Weaver was an extreme flyball pitcher:
Weaver threw 108 total pitches (officially), including 74 strikes and 34 balls. Of the 23 outs, 15 were recorded via strikeouts, eight through the air, and none on the ground.
In my next article, I had a section "What They're Saying About Weaver." I included quotes from seven college baseball coaches and three writers, including Allan Simpson and Jim Callis, Goldstein's former colleagues at Baseball America. Simpson quoted San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers: "He's the top player on our list...He could hold his own right now, he's that good." Callis reported that Towers said "only Mark Prior has dominated college hitters as much as Weaver in recent memory, and that Weaver could go straight from Long Beach State to the majors." (To Jim's credit, he also offered one of the best scouting reports on Weaver, comparing and contrasting him with Prior.)
I interviewed Weaver in ...And Down The Stretch They Come!, discussing the pitches he throws and his flyball tendencies.
In The Bane of Weaver's Existence, I detailed the record of Weaver's and Prior's junior seasons:
IP H R ER BB K W-L H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB ERA Weaver 144.0 81 31 26 21 213 15-1 5.1 1.3 13.3 10.1 1.62 Prior 138.2 100 32 26 18 202 15-1 6.5 1.2 13.1 11.2 1.69
I even adjusted these numbers to account for ballpark and schedule effects, concluding with "Now I'm not suggesting that Weaver is going to be as good as or better than Prior. Nobody knows that at this point."
In the comments section of A Holiday on the Links, I wrote the following:
Prior undoubtedly has better mechanics, throws a tad harder, and has better stuff. Weaver, however, does not take a back seat to Prior in the areas of command or control. He is a very polished pitcher and is as close to being major-league ready as any amateur has been since Prior.
Five days later, in Seriously Speaking, I reiterated my position on Weaver and Prior:
Although Weaver has stats comparable to Prior, one could argue that the latter projected to a somewhat higher ceiling owing to his superior mechanics, a 2-3 mph advantage on their fastballs, and arguably better stuff. Jered, on the other hand, has equally good command and control. He is as polished as Mark was at the same stage of their careers. When you shake it all up, Prior comes out on top with Weaver not too far behind.
After Weaver signed last year, I covered his professional debut (complete with photos) and first home start, predicting that "I think it remains a distinct possibility that Weaver could make the jump to the Angels as early as next summer." I correctly anticipated his promotion from High-A Rancho Cucamonga to Double-A Arkansas after an 11-strikeout performance vs. Lancaster in mid-July but was wrong when I suggested he might "wind up in Anaheim before the year is out."
I pieced together Jered's game logs last September, pointing out that he had "struck out 11.41 batters per nine innings, equal to 30% of the batters he has faced this year. However, his 0.40 G/F ratio is off the charts in the other direction. To wit, if Jered had these same stats in the majors this year, he would be the most prolific strikeout and flyball pitcher in the game."
I also wrote, "As an extreme strikeout/flyball type pitcher, Jered most closely resembles John Patterson among today's starters. I hesitate to suggest that his upside could be Mark Prior, but one would have to be oblivious to the facts to think otherwise. His downside appears to be Chris Young." I concluded by saying, "Weaver, more likely than not, will wind up being somewhere between Prior and Young. Think Patterson or a right-handed Cliff Lee."
Jered's height gives him an advantage by allowing the former two-time All-American the ability to throw on a downward plane. That said, he clearly needs to work at or near the knees more often and preferably add more sink to his two-seam fastball. A power pitcher, Weaver favors his four seamer while mixing it up with his breaking ball and change-up. Like his brother Jeff, Weaver works in the low-90s but his big turn and length can make batters feel as if he is bringing it a couple MPH faster than what the gun says.
Finally, in a postseason review of the Angels last October, I said "Weaver has the most upside of the three (Weaver, Chris Bootcheck, and Joe Saunders) and could be a factor in the second half of 2006."
Until today, I hadn't uttered a word about Weaver in five months. But, thanks to Goldstein, I'm now back on track.
As a USC alum, I have no reason to favor Weaver. By the same token, as a Long Beach native, I have no reason to favor Prior. You see, I just call 'em as I see 'em.
1. Weaver and Prior had remarkably similar stats in college.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Where Do We Go From Here?
It was a year ago next week that the House Committee on Government Reform put Major League Baseball on the hotseat and its tepid steroid testing program under a microscope.
The politicians wanted answers and they wanted action and they got both. The image of larger-than-life superstar Mark McGwire wobbling under the weight of his own guilt told the American public all it really needed to know about the exciting home run boom of the past decade, but the story didn't end with a few embarrassed players and enhanced penalties for steroid abuse in baseball.
The congressional hearings and the ugly Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) scandal illustrated the magnitude of the problem and convinced the Major League Baseball Players Association to sign on to a tougher testing regimen, but left one troublesome question unanswered:
Where do we go from here?
The next Hall of Fame election will force voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to play a major role in deciding just how ensuing generations of baseball fans view the juiced-ball/juiced player era.
Who wasn't looking forward to the likely Class of 2007 -- Cal Ripken, McGwire, Tony Gwynn -- until McGwire's sad performance last March 17 turned the coming election into a referendum on the steroid era?
I don't think a day goes by that I am not asked at least once whether I will vote for McGwire or Barry Bonds when they become eligible for Cooperstown, and I have a ready answer.
My newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, does not allow its writers to vote on awards, so I no longer have to fill out a ballot for the American League Most Valuable Player or the Cy Young Award or the Hall of Fame. That means I don't decide whether Big Mac or Bad News Barry should be enshrined in spite of their alleged misdeeds.
I realize that's a major copout, but it puts me in a perfect position to take an objective look at the subject.
If Mark McGwire used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to put on the dynamic home run display in 1998 and climb into the upper reaches of baseball's all-time home run list, then I don't think he should be rewarded with a plaque in that hallowed hall.
If Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa knowingly cheated to achieve the strength and batspeed that put them among the elite power hitters in the history of the game, Hall of Fame voters should think more than twice before checking the box beside either of their names on the ballot.
Trouble is, the only player of that magnitude who has been proven to have used steroids is Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive early last season after pointing his finger at the House Committee like Bill Clinton and insisting that he had never, ever used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
What everybody else did is a matter of conjecture, though a new book by two reporters who covered the BALCO scandal provides some compelling and comprehensive evidence that Bonds used several performance-enhancing substances.
Therein lies the problem for Hall of Fame voters, who will have to vote as much with their hearts as with their heads. It's hard not to conclude that McGwire, Bonds and Sosa were chemically enhanced when each made his assault on the all-time single-season home run record.
The dramatic change in the musculature of several top home run hitters over the course of their careers and -- in some cases -- the swift reversal of those changes after strict steroid testing was imposed a couple of years ago, leaves you in the uncomfortable position of the wronged wife who finds her husband in bed with another woman and he asks her, "So, are you going to believe me or your eyes?"
Still, the responsibility of voting for the Hall of Fame is a solemn one, since it puts baseball writers in a position to give a Caesar-like thumbs down on the entire body of a player's career.
It's one thing to look at Mark McGwire -- or listen to his squirrelly performance before Congress -- and draw the obvious conclusion. It's quite another to cast such an important vote based on what amounts to a very strong feeling based on very little factual information.
McGwire never tested positive for steroids. He admitted to using the pseudo-steroid androsteindione during the home run race with Sosa, but that supplement was not restricted at the time by either Major League Baseball or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Was his weepy dissembling in front of Congress strong enough evidence to keep him out of the Hall of Fame? In other words, do you really know what happened...or do you just think you know?
We've still got at least six years to debate whether there is enough hard evidence against Bonds, but the circumstantial case is compelling. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, went to jail along with BALCO guru Victor Conte. Bonds' leaked grand jury testimony seems to indicate that he used "The Clear" and "The Cream," though he testified that he didn't know they contained illegal steroids.
The new book charges that Bonds used all kinds of different illegal substances, but he didn't -- technically -- break any baseball rules unless he took steroids after the first steroid abuse program was put into place.
Hypothetically, if you were a voter and you had decided that McGwire and Bonds were dirty enough to be kept out of Cooperstown, would it be fair to lump Sammy Sosa in with them?
Sosa may have looked like something out of a Saturday Night Live routine when he feigned an inability to speak and understand English during the hearings, but he has repeatedly denied any involvement with illegal steroids and he has never been the target of any credible accusation of steroid abuse.
Once again, you look at the Sosa of 1990 and the Sosa of 1998 and you can't help but conclude that something fishy was going on, but there is -- as yet -- no hard evidence that he did anything other than work really, really hard in the weightroom. It is totally logical to believe that Sosa is the product of mad science, but proving it is another matter altogether.
Now for the other big gray area. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame largely because of his long-standing reputation as baseball's greatest cheater. It's a different kind of cheating. Loading a baseball up with Vaseline is a lot different than setting a bad example that could lead young boys to abuse dangerous chemicals, but it is cheating nonetheless.
If baseball could wink at Perry, how can we get all self-righteous with a bunch of guys who, with the exception of Palmeiro, were never caught doing anything?
What it will come down to is the corporate wisdom of the 500-or-so Hall of Fame voters, who have done a terrific job over the years of keeping the gate at Cooperstown.
The Hall of Fame ballot, after all, is just the blank canvas for each individual opinion.
The issue of who decides and how is just as troublesome as the issue that will be decided over the decade or so. Many newspapers are uncomfortable with their reporters taking part in what is, essentially, a fairly significant news event.
The Baltimore Sun and several other major newspapers have decided that they would prefer to have their employees simply cover the news and let someone else make the newsworthy decisions on who should win certain awards or gain induction in the Hall of Fame.
I accede to that authority, but I believe that the baseball writers charged with voting on the postseason awards are uniquely qualified to render those decisions while still meeting the ethical standards of the journalistic profession.
I feel even more strongly that the BBWAA is the proper body to choose the inductees for the most revered of the various professional sports halls of fame.
In short, it's a difficult job, but there is no one better qualified to do it.
Peter Schmuck is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun and President of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). He covered baseball for 26 years before becoming the Sun's Page 2 Sports columnist 18 months ago.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Two on Two: 2006 NL Central Preview
Today we return to our 2006 previews, staying in the midwest. In our first installment of this feature, Aaron Gleeman and Cheat helped us preview the AL Central. Here to duke it out with Rich and Bryan are two very talented writers, Larry Borowsky from Viva El Birdos (a Cardinals blog) and John Hill via the Cub Reporter. Enjoy the latest segment...
Bryan: The NL Central has been, outside the AL East, the most predictable division in baseball for five years. In fact, only once has the top two not included St. Louis and Houston. The trend looks to be coming to an end, no?
Larry: I think the Cardinals are still pretty certain to hold one of those top 2 slots, but not so certain they'll hold the top slot. The Brewers look ready to challenge for a division title or wild card, and the Cubs' luck is bound to turn one of these years; if they can keep Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano healthy for 60 starts (and that's a big if, I realize) they could easily finish 1st or 2nd. I wouldn't expect Houston to win the division outright, but if Roger Clemens returns -- as Peter Gammons reports he will -- I don't see why they couldn't win 90 games and another wild card.
John: This time last year, most were completely writing off the Houston Astros, and that didn't stop them making it to the World Series for the first time in their history. So excuse me if I'm a little hesitant to be quite so bullish about any anticipated demise on the part of the Cubs' biggest rivals! That said, it does certainly appear that both the Cardinals and Astros will be weaker this year, and that consequently the division will be a lot more open. At the very least, I don't think the Cardinals will have run away with things again by the end of the May.
Rich: The Cardinals are clearly the class of the division. It's theirs to lose. The Astros, Brewers, and Cubs (that's alpha order and how they finished last year) have an outside shot at first place if everything goes right and the Cards slip for whatever reason.
Larry: The pitching staffs of the top four teams are pretty close. All four teams have strong 1-2 starters: Oswalt/Pettitte, Carpenter/Mulder, Zambrano/Prior, Sheets/Davis.
Bryan: Yes, other than the Reds, I think it's a division of pitching. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have offensive problems, but everyone has a deep staff.
Larry: I think the Brewers' offense may be pretty good. I was just looking their lineup over -- if Prince Fielder hits, there's not a weak link in the lineup.
John: In the long-term, there's little doubt about it, Fielder and Rickie Weeks will hit, and both will be tremendous assets to the organization. But the jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues is a hard enough one to make as it is even without taking into account that young players that strike out quite a bit seem to take the longest to acclimate to facing more advanced pitching. As a result, I personally wouldn't be surprised to see Fielder and Weeks find the going tough at first, to see them not contribute much. As for the rest of the lineup, it doesn't feature any weak links, but I don't think it features many particularly strong ones either. This year at least, I think it's likely to not be much better than an average offense, one that will keep them in games but that won't go out and win them outright.
Bryan: Well, as someone who follows prospects, the Brewers are a dream. I say offensive problems, but that's a stretch, what I mean is potential offensive problems. If they hit on all cylinders, this team will bash with the best of 'em.
Larry: I agree with you, Bryan. The Brewers have the best leadoff man in the division (Brady Clark) and they have good on-base ability throughout the lineup. I think Weeks is going to hit, and Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins are pretty established middle-of-the-order hitters. Not all-stars, but very productive. One caveat in regards to Fielder: 2 walks, 17 Ks in his September trial last year. If he falters, however, they can put Bill Hall in at third and play Corey Koskie at first.
Rich: Yikes. Hall hit well last year, but I'd be surprised if he put up those same numbers this year. Koskie is passable as a third baseman but would be a huge liability offensively as a first baseman.
Bryan: Well, Fielder is the one guy you don't have to worry about. He might start slow, he does so historically, but he is totally ready for the Majors. I worry more about Koskie, Damian Miller, and Clark bringing the rest down.
Larry: What's impressive about the Brewers is that they can just plug in Corey Hart if one of their outfielders goes down or plays badly. Does anybody think the Brewers might actually trade Carlos Lee in a midseason salary dump? They're almost sure to be in the wild-card race come July. But the rumors have flown about Lee being moved.
Bryan: No, they might as well take the draft pick at season's end, unless Hart's OPS at AAA is over 1.000 or something. But really, the reason to like the Brewers isn't the young, high ceiling offense but the deep, deep, deep rotation. Mike Maddux for divisional MVP?
John: There's no doubting Mike Maddux is one of the better pitching coaches in the game, but the most valuable person in the division? That's far too big a statement for me. I mean, come on, Albert Pujols?
Bryan: Yeah, I exaggerate, but his value has been well-proven with the improvements of Chris Capuano, Doug Davis, and many more. We really need J.C. Bradbury to do a Mike Maddux Effect.
John: Is their rotation really that deep? I don't think it is, yet it may well need to be. Their fourth starter is currently Tomo Ohka, and they have Dave Bush, Dana Eveland and Rick Helling battling it out for the final spot. I don't see much to get excited about there and the Brewers are only an injury to Ben Sheets away from having three of those four pitchers in their rotation behind Davis and Capuano. That's a cynical way of looking at things, certainly, but is Ben Sheets that much greater an injury risk than some of the Cub pitchers we'll surely come to speak of later in this discussion?
Rich: The Brewers will only go as far as Sheets takes them.
John: Few pitchers are paragons of good health, it's part of the job description, but over the last eighteen months alone, Sheets has suffered a torn muscle in his upper back related to the shoulder and undergone surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, plus that odd inner-ear infection. If he's not careful he'll get a somewhat undeserved reputation for being injury prone before too long.
Larry: Before we leave the Brew Crew, they meet a lot of Bill James' "leading indicators" of successful teams. One, they have a young everyday lineup. Two, they underperformed their Pythagorean W-L last year by three games, meaning they may be due for a bit of luck this year. And three, they scored fewer runs than would be predicted by the Runs Created formula, which again suggests they might have been a tad unlucky last season and due for a bounce. They won 81 last season; it's not that hard to see them at 90 in 2006.
Bryan: I'll admit, they are my pick to win the division. I like David Bush to break out a bit, Ben Sheets to stay healthy, and Carlos Lee could blossom into a star in his contract year. Milwaukee is looking up sans Selig.
John: I agree that things are looking up in Milwaukee, and that this ought to be the season that they finally get back above five hundred for the first time since 1992. I'm just wary that people are setting the bar too high too soon, and expecting the youngsters to carry them to a division title is I think out of the question, at least this year. For them to do it, literally everything would need to break their way.
Rich: I'm not looking for the Brewers to win the division, but I think they will challenge for the wild card.
Larry: If they do win, then maybe Mike Maddux IS the division MVP, but Pujols will not give it up without a fight. The man has a force of will (as we saw in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the NLCS) and it elevates the whole team's play. That said, the Cardinals are clearly vulnerable. The Brewers have a clean shot at them, but if the Cubs can get 60 starts from Prior and Zambrano -- and if Dusty Baker stops doing those things -- they could be troublesome, too.
John: On the face of things, I think the Cardinals have taken a pretty big step backwards this year. The return of Scott Rolen, perhaps to his best form, perhaps not, could give them three big bats in the lineup, one of them in my opinion the best player in the game. But beyond those three, the other being the aging Jim Edmonds, the supporting cast has really thinned out. Larry Bigbie, John Rodriguez, Juan Encarnacion, Junior Spivey - any other team and I'd feel sorry for them. Fact of the matter is that the only people that lineup's scaring now are Cardinal fans. What a far cry from just two years ago.
Rich: Well, we're all aging, John. At 35, Edmonds is still the best center fielder in the division. Granted, the Cardinals missed an opportunity to better themselves during the off-season, but we need to remember that they are working with a pretty big margin for error here.
Larry: If the pitchers perform, I think the Cardinals will still be right there, despite the weakened lineup. But Jeff Suppan has overachieved the last couple of seasons, and who knows if Mark Mulder is any good anymore. I wrote him off last June and he proved me wrong. He's pitching for a new contract; maybe that will motivate him.
John: I think it's pretty evident that the Cardinals made a big mistake in pulling the trigger on the Mark Mulder trade. Danny Haren is arguably already the better of the two, and that's not even considering the difference in salary, or the fact that the Cardinals also sent Daric Barton and Kiko Calero to Oakland.
Larry: It obviously hasn't worked out. I won't fault Jocketty for pulling the trigger -- he thought Mulder was the guy who could put the Cards over the top. He paid a high price to get him, rolled the dice and crapped out. But at least he played to win. I will allow him that.
Bryan: The Mulder trade represents a weakness in the La Russa/Jocketty-run front office, as they tend to devalue top-heavy pitching prospects. Here's to hoping Anthony Reyes doesn't face the same curse.
John: I could understand underutilizing Reyes if the Cardinals didn't have an obvious vacancy in the rotation, but the fact of the matter is that they do. Suppan is at best a league average pitcher, I don't think much more of Jason Marquis, and I think a lot less of Sidney Ponson, though it was a low risk gamble. Sending Reyes to the bullpen or back to the minor leagues sends the wrong message, and it might even cost the Cardinals a few games too.
Larry: The one player who might give the Cards a real shot in the arm, Reyes appears ticketed for long relief. Marquis and Ponson are both question marks. There are no disasters-in-waiting on the staff, but it may not be a league-leader in ERA in 2006.
John: Wait, you're saying Sidney Ponson isn't a disaster in waiting? I can't agree with that, not unless you already think he's a disaster.
Larry: I think Ponson will simply eat innings and have a 4.50 ERA, which is only slightly worse than what Marquis and Morris did last year.
John: Well, Ponson is good at eating, they might as well put that to good use and feed him innings.
Bryan: Ponson is a good value signing, but it's just that. There's no risk to give him ten starts and see what happens, but Jocketty needs to make sure La Russa can get away from him if need be.
Larry: Obviously Ponson isn't the difference between success and failure in the postseason. At best, he'll provide the depth the Cardinals need to acquire a bat at midseason.
Rich: I don't see Ponson bringing a bat this summer. Either he pitches well and the Cards keep him or he bombs and has next to no trade value.
Bryan: My concern isn't really the rotation, which has enough depth to survive. The problem of the staff, I think, is the bullpen.
Larry: I think the middle relief will shape up. Either Reyes or Ponson will be there to provide bulk innings, and Brad Thompson can handle the 6th/7th; Duncan should be able to turn at least one of Adam Wainwright, Josh Hancock, Brad Voyles, etc. into a useful middle reliever. But the 8th and 9th innings won't be boring. La Russa will have to play matchups to the hilt, shielding Braden Looper (and Jeff Nelson, if he makes the team) from left-handed hitters and Ricardo Rincon and Flores from righties. Jason Isringhausen may be asked to get more 4-out saves this year, and he wasn't exactly unhittable in 2005. One weak link in that chain could cost the team a few games -- and in a tight race, that could be a big problem.
Bryan: Alright, let's talk a bit about the offense. Larry mentioned Rolen, and to me, he's the key. His health could be the x-factor of the division. Without him, who's the 3rd-best hitter, Encarnacion?
Larry: If he's healthy, then Encarnacion is safely stowed in a supporting role. If Rolen gets hurt or is not sound enough to be Scott Rolen, then there's nobody on the roster to pick up the slack.
Rich: There really wasn't anybody to pick up the slack last year, yet the team won 100 games.
Larry: It's going to be a 760-run offense at worst, as long as Pujols and Edmonds can play. And 760 runs will put them in the upper half of the league. If Rolen's good to go, then it's probably a 780- to 790-run offense, which puts them in the top 3 or 4. It's not as scary as it used to be, but don't forget they scored 805 without Rolen last year.
Bryan: Yes, the offense certainly has an advantage over the Cubs. Edmonds is that big difference-maker. The infields are pretty much the same offensively, but the Cubs abysmal outfield can't touch the Cards average one. That will be one difference maker between those rivals, before even talking about health.
Larry: And I would expect the Cardinals to acquire an outfield bat at some point. Luis Gonzalez will be available; Kevin Mench can be had.
Bryan: Yes, and Jim Hendry might be too stubborn to do so. Matt Murton and Jacque Jones will be really average, and Juan Pierre will be, well, Pierre. He won't see reason to make a trade, and will thus give that bat to the Cards.
Rich: Cubs fans would be better off counting crows than hits for Mr. Jones this coming year, especially those vs. LHP.
Bryan: It's a problem of roster construction that gives St. Louis the edge.
John: Strangely, I just can't bring myself to predict anything less than ninety wins for the Cardinals this year. I don't much like their offense, and I don't much like their pitching staff. But if there's a team in baseball not called the Braves that manages to always find a way, it's the Cardinals. If I wasn't quite so cold-blooded I could probably find a way myself to actually appreciate that about them. As it happens, I'm reptilian about it and really can't.
Larry: Well, let's talk about the Cubs. I always think they're gonna give the Cards a go and then health and Dusty Baker make me look like a fool. Will this year be different?
John: No. So, anyone got any thoughts about the Reds this year?
Bryan: Yeah, the key for Cub fans is always to downplay expectations, right?
John: Expectations, what are they again?
Bryan: I think the Cubs are merely a .500 team, and constructed just like that. The bullpen is solid, but there isn't a lot of room for it to be great. The rotation can be, but there is such little certainty in it. And, finally, the lineup doesn't invoke a lot of hope.
Larry: Couldn't Pierre have a .370 OBP playing in Wrigley?
John: Juan Pierre isn't going to be a problem for the Cubs this year. I have little doubt he's going to hit a lot of singles, he's going to steal a lot of bases, and he's going to get caught while he's at it plenty of times, too. He's going to catch balls in center field that his poor reads and routes give him no right to get to, and his arm is going to be of less use than a balsa wood battering ram. But he won't be a problem. The center field position will be filled, and on the whole, adequately so. Juan Pierre, for me, actually sums up the current state of the Cubs very well: on the whole just adequate and overly expensive.
Bryan: John, I'm really curious what your thoughts are about this pitching staff. Is there any chance for a full bill of health? I doubt it.
John: There's no chance of a full bill of health, but that's the same with almost every pitching staff. Injury is a part of the game, particularly on the pitching side of things.
Rich: Dusty rode his Big Three hard down the stretch in 2003. He may have ruined Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Well, maybe not ruined them. But we'll never know just how good Wood and Prior might have been had they been handled properly.
John: All the same, the situation with the Cubs these last few years has been farcical - besides Chad Fox, who hardly counts, and Mike Remlinger, I honestly can't remember the last time the Cubs suffered an injury to a pitcher who wasn't absolutely crucial to the team's success at the time (a quick check says Todd Wellemeyer spent nearly two months on the DL in early 2004). At some stage, surely, the Cubs will be able to get a fully-functional Zambrano, Prior and Wood on the mound at the same time, and instead it'll be John Koronka maybe that's taken out by an unfortunate line drive. But until that happens, though the Cubs have better pitching depth this year, easily the best in the division, the Cubs aren't going to win anything. The depth is great, but this offense needs a staff strong enough to pick it up, put it on its back and literally carry it. That means all three of our aces really need to be out there.
Larry: As a baseball fan, I would like to see what those guys could do in a full season. The signs from spring training aren't all that encouraging regarding Prior, and the latest I've heard is that Wood won't be back until May 1 at the earliest. In all honesty, I hope Chicago's pitchers are healthy. It'll make for a very exciting division.
Bryan: Confidence in Kerry, for most Chicagoans, has eroded. Something is mechanically wrong, and like Corey Patterson, I have a feeling he's too stubborn to fix it. Mark Prior has a chance at a full bill of health, but unless something dramatic changes, I don't think Kerry Wood does.
Rich: Listening to Steve Stone while watching Wood pitch was a can't miss for me. Maybe Stone and Baker should have switched places all these years?
Bryan: Don't tell the Cubs that, Rich, you'll have to start dodging punches. If Dusty Baker's one strength is motivation -- though I'm not sure it is -- the thought behind Stone is that quality would be his weakness.
Larry: Do the Cubs have lineup problems or simply a Dusty problem? They finished second in the league in slugging last year but were about 10th in OBP -- and not for lack of decent on-base skills on the roster. Does Hendry recognize this problem at all? And do you guys think anything can be done to change it, short of firing Dusty?
Bryan: For Dusty Baker to succeed, a General Manager needs to set him up not to fail. Jim Hendry hasn't, putting people like Neifi Perez on a team, giving him a chance to play. The team will have better OBP this year, but they are a few injuries from falling on their face. Murton and Ronny Cedeno will help, Pierre should provide a big lift, but it is by no imagination a good offense.
John: If anything, it's not just a Dusty problem, but a Cubs problem. The organization doesn't seem to believe in the importance of on-base percentage, instead concentrating much more on contact skills, power potential and the ability to catch the ball.
Larry: I've heard they are pursuing Tony Graffanino to play 2B. Would that provide any encouragement?
Bryan: It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Graffanino would simply be piling on top of Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston. It would really be odd if the Reds and Cubs entered the year with six combined capable (though that's a strong word for Tony Womack) second basemen.
John: Not at all, because the majority of Cub fans as I can see are at the very least satisfied with Todd Walker, who, while not great defensively and prone to saying a few stupid things, has a very solid bat for a second baseman.
Larry: But Dusty doesn't like him. Or doesn't seem to.
Bryan: I mentioned the Reds 2B problem, guys, and it's really just a bit in a damning resume that led to Dan O'Brien's firing. Before he left, he finally fixed the OF/1B logjam by acquiring mediocre pitcher Dave Williams, adding to the mediocrity and filth that makes up the pitching staff.
Rich: I'm not so sure O'Brien fixed that logjam. Cincy still has four outfielders plus it looks as if Scott Hatteberg might start at first base.
Bryan: Any reason for optimism in Cincy?
Larry: Not for a while. They do have some of the most interesting young players in the division. Felipe Lopez looks good, ditto Edwin Encarnacion. Looks like Wily Mo Pena will be a good roto player if not necessarily a good real-life hitter.
Rich: I'm not high on Pena at all. He struck out 224 times while accumulating 42 walks in approximately 700 plate appearances the past two years. PECOTA can fawn all over him as it wants, but I think he is overrated and unlikely to become a star player.
John: I'm not entirely sure Felipe Lopez' bat is for real, given his historical propensity to strike out and he's also a butcher of a shortstop.
Bryan: If ever there was a team that should be willing to sacrifice some defense for some above-average offense, it's the Reds. As a hitter, it seems Lopez, Jorge Cantu and Jhonny Peralta all broke through last year and enter the year with a lot of doubts, despite solid (if stagnated) minor league records. He's a good offensive player that probably won't get better than he was last year.
Larry: Their players draw a lot of interest. Austin Kearns, Pena, Lopez, and Adam Dunn are all pretty coveted. And Dunn's contract is considered to be highly moveable. So perhaps there's an opportunity to restructure the talent on that team.
John: The changes for the Reds have to come first via the farm system, and the outlook on that front isn't particularly bright at all. Trading away Adam Dunn isn't likely to be a profitable move for them.
Larry: Anybody think they can move Ken Griffey Jr.?
John: If there's even a chance of it, the Reds ought to be all over it. He's expensive, awful defensively, and it's only a matter of time, surely, before he gets injured again.
Bryan: Yes, but I'm not sure the return will be worth it. Kearns needs to come out of the gate hot, and then Krivsky can trade him and insert Chris Denorfia into the outfield.
Larry: Bryan, what do you think of Homer Bailey?
Bryan: For the Reds to be successful, the changes need to come from the farm system, like Bailey. This team needs to find a way to keep young pitchers healthy, and maximize their potential. It has been awhile since they've done that. Bailey's arm is fantastic, but this organization needs to change its methodology before I'm a full-fledged believer.
Larry: They do have a new owner who has ties to the Cardinal organization. If nothing else, I think a change in philosophy is in the offing in Cincinnati. Whether or not they will execute remains to be seen, but I would expect a new process of decision-making at the very least.
Bryan: The Reds are, like a lot of teams in baseball, simply a few years away. That's really the easy way to conclude, right?
John: Do you think enough of the Reds' system to say that they're only a few years away, Bryan? Or, do you have faith in their new GM to maintain a strong lineup while simultaneously finding all the pitching, and that's essentially about nine or ten members of that staff, that they need?
Bryan: Well, I'm stretching the word "few," John. It's a weak system, and a creative GM will need to work a lot of magic to fix this team.
Larry: With the wild card, one only needs to cobble together 88 wins to make the playoffs. And that can be done with a couple of decent trades, one free-agent pickup, and an unexpected year from one prospect. I could easily see them being competitive again by 2009 -- why not?
Bryan: After seeing what Doug Melvin has done in Milwaukee, I'll believe anything.
Rich: Oh, the Reds can be turned around. But it won't happen overnight, and it won't be easy. It's gonna take time and patience. Unfortunately, most of the talent at the big-league level is at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, the pitching staff could be the worst in baseball, and the minor-league system is bereft of talent.
Bryan: The Pirates are another team a few years away, but seem to be the opposite of the Reds. There is a lot of hope in a young pitching staff that showed promise in 2005, but the offensive foundation isn't there. Your takes on the Bucs?
John: Put it this way, I'd rather be the Pirates than the Reds right now.
Larry: Why are they throwing money at Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Hernandez and Sean Casey?
Bryan: You beat me to that question, Larry. I mean, did Dave Littlefield and Allard Baird come up with winter plans together? Spending money on overrated veterans is a sorry game.
John: That's not really a fair comparison. The Pirates are in a much more favorable situation relative to the Royals. On the pitching side of things there's a lot of promise, with Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Sean Burnett. At some stage they're going to need to create an offense for these guys, and it's tough to put one together overnight. They should really start making preparations now.
Larry: Which is why the Casey and Burnitz signings were so mystifying. They need to find out of Brad Eldred can play.
Rich: I already know the answer. Eldred can't play. At least not at the major-league level. He'd make a good slow-pitch softball hitter, but that's about it.
Larry: And they need to create a trade market for Craig Wilson, or else stick him in left and take the .850 OPS. But he does them no good on the bench.
Bryan: Besides Jason Bay, there is no real lock on the club for a future division-winning ballclub starter. That puts this front office way behind the pack.
Larry: So why don't the Reds and Pirates get together? Send one or more of those young arms to the Reds in exchange for Kearns or Lopez or Encarnacion.
John: The Burnitz and Casey signings aren't particularly wise, but a pretense at respectability could potentially make it easier to attract the caliber of player they clearly need, as well as keep the fans around. As such, I don't think it's a completely misguided policy.
Bryan: Sort of the Detroit Tigers recent approach, John? I can see that, and it's one reason I so desperately hope Mark Cuban buys this team. It's a wonderful park, a baseball town.
John: Well, the Detroit Tigers took things to extremes: Magglio Ordonez, Troy Percival, Pudge Rodriguez. Those are expensive mistakes. The Pirates are being a lot more conservative, and that's the right way to go about things.
Bryan: Alright, that's fair. Let's talk about 2006, though. Is there any upside for 80-85 wins, or is this team just caught in the same boat they have found themselves in?
Larry: The division is too tough. They've got 70 games against St Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee.
John: There's no upside for 2006 for the Pirates as far as I'm concerned. This is a two-tier division now.
Bryan: Yes, I don't see it either. But let me ask one final question, so Pirates fans don't hate me. Jason Bay. Is he the new Brian Giles, which is the most underrated player in baseball?
Larry: Bay is a great, great player. The Todd Helton of the NL Central. Put him in Coors, he'd post similar numbers, I think.
John: I can see that. Still, I think last season may wind up being the best that Jason Bay ever has.
Bryan: I guess we can just hope the Pirates don't give him a Todd Helton-esque contract and hang themselves.
Rich: Bay is underrated in the sense that he was 12th in the MVP voting last year when, in fact, a strong argument could be made that he deserved to finish in the top five. What's not to like? He played every game, hit over .300 with almost 100 BB while going yard 32 times and stealing 21 bases in 22 attempts.
Bryan: While Bay is just running into his prime, a former NL Central superstar, Jeff Bagwell, is running away from it. A lot of people seem to put stake in Bagwell's health as a reason for Houston winning or not winning a lot of games. I don't see it. I see Roger Clemens as that X-factor. Thoughts?
John: Right now the difference between Jeff Bagwell and a replacement player is next to nothing, so no, in terms of wins, I don't see it either.
Larry: They don't need Bagwell. Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg provide enough of an offensive core to support that pitching staff. Clemens will probably be back, and Houston will probably contend. Berkman's health is more of a factor, I think. Once he returned to the lineup last year, they scored pretty well.
John: Right, the Astros just don't need Bagwell, but mainly because he isn't particularly good any more, and he's extremely expensive. They do need more offense, though.
Bryan: Berkman's injury was a freak one, so he should be fine. My worry, if I liked Houston, would be when Craig Biggio and Andy Pettitte might start to decline. It has to be soon, right?
Larry: Pettitte looked better than ever last year. I think he could pitch at a high level for a few more years. And Biggio is a young 40. He's not an all-star, but as a 2B he still merits a starting job.
John: Last year will end up being the best year Andy Pettitte ever has, mark my words. Neither the numbers nor the stuff is there to support that kind of performance from him.
Rich: I disagree with you on both fronts, John. Pettitte has excellent stuff and his numbers stacked right up there with the best, especially once you adjust for the fact that he is a lefty working in a ballpark that is highly favorable to right-handed batters.
Larry: Do you guys think Pettitte still be good enough to form the corps of a contending staff for the next few years? That seems a pretty safe bet to me.
Bryan: I don't think so. I wrote off this signing when they made it, and I'll retract that statement (after having lost a bet to Rich, I should mention). But remember, this is a guy who used to be injured a lot, and if he goes on the DL, and Roy Oswalt does too, this team is not very good.
Rich: ...if, if hooray!
Larry: There was a lot of smoke regarding a Jose Contreras to Houston deal. That would be a very significant acquisition if it happened. And Contreras is bound to be dealt somewhere, isn't he?
Bryan: I could see it happening quickly if Clemens decides against returning, or going to Texas.
John: Oh my, what a phenomenal rotation they would have with Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte, Contreras and Brandon Backe, whom I like more than most.
Larry: Backe sure kills the Cardinals. Especially in October.
Bryan: It seems as if you both seem to like the Astros more than I do. It's a good lineup and rotation, I'll admit, but very volatile. After watching the Cubs for a few years, I treat volatility with kiddie gloves.
Larry: The Astros though are the anti-Cubs -- overachievers. Last year they were 15-30 toward the end of May, and they had every excuse to quit. Bagwell out for the season; Berkman injured; very low pre-season expectations. Somehow Garner got them going again and for the second straight year they rose from the dead. I figure they'll find a way to get themselves into position by September.
Rich: Just as the Brewers are tied to the right arm of Sheets, I think the Astros need Clemens if they are serious about playing more than 162 games this year.
Larry: Over the last four months of the year they played .632 ball and had the best record in the NL (74-43, 3 games better than St. Louis) and best run differential (+128). And then they went 7-3 in the playoffs against StL and Atlanta. If Clemens comes back in mid-June (as rumored), that entire team will be back -- and will have added Preston Wilson and possibly a healthier Bagwell.
John: I'm still just worried about that lineup. Outside of Berkman and Ensberg, it's pretty miserable, no?
Bryan: I like Jason Lane quite a bit, and some see something in Preston Wilson that I don't. Really, I just think it's too bad Chris Burke has been nudged out. It's not a good offense, probably fighting with the Cubs and Brewers for 3/4/5 in the division.
Larry: There are worse lineups. The Astros are above league-average hitters at first (Berkman), third (Ensberg), and second (Biggio). One loud bat in the outfield would go a long way. I don't think Wilson is it, though. But again, with their arms, who needs runs?
Bryan: Alright, so the consensus is positive about the Astros. Let's finish it up here, guys, with your predictions, 1-6.
Larry: Cards with 93 wins, Brewers 90, Astros 88, Cubs 85, Pirates 72, Reds 67.
Rich: With respect to predicting win totals in these previews, I'm always a bit amused when I see every division averaging more than 81 per team.
Bryan: I actually have the Brewers winning the Central by a game over the Cards in the final weekend. The Astros and Cubs battle it out for .500, with the Cubs winning 83, and the Astros an even .500. Pirates fifth, Reds last.
John: I actually struggle to see a 90-win team in the division. But I'll go with Cardinals at ninety wins, the Astros at 89, the Cubs at 88 and the Brewers at 87. Obviously, both the Pirates and Reds will be way below .500.
Rich: I like the Cardinals, followed by the Brewers, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, and Reds. If I'm wrong, it's probably because I have the Astros too low. So, Roger, what will it be?
Avoiding Deep Valleys
Back in the days of Jon Rauch, the Chicago White Sox were generally thought to have the best farm system in baseball. In the same time period, the Houston Astros were flush in minor league talent. The Seattle Mariners had a slew of young arms, most notably Ryan Anderson, that gave their farm system much clout.
More than anything else, this memory should remind us that minor league talent is a cyclical trait among organizations. Asking any scouting department or development staff to consistently rate among the league's best is very tough. While we generally think highly of teams like the Braves and Twins for developing youth well, even these organizations have had their valleys in terms of young talent.
Currently, organizations like the Dodgers, Angels and Diamondbacks are (deservedly) considered the best in the Major Leagues. However, this is unlikely to be true five years from now, as even Logan White cannot keep consistently drafting with such precision. Part of having a farm system is accepting the dozens of busts that will come along the way. Simply put, don't expect the Angels to be so loaded once the current class shows its true colors.
This has happened in Cleveland, where much of the players that formerly made up one of the best systems in baseball have graduated. Victor Martinez at catcher, Hafner at DH, Peralta at short, Sizemore in center, Cliff Lee on the mound, Brandon Phillips' prospect status in shambles. All of these players made up a great system of yesteryear.
Now, however, the Indians don't possess such minor league talent. This is not meant to be damning to an Indians front office that was so influential in building the current crop of young players, for many of the reasons listed above. Thanks to busted (yes, probably too early to use that term) first-round picks like Michael Aubrey and Jeremy Guthrie, the Indians are caught in a bit of a valley. Just three Indians -- including the newly acquired Andy Marte -- were among my top 100 prospects. Baseball America is no different.
As a result of this newfound pessimism in the farm system, I wanted to use a magnifying glass to look at a solid, if not superbly top-heavy, farm system in a forward thinking organization. New Baseball Prospectus columnist Kevin Goldstein -- a long-time friend of mine that deserves congratulations for his new role -- beat me to the punch here, so I merely mean to expand upon his overview.
I mentioned above that three players were on both mine and Baseball America's top 100, and the three undoubtedly are the jewels of the organization: Andy Marte, Adam Miller and Jeremy Sowers. Marte is certainly a cut above the other two, and should be the Indians third baseman prior to the All-Star Break. I've mentioned that he has Paul Konerko (or better) potential at the plate, and at the very least should be a steady, solid player. Sowers and Miller are interchangeable in the 2 and 3 slots, depending upon whether you want someone with potential (Miller) or a sure bet (Sowers).
As we mentioned in our AL Central Preview at this site, Sowers should be among (with Marte) the first call-ups the Indians make in 2006. His quick rise up the farm system is enviable, and he has all the makings of a solid #3 starter. I fell in love with Miller prior to his arm injuries last year, but have backed off since seeing a lot of inconsistency when he returned. His arm has ace potential, and as a result, I feel he's a bit overrated at this point. Mark Shapiro has stated he wants to land a big name via trade during the season, and if it means parting with Miller, the Indians should probably consider it.
Predictably, this is where disagreements between myself and Baseball America start to increase. The second tier of the Indians, those that garnered consideration for my list, has just three names: Fernando Cabrera, Ryan Garko and Chuck Lofgren. Cabrera has the potential to be a dominant reliever at the next level, and is so close that it's a good bet he'll make some sort of a difference. Garko is just as close, and should be up midseason as another bat in the mediocre (besides Hafner) 1B/DH logjam that the Indians have built up.
Lofgren is the anomaly, the player Baseball America did not rank in their top ten, but whom I would give the six slot in the organization. I will talk about him more in the coming weeks -- in a future expansion upon my breakout prospects of 2006 -- but needless to say, there is a lot to like. He showed a lot of potential last year, and given his insane athleticism and increasing pitchability, there is a lot of upside.
After this there is a lot of gray area, when we see a world where prospects with significant flaws bleed through. Franklin Gutierrez gets the nod for seventh on my list, a former top prospect with a bad season. In his series analyzing the minor leagues through PECOTA, Nate Silver had a good reference to Gutierrez, trying to downplay the off year that the talented player had. Gutierrez still has a ton of potential, and given his wide array of skills, has downside as a solid fourth outfielder capable of all three spots.
It's nearly impossible to rank the next four slots, all hitters (alphabetically): Michael Aubrey, Trevor Crowe, Stephen Head, Brad Snyder. Crowe probably gets my nod, as he's higher thought of coming out of college than Snyder and Head were, and doesn't have the injury history that Aubrey does. In a close battle, Stephen Head would come next, as I think he has more upside than Brad Snyder. The latter I think is a greatly flawed prospect, a tweener with bad contact skills and an unknown amount of power. Shipping out him on a high note would be a good idea.
After Aubrey in the eleventh spot come a host of pitchers, where you would also need a spot for John Drennen to be thrown in. The pitchers: Tony Sipp, Andrew Brown, Rafael Perez, Cody Bunkelman, J.D. Martin. I like Sipp the best, who is probably the one who I can say right now is probably not a future reliever. Brown and Perez almost definitely are, and Martin and Bunkelman are question marks. Sipp has a lot of potential for success, and would rank twelfth on my list.
If nothing else, this is an extremely deep system with hosts of flawed prospects. The remaining pitchers all offer something I like, but mix it with a lot of reason to not believe they will succeed: Fausto Carmona, Nick Pesco, Sean Smith, Bear Bay, Dan Denham, Justin Hoyman. Of this group, I actually like Smith the best (who BA did not include in their top 30, apparently), a sleeper with a lot of potential as a future reliever. As far as the hitters go, Rule 5 options Jason Cooper, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Mulhern all have flaws that outweigh the slugging strengths they bring to the table.
Getting into the business of team prospect lists is dangerous, and a prospect I want to generally avoid. However, here is how I would capture my top 15 Indians prospects:
1. Andy Marte - 3B
The above prospect list is nothing that you will see teams drooling over, or even, envying. This won't earn the Indian staff any awards, and doesn't create a lot of buzz for sustained future success. But as I've tried to prove today, while Cleveland isn't quite as flush in talent as they once were, there are a lot of things to like in this system. For teams that can't fix all their holes by spending seven figures, having a host of players with certain, specific skills is a good thing.
It will be a few years before the Indians are again atop organizational rankings. These things are cyclical. And it helps, of course, to have a staff that even in down years, produces a lot to be proud of.
The Great Discussion
A year ago I wrote in this letter that what I do does not have a name and cannot be explained in a sentence or two. Well, now I have given it a name: Sabermetrics, the first part to honor the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research, the second part to indicate measurement. Sabermetrics is the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records.
James admitted to me in our interview in December 2004 that his original meaning was "not a very good definition." Bill said he had recently stumbled across an even worse definition in a dictionary ("the computerized use of baseball statistics") because "computers don't have anything to do with it." The Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Boston Red Sox was pleased to learn that he said "good sabermetrics respects the validity of all types of evidence, including that which is beyond the scope of statistical validation" in the 1981 Baseball Abstract.
I'm glad to know I wrote that back then. In the wake of Moneyball, some people have tried to set up a tension in the working baseball community between people who see the game through statistics and scouts. There is no natural tension there. There's only tension there if you think that you understand everything. If you understand that you're not really seeing the whole game through the numbers or you're not seeing the whole thing described through your eyes, there is no real basis for tension and there's no reason for scouts not to be able to talk and agree on things.
A year after The Great Debate, hosted by Alan Schwarz of Baseball America, I gathered three top baseball minds in the hopes of advancing the discussion beyond the idea that sabermetricians are nothing more than statheads. Joining me today are Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Eric Van.
Tom (aka Tangotiger) and Mitchel (MGL), along with Andy Dolphin, recently published The Book: Playing The Percentages in Baseball. The Book is aimed at coaches, managers, and front office executives, as well as baseball fans interested in strategies such as batter/pitcher matchups, platooning, the sacrifice bunt, base stealing, and much more.
All three of my guests are noted sabermetricians. Tom works full-time in computer systems development and part-time as a consultant to major-league teams (currently in the NHL, formerly in MLB); Mitchel is currently senior analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals; and Eric, whose lifelong dalliance with sabermetrics turned serious in 1999 when he started posting analysis to Usenet, was hired as a consultant in 2005 by the Boston Red Sox after his work on Sons of Sam Horn caught the eye of John Henry and his management team.
Please feel free to pull up a chair, listen in, and enjoy.
Rich: It's March 2006. Nearly 30 years have passed since Bill James wrote his first Baseball Abstract. The sabermetric community has grown significantly in numbers and respect over the last few decades. Our voices are now being heard more than ever. Let's take a few minutes to assess where we've been, where we are, and where we're going.
Eric: If a team is spending nothing on analysis, there are obviously hundreds of guys in the field who could do a solid, competent job...and because it's a fun job with hundreds of candidates for thirty positions, they're not going to pay much. The bang for buck here is off the scale. The much more interesting question is how many analysts there are who are way more than competent, who can do more than just prevent their team from making Saber 101 mistakes, but can come up with great stuff, stuff that gives their team a real edge over rivals whose analysis is pedestrian. It will be very interesting to see how much money such elite analysts can eventually make, if they can establish a track record of adding that kind of value. I know I'm working on it.
Mitchel: I have no idea what teams should or do spend on scouting. I have never asked the Cardinals and no matter what they said, it wouldn't mean much to me anyway. As far as what teams do or should spend on "analysis," I ditto what Eric just said. And I don't think it is an "either/or" thing, although teams may perceive it that way, at least for now. At the present time and probably in the near future, teams can get a more than competent sabermetrician for pennies on the dollar. As more teams recognize the value of a good analyst or two (or three), the supply and demand balance will change, competition will likely heat up, and analysts will make more money. There is a limit, however, for various reasons. For one thing, as the "baseline" increases, analysts will be able to save their teams less and less money, as compared to other teams or the average team. For another, geeks and nerds will always make a lot less than athletes. I guess eventually we will have to set the value of a "replacement-level sabermetrician" and go from there. Perhaps we should also form a union and start hiring agents like Boras or Moorad. Without collective bargaining or some other powerful force in the market (like extreme competition), it is difficult for anyone to make a whole lot of money.
Eric: I think we've stumbled on a question that had never occurred to me before - just how much value can a top analyst add, above a replacement-level one? What kinds of new discoveries are out there, and how exploitable might they be in terms of getting a competitive advantage? And a thorny-related question: let's say an analyst crunches, say, some pitch-type data from BIS and discovers some wonderful new platoon pattern. A pattern that could be exploited to get a competitive edge, but also a pattern that every fan would be interested in and would add to everyone's appreciation of the game. Is it fair to sell this finding to an MLB club for their exclusive use, or is there a scientific obligation to publish?
Tom: I think you should publish, after a couple of years. One thing that I negotiate in all my contracts is that I maintain IP rights to all my work, and that I grant the team or individual a non-exclusive, non-transferrable, perpetual-use licence. I don't want to happen to me what happened to Kramer.
Rich: Well, Bill James has said that he wishes he could talk about certain studies, but that the Sox now own the rights to some of his recent findings. In the 1988 Baseball Abstract, James released the formulas and theories to his old works in Breakin' The Wand. I guess it comes down to whether or not you are independent or employed by a team.
Mitchel: As Tom said, or at least implied, if you are employed by a team or work for them as an IC, it is up to the two parties to decide how to deal with the IP rights. Obviously, teams would like as much exclusivity and ownership as possible. It is certainly a little frustrating and disappointing when James says something like, "I would love to talk about X, but I can't."
In my case with the Cardinals, I have an agreement which is very fair and balanced. With some of my work I retain ownership and there is no exclusivity agreement, and with other stuff the team acquires most of the rights. I also have a limited non-compete clause in my contract. To be honest, I have not looked at the contract in a while and there have never been any disagreements between us. The Cardinals are a very pleasant organization to work with and we have a very deferential, almost informal, relationship.
Eric: Having studied neuroscience, I was trying to work out an analogy with pharmaceutical research and, unfortunately, it just doesn't fly. If you find a new serotonin receptor subtype, and think you can design a drug to target it, you have to publish the scientific finding as an eventual justification for the drug's efficacy. You probably have a year or two head start on the competition in terms of developing the drug, and once you beat everyone to the market with it, you patent it! So there are no incentives against making scientific findings public.
If we do unionize, we might want to consider a policy whereby all our contracts state that such research becomes public domain after, say, 10 years (via the rights reverting back to us for publication). It's nice to give your employer a competitive edge but I'd hate to see the scientific understanding of the game suffer as a result.
Mitchel: I don't think that sabermetricians have any responsibility whatsoever to publish or release any of their work in the public domain. It is their work and it is up to them to decide what suits them best. We are not talking about the cure for cancer or global warming here.
Eric: C'mon. There's a profound correlation this century between global temperatures and strikeout rates. And it's not like we lack a causal explanation in terms of hot air.
Tom: Right, I agree. Some people expect strikeout rates to jump 1% based soley on our discussion here today.
Rich: Tom, you have stated before that sabermetrics includes both quantifiable and qualifiable measures. Do you care to elaborate on that point?
Tom: I think people like to associate "numbers" and performance analysis to sabermetrics, and relegate scouting and observation as some ugly duckling. Sabermetrics is about the search for truth about baseball. And, at its core, baseball is about the physical and mental abilities of its players, which manifest themselves in explosions a handful of times in a game. Since we have limited samples in which to evaluate a player by his performance, we need to supplement that with some keen observations. The pinnacle of sabermetrics is the convergence of performance analysis and scouting.
Mitchel: Tom, I know that is not politically correct to "bash" traditional scouting and observation, so I won't. I will say, however - and you and I have had this discussion before - that the more data we have - the "explosions" you refer to - the less we need scouting and other "subjective" data in order to reach the correct conclusions. To a large extent, an infinite amount of unbiased data always yields perfect results. This is an important point that is often missed or at least misunderstood by even good analysts.
Tom: There is no question that if you had an infinite sample that we would have no need for observational analysis. It's essentially a scale, where good scouting can be worth 300 at bats, just to use as an illustration. That is, if I had a player with a 300 AB season, and I had a good scout who watched him for 5 or 10 games, I would "weight" his analysis by 300 AB. However, after a couple of seasons, my player will now have 1200 or 1500 AB, and the scout is still worth 300 AB. So, the scout becomes less and less relevant with the more AB that the player piles up.
Eric: The convergence of sabermetrics and scouting has me as juiced as Tom but for a different reason. When I dream at night I dream of spreadsheets, and they have not just the columns we're all used to from The Bill James Handbook, but all the scouting-style data that BIS gathers: who throws what pitches how fast, all that. And I'm running correlations between that data and the standard numbers, and looking for career patterns and so forth. And Liv Tyler is lending a hand with the thornier linear regressions. They're pretty good dreams.
Tom: Yes, the scouting-style data is exactly what I'm talking about, as anyone who follows my Fans' Scouting Report project knows. We need to capture all these traits of players, all the little things, so that we can better appreciate the context of the performance, and properly assign a value to the performance.
Eric: I want to return to something Mitchel said earlier: "I consider anything which cannot be measured or supports the null hypothesis with a high degree of certainty to be essentially a non-issue, at least in a practical sense." And I think that's irrefutable. But the question is, are the things that are unmeasurable going to stay that way? Some very real and important things can be unmeasurable if enough noise is added. Who's to say that the right noise filter doesn't exist?
Mitchel: Eric, sure, heretofore never been used statistical techniques as well as new methodologies can reduce background noise and otherwise enable us to measure things that we were previously unable to measure. But, to tell you the truth, if quality researchers have had difficulty measuring something in the past, it is most likely not worth a whole lot even if it can eventually be measured. That is not an absolute statement of course. We are talking about a relatively simple environment to study (with all due respect to Bill James, who generally refers to baseball as a complex dynamic), as compared with, say, quantum physics or cosmology.
Rich: Well, Mitchel, I would rather talk about baseball than the structure of the universe any day. With that in mind, I'd like to go around the room and hear the most interesting topic you are working on right now.
Eric: Hmm . . . I actually did recently send a letter to New Scientist about the structure of the universe (some unappreciated implications of Heim's Grand Unified Theory). This may be why it took me 35 years to get a career going in sabermetrics . . .
Tom: I've started a few things, and they are all based off the play-by-play and pitch-by-pitch logs. Studes at Major League Baseball Graphs did a sensational job with what I was dipping my toes in, with his Batted Ball Index project. And I was also dipping my toes into what David Pinto already did with his fielding graphs chart. David Appelman did the third thing that I've been working on and off with, understanding pitch-by-pitch. There are plenty of great minds out there working their butts off.
I think the Holy Grail centers around understanding the pitch-by-pitch process. This is what baseball is all about, this is where performance analysis can do the most damage, this is where you can have a real impact on the approach to hitters and pitchers themselves, and this is where scouting and game theory really comes to the forefront. It's the center of the baseball universe. My guess is that top baseball game designers may have cracked this nut already, and I would bet that Tom Tippett may be ahead of everyone on this. Just a guess. This is a journey I'd love to take, if I had time.
Mitchel: Well, I can't really say, as it is all proprietary, but I can say that in 10 or 12 years when it becomes public, it will rock the baseball world! Just kidding!
I'm not really working on anything earth-shattering right now. I have recently revamped my entire UZR methodology, which doesn't really mean anything to too many people, as I haven't published any wholesale results in a long time anyway. And, of course, I've been "scooped" by John Dewan in terms of any future public disclosure of UZR ratings in the form of a book. That is fair, as the original concept of a "zone rating" and even an "ultimate zone rating" was originally published by John and STATS Inc (although I developed my own "zone rating" independently and about the same time - along with several other people that I know of - remember DeCoursey's and Nichols' "defensive average" back in the late 80's or early 90's?).
Eric: You kids! The adjective "back" should be reserved for the early 70's. I had to hand-calculate league OBP's and emend my copy of the 1974 MacMillan Encyclopedia in ballpoint ink. And walk a mile to school, too. Carrying the book.
Mitchel: I don't think I'm that much younger than you, Eric! Anyway, I am also working on an "ultimate, ultimate zone rating (UUZR)" which, rather than using distinct zones or vectors and the probabilities of catching a certain type ball within them, uses a smooth function such that we can basically plug in the x, y coordinates of a batted ball (along with the usual characteristics - speed, type, etc.) and come up with the probability of that ball being caught, regardless of whether we already have an historical "baseline" for that particular type of ball at those coordinates. I am also going to incorporate into the UUZR methodology subjective ratings on all plays made (which STATS routinely provides) to improve the integrity of the data.
As well, I am working on better ways of "park adjusting" player stats in order to do better context-neutral projections as well as to determine the future value of a player in a specific park, especially when that player changes home teams. I am continually working on improving my projection models, as these are really at the heart of what a sabermetrician can do for a team. Tom might disagree with this as he tends to think that one projection system is basically as good as another.
Tom: For established big-league hitters, that's pretty much true. You can more or less prove that the maximum r possible for a forecasting system is around .75, while a group of fans can get you .65, and these sophisticated forecasting systems are at the .70 level (as a basic illustration). That's for hitters. For pitchers and fielders, that's not true of course.
As for park factors, I've been talking about this for years. I find it extremely disappointing that we always talk about a single park factor, when that's simply not reality. Busch Stadium cannot possibly affect Coleman, McGee, and Jack Clark the same way, and we should not pretend that it does. Same for Coors. Yes, using something is better than nothing. But, there's been very little published on this subject and very little innovation.
Eric: The overall park factors work fine for evaluating past value, but can be close to worthless for predicting future value. And there's a whole breakthrough project waiting to be done correlating weather and park data. Look at the year-to-year PF variation for Dodger Stadium vs. a place that actually has weather like Wrigley Field.
Mitchel: My next big project is delving into the pitch-by-pitch data (TLV data - type, location, and velocity) that Tom just mentioned. He is right in that that is one of the Holy Grails left in baseball analysis with respect to evaluating and "scouting" players (and understanding and incorporating game theory into the analysis) in a very different way than we have been doing for the last 20 years.
Mitchel: I'm all for that (BPA). BABIP is way too long. Almost as bad as TINSTAAPP!
Eric: For instance, team BPA depends significantly on team K and BB rates. So good pitchers do allow a lower BPA, and differences between pitchers must be reasonably large. It also means that when you use BPA as a team defensive metric (and all the best people do), you want to tweak it to adjust for the quality of the staff as evidenced by the K and BB rates.
I'm also just wrapping up my other recent project. I'm about to send the Hardball Times an article that, I believe, proves that RISP hitting differences are real rather than random (a question so settled in the other direction that Keith Woolner omitted it from "Baseball's Hilbert Problems" in the 2000 Baseball Prospectus). I'm not talking about "clutch hitting," but real and reasonably common variations in performance by hitters with RISP in response to the different tactics of the batter/pitcher matchup. I hope it will open up that topic for a good deal of further analysis.
Rich: Thanks for the chat, guys. Based on our discussion, I think it is safe to say that there is a good deal of further analysis ahead of us in a number of areas.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
There are few surer signs of spring each year than the annual decision to change a prospect's position. Thanks to the defensive spectrum, organizations often leave prospects in one spot for too long, and when making the Major Leagues becomes a reality, they need a check on their defense. In another scenario, changing positions can enhance a player's value, as his athleticism might better suit the system. Anyway, this happens each year, and it certainly bears watching.
In the last week, two of my top 100 prospects were announced to have changed positions. Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers finally started to move Joel Guzman, pushing the tall, future slugger to left field. The other player with a brand new glove this March has been Wes Bankston, the Devil Rays athletic former first baseman, who Tampa Bay has decided to give a chance at the hot corner during spring. Whether you like these decisions or not -- and it's hard not to in both cases -- there is no question that above all else, it shows that two new front offices are creating long-term plans.
In the case of the Devil Rays, this position change is more important for who is staying put. By moving Bankston to third base, Andy Friedman made the B.J. Upton decision that had been hanging over the organization's head. With a crowded outfield and athleticism through the roof, I believe this was the right choice by Tampa, even if Upton is never anything near a positive in the field. However, here's to hoping Tampa doesn't just change its mind by April when they realize how difficult moving up the defensive spectrum is. As athletic as Wes Bankston may be, it's very unlikely he will be a good third baseman.
Fantasy owners should be investing in Upton with late-round picks, as the future shortstop should provide very good value in the stolen base category, while holding significant upside in terms of home runs and even batting average and RBI. It's odd, but with their best lineup yet, the Devil Rays actually have multiple players that could post big RBI totals. By midseason this team will really be fun to watch, as this lineup will be thrown on the field everyday:
C - Toby Hall
You will notice this isn't exactly the list you had been anticipating if you followed the Devil Rays roster construction. However, the lack of Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo and Joey Gathright from this list is intentional, as I think Friedman needs to continue to show the long-term plan by making a few deals. With good starts, both Huff and Lugo should be able to bring in big pieces during the season. And I also truly hope that if the Marlins are offering anything close to what has been rumored for Gathright, that Friedman has tried to accept. Gathright is fine, but he's a far cry from Scott Olsen.
Furthermore, this is a team in desperate need of pitching. While Rich's recent metrics have shown that Scott Kazmir possesses a lot of upside, he's the only Devil Ray starter with long-term value. Jeff Niemann is a good prospect, Hammel is a good bet for a back-end starter and Wade Davis is everyone's favorite breakout candidate. Both Chuck Tiffany and Edwin Jackson were acquired for 75 cents on the dollar, and sooner or later, Wade Townsend might be healthy again. Finally, the team also is months from landing either Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, or another arm that this draft is so full of. However, it's still not enough. Tampa needs to follow their Floridian mates, the Marlins, and simply stockpile pitchers one on top of the other.
Few teams present better scenarios for armchair GMs than the Devil Rays, who appear to have so much upside. However, let's be honest, the way the divisions are currently aligned, it's possible this team is destined to be a let down. As good as that future lineup sounds, $100 million sounds good, too. Tampa has become one of my favorite organizations since I started following prospects, but there has to be a concern in Tampa that Major League Baseball has set them up to fail. For those of you keeping score at home, that's now 2 organizations (Colorado, too) for which this fact is true.
As for the Dodgers, their position change doesn't answer a ton of questions, but it shows long-term faith in their third base prospects. With Bill Mueller in the Majors, Andy LaRoche on the horizon and Blake DeWitt holding so much breakout potential, the Dodgers have seemed set at third to most prospect evaluators for a year. However, with word that the team was going to move Guzman to the hot corner as well, it appeared that Dodger brass -- a group talented enough to build a farm system like this -- did not like LaRoche's long-term value. That no longer appears to be the case.
While LaRoche has little chance to be a rookie before 2007, the Dodgers seem quite impressed by Guzman and Chad Billingsley. Could both surprise and add to the deep NL Rookie of the Year race? As good as Guzman was in a tough environment last year, I doubt it, as learning a new position and retaining the bat simultaneously is a tough thing to do. Furthermore, the team loses very little in starting Joel in Las Vegas, a place where Guzman's bat will have a hard time not gaining confidence. Next thing you know, this guy could be Jeff Francoeur, version 2006.
As for Billingsley, I think the time could very well be now according to reports of his stuff this spring. Vegas is a horrendous place for pitchers, and Chad really seemed to turn a corner in AA after July last year. While I have bashed the roles created for players like Brandon McCarthy and Anthony Reyes, Billingsley would be fantastic starting the year in a long relief role to become acclimated to the Majors. Once consistency sets in, the team would move him back to the rotation, where it would appear replacing Jeff Weaver was an extremely easy task.
March is a month light on hard news in baseball. And while the Guzman and Bankston position changes provided good copy for desperate beat reporters, it also shows a long-term plan is in place for two organizations that needed to show their fan bases just that.
Pitchers, Pitch by Pitch
Last week, in this same Designated Hitter column, Dan Fox took an excellent look at what batters did on a pitch-by-pitch basis. Well, guess what? Pitchers have pitch-by-pitch stats, too, and they're just as interesting! I've sliced this data dozens of ways, and there's literally hundreds of different stats you could create from Baseball Info Solutions "pitch data," so I'm only going to focus on the four I've found that I believe are most relevant.
When a pitcher throws the ball, it can either land in or out of the strike zone. Pitchers will throw the ball in the strike zone anywhere from 44% of the time to 65% of the time. (If this sounds familiar it's because I went over this same stat, but for batters in my Dissecting Plate Discipline article.) Let's call this stat Zone Ratio (ZRatio) which will simply be the ratio of pitches thrown in the strike zone to pitches thrown out of the strike zone.
You won't be surprised when I tell you this stat correlates well with walks, but not all pitchers that have a low ZRatio necessarily walk a lot of batters. Let's take a look at the top and bottom 5 lists for starting pitchers only.
Top 5 ZRatio Bottom 5 ZRatio Carlos Silva 1.86 Al Leiter 0.90 Paul Byrd 1.49 Kirk Rueter 0.89 Brad Halsey 1.48 Scott Downs 0.88 Bartolo Colon 1.47 Felix Hernandez 0.87 Greg Maddux 1.46 Dewon Brazelton 0.81
Seeing pitchers like Dewon Brazelton and Al Leiter who walked over 6 batters per 9 innings last season on the bottom list isn't much of a shock, but it is a little odd to see Felix Hernandez and Scott Downs who both walked under 3.5 batters per 9 innings. Looking at the top list, Carlos Silva threw far and away the highest percentage of pitches in the strike zone in baseball which sounds about right considering his miniscule walk rate of .4 batters per 9 innings.
Top 5 ZRatio Bottom 5 ZRatio R. Betancourt 1.65 Ryan Dempster 0.87 Heath Bell 1.54 Akinori Otsuka 0.85 Matt Belisle 1.51 J.C. Romero 0.83 Luis Ayala 1.51 Mike Gonzalez 0.83 Paul Quantrill 1.48 Mike Wuertz 0.78
Looking at relief pitchers, no one appears out of place on the bottom list, but it is interesting to see the Cub's closer Ryan Dempster and the Pirates possible closer Mike Gonzalez. I wonder if throwing that many pitches out of the strike zone will catch up to them eventually? The top of the list is pretty ho-hum in my opinion.
After the pitcher throws the ball, the batter can either swing or take the pitch. Batters should typically be expected to swing at a high percentage of pitches inside the strike zone, but what I find fascinating are pitchers that can make batters swing at pitches outside the strike zone. For this we're going to look at outside swing percentage (OSwing) which is the percentage of pitches thrown outside the strike zone a batter swings at.
Perhaps you could consider this a measure of deception. Pitchers will cause batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone anywhere from 9% to 31% of the time. It doesn't have a great correlation with anything, but I suppose it matches up best with a pitcher's strikeout to walk ratio. Once again, let's look at the top and bottom 5 lists for starting pitchers.
Top 5 OSwing Bottom 5 OSwing Brad Radke 31.51% Hayden Penn 13.75% Johan Santana 30.43% John Maine 13.41% Curt Schilling 29.75% Zach Day 13.10% Felix Hernandez 28.59% Glendon Rusch 11.99% Odalis Perez 27.94% Scott Erickson 9.95%
In the top 5 we have a pretty interesting list including arguably the best pitcher in baseball Johan Santana who's only second in OSwing to his teammate Brad Radke. Felix Hernandez also shows up and is the only player on the list who has a ZRatio less than 1. On the bottom of the list, there's not really anyone worth mentioning.
Top 5 OSwing Bottom 5 OSwing Brad Lidge 32.54% Jesus Colome 12.43% Rudy Seanez 30.24% Matt Mantei 12.32% Derrick Turnbow 28.48% Armando Benitez 11.67% Mike Wuertz 28.11% Danny Kolb 11.03% J. Papelbon 27.87% Nate Bump 9.82%
The top list of relievers is just as impressive with two closers. Only Mike Wuertz has an ERA over 3. Bringing up the rear are former closers Matt Mantei and Danny Kolb. And then there's Armando Benitez which I find particularly odd. I'm really not sure what he's doing there, but I bet if you were to look at his OSwing in previous seasons, it wouldn't be anywhere near the bottom.
Moving along, once a batter has decided to swing at a pitch, he can either make contact with it or whiff at the ball. Pitchers will have batters swing and hit their pitchers between 60% and 90% of the time. Let's simply call this Contact, which is the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when he swings the bat. Obviously this will correlate quite well with a pitcher's strikeouts.
Looking at the top and bottom 5 Contact lists for starting pitchers; Johan Santana makes another appearance on a top list. It looks like if Kerry Wood could actually stay healthy he's still got what it takes to make batters miss along with Kelvim Escobar who is not just looking to stay healthy but could also join the pitching elite. The bottom of the list is scattered with pitchers who barely strikeout anyone including Carlos Silva. Should I just reserve a spot for a Twins starting pitcher on every list?
Bottom 5 Contact Top 5 Contact Kirk Rueter 91.58% Ezeq. Astacio 74.46% Carlos Silva 91.08% Johan Santana 74.26% Kirk Saarloos 89.66% Jake Peavy 73.86% Shawn Estes 89.21% Kelvim Escobar 71.81% Ryan Drese 89.09% Kerry Wood 70.45%
Taking a look at the relievers, there's two of the best closers in Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan on the top list. Ugueth Urbina used to close but recently has ended up on teams with established closers. Weurtz shows up on another list. Could he possibly be a future closer? At the bottom of the list are pitchers you wouldn't trust to close out Little League games.
Bottom 5 Contact Top 5 Contact Paul Quantrill 91.21% Joe Nathan 67.51% Scott Munter 90.44% Ugueth Urbina 67.24% Kevin Gryboski 90.20% Mike Wuertz 60.45% Nate Bump 90.04% Brad Lidge 59.86% Jesse Crain 88.12% Rudy Seanez 59.25%
Finally, when a batter makes contact with the ball, it can either be put into play or fouled off. I'm not so interested in what batters do to pitches outside the strike zone, but more so what they do to pitches inside the strike zone. So let's look at the ratio of pitches inside the strike zone that are fouled off and call it the Foul Ratio (FRatio).
FRatio correlates quite well with strikeouts, but also has some correlation with a pitcher's fly ball percentage. It's a little strange, but basically it suggests that pitchers who put the ball in play more frequently are often ground ball pitchers. Pitchers will have a FRatio of anywhere from .45 to 1.45.
Top 5 FRatio Bottom 5 FRatio Mark Prior 1.19 Ric. Rodriguez 0.55 Chris Young 1.17 Carlos Silva 0.53 Erik Bedard 1.14 Kirk Rueter 0.50 Matthew Cain 1.13 Scott Erickson 0.47 Kyle Davies 1.12 Mike Gosling 0.45
Looking at starting pitchers only, the top list has some pretty interesting names on it. It's worth noting that only Mark Prior has an OSwing over 20% on this list. No list would be complete without Silva, so he shows up on the bottom list (have you learned enough about him yet?).
Top 5 FRatio Bottom 5 FRatio B.J. Ryan 1.43 Pete Walker 0.55 J. Papelbon 1.41 Joey Eischen 0.54 Russ Springer 1.37 Scott Sauerbeck 0.54 Scott Eyre 1.36 T. Mulholland 0.54 Ugueth Urbina 1.35 Brian Shouse 0.50
B.J. Ryan heads up the top list for Relievers, but is the only active closer of the lot. Most of the high profile closers in baseball aren't too far from the top 5. There's no one too notable towards the bottom of the list, but former closer Danny Graves missed the 5 spot by just .3%. In addition, Joey Eischen and Scott Sauerbeck managed to strike out a good deal of batters despite having a lousy FRatio.
So what kind of conclusions can we make from looking at a pitcher's pitch-by-pitch data? Well, it's clear to me that having a high OSwing and a high FRatio is clearly preferable, so let's look at one final list which is a combination of the two. I believe this should give us a good indication of a pitcher's overall skill level or possibly potential. For sake of a better name, let's call this stat Potential. Here are the top 10 starters and top 10 relievers.
Top 10 Starters Top 10 Relievers Johan Santana 0.332 J. Papelbon 0.392 Curt Schilling 0.317 Joe Nathan 0.345 Brad Radke 0.279 Robert Jenks 0.331 Rick Helling 0.266 Brad Lidge 0.328 Mark Prior 0.264 Eddie Guardado 0.319 Scott Kazmir 0.260 Mariano Rivera 0.303 Rich Harden 0.259 Juan Rincon 0.301 Jake Peavy 0.250 Scott Eyre 0.291 B. McCarthy 0.239 Jose Valverde 0.290 Robinson Tejeda 0.235 R. Betancourt 0.288
These are two very prestigious lists with some interesting players thrown in. The only starter that seems totally out of place to me is Rick Helling since everyone else is either already a good pitcher or is seen as one with great potential. The relievers are no different as you have 5 of the best closers in baseball and no one had an ERA over 3. I'd show the bottom lists, but there's really no one worth mentioning.
What will be really interesting to see is if these stats have predictive power, my guess is that they probably do, but next year when the Baseball Info Solutions 2006 pitch data is complete, we'll be able to take a much better look at whether or not any of these stats correlate from year to year. There's obviously a lot of work to be done and analysis like this is just scratching the surface, but it seems to me that pitch-by-pitch data is the future of player based statistical analysis.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]