Wednesday, February 10, 2016

White Sox Get Absurd Deal on Latos

Latos will try to re-establish his value in the Windy City (Bucs Dugout)
Baseball, like life, is all about timing. This is especially true in free agency, where hitting the market after a career year, like Zack Greinke, and David Price did, can result in a windfall but hitting the market following an off year can mean playing for pennies on the dollar, if at all.

Mat Latos falls into the latter camp. From 2010-2014 he was a great pitcher, first with the Padres and then with the Reds. He had a 3.27 ERA (116 ERA+), 1.16 WHIP, and 3.15 K/BB ratio over this time, during which he averaged roughly 180 innings per year. That brought him to the cusp of free agency; all he needed was one more productive year before he could hit the market at 28, presumably as one of baseball's most attractive free agents.

It didn't happen, which is why Latos just settled for a one-year, incentive-free $3 million deal from the Chicago White Sox. After being traded to Miami last winter, he promptly ripped his previous team (Cincinnati), which left a bad taste's in everyone's mouths. He then proceeded to have the worst season of his career, going 4-10 with a 4.95 ERA for three different teams. Latos also spent time on the Disabled List. As far as walk years go, his was the worst-case scenario.

So rather than leading one of the deepest free agent classes in years, Latos was largely forgotten about. Teams were quick to scoop up inferior pitchers such as Ian Kennedy and Mike Leake, paying them gobs of money while Latos sat on the shelf, collecting dust. Finally, the White Sox came calling yesterday, just in time for Spring Training.

What a steal for Chicago, who get a great pitcher still in his prime at a bargain rate. Because as bad as Latos seemed last year, his peripherals suggest otherwise. He still struck out more than three batters for every walk, for instance, and his FIP was 3.72--over a full run better than his ERA and just a tick worse than the previous year's 3.65. He was undone, it seems, by some bad luck on balls in play, an elevated HR/FB rate, and the second-worst strand rate of any pitcher with at least 100 innings. Natural regression to the mean says Latos will be better in 2016.

How much better is a different story. Chicago is a tough place to pitch, especially during the summer when the ball really flies. Just ask Jeff Samardzija, who endured an equally miserable contract year with the White Sox last season. Like Latos, Samardzija was also transitioning to the American League after spending most of his career in the Senior Circuit. It wasn't pretty.

Samardzija is just one of many cautionary tales for what can happen when an NL guy plies his trade in the American League. It helps that Latos is three years younger and has a more established track record of success. It also helps that he's truly pitching for his next contract. Samardzija knew he was going to make bank no matter what, and sure enough San Francisco gave him $90 million even though he bombed last year. If Latos has a year like that, he might not get a second chance. .

So even though his contract doesn't have any incentives for performance, it doesn't need any. The incentive is already built in. Latos has "only" made $22 million in his playing career (not including his current contract), which he could make in one season on his next contract should he return to form this year.

The White Sox are certainly hoping he does, as a healthy and effective Latos would give them a formidable trio at the top of their rotation along with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Coming off a disappointing season and with the Cubs looking like the best team in baseball these days, they could definitely use a bounce back.

Almost as much as Latos.

Baseball's This is 40

Can Ortiz (left) and Rodriguez still hack it at 40? (Sporting News)
David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez are about to embark on their age-40 seasons. Based on how good both were at 39, many are expecting them to remain productive this year. However, it's important to remember that, even in today's world of modern medicine and training, it's still incredibly rare to be a good baseball player at age 40. The list of productive seasons by 40 year-olds is a short one, but as you can see below it's happened enough so that another strong season by Rodriguez and/or Ortiz isn't out of the question. Here are some of the best performances by 40 year-old position players in baseball history, listed in chronological order (notice that there have been much more lately).

1927 Ty Cobb
With the home run boom in full swing, Cobb's slashing brand of baseball was already becoming obsolete. But while he may have felt like a dinosaur as the game changed around him, he was still good at doing the things he knew best, namely singles and steals. In the Georgia Peach's first season with the A's but last season as an everyday player, he batted .357/.440/.482 with 93 RBI and 22 steals--good for 4.4 bWAR.

1930 Sam Rice
This was a great year for hitters regardless of age, so you can't fault Rice for joining the party. His counting stats were off-the-charts (121 runs, 207 hits, 13 triples), and his rate stats (.349/.407/.457) were pretty good, too. Altogether, Rice was worth 4.7 bWAR--the highest total of his career.

Appling was a name that came up a lot the last few years when people were comparing Derek Jeter to past shortstops at the same age. Appling was pretty much the only one still able to hit a damn as he approached middle-age. He remained as robust as ever at 40, compiling 4.6 bWAR and making his final All-Star team. The future Hall of Famer also slugged a career-high eight home runs and batted .306/.386/.412 (126 OPS+)--exceptional numbers for a shortstop back then.

By wRC+, Mays at 40 was better than any baseball player who ever lived. That shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing as how he was at almost every other age, too. Compared to the rest of his body of work, 1971 was actually a very strange season for the Say Hey Kid. He walked a league-leading and career-high 112 times, which gave him a league-leading and career-high .425 OBP, but he also struck out 123 times--his lone year in triple digits. He still had enough of his trademark power and speed to muscle 18 home runs and 24 doubles while stealing 23 bases in 26 tries--his most thefts since 1960. Mays was still playing center field on a regular basis, too, which helped him rack up 6.3 bWAR in what turned out to be his last great season.

After getting Babe Ruth's record out of the way early on, the newly minted home run king went on to enjoy the last fruitful season of his illustrious career (as well as his last with the Braves). He had a record-20th consecutive season with at least 20 homers, walked more than he struck out, and batted a rock-solid .268/.341/.491 (128 OPS+). He promptly fell apart after moving back to Milwaukee and becoming a full-time DH, but in the year he broke Ruth's record he was still a pretty good ballplayer.

Few players have been better at 40 than Aaron (left) and Mays (Bronx Banter)
1981 Pete Rose
Charlie Hustle was still a hit machine at 40, leading the majors in hits for the seventh and final time while batting .325 with a .391 OBP. It probably helped that '81 was cut short by a strike, otherwise Rose might have worn down. It turned out to be his last great season, though he hung on for another six years to become baseball's hit king.

The DH definitely prolonged Mr. October's career, helping him play six seasons out west after leaving New York. While his bat was all out of postseason heroics by that point, it still had a fair amount of juice left, which he used to bat .241/.379/.408 (116 OPS+) with 18 home runs for the division-winning Angels (a team eventually undone by the late Dave Henderson's homer).

Evans was another player who never seemed to get old, remaining productive through age 41 (ditching third base for first and DH helped). His age-40 campaign was actually one of his best, resulting in the third-highest bWAR (4.9) of his 21-year career. Aided by the offensive explosion that occurred across baseball that year, Evans bashed 34 home runs, totaled 99 RBI and worked 100 walks, giving him a strong .257/.379/.501 batting line and 135 OPS+. Those numbers would likely represent a best-case scenario for A-Rod and Ortiz next year.

Fisk only played 76 games--his fewest since 1974--but that didn't stop him from winning his third and final Silver Slugger behind the plate. His half-season numbers--a .277/.377/.542 line (155 OPS+) with 19 homers and 50 RBI--would be phenomenal for anyone in a full season, let alone a 40 year-old backstop. This year is one of many reasons why Fisk was the best "old" catcher in baseball history.

Winfield was still plugging along at age 40, joining the Blue Jays for their first-ever World Series championship. The future Hall of Famer played a big part in helping them get over the hump, finishing fifth in the AL MVP vote after batting .290/.377/.491 with 26 home runs and 108 RBI, giving Toronto another slugger to pair with Joe Carter. Winfield would go on to play with Minnesota for two years and Cleveland for one before calling it a career.

Molitor remained a productive batsman for the Twins at age 40, batting .305/.351/.435 with 32 doubles, 10 home runs and 89 RBI. You could certainly get a lot worse from your DH.

Henderson had been playing for 20 years by this point, but his skills remained largely intact. Suiting up for the Mets that year, Henderson had the last great season of his career, hitting .315/.423/.466 (128 OPS+) with 12 home runs and 37 steals.

Martinez bounced back from a down and injury-plagued 2002 to enjoy his last great season at 40. Seattle's Hall of Fame-worthy DH helped the Mariners to a 93-win season by batting .294/.406/.489 (141 OPS+) with 24 homers and 98 RBI, bringing him just shy of 500 doubles and 300 homers for his career (he would reach both milestones in his next, and final, season).

Most people don't remember just how good Alou was, or how he literally didn't age. Over the last five years of his career, which cover his age 37-41 seasons, he hit .312/.376/.539. He was terrific in limited action for the Mets in 2007, slashing .341/.392/.524 (137 OPS+) with 13 homers and 49 RBI in 87 games. Unfortunately, that was one of the years New York collapsed down the stretch, denying Alou one last shot at postseason glory (the same thing happened again in 2008, and Alou wisely retired).

Like Henderson, Lofton was another speedster who aged well. In what was his final season, he batted .296/.367/.414 with 86 runs and 23 steals while splitting time between Texas and Cleveland, joining the latter just in time for their ill-fated playoff run (somewhere, J.D. Drew is trying to smile).

Edmonds came back from sitting out all of 2009 after not getting a worthwhile offer, signed a minor league contract with the Brewers and finished up his career with a solid season, going out on his own terms. While he only played 86 games, the former star center fielder was still productive at the plate, hitting .276/.342/.504 (125 OPS+) between his stint with Milwaukee and a late-season trade to Cincinnati.

Making Sense of Colorado's Crazy Trade

Dickerson has far more value to a team than McGee (Fox Sports)
It's been two weeks, and I'm still trying to make sense of the Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee exchange. Given how smart front offices have become, it still blows my mind when they make obviously one-sided trades like this one, or last winter's Doug Fister and Jason Heyward trades.

Only on the most basic level does this trade make any sense for Colorado. The Rockies have an abundance of hitting and need pitching. They had a crowded outfield and a terrible bullpen (terrible doesn't even begin to describe how bad it was). So they traded an outfielder for a pretty good reliever. Okay, makes sense.

Except that it doesn't at all. At least for the Rockies.

For the Rays, a team perpetually short on offense, this trade makes all the sense in the world. Tampa Bay ranked second-to-last in the AL in runs scored last year, largely because its outfielders combined for just 56 home runs, 175 RBI, and a .258/.327/.420 batting line. With a collective OPS+ of 100, Rays outfielders provided league average production at best.

Dickerson, however, has been well above average the last two years, posting a 141 OPS+ in 2014 followed by a 118 OPS+ last year. After leaving Coors Field (the best hitter's park in baseball) for Tropicana Field (one of the worst), he's not going to come close to matching his .309/.354/.556 line from 2014-2015, but he's still a solidly above average corner outfielder who's not even 27 yet. Tampa Bay would have been better off going after someone from a less extreme environment, but Dickerson still represents a clear upgrade in an outfield that saw way too much of David DeJesus and Steven Souza last year.

And it's not like the Rays gave up much to get him, either. Relievers are cheap and plentiful, which makes them expendable. Any failed starter can find second life as a reliever. Hard-hitting, in-their-prime outfielders are a rarity, however, especially these days. McGee is good, but he's going to be 30 in August and was hurt last year. His value may never be higher than it is right now.

Which is why the Rays were smart to move him. The timing made sense. For the Rockies, however, this was probably the worst time for them to trade Dickerson. He's not even arbitration-eligible yet and is still under team control for four more years, plus he's coming off an injury-riddled season in which he missed almost 100 games and was worth only 0.5 bWAR. Had they waited for him to rebuild his value a bit, they could have gotten more for him, like a starting pitcher (Colorado could really use one of those).

While dumb, this trade at least would have been more defensible had the Rockies been good, as sometimes it's necessary to sacrifice something valuable to address one of your weaknesses. But Colorado's entire pitching staff is a weakness, and 60 innings from Mr. McGee won't change that. Bad teams don't need ace relievers, because by the time they get in the game the score's already been decided. They need good, young starting pitchers and position players they can build around. The bullpen is often the last piece of the puzzle, and one that can be cobbled together on the cheap (never pay for saves).

McGee's going to be a free agent in two years, and nobody seriously expects Colorado to contend by then. They've endured five straight losing seasons and there's no light at the end of the tunnel, not until they're able to build what passes for a major league-caliber starting rotation. Dickerson could have helped them do that, but now he's gone.

Who's Number One in Fantasy?

Let the debates begin (ESPN)
With the Super Bowl over and Spring Training just days away, it's time to start making preparations (if you haven't already) for fantasy baseball.

One scenario that every player must prepare for is what he'll do if the fantasy gods bless him with the top pick in his draft. That hasn't required much thought the last few years, as Mike Trout was clearly the top choice in fantasy due to his age and all-around skill set, but with the emergence of Bryce Harper it's not so clear-cut. And could Paul Goldschmidt really be a better fantasy option than both of them? Let's find out.

The case for Trout:
Trout isn't quite as valuable in fantasy as he once was due to his shrinking stolen base totals and back-to-back seasons below .300, but he's still arguably the top choice. Trout's sacrificed some average for power the last two years, which has helped him produce career-highs in home runs both seasons. He's now a threat to go yard 40 times which, combined with his huge runs/RBI figures and double-digit stolen base totals, guarantees elite production across the board. His averages, while not what they once were, are still pretty good, making him a true five-category contributor. Trout's also been phenomenal at making adjustments since arriving in the majors, which makes him a good bet to maintain, if not improve on, his stellar numbers (it'd be nice if the Angels put some decent hitters around him, though). Draft Trout with confidence, make sure he's in your lineup Opening Day, and forget about him the rest of the season.

My Projections: 110 R 37 HR 96 RBI 13 SB .295 BA

The case for Harper
When healthy, Harper has the potential to be the best player in baseball, as he proved last year when he batted .330/.460/.649 (205 OPS+) with 42 home runs and 9.9 bWAR. "When healthy" is the key phrase there, as 2015 marked the first time in four seasons that Harper eclipsed 140 games. He also doesn't run much anymore, with only eight steals in his past two seasons, so he's more of a four-category stud. But man, he'll carry you in those four categories. He might be the only player in baseball capable of winning a batting title and a home run crown (which he nearly did last year), and he should be good for around 100 runs and RBI again. The RBI total might drop to "disappointing" Joey Votto levels because of his weak supporting cast and how often he gets walked with guys on base, but he'll still be a boon in that department. Plus he's only 23, which means he might, you know, get better (only kidding).

My Projections: 111 R 38 HR 105 RBI 7 SB .311 BA

The case for Goldschmidt
Arizona's first baseman is a true five-category monster--Miguel Cabrera if Cabrera could run. He's batted over .300 each of the past three years and exceeded 30 home runs, 100 runs/RBI, and double digits steals in the two seasons where he was healthy. Nobody else has done that multiple times during that span, making Goldy the best bet to provide help in all five departments. He's 28, plays everyday, and calls one of the friendliest hitter's parks in the majors home. All signs point to another big season from Goldschmidt, especially if A.J. Pollock repeats his breakout batting in front of him.

My Projections: 103 R 34 HR 112 RBI 19 SB .316 BA

My gut says to go with Trout, but based on the numbers I actually think I like Goldschmidt a bit more. I'd expect him to hit for a higher average, steal more bases, and knock in a few more runs. However, you usually need at least three (often five) outfielders as opposed to only one first baseman, so positional scarcity might sway me back to Team Trout.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

January Hot Stove Roundup: Position Players

Davis struck the richest deal for a position player last month (Baltimore Sun)
After being mostly neglected during the first half of the offseason, position players dominated Hot Stove headlines in January. Here are my thoughts on some of last month's biggest (and not so big) signings.

Like everyone else, I did not expect Cespedes to re-up with the Mets, who seemed unlikely to fork over the nine-figure contract that Cespedes seemed assured of. It's still unlikely Cespedes will be a Met beyond next year--his deal includes an opt-out after 2016--especially if his numbers are anything close to last year's. So if we treat this contract as a one-year deal that will pay Cespedes $27.5 million next year, he only needs to be worth between three and four wins in his age-30 season to earn his hefty salary. Given that he's exceeded 3.5 wins (per B-R) in all but one season so far, that's not asking a whole lot.

As predicted, San Diego's infield was a disaster last year. The shortstop situation was especially ugly, with Padres combining to bat a paltry .228/.279/.365 at the position. It's almost impossible to be any worse, but then Mr. Ramirez may not be significantly better. The 34 year-old hit .249/.285/.357 last year, and it's hard to imagine his numbers improving much after switching from one of the best hitter's parks in baseball (U.S. Cellular Field, where he hit 60 percent of his homers and his OPS was nearly 60 points higher than it was everywhere else) to the worst.

After boldly rejecting Baltimore's original seven-year, $154 million offer, Davis ended up signing with the Orioles after all--for seven years and $161 million. Good thing he waited a month to squeeze that extra $1 million per season out of the O's...

Rockies sign Gerardo Parra: 3 yrs/$27.5 M

It will be interesting to see how Coors Field affects Parra's numbers. I can't imagine they'll improve by leaps and bounds, given that he's spent his whole career in hitter's parks and is coming off a career-year, but he should be a threat to bat .300 for the first time. Of course, that might be a mostly-empty .300 since he hardly walks and has league average power at best. If I were the Rockies, I'd be more concerned about how he's going to handle Colorado's spacious outfield, since Parra's posted subpar defensive metrics in each of the past two seasons. Since this  acquisition was the impetus for Colorado's instantly regrettable Corey Dickerson trade, I give this move a big thumbs-down.

Tiger sign Justin Upton: 6 yrs/$132.75 M

Like many recent deals, this one includes an opt-out, allowing Upton to hit the market again after his age-29 season. But while Upton may only be a Tiger for two years, those are the years you want to have a ballplayer. Plus, Detroit's championship window is rapidly closing, and it's very likely that they'll need to blow their team up by the time Upton is a free agent again. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander will be 35. Ian Kinsler will be 36. Anibal Sanchez will be 34, Jordan Zimmermann 32, and Victor Martinez almost 40. The Tigers have all their important players signed through the next two years, so it's now or never.

Giants sign Denard Span: 3 yrs/$31 M
The Giants got a great deal on Span, signing him at a reduced rate after he missed much of last year with injuries. Just how much of a steal is he? Consider that, over the past four years and at the same ages, Span's been as valuable as Jacoby Ellsbury, who's making twice as much on an annual basis:

Ellsbury 2012-2015: 468 G  .276/.331/.396 (101 OPS+)  11.9 bWAR
Span 2012-2015: 498 G  .290/.344/.402 (105 OPS+)  11.8 bWAR

Well played, Brian Sabean.

The Brewers needed a first baseman after trading Adam Lind in December; enter Mr. Carter. While Lind is older and more injury-prone, he's also a much better hitter. Carter is more of a Carlos Pena/Mark Reynolds type, with huge power numbers offset by equally high strikeout rates and terrible batting averages. Before cratering to .199/.307/.420 last year, though, Carter compiled an OPS just shy of .800 from 2012-2014. Since he just turned 29 and is one of the few players capable of popping 30 homers, he should be a good bet to give Milwaukee a cheap offensive boost.

The Royals aren't known for making big splashes during free agency, but they made an exception here for the face of their franchise. While Gordon may not be the best player on the Royals anymore (that would be Lorenzo Cain), he's still incredibly valuable and one of their most important assets. And though he's going to be 32 in a week, Gordon has the kind of all-around skill set that typically ages well, meaning he shouldn't be a burden to Kansas City's payroll.

Washington has desperately needed an upgrade at second base for some time now, as Danny Espinosa just wasn't cutting it. Well, the Nats got one in Murphy, a solidly above average hitter who can run a little and may only now be tapping into his power potential. It's a well-known fact that second basemen don't age well, but this contract should work out for Washington since it doesn't extend into Murphy's mid-30s.