Saturday, November 30, 2013

Vern Stephens for Cooperstown

Stephens had a ten-year run that few shortstops have equaled
Vern Stephens isn't in the baseball Hall of Fame, but he should be.

"Junior" Stephens was one of the best-hitting shortstops of all-time, especially before the golden age of shortstops in the 1980s and '90s transformed the position. When he retired after the 1955 season, he was the all-time home run leader at the position. Among players who were primarily shortstops, only Honus Wagner and Joe Cronin had knocked in more runs or posted a better career slugging percentage.

For a full decade from 1942 to 1951, Stephens averaged 22 home runs and 105 RBI per season with a .290/.360/.474 batting line, power numbers that were unheard of for a shortstop of the period. He also compiled 41.3 bWAR over this span, made seven All-Star teams and earned all 2.12 of his career MVP shares by finishing in the top ten on six separate occasions. According to FanGraphs only Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Lou Boudreau were more valuable during this time. Only Ralph Kiner and Williams socked more home runs, only Musial had more hits, and nobody drove in more runs.

That's especially impressive considering he spent the first half of his career toiling for terrible St. Louis Browns teams, where he was not afforded the luxury of being surrounded by offensive talent (yet still led the league in RBI in 1944). That changed when he and Jack Kramer were traded to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for six players and $310,000 (about $3.25 million in today's money). Joe McCarthy installed Stephens as the team's cleanup hitter, a spot that provided plenty of opportunities to drive in runs with Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and the great Ted Williams batting in front of him. That, plus playing half his games at Fenway Park (where he was a .314/.395/.540 career hitter) transformed Stephens into a premier run-producer. In his first three seasons with Boston, he whacked 98 home runs and drove in 440 runs, twice leading the major leagues in RBI with 159 in 1949 (tying Williams) and 144 in 1950 (tying teammate/Rookie of the Year Walt Dropo).

It goes without saying that had Stephens come up with the Sox or been traded earlier, he'd be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. The same can be said if he had managed to remain productive during the 1950s. Unfortunately, Stephens was finished as an everyday player at the age of 31 and was out of baseball by 35. Shifting to third base did little to slow the swift decline that stunted his career totals--he just barely reached 1,000 runs scored and fell shy of 2,000 hits and 3,000 total bases. He played 15 years, but in only eight of those did he appear in more than 120 games. The problem with Stephens' career, then, is that almost all of his value is tied up in that ten year-stretch. He recorded just two plate appearances before it began and was greatly diminished in the 308 games that followed.

Even so, Stephens is more deserving than almost half of the 21 shortstops already enshrined in Cooperstown.  He was a better hitter than Appling, Pee Wee Reese, Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith and Travis Jackson. He was a better player than Phil Rizzuto, Joe Tinker, Joe Sewell and Rabbit Maranville. His career 119 OPS+ is the tenth best of any shortstop who debuted since 1900 and rates better than that of Derek JeterBarry LarkinRobin YountLuke Appling and Cal Ripken Jr, among others. He's one of only 14 shortstops to play at least ten seasons and post an above average OPS+. His 122 OPS+ as a shortstop ranks third in that pool behind only Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, arguably the two best-hitting shortstops of all-time.

A lot of great shortstops have come along in the last 30 years, diminishing Stephens' place in history by blowing his numbers out of the water. They raised the standards for the position, standards by which Stephens falls short. But based on how shortstops performed before then, typically as offensively-challenged glovemen, he was one of the best. The Hall of Fame is supposed to recognize the best players of their era, and there's no question that Stephens was one of the best in his.

Ten years of greatness might not be enough for some people. They want to see players have long, full, productive careers. Ten years is a long time, though. I can think of lots of Hall of Famers who didn't have ten good years: Jackie Robinson, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg. Ten years is a big sample size, and that's why in this case it's good enough for me.

At the very least, Stephens still rates as one of the best offensive shortstops of all-time and should be recognized as such.

2013 MLB All Breakout Team

My one rule is that I don't include anyone who received Rookie of the Year votes:

C Jason Castro
The rebuilding Astros were terrible again in 2013, losing 111 games and finishing dead last in their first season in the American League West. But Castro, the team's lone All-Star representative, was one of their few bright spots. In his third big league season, the tenth overall pick of the 2008 draft built off a solid 2012 by hitting .276/.350/.485, good for a 130 OPS+. He showed good power, too, crushing 35 doubles and 18 home runs in just 120 games. Throw in his not-terrible baserunning (especially for a catcher) and respectable defense, and he was worth 4.5 bWAR. He's worth keeping an eye on in 2014--his age 27 season.

1B Matt Adams
The beefy slugger asserted himself while Allen Craig was out by popping 17 home runs in just 296 official at-bats. He batted a rock solid .284/.335/.503 in his sophomore season, leading Cardinals fans to wonder what kind of fireworks he has in store for 2014.

2B Matt Carpenter
Carpenter was arguably the most valuable player in the National League this season with more runs (126), hits (199), and doubles (55) than anybody in baseball. And yet, MVP voters felt Yadier Molina to be the more valuable Cardinal.

3B Josh Donaldson
Unheard of coming into the season, he was being hailed as a legitimate MVP candidate come September. He finished fourth behind Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis after leading Oakland to its second straight division title. All the 27 year-old did was hit .301/.384/.499 (148 OPS+) with 24 home runs and 93 RBI. Donaldson's potent bat combined with top-notch defense at the hot corner made him an eight-win player in 2013. Manny Machado has a case to be made as well, but we all knew he was going to be great.

SS Jean Segura
The 23 year-old Dominican emerged as one of the best shortstops in baseball. Coming off an unspectacular 45-game debut in 2012, Segura settled in as the Brewers' everyday shortstop and proved he belonged in the Show. He made his first All-Star team on the way to batting .294 with 44 steals--second only to Eric Young in the Senior Circuit. He also flashed decent power with 12 home runs, 10 triples and 20 doubles, putting together a Starlin Castro-esque season that was worth close to four wins above replacement.

LF Domonic Brown
Hailed by many during the preseason as a breakout candidate, Brown made good on those predictions in his first full big league campaign. He was named to the All-Star team after a sizzling five-week stretch from May 2nd through June 8th in which he bashed 16 home runs and drove in 36 runs over a 35-game span. May's NL Player of the Month cooled off considerably after that and was slowed by injuries as well, but still finished the season with 27 big flies, 83 RBI and an .818 OPS. The slugging left fielder needs to show more plate discipline but certainly has the potential for a 30 homer, 100 RBI season in 2014.

CF Carlos Gomez
I covered Gomez's sterling first half in June, and while he wasn't able to maintain that pace he still wound up with some pretty amazing numbers. Like his 8.4 bWAR--more than any National League position player--which he owes mainly to tremendous defense in center field as well as his excellent baserunning. With 24 roundtrippers and 40 steals in 47 attempts, Gomez was the best blend of power and speed in the game (better than Trout, Andrew McCutchen, and the next guy on this list).

RF Will Venable
It's strange to see a 30 year-old break out in his sixth major league season, but that's exactly what Venable did. He had been a serviceable outfielder for San Diego but took his game to new heights in 2013. He set career highs in numerous categories, including the three triple crown categories (.268--22--53) in what was easily his best season to date.

U Daniel Nava
Nava's incredible life story is well-known by this point, but few expected him to be much of anything for the Red Sox in 2013, let alone their best hitter outside of David Ortiz. The 30 year-old outfielder batted .303/.385/.445, posting the fifth-best OBP in the American League and forcing his way into 134 games. He was one of the most pleasant surprises on a team that exceeded everyone's expectations by winning the World Series.

SP Hisashi Iwakuma
Iwakuma took a major leap in his second big league season and his first as an everyday starting pitcher. He finished third in the AL Cy Young race behind Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish thanks to his 2.66 ERA (third among AL hurlers) and 1.01 WHIP (second) in almost 220 innings (second), a marriage of excellence and durability that was worth seven wins above replacement. More impressively, he managed to outpich star rotationmate Felix Hernandez.

SP Andrew Cashner
Following three middling seasons as a reliever, Cashner established himself as a capable starting pitcher after moving into the Padres rotation. Along with the best walk and home run rates of his career, Cashner posted a 3.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 175 innings.

SP Patrick Corbin
Wasn't anything special as a rookie in 2012 but made the All-Star team in 2013 on his way to going 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA and 178 punchouts in 208.1 innings. He emerged as the ace of the Diamondbacks staff, outpitching more established hurlers such as Wade Miley, Ian Kennedy, and Brandon McCarthy.

RP Luke Hochevar
Terrible as a starter (5.44 ERA), the seven-year veteran came out of the Royals bullpen exclusively in 2013 and was one of the team's top relievers. In 58 appearances he managed a 1.92 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 4.82 K/BB ratio. Finally realizing that Hochevar was not cut out to be a starter has to rate as one of the organization's smartest decisions in the past two decades.

RP Jason Grilli
With Joel Hanrahan gone, Grilli emerged as one of the National League's premier closers. A first-time All-Star at age 36, he saved 33 games for Pittsburgh in his first season as a full-time closer. He also posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and an outrageous 13.3 K/9 rate.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Helton is Hall-Worthy

Helton was one of baseball's best hitters and a deserving Hall of Famer
After 17 years, 2,247 games and 9,453 plate appearances--all with the Colorado Rockies--Todd Helton is calling it a career.

Though his retirement was not met with the same fanfare as Mariano Rivera or Chipper Jones, like them Helton was able to leave the game on his own terms. Felled by a forearm strain early in the year, he was able to return and remained healthy the rest of the way, getting into 124 games and bouncing back from a dismal and injury-shortened 2012. He notched his 2,500th hit on September 1st with a double off Curtis Partch. Helton hit a lot of doubles in his career: 592 of them--the most of any active player and 16th most all-time.

Partch, a rookie, was just ten years old when Helton made his big league debut on August 2nd, 1997 at the age of 23. Helton homered that day and the next, the first of many power barrages that would result in 369 trips around the bases throughout his career. The following year he inherited Andres Galarraga's first base gig and finished second in a closely contested Rookie of the Year race to Kerry Wood. In 1999 Helton was even better, topping 30 homers and 100 RBI for the first time while batting a robust .320/.395/.587. He was just getting warmed up.

Before long Helton had emerged as one of the most dominant hitters in baseball. It's easy to forget now, but his prime was Ted Williams-esque. Over the five year stretch from 2000 through 2004, Helton batted .349/.450/.643, posting an OPS over 1.000 each year while averaging 50 doubles, 37 homers, 123 RBI and seven wins per season (He even won three Gold Gloves during that span, though defensive metrics disagree). Only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were more valuable per fWAR during that time. Helton's 2000 and 2001 seasons were two of the best any hitter has ever had, and there's no doubt in my mind that he (or Bonds) should have been named Most Valuable Player in 2000, when he won the NL Hank Aaron award. That was the year he threatened .400 for much of the season, ultimately settling for the sabermetric triple crown with his .372/.463/.698 line in addition to his 405 total bases and 8.9 bWAR. How Jeff Kent walked away with the hardware that year, when he wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, remains a mystery.

The Rockies were quick to reward their star first baseman the following spring with a nine-year contract extension worth $141.5 million that kept him in Colorado through 2011. What they couldn't predict was that Helton, so remarkably consistent in the first half of his career, would decline so quickly in his early 30s and never again be the dominant offensive force he was during the early aughts. Helton failed to top 20 homers or slug north of .500 in a season after 2005 as age and injuries sapped his power. In 2007 he was instrumental in helping the Rockies reach their first and only World Series appearance in franchise history, only to disappear (three hits--all singles--in 16 at-bats) in the Fall Classic as Colorado was swept by the Boston Red Sox.

His career continued to go south from there. Unlike Teddy Ballgame, Helton wasn't able to remain an elite hitter throughout his 30s. He played past his 40th birthday but wasn't able to get much out of his last six seasons, missing an average of 50 games per year while hitting just .279/.373/.430, averaging only 11 home runs and 53 RBI per year. That lack of a strong finishing kick prevented him from reaching several notable milestones such as 600 doubles, 400 home runs and 1,500 RBI. In this regard Helton was a lot like Don Mattingly: both experienced incredible peaks, only to see their production curtailed by injuries throughout their 30s (Jeff Bagwell is a good comparison as well).

As such, I think most would agree that while his counting numbers are very good, they mirror those of other borderline candidates like Dwight Evans, Dave Parker and Dick Allen. They don't scream Hall of Fame. His rate stats (.316/.419/.539, 20th best OPS of all-time) do, but many will be quick to point out that they were enhanced by Colorado's thin air. Indeed, Helton batted .345/.441/.607 at home but was just a .287/.386/.469 hitter (nearly 200 OPS points worse) everywhere else. This doesn't bother me, though. Plenty of guys are in the Hall of Fame because they played the bulk of their careers in hitter's parks. It's hardly fair to penalize Helton but not Jim Rice, Mel Ott, Duke Snider, or the countless others who took advantage of their home parks' friendly conditions.

While it's true that Helton was nothing special outside of Coors Field, I think he has a much better case than most people realize. JAWS rates him as the 13th best first baseman of all-time, with his score almost matching that of the average Cooperstown inductee at the position. He rates just below Willie McCovey but higher than Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Mark McGwire, and Orlando Cepeda, to name a few. He can't stack up with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Frank Thomas, of course, but he still rates comfortably within the standards of the position. His peak was brilliant, and he had enough success in other years to round out his resume.

Based on the middling vote totals of former teammate Larry Walker, I get the sense that there probably won't be a lot of support for Helton's enshrinement either. Like Walker, they'll write him off as a byproduct of Coors Field. But Helton belongs in Cooperstown, and you don't have to squint that hard to see it.

Still don't believe me? Here are some more interesting factoids about the Toddfather that show just how special he was as a hitter:

-He is the only player to hit at least .315 with 25 homers and 95 RBI in each of his first full seven seasons (Albert Pujols missed joining him by one percentage point on his sophomore season batting average)
-He is the only player in National League history to have at least 200 hits, 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 extra base hits and 100 walks in one season (2000)
-He is the only player in baseball history with more than 100 extra base hits in back-to-back seasons (2000-'01)
-He is the only player in baseball history to hit more than 35 doubles in 10 consecutive seasons (1998-2007)
-He is one of only four men (Chuck Klein, Gehrig, and Foxx are the others) to accumulate over 400 total bases in consecutive seasons (2000-'01)
-Gehrig and Bill Terry are the only other first basemen to hit .315 or higher in eight straight years (1998-2005)

I rest my case.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Nolasco to Twins

Nolasco provides pitching help to a team that desperately needs it
Last night the Minnesota Twins handed out the biggest free agent deal to a starting pitcher in this young offseason by singing Ricky Nolasco for four years and $49 million. Given the eye-popping amounts of money that have been handed out to pedestrian and slightly above average players in recent days, that sounds about right and dare I say it (gulp), reasonable.

The contract, which includes a vesting option for a fifth year, is the largest ever given to a free agent by the Twins. It reflects more on Minnesota's need for rotation help more than it does Nolasco's pitching skills. Twins starting pitchers posted the worst ERA, fewest innings and fewest quality starts in baseball. And while Nolasco is a number three starter at best, he'll provide stability and league average skills to a rotation that could use a healthy dose of both.

Nolasco has been notorious for never pitching as well as his peripherals suggest he should. His inconsistency throughout the course of a season is maddening, as he can look like one of the best pitchers in some days but get shelled in others. What's equally frustrating is that he never took the leap many expected after his 2008 season, in which the then-25 year-old went 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 4.43 K/BB ratio. Instead he regressed into a subpar pitcher, posting a 4.68 ERA (87 ERA+) and 1.32 WHIP for mediocre Marlins teams over the next four years.

2013 marked a return to form for Nolasco, who managed his best numbers since his 2008 breakout. Splitting time with the Marlins and Dodgers, he maintained a 3.70 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in nearly 200 innings of work. He pitched well for LA down the stretch, helping them win the NL West.

Hopfully Nolasco enjoyed the taste of pitching in meaningful baseball games, because he doesn't figure to experience too many of those in 2014. The Twins are in rebuilding mode, having lost 96 games in each of their past two years and 99 games the year before that. Spending close to $50 million on an innings-eater isn't the best use of their resources, but then again that's exactly what Theo Epstein did to acquire Edwin Jackson a year ago. All Nolasco has to do to earn his keep is provide around two wins above replacement per year, something he came close to accomplishing in each of the past two seasons per bWAR (and has easily exceeded per fWAR).

That might prove to be difficult for a lifetime National Leaguer transitioning to the American League, though. I'd expect Nolasco's numbers to regress closer to his 2009-2012 levels, with an ERA over four, probably closer to four and a half. That's still an improvement for Minnesota, just not the kind that's going to make much of a difference without a complement of other moves or young guys stepping up.

Given that Jhonny Peralta just made about the same amount of money, this deal doesn't look quite so bad. The Twins addressed a need by upgrading their rotation, but still have a long way to go before getting back to their winning ways from last decade. I want to think their money would have been better spent elsewhere, but then again there's not a whole lot they could've spent it on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

2014 Hall of Fame Ballot Newcomers

Here's a look at the 19 players appearing on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.

The shoo-ins--These are the guys who deserve to go in (but might not get in this year):
Tom Glavine
Wasn't as dominant as his rotation-mate Maddux but was still very good for a long time. Glavine pitched until he was 42 and won 305 games, topping 20 in a season five times, but wasn't merely a compiler. He received two Cy Young awards, finished runner-up twice and third twice. He also made 10 All-Star teams. A closer look at his peripherals such as his 1.31 WHIP, 5.3 K/9 rate and 3.95 FIP, reveals that he's a bit overrated by traditional metrics, but that shouldn't (and won't) keep him out of the Hall.

Jeff Kent
On their own, his numbers already look exceptional, but when you consider that he spent the majority of his career playing second base they look even better. He leads the position in home runs with 351 of his 377 big flies coming there, and he's also the only second baseman with six straight 100 RBI seasons. He also spanked 560 doubles, topped 1,500 RBI and approached 2,500 hits. All that aside, Kent isn't the slam-dunk he should be because he never led the league in anything important (besides sacrifice flies, which he did on two separate occassions). Outside of his 2000 MVP award (which Barry Bonds deserved) his resume is a bit light with five All-Star appearances and four Silver Sluggers, numbers that don't scream best-hitting second baseman of all-time. Last year Mike Piazza proved that being the best hitter at a position doesn't guarantee entry into Cooperstown, and because of that I don't see Kent making it in this year.

Greg Maddux
A no-brainer. Easily one of the ten best pitchers of all-time, and not a whisper of PED use. Those who doesn't put his name on their ballot (and there will be some) should have their voting privileges stripped away.

Frank Thomas
For most of the 1990s, the Big Hurt was about as good as a righthanded hitter as the game has ever known, posting numbers on par with Jimmie Foxx, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, and Joe DiMaggio. From 1991 through '98 Thomas was the American League's best hitter, reaching the century mark in runs, RBI, and walks every year while winning back-to-back MVP awards in 1993 and '94--something that hadn't been done in the American League since Roger Maris won in 1960 and '61. He was the third most valuable player in baseball over that span, behind only Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Though he was dogged by injuries during the second half of his career, his bat was still potent enough to push his numbers into clear Cooperstown territory: 521 big flies, 1,704 RBI, 1,667 walks, and just short of 1,500 runs, 2,500 hits and 500 doubles. He maintained his stellar rate stats to the end, finishing up with a .301/.419/.555 line that's a near perfect match for Mickey Mantle (.298/.421/.557). While it's true that Thomas was a one-dimensional ballplayer, he was so ridiculously good at that one dimension that he's an obvious Hall of Famer.

Mike Mussina
Some people may view him as a borderline candidate, but JAWS, Gray Ink, Hall of Fame monitor and Hall of Fame standards all say he belongs in Cooperstown. Though he never won a Cy Young award or World Series and had just one 20 win season (in his final year), Mussina is Hall-worthy in my eyes. Much like Glavine, he was very very good for a number of years. His tremendous consistency is reflected in the fact that he finished in the top-six of the Cy Young voting nine times, including his last season when he was about to turn 40. For fans who put stock in pitchers' records, he notched double digit wins in each of the 17 seasons following his rookie year, piling up 270 in all (against 153 losses, good for a stellar .638 winning percentage). The more important number is his 83 bWAR, which puts him ahead of Glavine, Nolan Ryan, and Jim Palmer. What makes his career even more impressive is that he spent his entire career pitching in the AL East when offensive numbers were exploding across baseball.

The Hall of Very Good--These players had good, distinguished careers but fall short of Cooperstown:
Moises Alou
While Alou's rate stats are very good (.303/.369/.516), his counting numbers don't quite measure up (like a poor man's Larry Walker in this regard). In only two of his 17 seasons was he more than a four-win player, per BR. His case isn't helped by his bouncing around, suiting up for seven different teams in his 17 seasons  and spending three or fewer years with all but one of those clubs (Montreal). The amazing thing about Alou was how he never had a bad season. After posting a 38 OPS+ in his first season, which lasted all of 20 at-bats, he never again fell below 100 in that statistic. He was a great hitter 'til the very end, hitting .342/.391/.507 in his age 40 and 41 seasons combined.

Luis Gonzalez
Reminds me a lot of Shawn Green in that they both had really good five-year peaks and ended up with similar career numbers:

Green: 328 homers, 162 steals, .283/.355/.494, .850 OPS, 120 OPS+
Gonzo: 354 homers, 128 steals, .283/.367/.479, .845 OPS, 119 OPS+

Green, of course, received just two votes and fell off the ballot after his first try, which doesn't bode well for Gonzalez.

Kenny Rogers
Pitched 20 seasons and was below average in only three of them. Though he didn't become a full-time starting pitcher until he was 28, he compensated by lasting until he was almost 44. Rogers compiled more than 50 bWAR, which is a pretty substantial figure, and won 219 game while throwing more than 3,300 innings. His numbers would certainly look better if he hadn't made all but 12 of his 474 starts in the American League, or if he hadn't pitched at the height of the steroid era, but he simply didn't have the dominant peak that one needs to be a Hall of Famer.

Guaranteed to fall off the ballot
Armando Benitez, Mike Timlin, Paul Lo Duca, Ray Durham, Sean Casey, J.T. Snow, Jacque Jones, Eric Gagne, Todd Jones, Hideo Nomo, Richie Sexson

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hot Stove Roundup

I've already broken down the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler blockbuster trade as well as the Brian McCann signing, so now it's time to look at the flurry of smaller moves that have been made over the past week or so.

Phillies sign Carlos Ruiz for 3 years, $26 million
Philadelphia has caught a lot of flak for "overpaying" Ruiz, who's about to turn 35, but frankly I don't think this deal is as bad as everyone's saying it is. I mean yeah, Ruiz is getting older and has trouble staying healthy, but his on-base ability (.358 career OBP) makes him an asset with the bat. I'm willing to chalk up last year's struggles to injury, especially since he batted .274/.327/.384 after returning from the Disabled List for good. His monster 2012 was clearly an aberration, but all he has to do is produce four-to-five wins over the life of this contract to make it work out for the Phillies. If he can stay above average with the stick then that shouldn't be too hard.

Dan Haren signs with Dodgers for 1 year, $10 million
While it seems strange that LA would use its seemingly infinite financial resources on a 33 year-old pitcher who has gone 22-27 with a 4.50 ERA over the past two seasons, this move actually makes a lot of sense. Despite those ugly Triple Crown numbers, Haren's maintained an outstanding 4.25 K/BB ratio as well as a respectable 1.27 WHIP during that time. What's more, in 2013 his xFIP was exactly a full run lower than his 4.67 ERA. This a low-risk deal that could pay big dividends if Haren bounces back but won't hurt them too much if he doesn't. And moving to Dodger Stadium, a notoriously good park for pitchers, greatly improves Haren's rebound chances.

Kansas City Royals sign Jason Vargas for 4 years, $32 million
Another puzzling move by the Royals, who just can't seem to figure out how to invest what little money they have. Vargas is by no means a bad pitcher and has value as a back of the rotation innings eater, but there's absolutely no reason Kansas City should be shelling out more than $30 million for a fourth or fifth starter, especially since their rotation looks pretty thin beyond James Shields.

Jhonny Peralta signs with St. Louis for 4 years, $52 million
While the Cardinals filled an offensive black hole at shortstop, I hate this deal for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is Peralta's inconsistency. He's either great or he sucks. At his best he's an All-Star caliber player, as he was in 2011 and 2013. But sandwiched in between those two years was a dreadful season in which he batted .239/.305/.384, numbers that look eerily similar to his 2009-'10 production (combined .252/.313/.383). Throw in his PED use, and it's fair to wonder whether his 2013 production was a bit "enhanced." After hitting a career-high .303 last year, the 31 year-old has nowhere to go but down. On top of that, he's a poor baserunner and roughly average defender with the kind of body that doesn't age well, which is only going to make him more of a liability in those two areas going forward My thinking is that almost any alternative would have been superior to Pete Kozma, so why go out and spend $52 million for a PED user who's best days are probably behind him?

Cardinals trade David Freese and Fernando Salas to Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk
This is a pretty solid deal for both sides. The defending National League champs get an upgrade in center with Bourjos, who plays Gold Glove caliber defense and brings speed to a lineup that ranked dead last in stolen bases last year. 2014 will be his age-27 season too, so big things could be in store for him. Grichuk is a fun name to say and has shown power down on the farm, but is going to need to improve his patience if he wants to stick at the big league level.

LA had a terrible bullpen last year and Salas, a mediocre reliever, won't do much to fix that. The real question is which Freese are the Angels getting? Is it the postseason legend who batted .296/.363/.446 in his first four seasons and made the All-Star team in 2012? Or is it the Freese who slumped to .262/.340/.381 last year, looking utterly lost at the plate? He'll be 31 next year, so he still has some bounce back potential, and even if he doesn't rebound to his previous levels he'll still be a significant improvement over the Angels third basemen (mainly Alberto Callaspo, Andrew Romine and Chris Nelson) who batted a measly .246/.304/.333 in 2013.

Tim Hudson signs with Giants for 2 years, $23 million
Huddy's 38 and has seen his ERA rise in three consecutive seasons, but expect that trend to stop now that he'll be making half his starts at AT&T. He still has good command, which makes success in San Fran even more likely. At his age health is hardly a given, but he figures to complement a formidable rotation that already features Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.

Angels sign Joe Smith for 3 years, $15.75 million
Not a fan of this deal, but that speaks more about how I feel about multi-year commitments to relievers than it does Joe Smith. Smith's been pretty good the past three years, making at least 70 appearances per season and keeping his ERA under three each year. He's been able to keep runs from scoring despite his middling 2.2 K/BB ratio over that span, which leads me to believe that he's been a bit lucky and is thus not quite as good as his shiny earned run averages suggest. Relievers are particularly volatile, and deals with non-closers typically don't work out. Given that the Angels have more pressing issues (i.e. starting pitching), they would have been wise to focus on rebuilding the rotation first.

Josh Johnson signs with Padres for 1 year, $8 million
The Padres are rolling the dice on Johnson, who posted numbers so unsightly in his lone season with Toronto that they can't be reprinted here. On the bright side, his 9.2 K/9 was the highest of his career and there's just no way he can be that bad again. His 3.58 xFIP suggests he was plagued by extraordinary bad luck, which seems to be the case based on his .356 BABiP, 63.3 LOB% and elevated HR/FB rate. Health is always a concern with Johnson, who's thrown more than 200 innings in a season just once in his nine-year career. Still, I like this low-risk gamble, probably because making half his starts in Petco is going to do wonders for the two-time All-Star.

Rays sign Jose Molina for 2 years, $4.5 million
While he's the least-accomplished of the Molina catching trio, he's still an excellent pitch-framer and game-caller, two skills that are worth their weight in gold. Sure, he's a big 38 year-old who can't hit or run, but the value he provides behind the plate more than makes up for his deficiencies everywhere else. Leave it to the Rays to find a great bargain in an unlikely place.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

McCann Solves Yankees' Catcher Problem

McCann will fill a gaping hole on the Yankees roster (ESPN)
The Yankees made their first major splash of the offseason not by re-signing Robinson Cano, but by inking Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal. The contract includes a vesting option for a sixth year that would push the total value north of $100 million.

In McCann, the Yankees have found their backstop for the rest of the decade, a fixture behind the plate to join the ranks of great Yankee receivers like Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada.

In 2013 that was something New York was sorely lacking. The Yankees missed the playoffs for a variety of reasons--age catching up to them, CC Sabathia having a down year, injuries to Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson compounded by incompetent replacements (Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix)--but it was impossible to overlook just how weak the Yankees were at catcher. New York relied on a combination of Chris Stewart, Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli, who together batted a lowly .213/.289/.298 with just eight home runs. Not re-signing Russell Martin proved to be a huge mistake, as the Yankees simply didn't have capable replacements.

McCann, a seven-time All-Star, should fix that. He's one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball with five Silver Sluggers to prove it (just three catchers--Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, and Lance Parrish have won more).  As steady as they come, he's hit between 18 and 24 home runs in each of the past eight seasons, leading the position in long balls and RBI over that span. He complements that power with good on-base skills (career .350 OBP). Throw in his underrated defense, and when fully healthy he grades out as a four-to-five win player. Since 2006--McCann's first full season behind the dish--only Joe Mauer has accumulated more value at the position per fWAR, and Mauer's about to move to first base.

Detractors will point out that McCann's about to turn 30 and has seen his games played total drop in three consecutive seasons, but age shouldn't be much of a problem going forward now that he can take advantage of the DH. The lefty slugger can also take advantage of Yankee Stadium's short porch in right, which could (should?) boost his power numbers a bit.

This deal makes a ton of sense for the Bombers and represents a big first step in getting them back on track to reach the postseason in 2014. Now that the Yankees have addressed one of their biggest needs, they can turn their attention to another premium position that needs to be filled: second base.*

Though tt's much more likely we'll see New York make a run at an outfielder before they start negotiating with Cano. Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury are all on their radar.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Projecting Fielder, Kinsler

Can Kinsler and Fielder reverse two straight years of decline?
Since Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler were swapped on Wednesday, I've been thinking a lot about how they're going to fare in their new homes. That's what I do for fun when baseball season is months away and top fantasy commodities get traded for each other.

I have to admit, it's salivating to imagine what a slugger like Fielder will be able to do with 81 home games in Texas. My first thoughts were that a return to his 35-40 homer, 120 RBI glory days might be in order. Just like Adrian Beltre left skid marks (and a big contract) behind in Seattle, Fielder was going to ditch Detroit and re-find his power stroke in Arlington's hitter heaven.  He's going to be a beast again!

That's not outside the realm of possibility but, after digging through the numbers, I no longer think it's going to be the case. Fielder's power numbers dropped sharply in the first two seasons of his giant contract, seasons in which he was 27 and 28 when the season began. It's easy to blame  Comerica Park's spacious dimensions for the decline, but in each of his two seasons with the Tigers he hit only 12 home runs on the road. Plus he's probably not going to get as much of an edge (power-wise, that is) from trading home parks as one might expect now that he has so many more road games in the offense-suppressing stadiums of the AL West.

Then again, he's still only 29. I like his chances of a bounce-back to at least his 2012 levels with the potential to reach the heights from his Milwaukee days. I'd be perfectly fine with reaching a bit for him, but first base is so deep that I won't get bent out of shape if someone else is willing to reach a little bit farther.

Here's what I think Fielder's numbers will look like next year (very Ryan Howard-esque):

Fielder's 2014: 92 runs, 33 home runs, 112 RBI, 1 steal, .295/.383/.537

Kinsler's a bit tougher to project. He's going to be 32 next season, and his numbers have dropped off dramatically since his monster 2011. His runs, walks, homers, stolen bases, slugging percentage, and ISO are all trending downward. He pops up an awful lot and doesn't run as well as he used to. To make matters worse, he owed much of his success to the Rangers home park, where he was a career .304/.387/.511 hitter. Everywhere else, though, he's been subpar, as his .242/.312/.399 shows. Going to a much softer division with friendlier road parks should help, but whatever boost he sees there will likely be negated by leaving Arlington behind. All signs point to continued decline.

But while I'm skeptical about Kinsler's chances for a bounce-back, I will readily admit that maybe we're being too harsh on Kinsler. He's not the elite player he used to be, but he's still a good player. 31 isn't terribly old, either. As Dave Cameron pointed out on FanGraphs, everyone wrote off Shane Victorino under similar circumstances last year and it turned out talk of his decline was premature. The same has happened to Carlos Beltran, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Lance Berkman, and countless other players in recent memory.

Therefore, it seems unwise to predict nothing but gloom and doom for Kinsler. He's going to be hitting near the top of a loaded lineup, probably behind Austin Jackson but in front of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. If he can stay healthy, which is never a given with Kinsler, he should be able to provide fantasy owners with pretty useful numbers, especially in the underrated runs scored category.

Kinsler's 2014: 96 runs, 16 home runs, 72 RBI, 12 steals, .268/.331/.402

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Trout/A-Rod parallel

Alex Rodriguez has been in the news a lot lately, but for all the wrong reasons. Mike Trout's name has come up a bit too (for different reasons). I couldn't help but think of the time in the not-so-distant past when Rodriguez, like Trout is now, was celebrated as one of baseball's best young players. Also like Trout, he set himself on the course to Cooperstown with an MVP-type season at the tender age of 20. In fact, their numbers are eerily similar.

A-Rod's 1996: 9.2 fWAR 146 G, 677 PA 141 R 36 HR .358/.414/.631 161 OPS+ 159 wRC+
Trout's 2012: 10.0 fWAR 139 G 639 PA 129 R 30 HR .326/.399/.564 168 OPS+ 166 wRC+

Yes, 16 years before Trout, there was another 20 year-old kid (and former first-round draft pick) who set the world on fire. Like Trout, he played a premium defensive position, posted monster offensive numbers and was voted second in the MVP race. A-Rod was Mike Trout when Trout was still in preschool.

Both players debuted as teenagers, though neither played particularly well (but, to be fair, what kind of 18 or 19 year-old dominates major leaguers?). Their superstar potential was obvious, but no one was truly prepared for them to take the world by storm at such a young age.

Before long they were household names. Both made their first appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the midst of their breakout seasons. Rodriguez made the July 8th, 1996 cover accompanied by an obvious tagline "Hot Player." (He was hitting .336/.387/.609 at the time but was about to get insanely, ridiculously hot). Trout, who appeared on the August 27th, 2012 issue, was dubbed "The Supernatural" with SI asking the question "How can Mike Trout be so good so young?" Both were at the top of their games for much of the summer, only to tail off towards the end of the season. Their less-than-stellar finishes, combined with their teams' failure to reach the postseason, proved to be deciding factors in their MVP candidacies.

Want more similarities? Of course you do! Here are some others I noticed:
  • Both batted at/near the top of loaded lineups. Trout batted leadoff, ahead of Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Torii Hunter. Rodriguez hit second, in front of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. No wonder they led the league in runs scored!
  • Trout posted a .383 BABiP. Rodriguez .382
  • Both had seven sacrifice flies
  • Both reached on an error seven times
  • Both were 20 when the season began and turned 21 during the summer
  • Both made the All-Star team and won a Silver Slugger
  • As stated, both finished second in hotly debated MVP races. The players they lost to, Juan Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera, were one-dimensional sluggers on playoff teams. Even their numbers look incredibly similar--Gonzalez: .314-47-144-1.011 OPS, Cabrera: .330-44-139-.999 OPS
So yeah, before all the money, off-the-field shenanigans, public misfires and PED stuff soured his reputation, there was a time when Rodriguez was exactly like Mike Trout--a kid who was ridiculously skilled at baseball, making good on his seemingly limitless potential. Back in those heady days, nobody could have foreseen what would become of A-Rod's life. I don't think Trout's career will follow the same path as Rodriguez's. I really hope it doesn't.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fielder for Kinsler

Fielder will likely enjoy a resurgence with the Rangers (ESPN)
In a blockbuster challenge trade that rocked the baseball landscape, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers swapped Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler yesterday. Straight up (with $30 million thrown in by Detroit to help cover Fielder's hefty price tag).

What made the deal so earth-shattering was the Fielder had only fulfilled two years of his gargantuan nine-year, $214 million commitment with Detroit. When he joined Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and co. prior to the 2012 season, he was supposed to be the guy who could get them over the hump and bring home a World Series title--something Detroit hasn't done since 1984.

Well, so much for that. After a pair of deep but ultimately unsuccessful playoff runs, the Tigers decided they could live without Fielder. He's still owed $168 mil over the next seven, a sum only a handful of teams can afford.

Texas, who spent just under $140 million on its roster last year, is one such team. I mean, if they can afford to give Kinsler's double play partner Elvis Andrus an eight-year contract extension worth $118 million, then clearly money isn't an issue. The Rangers are flush. Normally that would mean a free agent spending spree is in order, but with so many teams locking up their superstars nowadays there's a considerable dearth of top-shelf talent up for grabs. So rather than shell out upwards of nine figures for the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, the Rangers went out and traded for one of the best-hitting, most famous hitters in the game today.

In Fielder, the Rangers are acquiring one of baseball's best run-producers. Though his power numbers dropped in both of his seasons with the Tigers (Comerica Park did him no favors in that regard), he still managed to blast 55 home runs and drive in more than 100 runs each year. His numbers should see a nice boost in Texas, where he can take advantage of the Ballpark in Arlington. More importantly, he'll provide left-handed power for a team that had next to none (Mitch Moreland, I guess?) without Josh Hamilton last year. He'll team up with Adrian Beltre to form a fearsome heart of the order.

Kinsler's outlook is less optimistic. He's struggled with injuries throughout his career, missing an average of about 30 games per year, which doesn't bode well for a middle infielder in his early 30s. When he does play, Kinsler's an elite second baseman. Since debuting in 2006, Kinsler ranks fourth at the position (tied with Ben Zobrist) in fWAR behind only Chase Utley, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. Kinsler doesn't do any one thing spectacularly well but can do a little bit of everything. He can hit for power, steal some bases, get on base at a decent clip and play capable defense. His numbers are trending in the wrong direction, but he still graded out as a five-win player last year according to Baseball-Reference.

So who won this trade? It's hard to say. Kinsler comes out ahead in comparisons, which are easy to make given that they both became regulars in 2006. Baseball-Reference gives Kinsler the clear edge in WAR, 34.7 to 23.5, which is even more impressive considering Kinsler has played 256 fewer games. With the FanGraphs version they're much closer. Kinsler still holds a slight 29.1 to 27.7 lead, but one-and-a-half wins spread out over eight seasons is negligible. So, on one hand, the Tigers are saving themselves roughly $76 million in future salary commitments and get the superior baseball player. Not only do they fill a hole at the keystone position, but moving Fielder allows also Cabrera (or Victor Martinez) to shift back to first base, which means the Tigers are guaranteed to get better defensively at the hot corner. That sounds like a resounding win for Detroit.

But looking at it another way, it would seem that Texas got the better end of the deal. Fielder is nearly two years younger than Kinsler, after all, and a much better hitter. Much of Kinsler's offensive value was tied up in the Rangers' home park, where he was a .304/.387/.511 hitter as opposed to .242/.312/.399 everywhere else. Comerica Park is offense-friendly too, but not to the same extreme that Arlington is. Plus it's hardly encouraging that he's batted just .200/.298/.329 in his 162 plate appearances there. He'll be a big upgrade over Omar Infante, or whoever else Detroit was planning on playing at second, but he'll be hard-pressed to replicate his Texas numbers in a Tigers uniform (though will probably still do better than his replacement--20 year-old Jurickson Profar--in Texas).

Then again, it's certainly possible that his deal won't work out for either side. While both players are still young (Kinsler is 31 and Fielder will turn 30 in the spring), they're already showing signs of decline. Kinsler's power, defense, and speed have all noticeably deteriorated in each of the past two seasons, a worrisome sign that he's following in the footsteps of so many second basemen before him who aged poorly. Fielder hasn't come close to matching the prodigious power figures he posted with Milwaukee and has seen his OPS fall from .981 in 2011--his final season with the Brewers-- to .819 last year. 2013 was clearly a down year for Fielder, but he's still in his prime and is thus more likely to bounce back rather than keep slipping, but players with his body type typically don't last very long.

The unknown variable in this equation is what Detroit will do with that extra $76 million. As the Red Sox showed last winter, it pays to have financial flexibility. They could be aggressive in free agency this winter, but there's not much out there. A safer bet would be to extend Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who will become a free agent after next season. At the very least, Detroit has options.

In the long run, I like this deal better for Detroit. But in the short run--for 2014, at least--I'd say Texas is the winner.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hall of Five

Joe Posnanski writes about the baseball Hall of Fame an awful lot, and recently he blogged about what he called the "Hall of Five." The question he posed was this: if you only had room in the Hall of Fame for five people, who would you choose? It's a tough question for sure. I've been thinking about this lately and while I'm still not 100 percent certain who belongs, here are my five (in no order):

1. Babe Ruth--The most famous ballplayer of all-time
2. Ty Cobb--Set a dizzying number of records and was more highly regarded than Ruth by many people
3. Willie Mays--Best all-around player
4. Ted Williams--Best hitter who ever lived
5. Walter Johnson--Apologies to Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, and Roger Clemens, but the "Big Train" was the best pitcher of all-time

I think these are the five best baseball players of all-time as well as five of the most famous. That combination makes them ideal Hall of Famers in my book.

I gave a lot of thought to Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, and Lou Gehrig as well.