Friday, February 28, 2014

MLB Offseason Losers

Here are five teams that didn't do so hot during Hot Stove season:

1. Cincinnati Reds
Cincy lost one of their top offensive players in Shin-Soo Choo and didn't do much else besides give Homer Bailey a whole lot of money he didn't deserve.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Bucs are guaranteed to take a big step back after an offseason of inactivity and letting A.J. Burnett go.

3. Boston Red Sox
Boston lost backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia, shortstop Stephen Drew, and the team's most valuable player per fWAR from last year--Jacoby Ellsbury--to free agency. At 37, A.J. Pierzynski is likely too old to replace Salty's production, and the Red Sox are banking on Xander BogaertsJackie Bradley, Jr. and Will Middlebrooks to step up big this year. Given that Bogaerts is just 21 and the latter two struggled last year, that might prove to be a giant mistake.

4. Philadelphia Phillies
Thanks to a lot of questionable moves (signing Marlon Byrd, bringing back Carlos Ruiz), Philly's already aging roster is even older. Their nucleus is too old and washed-up to be championship caliber, but rather than admit that and rebuild the Phillies are tied down by the likes of Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Papelbon.

5. Detroit Tigers
They gave away Doug Fister for nothing and traded a still-in-his-prime Prince Fielder for a clearly declining Ian Kinsler, thus weakening both their starting rotation and their lineup. They still figure to be pretty good in an otherwise light division, but those moves will likely come back to haunt them in the postseason.

MLB Offseason Winners

New York put the pieces in place to make a championship run in Derek Jeter's (MSN)
Minus a few exceptions (Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana), most of the key free agents have signed and the offseason is pretty much over. So who "won" the offseason? Here are the five teams I think are most improved:

1. New York Yankees
Losing Robinson Cano didn't devastate the Yankees, who spent over half a billion dollars this winter. Not only did they land prized Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka to anchor the rotation, but they also added All-Stars Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran to beef up their lineup. I doubt Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts will pan out, but they're guaranteed to get more from Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. After winning just 85 games last year--their fewest in a non-strike season since 1992--and missing the postseason for only the second time in the past two decades, New York should win at least 90 and reclaim their status as one of the American League's elite.

2. Washington Nationals
Washington added Doug Fister to a rotation that already featured Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. Better yet, they didn't give up anyone of value to get him. Nate McLouth brings depth to an outfield that gave way too many at-bats to the likes of Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Scott Hairston last year. Expect the Nats to win closer to 98 games (their 2012 win total) than 86 (last year's total).

3. Texas Rangers
Signing Shin-Soo Choo and trading for Prince Fielder should give their lineup some much-needed oomph, especially given the free agent departure of Nelson Cruz. They also got nine years younger at catcher by replacing A.J. Pierzynski with J.P. Arencibia, who ranks fifth among catchers in home runs over the past three years.

4. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays needed to re-sign David Price and they did, keeping one of baseball's best rotations intact. They also improved their bullpen by signing Grant Balfour and trading for Heath Bell. David DeJesus solidifies the outfield, and first baseman James Loney will return to prove if last year's renaissance was legit.

5. Houston Astros
Houston's still going to be bad, but not as bad as they were last year. They fleeced Colorado for Dexter Fowler, improved their bullpen via Jesse Crain and Chad Qualls, plus landed a decent starting pitcher in Scott Feldman. Things can only get better for a team that lost 111 games last year.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Trout Gets Much-Deserved Raise

If you just got your salary doubled and became a millionaire, you'd be smiling too
Mike Trout will make twice as much money as he made last year, and he'll still be the best bargain in baseball by a mile.

Consider that over the past two seasons, Trout has scored more runs and stolen more bases than anybody in baseball. He's been worth 20.4 fWAR. Nobody else has more than 15 (Andrew McCutchen). He's totaled more fWAR by himself than all the position players on the Mariners, Marlins, and Astros. In fact, he has more fWAR than all the Miami and Houston position players put together. That's absolutely nuts.

Last year alone, Trout was worth as many wins above replacement as all the New York Yankees position players put together (which is really impressive, or sad, considering Robinson Cano was worth six wins by himself). The Angels got more from Mike Trout than six other teams got from all their position players. He had more fWAR than the Marlins, Astros, White Sox, and Mariners combined.

Teams spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get what Mike Trout has provided for just $1 million over the last two years (and somehow LA missed the playoffs both years, despite allocating $250 million to other players during that time). He'll cost the Angels $1 million this year, which will be the most any team has ever paid for a one-year deal from a player who was not yet arbitration-eligible. Ryan Howard and his current teammate Albert Pujols held the previous record of $900,000.

Interestingly enough, all three were voted Rookie of the Year. Here's what else they'd accomplished at the time of signing:

Pujols:   1,351 PA  71 HR  .321/.399/.586  154 OPS+ 12.7 fWAR, MVP runner-up
Howard: 1,094 PA  82 HR  .304/.399/.624  155 OPS+ 8.2 fWAR, 2006 NL MVP
Trout:   1,490 PA  62 HR  .314//404/.544  166 OPS+ 21.1 fWAR, 2 MVP runner-ups

Trout's clearly the best of the bunch in terms of context-adjusted hitting and overall value. Both his predecessors went on to land monster contracts, so the way Trout's career is shaping up it's only a matter of time before he scores a mega-payday of his own.

But for now, he'll have to settle for $1 million.

Trout or Cabrera?

Cabrera and Trout battle for fantasy's top spot (ESPN)
Imagine your fantasy baseball draft day has finally arrived and you scored the first pick. You're sitting pretty. The only question is: who do you take?

Even though any player in the MLB universe can be yours, you only have to consider two options. One is Miguel Cabrera, back-to-back MVP, three-time batting champion, and the most dangerous hitter in the game. The other is Mike Trout, baseball's best player.

So who do you choose? ESPN, MLB and Yahoo all have Trout at number one and Cabrera at number two. I thought it'd be helpful to compare their 5x5 totals from the last two years, with their major league ranks in parentheses:

Cabrera:  212 R (2nd)  88 HR (1st)  276 RBI (1st)  .338 AVG (1st)  7 SB (82nd)
Trout: 238 R (1st)  57 HR (14th)  180 RBI (22nd)  .324 AVG (2nd)  82 SB (1st)

The numbers favor Cabrera who has a huge edge in home runs and RBI. He's a good bet to provide more runs, RBI, home runs, and a higher batting average than anyone else, though the run total will probably go down a bit now that Victor Martinez is batting directly behind him instead of Prince Fielder. He's not going to provide many steals, but you're not drafting him for his speed.

But Cabrera has reached his peak. He's not going to get any better than this (can he?). Trout, on the other hand, is only 22. He still has room to grow. 40/40 is a very real possibility for him. So is winning a batting title, scoring 130 runs and driving in more than 100.

Even if you don't think Trout can get much better, you have to ask yourself if Trout's huge advantage in steals and sizable edge in runs compensate for Cabrera's superiority in the other three categories. Last year they weren't quite enough, as Cabrera was the most valuable player in fantasy baseball, scoring a 15.04 on ESPN's Player Rater. Trout was a not-too distant second at 14.57. It's worth noting that in 2012 Trout came out on top, and Cabrera was third with Ryan Braun sandwiched between them (Braun, coming off an injury-plagued and PED-ruined season, is too big of a question mark to take first this year).

Cabrera loses a bit of value by moving back across the diamond from third base to first, but manning first should help keep him on the field. He's about to be 31 though--the same age Albert Pujols began to decline--and was slowed by injuries in the second half. Cabrera's 2013 games played total was his lowest since his rookie season, which should be taken into account. He carries a bit more age/injury-regression risk than Trout.

It all comes down to a matter of personal taste, I suppose. Trout's game is more rounded and still has room for improvement. If you like to draft upside and/or power-speed guys, then Trout's your man. But if you love mashers you can plug in on Opening Day and never worry about again (of which there are very few), then Cabrera's a no-brainer.

I'd probably pick Trout because I like well-rounded players who can give me a bit of everything, but you can't go wrong with either of them. So if you're on the clock and become overwhelmed with indecision, don't hesitate to flip a coin.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gardner Vs. Granderson

He may not have shiny power numbers, but Gardner's still very valuable
Just when you thought the Yankees were done spending for the winter, they go out and drop $52 million on Brett Gardner to lock him up for the four seasons after this one. That's only $8 million less than the crosstown Mets paid to acquire Curtis Granderson, the man Gardner's replacing in center field.

So did the Yankees make the right call in letting Grandy go but keeping Gardner? Despite very different skillsets, they've provided nearly identical value over the past five seasons. Granderson's been worth 18.4 bWAR, and Gardner's been worth 18.1. But since Gardner was cheaper and is two and a half years younger, I think New York was wise to keep him instead of Granderson.

Especially since Gardner projects to provide more value over the life of his contract. Speed tends to age well whereas power does not, and there are (or should be) serious doubts about whether Granderson can bounce back from an injury-plagued 2013. It's possible that Granderson, a strikeout prone slugger with diminishing wheels and defense, may never be the same. He could go the way of Jason Bay.

Gardner's best comp is probably Michael Bourn, who signed a similar four year deal worth $48 million with the Cleveland Indians last year. Neither one hits for high averages or much power, but both speedsters offer elite defense, baserunning and good on-base ability. They also strike out a lot for guys with no pop:

Bourn '10-'13: 584 G, 106 2B, 32 3B, 19 HR, 195 RBI, 222 BB, 178 SB, ..275/.339/.375 (97 OPS+) 17.3 bWAR
Gardner '09-'13: 578 G, 80 2B, 31 3B, 23 HR, 161 RBI, 222 BB, 148 SB .270/.356/.387 (100 OPS+) 18.1 bWAR

Both signed their deals prior to their age 30 seasons, too. Bourn struggled in his first year of his new contract, but that could be attributed to the league-change combined with injuries that caused him to miss 32 games. Gardner's had his own injury issues--he played just 16 games in 2012 and ended last season on the Disabled List--which may explain why he stole "only" 24 bases after averaging twice that many in 2010-'11. But he was still worth better than four wins last year and should provide similar value in the coming seasons so long as he stays on the field.

Whatever Gardner does over the next half-decade, one thing's for certain: nobody can say he's under-appreciated anymore.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Simmons Latest Brave to be Rewarded

Simmons was worth almost seven bWAR last year largely because of his defense

At the rate they're going, the Atlanta Braves will have their entire team signed through the end of the decade by Opening Day.

Andrelton Simmons is the latest Braves to be rewarded with a payday, following in the footsteps of Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, and Julio Teheran. Simmons received a seven-year, $58 million extension that covers all his arbitration seasons and first two free agent seasons. The deal runs through his age 30 season, which means the Braves won't have to pay for much, if any, of his decline phase.

Assuming Simmons stays healthy, Atlanta's going to get tons of value out of this deal. His masterful glovework at shortstop makes him the most valuable defender in the game, so much so that he had one of the best defensive seasons in recorded history last year. And he's no slouch with the bat either, having hit 17 home runs last year and posting an .807 OPS from July 14th onward. Just 24, he figures to get better with age as he enters his prime years.

I like this deal much better than the one Texas gave to Elvis Andrus last year at the same age. Andrus was more established with four full seasons and two All-Star appearances under his belt, but the difference between the two skills-wise isn't enough to justify Andrus getting an extra year and twice as much money.

In fact, I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Simmons will have the better career. Just last year alone, Simmons hit almost as many home runs as Andrus has hit in his entire career. Simmons also did so while striking out nearly half as often as Andrus does and while working a similar number of walks. Andrus is a better baserunner and plays good defense, but Simmons is so good defensively that he makes up whatever advantages Andrus has and then some.

So while it's hard to imagine Simmons getting such a deal in less enlightened times (he did hit only .248/.296/.396 last year, after all), it stands to reason that Simmons could and should get better. He's going to earn every cent of that money.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Orioles Snag Cruz

Cruz settled for a one-year deal with Baltimore (CBS)
After landing Ubaldo Jimenez earlier this week, the Baltimore Orioles made another splash by inking outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal today. It's a far cry from the four years and $75 million Cruz was reportedly seeking at the offseason's outset, but it turned out few teams were interested in an aging, one-dimensional corner outfielder coming off a PED suspension.

I was down on Cruz earlier in the winter, but even at that price I have to admit he's an absolute steal. $8 million is a worthwhile gamble to take on a two-time All-Star who's averaged 27 dingers per year over the last five. All he has to do is provide little more than a win above replacement to earn his keep, which shouldn't be too difficult even at age 33. Moving to designated hitter full-time should help him stay healthy (a problem for Cruz in the past) and offset some decline.

What's funny about this move is that the Orioles already have plenty of power. Their 212 home runs were 24 more than any other team launched last year, and their .431 slugging percentage ranked third behind Boston and Detroit. They have the game's top slugger in Chris Davis, who blossomed into a modern-day Babe Ruth, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. They also have Adam Jones, who leads all centerfielders in home runs over the last two years., and J.J. Hardy, who has the most long balls of any shortstop since Opening Day 2011 (both of whom play Gold Glove defense, by the way). Discount the 23 taters Mike Napoli hit last year while manning first base for the Red Sox, and Matt Wieters becomes baseball's best catcher at clearing the fences dating back to the start of the 2011 season.

Baltimore didn't need Nelson Cruz, especially since his natural position of right field is already taken by Nick Markakis. But they got him, at a bargain bin price, no less. Even though they had to sacrifice a draft pick to acquire Cruz, I can't fault Dan Duquette for swinging for the fences and hoping Cruz can do better than past DHs like Luke Scott and Vladimir Guerrero.

The only loser in this deal is Cruz himself, who could have made 75% more money had he not declined the Rangers' qualifying offer of $14.1 million. But given that he's a proven cheater, nobody should feel sorry for him.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Capuano Comes to Boston

Capuano is a cost-effective addition to Boston's bullpen
With Ryan Dempster deciding not to return for the 2014 season, the Red Sox were left scrambling for a last-minute replacement. They found a pretty good one yesterday in Chris Capuano, a former All-Star who settled for just $2.25 million in guaranteed money. That's $11 million less than Dempster, which means Boston could still make a play for Stephen Drew.

At this stage in their careers, Dempster and Capuano are pretty much the same pitcher: decent innings eaters who can still strike guys out. Dempster's been more durable and better at missing bats, but Capuano walks fewer hitters and has better command, so the case could certainly be made for the latter, especially since he's also a lefty and over a year younger.

I'm sure Capuano will miss Dodger Stadium and National League competition, but the Massachusetts native should be a capable replacement for Dempster and a solid addition to an already-great Red Sox pitching staff.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bailey Makes Bank

Bailey has good reason to celebrate, but the Reds don't (CBS)
The Cincinnati Reds avoided arbitration with Homer Bailey by inking him to a six-year, $105 million extension that includes a mutual option for a seventh year at $25 million with a $5 million buyout. It's more than twice what Ubaldo Jimenez just got and not far off Freddie Freeman's giant contract extension with the Braves.

That feels like way too much money for a pitcher of Bailey's ilk, which is to say: not an ace. While Bailey's been pretty good over the last two seasons, his body of work does not seem worthy of a nine-figure contract. Here's a pitcher with a 49-45 career record and a below average ERA of 4.25. He's been worth just six wins above replacement in his seven year career and has never led the league in anything besides starts, which he did in 2012. The Reds apparently believe Bailey can improve on those numbers, even though he turns 28 in a few months and probably won't get much better, if at all.

Even after narrowing our focus to the two most recent seasons, Bailey still hasn't been anything exceptional. He's only the 29th most valuable pitcher over that span according to FanGraphs, with the 28th best FIP and 23rd best K/BB ratio. Bailey's never won 15 games, struck out 200 batters, completed 210 innings, posted an ERA below 3.49 or been worth four wins in any of his seven seasons. 

$100 million contracts are typically reserved for the game's best position players and most dominant starting pitchers, and Bailey is neither of those. He's been dominant at times, as he does have a pair of no-hitters on his resume--one in 2012 and another in 2013--but even those don't look so impressive when you dig a little deeper. For starters, both teams wound up with losing records, so his competition wasn't very stiff to begin with.

Anyways, in 2012 he no-hit a Pirates team that struck out more than any National League team except for the Astros and, not surprisingly, ranked third-to-last among NL teams in hits, batting average, and OBP. Plus he had the good fortune of facing them in late September, when they were crashing and burning and some of their best hitters, namely Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, were slumping. 

Last summer, he no-hit the defending champion San Francisco Giants, which would have been more impressive if they didn't lose 86 games and trot out the Senior Circuit's sixth-worst offense. Nobody on that team batted .300 and just one player, Hunter Pence, exceeded 18 home runs and 80 RBI. Hardly Murderer's Row.

So yeah, $105 million (possibly $130 million, which would amount to Johan Santana/Felix Hernandez money) is an absurd amount of money to reward a player that has never received MVP or Cy Young votes and has never been named to an All-Star team (even if he is the only Red to throw a no-hitter in the last quarter century). Bailey's good and durable, which has value, but not enough to merit such a lavish commitment. I can't help but think the Reds felt urged to spend after doing next to nothing this winter when they're only a handful of moves away from giving the Cardinals a run for their money in the NL Central. 

Shelling out big bucks for starting pitching is usually a pretty good idea. But in this case, Cincinnati spent big on the wrong guy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Baltimore Better with Ubaldo

Baltimore is banking on Jimenez to be a front-of-the-rotation guy
With Spring Training heating up and the offseason winding down, the Baltimore Orioles made their biggest splash of the winter by signing Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. Jimenez figures to bolster the Orioles' so-so rotation, which compiled a 4.57 ERA and .776 opponents' OPS last year.

First-off, it's interesting that Jimenez got almost the exact same deal as Ricky Nolasco, who received four years and $49 million from the Twins in early December. Like Nolasco, Jimenez has been something of an enigma throughout his career. Seeing as how they both debuted in 2006 and have made virtually the same number of starts (Nolasco has started one more), they make easy and natural comparisons. Here are some of their career numbers:

Nolasco: 89-75, 4.37 ERA,  97 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 3.76 FIP, 3.52 K/BB,  10.8 bWAR,
Jimenez: 82-75, 3.92 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.35 WHIP, 3.78 FIP, 2.05 K/BB, 20.4 bWAR,

Nolasco's peripherals are better, but you have to give the edge to Jimenez for keeping more runs off the scoreboard. His ERA is nearly half a run lower than Nolasco's, which is really impressive considering how many games Jimenez pitched at Coors Field. Throw in the fact that Nolasco's one year older, and I'm kind of surprised they wound up with identical contracts. If given the choice, I'd rather have Jimenez.

Especially since, at their respective bests, Jimenez was far and away the superior pitcher. Jimenez, you might recall, was one of the best pitchers in the game not too long ago. In the first half of 2010 he was about as dominant as any hurler has ever been, setting the MLB record for lowest ERA (0.78) through his first 11 starts. He was 15-1 at the All-Star Break and started the Midsummer Classic, helping the National League win for the first time since 1996 by delivering two shutout innings. The Cy Young award was his to lose, and at 26 it looked like he had finally come into his own and was about to dominate the league for the next half decade.

Then, without warning, his career went off the tracks. He slumped in the second half, crashed hard in 2011 and hit rock bottom in 2012. Jimenez led the majors with 17 losses that year, but more importantly his control completely abandoned him. He uncorked 16 wild pitches--most in the American League--and saw his walk rate balloon to nearly five batters per nine innings. To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when he did throw strikes he got rocked, giving up more than a hit per inning and surrendering 25 home runs. At the time, it was fair to wonder whether he would ever be a capable starting pitcher again.

Ubaldo Jimenez was broken in 2012 and remained broken for most of 2013. His ERA stood at 4.67 on the Fourth of July. Then something clicked. After that, it was 2.01. Cleveland won all six of his starts in September, hardly a surprise given his 1.09 ERA that month. On the regular season's final day, he delivered a gem, striking out 13 Minnesota Twins and allowing only one run in six and two-thirds innings. Terry Francona's Indians won easily, 5-1, clinching the AL wild card to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Thanks to his furious finish, Jimenez posted the highest strikeout rate (9.6 K/9) and K/BB ratio (2.43) of his career, which helped yield his second-best ERA (3.30). More importantly, he trimmed almost a full batter off his walk rate and got his WHIP down to a more manageable 1.33. Like John Lackey and Jon Lester in Boston or Francisco Liriano in Pittsburgh, Jimenez bounced back and contributed to his team's massive turnaround. His ERA was the best of any Indian who pitched at least 100 innings, and he ranked second on the team in strikeouts, wins, and innings to Justin Masterson.

But rather than stick around and try to help Cleveland get over in the hump in 2014, he opted out of the last year of his contract, hoping to make bank off his rebound season. Sure enough, Dan Duquette came calling at the 11th hour to salvage what had been an otherwise uneventful offseason for the Orioles.

But is this a smart move by Baltimore? Your guess is as good as mine. Jimenez is 30, after all, and has lost nearly four miles off his fastball since 2010 (which may explain why only one of his past seven half-seasons can be characterized as good). He wasn't an ace to begin with, and moving to a much tougher division as well as a hitter-friendly ballpark means he's bound to regress. The general consensus on FanGraphs is that he's going to be worse in 2014 than he was in 2013, and I agree. Any way you slice it, Duquette's taking a pretty big risk on a pitcher who looked totally lost for most of the past three seasons.

On the bright side, his 3.43 FIP and 3.62 xFIP suggests last season's success was not a fluke. He got a little lucky with his stand rate and still walks too many batters, but should be effective so long as he keeps missing bats. Baltimore has a pretty good bullpen and defense, not to mention a great skipper (Buck Showalter) and strong defensive catcher (Matt Wieters), so Jimenez is in good hands.

So while his recent track record isn't encouraging, Jimenez should make the Orioles better. He's a clear upgrade to the starting rotation and will likely add about two or three wins to a team that could really use them given their position on the win curve. He probably won't put them over the top in what figures to be a very competitive AL East, but he could be the difference between Baltimore making the playoffs this year or missing them again. I don't love this deal because I'm not optimistic about Jimenez's future, but in the short-term it looks like a win for the O's.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Age 27 Players

Big things could be ahead for Sandoval in 2014 (MSN)
A quick look at some of the players about to enter their age 27 seasons (in order from oldest to youngest):

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval's been something of an enigma throughout his first six seasons, showing incredible ability at times but having trouble staying consistent and on the field. A free agent at the end of the year, Kung Fu Panda could approach the heights he displayed in 2009 and 2011, when he earned MVP votes for hitting well over .300 with good power.

Colby Rasmus
Like Sandoval, Rasmus has also been maddeningly inconsistent. His solid 2013 production matches up very well with his 2010 breakout, but in between were seasons of sub-.300 OBPs and batting averages in the .220 range. His plate discipline could still use some work, but he has the power to be a 30 homer guy if he can stay healthy.

Yu Darvish
The Rangers ace took a big step forward in 2013, his second big league season. Besides leading the major leagues in strikeouts (277) and strikeout rate (11.9 K/9), he lowered his ERA by more than a full run (3.90 to 2.83) and trimmed his walk rate by almost a batter per inning. It wasn't enough to take the Cy Young away from Max Scherzer, but Darvish did finish second. Don't be surprised if he takes home the trophy this year.

Evan Gattis
Gattis came out of nowhere last year, breaking in as a 26 year-old rookie catcher for the Atlanta Braves. Like most rookies, he didn't exhibit great discipline and had his ups and downs. But the power--21 home runs, 21 doubles (in just 105 games) and a .237 ISo--was tantalizing. Gattis might be a flash in the pan, as older breakouts tend to be, or he could go out and crank 30 homers this year.

Tommy Hanson
Hanson's ERA has risen every year since he broke in with a 2.89 mark in 2009. Last year with the Angels, it jumped almost a whole run, from a not-good 4.48 in 2012 to an unsightly 5.42 in 2013. To be fair, shoulder injuries limited him to just 13 starts, but diminished velocity will likely keep him from becoming the star he appeared on track to be during early days with Atlanta.

Brandon Beachy
Tommy John surgery caused Beachy to miss the majority of the past two seasons, but he looked pretty good in his handful of post-surgery starts last year. A healthy Beachy might be good enough to emerge as a sneaky ace in 2014.

Andrew Cashner
The former first round draft pick broke out in his first season as a regular starting pitcher last year, posting a 3.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 175 innings. He doesn't miss a ton of bats, so he needs to keep the ball in the park and limit his walks in order to maintain his success.

Gordon Beckham
It feels like we've been waiting for Beckham's breakout forever, but he just hasn't come close to matching the promise he showed as a rookie in 2009. His OPS has been below .700 every year since then, and he's been worth three and a half wins total over the last four seasons. Then again, last year's .267 batting average and .322 OBP were his best marks since his rookie campaign, so maybe he'll have a delayed breakout a la Alex Gordon?

Derek Holland
In many ways Holland's 2013 was his best, even if his 10-9 record didn't reflect that. The Texas southpaw set personal bests in pretty much every major category except wins and WHIP. It's hard to imagine him doing much better in 2014, but if he somehow improves he'll be a borderline Cy Young candidate.

Andrew McCutchen
'Cutch proved his 2012 leap to superstardom was for real, even if he did take small steps back in almost every important offensive category. There's no reason to expect anything less from the reigning NL MVP in 2014, and there's the distinct possibility he hits his ceiling and has a monster .300-30-30-100-100 season.

Jonathon Niese
Niese has settled in as a solid and steady pitcher over the past four seasons. Nothing more, nothing less. He aint Matt Harvey.

Desmond Jennings
Jennings handled himself well after taking over for the departed B.J. Upton as Tampa Bay's everyday centerfielder, showing improved power and patience at the plate while cutting down on his strikeouts. The similarities between his numbers and Upton's (pre-2013) are striking, and it looks like Jennings could be in line for his first 20/20 season in 2014.

Wade Miley
Took a small step back from his good 2012, when he was runner-up to Bryce Harper in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Everth Cabrera
Much closer to Orlando Cabrera than Miguel Cabrera, the Padres shortstop was having a career year before his Biogenesis connections curtailed his season.

Michael Saunders
20/20 potential but not much else.

Justin Smoak
Smoak's been unable to live up to the greatness everyone expected of him when he was a first round draft pick in 2008, but last year was a big step towards respectability. He smoked a career high 20 home runs and posted personal bests in all three triple slash stats, which yielded a 113 OPS+.  Smoak probably isn't going to be a star, but at least he can be useful.

Alcides Escobar
Great with the glove but terrible with the stick, Escobar's batted a measly .254/.292/.340 since becoming a regular in 2010. That said, there's 40 steal potential here if he can bat anywhere close to the .293 mark he hit in 2012.

Chris Carter
Carter parlayed a strong part-time showing with Oakland in 2012 into a full-time job with the Houston Astros. Playing everyday exposed his boom-or-bust tendencies, as he swatted 29 home runs but also struck out 212 times, more than anyone else in the majors. A three true outcomes slugger in the same mold as Mark Reynolds, more than half of his plate appearances ended with a walk, whiff or homer.

Ivan Nova
Nova returned to respectability after an atrocious showing in 2012 (5.02 ERA). His three full seasons have yielded vastly different results which makes him somewhat difficult to project, but it looks as though his poor 2012 was an aberration.

Alex Avila
Outside of his excellent 2011, Avila hasn't been very good. But there is a possibility he returns to form.

Austin Jackson
A-Jax wasn't able to replicate his 2012 success and ended up in the middle of that year and the rough season that preceded it. What's more frustrating is that his stolen base numbers have dwindled every year, falling from a high of 27 in his rookie season to just eight last year. He clearly has the wheels to steal more than that, so it seems he was reined in by Jim Leyland. Under him, the Tigers ranked last among all teams in stolen bases and stolen base attempts. Maybe Detroit will be more aggressive under new skipper Brad Ausmus?

Travis Wood
An All-Star in 2013, Wood has made major strides in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs. Chicago can't afford for him to take any steps back.

Pedro Alvarez
Alvarez led the Senior Circuit in home runs (36) and strikeouts (186) last year after posting similar totals (30 and 180) the year before. His power is exceptional, so a 40 homer season doesn't sound out of the question.

Josh Reddick
After a disappointing 2013, Reddick is looking to rediscover the power that produced 32 home runs the year before.

Ike Davis
See Reddick, Josh

Hyun-jin Ryu
Ryu was sensational in his major league debut last year, even as he was overshadowed by rookie teammate Yasiel Puig. It's going to be hard for him to stand out in a rotation headed by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, so he may have to settle for a Hiroki Kuroda level of underratedness.

Buster Posey
Posey will be hard-pressed to do much better than he did in 2012, when he won the NL MVP award and had the highest batting average and OPS+ in baseball. But he'll still probably be pretty darned good.

Peter Bourjos
Could have a Jacoby Ellsbury-type season if he can stay on the field.

Jason Kipnis
Kipnis has emerged as a terrific second baseman for the Indians. He strikes out a lot, probably too much to hit .300, but still brings good power, speed, and on-base skills to the table. His well-rounded game is not far off from Grady Sizemore's or, to make a positional comparison, Dustin Pedroia's. His power tailed off at the end of last year (just two home runs and a .346 slugging percentage from July 22nd onward), so with a stronger finish this year he could clear 20 home runs.

Jay Bruce
Bruce's development has plateaued over the last three years, as he's settled into a streaky .260 hitter good for around 30 homers and 100 RBI per season. Maybe those aren't the elite power numbers some expected from him, but they're still damn good and could go up to 40/120. As long as he keeps batting behind Joey Votto in Cincinnati lineup, he'll have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.

Cameron Maybin
Lots of speed, but not much else.

Jeremy Hellickson
Hell-Boy's 2013 was a lot like Nova's 2012. They're similar pitchers, so maybe a return to form is in store this year?

Danny Espinosa
His plate discipline is a mess, but second basemen with 20/20 potential don't grow on trees.

Gerardo Parra
The two-time Gold Glover displayed decent power last year, stroking 43 doubles and reaching double digit home runs for the first time. If he could just turn a few more of those two-baggers into long balls, he might be able to put together a 20/20 season.

Lance Lynn
Might win 20 games if he could cut down on his walks.

Jason Castro
Castro will look to build off a breakout year in which he batted .276/.350/.485 and made his first All-Star team. The Astros don't have many good players, but this guy's one of them.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Braves Extend Teheran

The Braves signed up for Teheran's bright future (CBSSports)
More than a week after extending their two best position players--Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward--the Atlanta Braves locked up Julio Teheran for the rest of the decade at a bargain bin price of $32.4 million. The six-year deal buys out the rest of his pre-arbitration and arbitration years as well as his first year of free agency. It also includes a $12 million option for 2020, Teheran's age 29 season, which Atlanta will likely pick up assuming he stays healthy and productive.

Teheran was terrific in 2013, his first full season, posting a 3.20 ERA (121 ERA+) with 170 strikeouts in 185-plus innings. He displayed great control for a 22 year-old rookie too, walking just 2.2 batters per nine innings and 45 in all. His 3.78 K/BB rate was one of the ten best in the National League. Most years that probably would have been good enough for Rookie of the Year honors, but not in 2013, which produced one of the most stacked rookie classes in baseball history. Teheran finished fifth in the NL voting, far behind frontrunners Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig.

So based on what we saw last year, it looks like Atlanta is getting a fantastic deal. Teheran's future looks bright, and the upside of signing a player like him after his rookie year is that he still has room to grow and potentially get better. The Braves just got him to sign away his prime for little more than $30 million, which could be a huge steal if Teheran improves into a Cy Young contender or even stays the same as a steady number two. His most similar player by age so far is Kevin Appier, and if Teheran is the next Appier (an All-Star with more than 100 wins and a 3.30 ERA before his 30th birthday) then the Braves are golden.

All long term commitments carry risk, though, and in this case Teheran's track record is so short. Who's to say Teheran isn't just a fluky one-year wonder? Plus, a lot can happen between now and 2020. Teheran could get hurt next year and never be the same. He could flame out after a few seasons. Pitchers are much harder to project than position players because they're so fragile and their performances tend to be more volatile.

But even if Teheran doesn't pan out, $32 million spread out over six years isn't going to cripple the Braves by limiting their payroll flexibility in any way. It won't be a burden the way contracts for Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and others have been. Thus, Teheran is a risk worth taking.

Burnett Joins Phillies

Burnett's been great for the Pirates. Now Philadelphia's counting on him (NESN)

It took them almost the entire offseason, but the Philadelphia Phillies finally made a move that makes sense and improves their team. By signing A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million deal on Wednesday, the Phillies found a short-term solution that fills the void left in the rotation by Roy Halladay's retirement.

And while Burnett has never come close to matching the dominance displayed by Halladay, a two-time Cy Young winner, Burnett's been the far-better pitcher over the past two seasons (the league's eighth-most valuable pitcher, in fact) and thus represents an upgrade. He's not the kind of ace who can add five or six wins to a team by himself, but then again the Phillies don't need him to be. They need rotation depth beyond Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Burnett, a strong number two starer, offers that.

Then again, Burnett is 37, so Philadelphia's banking he can hold off Father Time for one more year. He also didn't fare too well the last time he pitched for an East Coast baseball team with intense fans in the not-so-distant past. So it's definitely possible that Burnett falls apart in 2014. Halladay himself proved how quickly a pitcher can lose it, and Halladay was a much better pitcher than Burnett is, was, or can ever hope to be.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Roy Oswalt Retires

Oswalt was one of the National League's top pitchers for a decade (LATimes)
The 2019 Hall of Fame ballot is going to be crowded with Texas icons. In just the last two weeks Lance Berkman, Michael Young, Roy Oswalt hung up their spikes. All three played for the Rangers at some point, but Oswalt and Berkman spent the bulk of their careers with the Astros.

In fact, their careers followed almost identical trajectories and overlapped very well. They were both exceptional during their time together in Houston, which ended two days apart in 2010. Oswalt was traded to Philadelphia on July 29th, and two days later Berkman was sent packing to the Yankees as the Astros began their teardown (the following summer, Hunter Pence would join Oswalt in Philly and Michael Bourn was dealt to the Braves). Oswalt and Berkman were both great for about a decade, then crapped out in their early 30s and finished their careers with around 50 bWAR.

Oswalt's career was relatively short, lasting just 13 seasons. But during those 13 seasons, he was the third most valuable pitcher in baseball behind only Roy Halladay (a one-time teammate of Oswalt's who also happened to be his most similar pitcher at ages 31, 32, and 33) and CC Sabathia, both of whom are likely Hall of Famers.

Oswalt probably won't be, because his career was too short to make up for never winning a Cy Young award or having a killer peak like Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez. But Oswalt was very good, better than most people realize. He was good enough to finish in the top six of the Cy Young voting six times from 2001-2010, when he was also durable enough to exceed 200 innings seven times and average 202 per season.

He didn't dominate hitters with overpowering velocity the way Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw do today, but instead had great command of his four pitches, consistently finishing among the league's top ten in BB/9 rate and K/BB ratio. That control helped him win an ERA title in 2006 and have a career ERA that was 27 percent better than average.

The three-time All-Star drew MVP votes on four separate occasions. He also won 20 games twice and more than 61 percent of his decisions (for people who care about such things). Oswalt was good enough long enough to be worth 50 wins above replacement level in his career. He was one of the 100 best starting pitchers of all time according to JAWs and bWAR (the latter of which rated him as the league's most valuable pitcher in 2007).

He was also, according to Bill James, the best Big Game pitcher of all-time. Better than Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, and yes, Jack Morris. That sounds like a ridiculous claim to make of a man who get shelled in his only World Series start, but it's true. His teams went 46-12 in the most important games he ever pitched, which is truly astounding.

His shining moment was the 2005 postseason, when he was instrumental in helping Houston reach their first (and only) World Series. In the Divisional Series against Atlanta, with the series tied at one game apiece, Oswalt pitched into the eighth inning of Game 3 and got the win, which helped the 'Stros advance to the NLCS where they were pitted against the defending NL champs.

 In Game 2 versus St. Louis, with Houston needing a win after dropping Game 1, Oswalt shut down the Cardinals with seven innings of one-run ball. Back in St. Louis for Game 6 with the Astros looking to clinch their first pennant in franchise history, Oswalt was once again sublime, holding the Cards to one run on three hits through seven spectacular innings. Houston cruised to victory, and Oswalt was named NLCS MVP.

Unfortunately for him and the Astros, disaster struck in the World Series. The Chicago White Sox won their first World Series since 1917 by sweeping the Astros, just as the Red Sox had done to the Cardinals while ending their own World Series drought the previous fall. You could say the turning point of that series was Game 3 in Houston. With Oswalt on the bump, Houston took a 4-0 lead into the fifth inning and looked like they might just climb back into the series if they could finish off the win. There was still hope.

But in the top of the fifth, Oswalt unraveled. He imploded, allowing Chicago to send 11 men to the plate and score five runs. Houston eventually lost the game in 14 innings, a game they could and should have won. After that their title hopes vanished, and they were shutout in Game 4 as the White Sox popped champagne on their turf.

The Astros haven't been back to the playoffs since. Oswalt would make just four postseason starts after that and never pitch in the Fall Classic again.


Oswalt was one of those rare players who's great from the start and avoids the growing pains/adjustment periods that plague most young stars. He went 14-3 as a 23 year-old rookie in 2001, which gave him the league's best winning percentage. He also posted a 2.73 ERA that was 70 percent better than average when adjusted for league and park, and struck out six batters for every one he walked. Despite making only 20 starts, Oswalt should and would have been a slam dunk for Rookie of the Year most years. But 2001 was an exceptional freshman class, with Ichiro Suzuki taking home the AL award and MVP honors, something only Fred Lynn had ever done, while in the National League Albert Pujols had numbers that were Joe DiMaggio-esque. Pujols won the award unanimously, Oswalt finished a distant second.

But that perfectly embodies how poor Oswalt's timing was. His phenomenal early seasons were overshadowed by Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Then it was Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum. At times he was even obscured by his own teammates: Rocket and Andy Pettitte, Berkman and Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. He got stuck in the "very good" class of pitchers that Dan Haren and Jon Lester have been living in for awhile. It's too bad he didn't get traded to the Phillies sooner--he joined the defending NL champs just as their core was beginning to show its age.

He did to get to be a part of one of the best rotations ever assembled, even if only for a season. He, Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels led the Phillies to 102 wins in 2011, a year which also marked the beginning of Oswalt's decline. Before the season, Oswalt looked like he might make the Hall of Fame one day. He had finished 2010 strong with the Phillies, leading the league in WHIP and coming in sixth in the Cy Young voting. Going into his age 33 season, it still seemed like he had plenty of gas left in the tank.. He needed a few more good seasons to pump up his counting numbers, probably needed to pitch into his late 30s at least, and if he got a World Series ring or two with the Phillies that would be icing on the cake.

None of that happened. Oswalt regressed to merely average in 2011, was terrible with Texas in 2012 and even worse with Colorado last year. The last two seasons were especially bad, as he got lit up for a 6.80 ERA in 26 appearances (15 starts). Like Berkman, Young, Halladay, Todd Helton, Oswalt did not go out on top. Few (Mariano Rivera, Ted Williams, Mike Mussina come to mind) do.

But those last few starts, ugly as they were, don't diminish what Oswalt was: a great pitcher for a full decade and one of his generation's finest. He may not be a Hall of Famer, but he's an easy choice for the Astros Hall of Fame and the (fictional) Hall of Very Good.