Saturday, November 29, 2014

Toronto Trades for Donaldson

Oakland unloaded its best player at the worst possible time (SFGate)
When you have not just the best third-baseman in baseball, but the sport's second most valuable position player over the past two years behind the one and only Mike Trout, and you have him under team control for four more years, and he's still only 29 years old, you'd be crazy to trade him, right? Especially when you're at a point on the win curve where one win could mean the difference between making the playoffs and playing golf in October. Unless you get so much in return that the trade is a can't miss opportunity, you thank your lucky stars that your late-blooming third-sacker unexpectedly evolved into one of the best all-around players in the game and wave him good bye when he hits the open market at 33.

For the Oakland A's to justify trading Josh Donaldson, their All-Star third baseman who finished fourth in the 2013 AL MVP race and eighth last year, they clearly needed to win such a trade. And while they're getting a four-for-one in their latest deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, I think they're probably looking at a loss, at least in the near future. The best they can hope for is a push.

The main piece Oakland gets in return for their All-Star third baseman is Brett Lawrie, who looks like a lost cause at this stage in his career. Since bursting onto the scene in 2011 with a .293/.373/.580 slash line, Lawrie's turned in three straight subpar, injury-plagued seasons. He's batted just .261/.316/.406 over the past three years with 34 home runs and 5.4 fWAR in 302 games, failing to deliver on the enormous promise he displayed as a rookie that drew comparisons to Ryan Braun. The soon-to-be 25 year-old is still young enough that an Alex Gordon or Donaldson-esque breakout might be looming, but right now there's not much to suggest such a transformation is coming. Moving from the Rogers Center to Oakland's Colisieum, a hitter's nightmare, won't help speed that process along.

The best-case scenario is that Lawrie puts it all together and becomes as good as Donaldson (it's pretty much impossible to be better), but even if he does the A's will only control him for three years rather than the four they had left with Donaldson. Granted, one player's age 25-27 seasons are more appealing than another's age 29-32 years, but Donaldson's already a finished product. Lawrie's still a project. Think of it this way; would you rather have the next three years of Jackie Bradley, Jr. (25 next year) or four more years of Andrew McCutchen (28)? Or how about Lawrie versus Evan Longoria (29)?

Lawrie's not Donaldson, and he's probably never going to be Donaldson because Gold Glove-caliber defenders with 30-homer pop are exceptionally rare these days. But the A's got more than Lawrie; they got three other players as well, all prospects. The most promising of those is Franklin Barreto, an 18 year-old shortstop who hit well in low-A ball last year (.399 wOBA, 141 wRC+ with 29 steals in 73 games). Barreto, Toronto's No. 5 prospect per Baseball America, could be something special, but he also won't be major league ready for at least a few more years. I'd feel a lot better about this deal for the A's if he becomes their franchise shortstop, but right now that's far from guaranteed.

The other two prospects are arms, neither of whom were considered among Toronto's 10 best prospects. One is lefty Sean Nolin, who's about to turn 25 but has only pitched one game in each of his two major league seasons. Even so, his solid minor league track record (3.06 ERA) suggests he's major league ready and could crack Oakland's rotation next year. Ditto Kendall Graveman, a righty and the other pitching prospect in this deal. Graveman's going to be 24 next year but shot up through Toronto's farm system, making his major league debut little more than a year after being drafted. He dominated at every minor league level last year with a 0.34 ERA at A ball, 2.23 in high-A, 1.50 at Double-A, and 1.88 in Triple-A. Just as playing in Oakland will hurt Lawrie, pitching there should only help Nolin and Graveman's development.
Lawrie leaves a lot to be desired (CBC Canada)
Looking at the swap from Oakland's perspective, my concern has more to do with the timing of it than what the A's got in return. Lawrie's an everyday third baseman: not a great one, but a major league regular at the very least. Barreto's the shortstop of the future, and on top of that Oakland nets a pair of major league ready arms to bolster its staff. If the A's were in rebuilding mode, this would be a fantastic move for them.

Only the A's are in no position to rebuild coming off last season's soul-crushing wild card game defeat. They were the best team in baseball in last year's first half, for crying out loud, and still mortgaged their future to acquire Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs (and then traded Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes). You can't blame Billy Beane for wanting to restock the farm system a bit, but with that roster he should be focused on winning now, not five years from now. When you're on the cusp of your first World Series title since 1989, you don't trade your best player unless you're getting someone of similar value in return. Lawrie, Nolin, and Graveman combined probably won't provide as many wins as Donaldson will for the Blue Jays next year (Steamer says they'll produce 3.9 fWAR to Donaldson's 5.6 in 2015), and they take up three roster spots to Donaldson's one. Seven win players are incredibly rare and worth their weight in gold. Beane was lucky enough to have one, then crazy to trade him.

If you're the Blue Jays, though, you have to be excited with how your team's looking these days. Adding Donaldson to a lineup that already featured Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, and the recently acquired Russell Martin gives Toronto one of the best offenses in baseball (after they ranked fourth in runs and second in OPS among American League teams last year). The rotation isn't as formidable, but projects to be solid nonetheless. When you have a lineup like that, you can win plenty of games without top-shelf starting pitching.

Toronto's trying to be the top dog in an unstable AL East, and you have to commend the Jays for going for it. They know the time to win is now, with Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay all reeling from disappointing seasons, and they're doing all they can to end what is now the longest playoff drought in the four major American sports. Toronto's last two seasons have yielded disappointing results, but that hasn't stopped them from trusting their talent and doubling down on a championship-caliber core.

The A's could learn a thing or two.

Friday, November 28, 2014

2015 Hall of Fame Ballot Newcomers

Johnson's at the top of his Hall of Fame class (CBSSports)
The 2015 Hall of Fame ballot was released last week, adding 17 new names to what is already an overcrowded BBWAA ballot. In addition to the three pitchers everyone thinks are Hall-worthy, I also view a hitter as Cooperstown-caliber. Here are my thoughts on the star-studded first-timers.

Hall of Famers

Randy Johnson
Like Greg Maddux last year, Johnson is a slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer. Let's start with the five Cy Young awards--more than anyone not named Roger Clemens--including four consecutively from 1999-2002 (he also finished runner-up three times and third once). There's also the 4,875 strikeouts, second only to Nolan Ryan (but most by a lefty), and nine strikeout titles.  The ten-time All-Star is the record-holder for starting pitchers in career and single season K/9 marks, with 10.6 and 13.4 (in 2001), respectively. One of the most dominant pitchers ever, Johnson hurled two no-hitters (including a perfect game), struck out 20 batters in a game, pitched an immaculate inning (three strikeouts on nine pitches), and was co-World Series MVP in 2001 with Curt Schilling. Incredibly durable, Johnson pitched until he was 46, sustaining a 3.29 ERA (135 ERA+) and compiling 111.7 fWAR over more than 4,000 innings. Lastly, the Big Unit won 303 games in his 22-year career, which should placate the old-school voters who still think 300 wins is a requisite for any starting pitcher to make the Hall.

Pedro Martinez
The only knock against Martinez is that he wasn't very durable (only two seasons with more than 217 innings), but that didn't stop him from accumulating 87.1 fWAR over his 18-year career. The best pitcher in baseball from 1997 through 2003, Pedro sustained the prime dominance of Sandy Koufax (five major league ERA titles, each time with an ERA+ above 200) but surrounded it with more good seasons, earning All-Star nods in eight of them. Peak Pedro (1999-2000) pitched better than anyone else in baseball history given what he did while pitching half his games at Fenway during the height of the steroid era. He deserved the 1999 AL MVP award over Ivan Rodriguez and won three Cy Youngs, finishing in the top-four four other times.  Had a career 2.93 ERA (154 ERA+, best in history for s starter), 1.05 WHIP (the lowest of any live-ball era starting pitchers, 4.15 K/BB ratio (third-highest in MLB history), and the second-best winning percentage (.687 at 219-100) ever. He also helped the Boston Red Sox end their 86-year World Series drought. If that's not a Hall of Famer, I don't know what is.

John Smoltz
With 78.7 fWAR and over 3,000 strikeouts, Smoltz is clearly a Hall of Famer: the only question is whether he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer like rotation-mates Maddux and Tom Glavine. My guess is that the writers will say no because his candidacy is awfully similar to Curt Schilling's, and Schilling didn't come close to getting elected in either of his first two years on the ballot. Voters are also likely to ding him because of the four seasons he spent as a closer (although he was a phenomenal closer) and the one year he missed entirely due to injury in the heart of his 30s. Even so, the eight-time All-Star and 1996 NL Cy Young winner deserves to go in this year, if only to help clear the logjam of viable candidates. Voters might frown on his 213 career wins and one 20-win season, even though he had 10 with at least 14 victories. More importantly, he maintained a 3.33 ERA (125 ERA+), 3.24 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, and 3.05 K/BB ratio over nearly 3,500 innings, the bulk of which came during the steroid era. The 1992 NLCS MVP also deserves a bump for his exceptional postseason record, which includes 15 wins and a 2.67 ERA in 209 October innings.

Gary Sheffield
Putting aside his PED associations and relatively modest WAR total (60.2 according to B-R, right on the borderline of Hall-worthy), Sheffield seems like a pretty clear Hall of Famer to me. Over the meat of his career from 1992 to 2005, when he made nine All-Star teams, won five Silver Sluggers, and earned six top-10 MVP finishes, he produced more offensive value than all but two guys; Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell, both of whom should have been inducted already.  He topped 30 homers and 100 RBI eight times each during that span, exceeding a 1.000 OPS five times while batting .304/.411/.551 (153 wRC+). For his career he smacked 509 homers, scored and knocked in more than 1,600 runs, stole 253 bases, walked 304 times more than he whiffed, piled up nearly 2,700 hits, and posted a .907 OPS. He's in the top-40 all-time in oWAR, runs, homers, RBI, total bases, walks, runs created, times on base, and extra base hits. What's more, he's comfortably worthy based on the Hall of Fame monitor,  Hall of Fame standards, and Hall of Stats. I hated Sheffield during his playing days, but the guy could flat-out mash. He was like a poor man's Manny Ramirez.

On the Fence:

Carlos Delgado
From 1996 though 2008, only five men hit more home runs than Delgado, who slugged 457 of his 473 career dingers. Just two--Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez--drove in more runs. A feared hitter for many years, Delgado managed at least 138 games played, 24 home runs, and 87 RBI every year during that span, consistency reminiscent of Eddie Murray. He is one of only six men in baseball history to hit at least 30 home runs in ten consecutive seasons, something he accomplished from 1997 through 2006 (he also went yard 38 times in 2008, giving him 11 30-homer seasons overall). Delgado's career included a tremendous six-year stretch from 1998 through 2003 in which he exceeded 30 doubles, 30 homers, 100 RBI, and a .948 OPS every year. He won all three of his Silver Sluggers during that span, each one coinciding with a 40-homer season. Delgado remained productive to the very end, and were it not for a trio of hip surgeries cutting short his career he likely would have reached 500 home runs and doubles for his career. Delgado's definitely a borderline case at best (his candidacy is very similar to Jim Rice's) and he shouldn't go in on the first ballot, or possibly even the writer's ballot, but I think he should be inducted eventually for sustaining such a high level of production for such a long time. His 138 OPS+ is very strong and he's in the top-50 all-time in home runs, at-bats per homer, slugging, OPS, extra base hits, and falls just outside in RBI. He's also the all-time leader in home runs and RBI for Puerto Rican born players, something I give a lot of consideration to in that he was an exemplary ambassador of the game.

Troy Percival
Percival was a very good closer in his decade with the Angels, but wasn't dominant enough and didn't do it long enough to get my vote. His 3.87 FIP indicates he wasn't nearly as sharp as his 3.17 career ERA (146 ERA+) and 1.11 WHIP suggest, and he just wasn't the same guy after leaving the Angels (2.99 ERA with Anaheim, 4.06 ERA in the four seasons afterwards). Only had five seasons with an ERA below 3.45, which isn't that impressive for a closer pitching half his games in a friendly home park. His 358 saves are impressive (ninth-most all-time), and he was in his league's top-10 nine straight seasons from 1996 through 2004 (when only Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera had more saves) and again in 2008, but saves aren't a good measure of a pitcher's skill. I think it's more telling that he wasn't able to thrive away from Anaheim's strong defenses and pitcher-friendly park. That said, closers are underrepresented in the Hall and Percival was definitely a good one, so I could see him going in someday.

We're Not Worthy:

Rich Aurilia
Aurilia was a solid shortstop in the first half of the 2000s, but didn't do nearly enough in his 15-year career to merit induction. Like Erstad, had one really great season (2001) surrounded by a couple decent ones.

Aaron Boone
Made an All-Star team and hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, but overall his career was pretty mediocre. He was never the same after shredding his knee while playing pick-up basketball during the 2003-2004 offseason, an injury that led the New York Yankees to acquire then-shortstop Alex Rodriguez to replace him at the hot corner.

Tony Clark
Clark enjoyed a great start to his career with 127 home runs, 402 RBI, and an .855 OPS through his first five seasons, but injuries suppressed his counting numbers throughout the remainder of his playing days. He never exceeded 130 games played in a season after his age-27 season and averaged only 104 per year in his 15-year career. Was a great slugger when healthy with four 30-homer seasons and another with 27, even posting a 1.003 OPS at age 33 in 2005, but his career numbers are about half of what a first baseman from the last quarter century needs to make the Hall.

Jermaine Dye
A steady source of power, Dye was one of the more consistent players in baseball throughout the 2000s. Excusing his injury-shortened 2003 in which he played just 65 games, Dye blasted at least 23 home runs every year from 1999 through 2009--his final big league season--with at least 78 RBI and a 102 OPS+ each year. The two-time All-Star finished fifth in the 2006 AL MVP vote with a career-high 44 home runs, 120 RBI, and 1.006 OPS, the only time he ever finished in the top-10 (he finished 15th two years later), and won his only Silver Slugger that year as well. Never a great baserunner or defender (his lone Gold Glove aside), Dye finished his career with only 20.3 bWAR despite slamming 325 home runs and driving in 1,072 runs with an .826 OPS. Dye involuntary retired following a 2009 campaign in which he still showed plenty of thump in his bat, as he was unable to find a contract to his liking after smacking 27 home runs and posting a .340 OBP the year before.

Darin Erstad
Like Garciaparra, Erstad was a fine player who played from 1996 to 2009, peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but really didn't do much in his last handful of seasons. Nothing special offensively outside of his Mike Trout-esque 2000 (93 career wRC+), Erstad supplemented his mediocre bat with decent speed (179 steals against 58 caught stealing) and terrific defense in center field, where he won a trio of Gold Gloves. The two-time All-Star might have had a chance at the Hall had he remained productive throughout his 30s, but had his last good year at 31 and played his last game at 35.

Cliff Floyd
Floyd was a solidly above average hitter for the majority of his 17-year career (118 wRC+), but his attendance was astoundingly poor: in only five of those years did he even play 120 games. Accordingly, his counting numbers are pretty weak (fewer than 1,500 hits and 900 runs/RBI). That said, we shouldn't overlook the fact that a healthy Floyd was a very good ballplayer--a 20/20 threat (something he did twice) capable of batting .300 with good on-base percentages. He just didn't show up often enough.

Nomar Garciaparra
Like Don Mattingly and Tony Oliva, Garciaparra had a Hall of Fame peak (just look at his 162 game averages) but not a Hall of Fame career. The two-time batting champion had seven seasons with at least 20 home runs, 90 RBI, and a .300 batting average, racking up 43 bWAR in those years (an average of 6.1 per season). In his other seven seasons, however, he was worth only 1.2 bWAR combined. The 1998 AL MVP runner-up was practically irrelevant after turning 30, but before that he was ahead of Derek Jeter and not far behind A-Rod.

Brian Giles
One of the more underrated players of the past two decades, Giles was a tremendous on-base threat (career .400 OBP) with good power (.211 ISO). I was shocked to see he was worth 50.9 bWAR in his 15-year career, an average of 3.9 per 600 plate appearances. The two-time All-Star had a sensational four-year run from 1999 through 2002, swatting at least 35 home runs every year while batting .309/.426/.604 (158 wRC+), ranking as the sixth-most valuable position player in baseball during that span but never finishing higher than 13th in the MVP voting (so it goes when you play for losing Pirates teams while Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire are doubling your home run totals). Giles had several more good years after that, remaining productive through his age 37 season, but still ended up with less than stellar career totals because he didn't reach 400 plate appearances in a season until he was 28 (similar to David Ortiz in that he got a late start but was a great hitter deep into his 30s). While his .902 career OPS (136 wRC+) is impressive, he falls considerably short in counting numbers and overall career value. Reminds me of Ryan Klesko's case from a few years ago.

Tom Gordon
I couldn't believe Flash lasted 21 years in the big leagues and made three All-Star teams. While he was effective as both a starter and reliever, he wasn't dominant enough in either role to merit induction. He was like a homeless man's Smoltz or Dennis Eckersley in this regard. Little more than 2,100 innings with a 3.96 ERA (113 ERA+), 1.36 WHIP, and 1.97 K/BB ratio doesn't cut it.

Eddie Guardado
Had a nice run in the early-to-mid-2000s with the Twins and Mariners, but the rest of his 17-year career was largely mediocre (46-61 with 4.31 ERA and 1.32 WHIP).

Jason Schmidt
Schmidt had a few dominant seasons with back-to-back top-five NL Cy Young finishes in 2003 and 2004 but was only intermittently effective in his 14-year career. In short, his 130 wins, 3.96 ERA (110 ERA+), 1.32 WHIP and 31.7 bWAR in fewer than 2,000 innings aren't good enough.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Seager Secures Extension

Seager's underrated but still worth the money (FootballsFuture)
The Seattle Mariners just gave Kyle Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension that locks up his arbitration years and first four free agent seasons, plus an option for an eighth year.

Hold the phone, Seattle just gave $100 million to whom?

Since debuting in 2011, Seager has quietly established himself as one of the better (and more underappreciated) players in the game. Over the past three years, Seager was the sixth-best third baseman in baseball per fWAR, ahead of established superstars such as Evan Longoria, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval.

While Seager is not well-known, he's worthy of this deal for a number of reasons. One is that he's just 27, smack dab in the middle of his prime. Another is that he's a great two-way third baseman, and thus excels at a tough position.

But really, Seager deserves the dough because he's a terrific baseball player.  He's steadily improved throughout his four big league seasons, peaking with last year's 5.5 fWAR, first All-Star appearance, and first Gold Glove (which should have gone to Josh Donaldson, but Seager's smooth defensively nevertheless). He also popped 25 home runs--his third straight season with at least 20--and knocked in 96 runs, both career highs.

Wait, there's more. Seager's incredibly durable, having played at least 155 games in each of the last three years and leading all third basemen in games played during that span. He doesn't strike out a lot for a guy with good power and walks a fair amount. His offense was 26 percent better than average last year after adjustments for league and park, and like I said his numbers have only trended upwards. Even if 2014 was his peak and he regresses back to the player he was in 2012 and 2013, he's still a 3.5 win guy, which is very valuable, especially to a team on the brink of contention like the Mariners.

This deal makes a ton of sense for Seattle, setting them up at the hot corner for the foreseeable future. It also makes a ton of sense for Seager, because $100 million is a lot of money.

Monday, November 24, 2014

White Sox Add Adam LaRoche

LaRoche landed in the Windy City (CBSSports)
The rebuilding Chicago White Sox injected some much-needed lefthanded power into their lineup by inking first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal.

With reigning AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu already entrenched at first base and considerably younger, the 35 year-old LaRoche expects to replace the retired Adam Dunn as Chicago's everyday DH. LaRoche is a great bet to reach or exceed Dunn's 2014 production, which included 20 home runs, 54 RBI, and a .773 OPS (LaRoche has averaged 22, 76, and .811 per season to this point).  Abreu was a disaster defensively, but he's also seven years younger than LaRoche, who has annually rated among the game's more defensively-challenged first basemen, his 2012 Gold Glove notwithstanding. At this stage in LaRoche's career, getting him off the field definitely makes sense.

Besides, the White Sox aren't paying LaRoche for his glove; they made this move because of what he can do in the batter's box. One of the steadiest power bats in the game, LaRoche has exceeded 20 home runs every year but one dating back to 2005, with an injury-riddled 2011 (just 43 games played) the exception. Incredibly durable, LaRoche has played at least 140 games in eight of the past ten seasons.

And while LaRoche's age may be a concern for some, he has showed no signs of slowing down. Last year he batted .259/.362/.455--right in line with his career .264/.340/.462 marks--with 26 home runs and 92 RBI in 140 games. He also posted the best full-season walk rate of his career (14 percent) while posting the second-lowest strikeout rate of his career. His batted ball data didn't change and he didn't have negative run values against any kind of pitch. He also fared well against power pitchers (.800 OPS), finesse pitchers (.821 OPS), and everyone in between (.821 OPS). Like fellow DHs David Ortiz and Victor Martinez, LaRoche has aged gracefully and should continue to do so.

Plus, moving from power-stifling Nationals Park to the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field should help alleviate any natural decline. If LaRoche stays healthy, he may have a shot at threatening his high-water mark of 33 home runs and 100 RBI, both reached in 2012. That represents his ceiling, obviously, but his floor is pretty high as well. Only once has he batted below .250 in a full season (2013) or slugged below .450 (also 2013), and his OBP has never been lower than .320. In today's run-parched environment, those are all pretty decent and certainly playable numbers.

So as far as 35 year-olds go, LaRoche is a pretty safe investment.

Sox Sign Sandoval

As expected, Sandoval signed with the Sox (RantSports)
Shortly after the Boston reached a five--year, $90 million agreement with Hanley Ramirez, they landed another prized free agent bat in Pablo Sandoval. Of the three teams that offered Sandoval approximately five years and $95 million (San Diego and San Francisco were the others), Boston was Sandoval's choice (wonder how much Fenway Park played a role in that).

The Red Sox said they were all-in on Sandoval and willing to do whatever it took to get him. Seeing as how they got their man, I guess they weren't kidding.

While I was initially hesitant about the six years and $100+ million I expected Sandoval to receive, I'm much more comfortable with the actual terms. The deal covers Sandoval's age 28-32 seasons, meaning the Red Sox can expect Sandoval to be productive over the life of the contract, especially at the beginning when he's still in his prime. He might even be able to man the hot corner for the entirety of the contract, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him DH frequently when David Ortiz retires.

More importantly, adding Sandoval makes the Red Sox significantly better in the short-run. Boston third basemen--mainly a combination of Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts with a dash of Brock Holt--batted just .211/.271/.308 with 10 home runs and 54 RBI last year. Those numbers wouldn't play at shortstop, let alone one of the corner infield positions. Much was made about punchless Red Sox outfield last year (looking at you, Jackie Bradley Jr.), but third base was actually the team's least productive position OPS-wise.

In Sandoval, Boston now has one of the best-hitting third sackers in the game. Since debuting in 2008, he's been the sport's seventh-most valuable third baseman per fWAR while maintaining an .811 OPS and 122 wRC+. His numbers should receive a significant boost from Fenway as well. A switch-hitter with solid power and on-base ability, Sandoval beefs up Boston's lineup considerably and projects to be about a three-win player.

He's also a beast in October, which means something to a perennial contender like the Red Sox. Sandoval is coming off a postseason in which he notched 26 hits--an MLB record. A proven postseason performer, he also has the highest batting average (.344) of anyone with at least 150 plate appearances in the playoffs. Sandoval was part of three World Series winners with the Giants and has shown the ability to succeed under pressure.

Adding Ramirez and Sandoval to a lineup that already features Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Yoenis Cespedes, and Shane Victorino gives Boston some serious thump, which is exactly what they need after fielding one of the American League's five worst offenses last year. Now they must focus on adding arms, either by splurging for Jon Lester or packaging prospects (possibly Bogaerts now that Boston has an All-Star shortstop and third baseman) to the Phillies for Cole Hamels. The Red Sox have already committed close to $200 million for just two players in the past 24 hours, but they still need to go the extra mile and acquire a frontline starter or two.

Otherwise, they're going to be just like the many good but not-good-enough teams of Red Sox past--plenty of bats but short on arms.

Ramirez Rejoins Red Sox

9 years after Boston traded him, Ramirez is back (ProSportsBlogging)
10 years ago Hanley Ramirez was the Boston Red Sox's shortstop of the future, heir apparent to Nomar Garciaparra. Then the Sox traded him to the then-Florida Marlins for Josh Beckett in a move that altered the course of both franchises.

Boston, of course, went on to win the 2007 World Series on the backs of Beckett and Lowell, that year's ALCS and World Series MVPs. Meanwhile, Ramirez blossomed in Florida, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2006 before earning three top-10 MVP finishes and a trio of All-Star nods over the next four seasons. The former batting champion spent the last two and a half seasons with the Dodgers, helping them to division titles in 2013 and 2014.

Now, Ramirez is returning to the team that signed him as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic when he was just 16. With 10 big league seasons under his belt, the 30 year-old has delivered on the superstar promise he flashed in Boston's farm system. He returns a fully-formed product.

While HanRam's defense has suffered in recent years, necessitating a move off shortstop (likely to third), his bat has remained potent. In 2013 he slammed 20 home runs to go along with a sky-high 1.040 OPS (189 OPS+), followed by a 132 OPS+ performance in 2014. Excluding his two-game cameo with the Sox in 2005, Ramirez has had an above-average OPS in all but one of his seasons--his injury-marred 2011. His bat is most valuable at shortstop, obviously, but still plays at the hot corner or in the outfield should he move there.

2011 was an aberration in terms of Ramirez's offensive production, but it was not out of the ordinary in regards to his health. He missed time the year before that (2010), played just 86 games in 2013, then sat out 34 games last year. That's 205 missed games over the past five seasons, an average of 41 per year. Ramirez is going to be 31 next year, so the Red Sox shouldn't expect to get many, if any, full seasons out of him. But like Jose Reyes, Ramirez is so good when he does play that he still earns his keep: just make sure you have a quality backup plan.

A righthanded hitter with good power (career .200 ISO), Ramirez should excel in Fenway Park. Trading the run-parched environment of Dodger Stadium for one of the best hitter's parks in baseball should help ward off any age-related decline in the immediate future. He's also a versatile offensive performer, capable of hitting .300 with 20 homers and a similar number of steals when healthy. He walks a fair amount and doesn't strike out much, so one would expect him to age gracefully anyways.

The Red Sox are going to pay Ramirez $90 million over the next five years, an average annual value of $18 million per season. That's a considerable pay bump from his contract that just expired, a six-year, $70 million that paid him less than $12 million a season on average. Ramirez is not nearly the all-around force he was five years ago, but inflation and free agent scarcity means he'll be paid more to do less. It's still a pretty good deal if Ramirez continues to play shortstop or third, less so if he moves to left field.

So while Ramirez has question marks about his durability and defense, there's no disputing the fact that he makes Boston's lineup significantly stronger. He's still a four-win player, and I'm more optimistic about how his early 30s will play out than I am about, say, Billy Butler's. The Red Sox didn't need a shortstop with Xander Bogaerts already there, but they could certainly use a third baseman (unless Pablo Sandoval also signs) and a big bat in general. Ramirez fits the bill.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boston Finds Francisco

Francisco is a slightly better, lefthanded version of Middlebrooks (BR)
Though the Boston Red Sox appear to be odds-on favorites to win the Pablo Sandoval sweepstakes, it never hurts to have a backup plan. That's why they claimed third baseman Juan Francisco off waivers today.

And as far as backup plans go, Francisco's not a bad one to have. He's a league average bat (99 OPS+) who's popped 34 home runs over the past two years in limited duty, including 16 in just 320 trips to the plate for Toronto last year. A very good source of lefthanded power, Francisco has slugged 48 dingers in just under 1,000 career at-bats and owns a .203 career ISO. He's also 27 years old, the perfect age for a baseball player.

Francisco's flaws (loads of strikeouts, poor defense, horrible against righthanded pitching) prevent him from being an everyday player, but at least he'd be able to hold a timeshare of third base with the righthanded Will Middlebrooks. Both have glaring platoon splits, but utilizing Middlebrooks against southpaw and Francisco against righties would likely result in 30 home runs and a .760 OPS between them. Platoons aren't ideal, but they work better than giving a bad player more playing time than he deserves.

Of course, none of this matters if and when the Sox sign Sandoval, at which point Francisco may be non-tendered, traded, or held in reserve. He's not going to move the needle much for Boston, but at least he gives them another option at the hot corner should Sandoval sign elsewhere. The team needs every scrap of power it can find to bolster what was an anemic offense last year, and Francisco fits the bill.

A's Bank On Butler Bounceback

Butler brings an above average bat to Oakland (Fox4KC)
By signing Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million engagement, the Oakland A's made their first major tweak to the roster responsible for one of the more memorable late season collapses in recent history (largely because the team stopped hitting). In Butler, they add a righthanded, middle of the order bat to fill the hole left by Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded to Boston last summer in exchange for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes.

A lead-footed DH, Butler isn't the all-around talent that Cespedes is, but he'll at least replace Cespedes's bat. Not the power, mind you, but through a better OBP and similar run production. Check out how their numbers match up since 2012, Cespedes's rookie season:

Butler:     1,745 AB 55 HR 255 RBI.292/.358/.436 .794 OPS 117 OPS+ 36 Rbat
Cespedes: 1,616 AB 71 HR 262 RBI .263/.316/.464 .780 OPS 116 OPS+ 37 Rbat

Butler is also six months younger than Cespedes, and figures to be much cheaper over the next three years.

But since Butler adds no value whatsoever in the field or on the bases, Oakland needs him to bounce back from a dismal 2014 in which he managed only nine home runs, 66 RBI, and a .702 OPS (95 OPS+). Butler was actually below replacement level last year at -0.3 bWAR, and the cash-strapped A's can't afford to pay $10 million a year to someone with negative or zero value.

Billy Beane's betting that last year was an anomaly for Butler, who was a consistently above average hitter prior to 2014. Through his first seven seasons, he owned a .298/.364/.459 slash line (122 OPS+) while averaging 17 home runs, 35 doubles, and 80 RBI per season. That's essentially Pablo Sandoval production (better, actually) at only one-third the price.

Digging deeper, it actually makes loads of sense to forecast similar figures from Butler going forward. He's only going to be 29 next year, after all, and has been exceptionally durable, averaging 158 games per season over the past six. Furthermore, nothing alarming jumps out from Butler's batted ball data last year, though he did struggle against two seam fastballs. The best and simplest explanation I can find for Butler's down year was a slow start, as he had a sub-.600 OPS with only one home run through Memorial Day weekend. That would also explain why his walk rate plummeted, as flailing hitters tend to press at the plate and try to swing their way out of it. I suspect that's what happened to Butler, who's normally a patient hitter. Besides, he was fine from the end of May forward, batting .290/.339/.420 after May 28th. If that's what he hits next year, Oakland has to be happy with that.

The only obstacle that could thwart a return to form for Butler is his new home park, Coliseum, which has been unkind to hitters with its deep power alleys and expansive foul territory. Butler flourished in Kaufmann Stadium--which was well-suited to his gap-power--where he batted .312/.372/.477 (.849 OPS) as a member of the Royals, as opposed to .278/.341/.426 (.766 OPS) everywhere else. His numbers in his new ballpark are almost identical to his road splits, as he has a .759 OPS in 130 career plate appearances there. That said, hitters typically perform better at home regardless of where they play, and Butler's Oakland numbers are likely suppressed by the A's strong pitching staffs in recent years. He won't have to face the likes of Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir in 2015.

Lastly, I like this deal because I think its terms are very fair, perhaps even favorable, for Oakland, who didn't even have to sacrifice a compensatory draft pick because Kansas City failed to give Butler a qualifying offer. Three years and $30 million is a pretty safe investment for an under-30 impact bat, and there's plenty of room for value here. Butler only needs to be worth in the neighborhood of four to five wins over the next three seasons to justify his salary, and he's certainly capable of that after compiling 13 bWAR from 2009 through 2013 (an average of 2.6 per season). Even if he doesn't get all the way back to being the hitter he was two years ago, his ability to provide above average hitting over 140-150 games should be plenty valuable. His presence makes Oakland's lineup deeper and more formidable, which should go a long way towards helping the A's get back to the postseason next fall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Can Ortiz Keep Raking?

Ortiz is 39 years young (NextImpulseSports)
David Ortiz turns 39 years old today, and he's still going strong.

Five years ago it seemed unfathomable that Big Papi would still be a productive hitter one year shy of his 40th birthday, much less one of the best hitters in baseball. The end seemed near when, as a 33 year-old, Ortiz batted .238/.332/.462 (100 wRC+) with 134 strikeouts and 0.0 fWAR in 2009. His situation grew even more dire the following spring when he got off to a miserable start with only one home run, four RBI, and .524 OPS in April. Papi appeared to be in full-blown decline.

Of course, we now know that was merely a rough patch in what has been an otherwise stellar 12-year run in Boston for Ortiz. He rebounded to finish 2010 strong with 31 homers, 98 RBI, and a .943 OPS over the season's final five months. He was even better over the next three years, his age 35-37 seasons. As run-scoring plummeted across the sport, Ortiz's numbers surged as he batted .311/.401/.571 with 82 home runs during that span. Per wRC+, it was tied with Mark McGwire and Edgar Martinez for the seventh-best run that any hitter has ever sustained over those ages.

Last year at 38, Ortiz seemed to slip a bit. His batting line fell to .263/.355/.517, an 86 point drop in OPS from 2013 and a 153 point plunge compared to 2012. That can be explained entirely by his BABiP, which nosedived from .321 in 2013 to .256 last year. Such a free fall was not surprising given that Ortiz had his highest fly ball rate since 2009 in conjunction with his lowest line drive rate since 2010, but increased defensive shifts likely played a part in that as well. Nevertheless, Ortiz was still extremely productive with a 135 wRC+, .369 wOBA, 35 home runs (fifth in the American League) and 104 RBI (sixth).

So what can we expect from Papi in 2015, his age 39 season? Steamer's very optimistic, projecting him to essentially replicate his 2014 production. The system sees his BABiP regressing closer to the league average, which should pull up his batting average and OBP, but also expects Ortiz to hit for less power. That makes sense, as Ortiz is at an age where power drops off precipitously. It will be tough to him to surpass 30 home runs for the third straight season, as no 39 year-old had ever exceeded 30 taters in a season before Hank Aaron did so (with 40) in 1973 (Steve Finley and Barry Bonds have since achieved this as well).

That said, there's nothing alarming in Ortiz's profile to suggest his numbers are in imminent danger of falling off a cliff. He's a full-time DH playing half his games at one of the friendliest parks for hitters in the majors. Because he rarely played the field and was a part-time player until his mid-20s, he doesn't have as much wear and tear as most 39 year-olds, especially since he's been able to avoid major injuries for much of his career. His plate discipline has remained impeccable, his contact rates are excellent, and he still has tremendous bat speed based on the way he destroyed fastballs last year. His power is intact as well, for his 2014 ISO was identical to his 2013 ISO (.255).

Next year Ortiz might not be the hitter he was three years ago, or even the hitter he was last year, but he still figures to be mighty good. He'll continue to mash, just as he always has.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bold Predictions Busts

Where did we go wrong, Prince? (RangersBlog)
With the 2014 baseball season in the rearview mirror, I can finally take a look back at how my 14 bold predictions for the year panned out (I'll give you a hint: they didn't).

1. Prince Fielder hits 40 home runs: WRONG
I thought the move to Texas would help restore some of Fielder's lost power. Instead, he got hurt for the first time in his career and was shut down in late May after going deep just three times. Yep, three.

2. The Yankees finish last: WRONG
No way this was happening given the ungodly amount of money New York spent last winter. They disappointed with 84 wins, but that was still enough to place second in the AL East.

3. Miguel Cabrera spends time on the Disabled List: WRONG
Miggy did slip a bit from his monster 2012-2013 stretch, but not because of injury woes. He played all but three games. At 31 he was still as durable as ever.

4. The Nationals will win 100 games: WRONG
The Nats had a great season, winning 96 games and their second division title in three years, but 96 wins isn't 100. Close, but no cigar.

5. Alfonso Soriano hits less than 20 homers: CORRECT
Finally! Sori finally broke down at age 38 after slamming 66 dingers in 2012-2013 combined, managing just six homers in his final major league season.

6. The Pirates revert to their losing ways: WRONG
I'm always down on the Bucs, and lately they've been proving me wrong a lot. They slipped a bit from their 94-win 2013 but still won 88 games and made the playoffs as one of the Senior Circuit's two wild card entrants.

7. Ryan Braun returns to form: WRONG
Braun wasn't bad, but he also wasn't anything close to the guy who won the 2011 NL MVP award and finished runner-up the following year. 31 today, Braun has declined precipitously over the past two years and is in danger of becoming only an average player.

8/ The Phillies finish over .500: WRONG
The Phils were terrible in 2013, going 73-89, and they were just as terrible in 2014, going 73-89 again.

9. Curtis Granderson becomes the next Jason Bay: WRONG
Granderson was surprisingly okay in his first season with the Mets, clubbing 20 home runs and working 79 walks in 155 games. He might turn into a pumpkin next year, but at least the Mets got one solid season out of him, which is more than they can say about Bay.

10. Yasiel Puig will win the National League MVP: WRONG
Right team, wrong guy. Wasn't expecting Clayton Kershaw to become the first National League starting pitcher to be named MVP since Bob Gibson.

11. Nobody on the Tigers receives Cy Young votes: WRONG
Justin Verlander fell apart and Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA champion, came back to earth. But Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young recipient, enjoyed another dominant season and finished fifth in the voting.

12. The Astros have a better record than the Marlins: WRONG
Houston improved a ton from its horrid 2013, climbing from a mere 51 wins to a more respectable (but still bad) 70. The 'Stros won seven fewer games than the Miami Marlins, however, who remained on the fringes of contention late into the season thanks to some surprise pitching performances and an MVP-caliber year from Giancarlo Stanton.

13. Jackie Bradley, Jr. has a better season than Xander Bogaerts: PUSH
Bogaerts was worth a measly 0.2 bWAR due to his atrocious hitting and poor fielding. Bradley was even worse at the plate (his .531 OPS fell a good 129 points shy of Bogaerts), but grated out 0.6 bWAR because of his slick glovework in center field. So Bogaerts was the better hitter, but technically Bradley was more valuable, so I'll call this one a wash.

14. The Blue Jays win the American League East: WRONG
Toronto did improve from its dismal last place finish in 2013, going from 74 wins to 83 wins and a third place finish. But they were not able to go from worst to first, as the Red Sox did in 2012-2013.

St. Louis Steals Heyward, Walden

Heyward helps the Cardinals considerably (USAToday)
Needing a short-term, last-minute fix in right field following the tragic and untimely death of Oscar Taveras, the St. Louis Cardinals sacrificed a pair of former first-round draft picks to acquire Jason Heyward, probably the best right fielder in the game not named Giancarlo Stanton. The Cardinals also received a plus reliever in Jordan Walden, who was an All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Angels in 2011. Walden should bolster the Redbirds' bullpen based on his career 3.10 ERA and 10.8 K/9 rate over five big league seasons.

But Walden's just icing on the cake, really, because St. Louis clearly got the best player in this deal. Heyward hasn't developed into the Ken Griffey Jr. clone people thought he'd be during his first season, when he was an NL All-Star and Rookie of the Year runner-up to Buster Posey, but he's still a phenomenal player. A true all-around talent, the two-time Gold Glove recipient has twice stolen 20 bases or more in a season and once hit as many as 27 home runs (in 2012). He also owns a rock-solid .351 OBP for his career, during which time he's been worth 24.5 bWAR and rated as the third-best rightfielder in baseball behind Jose Bautista and Ben Zobrist. Plus, he's only 25, though he will be free agent-eligible after next year.

In return the Braves landed Shelby Miller, who's only one year younger than Heyward but won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. Miller, a starting pitcher, finished third in the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year award to Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig after going 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173 and 2/3 innings. His 3.67 FIP and 1.21 WHIP suggested regression was coming, however, and sure enough Miller was merely a league average starting pitcher last year. His record fell to 10-9, his ERA swelled to 3.74, and his strikeout rate plummeted from 8.8 K/9 in 2013 to a paltry 6.2 K/9 last year. His walk rate increased as well, resulting in a 4.54 FIP that says he was very lucky in 2014. Miller may not completely unravel next year, but he seems doomed for more regression and won't have a very long career if he doesn't improve his command. There's just too much uncertainty about his effectiveness going forward, and right now the signs point to bad.

Atlanta's also getting Tyrell Jenkins, a 22 year-old pitching prospect who has yet to pitch above High-A. It's much too early to tell what kind of impact he'll have if and when he reaches the majors, as he'll likely need a few more years of seasoning before he's ready.

So yeah, clear win for the Cardinals here. They get at least one year of Heyward and two years of Walden for four years of Miller and a complete unknown in Jenkins. A six-win player last year, Heyward could very well end up creating as much or more value in 2015 than Miller does over the next four years, especially if the former finally puts it all together to produce that superstar caliber season we've been waiting for. Walden's already an established big league reliever, while there's a good possibility that Jenkins never throws a pitch in the Show.

This trade makes the Braves considerably worse for 2015, which is not the direction they want to go in after losing 83 games last year. St. Louis, on the other hand, remains a safe bet to win 90-plus games again en route to a third consecutive division title. If you're Atlanta, you have to do better than a league-average starting pitcher/likely project and a raw prospect for an elite outfielder such as Heyward. If you're St. Louis, you deserve a giant pat on the back.

Toronto Misses Mark on Martin

Martin's a fantastic catcher, but Toronto needs help elsewhere (CBSSports)
It's been awhile since the Toronto Blue Jays had a credible catcher. Sandwiched around John Buck's fluky All-Star year in 2010, they've endured terrible seasons from Rod Barajas before and J.P. Arencibia since. Last year they had Dioneer Navarro, a decent bat coupled with poor defense at the most important position on the diamond. It was clear the Jays could do better behind the plate, where they managed a meager .659 OPS last year, but I'm not sure Russell Martin is enough of an upgrade to justify his hefty price tag.

To his credit, Martin was phenomenal last year, worth 5.5 bWAR despite playing in only 111 games. In addition to being one of the best defensive backstops in the game, he also hit for some power, batted .290, and got on base more than 40 percent of the time. That's a great, valuable player who helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates back to the postseason for the second year in a row.

Furthermore, Martin has a distinguished track record of success. The three-time All-Star and former Gold Glove winner has been the third-best catcher in baseball since his debut in 2006, behind only Joe Mauer and Brian McCann. While he's had his ups and downs as a player, he's always been a productive player because of his sterling defense at a premium position, solid bat, good health (he's averaged 129 games per season), and decent speed.

So why do I despise Martin's deal (five years, $82 million)? Well for one, Martin's going to be 32 at the start of next season, which is old for any player but especially a catcher who's already logged nearly 10,000 career innings behind the dish. Martin's been an everyday catcher for nearly a decade, and that's probably going to start "catching" up to him (pun intended) sooner or later.

Additionally, it appears Toronto overpaid Martin based on his tremendous 2014 production just as Detroit overpaid for Victor Martinez's 2014, clear outliers in both cases. Look at the five seasons before last, when Martin batted .234/.332/.370 while averaging 13 home runs and 50 RBI per year. That's the kind of hitter Martin is going to be, not the guy who put up the best OBP and adjusted OPS+ of his career at age 31. Don't be surprised when he regresses to a .700 OPS or worse next year.

I also don't see how the Blue Jays are rationalizing this move to themselves when they already had Navarro, one year Martin's junior, under contract for next year at the bargain bin price of $5 million. Martin's a better player and certainly better catcher than Navarro, but at that price Navarro is an absolute steal. Furthermore, the difference between Martin and Navarro just isn't wide enough to justify paying Martin three times as much money for 2015.

Look, last year Navarro was worth 2.3 bWAR, same as the year before. From 2009 through 2013, Martin's average season yielded 2.6 bWAR. Steamer says Martin projects to be worth two more wins that Navarro will next year, but based on their track records I don't see it. Take into account that Martin's one year older, and they would have been virtually a wash in terms of projected value for next year.

Now Navarro, a .294/.331/.429 hitter over the last three years, is either relegated to backup duties or must be traded. As for Martin, I expect he'll have a season similar to the one McCann just had, minus some power but with better on-base numbers. Probably looking at a three win guy there, four if Toronto's lucky.

I get that the Blue Jays are in win-now mode, and that after winning 83 games last year they believe a playoff berth is within reach. They haven't made the postseason during the wild card era, and the AL East is once again up for grabs. They're at a point on the win curve where just one more win a month probably gets them over the hump, but Martin alone isn't going to do it. Toronto desperately needs a second baseman and could really use another frontline starter (that rotation is just begging for an ace) as well as a couple bullpen arms. I would have addressed those issues first rather than catcher, where they were already okay.

Instead, now they're stuck with Martin, whose best days are almost definitely behind him. I don't see him contribute enough on the front end of the deal to justify for just how bad he's going to be at the back end. If I'm Toronto, I save that money and spend it elsewhere, probably on an ace like James Shields, Max Scherzer, or Jon Lester. That's what they really need to make the playoffs, not a slightly better catcher.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stanton Worth $300 Million

Stanton's a superstar worthy of superstar money (Baseball-Fever)
There aren't many baseball players I would invest $300 million in right now. In fact, I could probably count them all on one hand (Mike Trout for sure, Yasiel Puig's another). All I can say is that Giancarlo Stanton's definitely one of them.

Stanton, this year's NL MVP runner-up and a two-time All-Star, is has done nothing but mash in his five big league seasons. Just 25, he's already blasted 154 home runs (31 per season), won two league slugging titles, and compiled 21.2 bWAR. His career batting line of .271/.364/.540 is 43 percent above average after adjustments for league and park, making him the tenth-best hitter in baseball since his debut. His most similar batter to date is Juan Gonzalez, a two-time MVP who slammed 434 career home runs. The Marlins should be thrilled if Stanton's career turns out like Juan Gone's.

Stanton's not a one-dimensional slugger like Gonzalez was. He's a capable right fielder with a strong arm. Stanton's also a solid baserunner for his size, having succeeded in 20 of his last 23 stolen base attempts. He's not a burner by any means, but he knows when to swipe a bag and isn't a liability on the basepaths like most burly sluggers.

Put it all together and Stanton's a superstar who should remain elite for the foreseeable future, at least through the rest of the decade. If he continues to be worth five to six wins per year, that's going to justify an annual salary above $30 million. Give him 10 years, and that will take him through his age 34 season, at which point he'll still be young enough to be productive. Most long-term deals accept dead-weight on the backend, but it's possible this one won't. The Marlins may well get their money's worth for the full 10 years, if that's indeed what they plan on doing.

Miami's not known for spending big money (save for their bizarre spending spree a few years back), but Stanton's worth breaking the bank for. He's somebody to build a franchise around, and he figures to be very good for a long time.