Monthly archives: March 2008
Baseball Is Magic
So I was all prepared to do all sorts of analysis for the Rockies' opener today, and then I woke up with one of the worst migraine headaches I've suffered in years. I could barely move or talk, let alone analyze baseball.
And look what happened. The Rockies-Cardinals game was postponed due to inclement weather. This game works its mysteries subtly indeed.
A few thoughts from lying on the couch moaning while ESPN's Opening Day coverage played on the TV across from me: The Brewers are going to be really good once they take the closer's job away from Eric Gagne. The Giants are truly awful and they already look demoralized; they could play even worse than their talent level would suggest. I don't know if the Angels have done enough to improve their offense. It was really funny watching Juan Pierre, tented in a warmup jacket, pouting in the Dodgers' dugout when Joe Torre went for a less obvious option as a pinch hitter. Also: How did it escape my attention that Scott Proctor is still with Los Angeles? Only now does Torre's decision to take the manager's job there make sense to me.
And let's all give it up for Livan Hernandez, your Opening Day starter for the Minnesota Twins at age 65.
Baseball Really Imminent
Wow, the season came quickly this year, huh? Perhaps it was the fact that the Rockies' 2007 didn't end until the World Series did that it feels like less of a wait than usual this year. Or also it could be that Opening Day is in March.
Troy Tulowitzki is on the cover of the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue, which came in the mail today. After one in their history, this makes for two Rockies covers in the past seven months, which qualifies as an outright rash.
When the biggest question coming out of your spring camp is whether Scott Podsednik makes the team or not, things are probably going pretty well. That may be overstating things slightly -- it will make more difference to Colorado's won-loss record who the fifth starter ends up being. But most teams have fifth-starter issues. Here's the rotation, which is more or less as we expected except for Mark Redman taking the spot projected for Jason Hirsh, who is injured -- Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez, Redman, Franklin Morales. Morales could probably use some time in AAA -- to make up for the time he missed while filling in for the injury-depleted Rockies in their pennant run last year. None of the various veteran retreads brought into camp made impression enough to unseat the semi-incumbent Redman, who sort of ended the season last year as the fifth starter as the Rockies' pitching staff staggered into the playoffs held together with duct tape and baling wire. (Josh Towers did hang around as a swingman.)
I feel a certain amount of trepidation as the Rockies prepare to open because the end of last year was such a singular experience. If the team gets out to a poor start, bigger crowds at Coors and more articles about the Rockies in the papers might be a temporary phenomenon. That'd be a shame because in 1995 (strike-shortened season) and 2007 (freakish late-September surge) fans in Denver missed out on the central pleasure of being a fan of a baseball team -- following their progress to a playoff appearance through the ups and downs of a full 162-game season. The Rockies will need luck to make the postseason as they did last year, but they won't have to wait until the day after the regular season before anyone takes them seriously as contenders.
Does "Better fundamental team, but maybe no playoffs" sound like a hedge or a lack of faith? The Rockies not being terrible is a new thing for me, too. We'll see how it goes.
Nix Wins Starting 2B Job
Given that the story behind their surge into the postseason last year was built on young talent, it's not at all surprising that the Denver Post is reporting today that rookie Jayson Nix has won the Rockies' starting second base job. Colorado brought a bunch of guys into camp with theoretical shots at the position, including the organization's own Clint Barmes, Jeff Baker, and Ian Stewart and veteran Marcus Giles, but Nix had the inside shot all along. He's shown the ability to play the position better than shortstop Barmes and third basemen Baker and Stewart and hit better this spring than Giles, whom the Rockies released.
Nix has more upside potential than some but not all of those other options offensively, but the principal significance of this decision is that it maintains the quality of the Rockies' infield defense (save for Garrett Atkins at third). Nix isn't experienced enough to say he'll be as good as Kazuo Matsui right away, but all the scouting books speak highly of his glove.
2MRoP: San Francisco Giants
WESTERN HOMES: The conventional wisdom holds that there isn't another team in the majors that was recently a playoff contender and now has as bleak a future as the Giants. They've neglected their player development system, especially on the offensive side, for more than a decade as they've tried to win around Barry Bonds. If ever there was a player worth such a strategy, it was Bonds. They very nearly got over and won a World Series that way, but it didn't pan out, and now the Bonds era is over. With it, a lot of NL West fans will tell you, have gone the Giants' chances for another decade. But I don't think that that's completely true. At the very least San Francisco has displayed a knack for developing pitching in their system, and as their BP '08 chapter theorizes combining a pitchers' park with plus defense will allow them to maximize the return they get in trade for all of the pitchers they choose to deal.
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: A lot of people are high on their draft picks from last year, now that they've had some to make. And the upside of all their silly replacement-level veteran contracts is that all of them except for Barry Zito's and Aaron Rowand's expire after 2009. Zito's contract is already looking pretty bad but Rowand's will be at worst mediocre... assuming he stays mostly healthy. That's a big if. But his new contract is flat for the last three years. $12 million in 2012 for a 34-year-old centerfielder won't be that bad.
WH: I like Rowand -- he's a good example of the kind of player who would have been overrated back in the bad old days, underrated in the pure-OBP era of stat analysis, and is rated exactly right now. He's the kind of guy who has a lot of value hidden in stuff like outfield assists and baserunning. As for the rest of the Giants' contracts... anyone who wants to take them to task for continuing to employ guys like Randy Winn and Ray Durham during an obvious rebuilding phase needs to stop and consider the alternatives. There's nothing even resembling a major-league position player in the top three levels of San Francisco's farm system.
RD: They've done a truly awful job finding replacement-level talent. Durham and Winn combined are only making $16 million this year and Winn's only got an extra $8 million in 2009. By that time, you hope, they'll be able to figure something out. They've got their four core starters locked up until a time when they conceivably could be good again, which is a good place to start. Lincecum just came up and they have team options for Lowry and Cain in '10 and '11 respectively.
WH: It is important to remember that if they didn't hang on to all these thirtysomethings who were Bonds' running mates back in the good old days, the team would be looking at 110 losses. The Giants might lead the league in replacement-level veterans with silly contracts, but the alternative would be far, far worse. Their 40-man roster is like a work of folk art -- strange, not constructed according to any coherent logic, and almost entirely useless. But let's stop and consider Barry Zito's situation for a second. By the time they're good again... will he still be worth anything?
RD: He's only 30. If they get some kind of offense in place by 2010, he'll only be 32. He's not going to be great, but he's going to be an effective member of a rotation with only $35 million or so remaining on his contract.
WH: I think it sounds optimistic to say that they're going to be good again in only two years. They only need to fill every position in the field.
RD: Oh sure, but who did the Tigers have on the offensive side when they signed Pudge?Bobby Higginson played 131 games in 2004!
WH: Well, you know how I feel about Bobby Higginson. But Detroit had more than the Giants have now. They had Inge, Granderson, Shelton, Thames... not great players, but all better than replacements. All those guys were in Toledo in '05 except for Inge who was already with the Tigers. Absolutely better than the likes of Kevin Frandsen, Nate Schierholtz, and Rajai Davis.
RD: I'm not sure I see Zito falling off a cliff in the next two or three years. It's always possible with injuries, but if he stays on the field, he'll be a useful player -- forget his salary.
WH: I suppose it depends on how you define "useful." If eating a lot of innings year after year for a non-contending club is a use, then all right. But the Giants are not operating in a vacuum. Arizona, Colorado, and Los Angeles all have a lot more talent right now and a lot more coming. The Giants have no one anywhere in the system who will play for the big-league team in the next two seasons and won't suck offensively.
RD: That's a bigger problem. If all of those teams (and/or San Diego) stay above .500 there's not much the Giants can do.
WH: And unlike some of the other bad teams that we have discussed and will discuss, there are no quick-fix moves they can make. None of their vets have any value at all.
RD: If the Giants are willing to pay for prospects, maybe they do. Vizquel's glove is good enough for a contender to use off the bench. They also have enough guys with not-awful contracts and some talent that if one has a lucky first half, they can flip him. Winn, Durham, Molina, Dave Roberts... all old, all possibly done, but one of the four having a good few months isn't that unlikely.
WH: They should not allow shame nor public opinion to sway them, when the time to deal comes. This can be their rock-bottom year right here, or they can have several in a row. How aggressive they are about restocking the farm system with bats will decide it.
RD: Yeah, who cares how bad the offense is this season?
WH: They can't get caught up in Baltimore logic where they figure there's a certain arbitrary standard for how high their payroll should be or how many "name" players they need to have on the roster. They could be in a worse situation because it's not like management made a conscious decision to "blow it up" and has to justify it to the fans; they were held hostage by Bonds the last few seasons and everybody in the Bay Area recognizes that. So if they're ghastly this year they can blame it on Barry... so long as they show some substantial improvement in '09 and '10.
RD: They should still try to sign hitters in free agency if the deals are right. Rowand was a good start. They'll need to extend Lincecum in a couple of years, but other than that they should have $30-40 million in annual salary each year to invest in offense.
WH: That's a good point -- the Giants are not a small-market team. If they have opportunities to add guys whose contracts are going to hold steady in value, or even appreciate, they can make those deals even if the signees aren't necessarily going to stick around long enough to be part of the next playoff-contending San Francisco team. No idea should be off the table when it comes to generating new assets for this roster. Another thing higher-budget teams in rebuilding mode can do is invest in multi-year injury rehabilitation projects, although that's more for pitchers and as such applies less to the Giants.
RD: They should go way over slot in the draft, too, if they have to. Anything to get superstar hitters in the fold.
WH: That's interesting. How did Detroit go from being so bad to so good so quickly? In no small part it was because for a few years they were the worst team in the majors with money. They wouldn't have the first pick in the draft but they would get the best talent year after year because they were the highest-selecting team with the will to spend whatever it took. The Giants could take that spot now.
RD: The slotting system is going to blow up this year anyway. Everyone's going to go over slot now. The system is stupid and everybody hates it, the prisoner's-dilemma math works out in favor of everyone defecting, and this year's draft is going to be the watershed point. The Giants have the fifth overall pick and they should take the best hitter available and pay him whatever it takes. Particularly since they lost their second-rounder signing Rowand and they need hitting everywhere.
WH: They have to find a star somewhere. This would also be an excellent time to redouble their efforts in international scouting. Don't you think San Francisco ought to be as big a destination for star Japanese players as Seattle is? And all they've really tried is a cameo from Tsuyoshi Shinjo. I can understand why they were never big overseas players signing with the Giants while Barry was still around -- there simply wouldn't have been enough room for a Japanese media contingent in the locker room what with Barry's entourage, his famed enormous recliner, his personal flatscreens, his special extra locker full of flaxseed ointment, Pedro Gomez, and whatever else.
RD: And his enormous head. The Giants have some downside risk, believe it or not... Lowry and Cain are not guaranteed to stay healthy (although Lincecum, everybody says, is a genetic freak). If they can't find any hitters, the team could completely tank in a few years.
WH: They are young pitchers, and therefore injury risks. People think that San Francisco is a good baseball town these days, but before the new ballpark and before Barry they had lousy attendance for years. You'd hate to see that lovely ballpark half-full all the time.
RD: Unless you're a Rockies, Padres, Dodgers, or D-Backs fan.
WH: Well, as a Rockies fan, I like seeing AT&T Park or whatever it's called these days full on TV in high-def. It's very beautiful.
RD: But you want them to lose.
WH: I don't mind so much that the Giants have no offense to back up a rotation that could be scary, no. Can they maybe lose but the fans will still go in high numbers? Perhaps if they grow some ivy in the outfield. Back to the product on the field... there's not much point in spending money on relief pitching when you have no plans to contend. But that said, the Giants' bullpen could be very, very bad. If that combines with their lack of offense and one or two starter injuries it could mean a really ugly year. A Tigers-like ugly year.
RD: At least the bullpen will be cheap. No one's making even $2 million this season.
WH: It's also got some Dickensian names. Erick Threets! Merkin Valdez! Vinnie Chulk!
RD: And Steve Kline's filthy, filthy cap!
WH: The Vegas over/under is 73. I think that's high.
RD: A bit, but the pitching is good enough that they won't be completely awful. They won 71 last year. I'm going with 70.
WH: I think they're going to be brutal, particularly with the other four teams in the division all above-average. 66 wins.
2MRoP: Cincinnati Reds
WESTERN HOMES: The Reds were terrible last year (72-90), this we know. They have a good farm system according to Baseball America, whose book ranks them third overall this year. They're sort of going for it this year. They signed Francisco Cordero to a big deal and they brought in Dusty Baker, not much known for his development of young players, to manage. It's possible they might have something here -- it doesn't take much past a .500 record to contend in the NL Central and a true rebuilding program in Cincinnati might take two or three years. Is there any chance of the decision backfiring?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: They have some actual players. And young ones, too -- Adam Dunn is only 28. Anything in positive territory at least gives you a chance in the NL. They don't have any bad contracts, and the Cordero deal was the only risk they took. Their payroll isn't that high, so even if Cordero tanks (and he's not young) it's not going to break the bank.
WH: And they brought in Dusty.
RD: Okay, that's the biggest risk they took.
WH: Thank you. They have some guys that are bench players -- like Ryan Freel -- that Dusty could get Dusty-love for.
RD: From a front-office perspective the only bad things that can happen this year are guys getting hurt or young guys not developing. Both of which are big problems with Dusty.
WH: They have young pitchers they need to protect -- Bailey now, Cueto soon. They also have a bullpen made up of veterans who should only be used in low-leverage situations like Mike Stanton and Gary Majewski mixed with young relievers on their way up -- Jared Burton, Jeremy Affeldt.
RD: The top two guys in the rotation (Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo) aren't that likely to break down. So Baker isn't counting on any of the young pitchers higher than #3. But there's still a risk. It's the "special teams" --bench, bullpen, defense -- and health that will probably determine whether the Reds contend or lose 90 again. They'll score runs and not get killed in the first six innings.
WH: We could see a repeat of the Nomar/Loney situation from L.A. last year at first base in Cincinnati with Joey Votto and Scott Hatteberg. It's not a Dusty-friendly roster to say the least -- it's not like the 2002 Giants where there were no young position players around to confuse him.
RD: Or in center field with Freel and Jay Bruce. I think this could be a legacy-defining tenure for Dusty -- if he gets them to the playoffs and doesn't shred the young pitchers, he'll forever be regarded as a "winner who's got some flaws." But if the team implodes and the young guys regress, what does he have going for him?
WH: You don't have to be terrible while you restock your farm system -- it would be better for the Reds if they had a couple kinda good seasons before such time as the prospects arrive and they can have really good seasons. Fans in Cincinnati have shown they will support consistent winners -- and only consistent winners.
RD: If they really turn it around and contend, it won't matter how they got there. But a flash in the pan year followed by several more losing seasons could be disastrous.
WH: Okay, speaking of disasters... this season, if they're out of it at the deadline, do they look to move Adam Dunn?
RD: Is he completely against signing there long-term? Or is there no way they can afford him?
WH: I couldn't tell you what Dunn himself thinks... I imagine with Griffey's deal coming off the books eventually they could afford him if they made a priority of it.
RD: How much is he going to get? He's getting $13 million on his team option this year.
WH: I don't think he's going to get Matt Holliday money because of his strikeout totals and low average. The downside of those are overstated... he's a very valuable player. He's worth $15 or $16 million for sure. I think Cincinnati has always undervalued Dunn somewhat but I doubt that they can afford to let him go.
RD: If they offered him 6 years, $90 million, would he get anything better anywhere else? I don't think that's a bad deal for an elite 28-year-old hitter. He's a homegrown player... unless of course they plan to lose for the next six seasons.
WH: If they look as bad in the early going this year as they did for most of last season, they may figure they're better off trading Dunn for a few more young pitchers and saving that money in the budget to keep their younger players.
RD: Yeah, but then you're really banking on turning it around right after that. If you let Dunn and Griffey go, the fans have nothing left. The young guys have to get good or there's no reason to go and see the Reds at all. No one is going to pay to see Aaron Harang as a team's #1 star. It doesn't help that he's moderately creepy-looking.
WH: Scott Hatteberg! That's true about Harang, though sad... he's a fine player. How many games do you see the Reds winning this season? I think that they'll be healthier and have better players playing more of the time than last year. I also think that Baker is self-aware enough to at least start out trying to turn over a new leaf with regards to young players. Maybe if he gives guys like Votto and Burton a few chances early on they'll earn his trust and he'll stay a new man all season long. I think they'll win 77, benefiting from the opportunity to beat up on the Pirates, Cardinals, and Astros regularly.
RD: I think it's going to be a binary outcome season.
WH: Ooh. And what does that mean?
RD: Either they really contend and win something like 85 or Dusty screws them up and they win 70. Again.
WH: Well, which is it?
RD: Nothing either Dusty or the Reds has done in the last five years makes me think they're due for a sudden turnaround. So I'm going with 70.
WH: The Vegas line is... hmm... 76.5. Either I missed my calling or I subconsciously absorbed the whole list the first time I glanced at it, because I keep hitting these things dead-on.
RD: Baseball Prospectus has them at 81, probably because they rate guys like Harang and Dunn better than most.
WH: I don't think it's crazy to think that if everything breaks exactly their way they could make the playoffs.
RD: Oh, not at all. They could have 7 real hitters in their lineup and 4 real starters in their rotation, which is enough to contend in either league.
WH: And given their attendance situation the best way to play might be to cross their fingers and hope for the best... I'm with you, Dusty was their biggest risk. He could keep them from fielding that optimum lineup almost the whole season, or he could will them to winning a couple more games than they deserve and into the playoffs. Binary outcome, indeed.
2MRoP: Seattle Mariners
WESTERN HOMES: Here is the thing that jumps out at me about Seattle. They're spending a very large amount of money, and you have to think that they consider themselves a contending team. Yet their offense is dreadful. Obviously the Mariners consider themselves a team that's going to win with pitching and defense -- only their pitching isn't as good as they think it is, and their defense really isn't as good as they think it is.
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: They're paying $67 million this year for a starting lineup that could be the worst in the league. Over half of their payroll is going right down the toilet. Richie Sexson is getting $14 million; Jose Vidro, $8.5 million; Adrian Beltre, $12 million. And their defense was awful last year.
WH: The organization seems to think that Beltre, Jose Lopez, and Yuniesky Betancourt are all stellar defensively, but the metrics don't bear that out. The Sexson contract was a disaster from the first, but with the way the market has exploded I'm not sure that Adrian Beltre isn't going to be perceived as a bargain before too long. You'd have to say that the deal for Erik Bedard fills a big hole because they needed another strikeout pitcher after Felix Hernandez pretty badly -- the rest of their rotation is Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva, and Migel Batista, all pitch-to-contact fellas. But the tone in Seattle is as if Bedard was the last piece they needed to give Anaheim a run for their money and that couldn't be further from the case.
RD: The rotation could be pretty good. They have at least four guys who clearly don't suck. The pitching and defense might be adequate, if the offense wasn't a giant black hole of death.
WH: Wow, strong words. No love for Raul Ibañez?
RD: He's not overpaid. But he's their second-best hitter, right? After Ichiro? They've definitely gotten their money's worth out of him (he's consistently provided walks, average, and power) but that's not a good thing in this case. You love Ibañez if he's your fifth- or sixth-best hitter, but they expect more from him and he's getting old and has to fall off eventually.
WH: Either he or Beltre. But that's not particularly good either way. What do you make of the notion that Seattle can build a run towards the wild card by beating up all season on the two teams in their division that are going to be pretty bad, Texas and Oakland?
RD: Um, there are these two other divisions, see, that just so happen to have the best four teams in the league... well, maybe the Angels sneak into the top four, but probably only in a tie.
WH: I think that people often forget just how high of a payroll the Mariners carry, since they've been uncompetitive more often than not the last few years. It's well over $100 million. They're spending a ton of money to not be super good. They need regime change.
RD: Probably around $110 million, even.
WH: Got a win total? I'm going to say 79... Bedard and Felix will have big years but they'll lose a lot of the games the rest of their rotation starts.
RD: It's going to be worse than that I think. It's going to be a three-way race for last in the AL West.
WH: Strong words, again! You're really down on the Mariner Moose this year.
RD: Well, they've got some money to spend in the future, so it's not like they're completely screwed going forward. For the young players whose arbitration periods they've bought out, they've done so cheaply. But they have to stop paying tons of money for guys who can't hit. If they had a lineup that was actually worth $67 million, they would contend.
WH: They apparently make just as much money from their local cable TV package as the Dodgers do from theirs, which came as a surprise to me. People characterize the AL West sometimes as the rich Angels and then the three other teams, but the Mariners arguably have more revenue streams than Anaheim. But what's your win total for Seattle in 2008?
RD: 74. I don't see them getting completely creamed because of the rotation.
WH: Do you think the M's will regret signing Ichiro through 2012?
RD: I doubt it. He's worth enough collaterally, and the contract is flat. $17 million five years from now won't be nearly as much. $12 million is only above-average money now, not superstar-level. Ichiro would be a steal on the Yankees. He's also only 34, so he won't be ancient at the time the contract expires.
WH: He's a unique player who seems likely to age gracefully, with his power numbers going up while his average goes down. And if he starts chasing a few milestones that gives the contract additional value too.... The Vegas over/under number for Seattle is an ambitious 85.
RD: Wow. Big-time under on that. No way they go over. Even if they do well, they'll still be under. And Beltre won't be playing for a new contract until next season.
2MRoP: Washington Nationals
WESTERN HOMES: Is getting guys with character issues the newest "Moneyball" tactic? If you look at the few guys that Washington has in its system that are high on potential and anywhere near major-league ready, they're "off-field" issues discards from other franchises -- Wily Mo Peña, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge. The Nationals have a rising star of a manager in Manny Acta and they think they can get a competitive advantage by acquiring these wild-child guys for less than their talent level alone would suggest and bringing them to heel.
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: There's not really a recent baseball team you can compare to the Raiders or the Trail Blazers in terms of off-the-field issues completely interfering with the franchise's efforts to win games and make money.
WH: In baseball, players like Milledge can get dealt for way less than their actual value if their teammates don't like them for whatever reason. Michael Barrett could tell you all about it.
RD: Which is strange, because baseball is the team sport where teammates interact the least. You'd think that if a quarterback and a wide receiver who hate each other can still complete touchdown passes together, guys could bat in a lineup with anyone.
WH: I think the humbling process of going through the minor leagues makes the average pro baseball player more sensitive to squeaky wheel-type behavior than stars in basketball and football who have been top dogs since high school.
RD: I get worried about Elijah Dukes landing himself in prison, but to be worried about him somehow making Ryan Zimmerman or Paul Lo Duca hit worse seems pretty silly to me.
WH: Well, the Nationals are walking a bit of a tightrope. They certainly don't need Jail Blazer-type press around their fledgling new identity in the year of their new ballpark's opening. But also if they're going to sustain the attendance boost the new stadium will bring they need to appear as if they're making progress towards winning. Taking on these high-risk, high-reward prospects might be the only option available to them, particularly considering how barren the Montreal/Washington system was left after MLB and Omar Minaya's stewardship of the organization.
RD: Part of the reason that teams get bad press is that they play along. If Jim Bowden and Acta just tells everyone "If you hit, you play, and we don't care about anything else" and all the players are on board with that it could totally be a non-issue.
WH: No sport is more dependent on everyone's collective maintenance of popular fictions than baseball. We're kind of meandering a bit on this topic, but I don't how much there is to say about the Nationals on the field this year. It's a bit of a placeholder year for the organization... they've got help on the farm that's coming but it's a few years off and this season the goal seems to just be to not embarrass themselves or the city in the new ballyard. They've gone about it better than some other teams in recent memory have... they have some attractive and marketable young players. Perhaps it helps their offense-oriented team that they're moving out of RFK Stadium, which played as a pretty extreme pitchers' park.
RD: They should be able to score some runs, but man, their pitching staff is going to be ghastly.
WH: Don't you love their pitching rotation?
RD: They have a rotation?
WH: Shawn Hill, John Patterson, Jason Bergmann (?), John Lannan (??), and Matt Chico(???). Subject to change!
RD: Seriously, you know which starter on their roster is making the most money? Tim Redding at $1 million. Everyone else you just named is making less than a million dollars. So you would have to assume that nothing is settled and it will all have to be shaken out this spring. Every single starter they have is completely disposable. "Oh, no, we can't take John Patterson out of the rotation with his eight hundred and fifty thousand-dollar salary!" And everyone after Redding and Patterson is making the minimum. Well, except for some of the bullpen. And their bullpen isn't going to be the worst in the league, again. They seem to be going for a bit of a Marlins-lite strategy at least as far as pitching is concerned. There's so much playing time to go around that someone has to seize the opportunity with a good season. At the very least after this year they'll have a clear idea as to which of their B-grade pitching prospects will be #3-4 starters and which will be relievers.
WH: They need their own Gil Meche. The marginal value of one legit starter, even one being substantially overpaid, would be off the charts for this team. Tim Redding, really? That's awesome. Any inkling as to whom among these prospects has a breakout season?
RD: Boy, it's a crapshoot. I think they should spend their first six or seven picks in the draft this summer on pitchers. If they can add one or two legit prospects, a couple innings-eaters, and one good free agent or trade pickup, they could have a winning club in 2009. That is if the gambles this year to improve the offense don't blow up in their faces. They might as well go all in and try and find the pitching equivalents of Dukes and Milledge. I'm not sure who those are right now.
WH: Just in comparison to the Pirates whom we just discussed, Washington looks like a much more attractive team to be following. They have a couple of players worth paying to see, and a few of them were basically free talent. They've drafted better than Pittsburgh.
RD: They could certainly end up in the Pirates' situation in four or five years if they keep losing.
WH: They're in a different situation because of the relocation. I think it's more likely that the trap that will befall them is misjudging how close they are after the new ballpark revenues start streaming in and overspending. Even so, I feel confident saying that this is both the lowest-payroll and lowest-win total club the Nationals will have for a good while. A few more little things... did anyone anywhere expect that Cristian Guzman would actually play out his entire four-year contract with the Nationals, barring injuries as a starter?
RD: It's not like anyone else would want him. I suppose they could have cut him by now, but they're not contending, so who cares?
WH: The team around him has improved so much that you could argue he's not really killing them so long as he hits down in the order and plays good defense. There's a lot of trade bait on this roster... Lo Duca, Dimitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Austin Kearns. If the deadline passes and the Nationals don't haul in a bunch of young arms Bowden is going to have some explaining to do.
RD: That's the biggest thing they have on their plate this year other than drafting.
WH: I would also like to send out a quick tip of the cap to Jon Rauch for pitching in 85 games in 2006, and then 88 games in 2007. You have to be pulling for him to break the 90 barrier this year.
RD: Why not 100?
WH: Indeed, why not? The Vegas over/under line for Washington is 72.5. I'll go slightly over... 75 maybe?
RD: Yeah, slightly over. 73.
WH: They're in a different situation, again, than the Pirates because if some of their not-so-exciting veteran guys get moved or hurt, the young players taking their spots will probably perform better.
RD: And they have more high-ceiling guys playing already.
WH: Yes. We're all very positive about the future of baseball in Washington, D.C. Other goings-on in that city are beyond the scope of this roundtable.
2MRoP: Pittsburgh Pirates
WESTERN HOMES: There are teams with smaller payrolls than the Pirates, but all of them can point to something they're doing better than Pittsburgh along the player-development cycle. The Marlins might have fire sales every couple of years but they sure do their homework with scouting and get good players back. The Devil Rays have invested serious money both in signing bonuses for draft picks and international players. The Nationals had their entire organization's talent base stripped bare in the transition from Montreal to Washington and yet they still have a better product on the field than the Pirates do. As Pittsburgh faces down a major league-record sixteenth consecutive losing season, my question to you is... are the Pirates even trying to win?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: Either they aren't trying or they have the order of operations wrong. They seem to think that first they'll win, then they'll come up with a plan, and then they'll spend some money. That's all backwards.
WH: If you look at their roster, they have the beginnings of a decent pitching rotation on the cheap. They're going to get a lot of production from their starters for almost no money, Matt Morris notwithstanding. But once you have league-average pitching locked down at a discount, doesn't that mean you have to spend some money to make your offense better than average? Or anything better than average?
RD: The more important question isn't whether or not they're trying; by any conventional measure, they aren't. They're getting what they're paying for: a below-average but not awful team for below-average but not awful salaries. But is that on purpose, or is it a result of terrible ownership and management?
WH: It's true that they're not awful and what's weird to me is that there is a clear road map out from where they are to contention, at least in the National League; the Rockies were in a similar situation two or three years ago.
RD: It's pretty much the same as for any team that can't spend $100 million a year. Draft well, lock up your good players young, and be creative in the trade and waiver markets. And don't pay Matt Morris $27 million.
WH: If at all possible. Although it would be easy to sit here and pile on all the mistakes Pittsburgh management has made, it's important to note that regime change finally arrived last year, if belatedly. Dave Littlefield, the guy who made the Morris deal and the GM ultimately responsible for all the wishy-washy high draft picks Pittsburgh has made in the last several years, is out. What does the new guy, Neal Huntington, have to do to make this season obviously different from the last 15?
RD: Huntington should buy out Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny's arbitration periods, if he can. That would be a good use of $50 million. Also, he has to make it clear that he's not going to spend money on veterans for their own sake.
WH: So far so good, their biggest FA pickup was Byung-Hyun Kim. The franchise has to start valuing its own players the way everybody else does -- they could get stuff in trade for the likes of Jose Bautista and Jack Wilson, but not the stuff they think they should get. As for the one Pirate who's actually as good as Pittsburgh thinks he is -- would the Pirates get better faster if they traded Jason Bay? Or should they continue trying to keep him?
RD: Bay is signed for this season and next for $13 million total. He has to have some trade value, and I don't see how he makes them any better in the long run. But he was terrible last year. They have to give him a chance to improve before they can get anything for him.
WH: For an organization so sapped of talent at all levels, any player movement is good player movement. They should be hyperactive with waiver claims, in the Rule 5 draft, minor league trades. You look at their depth chart right now and they've got scads of young players with old bench players' skills.
RD: They aren't even in a situation like Detroit was a few years ago with several young players who might all get better. In that case reaching for a veteran like Pudge Rodriguez wasn't a complete waste of money. But the Pirates don't have anyone good enough to try to keep around in case they magically improve. Wilson and Bay are okay as starters, but neither is a cornerstone of anything but mediocrity.
WH: Or Freddy Sanchez, he's a useful player on the right team as well. But one of the Pirates' biggest problems is that it doesn't take all that much for one of their own guys to impress them. A guy like Sanchez or Ronny Paulino has one good season and then is guaranteed to keep starting for three or four more years even if they're awful.
RD: Unless they give them way more money than they deserve, it doesn't matter. It's not like they're blocking great prospects.
WH: No, but if they were more aggressive about having open competitions each spring they might be able to get lucky somewhere. As opposed to having a new master plan each offseason -- "Last year our #2 hitters were bad, so if we fix that, everything will fall into place," or "We need a first baseman and everything will be fine," or "We're going to win with speed and defense" -- they need to have the attitude that they need to get better everywhere.
RD: Even in the rotation, no one should be a stone-cold lock. You'd think that a team that has been losing for as long as they have would realize that it's going to take more than one or two moves to turn things around. I don't have this year's edition, but looking at last year's Baseball America Prospect Handbook, the Pirates were ranked 19th in '07, and were below-average every year except for one going back, and never in the top 10. They have to start at the bottom and work up.
WH: I do have this year's Prospect Handbook (thanks, Mom) and Pittsburgh comes in at 26th. That's what happens when your #1 draft priority is signability year in and year out. Man, it's going to look really bad for the Pirates when and if the Devil Rays start winning... the four expansion teams all didn't exist the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs.
RD: They have to realize that spending $10 million in draft bonuses is going to get them far more value than one year of Matt Morris. But with the exception of maybe extending a few young pitchers, there's not much they can really do until June.
WH: Well, again, that Morris deal was Littlefield's big farewell. We have to give the new team at least a little time to operate before we conclude that it's still going to be business as usual for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But let's wrap it up. As far as the product on the field goes, at the very least I think that they're better than Houston. The Pirates' bullpen, like their rotation, is better than most people think. But their offense is simply horrible. Before I looked up the over/under I was going to say 71 wins for them, and the over/under is... boom! 70.5. What say you?
RD: I think I'll take the under, but not by much. I'll go with 68, the same number as last year.
WH: Do you think they're a 68-win team as presently constructed, or do you think that they'll unload a bunch of guys at the deadline and get worse?
RD: I'm not sure if it's even possible for them to unload a bunch of guys and get worse. The difference between the current version and the fire-sale version is only a couple of wins. But I'll go with 68 either way.
WH: I hear you. Their offense is replacement-level as it is, and they're not going to deal any of the young arms.
2MRoP: New York Yankees
If you're just joining us in progress, the Two-Man Roundtable of Power is Mark T.R. Donohue (that's me) and Ali Nagib (Bad Altitude's Research Department, although up until just now that has largely been a ceremonial title). We're doing team previews and we're starting with the Yankees.
WESTERN HOMES: You can guess where I am going first. Hank Steinbrenner has been bashing the NFL for getting a free pass when it comes to performance enhancers. I completely agree with him. Steinbrenner has also been bashing Red Sox Nation, and after they manhandled my Rockies in the World Series I'm kind of on his side there too. And Derek Jeter of all people has been the first major star to break ranks with the witless, obstructionist players' union and come out aggressively in favor of blood tests for doping. Andy Pettite, like Jason Giambi before him, now comes across as mildly noble for being honest about his past steroid use and seeking to make amends for it. So... are the Yankees kind of the good guys now? When did that happen?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: On the surface they're still a $200 million juggernaut that's at or right near the top of the pack in the American League. At some point they're going right back to being underachieving, overpaid losers, though. We're not there yet, but what if they go another three or five years without a title? We're closer to that than we are to their last championship. But as long as they can keep paying top dollar it will be hard for them to completely suck.
WH: Brian Cashman seems to be doing his utmost to save the Yankees from themselves. It was guys from his farm system that kept New York in the playoffs last year and he deserves credit for staying the course this offseason. I don't think there's any one player, even Johan Santana, who could have papered over all of their problems by himself. And losing three or four young players to get a guy like Johan really would have put them in danger of being flat-out bad for a couple of seasons.
RD: They're under scrutiny like no other team is. What if the media turns Hank against Cashman, or the players against management? They could easily go back to crazily overspending on bad or broken pitchers. Even with the guys they didn't trade, they sure aren't young.
WH: There's a decent chance that both Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina could be worthless this season. If the Red Sox don't just run away and hide -- and with the offense the Yankees have still, they likely won't -- New York could be sorely tempted to make the trade for a starter that they didn't make this offseason.
RD: If they're trading for pitching and it's not elite-level, how can they give up the young guys? It's hard to say who would be available at midseason, too.
WH: Joe Blanton, just off the top of my head. I don't think that New York will move anyone who's shown themselves able to lend a hand at the big-league level, but they do still have prospects that they might wish to hold on to lest they leave themselves like Detroit.
RD: Blanton's only 27 and would be better than whomever the Yankees will begin the year with in the fifth spot. How close he is to free agency isn't an issue for them the way it would be for a lot of other teams because if he's good and playing for them, they're always going to have the money to keep him in place. I don't think trading three legit prospects for Blanton would be "ruinous," as you like to say. They can pay him the money Andy Pettite won't get next season. A five-year $75-million extension for a guy like Blanton isn't a huge mistake for a team with the resources of the Yankees. They need someone to pitch for them. Would a 2009 rotation of Wang-Chamberlain-Hughes-Blanton-Anyone be all that bad, with the first four guys making maybe $30 million total? They could spend another $15 million on a starter and have a cheap rotation by their standards.
WH: That depends on what their long-term plans at catcher, first base, the outfield corners, and DH are. And you have the court of public opinion to contend with, to a greater degree than any other franchise. As I said, they have really been bailed out by the farm system these past few seasons. I think Hank and Cashman would suffer blows to their images if they were perceived to be panicking with a Blanton deal. And in New York, image is everything. Why not just wait Blanton out? Or whomever? The free-agent pitching market has to get better than it has been, right?
RD: I'm not saying that they absolutely should trade three or four prospects for Blanton in July. I'm just arguing that doing so wouldn't necessarily be all bad.
WH: I think that the single biggest factor playing into whether the Yankees win the division, contend for the wild card, or fall as far down as fourth place is the effectiveness of Mariano Rivera. He looked fallible at times last season, particularly against Boston. They haven't had to worry about the closer's job for a decade. Look at the rest of their bullpen -- LaTroy Hawkins, Brian Bruney, Jeff Karstens, assuming they're serious about Joba Chamberlain as a starter. Scott Proctor and Luis Vizcaino are gone. I think if Rivera wavers and that certainty they've had at the end of games goes away it has an impact far beyond a mere decline in his stats. No one in their rotation is built to absorb huge innings -- with all the contact guys get off Wang you'd have to say 200 is his practical limit.
RD: I have to think that even if Mariano is completely toast it can't totally sink the team, unless it forced them to overuse other guys and started a cascade of injuries. But they have too much talent for the loss of one player, even a Hall of Famer, to take them from a division co-favorite to a fourth-place finish. Even Santana isn't that valuable. If fourth place meant 83 wins like it might in the NL West, I'd be more inclined to agree with you. The average fourth-place finisher in the AL East the last few years has had about 72 wins.
WH: No matter what the win total is, Yankee fans would absolutely see a fourth-place finish as an utter collapse. Even if their financial advantages keep them from ever scraping rock bottom, the expectations surrounding them are always going to be higher.
RD: If they finish with 82-84 wins, they're still more likely than not to be technically in it down the stretch. If they're in hailing distance in September, I don't think finishing in fourth place and missing the playoffs is that much worse than finishing in second and not making it.
WH: I agree that Rivera isn't going to make 10 games of difference all by himself. But as for finishing fourth not being much worse than finishing second... maybe for you and I it doesn't make all that much difference but you have to think like a Yankee fan. These people are not rational. They expect to win the World Series every year, and they're genuinely surprised when they don't. After the run they've had a fourth-place showing would be like the apocalypse. That's the best thing and the worst thing about the franchise. If you view things neutrally, a down year might be just the thing for the Yanks -- imagine them as sellers at the trade deadline. They have some big names that might be tempting to a desperate team, and one canny midseason deal that brought a few major league-ready arms on board could shorten their "rebuilding" period significantly, especially given their ability to supplement the young guys with free-agent spending. I also think that having a more youth-friendly manager in Joe Girardi is going to help shorten the wait for the next Yankee championship.
RD: Johnny Damon will only have a year and a half and $19 million left on his contract at midseason. So will Hideki Matsui. Both guys are getting on in years. Even Jason Giambi only has a $5 million buyout on his $22 million 2009 team option. Giambi and Matsui have no-trade clauses, though. I'm not sure why anyone would want Giambi -- draft picks when he leaves, maybe?
WH: Or to serve as a cautionary example to young players in the clubhouse. "Kids, if you're not careful, this could happen to YOU! Teams could pay millions of dollars just for the privilege of getting rid of you!" Imagine however if they did work out a Giambi trade and he blocked it -- just when you thought his reputation couldn't sink any lower! As for Matsui, I could see him going to Seattle, were the Yankees to be out of contention and the Mariners still in it. That does kind of seem too ridiculous a possibility to even discuss, though, given recent history. Let's move things along. I think that in a nutshell the story of the 2008 Yankees will be that the continuing slight decline of their aging offense keeps them from scoring enough to offset the fragility of the rotation and the thinness of the bullpen. They're still going to have a great offense -- they have too many players who are just going to be good, period. No one is worried about A-Rod's collapse rate. But you look at their roster and it's not like the Yankee teams we have been conditioned to expect. They have no bench. Their bullpen is going to require an immense amount of reshuffling and finesse to even be average. Their defense is going to be brutal, particularly in comparison to the other teams in the division that aren't Baltimore. And Jorge Posada has to be due for a down year, right?
RD: As far as Posada is concerned... you'd have to think but he's had three years in a row that were better than the last. As for the pitching, the Yankees seem to always find just enough to limp into the playoffs. I think you're still going to see all of the American League playoff teams with 94 wins or more this year, unless the wild card falls off a little. Last year if New York had won five fewer games they would have been in a three-way race for the wild card.
WH: The Las Vegas over/under for the Yankees' win total in 2008 is... wait for it... 94. That seems high to me.
RD: I think so too. There isn't a ridiculously high downside risk, but how would they get to 100 wins? A team with a 94 over/under should probably win 100 or more 25% of the time, and the Yankees aren't nearly that likely to do so.
WH: I don't think 90-91 is out of the question, although they'd need both some health and some on-field breaks. The Vegas number isn't a raw stat, of course... there's going to be a Yankee tax associated there. The Red Sox are at 94 too, and I hardly think I'm alone in looking at the two teams and thinking that on paper Boston is a couple of games ahead right now.
RD: The Red Sox' pitching is much stronger, but they have some questions in the lineup. J.D. Drew? Julio Lugo? Not to get too deep in the weeds with them, they have their own preview coming.
WH: Well, what's the obvious glaring difference between the Red Sox and the Yankees lately?
RD: Winning two titles?
WH: That and that the Boston farm system has produced some legit everyday, borderline All-Star offensive players. The opposite of the difference between the two clubs in the 90's, come to think of it.
RD: Just to compare apples to apples, I don't think that Dustin Pedroia is any better than Robinson Cano.
WH: Yeah, but Ellsbury is better than Cabrera, and Kevin Youkilis is better than... nothing.
RD: The difference is there, no doubt, but it hasn't made the Red Sox lineup into a powerhouse. At any rate, I wouldn't be surprised if Boston ran away with the AL East. But the "real" edge shouldn't be any more than a handful of games.
WH: They're the defending World Series champions, how much more of a powerhouse do they need to be? Even if everything breaks exactly right for New York this season and they win 95 games and the division, neither team should take that as a sign that matters have fundamentally changed. The Yankees are still going to have to turn over almost their entire offense within the next few years and the Red Sox need to continue with their emphasis on internal player development as well.
RD: I think that's right.
WH: Got a win total? I'm going to say 89 and second place. (We'll do playoff picks later.)
RD: I'll go with 91.
Cost Certainty Is Sexy
I have the text for the Two-Man Roundtable of Power's discussion on the Yankees right here, but it's going to take some time to convert to blog form. In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment to note that the Rockies were in the news again yesterday for signing Brad Hawpe to a three-year extension. Hawpe is the fifth major piece the Rockies have given a multiyear deal to who was already under contract for the 2008 season after Matt Holliday, Aaron Cook, Troy Tulowitzki, and Manuel Corpas. Rumors persist that the Rockies are talking seriously to Holliday's agent about extending the left fielder beyond the end of his arbitration period in 2009. Holliday and Scott Boras feel like they deserve $20 million a year -- and apparently, that doesn't completely scare the Rockies away. How times have changed.
The Rockies chapter in the new Baseball Prospectus is kind of a letdown -- there's no great statistical insight they have to unveil that sheds new analytical light on Colorado's magical 2007. For the most part they repeat the same stuff we've been saying all offseason, that the defense played a huge part and that although the team's hot streak down the stretch was remarkable the Rockies were by no means lucky to make the postseason based on their overall season stats. I'm fairly certain that the person who wrote the player comments described Willy Taveras as a "down-ballot MVP candidate" merely to annoy me, but in the team essay another writer says "Taveras lacks the power and patience to be a great regular." Hmm. Seems like better editing might have caught that contradiction. And also the reference to "free-agent Torreabla." I realize I am being absurdly pedantic about the grammatical errors and typos in the new annual, but I did just lose my job as an editor and I do not find the irony comforting. The most interesting item in the Colorado section is this perhaps surprising comment about Todd Helton: "For all the talk of his decline, Helton was second in the NL in on-base percentage last year... his contract... is almost starting to look reasonable."
There's a really neat story on SI.com about Manny Corpas's status as a national hero in Panama you should read.
Introducing the Two-Man Roundtable of Power
So it's March, and in March we do previews. The last couple of years I've pretty much opened one tab in my browser to the spring roster of a different team each day and wrote whatever came to mind, but change is in the air in Colorado. One man's semi-informed opinions on a bunch of baseball teams just wasn't going to cut it this year. We're doubling the number of voices in the Hastily Assembled Previews '08. That's twice as much genius, people. Meet Ali Nagib. I call him The Research Department, but he's really just my baseball-crazy best friend (1992-). We're going to talk some baseball, you're going to read it, and maybe along the way someone somewhere will have an accidental insight or two. Team-by-team discussions will begin tomorrow, but today we're just running one of those state-of-the-league things the major sports websites like so much. Merely follow the link below and you'll get two highly exceptional brains' takes on competitive balance, the next phase of the steroid mess, realignment, Baseball Prospectus 2008, new revenue streams, and baseball's troubling lack of star power.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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