Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Transaction Recap: Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Phillies, Mariners

Yankees:

Won the rights to negotiate with SP Kei Igawa for about $25 million

You can talk about the sorry state of the Yankees starting pitching, or how they needed to keep up with the Joneses over in Boston, but the bottom line is that the Yankees overpaid just like Boston did, but received a lesser prize from the gumball machine. Though Igawa's Japanese numbers aren't bad, his peripherals and scouting reports lag well behind those of Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he projects as a number 3 or 4 starter rather than a staff ace.

Though the eventual numbers may add up to something like 4 years and $50 million, it's important to remember that the Yankees avoid luxury tax payments on the posting fee, which adds up to a savings of $7 million on the total deal. 4 years and $43 million isn't horrible for a number 3 starter with some upside, but it's hard to believe the Yankees couldn't have done better than this.

Igawa is just 27, and he posted some solid strikeout rates in Japan, but while Matsuzaka's first few years in the States could look like Hideo Nomo's, Igawa's MLB stats are more likely to resemble Kaz Ishii's.

Dodgers:

Signed SP Randy Wolf to a 1-year, $8 million contract with a club option for 2008

The loophole on pitchers returning from injury has officially been closed. Gone are the days when teams could sign a recovering Chris Carpenter or Ryan Dempster for $2.5 million over two years, replaced by these types of contracts. Though Wolf is one year further in his rehab than either of those two, there's little doubt that had he hit the market last year, he would have received a more lucrative offer than Carpenter's or Dempster's.

Wolf looked very rusty in his comeback last year, but given the timetable for recovery from Tommy John surgery, this was to be expected. All in all, I like the gamble. Even if he is totally ineffective, it's only an $8 million loss, and the Dodgers are in a great position to load up for next year, what with the weak state of the NL in general and the NL West in particular.

Blue Jays:

Re-signed C Gregg Zaun to a 2-year, $7.25 million contract

It's always questionable making a multi-year commitment to a 35-year-old catcher, but Zaun has proven effective at the plate and passable behind it for the past few years, so it's good to see him collect on it, and the Blue Jays won't be hurt too badly if he turns back into a pumpkin.

The Jays were reportedly close to signing Rod Barajas before pulling out for mysterious reasons, perhaps a failed physical. It will be interesting to see how this affects Barajas' market value.

Cardinals:

Signed 2B Adam Kennedy to a 3-year, $10 million contract

Signed SP Kip Wells to a 1-year, $4 million contract

Kennedy is the early front-runner for best signing of the offseason. It's simply mind-boggling that Kennedy, who has been a better player than Mark DeRosa every year of his career and his a year younger to boot, received less money to play the same position in the same division. Give proper credit to both Walt Jocketty for his shrewdness and Jim Hendry for failing to look at the other available options before committing to a very questionable one.

Wells represents a reasonable gamble, and the Cardinals shouldn't be above taking chances, since they are nowhere near a legitimate World Series contender for 2007 yet. There is very little downside in the contract, and the Cards are certainly better off trusting Wells than Jason Marquis.

Phillies:


Signed SP Adam Eaton to a 3-year, $24 million contract

Eaton is clearly a talented pitcher, but he hasn't posted an ERA below league-average since 2000, and it's questionable whether a pitcher with his flyball tendencies is really well-suited for Citizens Bank Park. The move is in many ways reminiscent of the Reds' signing of Eric Milton two years ago, and we all know how that one worked out. Eaton should be better dthan Milton when healthy, but $24 million is a lot to shell out for a guy who's only taken about 60% of his scheduled turns on the mound in his career.

Mariners:

Re-signed UT Willie Bloomquist to a 1-year extension through 2008 for $950,000

Bloomquist's name is something of a running joke on sabermetric websites, in that he's a player who doesn't really do anything well, but always seems to have a job because Seattle likes him.

I don't really have much to add to this analysis, which seems spot-on for a utilityman who doesn't field particularly well and isn't proficient enough with the stick to profitably pinch-hit for anyone. Given that the Mariners rated poorly in defense from both second base and shortstop last year, you'd think they would look for a more reliable backup middle infielder.
Transaction Recap: Diamondbacks, Brewers, Astros, Angels, Orioles

Diamondbacks:

Traded C Johnny Estrada, SP Claudio Vargas, and RP Greg Aquino to Brewers for SP Doug Davis, SP Dana Eveland, and OF David Krynzel

Everything about this trade makes sense for Arizona. Estrada is viewed as the centerpiece to the deal, but he'll be a 31-year old catcher whose only skill is hitting for average. Aquino is a short reliever with a 4.93 career ERA. The most useful player the Brewers are acquiring is Vargas, who has been around a league-average pitcher with the Diamondbacks in 2005-06, while posting a K:BB ratio over 2.3/1. Vargas is also three years away from free agency.

Davis has been an above-average pitcher for three-and-a-half years in Milwaukee, and with his good strikeout numbers, we should expect more of the same in Arizona, though he will be a free agent after 2007. Krynzel is merely a throw-in; he'll be 25 next year and hasn't been able to hit in AAA, much less the majors.

The big fish for Arizona in this deal is Eveland, who has shown solid potential in both the high minors and the majors the past two years. Like any 22-year-old starter, Eveland has had problems avoiding walks, but any young starter who can strike out nearly a batter per inning in the majors is a solid prospect, and he will be Diamondbacks property until 2012.

Astros:

Signed OF Carlos Lee to a 6-year, $100 million contract, and SP Woody Williams to a 2-year, $12.5 million contract

The Lee signing is a bit much. He's one of the few impact bats on the market, but he's a major liability with the glove and hasn't drawn 60 walks in a year since 2002. He begins the contract as a 31-year-old worth 4-5 wins a year, but will end it at 36 and worth far less. For about the same money over six guaranteed years, I'll take Alfonso Soriano any day of the week.

Williams is a reasonable pickup at this price. He should be slightly below league-average for the next two years, and this contract avoids a long-term commitment or a huge financial outlay.

Angels:

Signed CF Gary Matthews, Jr. to a 5-year, $50 million deal

Unlike Juan Pierre's deal with the Dodgers, which was extravagant but understandable, this contract makes almost no sense. Pierre was three years younger and has been the better player in the past by almost any measure, so why is Matthews getting paid more? The easy answer is to blame ESPN's endless replays of his excellent catch, but there's more to it than that. It's easy to envision that a career year represents a new standard of performance; check the contracts given to Mark DeRosa or Adrian Beltre (although Beltre no longer looks overpaid after the way this offseason has shaken out).

Apparently, the motive behind the signing is to free Chone Figgins for a trade, but why kick out the better player in favor of a $50 million albatross? The Angels will be lucky if Matthews is still able to start in the last two years of the deal, although as they have shown with Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson, and Adam Kennedy, they are usually willing to bench a better, younger player in favor of a higher-paid one.

Orioles:

Signed RP Danys Baez to a 3-year, $19 million contract

Signed RP Scott Williamson to a 1-year, $900,00 contract

As overpaid as Baez will be, the problem here isn't really the money, but the approach the Orioles are taking. They're trying to fix their team with the last pieces of the puzzle rather than the first. While the O's now have one of the better bullpens in the league, what good will it do them? They can't hit, and their starting pitching is a mess. Meanwhile, the money that should be earmarked to eliminate these deficiencies is being spent to put together a $20 million bullpen. Ask the 2006 Cubs; this strategy does not work.

In addition to these two, and Jamie Walker, the Orioles reportedly have a three-year agreement with Chad Bradford. In 2007, the Baltimore front office will likely spend the season wondering why their expensive bullpen never has a lead to protect.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Transaction Recap: Cubs, Reds, Angels, Dodgers, Yankees, Mets, Marlins

Cubs:

Signed OF Alfonso Soriano to an 8-year, $136 million contract

Reportedly, only the first six years are guaranteed, which makes this a much better contract. Like Magglio Ordonez, Soriano is unlikely to have his option years picked up, unless the buyout costs are big and/or the market price for free agents keeps climbing.

Getting the obvious out of the way:

- The Cubs overpaid
- A lot of free agents are going to get more money this year than they ever would have before

Nonetheless, a lot of people are taking their criticism way too far. The economy of this winter is vastly different from previous seasons; with the new CBA, teams have more incentive to put wins on the board, because each win results in fewer revenue-sharing penalties.

Let's throw away dollar figures for a moment. Your parents like to lament that a fast food hamburger used to cost 15 cents when they were your age, as if this figure were equivalent to 15 cents in today's money. Instead, let's consider contracts in Baseball Bucks (BB). BB adjust for the normal inflation in baseball salaries.

In honor of the biggest spending offseason in baseball history, we'll set 1 BB = 1 dollar in the 2000-01 signing period, so Alex Rodriguez's contract was for 252 million BB. Baseball salaries have roughly increased 10% per year until this year, when they appear to be increasing 25-30%. This means a BB equals a little over 2 dollars this offseason.

Then Soriano's contract, had it been signed in 2000, equates to eight years for 68 million BB, which seems much less unreasonable, even if it is still a long commitment to make to a 30 year old.

A lot of people seem to be under the misapprehension that teams are just going to throw away money this offseason because they have so much of it. The teams aren't being stupid; they are just following simple economics. When revenues increase, the value of fielding a competitive team goes up, and teams are willing to pay more for that privilege. The Soriano deal is the embodiment of the new economics, and we should expect to see a lot more contracts this offseason that would have looked stupid in the past.

Reds:

Signed SS Alex Gonzalez to a 3-year, $14 million deal, and RP Mike Stanton to a 2-year, $5.5 million deal

Traded C Jason LaRue and cash to the Royals for a player to be named later

Another consequence of the new market is that a below-average shortstop will now set you back almost $5 million a year. This deal isn't really so bad when you look at it under a proper microscope, although the Reds aren't getting an impact player, and more than anything, it highlights how stupid the Reds were to give up Felipe Lopez, a cheaper and much better player, for very little return.

Continuing their infatuation with former Nationals relievers, the Reds also picked up Stanton, who's getting a two-year deal on the strength of his 2006. At age 40, Stanton can no longer get righties out, and is strictly LOOGY material. 2 years and $5.5 million isn't a lot to risk in this market, but the Reds probably could get comparable production out of a farmhand.

The LaRue trade was interesting, in that he's a still-useful player who isn't really needed on the Reds. Given that they threw in enough cash to cover half his 2007 salary, the PTBNL is unlikely to be anyone interesting.

Angels:

Signed RP Justin Speier to a 4-year, $18 million contract

Traded RP Kevin Gregg to the Marlins for RP Chris Resop

A truly interesting pair of moves. Given that Gregg is four years younger than Speier and has posted comparable peripherals over the past three years, it's easy to envision a scenario where Gregg has the better 2007-10 of the two.

Speier receives only the second four-year contract for a middle reliever in my memory, joining Steve Karsay. He's certainly a questionable choice for that distinction; his peripherals are good except for an extreme flyball tendency, but he's not the sort of impact pitcher that really sets himself apart from the pack. Of course, middle relievers like that tend to get offers to close somewhere.

Resop is a live arm, but has had extreme bouts of wildness in the majors, and I'd rather have Gregg even though he has already reached his arbitration years while Resop is stuck at the major league minimum until 2009.

Dodgers:

Signed 1B Nomar Garciaparra to a 2-year, $18.5 million contract, and OF Juan Pierre to a 5-year, $45 million contract

Everyone thinks the Soriano contract will be huge for J.D. Drew and Carlos Lee, but certainly the $136 million and the market in general have been a huge boon to free agency's middle class. Players like Pierre would never have seen this kind of money in years past.

The Nomar contract, even after adjusting for the market, looks a bit high for a league-average first baseman with major injury issues, but there weren't many other options, unless the Dodgers were ready to hand the job to James Loney. Nomar's case for the Hall of Fame looks to be all but over, a fate few could have seen coming three years ago.

Pierre's signing will draw a lot of criticism. He is still an asset, but he's not even an above-average performer, and it's sad that we've come to a point where the league average plus significant age-related decline is worth a five-year deal at $9 million per. Still, this contract is going to turn out better than whatever Gary Matthews, Jr. signs for.

Yankees:

Signed SP Mike Mussina to a 2-year, $22.5 million contract

Given the cost of starting pitching, and that it would have cost the Yanks $1.5 million to buy out Mussina's contract anyway, this was a nifty signing. Moose's peripherals are still quite strong, and his performance will likely come within a few wins of Daisuke Matsuzaka's over the next two years, for some $20 million less.

Mets:

Signed Moises Alou to a 1-year, $8.5 million contract

Traded RP Matt Lindstrom and RP Henry Owens to the Marlins for SP Jason Vargas and SP Adam Bostick

They sure love those bad-fielding outfielders in Queens, don't they? Playing between Shawn Green, Cliff Floyd, and now Alou, Carlos Beltran deserves a Medal of Honor if he can get through this season. Though Alou is ancient, he can still hit, and 500 at bats are better given to him than Endy Chavez, or Green for that matter.

I like the trade for the Mets. Though Owens and Lindstrom have shown flashes of brilliance (Owens had 10 BB and 74 K in AA in 2006), neither is particularly young, and I'm guessing Owens would have been Rule 5 fodder if he stuck around. Vargas and Bostick are both young arms of interest, and though each has some issues--Vargas with the long ball and Bostick with control--they have time to work those out.

A brief note on the Marlins: after they went into a full-scale youth movement last year, they have proceeded to trade a bunch of young pitchers for relievers in the 26-28 age range. It will be interesting to see where this is headed.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Transaction Recap: Blue Jays, Orioles, Phillies

I'd like to begin by recommending this piece by Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, which not only outlines his comments on the $51.1 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka, but also includes comments from Nate Silver on how the new CBA is contributing to the mind-boggling free-agent salaries this year. The Cliffs Notes version: It's justifiable for a team to spend 25-30% more for the same player this year than last.

Blue Jays:

Signed DH Frank Thomas to a 2-year, $18 million contract

This continues a trend that began last offseason, where the Blue Jays are looking to add expensive, famous players. In addition to last offseason's overspending for A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, the Blue Jays traded for Troy Glaus, but in doing so they gave up a less expensive, better player in Orlando Hudson, for the "privilege" of paying Glaus $34 million over three years, plus a player option for 2009 that will only be exercised if Glaus suffers a significant decline between now and then.

This is simply too much money, even in the inflated market of this offseason. Thomas will be 39 and 40 the two years of this deal, an age where players usually decline steeply and get injured frequently. Thomas' PECOTA comparables from before 2006 include many all-time greats, like Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Mark McGwire, and Johnny Mize. All were basically finished by age 40, even though many were still going strong through 38. That's the reality for big, injury-prone 1B/DH types: they don't age well.

Thomas has significant shortcomings. He is totally unable to play the field, so he's useless for interleague road games and World Series road games, should those arise. His injury struggles are well known, and he is a huge laibility on the basepaths at this point, which turns many of his doubles into singles, and often strands him on the bases when a more athletic player would have scored. Thomas may post a .900 OPS next year, but it will be the least valuable .900 OPS in baseball.

If the Blue Jays make the playoffs once in these two years, the contract may well be worth it, but it doesn't look like they're really at that level yet, unless they make some more moves between now and April. In terms of pure return on investment, $18 million is too much to pay for the 5-7 wins they can expect Thomas to contribute.

Orioles:

Signed RP Jamie Walker to a 3-year, $12 million contract

Just a terrible signing. What do the Orioles have to gain by adding a short-relief lefty specialist? Walker is the last piece of the Orioles' puzzle, not the first, and adding him will not substantially improve their 2007 outlook. Perhaps the Orioles did not witness his meltdown late last season: From August 1 through the playoffs, Walker pitched 20 innings, with 15 strikeouts, 7 walks and an eye-popping 7 HR allowed.

For his career, Walker has been very effective against lefties but quite mediocre against righties, making him a decent asset as a LOOGY for a team in contention, but not Baltimore. He has allowed 1.4 HR/9 for his career, a very high number for a good pitcher and one that will only get worse after leaving the spacious dimensions of Comerica Park.

Phillies:

Signed 3B Wes Helms to a 2-year, $5.45 million contract

I've seen worse signings. Helms is not a great player by any shakes, but he can mash against lefities and survive against righties, and should contribute a couple of wins per year, which justifies a $2.7 million salary for a team in contention. There's not much else to add; Helms is a known commodity, and no one really expects him to hit .322 again, though his 2007 rate stats could look solid if he logs most of his time against lefties.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Transaction Recap: Cubs, White Sox, Tigers, Mets, Padres

Cubs:

Traded RP David Aardsma and RP Carlos Vasquez (minors) to White Sox for RP Neal Cotts

Signed C Henry Blanco to 2-year, $5.25 million extension

A pair of bad moves for the Cubs. Cotts has shown in 2004 and 2006 that his 2005 was a fluke, the kind of once-in-a-career luck that much of the Sox pitching staff experienced to propel them to the World Series. Though Aardsma was no great shakes for the Cubs, Baseball HQ and the Bill James Handbook both see a lot of potential for improvement next year. Additionally, Aardsma has less service time, and the Cubs threw in a live AA arm to boot. Though he could have sold higher on Cotts last year, Kenny Williams made a solid deal for Aardsma, whose value had bottomed out.

The Blanco signing is typical of the Cubs' approach, spending so much money on bench players and bullpen arms that they don't have any left to bid on the real star power in the market. I don't know offhand how many backup catchers are earning over $2.6 million per season, but there are surely not many. Compare this contract to the one the Cubs gave Neifi Perez to be their backup shortstop last year. Similar to that deal, it's unlikely the Cubs are bidding against any other teams this time either.

There's not much to say about Blanco that hasn't been said. He can't hit. He has a cannon arm, but he is not a championship-caliber player. Of course, the same could be said of Yadier Molina, who actually won a championship. Still, Blanco will be 35 in 2007 and old catchers tend to age especially poorly.

Tigers:

Re-signed 1B Sean Casey to a 1-year, $4 million contract

Speaking of overpaid backups...of course, Casey won't be the backup in 2007. Anyone who's numerically literate knows Chris Shelton is a better player, and that the Tigers desperately needed to upgrade their production from the power spots of LF, DH, and 1B. With the Sheffield acquisition, they overpaid to help one of those positions; now they have overpaid to hurt one of them. Just a stupid, stupid move.

Mets:

Signed 2B Jose Valentin to a 1-year, $3.8 million extension

Signed SP Orlando Hernandez to a 2-year, $12 million extension

Traded RP Royce Ring and RP Heath Bell to Padres for RP Jon Adkins and OF Ben Johnson

The Valentin signing represents a good low-risk gamble. Though Valentin was playing well over his head in 2006, he should be passable in 2007 and the Mets apparently don't want to make long-term commitments in this year's free agent market, where everyone will be overpaid by half.

The same philosophy drives the Hernandez extension. $6 million/year is very cheap for a starting pitcher these days, especially one who averaged more than a strikeout per inning last year, with a K:BB ratio of 2.7/1. Though Hernandez is "probably" going to be 42 at the end of the deal, the success of 40-year old pitchers is common in this era. A two-year commitment is about right, and the Mets should get a good return on their investment.

On a pure talent evaluation, the Mets come out behind on their trade with the Padres. Johnson is not really much of a prospect, with one good AAA season in 2005 sticking out of his career numbers like a sore thumb. He's a fourth outfielder on a team that already has a logjam of those. Adkins is no more than a back-of-the-bullpen guy, especially in a good pen like the Mets', and his career highlight is allowing the first two of the Dodgers' four consecutive home runs in their incredible comeback win.

The Padres' haul is more promising. Bell has long been a favorite of the stathead community for his good DIPS numbers despite poor results. He's spent the last three years bouncing between AAA, where he consistently dominates, and MLB, where his career numbers include 2.5 BB/9 and 8.8 K/9 with a good G/F ratio, not far off from the level of a relief ace. He has big sleeper potential for the Padres.

Ring, who the White Sox infamously drafted in the first round of the "Moneyball" draft, has shown pronounced lefty-righty splits in the minors and could be a solid LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) in the majors. He certainly has more potential than Adkins, who has proven he is not a quality bullpen pitcher.

I've heard that the motivation behind this deal is that Bell and Ring are both out of options, so it provides the Mets with additional roster flexibility. While I understand that Ring may not be ready for the majors, Bell is clearly able to contribute and should not have been sent back down anyway.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chicago White Sox 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 90-72, 3rd place, AL Central

Pythagorean record: 88-74

Key free agents: Dustin Hermanson, David Riske

Plan for 2007: Upgrade shortstop, left field, and center field, plan for some regression from the middle of the lineup, and hope the pitching bounces back

The White Sox are the most misunderstood team in baseball. The public looks at the Sox and sees a team that won the 2005 World Series on the backs of their pitching staff and defense, put together one of the best everyday lineups in baseball for 2006, yet missed the playoffs after their pitchers and defense “underachieved”. Indeed, the South Siders had a talented squad in 2006, and will be strong again in 2007, but it is important to understand who the 2005-06 Sox really are.

The Sox entered 2005 projected as a .500 team by virtually everyone. Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan envisioned a 72-90 season. The Sox, of course, came out of the gate swinging, opened up a huge lead, and held off a late charge from the Indians to lead the division wire-to-wire. Despite owning home-field advantage throughout, they entered the playoffs as underdogs before winning 11 of 12 to capture their first title in 88 years. At the end of October, there was no doubt as to who the best team in baseball was.

Or was there? According to the 2006 Bill James Handbook and Baseball Prospectus, the 2005 Sox weren’t even the best team in their division; Cleveland was. Additionally, the Sox’s performance was driven largely by the overachievement of their pitching staff and defense, which foreshadowed a likely regression. Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras, Dustin Hermanson, Neal Cotts, and Cliff Politte each posted a career-low ERA that defied expectations. Predictably, all six had worse results in 2006.

After adding Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez, the Sox entered 2006 as the favorite to repeat on ESPN and in public polls, but not in the analytical community. Nate Silver’s PECOTA projections spit out an 82-80 projected record for the Sox in 2006, leaving them in fourth place in the AL Central. Silver also portended that the Sox would have a “decidedly below-average offense, and a decidedly above-average group of starting pitchers,” which apparently was lost in translation to the actual results.

At the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, three sets of projections from ZiPS, PECOTA, and Diamond Mind were used to simulate the season 1000 times each. The result was an average record of 82-80, and only 676 playoff appearances in 3000 simulated seasons. All three systems expected the Sox to finish in third place.

Chicago beat those projections easily, but not without some overachievement from their lineup. Paul Konerko had his best season at the plate, while Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye obliterated their projections with career years. Jim Thome rebounded from injuries to play in 143 games and have one of his best seasons at age 35. These performances easily made up for the pitching staff’s return to mortality, but it wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs.

What does 2007 hold? Both the lineup and the pitchers should regress to the mean, leaving them slightly above average in both offense and defense. The real problem is that while the good hitters on the Sox are very good, their bad hitters are absolutely awful. Scott Podsednik, Brian Anderson and Juan Uribe were unacceptably terrible in 2006, and replacing them with league-average hitters at their positions would single-handedly have propelled the Sox to the playoffs.

Hopefully, GM Kenny Williams won’t stand for it. Last offseason, he showed he is willing to make bold moves to keep the team in contention, and he needs to do the same this year. Williams has reportedly inquired about Alex Rodriguez. Even if he can’t return to shortstop, A-Rod would be an excellent fit with the Sox, who courted him six years ago before he signed his mega-deal with the Rangers.

Just one good shortstop, Julio Lugo, is a free agent. Though he has outperformed Uribe, Uribe is three years younger, and his OBP should be around .300 in 2007 rather than the .257 of 2006, so signing Lugo would be a poor allocation of resources.

With a few good-hitting outfielders on the market, the Sox should trade or non-tender Scott Podsednik and go shopping. J.D. Drew can play a league-average center field, and with his .393 career on-base percentage, would be a great fit to bat second, ahead of the core of Dye, Thome, and Konerko. There are also several bargain-priced options: David Dellucci has posted an .887 OPS the past two years, Jose Guillen should come fairly cheap after an injury-plagued year, and a healthy Cliff Floyd could be underpriced as well.

Though the market is short on center fielders, Aaron Rowand is rumored to be on Williams’ wish list, but he might be too expensive for the marginal upgrade he represents over Brian Anderson.

There are also internal options. The Sox have been trying out hot third base prospect Josh Fields in left, and hope he can play there in 2007. Quadruple-A player Ross Gload has performed well in limited playing time, and could step in as the everyday left fielder. Over the course of a season, Gload would be worth a couple of wins less than Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee, but he would also come $14 million cheaper.

Williams is allegedly shopping a starting pitcher, most likely Mark Buehrle or Freddy Garcia. If he can get a solid everyday player for either, it would be a coup. My suggestion: Anderson and Garcia to Philadelphia for Pat Burrell, Rowand, and cash. This probably isn’t even being discussed, but it fills two-thirds of the Sox’s lineup holes at little immediate cost to the Sox.

As for the rest of the pitching staff, the Sox can’t do much but hope they have better results next year. Except for Buehrle, their peripheral stats weren’t markedly different between 2005 and 2006, so their 2007 results should fall somewhere between those boundaries. In the future, however, Williams should allocate more of his budget to hitters, rather than spending $50 million on his rotation.

I recently read an opinionated piece that suggested Williams’ first step should be to understand that he is starting this offseason with 85-90 win talent, not a 100-win team that underachieved in 2006. If he realizes this and acts accordingly, he can make the necessary moves to take the Sox back to the playoffs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Transaction Recap: Red Sox, Cubs

Red Sox:

Win negotiating rights with Daisuke Matsuzaka for $51.1 million

Wow. I'd heard rumors of a $25-30M bid being bandied around, but this is an impressive sum no matter how you slice it.

Everyone in the statistical community is convinced that Matsuzaka will be one of the top 15 starters in the majors next year, and I see no reason to disagree based on his numbers and the few times I've seen him pitch. Is he worth $51 million plus another $10 million or more per year? Of course not, but the Red Sox gain additional benefits from the signing:

  • Similar to the Yankees' logic behind last year's Johnny Damon signing, the fact that Matsuzaka likely would have gone to the Bronx gives the Red Sox extra incentive to bid him up, to prevent him from falling into enemy hands
  • The posting fee does not count towards luxury tax payments
  • The signing may give the Red Sox some of the marketability in Asia that the Yankees and Mariners currently enjoy, which will certainly lead to additional revenue
All this still doesn't rationalize a $51 million bid. Unless Matsuzaka signs a very cheap contract--unlikely with Scott Boras as his agent--the Sox overpaid. In the end, though, they come out looking much better for 2007.

Cubs:

Signed Mark DeRosa to a three-year, $13 million contract

Maybe it's the "wait till next year" mentality that I grew up with as a Cubs fan, but I bought into the talk of new Cubs President John McDonough about making the World Series an immediate goal. That faith was reinforced by the re-signings of Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood, and Wade Miller, before being destroyed by this doozy.

It didn't take long for the Cubs to revert to their old ways of signing players coming off career years to three-year deals for mid-market money. To the Cubs' credit, they've broken the cycle twice in two years, as neither Jacque Jones nor DeRosa is a reliever, and Jones was coming off two consecutive poor seasons with Minnesota.

The real problem here is the opportunity cost, as this year's free agent market is deep with productive second basemen, all of whom are off the Cubs' radar now.

I don't really have much to add. Everyone knows DeRosa is not a difference-maker, but maybe, if the Cubs are lucky, he can perform near a league-average level in 2007. He is still a better hitter than Ronny Cedeno or Cesar Izturis, so as long as the Cubs don't play him in an outfield corner like Texas did, their lineup will survive.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Transaction Recap: Cardinals, Astros

Cardinals:

Signed Jim Edmonds to 2-year, $19 million contract

At first, I was puzzled about the decision to sign Edmonds for two years rather than simply pick up his $10 million 2007 option, but it makes sense upon further review. The Cardinals have Chris Carpenter under contract through 2008, and one would expect Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols to continue producing at least through that year. So the Cardinals' window of near-term opportunity is basically open for exactly those two years, and their best move is to load up now, before Edmonds' body gives out, Rolen wears down from age and injuries, and Carpenter becomes very expensive or leaves via free agency. It's unlikely the extra $9 million will look like a huge mistake unless Edmonds suffers a severe injury between now and the end of the contract.

Astros:

Signed Craig Biggio to a 1-year, $5.15 million contract

As a fan in the era of big free-agent deals, I'm happy that Biggio will remain an Astro to the end. I like underappreciated players, and certainly Biggio has been underappreciated throughout his career, except perhaps by the fans in Houston.

At some point, however, someone will have to explain to me why Biggio's salary keeps going up, from $3 million at age 39 in 2005 to $4 million in 2006 to $5.15 million at age 41 next year. His performance is exhibiting a normal steep decline as a player reaches the end of his career. Are the Astros really worried that there would have been a big market for a 41-year old second baseman this offseason? It will be nice to see Biggio pick up his 3000th hit as an Astro, but certainly no one else would have paid anywhere near this amount for him on the open market, not in an economy where Frank Thomas gets $500,000 and $2.1 million in incentives.

Unless Biggio wanted to leave, which seems unlikely, there was simply no need to make such an exorbitant offer. Giving him $5.15 million was a waste of money.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Transaction Recap: Cubs, Tigers, Indians, Padres

Cubs:

Signed 3B Aramis Ramirez to 5-year, $73 million contract
Signed SP Wade Miller to 1-year, $1.5 million contract, plus incentives
Signed RP Kerry Wood to 1-year, $1.75 million contract, plus incentives

I like the Wood and Miller contracts a lot. In an era where pitching is at a premium--just check out the money the Cubs are giving their bullpen in 2007-08--the Cubs are taking some chances on a couple of talented, injury-prone arms at low risk.

Both pitchers can earn over $3 million in incentives, so they will be well-compensated if they perform, but if they aren't able to contribute, the Cubs won't be stuck wasting $10 million, as the Yankees (Carl Pavano), Mets (Pedro Martinez), and Red Sox (Matt Clement) will. It's clear from the language in Wood's contract that the Cubs intend to make him their closer in 2007. He brings the complete ensemble for relief success, though he needs to stay healthy and keep the walks down.

The Ramirez contract is harder to endorse. Keith Law ranked him as the number 1 free agent this offseason; though he's no Barry Bonds at the plate and no Jim Edmonds in the field, there's no free agent I'd rather give a five-year contract to, so this ranking makes sense. It's hard to evaluate this contract without seeing how the market shakes out. Certainly, $14.6 million per annum is a lot for a guy with a bat below superstar level and little defensive value, but the Cubs are in a position where they need to succeed in the near future or risk long-term damage at the box office. In order for the five-year commitments to Ramirez and Derrek Lee to work out well, Chicago will need to do more work this offseason. Their pitching staff could be the best in the league if it can stay healthy (stop me if you've heard this before), but the lineup still has many holes to fill.

Tigers:

Traded SP Humberto Sanchez, RP Kevin Whelan, and RP Anthony Claggett to the Yankees for RF/DH Gary Sheffield

Signed Sheffield to two-year, $28 million extension through 2009

This trade, like the ones made by the White Sox after their World Series win, makes sense in spirit but not in execution. Teams in the Tigers' current position--85-win talent, a couple of holes in the lineup--benefit the most from adding a big impact player. GM Dave Dombrowski knows the Tigers will need an impact bat to return to the playoffs in 2007, and he delivered one of the only available sluggers. Sheffield brings power and plate discipline to a lineup that desperately needs a big hitter in the middle of its order.

There's just one fly in the ointment: Detroit now owes Sheffield $41 million for his age 38-40 seasons. Even in the craziness that is the current free-agent market, does anyone believe that Sheffield, had his option been declined, would have gotten three years and $41 million, including a $14 million commitment for his age 40 season?

Perhaps because he strung together three consecutive seasons of 154 or more games played from 2003-05 at ages 34-36, Sheffield has apparently lost his label as injury-prone. It was once expected that he would miss 20-25 games each year, much like Larry Walker. As he ages, it's hard to imagine he will stay especially healthy.

The Bill James Handbook projects 123 games and an .892 OPS for Sheffield in 2007, which looks about right. That may be worth $13 million to a team near the level of contention, but combined with the normal steep decline suffered by hitters in their late thirties, will it be worth $14 million in 2008 and 2009? Almost certainly not, and that's without considering the pitchers the Tigers parted with to get him.

Sanchez is one of the better pitching prospects in baseball, with a decent strikeout rate and good command. He does have a tendency to give up the long ball, but so does Jered Weaver. Whelan has posted excellent strikeout numbers every step of the way in his short pro career, and if he can get his walks down, he could be a solid MLB reliever in a few years. Claggett looks like more of a long-term project, but has some upside.

All in all, a great deal for the Yankees, who acquired three live arms for a player they didn't even want in the first place.

Indians:

Traded 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff and P Andrew Brown to the Padres for 2B Josh Barfield

An interesting deal for both teams. Kouzmanoff looked to be the third baseman for the Indians until Andy Marte was ready, but the team had a hole at second base, which they have now filled with a young, productive player.

Kouzmanoff absolutely tore through the minor leagues in 2006, and didn't embarass himself in his major-league debut. He could be a quadruple-A player, having not reached the majors until late in his age-24 season, or he could be a cheap source of above-average production for the next several years. The Padres are apparently going to try him in left field, where he has never played, though they have a hole at third base in next year's depth chart.

Brown's stock fell far in 2006 along with his peripheral stats, which took a steep fall from the promise of 2004-05. He can still be a productive pitcher out of the bullpen, but he isn't ready for a big-time role yet.

Barfield exceeded expectations in 2006, hit much better outside of PETCO Park's spacious dimensions, and is still very young and short of arbitration. He's a valuable commodity, especially if he continues to hit as well as he did on the road in '06 (.355 OBP, .484 SLG).

I like Kouzmanoff's bat, but this is a deal that made sense for both teams.
The Guessing Penalty

The Giants are "idiots" for attempting a 52-yard field goal that was returned by the Bears for a crucial touchdown in Sunday night's loss.

At least that's what you believe if you're a Chicago-area radio host. After all, the only bad decisions are those which end up hurting you, right? If you're like the many radio hosts I heard on my drive home from watching the game, you certainly feel this way.

I liken this approach to how many students react the first time they hear of the "guessing penalty" on standardized tests. On the SAT, to prevent test-takers from artificially enhancing their scores by randomly guessing on questions that stump them, the student is penalized for incorrect answers in such a way that random guessing will even out in the long run. For example, if a question has five choices, each correct answer is worth +1 point, and an incorrect response costs you 1/4 of a point.

Many students see that they are penalized for incorrect responses and, not understanding the mathematics behind the system, decide not to guess at all unless they are confident in an answer, even if they have it narrowed down to two choices.

When taking an SAT prep course, the first thing the instructor does is demonstrate how the guessing penalty really works. First, they will show that if you guess randomly on five questions and get one right, as you will on average, you break even. Then they will demonstrate that narrowing the choices down to two or three makes guessing very profitable.

For example, if you narrow each of eight questions down to a coin flip between A and B, you will average getting four right and four wrong, for a total profit of +3 points to your score. Guessing when you can narrow it down to two choices, even if you have no preference between the two, is worth +3/8 of a point to your score on average.

What does this have to do with football? Let's say you narrow down eight questions to two choices each, but because you're extremely unlucky, you get all eight wrong. If you could see your test results, you would likely lament guessing on those questions, just like Tom Coughlin probably regrets attempting the field goal. That doesn't make it the wrong decision.

In hindsight, it seems so easy to assume that the field goal would likely fall short, providing a golden opportunity for a lengthy return reminiscent of Nathan Vasher's 108-yard runback against the 49ers in 2005. However, at the time, kicking was a perfectly reasonable move. The Giants were down by four points with 12 minutes to play, facing fourth-and-15 at the Bears' 35. Most people would completely rule out going for the first down here; I wouldn't, but kicking was still the best play. A punt probably gains them an average of 25 yards of field position over kicking the field goal and missing. The chance at three points was far more valuable.

It's popular to be a monday-morning quarterback, but the world needs analysts who can separate the truly bad decisions from the good ones gone awry. The Giants may not have played a good game on Sunday, but the decision to kick didn't cost them the win.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cleveland Indians 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 78-84, 4th place, AL Central

Pythagorean record: 89-73

Key free agents: None

Plan for 2007: Add a bat at first base or left field and hope for better luck.

The Cleveland Indians of 2005-06 were cursed.

That’s one theory, anyway. The 2005 squad missed the playoffs despite being the best team in baseball by many measures. Their follow-up act was to finish second in the league in scoring and seventh in runs allowed, yet post a losing record. A curse would also explain how Jhonny Peralta suddenly declined from an outstanding two years in 2004-05 to a merely good year in 2006, how Jason Michaels went from a productive left fielder to a placeholder, how the Cleveland bullpen went from the best in the AL in 2005 to a big liability in 2006.

The 2006 Indians suffered significant injuries to Travis Hafner, C.C. Sabathia, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Miller, Aaron Boone, and Casey Blake. They traded Ben Broussard, Eduardo Perez, Ron Belliard and Bob Wickman in midseason. All of this lost time from productive players led to a Pythagorean record of 89-73, the level of a borderline playoff team in most seasons. They scored more runs and allowed fewer than the White Sox, who stayed incredibly healthy all year and won 90 games. That they actually won only 78 reflects their poor record in one-run games (again) and their excellent record in blowouts. As any analyst will tell you, this is mostly a function of luck; a poor closer can account for an extra loss or two in close games, but not 11.

Despite all their bad karma the past two years, Cleveland has a very bright outlook in 2007, entering the offseason as the best team in the AL Central. Though they finished fourth in 2006, the Indians have no free agents to lose and don’t have an aging lineup (White Sox), a star pitcher out for 2007 (Twins), or a team likely to regress heavily (Tigers).

Though Hafner and Grady Sizemore had better seasons than expected, this was balanced by the declines of Peralta, Michaels and Victor Martinez. The core of Hafner, Sizemore, Peralta and Martinez should retain its combined 2006 value next year, giving the Indians four stars to build around.

The Tribe will also have a solid supporting cast. Shin-Soo Choo, Joe Inglett, and Kevin Kouzmanoff are all cheap, young, and should be productive on-base threats. Blake has had two good years in three, and he’s signed cheaply enough to be replaced if the team needs it. Sabathia is a legit number 1 starter who will be 26 in 2007, and a rotation of Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers has no real holes. Betancourt and Miller are two of MLB’s best relievers, and Fernando Cabrera should split the difference between his 2005 and 2006 and be productive as well.

If there’s an obvious weakness for Cleveland, it’s the bats at first base and left field. Currently, those spots are occupied by Ryan Garko and Jason Michaels. Neither is the worst in the AL at his position, but neither is really an acceptable starter for a team in contention that has room to raise its payroll, especially since they occupy two of the three easiest positions (along with designated hitter) to find a bat. With the team in an excellent position to make a championship run for the next two years, it only makes sense for them to open up their wallets.

Through deft acquisitions and signings by GM Mark Shapiro, the Indians have assembled their core on the cheap. Hafner will earn $3.75 million in 2007, Martinez $3 million, Peralta and Sizemore $750,000 each. With those three earning a combined $8.25 million instead of the $50 million they could command on the open market, the Indians have plenty of cash left in their pockets to fill the holes in their lineup.

Though the free agent market isn’t deep, most of the talented players are 1B/LF types. Barry Bonds is an obvious short-term solution who won’t bankrupt the Indians in future years, although the Cleveland lineup already leans heavily left-handed. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee won’t be worth what they eventually get paid, but the other big free agent bat, Aramis Ramirez, is a good fit in Cleveland, where his subpar fielding can be moved to first base. Ramirez won’t be cheap, but he’s two years younger than Soriano or Lee and has been the best hitter of the three over the past three years.

Frank Thomas isn’t an option, unless the Indians believe Hafner can play first base full-time, which seems unlikely. The other potential difference-making free agents are Ryan Klesko and Trot Nixon, who are aging and injury-prone. Though neither would be a marquee signing, they are good secondary options for the Indians since Michaels and Garko would make fine backups in the event they are needed. An offseason haul of Ramirez and Nixon would be a big upgrade.

On the pitching side, the Indians don’t have any major needs. Though Jason Schmidt or Daisuke Matsuzaka would be a significant upgrade, the money needed to sign them would be better spent on hitting, and the Indians have already bowed out of the Matsuzaka bidding. The back end of the bullpen is potentially soft, but there’s no need to shell out big money for a reliever with live arms like Jason Davis, Brian Sikorski and Edward Mujica available nearly for free.

Whatever they do, the biggest addition the Indians can make is to get back the 11 wins they lost to variance in 2006. This is a team that was talented enough to make the playoffs in each of the last two years, and will be in 2007 as well, even if they don’t change a thing. In a tough division and a tough AL, however, they would do well to aim even higher, taking a shot at the title before their stars become expensive or reach free agency. Cleveland’s window is 2007-08, and they need to strike while the iron is hot.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New York Yankees 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 97-65, Won AL East, Lost ALDS

Pythagorean record: 95-67

Key free agents: Mike Mussina (team option), Jaret Wright (player option), Craig Wilson, Octavio Dotel, Ron Villone, Bernie Williams

Plan for 2007: DO NOT TRADE ALEX RODRIGUEZ, and be realistic with your playoff expectations

The Yankees suffered another disappointing season (read: anything but a World Series win) in 2006, entering the playoffs as the heavy favorites to win it all, then exiting six days later, having lost three straight to the underdog Tigers, including two embarrassing blowouts.

Immediately after their season ended, all sorts of radical “solutions” were proposed. Before the Yankees team plane had landed in New York, a report emerged that Joe Torre was out as manager, to be replaced by Lou Piniella. Alex Rodriguez has been rumored to be headed everywhere from Chicago to Anaheim. The Yankees picked up Gary Sheffield’s option—much to Sheff’s chagrin—ostensibly to trade him, but perhaps to make him their everyday first baseman in 2007.

In the eye of the hurricane of activity, the most important thing for George Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman to understand is that the MLB playoffs are, by and large, a crapshoot. Because of the variance involved in a short baseball series, and especially three short series, the best team entering the playoffs will win it all less than 30% of the time. Consider that even a team that’s a heavy 2-1 favorite in every series will win just (2/3)*(2/3)*(2/3) = 29% of the time. The Yankee organization and its fans had their expectations raised by a run of four championships in five years. At the end of the 2000 season, some speculated that Derek Jeter would run out of fingers to hold World Series rings before his career ended.

Let’s take a look at another permutation of results of the Yankees’ 12 playoff appearances from 1995-2006:

Year
Actual

Adjusted

1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
20
00
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006

Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Swept WS
Swept WS
Won WS
Lost WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALCS
Lost ALDS
Lost ALDS

Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALCS
Swept WS
Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALDS
Won WS

In real life, the Yankees had a dynastic run from 1996-2000 and have failed to meet expectations every year from 2001-06. In our permutation, they made it to the World Series every other year, and never went more than three years without winning one. Either way, in 12 years the Yankees have made the playoffs 12 times with 11 division titles. They have made it to the World Series six times with four wins and two sweeps. These are all excellent results, the best run of extended success for any team in the modern era.

The Yankees staff needs to treat the team like our adjusted example. No one should complain about advancing to the World Series “only” six times in 12 years, or winning “only” four of those. The Yankees were easily the most talented team in baseball in 2006, and they should enter 2007 in the same position. It’s not necessary to make a massive overhaul to what is already the best team in baseball. In particular, trading Alex Rodriguez is not going to solve their problems. All it will accomplish is giving away one of the top five players in baseball for less than his market value.

For all the talk of players who “can’t handle” playing in New York, plenty of marquee acquisitions have failed in their new surroundings in other cities. No one claims that Adrian Beltre can’t handle the pressure of the Pacific Northwest, or that Jeff Weaver couldn’t deal with the crowds in Anaheim in 2006. People cite this “phenomenon” for several reasons:

- If a person looks for a specific pattern, he is more likely to observe it. If someone tells you the number 23 tends to turn up in movies a lot, you’ll notice that number a lot more than you ordinarily would.
- The Yankees sign more premier free agents than any other team, and free agents are generally past their prime and likely to decline in value substantially during the life of the contract.
- The Yankees and their fans put more expectations on their free agents than any other team.
- Chuck Knoblauch and Ed Whitson were particularly notable examples of this “effect”. People forget Whitson took more than two years to regain his effectiveness after leaving the Yankees.
- The Yankees often target players whose performance in the year before his signing was widely out of line with past results and future expectations. Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kyle Farnsworth are three recent examples.

Assuming they keep A-Rod around, what can the Yankees do to improve their chances of returning to the World Series? Not much. There aren’t many positions for the Bombers to upgrade, and once they’re in the playoffs, any offseason moves will only improve their chances of winning it all by a percentage point or two.

That said, there are a few things that will help:

  • Assemble a good bench.
The 2005 Yankees had virtually no bench, and this weakness was exposed. In 2006, they got great work out of Melky Cabrera and added Craig Wilson at the deadline, though he was ineffective in pinstripes. They also retained some players of little value, such as Nick Green, Andy Phillips, and Aaron Guiel. With the Yankee roster very old and injury-prone, a good bench will be critical when the inevitable injuries hit in 2007.

  • Bring back Mike Mussina and sign another top strikeout pitcher, preferably Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Mussina isn’t worth the $15.5 million difference between his $17M option and $1.5M buyout—especially after factoring in luxury tax—but the best place for the Yankees to upgrade is with power starters, and the market is short on them past Moose, Matsuzaka, and Jason Schmidt. Matsuzaka makes a particularly appealing signing for the Yankees because his posting fee, which could top $30 million, is not included in the team payroll for luxury tax calculations. If Philip Hughes continues to develop, he could be the power ace the Yankees need, but they will correctly be careful with him this year, as his future is too valuable.

Despite Chien-Ming Wang’s great 2006, it is unprecedented for a modern pitcher to continue succeeding with such a low strikeout rate, so the Yankees should plan on some regression. While Randy Johnson’s ERA should be under 5.00 this year, he is clearly no longer an ace. Between Pavano’s injuries and ineffectiveness, the Yankees can’t really count on anything from him at this point. A playoff rotation of Matsuzaka-Mussina-Wang-Johnson/Hughes looks much better than Wang-Johnson-Hughes-Wright.

  • Improve the back end of the bullpen.
Though Mariano Rivera continues to dominate, the current Yankees lack an eighth-inning man as reliable as Tom Gordon, Jeff Nelson or Mike Stanton. Kyle Farnsworth was supposed to be that guy, until he remembered that he only pitches well in odd-numbered years. Scott Proctor was their best middle reliever in 2006, but he also had ERAs of 5.40 in 2004 and 6.04 in 2005. Mike Myers will be 38 and also has a spotty track record, with a 5.70 ERA as recently as 2003.

Bringing back Octavio Dotel is a risk well worth taking. Other free agent options include Eric Gagne, Chad Bradford, Justin Speier, Arthur Rhodes, David Riske, and Jamie Walker. All are risky investments, but the Yankees have no choice, as they don’t have a deep enough farm system to trade for a top reliever.

They should also consider some outside-the-box thinking; perhaps a conversion to relief could be the cure for what ails Kerry Wood, Wade Miller, or Jesse Foppert. It’s possible one of them could follow the Jason Isringhausen career path.

Whatever the Yankees choose, they should enter the 2007 season as the favorites to win the AL East. If they get back to the playoffs, they need to remember that there’s at least a 70% chance it will end in disappointment. If the organization and its fans set their expectations on that level, they won’t be disappointed.

Oakland Athletics 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 93-69, Won AL West, Lost ALCS

Pythagorean record: 85-77

Key free agents: Barry Zito, Frank Thomas, Jay Payton

Plan for 2007: Upgrade the lineup, pray that the team health improves, and hopefully ride the pitching staff back to the playoffs

The A’s enter 2007 with a team that swept the ALDS over the favored Twins, but one which was not really that talented. Baseball Prospectus ranked them as the third-best team in the AL West in “third-order wins,” their measure of luck-neutral performance. Oakland finished a full 8 third-order wins behind Anaheim and 4 behind Texas. In addition, they will lose their staff ace to free agency and may lose their best hitter, Frank Thomas.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic. Rich Harden, if healthy, could be one of the top starters in the AL in 2007. Esteban Loaiza righted the ship in the second half of ‘06, posting a 57:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio after August 1. Dan Haren is one of baseball’s best young starters, and improved his K/BB ratio to nearly 4:1. Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero continued to lead one of baseball’s best bullpens. Overall, the pitching is in great shape, and the staff as a whole is signed to very affordable contracts, leaving Billy Beane with additional money to spend on the lineup.

And spend he will have to. Despite impressive seasons by Thomas (.926 OPS) and Nick Swisher (.865), the A’s featured a below-average offense on the whole, largely due to an offensive decline from their entire infield. Dan Johnson, Mark Ellis and Bobby Crosby, all aged 26-29, all saw their numbers drop significantly from 2005. Eric Chavez, who at 28 is theoretically at his peak, had his second straight subpar year with the stick. Though the offense as a whole will probably improve bounce back somewhat, it’s not a championship-caliber lineup, especially if Thomas leaves. Oakland finished 13th in the AL in slugging percentage, .001 ahead of the lowly Royals.

Though they won more games with pitching and defense than with home runs, the 2006 A’s were built much like the Oakland teams of early in the decade: A core of mostly cheap homegrown players aged 25-30, a cheap source of high on-base percentage at DH, and a cheap young pitching staff cobbled together from hurlers that other teams didn’t value (such as Haren, Calero, Chad Gaudin, and Joe Kennedy).

A core of cheap talent gives the A’s a natural advantage over teams like the Mets and Yankees, who must overpay in the free-agent market to get the players they have failed to develop on their own. However, the team they have assembled is not going to the World Series without a lot of luck. What can they do to improve?

Like the Tigers, the A’s will have trouble making big upgrades this offseason, because they are a balanced team with few gaping holes (although the ineffectiveness of Johnson, Crosby and Mark Kotsay left three in 2006). Given two 85-win teams, where one is strong across the board and the other is starting Neifi Perez and two other offensive ciphers, the latter is much easier to improve, as the net upgrade from Neifi to anyone else is greater than the difference between an average player and a good one:

Name

Wins above league average

Joe Average
Neifi Perez
Net Gain:

0
-3
+3



Ray Durham
Mark Ellis
Net Gain:

1
-1
+2


With Harden, Haren, Loaiza, and Joe Blanton, four-fifths of
the rotation is set, and the A’s have several capable spot starters in Kennedy, Kirk Saarloos, and Brad Halsey. If they can’t find an affordable starter in trade or free agency, they could do much worse than to plug one of these three in. The bullpen is solid top-to-bottom and doesn’t require any immediate attention.

That leaves the everyday lineup and the bench. Though the 2006 bench featured several useful players—Marco Scutaro, Bobby Kielty, and Jay Payton all filled in well for injured starters—the A’s often used their depth short of optimally, as evidenced by Ken Macha benching Kielty (he of the .901 career OPS against lefties) in favor of Kotsay (.759) against left-handed starters in the playoffs. Perhaps this is why Macha will not be managing the 2007 A’s, and perhaps Beane will order the new manager to pay more attention to this issue.

In the lineup, the A’s feature two above-average everyday players in Chavez and Swisher, and Crosby should be a third if can stay healthy and productive. Frank Thomas is a fourth, when healthy, if he re-signs. Though Thomas may have priced himself out of Oakland with his strong 2006, it’s unlikely any team wants him as anything but a DH, a position where many of the AL contenders are set for the near future (Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Travis Hafner). It’s much easier to outbid the Twins and Rangers than the Yankees and Red Sox. Still, these guys aren’t far above the league average at their positions; despite what Thomas’s MVP supporters might say, he was nowhere near the best DH in the league in 2006, and he will be 39 next year. The Oakland lineup lacks the star talent that propels a team to perennial contention.

Mark Kotsay is likely to rebound to near a league-average performance, but after two consecutive years below that level, it’s hard to expect more than that. Jason Kendall is nearing the dreaded catcher mid-thirties, and should be around league average as well. Milton Bradley will also flirt with the league average when healthy. Basically, except for the enigmatic Dan Johnson, the A’s will be returning a lot of players of league-average talent and questionable health. It’s rarely a good sign when your 33-year-old catcher has played more games than anyone else on your team in the past three years.

The best free agent signing the A’s can make is also a widely rumored one: Barry Bonds. Bonds can rotate between DH and left field, with Swisher playing first base. Bonds is Beane’s kind of free agent: old and still an excellent source of on-base percentage. The move to Oakland also keeps Bonds in the only market in the country where he is popular, and his pursuit of Hank Aaron could boost ticket sales, helping free up additional money for free agents or deadline trades. Bonds is also the only marquee hitter likely to fall into Oakland’s price range, as the A’s are unlikely to make a serious bid on Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee.

If he fails to land Bonds, Beane must find a corner outfielder or first baseman who can hit right-handed pitching. Kielty is fine as a platoon starter, but he is stretched as an everyday player. If he can put his personal problems behind him, Dmitri Young is an interesting option and should be affordable. He’ll be only 33 next year and has a .837 OPS against righties in his career, most of which has been spent in pitchers’ parks. Ryan Klesko is a possibility, but his health is a huge question mark, and his defense may force him to DH. Moises Alou will be 40 and shouldn’t be counted on for more than 100 games, but his hitting has held up well in old age.

Beane can also make a marginal upgrade by signing a second baseman such as Adam Kennedy and subsequently trading Mark Ellis, but it’s an unlikely scenario. Other than that, there isn’t much he can do outside of organizing a blockbuster trade for a big bat, which no one should put past him.

Whether the A’s sign Thomas, Bonds, or both, the real keys to a successful 2007 are improved health and bounce-back seasons from at least three of Chavez, Harden, Crosby, Kotsay, and Ellis. With the Rangers and Angels looking dangerous, Oakland will need everyone at full strength to advance to October again.