Saturday, December 30, 2006

Transaction Recap: Giants, Yankees, Angels

Giants:

Signed SP Barry Zito to a 7-year, $126 million contract (rating: 1/10)

"I'd say this is the most important signing we've had since we first signed Barry Bonds back in late 1992," owner Peter Magowan said Friday. "It means that much to the franchise and the future of the franchise. We don't make this kind of deal every year or every five years. It takes a very special player."

Clearly, I don't feel the same way. My 1 rating can be broken down into three components: the length of the contract, the significant difference between Zito's perceived and actual value, and the Giants' status as a non-contender.

With regard to the length of the contract, you can count the number of seven-year deals for pitchers that have worked out well using zero fingers. Just one six-year deal looks good in hindsight, and the 1998 version of Pedro Martinez was a much more promising pitcher than Zito; at the time of the signing, he was coming off a Cy Young season with a 1.90 ERA, 67 BB and 305 K in 241 innings, and was just 26.

Zito is a good pitcher, but his skills are nowhere near Pedro's. Still, he's especially durable, with 34 or more starts in six consecutive seasons. Some people seem to take this durability as an indication that he will never get injured, ignoring the fact that pitching injuries are largely random. It's folly to suggest that you can guarantee 34 starts out of him in 2013...or in 2007.

Some are defending the seven-year deal because Zito will be just 29 in 2007, but a pitcher's age is far less important than his skills, as evidenced by the number of 40-year-olds who are still pitching effectively. Analysts generally agree that a pitcher's strikeout rate is far more important than his age in projecting how long he can remain effective; Zito's strikeout rate is not great (6.2 K/9 in 2006) and has been in decline for years.

Let's switch our focus from the unnecessary length and dollars of the deal to Zito himself. Is he really a "very special player" who would have been a bargain at, say, 5 years and $80 million? In short, not a chance. As we've known for awhile, three factors dominate a pitcher's future projections: his strikeout rate, walk rate and groundball/flyball ratio. Zito's strikeout rate hasn't been above 7.0 per nine innings since 2002, he consistently walks more batters than the league average, and his career G/F ratio is 0.87, well below par.

Zito's averages for the past three seasons look like this: 221 innings, 90 walks, 162 K, 27 HR. The 221 innings are nice, but the rate stats--3.7 BB/9, 6.6 K/9, 1.1 HR/9--fall in line with an ERA over 4.50, rather than the 4.05 he's actually produced in that span.

Even a 4.05 ERA seems high, right? When you hear the name Barry Zito, a lot of things may come to mind: Cy Young award winner, spacey personality, 12-to-6 curveball, The Big Three. But you picture a well-above average pitcher, not a guy with an ERA over 4.00. It's likely that everyone involved was bidding off Zito's reputation, rather than his actual skills or results.

Finally, although signing Zito may have made sense to a team, like the Mets, that looks like a perennial contender in the near future, the Giants do not fit this criteria. They have all the earmarks of a franchise that should go into a total rebuilding mode, but are still trying to solve their problems by throwing big money at overpriced and aging players. They will once again be the NL's oldest team by a wide margin, and their farm system is very weak. The addition of Zito takes them from non-contender to fringe contender, and in order to maintain even that status in the coming years, they will need to overspend on more free agents in the coming years.

An impact free agent is most valuable to a team in the 86-90 win range. At this point, a few additional wins will make a huge difference in their chances of making the playoffs, and of advancing once they get there; adding Zito might increase their chances of making the postseason by 20-25%, and their World Series chances by 4%. In the Giants' case, they might receive a benefit of 5-10% this year, and probably less in the future. That's not the kind of return you're looking for in exchange for $126 million.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the contract is this: The Giants traded in a better pitcher, Jason Schmidt, for a worse one who will earn a comparable annual salary--adjusted for inflation--for seven years rather than three. That's just an awful exchange.

Yankees:

Signed SP Kei Igawa to a 5-year, $20 million contract (5)

That's a total of five years for $45 million, most of it free of luxury tax, which is below the going rate for a league-average starter. Igawa shouldn't be much ahead of the league average, if at all, based on his translations, but he shouldn't be worse than Jeff Suppan or Gil Meche, who signed more expensive deals.

Especially because he's on the Yankees, Igawa is likely to be a middle reliever or swingman at some point in this deal, but the Bombers can afford to spend this kind of money on an effective pitcher filling this role. Because we know the Yanks will contend over this span, the money won't be wasted on a 70-win team, like Zito's will be at some point.

A better analysis of this contract requires better translations of Japanese stats. This is still an inexact, fledgling science that gets updated every year.

Angels:

Signed 1B/DH Shea Hillenbrand to a 1-year, $6.5 million contract (3)

The problem isn't the money; $6.5 million won't significantly affect the Angels' bottom line. But Hillenbrand isn't a good player. His career OPS+ is 99, below the league average, and he can only play offense-first positions, with defense that rates terribly at third base. It's hard to argue for the intangibles of a guy who's been traded three times in four years, including his latest episode, where his manager challenged him to a fight before he was designated for assignment.

Furthermore, as Keith Law points out, Hillenbrand doesn't offer anything the Angels don't already have in spades, and he blocks the Angels' 1B prospects. Unless Juan Rivera and/or Mike Napoli consolidate their gains from 2006, it looks like the Angels will be in a familar situation in 2007, with no impact hitters other than Vladimir Guerrero, in spite of all the money they're spending for left field, center field, shortstop and first base.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Johnson > Zito

Rumors are swirling that the Yankees are looking to trade Randy Johnson to an NL West team, and possibly use the money they free up to sign Barry Zito. Unless they're getting a big package of talent in return, this will not be a good exchange.

I can certainly understand the Yankees' motivation to move the Big Unit. They're under intense pressure from fans and ownership to get back to the World Series, and Johnson has been a massive disappointment since arriving in the Bronx. Furthermore, there's nothing new about this story: the Yankees acquire a "big-name" pitcher, he disappoints in pinstripes, then he's sent packing. Javier Vazquez, Jeff Weaver, Hideki Irabu...the list goes on and on.

The big thing these pitchers have in common is that the Yankees expected too much out of them. Vazquez had always given up a high number of home runs; he allowed 33 in his one year with the Yankees and was subsequently dealt as part of the package for the Unit. Weaver had been touted as a future star, but at the time of the trade owned worse peripherals than Ted Lilly, the centerpiece of the package the Bombers gave up to get Weaver and now the owner of a much bigger contract than Weaver will receive. Irabu was a good pitcher in Japan, but not the superstar he was made out to be, and the major leagues are a lot tougher than NPB.

In Johnson's case, the Yankees were right to expect a star pitcher, though they should have anticipated the strong possibilities of injury and age-related decline. Johnson still had the peripherals of a star in 2005, with 47 walks and 211 strikeouts in 225.2 IP in a tough AL East. He pitched much better than Kevin Millwood, who posted a 2.86 ERA to Johnson's 3.79. He wasn't Pedro Martinez, but he had a fine season.

Johnson entered 2006 with one of the most favorable PECOTA projections for any pitcher, featuring a 3.24 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Johnson's actual stats were far worse, but he still had 2.6 BB/9 and 7.5 K/9, measurably better than pitchers who are getting 4 years and $40 million plus this year. As Nate Silver demonstrates, Johnson's stats last year pointed to a much lower ERA, but he was very unlucky, allowing a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with runners on base, when it meant the most. His PECOTA ERA projection for next year, after two down seasons and at age 43, still comes out at 3.52. Put simply, Johnson is still a damn good pitcher. (Also, he should be a big bargain in your fantasy draft next year.)

What about Barry Zito? Zito has had the reputation of an ace for years, even though he hasn't really been one since 2003. After his Cy Young season in 2002, Zito's strikeout rate has been in consistent decline, while his walks are trending upward. Zito is extremely durable--he hasn't missed a start in his career--but he doesn't have the peripherals of a number 1 starter, or even a number 2.

How does he continue to produce a decent ERA every year? Zito has a great defense behind him that converts an above-average number of balls in play into outs. Even beyond this, he has had more than his share of luck in BABIP and in stranding the runners he does allow on base.

Most sabermetrics sites have their own statistic designed to separate the pitcher's skill from the variance inherent in baseball. Baseball Prospectus has PERA, The Hardball Times has xFIP, and Baseball HQ has xERA, to name a few. All are on the same scale as ERA, so a 4.50 xFIP projects a 4.50 ERA in a luck-neutral universe. These numbers have been shown to be a better predictor of a pitcher's future success than ERA. For example:

Jason Marquis

Year ERA PERA
2004 3.71 4.73
2005 4.13 5.29
2006 6.02

Al Leiter

Year ERA xFIP
2004 3.21 5.30
2005 6.13


The three measurements, though usually similar, are independently calculated, so they don't always agree. All three do concur, however, that Barry Zito is likely to have an ERA considerably higher than 4.00 going forward. His cumulative xFIP from 2004-06 is over 5.00.

What happens to Zito when you put him in front of a bad defense, and he doesn't get so lucky at stranding runners and converting balls in play into outs? His ERA balloons, probably not as profoundly as Marquis' or Leiter's, but still significantly. This is why the brilliant Keith Law ranked Zito 15th among this year's free agent crop--behind the much-maligned Ted Lilly and Gil Meche--even though he will receive the second- or third-biggest contract of the lot.

Johnson is likely to be a better pitcher than Zito in 2007, and probably in 2008 as well. I'd rather have Johnson for the next three (perhaps four) years than Zito for that same span, yet the Yankees are reportedly interested in exchanging one year of Johnson for six years of Zito at a similar average annual value. If anything, they should be considering extending Johnson while his perceived value is low. Brian Cashman is a bright individual, so I'm sure he's at least considering this option, Steinbrenner be damned.

The contracts given to Meche and Alfonso Soriano will draw the most criticism, but if Zito gets six years and anywhere near $100 million, it will be the worst signing of the offseason.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Transaction Recap: Brewers, White Sox, Rangers, Padres, Royals, Twins, Devil Rays

Brewers

Signed SP Jeff Suppan to a 4-year, $42 million contract with a team option for 2011 (4)

As I detailed a few posts down, Suppan isn't the best man for the job, but it's good to see the Brewers taking an aggressive approach. SuppanSandwich is only the fourth best starter in his new rotation, but his signing prevents any of Milwaukee's NL Central rivals from getting him, and a reliable fourth starter is a very useful luxury for a team in contention.

Though I think the Brew Crew were correct to be aggressive in a weak division, a four-year contract for Suppan is hard to advocate. Injuries are a big enough concern for pitchers in long-term deals, but over the course of four years, a lot more things can go wrong with a soft-tosser than a power arm. I'd much rather have three years of Jason Schmidt, even at a slightly higher price, than four of Suppan.

White Sox/Rangers

White Sox (6) traded SP/RP Brandon McCarthy and OF David Paisano to Rangers (5) for SP John Danks, RP Nick Masset and SP Jacob Rasner

This trade surprised me, given Kenny Williams' stance that he wasn't going to give up five years of McCarthy at the trade deadline, but it's actually a favorable one for the Sox. Danks' minor-league statistics are promising; in fact, he looks much like a younger version of McCarthy, complete with another year and change of service time before free agency. (McCarthy was a better prospect at Danks' age, but his stock has fallen considerably in the past year.)

Like McCarthy, Danks has posted a poor ERA in the past year and a half as he moves to more difficult leagues, and his problems are related to allowing too many home runs. (22 homers in 140 innings in AA/AAA equates to an unacceptable rate in the majors.)

Nate Silver argues that McCarthy's problems with home runs, the big roadblock between him and an effective career, are largely the result of mistake pitches. As a Chicago-area viewer, I'd tend to agree, although I don't have film of every gopher ball handy. It's possible a new pitching coach could help him with it, but even with the proper discipline, a pitcher with McCarthy's flyball tendencies is going to give up 30 homers per year as a starter.

The throw-ins seem to favor the Sox. Paisano is an unknown quantity whose only experience is in the Venezuelan Summer League, while Masset is a nearly MLB-ready reliever. Rasner had an awful debut in A-ball last year, but he was just 19, so there's still time to see if he makes something of himself.

Padres

Signed 2b Marcus Giles to a 1-year, $3.25 million contract with a $4 million club option for 2008 (9)

Excellent job by the Padres. They were reportedly targeting Giles all winter, waited patiently for the second base market to sort itself out, and after the teams with holes had filled them, they swooped in and signed Giles at a discount price, perhaps using the presence of Marcus' brother Brian as negotiating leverage. That they managed to get the second year as a team option rather than a guaranteed year is icing on the cake, although it's unlikely the option will be declined.

Giles has averaged over 7.0 WARP the past four years, although BP is probably overrating his defense. Still, the Padres are likely adding a 4-5 win player for $3.25 mil. That's a hell of a deal.

Mark DeRosa is getting paid more annually on a longer contract. That's all you need to know about what a coup this was for San Diego.

Royals

Signed RP David Riske to a 1-year, $2 million contract with a club option for 2008 (6)

As the offseason develops, I become more and more confused about the Royals' plans. While Gil Meche may be around to see the fruits of the Royals' rebuilding efforts, Riske is a goner by that point. So why are they signing him?

I think it boils down to this: it's a good buy. Despite his apparent inconsistency, Riske has been a good reliever for four years and has a career ERA of 3.59 despite spending his entire career in the AL. I'm surprised he couldn't get more money or years than this; he's not that much worse than Justin Speier. This rating would be higher if the Royals were closer to contention, but they're likely to spend the 2007 season as the Detroit Lions of the AL.

Twins

Signed OF/DH Rondell White to a 1-year, $2.75 million contract (6)

This deal represents a reasonable risk for the potential reward. After all, White hit like Frank Thomas in the second half, with an .892 OPS. He's just one year removed from a .299 EqA season, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him be a productive player at age 35.

Of course, his ceiling is low, as he has no defensive value and can't be expected to play more than 100 games. The contract has an added bonus, though: it's small enough that the Twins can freely cut him if his start to 2007 resembles that of 2006. Of course, this relies on Ron Gardenhire actually replacing an "established" starter without having his hand forced, which is a George Mason-level longshot.

Devil Rays

Signed RP Al Reyes to a minor-league contract

This isn't huge news, but along with the other minor-league contracts they've given to pitchers, it shows the D-Rays are trying.

Besides, I like the potential upside. Reyes will have had 17 months of recovery time from surgery, and he was very effective in 2004-05 with the Cardinals with great peripherals. If he comes anywhere close to that level, he'll be a useful commodity to flip at the deadline.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

84 vs. 56

Inspired by a recent post on the 2+2 gambling forums comparing Ted Williams' streak of reaching base in 84 consecutive games to Joe DiMaggio's famed 56, I'm doing a simple study comparing the relative difficulty of each man's achievement.

We'll consider a fictional star in the modern game who hits .330 and gets on base at a .430 clip, numbers similar to those Albert Pujols puts up annually. We'll assume our hero starts every game of his streak or takes days off without being used as a pinch hitter to make his task even more difficult. Our hero averages 3.83 at bats and 4.51 plate appearances per game, numbers that equate to 594 AB and 700 PA over 155 games. Each game follows a realistic distribution of opportunities: he typically gets 3 to 5 at-bats and 4 to 6 plate appearances, but there are frequent outliers. Specifically, the probability distributions look like this:

AB p PA p
0 0.01 3 0.04
1 0.02 4 0.6
2 0.06 5 0.22
3 0.21 6 0.1
4 0.5 7 0.03
5 0.15 8 0.01
6 0.04

7 0.01


I should note that these values are simply estimates. Anyone wishing to do a scientific study should compute the actual rates from game data.

Assuming the probability of getting a hit is fixed at .330 and that of getting on base fixed at .430, we can calculate the probability of each streak being extended in a given day. The simplest way to do this is to subtract from 1 the probability of the streak ending that day. The streak ends if our hero fails to get a hit--probability .670--in each at bat, for a total probability of .670^AB. Thus, our hero's hit streak is extended with probability 1-(.670^AB), an average of 76.1% of the time. Similarly, the on-base streak is extended with probability 1-(.570^PA), or 91.2% of the time.

If you're surprised that our hero is kept off the bases only 9% of the time, you're not alone. It's very rare for a strong on-base threat to get totally shut out.

Anyway, back to our study. The probability of starting a 56-game hit streak at any given time is .761^56, or .000000232, less than one in a million. It is an incredibly rare occurrence that mankind is lucky to have witnessed just once in the history of baseball.

What about starting an 84-game on-base streak? This happens with probability .000432. This is also a rare event, but it's 1858 times more likely than the 56-game streak. If the real Pujols is used in this pattern next year, there's a 6.47% chance he'll begin an 84-game on-base streak at some point in the year, and a .0036% chance he'll begin a 56-game hit streak. (If you're wondering, the probability of a .330 hitter batting .400 over 594 at bats is .018%, or around one in six thousand.)

In order for a .330 hitter to have a better chance of getting to 56 than 84, his OBP must be below .369. This means Ichiro is about equally likely to match either mark. Given that there is a natural limit of around .370 to any hitter's "true" batting average, but his "true" on-base percentage can go above .500 if pitchers simply stop throwing him strikes, we are far more likely to see an 84-game on-base streak in our lifetimes than we are to see DiMaggio matched or bested.

Conclusion: While getting on base may be more important than hitting for average, for a talented hitter a 56-game hitting streak is far more rare than an 84-game on-base streak.
Hindsight is 20/20

Buster Olney blogged these thoughts about World Series MVP David Eckstein recently:

"After the 2004 season, he was the top shortstop who didn't get the kind of big deals landed by Orlando Cabrera ($32 million) and Edgar Renteria ($40 million). But he continues to show that despite his unorthodox throwing motion, he can be among the most productive and reliable shortstops in the game -- and then there are the championship intangibles that he adds."

Well, Buster, it's good to see you take a clear stance. But I thought you had these things to say about the 2004 offseason:

"Jeremiah, you are right, the middle infield is good enough for them to win, and Eckstein will score more runs (than he did in Anaheim). But losing Renteria and, to a much lesser degree, losing Womack really will diminish the (Cardinals). Can't see them approaching 105 wins -- or 100 wins -- this year."

"Count me among the geeks who think Anaheim is a lock. They really improved their pitching by upgrading their defense, i think -- adding Cabrera to play shortstop..."

You might think I'm picking on Olney, but all I ask for from writers is consistency and an unbiased view, and comments on Eckstein provide neither. It's one thing to say you may have erred, and entirely another to pretend that you knew Eckstein was a star all along.

Furthermore, Eckstein is not a particularly good player. Of these three shortstops, Eckstein was the worst player in the 2004-05 offseason and had the worst season in 2006. He wasn't a top shortstop then, he isn't now, and he won't be when some team lights $20 million on fire by signing him after 2007.

As a side note, I'd really like people to stop citing intangibles as a reason why one player is better than another when the numbers don't justify this ranking. If the rest of the world can't measure intangibles--the very definition of "intangible"--what makes you think you're the only one who can?
Random Musings

- Buster Olney blogged about the Brewers' courtship of Jeff Suppan. As you may know, I'm very bearish on pitchers with low strikeout rates, so Suppan isn't my first choice among this year's free agent starter crop (or second, or third...), but while I may have issues with the specific player they're targeting, I like the way they're thinking. The division is up for grabs. Before the offseason began, I actually thought the Brewers had the strongest team in the NL Central entering 2007. I'd pick the Cubs now, after their spending spree, but I would probably take the Brewers over the Cardinals if the season began today, and in any case there is not much distance separating the three.

Lunacy? Maybe. But I look at the BP adjusted standings and see the 2006 Brewers just 3.1 games behind the World Series champs. Factor in a Cardinal rotation that has more question marks than Matthew Lesko, the overall youth of the Milwaukee roster, and the injuries the Beers suffered last year, and things look rosy in Wisconsin. The Brewers don't have 95-win talent, but they have perhaps the best pitcher (Ben Sheets) in the NL if he's healthy, a lineup with no sinkholes, and no strong competition in the division. They're a team to watch in 2007, and they're picking the right time to try and make a splash.

- In a year with many out-of-nowhere pitching successes, perhaps none was as surprising as Chien-Ming Wang going nuts on the league with a strikeout total that would make Nate Cornejo blush. Since humans are trained to look for meaning in everything, writers from coast-to-coast searched for an explanation of how the hurler with by far the lowest strikeout rate in the league finished second in the Cy Young race. We heard everything from "his sinker is as heavy as a bowling ball" to "he throws 95 MPH, so that must help." Some even suggested that his sinker's movement caused many hitters to pound the ball into the dirt in front of home plate, making their ground balls easier to field.

Dust off some newspapers from four years ago, and you can read articles about another low-K groundballer who finished high in the Cy Young vote, and how he was able to beat the hitters without the punchout. His name was Derek Lowe, and his ERA between 2003-04 was roughly double that of 2002.

It's premature to completely rule out these explanations for Wang's success, but I'd like to buy each of these "analysts" a copy of Fooled By Randomness, where the author critiques the process of crediting every result to a process rather than simple luck. In a way, Wang is like a trader whose last few picks have made him a fortune: perhaps he is a genius, but more likely his results involve significant positive variance, and the future will not be quite so bright.

Recent history shows that pitchers do not sustain success without being able to strike out at least a reasonable number of batters. Even Tom Glavine has two seasons of over 7.0 K/9 on his resume, and his rate didn't regularly fall below 5.0 until he was 33. Wang was at 3.1 last year, and a pitcher's strikeout rate tends to drift downward with time. Glavine is also left-handed and has pitched most of his career in front of good infield defenses, two important advantages Wang doesn't have working for him.

What does the future hold for the pride of Taiwan? He can still be a good, valuable pitcher, but his long-term outlook better resembles post-2002 Lowe than 2006 Wang. ZIPS pegs him at a 4.28 ERA, the fifth-best among Yankee SP (though a half-run better than Kei Igawa, the "bargain"), a ranking which includes Philip Hughes but not a potential Roger Clemens signing. I think this is a fairly accurate median projection, but remember that low-strikeout pitchers are subject to extremely high variance, and it's not out of the question that he has a season like Jason Marquis' or Jason Johnson's 2006...or Lowe's 2002. If Wang is even better next year, it doesn't necessarily mean that he has the secret formula for success.

- Another find from the ZIPS Yankees projections is how badly the Orioles got fleeced in the Jaret Wright/Chris Britton trade. I hadn't heard much about Britton before this offseason, but his minor league numbers are very good, and he could develop into the reliable setup man the Yankees need, or even their closer of the future. To give six years of Britton away for one year of Wright--a guy the Yankees didn't even want--is insane for a team that's as far out of contention as the 2007 Orioles. Wright could put up a 3.50 ERA under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone and still fail to justify the trade for Baltimore.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Transaction Recap: Mariners, Nationals, Tigers, Devil Rays

Mariners/Nationals:

Mariners traded RP Emiliano Fruto and OF Chris Snelling to Nationals for 2B Jose Vidro and cash (rating: 2/10 for Mariners, 9 for Nationals)

I don't know what Seattle is doing. Depending on who you believe, the M's either want to let Vidro DH--turning him into one of the league's worst at his position rather than above-average--or move Jose Lopez to third and trade Adrian Beltre, replacing one bad glove at second base with another while giving the team even less offense.

Reportedly, the Mariners are picking up $12 million for two years on Vidro, so they're not getting a bargain. Adam Kennedy got $10 million for three years, while Marcus Giles was non-tendered with the expectation he'd receive around $5 million in arbitration. Both are better players than Vidro, a guy I'm not sure could get 2 years/$12M on the open market. Having to give up two young players with upside is the icing on the death sentence.

The Nationals made out like bandits on this one. You've probably heard of Snelling, the former top prospect who can't stay healthy. His bat disappeared in AAA last year, but he'll be just 25 and has a career .872 OPS in the minors, so he should compete for a spot in the Washington outfield next year, possibly serving as one more roadblock between Ryan Church and the majors.

Fruto has some significant control issues, but at age 22 in 2006 he struck out 55 in 45.1 innings at AAA and 34 in 36 IP in Seattle, while allowing just 5 HR combined. With the cost of power relievers soaring, he could provide significant value down the road if he can consistently find the strike zone.

Tigers:

Signed Jeremy Bonderman to a 4-year, $38 million extension (8)

The deal covers his last two arbitration years for a total of $13 million, along with the first two years of free agency at $12.5 million each.

A very good signing by the Tigers. Bonderman is a guy with all the peripherals statheads look for--high strikeout rate, low walk rate, high groundball/flyball ratio--but who hasn't broken out yet, making him an excellent low-price, high-potential commodity. Though the Blue Jays have yet to figure it out, the goal of front-office work is to sign these guys before they establish themselves as studs, not immediately after.

The Tigers are taking advantage of timing in another important fashion. At this time last year, Bonderman might have been counting down the days until he could escape Detroit's annual two months of contention. Now, they've established themselves as a "legitimate" contender, or at least done enough to convince him to stick around awhile longer.

The contract isn't too long, especially since Bonderman will be only 27 when it expires, and it is heavily backloaded, which helps because a baseball dollar in 2010 is worth much less than one in 2007. When Gil Meche commands $55 million over five years, giving Bonderman effectively a two-year extension for $25 mil is an easy take.

Devil Rays:

Signed 3B Akinori Iwamura to a 3-year, $8 million contract with a team option for 2010 (8)

The deal also includes a clause whereby the D-Rays must extend Iwamura's contract by the end of the deal or non-tender him, so he will never go to arbitration.

The consensus of the projections for Iwamura have him at a .350 OBP and .450 SLG, numbers comparable to those put up by Eric Chavez, Aubrey Huff and Chad Tracy last year. To get a player who can hit like that for $12.5 million over three years (counting the posting fee) is a coup.

The big question now is what happens to B.J. Upton. He seems destined for center field if the Devil Rays can deal Rocco Baldelli for young pitching, or perhaps Upton himself will be dealt for some promising arms. Second base, where Jorge Cantu stunk it up last year, is another possibility. Regardless, if the Devil Rays can develop or sign some pitching, they could be a very dangerous team in a couple of years.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Transaction Recap: Red Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Mariners

Red Sox:

Signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a 6-year, $52 million contract (rating: 6/10)

Traded SP/RP Phil Seibel to the Angels for RP Brendan Donnelly (6)

If you don't want to read through a diatribe on time value of money and contract status, I'll summarize: This was about the best deal the Red Sox could have gotten. The contract alone, without the posting fee, rates an 8 or 9.

With the posting fee, that's a total of $103 million to Matsuzaka for his six years before free agency. Is he worth it?

The math on the true cost of the deal is a little tricky. On one hand, the Red Sox are saving some money because the posting fee will not be subject to the luxury tax. It's my understanding that the Red Sox are now in the 40% luxury tax bracket, so a savings of $21 million in taxes is nothing to sniff at.

However, they have to pay $51 million up front. Given the time value of money--a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in 2010--this signing, without accounting for the luxury tax factor, is actually comparable to a 6-year, $124 million contract.

What do you get when you put it all together? The effects almost wash out. Isn't math great? If Matsuzaka signed a 6-year, $102 million deal with this structure:

'07: 14M
'08: 16M
'09: 16M
'10: 18M
'11: 18M
'12: 20M

he would be costing the Red Sox roughly the same amount in 2006 dollars.

Now that we've wasted a few minutes to get back where we began, is Matsuzaka worth the money? Yes and no. He's certainly a better pitcher than Andy Pettitte, who's getting similar money per year, or Barry Zito, who's asking for 6 years/100M. But Pettitte is signed for only two years (the second being a player option), while Matsuzaka is committed for six. As with most pitching free agent signings, the length is a bigger question than the dollars. While it seems clear that Matsuzaka will be a very good pitcher in the majors, it's unknown how his workload in Japan will affect him injury-wise.

Should the Sox have gone fewer than six years, to minimize risk? It's not that simple. Normally, players must accumulate six years of service time before they hit free agency. Scott Boras attempted to negotiate a clause allowing Matsuzaka to become a free agent at the end of his Red Sox contract, so a four- or five-year deal might have left them with less return on their initial $51 million investment. Even without this clause, Matsuzaka would have earned more than $12 million in 2012 through arbitration unless he was significantly injured or very ineffective.

Put simply, a shorter contract would have achieved nothing. Credit goes to the Sox front office for holding firm on this.

Angels:

Traded RP Brendan Donnelly to the Red Sox for SP/RP Phil Seibel (6)

On to the trade. When I saw this item, my first reaction was "Who the hell is Phil Seibel?" As it turns out, Seibel is a player of interest. After years as a low-grade prospect and a 2005 apparently spent rehabbing, he broke out in 2006, posting a 1.24 ERA across three levels with a K:BB ratio of 83/15. In 15 AAA innings, he was sick, giving up six hits and three walks while striking out 22. He's a lefty, and lefties rarely come up with numbers like that.

Two important caveats apply: It's only one season, and Seibel was 27 years old in 2005. Still, the Angels have been great at finding useful relievers in the minors in the past, and this looks like another move.

I like the trade for both sides. Donnelly, though he's struggled the past two years, still owns a career ERA of 2.87. He shouldn't command a big salary in arbitration, and the Sox get his services for two years. The Angels' current bullpen is very strong, so they're dealing from depth to acquire a young talent with six years left on his free agency clock. It will be interesting to see if they make any further moves, as Scot Shields and Ervin Santana are rumored to be heading to five different cities per day.

Blue Jays:

Agreed to terms with CF Vernon Wells on a 7-year, $126 million extension (3)

I admire the Jays' efforts to put together a contending ballclub in the tough AL East, but they're spending too much money on players who aren't that special. While they're throwing a third-world nation's GNP at names like Wells, Thomas, Glaus, and Burnett, guys like Orlando Hudson slip through the cracks, and you're left with a supporting cast that will drag the team up to second place, if they're lucky.

Last year's Jays offense overperformed nearly across-the-board, especially Wells, Alex Rios, Reed Johnson, Lyle Overbay, and Gregg Zaun. That got them within eight games of a playoff spot. Factor in the regression these players will suffer in 2007 and beyond, subtract Ted Lilly and Justin Speier, and you're left with...third place.

Along the Frank Thomas signing and last year's acquisitions of B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, the Wells signing demonstrates that the Jays have mastered the art of signing players after they have maximized their market value. The goal of free agent prospecting isn't to sign Frank Thomas this year for $18 million, but to sign him last year for $500,000 plus incentives. You go looking for B.J. Ryan, inexpensive future closer, rather than B.J. Ryan, expensive former closer. Acquiring a player who's coming off an unexpectedly good year is a good way to set your fans up for disappointment.

Wells would have returned a king's ransom in trade, either now or at the trade deadline, but instead the Jays are stuck with yet another overpaid, overrated big name. He has a career OBP near the league average, and although he has the reputation of a top defender, his Fielding Bible ratings and Baseball Prospectus' FRAA both paint him as a league-average center fielder. Despite what Peter Gammons says, Wells is a worse player than Alfonso Soriano, though he will be two years younger at the time he starts the contract. Basically, unless you thought the Soriano contract was reasonable, you shouldn't like this one either.

One last point: the Jays should have learned from this year's examples of J.D. Drew and Aramis Ramirez and not given Wells a clause allowing him to opt out of the deal after 2011. Basically, this means that if Wells is actually worth $21 million a year at that point, he'll go play elsewhere, but if he's an albatross, he sticks around. If it takes an extra few million dollars to avoid including this clause, it's an investment worth making. This goes for any big contract, not just this one.

Mariners:

Signed SP Miguel Batista to a 3-year, $25 million contract (3)

This is the going rate for league-average pitching, but Batista is a poor bet to be a league-average starter going forward, what with his 1.2/1 K:BB ratio in his last two years as a starter.

Being able to induce groundballs has its value, but it is just one skill of many a pitcher must possess to be successful. When you combine a poor strikeout rate with below-average control, all the grounders in the world won't save you, especially when your infield defense is below-average, as is the case in Seattle.

What's particularly galling is that the Mariners are spending money and making moves as if they will contend in 2007. Reportedly, they are on the verge of acquiring Jose Vidro from the Nationals, hoping this allows them to move Jose Lopez to third base and trade Adrian Beltre. While Lopez's defense at second was awful last year, he doesn't yet have the bat to play third base for a contender, and replacing Beltre in the lineup with Vidro will not get the Mariners any closer to the playoffs.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Transaction Recap: Rangers, Braves, Astros, Rockies, Orioles

Rangers:

Signed RP Eric Gagne to a 1-year, $6 million contract, plus $5 million in incentives (5)

Signed CF Kenny Lofton to a 1-year, $6 million contract (5)

It's not often that a team arguably upgrades a position by spending $6 million instead of $50M. This isn't to say Lofton will be an upgrade on the 2006 version of Gary Matthews, Jr., but he shouldn't be much worse than the 2007 version.

There are rightly some concerns attached to this deal. Lofton is, after all, a 40-year-old center fielder, and the last time one of those (Steve Finley) signed a free agent deal, it didn't work out so well. Still, Lofton has always relied primarily on his abilities to make contact, run, and take walks. He's still only striking out in 10% of his at-bats, and taking a walk for every K. Given that he's still racking up steals at an age where only Rickey Henderson and Omar Vizquel have, you have to figure the speed is there. Plus, this is a one-year deal for a market-inflated $6 million, not 2/$16M. I lambasted the Finley contract from day one, but this one looks fine.

Note that the Rangers opted to go only one year, freeing their CF spot for next year's free agent class. They're rumored to be the ultimate destination for Vernon Wells, but could also opt for Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Mike Cameron, or others.

As for Gagne, it's a reasonable risk. The contract was first reported at $8 million plus incentives, but the base salary dropped to $6 million, making it significantly more reasonable.

The best comparable for this contract is actually Kerry Wood's. Though Wood is getting a significantly lower base salary, he is also not nearly as dominant as Gagne when healthy. If the Rangers get one of the game's best closers for one year and $11 million, it will be a coup, but there's also the risk they will end up with nothing on a $6 million investment.

Both of these moves would probably rate lower on another team, but the Rangers are in prime position to take the AL West away from a couple of frontrunners who don't really want it. They get a bonus for spending money at the right time--for once.

Braves:

Non-tendered 2B Marcus Giles, making him a free agent (3)

My initial reaction is that I strongly dislike this move, although the last time the Braves made a questionable decision to dump a player, Andy Marte suffered a strong drop in his prospect status the next year.

What really makes this strange is that they non-tendered Giles rather than trading him, which means they were unable to get anything of value for him in a potential deal. Giles instantly becomes the best second baseman on the market this year, and one would think there would be teams beating down the door to get him. Earlier in the offseason, I heard rumors of Jake Peavy going to Atlanta for a package centered around Giles, and it seemed to make sense for both sides. Now, the Padres are the favorites to land Giles without giving up any talent.

All that said, it seems likely that Giles will get a multi-year deal for a higher annual salary than he would have received in arbitration, which makes the move look downright foolish. However, the Braves may have access to inside information, as they might have with Marte. Perhaps they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Astros/Rockies:

Astros trade CF Willy Taveras, SP Taylor Buchholz, and SP Jason Hirsh to the Rockies for SP Jason Jennings (Astros: 2 / Rockies: 8)

An awful deal for the Astros. They may have felt pressure to replace Andy Pettitte, or they may believe they'll contend in a weak NL Central next year. Neither is a good enough excuse to deal away four years of Taveras and six years each of Buchholz and Hirsh for one year of a pitcher who's been barely above league-average for his career.

The Astros can hope that Jennings improves in his new surroundings, like Darryl Kile or Mike Hampton, but he'll need to have a very good season to have any chance to justify this trade. There is a certain value in acquiring this type of pitcher for one year and $5.5 million instead of four years and $40M, but it's not worth twelve years of decent prospects and four years of a young, capable center fielder.

The big prize for the Rockies is Taveras. At first glance, he might look like Juan Pierre v.2, but there are two significant differences: contact and defense. Taveras will strike out much more often than Pierre, creating a batting average roughly 20 points lower, but also played excellent defense in the spacious outfield in Houston, a skill that will be very helpful in the league's biggest park, Coors Field. The complete package is a league-average center fielder for four years, with room for improvement due to his age. That's a hell of a commodity, and hopefully the Rockies will mitigate his weaknesses by batting him eighth instead of first.

Buchholz has lost much of the glitter off his prospect status, but is still a young live arm. Hirsh followed up a nice 2005 in AA with a good 2006 in AAA, lowering his ERA but also suffering a drop in strikeouts combined with a spike in walks. Given the market price for starting pitching, any decent young starters have substantial value, and if just one of Buchholz and Hirsh sniffs a league-average year or two, this trade is a steal for Colorado.

Orioles:

Signed OF Jay Payton to a 2-year, $9.5 million contract (3)

Continuing the fight for third place. Remember when the Orioles signed Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez and were rumored to land Vladimir Guerrero? It suddenly seems like ages ago.

Payton is 34 and has never posted an .800 OPS outside of Coors Field, and he has severe OBP problems in particular. His defense isn't bad, and he can hit enough to avoid losing his job, but there's no point to this signing.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Transaction Recap: Tigers, Yankees, Cubs

Tigers:

Signed 3B Brandon Inge to a 4-year, $24 million extension (rating: 9/10)

Inge was eligible for free agency after 2007, so they're buying out his last arbitration year and signing him for three more. This is a great deal for Detroit. In a market where Aramis Ramirez gets $75 million for five years, the Tigers have now locked up nearly as good a player for 60% less per season and a shorter commitment.

If you kept reading after that last sentence, either you have a grasp of the value of defense in baseball, or you want to know how you can write me an angry e-mail. If it's the latter, feel free, as any kind of feedback beats the tumbleweed I've been getting.

According to WARP, Inge has actually been better than Ramirez in 2005-06. I'm not sure I buy that, and either way Aramis should be the better player going forward, as he is a year younger and his skill set (high contact rate and isolated power) is likely to hold up better than Inge's (league-average bat and tremendous defense). Still, getting a player of slightly less value for a fraction of the price is a coup. Along with the signings of Adam Kennedy and Greg Maddux, this is one of the three best contracts of the offseason.

Yankees:

Signed SP Andy Pettitte to a 2-year, $32 million contract (4)

The press is reporting it as a 1-year deal, but 2008 is a player option, so this is actually worse than a 2-year deal, in that Pettitte will likely only exercise his option if he's unable to get a better deal next offseason, and may decide to retire even if he has a very good year.

If this convinces Roger Clemens to return to the Yankees, this will rate substantially better. It's not like there is an empty SP spot for the Yankees, who are already paying Carl Pavano $10 million to sit on the DL, but that hasn't stopped them before, and they can always lowball Kei Igawa to the point where he refuses to sign.

Pettitte is a rare bird in that his DIPS numbers have improved substantially as his career has gone on, but his ERA, relative to the league, hasn't gotten any better. Ostensibly, a pitcher with his strong skills could expect a rebound, but the Yankees have about the last infield I would want backing up a groundball pitcher.

For those in fantasy leagues, some quick math:

Groundball pitcher + Move to AL + Jeter/A-Rod/Giambi - Everett/Ensberg = ERA increase

The same logic, minus the move, is why I will not be drafting Chien-Ming Wang next year.

Cubs:

Signed SP Jason Marquis to a 3-year, $20 ($28?) million contract (2)

Just a horrible signing, whether it's for 20 million or 28 million Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers. I'm sure Jim Hendry thinks he is buying low as Marquis is coming off a 6.02 ERA after two solid years, but the way to buy low is with a one-year deal to re-establish the starter's value for the next year's market (see: Kevin Millwood, 2005).

If Marquis can average a 4.50 ERA for three years, all will be well, but how likely is that, really? Sure, his groundball tendencies will play well at Wrigley in front of a good defensive infield, but there's a certain level of peripherals at which no number of groundballs can save you. If Marquis hasn't sunk below that line yet, he's heading there fast with cement blocks tied around his body.

There are those who will write off Marquis' 2006 performance as a fluke, but his entry in this year's Baseball Prospectus didn't open with "Warning: Highly Flammable" because he likes to wear a lot of aftershave. Any decent analyst could see 2006 coming. If Marquis improves, it will more likely be to a 5.00 ERA than a sub-4.00.

If you're a Cubs fan, I leave you with the following silver lining from a 2+2 poster:

"On the bright side, we now have three starters that can out hit our starting shortstop..."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Transaction Recap: Giants, Royals

Giants:

Re-signed LF Barry Bonds to a 1-year, $16 million contract with $4 million in incentives (rating: 5/10)

It's more dough than anyone would have anticipated two months ago, but in a world where an aging Luis Gonzalez is worth $7 million, this isn't totally unreasonable.

On the money alone, the transaction probably rates a 4. Bonds should be worth four wins next year, and while that's probably not worth $16 million, it's not that far off. The deal also avoids a long-term commitment. Bonds probably won't be much less valuable than Alfonso Soriano next year, and they're getting him for a comparable annual salary and a lot less years.

Of course, despite the distractions Bonds causes, his pursuit of the career home run record will sell a lot of tickets, especially late in the season as he approaches the mark. Though the Giants have done well at the box office every year, it's unclear how the fans will react to their first non-contending team in the era of Phone Company Park, and their late-season seats might not have been a big draw--until now.

That bumps the deal up a couple of points. What brings it back down to a 5? The Giants, who will not be a particularly good team next year, just spent $16 million on a player who will help them finish four games closer to the division title that they won't win. If this player was not named Barry Bonds, I would probably rate it a 2. Speaking of teams pointlessly adding players...

Royals

Signed SP Gil Meche to a 5-year, $55 million contract (2)

I'm trying to find a reason this deal was signed. Keith Law found a couple, and while he makes reasonable points, they don't justify this contract. Law compares this deal to the 5 years and $75 million the Tigers threw at Magglio Ordonez two years ago. I'm sure the Royals would be thrilled to reach the World Series in two years like the Tigers did, but comparing any free agent acquisition to Ordonez is an insult; Maggs has been one of the most overpaid players in baseball from the moment he donned a gothic D cap.

Law says that this contract "sends a message" to the public, but I don't buy that anyone really believes Gil Meche is an elite player, or that signing him will put the Royals in contention. Though Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez--who was signed under similar circumstances--were extremely risky signings, they were household names, great players whose health forced them to Detroit. Meche carries the injury risk of these signings, but not the cachet or the upside.

In the middle of the 2006 season, when the Royals looked poised to match the 2003 Tigers' historic futility, many people compared the two teams. I didn't buy it. It's instructive to look at the Tigers' rise from the dead to the AL pennant. Who got them there?

The Tigers got huge contributions from three players who made heroic progress in those three years: Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, and Curtis Granderson. Prior to 2004, Inge resembled Henry Blanco, a great glove behind the plate who couldn't hit enough to play regularly for a contender. The Tigers caused analysts' eyes to pop when they shifted Inge to the everyday third base job after signing Ivan Rodriguez. Whether by chance or the freedom of not having to take 150 squats a game, Inge responded by greatly improving his hitting, though he was still a below-average hitter, and becoming an elite glove man at the hot corner.

Meanwhile, Guillen was essentially acquired for free from the Mariners before the 2004 season, and instantly transformed from a fringe player to an MVP candidate. Currently, Guillen is making history by increasing his batting average every year. Granderson was always an interesting talent, but it's always rare for a player to emerge from the back end of top prospect lists to play well in an everyday role.

What do these three players have in common? Their careers followed highly unusual paths. If the Royals want to match the success of the 2006 Tigers, they'll need a similar brand of serendipity.

The Tigers also benefitted from a large number of pitchers that improved their numbers without really increasing their base skills, a result that usually leads to great success in the present (see: 2005 White Sox) but regression in the future (see: 2006 White Sox). Also, it is not really possible to set this up, other than by loading up on elite defenders.

In 2005, Detroit traded Ugueth Urbina, a closer they didn't need, for Placido Polanco, a very valuable player. Recently, the Royals traded a closer they didn't need, Ambiorix Burgos, for Brian Bannister, a guy who could become a fourth or fifth starter if things break right. The difference between the returns on these deals is indicative of the gap in talent between the 2006 Royals and 2003 Tigers.

This core was supplemented by free agent additions, as the Tigers threw money at Urbina, Ordonez, Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, and Todd Jones. Though the Tigers had to overpay these players, they are better than anyone the Royals are likely to sign this year or next.

To put it bluntly, the Royals should not attempt to follow the Tigers' blueprint, and signing Gil Meche is not the right direction to move in. It's especially galling that they included a fifth year; few teams have ever signed a pitcher for five years and lived to tell the tale.

Having said that, Law does have a solid point; the Royals are looking to set up a contending team for roughly 2009, and they will not be able to build it overnight. I do agree that it makes some sense for them to begin collecting talent now, so they will have a supporting cast ready for Alex Gordon and Billy Butler; I just don't think this was the right player to start with.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Transaction Recap: Dodgers, Red Sox, Padres, Cubs, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, White Sox, Athletics, Indians

In keeping with the culture of fast food, I've begun adding quick ratings to summarize my position on a transaction. The scale is out of 10, with 10 being signing Albert Pujols to a lifetime contract and 1 being anything involving an eight-year deal to a pitcher, or any trade where Kenny Williams gives up three players to acquire one.

Dodgers:


Signed SP Jason Schmidt to a 3-year, $47 million contract (8/10)

Signed LF Luis Gonzalez to a 1-year, $7 million contract (5)

The Schmidt signing looks quite good in this market. When you consider that Daisuke Matsuzaka will end up getting over $20 million/year for a longer commitment, Schmidt at under $16M annually is a relative bargain. With his strikeout-heavy repertoire, Schmidt is much less risky than a finesse pitcher like Jeff Suppan or Vicente Padilla. The dimensions of Dodger Stadium will play to Schmidt's flyball tendencies, and having an outfield with an average age under 40 should help his ERA.

Speaking of outfield age, Luis Gonzalez is an acceptable one-year replacement for J.D. Drew, and perhaps the first recorded case of a 39-year-old being a healthier option than the man he replaced. Gonzalez has barely missed any time in 11 years except for elbow surgery in 2004, and he's still good for a .350 OBP, though his power is declining. You don't want to have to pay $7 million to an average or below average performer, but in this market, that's the going rate.

As with all Dodger additions, it's good to see them attacking the weak NL West in the short-term, before the anticipated shootout between the youth of Arizona and LA in a few years. With the Giants losing anybody and everybody, it looks like the West will be a two-team race between the Dodgers and Padres, unless the Diamondbacks' youth movement accelerates next year.

Red Sox:

Signed OF J.D. Drew to a 5-year, $70 million contract (5)

Signed SS Julio Lugo to a 4-year, $32 million contract (7)

The acquisition of Drew gets the headlines, especially since everyone is reporting that it magically "allows" the Red Sox to trade Manny Ramirez, but you can make the argument that Lugo has been as good a player over the last four years due to his position and his superior ability to stay in the lineup.

This isn't to say Lugo will continue to outperform Drew in the future; Drew is a legitimate star when healthy. Still, for the sake of his health, you'd like to see him go to a team that can use him at DH frequently, and the Red Sox may be the worst fit in the league. 5 years/$70M would be a questionable contract for many teams, but given the Red Sox's status as a perennial contender, he'll return value on that deal if he can be worth four wins per year.

I like the Lugo deal. With only one quality shortstop on the market, 4 years and $32 million for a 3-4 win shortstop who'll be only 31 next year is not bad at all. Though he's not the same type of player as Edgar Renteria or Orlando Cabrera, and is slightly older than they were as free agents two years ago, Lugo has similar value entering this year's market, and he comes out with a far cheaper contract after adjusting for inflation. A good signing, and as a Cubs fan I feel particularly disappointed that Lugo is off the market.

Padres:

Signed SP Greg Maddux to a 1-year, $10 million contract (9)

A solid fit. Though he hasn't been in vintage Maddux territory for years, he has still been a great pitcher when he's not allowing home runs, and PETCO Park is where home runs are laid to rest in the gloves of outfielders.

Maddux hasn't been injured in forever, he still posts a K:BB ratio that 90% of the league is envious of, and he is still one of the more groundball-oriented pitchers in the league. The contract is only for one year, and he's still getting less money for that year than Vicente Padilla. The best pitching signing of the offseason so far, in my opinion.

Cubs:

Signed SP Ted Lilly to a 4-year, $40 million contract (7)

Lilly doesn't seem like a $40 million pitcher, but the Cubs could do a lot worse than the man Keith Law ranked between Mike Mussina and Barry Zito. Lilly has consistently been a 7.5 K/9 pitcher in the AL, which translates to around 8.5 in the NL given current exchange rates.

If there's a concern, it's Lilly's pronounced flyball tendencies, which may lead to him cracking 30 HR allowed in Wrigley, though he has never reached this mark in his career to date. Still, he's a much wiser investment than Vicente Padilla or Adam Eaton, and this contract should turn out fairly well, barring a major injury.

In the irrelevant department, the signing only exacerbates the Cubs' tendency to lead the league in pitching walks and strikeouts every year. Also, I'm not getting into Lilly's fight with John Gibbons; I'll leave the clubhouse chemistry talk to ESPN.

Mariners:

Traded RP Rafael Soriano to Braves for SP Horacio Ramirez (1)

Signed OF Jose Guillen to a 1-year, $5 million contract (6)

Um, what? I don't understand this trade at all from the Mariners' standpoint. Yes, Soriano has been supplanted as the M's closer of the future by J.J. Putz, but in a market devoid of relief aces, couldn't they have done better than a pitcher with a 1.2 career K:BB ratio? Ramirez's primary skill is inducing groundballs, but he allows contact so frequently that his career HR/9 is still 1.1. Moving to the AL and with a poorly-rated defensive middle infield behind him, he's a good bet to melt down despite the vast outfield dimensions at SAFECO.

Rob Neyer dissed the Guillen signing, but I don't see the problem with it. Yes, he's a risky proposition, but the Mariners are exactly the type of team that should be taking risks as long as the potential payoff is worth the cost. For less money than Luis Gonzalez cost, getting a 31-year-old outfielder with three good seasons in the last four is a solid play.

Braves:

Traded SP Horacio Ramirez to Mariners for RP Rafael Soriano (9)

So much for that (empty) that's been penciled in as the Braves' closer for most of the past two years. Aside from a rare two consistent months of Kyle Farnsworth, Atlanta has lacked a shutdown arm at the end of the bullpen. Now, for nothing more than an expendable and extremely risky starter, they have a cheap and very effective, if injury-prone, solution.

Since moving to the bullpen full-time, Soriano has averaged over 10 K/9 with a K:BB of 3.9/1 and an ERA of 2.25. What the hell is Bill Bavasi doing giving this guy away? If Soriano stays healthy, he is instantly one of the top 10 closers in baseball.

Phillies:

Traded SP Gavin Floyd and SP Gio Gonzalez to the White Sox for SP Freddy Gar
cia (4)

I have concerns about Garcia's effectiveness after 2006, when he reportedly lost 7-8 MPH on his fastball, but given the price of starting pitching and the Phils' status as a contender in 2007, this may be an acceptable level of risk. Still, I'm never a huge fan of giving away potentially six years of cheap productivity for one year of expensive mediocrity, and that's without considering the possibility that Floyd puts it together. If Good Freddy shows up to Phillies training camp, this will be a good deal for them.

White Sox:

Traded SP Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for SP Gavin Floyd and SP Gio Gonzalez (6)

In a vacuum, not a bad move. Still, the price Chicago paid to get Gonzalez back illustrates just how questionable last year's Jim Thome trade was for the Sox, though it worked out marvelously.

I'm somewhat surprised that this is the most the Sox could get in return for Garcia, but it's not a bad haul. Though Floyd hasn't shown a major-league quality arm since 2004, he could benefit from a new pitching coach and could become a useful bullpen arm. Gonzalez showed promise in 2006, averaging nearly 10 K/9 as a 20-year-old in AA, but with 1.4 HR/9, he has some work to do. Still, his future looks bright.

Athletics:

Signed DH Mike Piazza to a 1-year, $8.5 million contract (3)

Signed RP Alan Embree to a 2-year, $5.5 million option (4)

I normally don't subscribe to the theory that a questionable front-office move must make some sense, because baseball executives are smarter than me (even though this is true for most executives). However, I make an exception for the A's. Billy Beane has made a habit of being one step ahead of everyone else, and always finding the undervalued commodity in the market. I initially questioned Mark Kotsay's extension and Esteban Loaiza's contract, but both transactions made sense upon further inspection. (See Baseball Prospectus 2006 for a look at the Loaiza contract.)

This time, though, I'm not so sure. A month ago, I read a couple of news items. One was that Mike Piazza had his $8 million option declined by the Padres. On my scale of surprised reactions to headlines, this ranked somewhere between "Unrest in Middle East" and "Tom Brady has intangibles edge". The other was that Barry Bonds was seeking a contract for nearly the same salary he had earned this year ($18 million). I laughed that one off, figuring that in a market where Frank Thomas was worth $500,000 plus incentives, Bonds could get something in the $6-8 million range.

Piazza is now worth more as a DH in December than as a catcher in November, and I'm guessing Bonds will earn something like $12M when he finally signs, although there's now a severe lack of open DH spots on contending teams for him to fill.

As much as I like finally eliminating Piazza's awful defense from the equation, he goes from being one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball to a 38-year-old DH who was around league-average DH production from ages 35-37. Given the extreme toll catching takes on older players, he's a decent bet for a collapse.

I don't have much to say about the Embree signing, other than it's odd to see Billy Beane dish out money to one of baseball's most overrated commodities, the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY).

Indians:

Signed RP Joe Borowski to a 1-year, $4.25 million contract (5)

As a Cubs fan, I know just how flaky Borowski can be, but this is a contract without too much downside. If he flounders as the closer, the Tribe can move him and have an overpaid middle reliever for one year, then wave goodbye in October.

Still, I'd like to see the Indians make a move for Eric Gagne or Octavio Dotel, the true shutdown arms on the market, as stability at the back end of the bullpen is their biggest need. I'll assume they didn't know Rafael Soriano was available so cheaply, or they would have made more of an effort to go after him.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Transaction Recap: Cardinals, Rangers, Giants

Cardinals:

Signed Chris Carpenter to a 3-year, $49 million extension through 2011, with a $12 million option for 2012

This is an interesting move. Given the current market plus two years' inflation, $61 million for Carpenter's age 34-37 seasons is probably a good investment--assuming nothing goes wrong before then. Given the number of things that can go wrong with a pitcher, I'm not sure we can say there's better than a 60-75% chance Carpenter makes it through the 2008 season with no major injury concerns and only normal degradation in performance.

It's hard to project a free agent market a month in advance, let alone two years, but I'd expect that a healthy Carpenter could get a deal in the range of 4 years/$72M after 2008. The Cardinals are saving $11 million and shaving one guaranteed year off that deal, but I'm not certain that this justifies the risk. Making a long-term commitment to a pitcher is always dicey, and when you already have him signed for a below-market price for two years, a new contract is often dangerous.

Certainly, though, the Cardinals will need Carpenter at full strength if they want to compete in the coming years. The team is already looking weaker than the Cubs and perhaps the Brewers in 2007, and their shallow farm system won't provide much short-term help.

Rangers:

Reportedly agree to a 3-year, $34 million contract with Vicente Padilla

It looks pretty ugly, but three years is a fairly short contract for a mid-rotation pitcher these days, and $11.3 million per isn't a terribly expensive price. Still, I'd rather have Ted Lilly, who is reportedly looking for Jarrod Washburn money (4/$38M).

The AL West looks fairly wide open for 2007, and the Rangers were a better team than their record last year, although they won't have the fluke seasons of Gary Matthews or Mark DeRosa this time around. Texas is right to realize that they should strike while the iron is hot, although they will likely fall short if this is the biggest move of their offseason.

Giants:

Signed INF Rich Aurilia to a 2-year, $8 million contract

Signed 3B Pedro Feliz to a 1-year, $5.1 million contract

Signed OF Dave Roberts to a 3-year, $18 million contract

Signed 2B Ray Durham to a 2-year, $14.5 million contract

Same old, same old. Ostensibly, the Giants had to get much younger this offseason, after parting with Steve Finley (42 next year), Moises Alou (40), probably Barry Bonds (42), and with Mike Matheny (36) unlikely to be a regular.

It looks like Brian Sabean doesn't know the meaning of the word ostensibly, because he penciled in Dave Roberts, a guy whose value lies almost entirely in his speed, for his age 35-37 seasons, and brought in 35-year-old former Giant outcast Rich Aurilia, who's currently slated to start at first base even though he has the bat of a middle infielder. Add it up, and the Giants, who are very unlikely to contend next year, will still be trotting out the league's oldest everyday lineup.

Bringing back Pedro Feliz, he of the .288 career OBP and 32 years old in 2007, makes similarly little sense. In addition to having one of the oldest everyday lineups, the Giants will probably have one of the worst in the NL.

Consider that the Giants, who finished 24th in MLB in runs last year, have already lost their second-most-productive hitter in Moises Alou, will likely lose the highest OBP in baseball from their lineup, and their third-best hitter, Ray Durham, will almost certainly regress from a spike in 2006. Four major league teams posted a team OPS over .800 in 2006; the Giants have one hitter who is likely to crack that mark, and he's a 35-year-old second baseman.

Aside from the pointlessness of these deals, none is a particularly bad signing. I'd rather have two years of Ray Durham than three of Mark DeRosa, although I'd take Adam Kennedy's contract over either. Feliz isn't worth $5.1 million, but at least he will only be there for one year. Roberts was a reasonable pickup for less money and years than Juan Pierre or Gary Matthews, and Aurilia provides insurance against injuries to a very injury-prone middle infield. The question remains, however: if you know you won't compete, why bother fielding an old, mediocre team rather than rebuilding?

The good news for Giants fans is that one-fifth of their 2007 games are slated to be started by Matt Cain, who looks like he's broken the curse that affected Giants pitching prospects early in the decade.
Pujols has short memory

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an MVP award is handed out to a player who wasn't even the best in the NL at his own position, but was a bigger sensation and played for a team with a better record.

Ryan Howard? No, I'm talking about Albert Pujols, version 2005.

Quick, who won the 2005 Silver Slugger for NL first basemen? How about the Gold Glove? Who had the highest VORP? Highest WARP? Most home runs? Highest batting average? Most win shares? The answer to all these questions is the same guy, and his name isn't Albert Pujols, it's Derrek Lee.

Pujols had a great season in 2005, but it is obvious, even by conventional stats, that Lee had a better year. Pujols won the MVP solely because the Cardinals won 100 games and made it to the playoffs, while the Cubs finished below .500. A year later, Pujols is apparently miffed that Ryan Howard took the award on the strength of his outstanding August and September and the Phillies' late charge for the Wild Card.

I'm not going to comment on Pujols' personality, because this remark really tells me nothing about his character, and I'm confident the media can ostracize or lionize anyone they want to. Surely, however, Prince Albert understands that the system he criticizes is the same one that handed him last year's MVP, after Barry Bonds' strangehold on the award was finally broken. After receiving an award he didn't earn, he was denied one that he deserved. Two wrongs may not make a right in life, but for something as unimportant as sports award voting, can't we just call it even?

While we're at it, it's hard to argue that team performance should boost Pujols' MVP credentials when his team won fewer games than Howard's. Shouldn't the MVP award go to the Cubs' front office for showing up woefully unprepared for the season? How about the Brewers medical staff after injuries knocked their team out of the race? The Astros lineup for failing to get on base, or Phil Garner for benching the guy who did?

It's obvious to me that Pujols was the most valuable player--note the lack of capitalization--in the NL in 2006; the only other guy with a real case is Carlos Beltran. Unfortunately, being the most valuable player only makes you the Most Valuable Player roughly half the time, historically speaking. The voters went 0-for-2 this year, of course.

In a way, though, there is a sense of justice in all the poor MVP voting results. After Sammy Sosa robbed Mark McGwire in 1998 on the strength of the Cubs' playoff appearance, Pujols took the 2005 award over Lee. In the end, Pujols has his one MVP trophy, and the Cubs and Cardinals wash out. The system works.