Archive for October, 2008

The 2008 All Free Agent Bargain Team

For most of the past week, I’ve been looking at some guys who I would target as potential free agent bargains this winter. Wrapping it up, let’s take a look at the All Free Agent Bargain Team, position by position:

Catcher: Dave Ross
First Base: Ben Broussard
Second Base: Orlando Hudson
Shortstop: Rafael Furcal
Third Base: Joe Crede
Left Field: Rocco Baldelli
Center Field: Ryan Langerhans
Right Field: Juan Rivera

Starting Pitcher: Derek Lowe
Starting Pitcher: Randy Johnson

Relief Pitcher: Jeremy Affeldt

There’s actually a pretty decent crop of buy low opportunities this winter. No matter what your team needs, there’s a couple of options that won’t cost an arm and a leg. From pitchers to put your team over the top, middle infielders to add both offense and defense, or guys with some power who can turn on a fastball, smart GMs will be stocking their roster with these guys over the winter, and reaping the rewards in 2009.

The Mike Jacobs Trade

Yesterday, the Kansas City Royals acquired Mike Jacobs from the Florida Marlins for reliever Leo Nunez. The Marlins, always in cost-cutting mode, weren’t particularly interested in taking Jacobs to arbitration this winter, and with a team full of bad defenders, opening up first base to hide one of them seems like a pretty good idea. Plus, Nunez’s sparkly 2.98 ERA and 94 MPH fastball have them thinking that he could be a potential late inning reliever. Even though they’re wrong on that count (Nunez’s combination of lots of fly balls and no strikeouts make him a pretty lousy reliever), moving Jacobs before he costs them too much money makes sense for Florida.

But from the other perspective, why on earth does Kansas City want Jacobs? Yes, his power is appealing, and he’s better than his .299 OBP in 2008 would suggest, but even as a .270/.330/.490 guy (which is basically what Marcel has him projected at for 2009), he’s just barely better than a legue average hitter. If we call him +5 runs offensively, then subtract 10 runs for the position adjustment, he’d be a -5 run player if he played league average defense. But he doesn’t – he’s one of the worst defensive first baseman in the game, racking up +/- ratings of -12, -10, and -27 the last three years. Even if we consider 2008 to be an outlier, we’d have to estimate his defensive value at around -10 runs compared to an average first baseman, which we then add to his previous -5 rating, and all of the sudden, Jacobs is about 15 runs worse than a league average first baseman.

That’s replacement level, or just barely above it. Bad defenders who can put up an .800 OPS in the majors are just not that hard to find. All Kansas City had to do was look internally. They already have a similar player in Ryan Shealy, plus Kila Ka’aihue, and Billy Butler, so Jacobs just adds a fourth power hitting DH type to the Royals roster. And, to top it off, he’s going to be the most expensive of the group while potentially being the least productive.

I know the Royals are trying to put a competitive team on the field to draw fans, but this isn’t the way to do it. If Dayton Moore keeps trying to patch the roster with guys like Jacobs and last year’s Jose Guillen signing, he’s just going to prolong the mediocrity. This isn’t how you build a winner.

A Minor Review of 2008: The Indians

The Graduate: Ben Francisco | Born: October 1981 | Outfielder

Despite going the college route before signing his first pro contract, Ben Francisco took seven years to solidify a spot in the Majors and was a 26-year-old rookie in 2008. He had a solid, but unspectacular, season in Cleveland and hit .266/.332/.438 with 15 homers in 447 at-bats. Francisco also posted rates of 8.2 BB% and 19.2 K%. His power potential is average for a corner outfielder. Francisco hit right-handers and southpaws equally well in 2008.

The Riser: Carlos Santana | Born: April 1986 | Catcher

Stolen from the Dodgers in mid-season for aging Casey Blake, Carlos Santana adds to the glut of catchers in the Cleveland system. That said, his defence behind the plate is very much a work in progress as he began his pro career as an outfielder/third baseman. Santana, who has been catching for just two seasons, made 19 errors in 2008 and caught 34 of 126 base stealers. On the positive side, he is athletic enough to play other positions if he does not improve quickly enough for his defence to catch up to his bat. Offensively in 2008, Santana hit .323/.431/.563 in High-A ball for the Dodgers and .352/.452/.590 at the same level for the Indians. In total, he scored 125 runs, drove in 117 and hit 21 homers. He also walked more than he struck out (89-85).

The Tumbler: Adam Miller | Born: November 1984 | Right-Handed Pitcher

It’s now at the point where you wonder if Adam Miller will ever be healthy enough to pitch a full season. Coming out of high school in 2003, there were two very talented prepsters with the last name Miller: Adam and Andrew. Adam signed with the Indians as the 31st overall selection and Andrew, who made it widely known he planned to go to UNC, snubbed the Rays. Despite going the college route, and beginning his pro career three years later than Adam, Andrew has already played parts of three Major League seasons. Adam has yet to make an appearance in the Majors. Since 2003, Adam has managed just one health season – 2006 – when he went 15-6 at Double-A and allowed just 128 hits in 153.2 innings. He had a potentially solid 2008 season going at Triple-A in 2008 before injuries struck again. Adam had a 1.88 ERA in six starts. After pitching just 94 innings in the last two seasons, it is about time the Indians tried Adam as a late-game reliever.

The ’08 Draft Pick: Cord Phelps | Born: January 1987 | Second Baseman

Cord Phelps is an offensive-minded second baseman who features and advanced bat and could make it to Cleveland in a hurry. The switch-hitter batted .312/.378/.454 in 141 short season at-bats. He posted rates of 9.6 BB% and 15.6 K%. His .142 ISO was respectable for a middle infielder but some expect him to move to third base at some point in his career.

The ’09 Sleeper: Hector Rondon | Born: February 1988 | Right-Handed Pitcher

Hector Rondon has shown steady improvements over the past three seasons since coming over to North America. The Venezuela native allowed just 130 hits in 145 High-A ball innings in 2008. He also posted rates of 2.61 BB/9 and 9.00 K/9. Impressively, his strikeout rates have improved each year as the level of competition gets stronger. Rondon can hit the mid-90s with his fastball and also features a curveball and change-up.

Up Next: The Milwaukee Brewers

Highlight #1: Sabathia, ‘Nuff Said

Well, here we are, my top highlight of the 2008 season. In third place was Chipper Jones and his quest for a .400 batting average that kept us all entertained well into June, and second place involved everyone, including the notoriously tough Phillies fans really pulling for Junior Griffey to hit that 600th home run. First place, however, is a no-brainer for me, and goes to CC Sabathia’s absolutely incredible performance this season. And I’m not just talking about his statistics in a Brewers uniform, but while with the Indians as well.

CC started the season rather poorly, as after four games, his numbers were: 18 IP, 32 H, 27 ER, 14 BB, 14 K, an OPS of 1.170, and a 13.50 ERA. Over his next 14 starts, all with the Indians, Sabathia allowed just 25 earned runs, two less than his total in the initial four. He walked just 20 while striking out 109 and allowing only 85 hits in 104.1 innings. This resulted in a .591 OPS against and a 2.16 ERA. It is irresponsible and incorrect to ignore his atrocious first four starts, but he managed to put together a tremendous 14-start stretch before even landing a plane ticket to Milwaukee.

Following the trade with the Brewers, Sabathia had a somewhat wild first start in the senior circuit but followed it up with three straight complete games, one of which was a shutout. In these three starts, he amassed 27 innings, allowed just 15 hits and three earned runs, walked just three hitters and struck out 26 of them. All told, in 17 starts with the Brewers, he threw seven complete games, produced a K/BB ratio above 5.0 (128/25), and a 1.65 ERA.

Put together, he made 35 starts, threw 253 innings, walked 59, fanned 251, and surrendered 2.70 earned runs per nine innings. In case you are curious just how good he was following those four atrocious starts to begin the year–or just how bad those four starts were–here are his stats from starts #5-35: 235 IP, 191 H, 45 BB, 237 K, .570 OPS, 1.88 ERA, 5.27 K/BB, 2.45 FIP. Again, it is incorrect to ignore those starts, but this what Sabathia did from the end of April until the end of the season. He virtually willed the Brewers into the playoffs, and made four straight starts to close out the season on three days rest. His numbers in that span? 28.2 IP, 24 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 26 K, 1.88 ERA.

With the Brewers, he surrendered 4 ER just once, never venturing higher than that number. Three earned runs were allowed twice; Two earned runs on four occasions; 1 earned run six times; and no earned runs in four different starts. That is domination. His lowest game score was 43 and he produced a game score of 70+ in seven of 17 starts for the Brewers. I have never followed a pitcher, or watched each of his starts, for a team other than my own, except for Greg Maddux prior to this season. From the time Sabathia joined the Brewers, though, I found myself tuning into each and every one of his starts, growing more and more impressed with each passing pitch. His tremendous season, especially with Milwaukee, is my top highlight of the 2008 season.

Highlight #3: Bonds’ No-Show

As Eric mentioned a few days ago, all of us here are recapping some of our more memorable moments from this season part. To lead off my own such list, I don’t have a moment per se, but actually a lack of a moment. The moment I am talking about is the first plate appearance from one of the top hitters of 2007, one of the top three hitters of all time and the man possessing the all time home run record.

Barry Bonds made zero trips to the plate in 2008. He had a 4.88 WPA/LI in 2007, nearly 44 BRAA, and created 10.29 runs per 27 outs. He posted an OPS of 1.045 last season. It would be one matter if Bonds had voluntarily retired, but to see a player of such magnitude, of such ability, who was showing little signs of not being able to sustain a high level of performance through 2008 at least be forced out of the game is astounding. Almost as astounding as the near total lack of coverage it has received. This is arguably the best player ever in baseball history and not a single team was interested enough to give him a one-year deal? It’s far too bewilderingly.

It’s sadly now impossible to talk about Bonds without the issue of steroids coming up. I understand why that can be a hot button issue for some and why some might be perfectly happy to see Barry Bonds no longer playing baseball because of it. Putting that aside though, isn’t it incredibly suspicious that there wasn’t any interest from any team? Not during the offseason, not during Spring Training when the first spate of injuries came down, not when the first teams that thought they would be contenders turned into pumpkins, not when the trade deadline came around and not when the teams with likely postseason hopes had their final chances to add a big bat in the hopes of some October magic.

Will Bonds be back for 2009? It seems unlikely at this point, but his zero at bats in 2008 was one the most memorable parts of this season for me.

Highlight #2: Griffey’s Standing Ovation

My second top highlight of the 2008 season was one that I am unsure if many even got to see. Whether or not Sportscenter aired the clip or not escapes my memory, but it involved the Phillies playing the Reds, and the reaction of the notoriously tough Philadelphia fanbase and their reaction to Junior Griffey. Ken Griffey, Jr, is now essentially a replacement player, with poor defense and about average offense, but in the beginning of June, he stood right outside the entrance to the 600 HR club, and had trouble earning his membership.

In the first two games of a three game set with the Phillies, the Reds opted to sit Griffey, though he did make pinch-hit appearances, much to the pleasure of the Citizens Bank Park faithful. In fact, the fans actually booed Phillies reliever Tom Gordon when his lack of control prevented Griffey from having a concrete shot at his milestone home run. This was not my highlight, however, as that came the very next game.

Cole Hamels was on the mound for the Phillies and Griffey got the start for the Reds. Cole had long been a fan of Griffey’s and had said before the game began that he honestly would not have minded being the pitcher to give up #600, joining a large list of other pitchers who had previously fallen victim to the sweetest swing in the majors.

In his first at-bat, Griffey hit a double off the wall to the delight of the Phillies fans, a shot that came very close to leaving the yard. His next two at-bats, both prefaced with very loud applause, resulted in somewhat weak groundouts. With Hamels cruising through the game, keeping the Reds firmly off the scoreboard, Griffey would have just one more at-bat. Trailing 5-0, Griffey led off the top of the ninth inning. As he stepped to the plate, a resounding applause spread across the stands. It became quite clear that they were pulling for him to hit his 600th home run.

As Cole took a few steps towards the plate to get a new baseball, you could see him mutter something to Griffey, to which Junior smiled. Hamels would later admit that he asked Griffey what pitch he wanted to say and where he wanted it to be placed. Hamels soon delivered a fastball on the inside corner that Griffey seemed to get all of, launching it towards the centerfield fence. Shane Victorino played it brilliantly, racing back. Literally standing at the wall, Victorino pulled the ball in, inching Hamels closer to a shutout and keeping Griffey milestone-less for at least one more game.

Griffey smiled as Shane made the catch, though his expression bore resemblance to one of slight disappointment. As he made his way back towards the dugout, just about every fan in attendance rose to his or her feet and gave Griffey an absolutely thunderous ovation. Griffey seemed to be in shock. He had experienced applause in his previous plate appearances, but nothing like this. With each step towards the dugout the ovation grew, and he tipped his cap to the fans. Afterwards, in the locker room, he was choked up while giving an interview, recounting the experience, thanking everyone for the support, and struggling to put a word on how it felt. He eventually settled with a simple “It was…. it was awesome.”

He hit #600 soonafter, but, for me, watching notoriously tough fans show him more love than some of their own players was one of the most exciting things I have ever seen in a baseball game.

Free Agent Bargain: Japanese Position Players

If there’s one group of free agents that, over the last five years, has been the most consistently undervalued by the market, it is clearly position players from Japan. Take a look at the following players who have come over, how much their teams paid them per season (posting fee included if applicable), and their average WPA/LI during the contract.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners – 2001 to 2003, $9 million – 2.0 WPA/LI per season
Kenji Johjima, Seattle Mariners – 2006 to 2008, $5 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season
Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees – 2003 to 2005, $7 million – 2.1 WPA/LI per season
Tadahito Iguchi, Chicago White Sox – 2005 to 2007, $2.75 million – 1.1 WPA/LI per season
Akinori Iwamura, Tampa Bay Rays – 2007 to 2009, $4 million – -0.1 WPA/LI per season
So Taguchi, St. Louis Cardinals – 2002 to 2004, $1 million – 0.0 WPA/LI per season
Kazuo Matsui, New York Mets – 2004 to 2006, $7 million – -0.2 WPA/LI per season
Kosuke Fukodome, Chicago Cubs – 2008 to 2011, $12 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season

Obviously, WPA/LI doesn’t adjust for position or defense, but the conclusion is still obvious – as a group, these guys have been a massive success. The original contracts for Ichiro, Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura, and Johjima especially were ridiculous bargains. Not one of them cost their team more than $10 million per season, and all of them were above average players, including Ichiro and Matsui proving to be all-star caliber players. Even the so called busts, such as Kaz Matsui, were reasonably productive players at a not ridiculous price.

Maybe Fukodome’s contract from last winter signaled a shift in how teams view Japanese position players, and they’ll be fairly valued going forward, but there was a huge undervaluation of Japanese players for six solid years, and it’s hard to imagine that it all disappeared in a single winter. While I’ll leave the specific names of potential bargains to those who know NPB ball better than myself, it seems wise that teams looking for a good bargain would target that segment of potential free agents as an opportunity to find a quality player at a lower than expected cost.

Free Agent Bargain: Derek Lowe

For our final free agent bargain, we take a look at another starting pitcher who simply doesn’t get the recognition he deserves – Derek Lowe. I’ve written about him several times this year, but it bears repeating: Lowe had the 7th best FIP of any starting pitcher in baseball this year. Better than Brandon Webb. Better than Johan Santana. Better than breakthrough stars Ervin Santana and Ryan Dempster or established aces like Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt.

Lowe was tremendous for the Dodgers this year, continuing his run as a durable, front line starter. Because he’s one of the most extreme groundball starters in the majors and he’s learned how to command his sinker, his success is built off limiting walks and home runs. He did both of those better than almost everyone else in baseball, which makes up for the fact that he posts just average strikeout rates. Getting batters to swing and miss is great and all, but it’s not the only way to succeed – Lowe has gotten so good at the other aspects of baseball that he doesn’t need to blow hitters away. Weak groundballs turn into outs with enough frequency too.

Because of his age, Lowe isn’t going to be in the market for the five to seven year deal that CC Sabathia will be looking for. The length of the contract we should expect Lowe to get is three or four years, which makes him more attractive than others on the market just for that reason. How much should Lowe get?

If we assume that Lowe’s true talent level will see him give up 4.25 runs per nine innings next year, and we project him to throw 200 innings, that makes him about 38 runs above a replacement level starting pitcher. Given that, we can call him a +3.5 to +4 win pitcher. Given an expected going rate of about $5 million per win this winter, we’d expect Lowe to get something like $17.5 to $20 million per year if he was valued correctly.

I highly doubt that Lowe will get that much money, though – the perception of his abilities across the game don’t match his actual abilities, and I’d put the expected range of his salary at about $15 million per year. If I’m right, Lowe’s going to be worth about $2.5 to $5 million in asset value to whoever signs him for 2009.

Teams like Atlanta, who are considering giving up the farm for the right to pay Jake Peavy the same amount that we’re projecting Lowe will sign for, should look at him as a viable alternative – similar caliber of pitcher, similar money, and you get to keep all your prospects.

Highlight #3: Chipper’s Quest For .400

The 2008 season is officially in the books, capping my first full season covering baseball everyday. What a season it was, as well, with all sorts of events and storylines making for one extremely entertaining seven months. With that in mind, all of us here at Fangraphs are going to discuss some of our favorite moments of this past season. For me, one of the best parts of this season occurred in the early stages, and it involved following Chipper Jones and his quest for a .400+ batting average.

Nobody has posted a batting average of .400+ since 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406. Granted, batting averageis a relatively meaningless stat from a pure evaluative standpoint, but the idea of someone posting one of .400 or higher resonates in the minds of fans whenever somebody comes close. Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977; George Brett hit .390 in 1980; Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994; but nobody was able to reach Williams’ mark of .406 since then.

Through 20 games, Chipper Jones had 34 hits in 79 at bats, en route to a .430/.466/.709 line. After 40 games, he was 64-156, for a .410/.475/.679 line. And after 60 games, which took us past the halfway point of June, Chipper had recorded 93 hits in 222 at bats, producing a line of .419/.504/.676. From June 12 to July 9, Jones struggled, going 15-66, for a .227/.370/.424 line, ultimately ending his quest for the gaudy .400 batting average.

Overall, he finished with a slash line of .364/.470/.574, still fantastic numbers. With a batting average of .364, he fell just shy of Mickey Mantle’s .365 batting average record for a switch-hitter in a single season. Chipper won the batting title in the senior circuit, becoming the first switch-hitter to do so since 1991, when fellow Brave Terry Pendleton led the league. Chipper finished strong as well, hitting .408/.561/.612 in September to close out the season. And in medium leverage situations, Chipper did hit .408, so he managed to surpass .400 in one aspect of the season, but regardless, his quest for .400 well into June is my third highlight of the 2008 season.

Season in Review: Atlanta Braves

A continuation of the series of retrospectives looking back at the regular season and how teams fared. They will be presented, from first to last, in order of their run differential as given by the BaseRuns formula and adjusted for strength of schedule, which I feel is the best measurement of a team’s actual talent level.

Number Eighteen: Atlanta Braves

Last time when we looked at the Texas Rangers, I remarked how they registered about the exact same (there was a slight decimal difference) amount of runs scored and allowed according to BaseRuns, but that they were on opposite ends of the ranking spectrum. This time around with the Braves we have the epitome of a matched team. The Braves ranked 17th in BaseRuns scored with 753 runs and ranked 18th in BaseRuns allowed with 751 runs. Now that’s equality.

Despite a seemingly poor rating on offense, the Braves actually had a decent collection of bats. Their league and their park both suppressed offense which makes them come across as a bit worse then they actually were. Notably, Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and (while he was there) Mark Teixeira formed a tremendous offensive infield, possibly the best in baseball. Where the Braves fell down was in the outfield especially with Jeff Francoeur who took a big step back this season.

The Braves also had a serviceable bullpen, keeping away from black holes and having a few new names. Jeff Bennett who hadn’t pitched a full season since 2004 with Milwaukee, game in to toss nearly 100 innings with a nearly 64% groundball rate. Buddy Carlyle moved from the rotation and saw his groundball and strikeout rates move way up.

The rotation did see the heralded (okay, not really) return of Mike Hampton. However old war horses Tom Glavine and John Smoltz both went down with injuries along with Tim Hudson. Given all that it’s hardly a surprise that the rotation faltered a bit. That they didn’t outright collapse is a testament to a pair of surprises. Jair Jurrjens and Jorge Campillo, both of whom have been covered extensively here. They provide some hope for next season as they wait to hear on how their injured brethren recover.