Archive for January, 2009

Varitek Ends Up Where He Left Off

“There will be a buyout with the team option, but Paul Maholm should also offer a discount for signing a secure deal, so three years at about $14 million would normally be my guess, with a team option for $9 million and a $1 million buyout.” – Me on Thursday

On Friday morning the financial details were finally leaked. Maholm actually signed a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $14.5 million and came with a $9.75 million club option for 2012, the buyout for that option is $750,000. I would say that was a pretty close guess, although I did undershoot it a bit.

Moving on, the Jason Varitek free agency escapade came to a close finally in the only way that it seemed possible (aside from retirement), re-signing with the Red Sox. After the year Varitek had in 2008, he was always going to face a depressed interest, but combined with the plummeting free agent economy and made worse by teams being thrifty not only with their money but with their draft picks as well, a perfect storm was created for Type A free agent Jason Varitek that led to just two realistic conclusions.

Because of that, the Red Sox got a pretty sweet deal out of Varitek. $5 million for 2009 and a mutual option for 2010 that should guarantee Varitek at least $3 million should he choose to exercise it after the team declines. Make no mistake, Varitek was bad last year, but even in that season, the sheer scarcity of catchers made him worth $5.6 million by our measure.

There’s a real chance that Varitek is done, and that he may even get worse from his 2008 line (his BB/K and LD ratios were well down), but most projection systems see a slight bounce back in offense this season and he’s right on the edge around two wins as a projection. That upside (term being used loosely, but not sarcastically, here) helps balance out the collapse potential and overall, it’s a good deal for Boston.

Sophomore Mets

The New York Mets organization received key offensive contributions from two rookies in 2008, which helped the club finish second in the National League East division. Neither Daniel Murphy nor Nick Evans was considered amongst the club’s top prospects. Murphy checked in on Baseball America’s Top 30 Mets prospect list at No. 15 and Evans sat at No. 20 (This list was compiled prior to the Johan Santana trade, which cost the organization four of its top seven prospects).

Last season, Murphy appeared in 45 games for the Mets and hit .313/.397/.473 with an ISO of .160 in 131 at-bats. The 23-year-old left-handed batter posted a reasonable walk rate of 12.1 BB% and a strikeout rate that was on the high side for his skill set at 21.4 K%. Murphy, a Florida native, was originally selected out of Jacksonville University in the 13th round of the 2006 draft and played mostly at the hot corner in the minor leagues. His power, though, is below average for the position. Murphy spent his MLB debut in left field for the Mets.

Despite his solid build (6’3” 210 lbs), his bat does not profile well in a corner outfield spot, either, with a career minor league line of .290/.352/.444. The Mets organization realized this and sent Murphy to the Arizona Fall League (AFL), after the 2008 season, to learn second base. Defensively, he had some hiccups (four errors in 15 games) but Murphy also showed enough promise to give incumbent second baseman Luis Castillo reason to be worried about playing time in 2009. Offensively in the AFL, Murphy hit .397/.487/.619 in 63 at-bats.

Evans also has a chance to play regularly in 2009, despite modest debut numbers last season. Only Carlos Beltran and, perhaps, Ryan Church are assured of 500-plus plate appearances in 2009, if healthy. Evans, a right-handed hitter, was a surprised call-up in 2008 and hit .257/.303/.404 with an ISO of .147 in 109 at-bats (50 games). The 22-year-old Arizona native was originally drafted in the fifth round out of high school in 2004 and spent the first half of 2008 in Double-A.

Evans has raw power, but he is still learning how to tap into it. He also does not walk much (8.1 BB% in Double-A, 6.0 BB% in the Majors). The big problem with Evans, offensively, is that fact that he hit just .135/.150/.189 against right-handed pitching, which is downright awful. He killed southpaws, though, with a line of .319/.380/.514. Evans is going to have a hard time playing everyday if he cannot improve that – and it’s something that haunted him in the minors too, although not as dramatically.

Defensively, Evans spent the majority of his time in the minors at first base (284 games out of 313). However, all but three of his appearances in the Majors came in left field. Despite his inexperience, he displayed average range and did not make an error. Evans has a higher upside than fellow sophomore Murphy, but the latter is more Major-League ready.

Murphy certainly appears ready to play everyday at second base for the Mets, and could be one of the biggest surprises of 2009. Evans, though, could use some more time in the minors to work on his approach at the plate (as well as against right-handed pitching) and log some more innings in the outfield. He may be pressed into regular duty, though, if players like Cory Sullivan, Jeremy Reed, and Bobby Kielty underwhelm in spring training.

Justin Upton’s Future

Yesterday, in the post about the players who have had comparable seasons to Matt Wieters Double-A performance last year, one commenter brought up Justin Upton, who didn’t have a chance to have a comparable performance because he got himself to the majors as a 19-year-old. And, since I angered a lot of D’Backs fans the other day, I figured I’d make it up to you by presenting the list of MLB players who have made it to the majors (and got at least 100 AB) at age 20 or younger since 1980, and how their MLB careers ended up shaking out.

Here’s the list of players.

Roberto Alomar – Hall Of Famer
Adrian Beltre – All-Star
Miguel Cabrera All-Star/Maybe HOF
Luis Castillo – All-Star
Wil Cordero – Useful Role Player
Carl Crawford – All-Star
Ken Griffey Jr. – Hall of Famer
Gregg Jeffries – All-Star
Andruw Jones – All-Star
Jose Lopez – Useful Role Player
Lloyd Moseby – Useful Role Player
Jose Oquendo – Useful Role Player
Aramis Ramirez – All-Star
Edgar Renteria – All-Star
Jose Reyes – All-Star
Alex Rodriguez – Hall Of Famer
Gary Sheffield – All-Star/Maybe HOF
Ruben Sierra – Useful Role Player
B.J. Upton – All-Star
Justin Upton – ?

That’s a ridiculous list of talent. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, though – there’s perhaps no better proxy for talent level than ability to rise through the minors rapidly. If major league teams can become convinced of a player’s ability before his 21st birthday, he’s probably going to have a career somewhere between All-Star and Hall Of Famer.

That’s especially true if you display power at a young age and can still get to the majors quickly. Guys like Luis Castillo, Edgar Renteria, and Jose Reyes aren’t very good comparisons for what Justin Upton will likely become – instead, his comparables are more in the Beltre/Sheffield/Cabrera/Sierra/Ramirez range. When Ruben Sierra is your downside, and Gary Sheffield is your upside, you’re a pretty fantastic young player.

Don’t let his struggles in the second half deter you from realizing that Justin Upton is one of the premier talents in all of baseball. The odds are very good that he’s going to be a superstar.

Maholm Hurts His Wallet by Pitching for Pittsburgh

And the tide rolls on with Paul Maholm inking today what has been reported as a guaranteed three-year deal, buying up his arbitration years, with a fourth-year team option covering what would have been his first foray into the open market. We do not have a leak on the financial terms yet, but that will not stop me from estimating his fair value and then making a prediction on the figures.

Maholm has shown steady improvement the last three years, and tRA* is the most optimistic on him, projecting him to be worth a little under 3 wins next season, which would be his highest value to date (tRA loves the ground ball rate and the increased percentage of missed bats that Maholm generated in 2008). Marcel and CHONE are more pessimistic but not dramatically so, pegging Paul at 2.8 and 2.5 wins respectively.

The two sides had already exchanged figures for Maholm’s first arbitration hearing; the Pirates submitting $2.65 million and Maholm $3.8 million. That would give us a clue that the first year value is probably going to be about in the middle of those, around $3.2 million. That would lean toward an $8 million open market valuation and a three-year arbitration total of just under $15 million. There will be a buyout with the team option, but Maholm should also offer a discount for signing a secure deal, so three years at about $14 million would normally be my guess, with a team option for $9 million and a $1 million buyout. However, given the trend of contracts signed this winter by arbitration-eligible players, if I were pressed to estimate as best as I can, I would knock a million off of the guaranteed money.

For what Maholm is projected for, Maholm is worthy of about $20 million give or take a million to buy out his arbitration years and a touch over $30 million with the team option picked up. Even at his submitted figure of $3.8 million for his first year, that comes out to a open market value of $9.5 million, which would be more akin to his 2007-level of performance and not his once-more-improved 2008 level. It must be hard to build a solid case for a pitcher like Maholm in arbitration since he doesn’t strike out many batters (about league average) and by dint of pitching for the Pirates is hard-pressed to reach double digits in wins. But he keeps the ball on the ground and limits walks enough to make him a valuable pitcher. Whether the Pirates or Maholm know it or not, Pittsburgh benefits from this arrangement and based on what we know so far, they are certainly taking advantage.

A + Replacement >= B

Yesterday, Dave discussed the Jon Garland signing, largely criticizing the acquisition based on the fact that they failed to offer Randy Johnson, a superior pitcher even at this stage, a deal as lucrative. While I am not going to continue the discussion about that particular signing, the idea arose that 200 innings from Garland is less productive than 120 or so innings from Johnson should he sustain injuries. This reminded me of something Tango posted last year showing that Albert Pujols’ numbers were almost equivalent to the production of Mark Teixeira and Jeff Francoeur combined. Whew, spelled both correctly.

All too often, injury-prone pitchers are written off as ineffective. This could not be further from the truth as certain pitchers who fit this mold are wildly productive in the time they spend on the field. Even though they fail to stay healthy enough to log 200 IP in 35 GS, they end up posting some very solid numbers.

Take a look at Ben Sheets, for starters, who produced a 2.43 FIP in 106 IP back in the 2006 season. He made 17 starts, with a 9.83 K/9 and 0.93 BB/9, good for a K/BB of 10.55. Even with a .344 BABIP and 67% LOB, Sheets still managed a 3.82 ERA. All told, his half-season produced +4.0 wins. In the same season, the aforementioned Garland produced +3.9 wins in 211 innings. Yes, Sheets was slightly more productive than Garland even though he pitched almost exactly half of the innings.

This is not the only example either. In 2007, Randy Johnson made just 10 starts, pitching in 56 innings. His 3.20 FIP and 5.54 K/BB helped him produce +1.6 wins that season. In one-fourth of the season, he produced more than 200 innings of Tom Glavine, or 170 innings of Boof Bonser. His win value also surpassed the combined output of Kip Wells, Livan Hernandez, and Scott Olsen in ~520 IP.

Granted, we never know what would have happened if the injured pitchers lasted the entire season. Still, do you really believe Johnson and Sheets would have declined so rapidly that their statistics would drop them into the average category? When pitchers with half of a season or so of statistics are evaluated, the most common reaction is to think they could not possibly be as productive as innings-eaters who stay on the field. This simply is not a universal truth. 106 IP of Ben Sheets in 2006 (+4 wins) + 105 IP of Replacement Level pitching (+0 wins) is equal to, or greater than, 211 IP of Jon Garland (+3.9 wins).

Examples like this will not always surface, but injury-prone pitchers do have value, even if that value is only seen for half of a season.

Wieters Is Really, Really Good

So, for those of you who don’t follow minor league prospects all that closely, there’s this kid in the Orioles system named Matt Wieters. He’s good. He’s everybody’s #1 prospect. No one thinks he’s going to be anything less than a star. After all, he’s a catcher who just demolished Double-A pitching (.365/.460/.625!) in his first year as a pro and gets raves for his work behind the plate. What’s not to like?

However, I’m not sure people realize just how special the season that Wieters just had in Double-A really was. Here is the list of players who have hit had comparable offensive seasons in Double-A at age 22 or younger in the last 30 years.

Jose Canseco, 1985, age 20: .318/.406/.739 in 211 AB
Bob Hamelin, 1989, age 21: .308/.454/.640 in 211 AB
David Wright, 2004, age 21: .363/.467/.719 in 223 AB
Pat Burrell, 1999, age 22: .333/.438/.631 in 417 AB
Doug Jennings, 1987, age 22: .338/.459/.608 in 464 AB
Ben Grieve, 1997, age 21: .328/.455/.610 in 372 AB
Vladimir Guerrero, 1996, age 20: .360/.438/.612 in 417 AB
Miguel Cabrera, 2003, age 20: .365/.429/.609 in 266 AB
Eric Chavez, 1998, age 20: .328/.402/.612 in 335 AB

Okay, so, Hamelin and Jennings are around to remind us that he’s not a 100% mortal lock for stardom, but even including those guys, they totaled 33,620 major league at-bats and combined for a .283/.377/.501 mark. That’s an .878 OPS as a group. You know how many major league catchers have posted a career OPS of .878 or higher? Two – Mike Piazza and Mickey Cochrane.

I’m not saying that we should just enrhine Wieters in the Hall of Fame right now. There’s some chance that he’s going to be this generation’s Doug Jennings, after all. But it’s far, far more likely that Wieters is the best position prospect we’ve seen in quite a while – a catcher who hits like a DH and has the glove to be an asset behind the plate. That’s a remarkable player. Maybe we should start bronzing his plaque after all.

Five + Five = Success for the Yankees

A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the impressive pitching depth that has been compiled by the Boston Red Sox, mostly at the Major League level. The New York Yankees organization, a division mate of the Sox, also has some nice depth on hand in case injuries strike the Major League starting rotation.

With a few weeks to go until spring training, the Yankees’ rotation currently includes free agent signees C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett, holdovers Andy Pettitte, and Chien-Ming Wang, as well as Mr. Can-Do-It-All Joba Chamberlain. That is a pretty formidable rotation if everyone is healthy and pitching up to their potential.

But as we all know, in the game of baseball no organization is safe from the injury bug – especially when it comes to the pitching staff. We also need to keep in mind that Chamberlain has never pitched more than 118.2 innings in a season – and that was at the University of Nebraska in 2005.

Luckily, the Yankees have at least five young starting pitchers who will be a phone call away at the organization’s Triple-A affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes/Barre: Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, and Eric Hacker.

Hughes has been, in a word, disappointing. Injuries and general ineffectiveness have taken a toll on his reputation amongst fans in New York but there is good news. He’s only 22 years old, which is something that is easy to forget. And although he posted a 6.62 ERA in 34 big league innings in 2008, Hughes’ FIP was just 4.34 and he may never have actually been healthy last season. He also had a 4.46 ERA (4.35 FIP) in 72.2 MLB innings at the age of 21. The projection systems for 2009, including Bill James, CHONE and Marcel, vary somewhat, but they all suggest reasonable production for a 23-year-old starting pitcher.

Kennedy, like Hughes, faced pretty high expectations after being selected out of USC with the 21st overall pick of the 2006 draft. A number of teams avoided the right-hander in the draft because his success in college came despite dominating stuff. The same can be said for his minor league success, which includes an eye-popping 1.99 ERA in 226 innings. Kennedy has been a different pitcher at the Major League level. He sports an 8.17 ERA (5.45 FIP) and has allowed 50 hits in 39.2 innings. With a little more experience (and possibly a little more use of his breaking ball), he should become a pretty successful No. 4 starter, if nothing more.

Aceves appeared out of nowhere in 2008, after previously being expunged from the Toronto Blue Jays Dominican Summer League team. In one season, the right-hander rose from High-A ball to the Majors. The problem, though, is that Aceves pitched far more innings in 2008 than he ever had before, having played in short-season leagues. His 170.2 innings could be seen as a warning sign for 2009. As well, his 2.40 ERA does not look quite as rosy after looking at his FIP (4.80) and strikeout rate (4.80 K/9).

Marketing opportunities abound with Phil Coke. The 26-year-old left-handed pitcher has put up some nice minor league numbers. He had a solid Major League debut in the bullpen for the Yankees and allowed just eight hits in 14.2 innings. He also posted a 0.61 ERA (1.63 FIP) in those 12 games. There are not a lot of southpaws that can average 93 mph.

Hacker, 25, was a recent addition to the Yankees’ 40-man roster and he follows along the same path as Kennedy, as a starting pitcher who has posted nice minor league numbers despite lacking an awe-inspiring fastball. You can also lump southpaw Chase Wright into that category. After making a forgettable MLB debut in 2007, Wright spent all of 2008 in the minors and was recently removed from the 40-man roster. Both Hacker and Wright could develop into middle relievers at the Major League level.

Obviously the Yankees’ Big Five in the rotation look pretty good on paper going into the 2009 season. The Live Five (plus one) don’t look too shabby, either.

UnBusted Prospects

One of the bigger issues of disagreement between the statistical community and the mainstream media is the predictive power of minor league performance. It’s still widely believed that minor league statistics aren’t very useful, and that there is a significant collection of players who can hit well in Triple-A but will be exposed in the majors. It’s true that there are career minor leaguers beating up on younger pitching, but that group is much smaller than usually believed.

However, it’s not that rare to see a player come up from the minors, where he’d been destroying the ball, and fall on his face in the major leagues. Last year, for instance, we saw some disastrous performances from Chin-Lung Hu, J.R. Towles, Brandon Wood, Wladimir Balentien, and Jeff Clement. These guys have all experienced success as hitters in the minors, but all struggled mightily in short term looks at the big league level.

For most organizations, the reaction to such a performance is to go find another option. The Dodgers re-signed Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal rather than giving Hu another shot. The Astros have been in the market for a veteran catcher all winter. The Angels kept Chone Figgins despite trade interest. The Mariners acquired Endy Chavez to play left field.

Organizations aren’t the only ones. Fans, too, often give up on players who don’t immediately hit like they did in the minors, as they only see the struggles and usually didn’t see the successes. However, giving up on a young player with a good minor league track record based on a few hundred at-bats is hardly ever the right call. 2008 shown with examples of this very thing.

Carlos Quentin posted a .320 wOBA in his first 454 major league plate appearances over two seasons after posting a .419 wOBA in Triple-A. His power was written off as a product of Tucson, and the D’Backs essentially gave him to the White Sox. Whoops.

At least Quentin hit a little bit, though, even if he was a disappointment. Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, racked up an astonishingly bad .221 wOBA in his first 303 plate appearances as a major leaguer. In ’07, he hit like a weak pitcher in the majors, even after tearing up Triple-A the whole year. Never a top prospect, it would have been easy to write him off as a career minor leaguer, but the Rays gave him another chance in ’08, and he responded with a .364 wOBA in 227 PA. The leap in performance from ’07 to ’08 would be about +10 wins if both performances came in a full season of work.

Also rebounding from a bad major league debut was Elijah Dukes, who combined personal troubles and off-field problems with a .190 career batting average headed into 2008. While he still showed walks and power, a .190 average over 200 PA is going to raise questions every time, and it certainly didn’t help convince Tampa Bay that he was worth the trouble. However, he was one of the true breakout stars of 2008, posting a .382 wOBA over 334 PA.

You can add these three to the list of quality major leaguers who overcame the busted minor leaguer tag. The lesson to be learned – don’t judge a player with a long history of success on one bad season. Talent shines through, even if not immediately.

Braden and the Wolf

Reputations are interesting in the sense that they can alter our perception of a player. For instance, Jon Garland, who just signed a questionable deal with the Diamondbacks, has the reputation of a durable, grounder-inducing pitcher. This reputation is sound given that he routinely logs 200+ IP in 33+ GS, but it also masks his shortcomings. Adversely, the reputation for falling prey to injuries can mask a player’s true production level. Just look at Ben Sheets: 130 IP of Sheets at the top of his game is more productive than 200 IP from someone like Garland.

And the lack of a reputation prevents similar pitchers from being acknowledged. Which brings us to Braden Looper, an average or so pitcher who projects to perform similarly to this past season in 2009, performance similar to that of Garland’s. Despite the similarities, Looper lacks the reputation or track record of being extremely durable. I have seen perhaps two teams expressing even cursory interest in the veteran. The track record set by Garland may be worth the extra interest and salary, but this is interesting nonetheless.

If Looper throws 185 IP with a 4.54 FIP, down from the 199 at 4.52 in 2008, he would still be worth right around +1.65 wins. No, this isn’t going to light the world on fire, but he isn’t going to cost much, especially in this economy, and the return is not going to be that far off of someone like Garland. Looper would have made more sense for a team like the Mets than Tim Redding, yet his name never even surfaced.

Randy Wolf’s recent reputation comes as an injury-prone pitcher. From 2005-07, he managed just 43 starts coming off of Tommy John Surgery. Still, in 18 starts during the 2007 season, Wolf produced +1.7 wins. Last season, in 33 GS and 190 IP, he produced +2.0 wins. It seems safe to say that Wolf is, at worst, a +1.8 win pitcher next year. Exceeding the league average production in 2008 is not out of the question, either, given that he has now pitched a full post-surgery season.

Garland, Looper, and Wolf all project quite similarly to each other in 2009. Despite this, Looper’s lack of a reputation and Wolf’s supposed inability to stay on the field are important enough to teams that these pitchers are rarely mentioned. If a team seeks a decent 4th or 5th starter to fill out their rotation, one that does not come at too steep of a price, either of these two is likely to be just as productive as Garland, if not better.

Cubs and Ms Swap Disappointments

A.k.a. This good move stuff takes some getting used.
A.k.a. Heilman and Olson are racking up the frequent flier miles.

Today the Mariners potentially solved their glut of Major League back-rotation starting pitchers by shipping off Aaron Heilman, acquired from the Mets earlier in the winter in the J.J. Putz blockbuster. Heilman is now on his way to the Cubs of Chicago in exchange for infielder Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson, who himself was just recently acquired from Baltimore for outfielder Felix Pie.

From the Mariners perspective, this could not have worked out much better for them. Heilman was going to be hard pressed to make any impact on the big league team given his position of wanting to start, but not being good enough to do so. In exchange for him, the Mariners get Ronny Cedeno whom the Cubs have soured on, but has a phenomenal minor league track record as both a hitter and a defender and Garrett Olson who boils down to being a lefty, much younger, version of Heilman, albeit with less Major League success, but one with options left that allows the Mariners to give him some more seasoning down in Triple-A while they do their best to move Carlos Silva or Jarrod Washburn out of the way.

For the Cubs, well, they managed to clear some room on their 40-man roster I suppose. Heilman is probably a better option for 2009 and can serve as a swingman on the staff, moving in and out of the rotation as need be, but that is the best that I can come up with for them. There’s no doubt that this trade is a win for the Mariners, and the best that I can give the Cubs is a pass. They have turned Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno, two huge prospects as little as a year ago, into Aaron Heilman.

And no, that is not going to help them get Jake Peavy. Any rebuilding team would be far more interested in Cedeno and Olson than Heilman.