There are some teams that wish they had more or better shortstops. With Jose Iglesias now missing an indeterminate amount of time in Detroit, the Tigers may now start Eugenio Suarez. Don’t feel bad if that name is new to you. The Twins and Marlins are poised to start pure fielders Pedro Florimon and Adeiny Hechavarria. The Mets have the never-ending Ruben Tejeda story, and that other New York team will start somebody who used to be Derek Jeter. At least the Yankees have Brendan Ryan in reserve; the rest of these teams lack viable backups beyond their own version of Suarez. On the other end of the spectrum are the Arizona Diamondbacks, which feature three or four viable shortstops.
Now that spring training is getting to the point where stats and injuries are beginning to add up, it’s a good time to peek in on some in-season expectations from ZiPS and the Fans. The “Projections” tab on our header is a great place to burn away time at the office. There are currently five projection systems located there and each has a couple surprises.
ZiPS went fully live about a week ago and we’re combining it with Steamer for the WAR projection on our Depth Charts page. The Fans projection is from our crowdsourcing project. The numbers tend to come out a tad optimistic, so keep that in mind. There’s no special reason to be looking at these two systems side by side, but both recently went live for the season and both interest me.
It was back during the winter meetings when major league baseball made headlines by announcing their intention to eliminate home plate collisions. On Monday, MLB and the players’ association announced that a new rule will take effect in time for the 2014 season. The rule will be reviewed and possibly tweaked prior to the 2015 season.
The impetus to make a change is obvious, many teams count their catcher as one of their best players. In an otherwise non-contact sport, catchers get knocked off the field all too often. Baseball is a bit behind the curve. Other sports have been protecting exposed players for over a decade, like quarterbacks and kickers in football or goaltenders in hockey. Players like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have been injured in recent seasons, as these two videos show (video one, video two).
With Nelson Cruz signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles, qualifying offers are back in the spotlight. The executive director of the player’s association, Tony Clark, has issued a statement saying he’s “concerned” about how qualifying offers are affecting the free agent market. Unions deal in politics and in this case concerned can probably be read as “we’re going to make this a sticking point in the next round of negotiations.” The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire after the 2016 season, so the MLBPA will have a couple more years of data in their hands before they pursue any changes.
I recently dreamed that I hit the comeback trail and was signed to a 10 day contract with a minor league team. With a combination of 77 mph cutters, sub-70’s change-ups, and more than a few knuckle balls, I parlayed my short contract to a major league roster spot. The dream ended, as dreams usually do, but it got me thinking about the minimum talent level necessary to pitch successfully in the majors.
When we analyze pitching talent, we’re mostly referring to a function of velocity, movement, command and control. There is a notable intangible that probably deserves mention. I’ll call it craftiness. Basically, the pitcher’s ability to out-think the hitter. Some pitchers seemingly can outperform the results that we might expect from their speed, movement, and location alone.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Dodgers rotation from a fantasy perspective for RotoGraphs. At that time, the Dodgers had a pool of starters than went 10 deep. Now they have 11 potential starters. Most teams would be satisfied with 10 starters. They might look to add some minor league depth, like a Rodrigo Lopez type, but they probably wouldn’t give out any more major league contracts.
However, the Dodgers have reason to worry about their depth. Chad Billingsley is currently rehabbing from injury. Prospects Zach Lee and Ross Stripling might not be ready in 2014, or the Dodgers may prefer not to rush either pitcher. Stephen Fife is a decent swing man, but the Dodgers would probably prefer to avoid turning to Matt Magill. Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are penciled into the rotation, although both pitchers were less than stable in recent seasons. Beckett in particular is coming off a nerve impingement surgery that limited him to eight starts last season.
So what have the Dodgers done to combat the flakiness of their rotation depth? Why they’ve hired yet another pitcher who fits into the back of the rotation and comes with health concerns.
Yesterday, news broke that right-handed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow and will be out until mid-to-late May. The childish part of me wants to make a quip about the loose bodies teaming up with those ever antagonistic free radicals, forcing a counter-insurgency executed with surgical precision. It would seem the childish part of me has succeeded.
The less childish part of me wonders how this setback affects the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. The short answer is, not much, but there are a number of trickle down effects that are worth exploring.
The Royals receive a lot of attention on these pages and it’s probably an understatement to suggest that not all of that attention is positive. Under Dayton Moore, the club has made some moves that stand out in a head-scratching sort of way. There was The Contest, the Jeff Francoeur era, and the James Shields mega-package to name a few. Now the Royals have made another curious move; they designated Emilio Bonifacio for assignment in favor of Bruce Chen.
Granted, today’s topic is dissimilar from the other moves listed above. The unusual element here is that the Royals designated Bonifacio for assignment just 16 days after the two parties avoided arbitration with a $3.5 million agreement. Arbitration contracts are non-guaranteed, so the Royals are (probably) off the hook for most of that contract. Here is the relevant text from the Collective Bargaining Agreement:
ARTICLE IX – Termination Pay
A Player who is tendered a Uniform Player’s Contract which is subsequently terminated by a Club during the period between the end of the championship season and the beginning of the next succeeding spring training under paragraph 7(b)(2) of the Uniform Player’s Contract for failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability shall be entitled to receive termination pay from the Club in an amount equal to thirty (30) days’ payment at the rate stipulated in paragraph 2 of (1) his Contract for the next succeeding championship season…
It is unclear what will come of Bonifacio. Hypothetically, the Royals could try to outright him to the minors. However, it seems like he was designated for financial reasons, which means that the club will either trade or release him. If they do release him, they’ll be on the hook for roughly $580,000.
The other bit of uncertainty comes from the line about “failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability.” Prior to the 2007 season, the Padres released Todd Walker and his $3.95 million salary. Walker and the MLBPA sought legal recourse. Unfortunately for Walker, a .225/.262/.300 performance over 42 spring plate appearances qualified as a failure to exhibit skill.
In the case of Bonifacio, his 2013 slash line wasn’t much better than Walker’s bad spring – .243/.295/.331. However, Bonifacio also stole 28 bases while playing multiple positions, so he did provide value. Per WAR, he was somewhere between a replacement level player and one win. The actual reported figure is 0.6 WAR, but WAR isn’t really accurate to decimal places. The Royals agreed to terms with Bonifacio despite knowing his 2013 production, so they ostensibly believed that he was worth $3.5 million. I’m not sure if that latter point is legally relevant when it comes to filing a grievance. Even if it is not, Bonifacio may have a legitimate case that he did not qualify for the lack of skill clause.
The Royals add a familiar face in Chen, who has been with the organization since 2009. They reached agreement on a one-year, $3 million contract with a $5.5 million option for 2015 and a $1.25 million buyout. The guarantee is for $4.25 million and he could earn an additional $1.25 million if he makes 25 starts in 2014. On the face of it, this seems like a very savvy signing. As Rany Jazayerli laments, the only thing not to like about this deal is that the Royals signed Jason Vargas to four-years and $32 million to be nearly the same pitcher as Chen.
Despite very pedestrian numbers before joining the Royals, Chen has been decent in recent seasons. Since 2010, he’s posted 6.4 WAR and 7.6 RA9-WAR ( a measure of WAR based on runs allowed). That’s closer to league average than replacement level over that four year span. Oliver and Steamer are far from enamored with Chen, since he outperformed league average in peripherals like BABIP and HR/FB last season. However, Chen is an extreme fly ball pitcher, which probably explains the lower than average BABIP. As for the HR/FB rate, Kauffman stadium suppresses home runs by about six percent. In other words, there is some cause for optimism.
He rejoins a rotation that is fronted by Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Vargas. Chen will compete with some combination of Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Wade Davis for a spot in the rotation. According to manager Ned Yost, the job is his to lose.
From a roster and payroll perspective, the pair of moves will cost the club a net total of about $1.33 million in guaranteed money – at least if the most likely scenario comes to pass. The team loses super utility man Bonifacio but picks up a good depth pitcher for an otherwise shallow rotation. Given Davis’ terrible 2013 and the uncertainty around Duffy and Ventura, Chen is probably worth about a win to the Royals. Meanwhile, it’s hard to judge the downgrade from Bonifacio to Pedro Ciriaco. In the best case scenario, neither player would have been needed for more than 150 plate appearances. Ciriaco’s value is entirely in his utility, whereas Bonifacio can also provide value as a pinch runner. Let’s be conservative and call the difference between Bonifacio and Ciriaco half a win.
With these rough estimates, it looks like the Royals improved by about half a win for a net cost of just $1.33 million. If you’re a glass half full-type, that’s a tidy little move. If you’re of the half-empty persuasion, then you’ll probably want to point out that we’re just talking about error margins and fractions of wins – and wins are indivisible in the real world. Either way, what happened on Saturday is curious and may yet become more curious.
On Sunday, I wrote about the Phillies offseason and how their seemingly wishy-washy approach to rebuilding may, possibly, potentially, could be perfectly rational. Buried within the article was a throwaway comment. I said:
The fans in Philadelphia simply don’t have patience for losers.
Commenters rightly pointed out that this is true of all teams. Instead of letting it go, I argued that Philly fans seem to respond more elastically than fans of other cities.
Perhaps this is a good time to share my credentials. I grew up 20 minutes from the Philadelphia sports complex. I had full season tickets at the Vet during those years when announced attendance was around 13,000 and actual attendance appeared closer to 3,000. The section security guard would sit down and watch part of the game with us because there was nothing to guard. He would go in the dugout between innings and come back with bazooka gum and sunflower seeds, sometimes with autographs. Those were my favorite years of baseball – between 1995 and 2001 – and my hometown Phillies were godawfulterrible.
The FanGraphs community exists in an echo chamber. As far as echo chambers go, it’s not a bad one. We expect baseball teams to (mostly) make objective, rational decisions. But we do have our own pre-conceived ideas about what makes a decision objectively rational. We also have a lot of contrarians in our midst, which prevents an echo chamber from becoming stodgy and outdated. Bill James is a noted contrarian as are many other sabermetricians. That basic instinct – it’s almost an assumption that conventional thinking is wrong – has helped our little closet industry grow to one that front office personnel read on a regular basis.