Monday, February 28, 2011

D-Span's Last Stand

Gleeman just finished his 'Twins Top-40 prospects', something he does a great job with every year and a series of his I enjoy reading more than almost any other (except for the Link-o-Ramas). One thing you can't help but notice is the bevy of outfield talent that the Twins have coming up within the system, particularly in center field. In fact, 4 out of the Top 10 players (according to Gleeman) in the Twins system are center-fielders. This got me thinking...D-Span has got to come through this year, or he may very well be somewhere else (or on the bench) by season's end.

Many have speculated about Span and his 2010 season, trying to provide answers to why it was so terrible. In 2008 and 2009, Span was a true asset to the team, playing solid defense in center while performing well at the plate. In both of those seasons he batted around .300 (.294 in 2008 and .311 in 2009), had OBPs in the upper .300s and even managed .400+ SLG%s. In 2010, everything turned sour as Span hit for .264/.331/.348 in 705 PAs. No matter how good his defense, that kind of bat will take him right out of the lineup if it continues. Span seemed to have more trouble than most adapting to Target Field, and was certainly out-spoken about it, but that's still really no excuse.

Behind Span are those 4 CFs waiting for a chance, and of those 4, three of them are pretty close: Aaron Hicks, Joe Benson and Ben Revere. Aaron Hicks is's 2nd ranked Twins prospect and Joe Benson was the Twins Minor League Player of the Year last season so that should highlight the kind of talent that is waiting for Span to struggle again this season. In fact, Benson replaced Span in the 5th inning of the Twins first Spring Training game the other day and proceeded to drive in 3 with a bases-clearing triple.

Because the Twins have so much up-and-coming outfield talent, the decision to give Span a 5-year contract prior to last season makes little sense. Not only that, the contract was loaded on the back-end which will make it harder to deal Span if he finds himself out of a job. Span is in line to make $1M this season, but in the next 3 years, he makes $3M, $4.75M and $6.5M respectively. For the Denard Span of 2009, that would be a pretty fair price as he played to a 3.6WAR that year, but that's hardly something the Twins can count on.

Span's BABIP was the most likely culprit for his sub-par 2010 season, he only managed a .294 mark last year, a far cry from his .326 career mark. In looking at his Plate Discipline stats, he swung at a few more pitches out of the zone, but none of the metrics look all that much different from previous seasons. Nick Nelson over at Nick's Twins Blog had an interesting perspective on Span's struggles last season, attributing them to weak groundballs, an explanation that would make sense why his BABIP dropped so much. This past weekend, it came out that Gardenhire thinks he rode Span too hard last year and that's why he struggled...ok.

The problem with Span is that his minor league track record doesn't suggest that he can sustain the type of success he had in his first two seasons with the Twins. Span was a .288/.357/.358 hitter in the minors which looks a lot more like last season than it does the previous two. Span has speed and defense, both of which have improved in the last 3 years, but without a stick to support those other skills, he'll likely lose his spot...or I should say, he would deserve to lose his spot but Gardenhire and the Twins will likely continue to play him because Gardy always has to play a guy with speed and defense but no bat...sorry, that was rant-ish.

As always, I hope that Span has a good year, or at least substantially better than last year, a bounce-back year if you will. I think something resembling .280/.350/.415 would be serviceable. He can be a legit 30-steal guy and he is easily the best of the Twins outfield defensive options, he can still be worth that contract that the Twins signed him to. All I'm saying if that if he doesn't step it up this year, there is some serious young talent waiting for the 'everyday center-field' role to open up.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Tsuyoshi Nishioka vs. History

Phil Mackey from ESPN1500 in Minneapolis had a "Live from Florida" piece on the ESPN1500 website this morning in which he mentions:

"10: The number of Japanese-born hitters with at least 900 career major-league plate appearances: Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Dave Roberts, Kazuo Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura, Kenji Johjima, Kosuke Fukudome, So Taguchi and Tsuyoshi Shinjo."

That gave me an immediate posting idea so here's a quick look at the ones with at least 1000ABs (which happens to be all of them except Shinjo), comparing their numbers in Japan vs. what they've ended up doing this side of the Pacific in an effort to gauge what we can expect from our new player, Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

1. Ichiro (OF) - 10 Seasons, 1,588G, 6,779ABs
'Nuff said already here, he's been the most consistent pure hitters for the past 10 years.  He has a .331 MLB lifetime avg. in those 10 seasons, he's compiled 10 straight 200+ hit seasons (ML-Record) and he's been a perennial All-Star. Within this group of 10 players, Ichiro has had, by far, the most success.

Ichiro was even more successful in 9 Japanese League seasons, with a lifetime average of .353, 1,278 hits, 118 HRs and almost 200 SBs. Ichiro won 7 Gold Glove awards in Japan and he's won 10 here in the States so clearly his fielding talents have translated well.

2. Hideki Matsui (OF, DH) - 8 Seasons, 1,061G, 3,830ABs
Matsui has been the 2nd most successful player to transition from the Japanese League to MLB, compiling a .290/.369/.479 line in 8 Major League seasons while hitting 161HRs and winning a World Series with the Yankees in 2009. Aside from 2 injury plagued seasons in 2006 and 2008, he's managed to maintain his status as a 'regular' though he is only really useful as a DH now (he's played only 41 games as an outfielder in the past 2 seasons).

Like Ichiro, Matsui was even more of a success in Japan, playing 10 seasons there with a lifetime BA of .305 and a .582 SLG%. In 2002, Matsui hit 50 HRs for the Yomiuri Giants which established a Japanese League record. He's shown power over here, but not quite to that level, averaging about 23-25 HRs per full-season in the Majors.

3. Dave Roberts - (DQ'ed)
Roberts, while Japanese-born, doesn't really qualify for our discussion here because he never played in the Japanese Leagues.

4. Kazuo "Kaz" Matsui (2B) - 7 MLB Seasons, 630G, 2,302ABs
I'll be honest, this is the type of player I expect Nishioka to most closely resemble. Kaz hasn't been a terrible Major League player, but he's been plagued by injuries and despite his 4 Japanese Gold Gloves, he's never won the award in the Majors. His .267/.321/.380 career line in the Majors is certainly nothing impressive, and a far cry from his .309 career batting average in Japan. More on his fielding,...since 2004 when he came to the Majors, he owns a 5.8 UZR which ranks 23rd in the Majors amongst 2nd basemen with at least 1,400 innings over that period. People like Nick Punto, Craig Counsell, and Mike Fontenot have had a better UZR over that same period of time.
Not surprisingly, Matsui seized on an opportunity to return to Japan during the off-season and will be playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this season.

5. Tadahito Iguchi (2B) - 4 MLB Seasons, 493G, 1,841ABs
Yet another 2B out of the Japanese League, Iguchi was signed as a free-agent by the White Sox in 2005 and  pretty much played full-time 2B for two seasons. With a .780 and .774OPS in those two seasons, he was certainly competent at the plate, and also featured a little speed, stealing 26 bases between 2005 and 2006. The White Sox plans changed the following season and Iguchi was traded to the Phillies. Nothing really went his way after that and he was unable to find consistent playing time anywhere. He ended up leaving MLB and went back to Japan in 2009. For only having played 4 Major League seasons, he managed to gather quite a hardware collection, being part of the 2005 World Champion White Sox team and the 2008 World Champion Phillies team.
Iguchi garnered American interest because of two seasons he had in Japan, in 2003 and 2004. In each season he hit well over .300 and drove in a total of 198 runs while hitting 51HRs and stealing 60 bases. That level of success didn't translate very well, however, and I think the White Sox quickly realized they had another average middle-infielder on their hands, both offensively and defensively.

6. Akinori Iwamura (2B) - 4 MLB Seasons, 408G, 1,545ABs
The Rays purchased Iwamura's contract from Japan in December 2006 and he was immediately installed as a regular 2nd baseman. His rookie season wasn't terrible as he managed a .285/.359/.411 hitting line while playing pretty good defense at 2nd (only 7 errors in over 1,000 innings). In his 2nd season, he did play a full-time 2nd base role, but didn't fare as well as his OPS dropped from .770 to .729. In 2009, he was once again the regular 2nd basemen, but tore his ACL in May and missed 3 months of the season. After the 2009 season, the Rays traded him to the Pirates and in 2010 the Pirates released him, he signed with the Athletics and then the Athletics released him. In November, he returned to the Japanese League and will play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (with Kaz Matsui).
One other interesting note about Iwamura is that he's won 6 Gold Glove awards in Japan and won zero in the U.S.

7. Kenji Johjima (C) - 4 MLB Seasons, 462G, 1,609ABs
After a state-side rookie season that saw Johjima finish 4th in AL ROY voting, his career went downhill fast and in 2009, he went back to Japan to play with the Hanshin Tigers. In 12 Japanese League season, his hitting line was .300/.359/.516 but he couldn't translate that success to MLB hitting only .268/.310/.411 in parts of 4 seasons.

8. Kosuke Fukudome (OF) - 3 MLB Seasons, 426G, 1,358ABs
Fukudome is definitely one of the more hyped position players to come out of the Japanese Leagues in the last few years and though he hasn't been as disappointing as the last few I've covered, he definitely hasn't performed nearly as well here as he did in Japan. In Japan Kosuke became a star with the Chunichi Dragons, winning 4 Gold Gloves and carrying a lifetime .305/.397/.543 line. He was also a national hero of sorts playing for the Japanese team in the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics as well as the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic teams (both of which won the Gold).
Fukudome's skills have translated in some ways to the Majors. He has maintained his ability to get on base and has shown a very patient eye at the plate. Where he has struggled, however, is with his consistency. His career .259 average leaves a lot to be desired, particularly because he plays an offensive position. He's prone to hot and cold streaks at the plate and his defense is only average. If something encouraging can be said of Fukudome, it's that he has improved at the plate in every season, at least from an OPS standpoint and last year, he completed his first .800+ OPS season.

9. So Taguchi (OF) - 8 MLB Seasons, 672G, 1369ABs
I won't spend much time here, the bottom-line is that Taguchi is back in Japan, and really, he didn't even start his MLB career until age 32, so it might have been doomed from the start. Like Tadahito Iguchi, he managed to gather two World Series titles in his brief MLB career, winning with the Cardinals in 2006 and the Phillies in 2008. He left MLB at the end of the 2009 season and resigned with a Japanese team in 2010.

What lessons can we take away from this analysis? First and foremost is the lesson that NO Japanese player that has come to the U.S. and played any significant amount of time has been able to duplicate in MLB the type of success they had in Japan. Ichiro was a .353 hitter in Japan, he's a .331 hitter here, still great, but not as good...and Ichiro is the BEST-case scenario. Something more realistic is what we saw with Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi and Akinori Iwamura...all good hitters in Japan, like Nishioka was, but none could duplicate those results in the States. Another interesting note is that aside from Ichiro, none of the players I covered won a Gold Glove in the U.S. despite the fact that a few of them won the award multiple times in Japan.

I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but the track record is undeniable. Aside from Ichiro, who possessed superior hitting and fielding skills prior to coming to the U.S., and Hideki Matsui, who was as great of a power hitter as Japan has ever seen, the overall crop of Japanese players has been disappointing. What's really scary to me is that some of these guys were .300+ hitters in Japan (K. Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura) and couldn't crack .275 over here...Nishioka was only a .293 hitter in Japan (.287 career average before an unusually good 2010 seasons). Nishioka also didn't have much power in Japan (career .426 SLG%), though he is only 25, so he could develop that as he goes along.

I hope it works out for young Nishi, but history suggests the road will be a tough one.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is $30M/yr. for one player really, "asinine"?

Earlier this week, various MLB sites, including HardballTalk, posted this quote by Kenny Williams, GM of the Chicago White Sox,

"“For the game’s health as a whole, when we’re talking about 30 million dollar players, I think it’s asinine,” Williams said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet. “We have gotten to the point of no return. Something has to happen. And if it means the game being shut down for the sake of bringing sanity to it, to franchises that aren’t going to stop the insanity, I’m all for it.”

For a little context, Williams was asked whether the White Sox would pursue Albert Pujols when he becomes a free-agent at the end of the season. I read the piece, yawned, then thought to myself, "is it that asinine?" Then I thought to myself, "how many times can I use the word asinine in one post?" Then I did a little research...maybe $30M is asinine, but it's not THAT asinine.

Let me start by saying, there's no easy way to do this. You might be able to find salary records for someone like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, etc., but you can't find payroll records for the rest of the team to put a given salary in context. Full payroll records are a pretty recent invention, going back to the mid-'80s or so. Anyway, given that we're talking about Albert Pujols here, universally recognized as one of the best players in baseball at this time, I decided to examine the cases of a couple of other ball players who received new contracts at or near the height of their respective careers. I take their cases, in the context of their team payroll and try to answer the question, "is $30M an asinine amount of money to pay a truly great player in today's baseball economy?"

First, a definition:

Asinine [as-uh-nahyn], adj. : "foolish, unintelligent, or silly; stupid"

So we're talking about a "foolish or stupid" amount of money here. That's pretty much a judgment call, ask the fans in St. Louis whether $30M a year is a "foolish or stupid" amount of money to spend on Pujols, most of them will probably say no. Ask the Pittsburgh Pirates and they'll tell you that's almost their entire payroll (currently $34.7M for 2011). I digress.

First up: Ken Griffey Jr. - signed 9-year, $116.5M ($12.95M per) contract with Cincinnati Reds

You look at the yearly dollar figure on this one and it kinda puts today's contracts in perspective, namely because $12.95M a year doesn't sound like much at all...and that was only 11 years ago folks. Anyway, the context here is that Griffey had just completed one of the greatest 10-year stretches of offensive AND defensive performances in Major League history. In the 10 seasons prior to 2000, Griffey hit 382 HRs, drove in 1,091 runs, scored 1,002 runs, stole over 150 bases, won 10 Gold-Glove awards in CF, went to 10 All-Star games and won the MVP award once. At 29-years old, he was one heck of a HOT COMMODITY and the Mariners probably knew they couldn't afford to re-sign him again, so they traded him and then let the Reds pony up.

Adding up the team salary from the 2000 Cincinnati Reds page on Baseball-Reference, we get a number right around $46,500,000 and adding in data that isn't available, we can probably assume a payroll of about $50M. Griffey Jr. was paid $9,329,700 that year which is about 18.66% of the overall payroll. In 2001, the team payroll is reported at around $48,775,000, which again we can probably safely assume was actually about $50M. Griffey Jr. was paid $12,500,000 that year which calculates to about 25% of the overall payroll.

Putting it another way, I measured Griffey Jr.'s salary compared to the next highest player on those teams. In 2000, the next highest salary belonged to Dante Bichette...I'll pause while you $7M. Griffey's salary was 133.2% of that. In 2001, the next highest paid player was Barry Larkin at $9M, Griffey's salary was 138.8% higher than that. To summarize, between 2000 and 2001, which were the first two years of Griffey's new contract, his contract averaged 21.8% of the payroll and was, on average, 136% of what the next highest paid player on the team was making.

In the midst of research, I found an unforeseen good example: Albert Belle - signed 5-year, $55M ($11M per) with the Chicago White Sox

In 1996, Belle finished off a very nice 6-year stretch with the Cleveland Indians which saw him hit 234HRs, drive in 711 runs, finish in the top-7 for MVP voting 4 times, make the All-Star team 4 times and lead the AL in RBIs 3 times. In the 1996 season he was a free-agent, and at 29-years-old, a pretty valuable one at that. He was a PR nightmare, but no one could knock his on-field skills. The Chicago White Sox decided to make him the highest paid player in the game, offering him a 5-year, $55M contract (worth $75M in today's cash, thanks Wikipedia).

In 1997, the White Sox payroll was a healthy $57,579,500. Belle's salary that year was $10M, good for 17.3% of the pie. In 1998, the team payroll was a shade below $40,000,000 making Belle's $10,000,000 worth about 25% of the pie. At that point, the two split ways due to a nifty clause in Belle's contract that allowed him to demand that the White Sox make him the highest paid player in baseball again. The Sox declined to do so which made him a free-agent immediately. The Orioles picked him up and wah-lah, Belle was once again the highest paid player in the league, signing a 5-year, $65M deal.

In comparing Belle to his White Sox teammates, it shakes out similarly to Griffey Jr. and his Reds teammates. In 1997, the next highest paid player on the White Sox was none other than Frank Thomas who made $7.125M, Belle's salary was 140% of that number. In 1998, Thomas was once again the 2nd highest on the team at $7M, with Belle making 143% of that at $10M.

Next Up: Derek Jeter - signed a 10-year, $189M contract with the New York Yankees

Prior to the 2001 season, Jeter signed this contract with the Yankees and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say he didn't deserve every cent of it. The Yankees had made the playoffs 6 years in a row at that point, they'd won 4 out of 5 World Series including 3 straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and Jeter was cementing his new status as "Yankee Captain." Jeter wasn't the same as Griffey Jr. or Belle in terms of his on-field production, but he was equally as valuable, playing a key middle-infield position and playing catalyst in a dangerous Yankee lineup.

In 2001, the Yankee payroll was $112,287,143 and Jeter's salary that 1st year of the contract was $12.6M, making his portion worth about 11.2% of the total pie. In 2002, his salary jumped to $14.6M, but the team payroll also jumped to $125M+ which held his portion steady at 11.5%. Jeter doesn't fit my examples quite as well because the Yankee payroll really started blowing everyone else out of the water in the early-2000s and skewed the numbers a bit.

In comparison to his teammates, Jeter was still top dog (until A-Rod came along). In 2001, the next highest paid player on the team was long-time Yankee Bernie Williams at $12.357M, making Jeter's salary the biggest by only 2%. In 2002, however, Williams was again the 2nd highest paid Yankee, but his salary remained the same while Jeter's bumped up to $14.6M, making Jeter's salary 118% of Williams'.

Alex Rodriguez - signed a 10-year, $252M deal with the Texas Rangers

In the same year that Jeter signed his big deal with the Yankees, A-Rod signed what was then the richest contract in sports history with this mega-deal. In 2001, A-Rod was a hot commodity, more because he was clearly going to be great AND he was only 24 years old. He'd hit 40+ HRs three years in a row and showed that rare combination of power, speed and consistency.

In 2001, was the Ranger payroll was $87,213,000 and A-Rod's cut was $22M meaning that the Rangers were giving A-Rod 25.2% of their overall payroll. In 2002, the Rangers bumped the payroll to $105,726,122 and A-Rod's salary remained the same at $22M lowering A-Rod's portion to 20.8%. Interestingly enough, according to FanGraphs, A-Rod actually out-performed his contract in 2002, they calculate his 9.8 WAR that year to have been worth $25.4M.

It's barely worth mentioning, but since I've done if for the other players, I'll do it for A-Rod. In 2001, the 2nd highest paid player on the Ranger ballclub was Rafael Palmeiro at $9M (A-Rod salary was 244% of that). In 2002, a somewhat forgotten character named Juan Gonzalez took 2nd place honors, making $11M to A-Rod's $22M (200%).

Just as a side-note here, I saw that FanGraphs starts tracking player salary vs. their WAR value in 2002. In looking at A-Rod, since 2002 he has been paid $230.4M and he's been worth about $220M on the field. That's not a bad ratio considering how monstrous his last two contracts have been.


I could keep going here, Troy Tulowitzki, Joe Mauer, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, etc...there have been so many players in the past few years who've signed huge deals. What I wanted to highlight is two things...a) big-time deals given to a single superstar player have been worth anywhere from 11% (Derek Jeter) to 25% (Belle, A-Rod, Griffey Jr.) of the total team payroll and b) those individual players have generally been paid at a level that is significantly higher than anyone else on the their respective teams.

For a comparison with my earlier examples, at $30M per, Pujols would be the highest paid players on the Cardinal roster by $13M, with the next highest being Matt Holliday at $17M. $30M is 176% of $17M, which is A-Rod territory in terms of salary supremacy, but Pujols is A-Rod type talent...or better. If the Cardinals gave Pujols that kind of money, their payroll would likely have to inflate to about $125-130M to accommodate him, which puts his piece of the pie at 23-24%...not unreasonable given the other examples I've shown.

Former TBS writer SR (who now writes for RiverAveBlues, check him out) pointed me to this article, written by Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs in which Pujols' value is compared to two (or 3) other players whose WAR adds up to Pujols average WAR (that was convoluted and I apologize). In the piece, Cameron argues that a +6 WAR player, like Pujols, could be considered more valuable than 2 +3 WAR players because +6 WAR players are both harder to obtain and also free up roster space for easier to obtain +2-3 WAR players. The opposite argument could be made that if the +6 WAR player is injured, all of his value is removed whereas you don't lose quite as much if one of the +3 WAR players is injured...but I digress because I'm starting to get confused myself. The bottomline in Cameron's piece is that, in baseball, the prevailing thought is that wins are linear in terms of their value, and that many MLB teams view it that way precisely because of the risk vs. reward model. Many teams see an advantage in having two pretty good players vs. one superstar because in the first instance, it's not an all-or-nothing bet. Getting back to Pujols, the Cardinals could mitigate some of their risk by loading the front-end of a long-term deal with Pujols (much like the Yankees did with A-Rod) and having it taper off towards the end when Pujols value is likely to decline because of age.

Generally speaking, I would agree with Kenny Williams that a $30M salary for one player is 'asinine,' but not for Pujols. He is the best, or one of the top 3 best, players in the game right now, period. He has consistently performed at an elite level, he has maintained his health over that time and, well, he's one of only a small handful of players who is legitimately worth $30M/yr. In fact, going back to that same handy chart I referred to in my discussion of A-Rod's 2001 contract, Pujols has been paid ~$75.6M since 2002, and has been worth $267.7M on the field in terms of WAR...which comes out to about $29.75M per year...pretty darn close to $30M/yr.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Appreciating Albert

I was playing around on this morning, trying to escape from the resurgence of winter outside my window when I found myself staring at the yearly-WAR leader tables for the American and National Leagues. The list is a 'Who's Who' of MLB greats starting with the likes of Cap Anson and Old Hoss Radbourne in the late-1800s to Mays, Mantle, Ruth, Williams, Robinson, and on and on an on. When you look at the most recent WAR leaders you see the future HOFers, Griffey, A-Rod, Bonds, Suzuki...and Pujols.

In looking at the list, I realized that Pujols has a chance to do something THIS YEAR, that no other player has ever done...lead their league in WAR for seven consecutive years. Pujols has lead the NL in WAR for the past 6 seasons, a feat accomplished by only 2 other players in MLB history...Babe Ruth (1927-31) in the AL and Willie Mays (1960-65) in the NL.

Pujols has been getting more coverage than normal of late due to his on-going contract situation with the Cardinals and I thought I would shamelessly capitalize on that. His stat sheet truly is a work of art, a 10-year stretch to start a career which rivals any comparison in MLB history. 3-MVP awards, 9 top-5 MVP voting finishes, 9 All-Star appearances, 6 Silver-Slugger awards, Rookie of the Year, etc. Numbers-wise, he's already a first-ballot HOFer. When you think about what he might be able to accomplish if he can stay healthy and play till he's 40, maybe 42?'s truly mind-boggling. 800 career HRs? A shot at the all-time RBI lead? These things are possible.

Pujols is one of those players that your kids will be jealous you got to see play. He's once-in-a-lifetime talent. That Pujols is great is nothing new, but to realize he's on a brink of setting records and making history is worth appreciating. I myself have had the chance to see Pujols play, last year at a Rockies game. He did nothing of note during the game, but it was cool to watch him, to hear the crowd go a little quieter when he was at the plate, to sense the collective disappointment when he made an out. He's the modern-day Mantle or Mays, truly great as you watch him, with the chance to transcend the game itself. I know he has the personal ambition to become the "best ever" and I've read that his work ethic is truly inspiring which makes me think he has all of the tools to excel like he already has been for 10 years now.

I've always been fascinated by true talent and greatness. Whether it be a musician (Glenn Gould, Yo-Yo Ma), a businessman, chefs (Robuchon, Keller), athletes, scientists, etc it is always their attention to detail that sets them apart, and their level of focus and determination that makes them great. Pujols has the elements of greatness and I hope, over the next few years, we get to watch him continue his steady march to the top of the baseball record books.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Don't Forget About Pat Neshek

I'm not gonna lie, Pat Neshek holds a special place in our hearts here at TheBatShatters. Quite some time back when he was rehabbing from TJ surgery, he was kind enough to give us an e-interview in which he described Ron Gardenhire as "santa claus." He's a class guy, he grew up in my hometown and he's a fellow memorabilia collector. All that said, I think this could be the year that he's truly valuable for the Twins, if he can be effective once again.

In 2007 Neshek had a fantastic season giving the Twins 70+ solid innings out of the bullpen pitching to a 2.94ERA and 1.00WHIP. In early 2008, he went down with a torn ligament in his elbow which the Twins medical staff COMPLETELY mishandled. At first they said that surgery was unnecessary and that he would try to rehab it over time. Then after the conclusion of the 2008 season, they decided he needed Tommy John surgery, a full 6-months after he originally went on the DL with the injury. Because of that delay in making the decision to have surgery, Neshek ended up missing almost 2 full seasons rehabbing.

Neshek started the 2010 season with the big-league ball club, but was put on the DL with a hand-injury on April 15th. There was initially a lot of anger from the Neshek camp as he felt he had, once again, been mishandled by the Twins medical staff. He angered Gardy when he publicly criticized the Twins which was the most likely reason he was not called back up until September. Bottom-line, Neshek didn't pitch very well in 2010, but was showing signs of improvement in 30 games at Triple-A. In the minors, he pitched to a 4.35ERA in 32 games, and had a 5.00ERA in 9 innings with the Major League club.

I guess my reasons for having optimism about Neshek this year are completely speculative in nature. The main reason I think he will be effective is because it's been 2+ full years since his surgery and he was showing good signs towards the end of the year last year, particularly in Triple-A. If you look at Francisco Liriano as an example, he struggled for a couple of seasons following TJ surgery until finally settling back into a groove in 2010. The pitch speed numbers on Neshek aren't nearly as encouraging however. He barely used his fastball last year and it wasn't even close to the 94-96 he was hitting pre-surgery. In fact, his fastball last year was closer in speed to his slider (86-89 mph). Unless he can regain some of that speed, he's going to be a) hittable and b) wild (walked 8 in 9.0 innings in Sept. 2010). This is evidenced by his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% as shown in the chart below.

Many Thanks, once again, to

Prior to surgery, batters were only making contact with pitches out of the zone about 50% of the time; post-surgery, that percentage went up to 70%. On pitches in the strike-zone, batters were making contact about 77-78% of the time, and post surgery they were making contact over 90% of the time. Neshek had a much easier time fooling batters pre-surgery and because of that drop in velocity, he's having (or was having) a much more difficult time.

At 30 years old, Neshek is creeping up there in age, but when he was going good a few years ago, he was nearly unhittable. His slider, which is good in and of itself, it made more deadly by a wicked sidearm delivery that must look very odd when you're the hitter. I think if he has gained even 1-2mph on that fastball, he can return to being an effective pitcher. If he can be effective, he could be an integral part of the Twins this year as they will be struggling to fill bullpen slots right out of the gate.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Previewing the AL Central: Chicago White Sox

Last year it was the starting rotation of the White Sox that had everyone talking. Peavy, Danks, Floyd, Buehrle, etc. Going into the year, it looked like one of the best rotations in the game...then Floyd had a rough start, Peavy feel apart physically, and Buehrle continued his slow swan-song to retirement. The Sox had a good run in June only for the wheels to fall off shortly after the All-Star Break, which was enjoyable to watch. This year, the Sox come in with a different look and different questions. Now the lineup looks formidable, but the starting pitching has question marks...

2010 Record: 88-74; 2nd place, 6GB the 1st place Minnesota Twins

Key Departures:
The White Sox managed to lose only the dead-weight from their team.

Bobby Jenks - RP/Closer
You could hear the discontent start in the middle of last year and it only got louder as the year went on. First there were questions about Jenks weight, then he gave up a few games here and there and finally there were the physical issues. In reality, it was simply a bad luck year. Jenks has a career .294 BABIP and last year it shot up to .345. and that was despite a substantial increase in GB%. Nothing probably highlights Jenks unluckiness better than looking at his ERA (4.44) vs. his FIP (2.59) and his xFIP (2.62). Jenks was still good for a 1.5WAR but if you asked the average White Sox fan what they thought of Jenks they'd say, "good riddance!" Do I think the Sox will miss Jenks? No. They have Matt Thornton and Chris Sale, both of whom are flame throwers and both of whom could fill the role of closer just fine. The Red Sox though got one heck of a pitcher who will likely do wonders for the Boston bullpen and who could very easily overtake Papelbon as the closer if Pap struggles out of the gate.

Manny Ramirez - LF/DH
I suppose it didn't cost the White Sox that much in the end ($3.8M), but Ramirez did absolutely nothing to earn that money and the Sox were probably more than happy to see him leave after the season was over. Now he's reunited with Johnny Damon ("isn't that special") in Tampa Bay and baseball history will barely remember than Ramirez spent a month with the White Sox. Not much to say here, the White Sox won't miss him.

Andruw Jones - OF/DH
For the playing time that he got last year, Jones actually performed better than I thought he would. He almost hit 20 HRs and he had a respectable .827 OPS. He did nothing to defile himself in the outfield, logging time and playing well at each of the 3 positions. He's moved on the to the Yankees now and wasn't an integral part of the Sox, but he was useful as someone to spell a regular who needed rest. At 33, his defense is still there and the pop in his bat is still there (32 of his 64 hits last season went for extra-bases), but he's not an everyday player, which is sad considering how good he once was.

Key Additions:
Kenny Williams was one of the more active GMs this off-season and I have to hand it to him, besides offering a 3-year deal to Crain, he made some pretty solid moves.

Adam Dunn - RF/1B/DH
I didn't know his nickname was "Big Donkey" (according to Baseball-Reference), but he's certainly as consistent of a masher as there is in the Majors. Since 2004, Dunn has played an average of 158 games per season and has hit an average of 40.28 HRs. That is consistency. Dunn will never be a .300 hitter, but he's a great OBP guy (career .381 mark) and a true slugger (career .521 SLG%). I predict Dunn will fit in great with the White Sox because a) the ballpark is suited to his strengths and b) they will be able to move him around between the field and the DH spot which will preserve his health. The signing cost the White Sox a little coin (4 years/$56M) but at 31 years old, there's no reason to think Dunn won't be valuable through the end of the contract. He provides the left-handed pop they've been looking for and will fit in great with a lineup featuring other bats like Konerko, Rios, Quentin and A. Ramirez.

Jesse Crain - RP
This one stung a little. Crain was easily the most reliable arm in the Twins bullpen last year, re-emerging as a dominant reliever after struggling for a season or so. It's no surprise that Williams wanted Crain, he probably made that decision on Sept. 14th of last year when, with the bases loaded in the bottom of 7th inning in which the Sox were trailing by one run, he saw Crain strike out Konerko and Manny in consecutive at-bats to end the threat. The Twins went on to win that game 9-3 and it was a back-breaker for the Sox. The one thing I don't understand is that Williams gave Crain a 3-year deal...that's almost taboo in baseball. Crain's slider was truly fantastic last year (14.6 runs above avg.) but it was more of an anomaly in his career than anything (previous high on the pitch was 5.8 runs above avg.). Crain could certainly be a good pickup for the Sox, and he may give them an advantage when playing the Twins (maybe), but a three-year deal is foolish.

Will Ohman - RP
This was a good signing for the White Sox because they didn't have to pay too much (2-year/$4M) and because they get a reliable left-handed bullpen arm in return. Ohman's career K/9 numbers aren't shabby (8.87) and he's been fairly consistent over the last several years. The knock on him is that he's wild and his 1.40 career WHIP tells that story. He's nasty against lefties (.200 career avg.) so given the other bullpen pieces the Sox have they'll likely use Ohman as a LOOGY, which he would be good at.

Do the White Sox Have a Farm System?:
I guess the short answer is, "not much of one." It used to be that the Yankees got all of the guff for buying it's the Red Sox that wear that label and I'd like to suggest we start throwing the White Sox into that discussion as well. In the past 4 seasons, the White Sox have brought in the following everyday players: Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, Jake Peavy, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and now Adam Dunn and Edwin Jackson. Let's not forget they also traded for AJ Pierzynski a few years back. Sure they brought the likes of John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez up through the ranks, but the anthem of the White Sox of late has been, buy Major League ready players by leveraging the farm...which they have done, leaving them with a farm system full of marginal talent. Chris Sale, who will likely be a reliever or even perhaps the Closer this year is the last of the top talent the White Sox have in their system. Brent Morel might get a regular shot this year as well, but he performed poorly in 21 Games at the Major League level last year and projects as average at best.

The Future of the White Sox:
Kenny Williams clearly sees the next few years as being the proverbial "window" for the White Sox to win the World Series again. The Sox have the makings of a solid rotation, they have what looks like a spectacular bullpen, and they juiced their lineup a bit with the addition of Adam Dunn. With the additions they've made this off-season, their team payroll has ballooned to nearly $125M with nearly $90M already committed in contracts for next season as well. This is risky for the Sox because unlike the fan loyalty that the Cubs have, if the White Sox aren't winning, they don't draw well. For example, in the last week of the season last year, when the Sox were out of it, they drew less than 20,000 for the first two games of a series against the Red Sox and only averaged about 23,500 fans for a weekend series against Cleveland that ended the year. If for some reason things don't work out this year, the White Sox could be in trouble because regulars like Pierre, Thornton, Edwin Jackson and Mark Buehrle are free-agents at the end of this season and John Danks, Carlos Quentin, and AJ are free-agents following the 2012 season. That's 3/5ths of your starting rotation, your starting left fielder, your starting right-fielder/DH and your starting catcher that you'd either have to re-sign or replace (Buehrle is likely to retire so you'll have to replace him anyway) within the next 2 seasons. If you're relying on your farm system to help replace some of that talent, there simply isn't much there so you either win now or fall off for awhile.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking at a Crystal Ball - Positional Players

I mention FanGraphs often in my posts and their website is one I visit regularly, for the articles and for the stats pages they maintain. It's a wonderful resource, one I'm sure most bloggers are very familiar with, and perhaps even a few die-hard fans. One thing I really enjoy about FanGraphs is around this time of year, they release their projections for individual players. They release 3 sets of projections, the first is by the great Bill James, famous baseball writer and statistician known the world 'round. The second, called the Marcels (or Marcel) , is from the mind of writer and Sabermatrician, Tom Tango (mostly anyway). The third set is a compilation of fan votes, with a player needing a minimum 15 ballots-cast for a projection to appear. I imagine the ballots are only sent out to select people, I wonder what it would take to get on that mailing list...

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the projections for some of the more notable Twins players, and see how some of the experts think they will stack up this season. I'll start by going through the hitters and I figured a good start would be Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau (if healthy), Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. I'm only going to reference the Bill James and Marcel projections, mostly because I know those two will be there for every player. One thing to keep in mind is the somewhat obvious fact that all of these projections are based on the assumption that a player plays most or all of next season. 

Joe Mauer - C - Age 27

Marcel has Mauer having a pretty average year (.891) and the most curious thing I see in his projection is that he thinks Mauer will have a very off-year in the K/BB department. Mauer has a career 1.24 K/BB mark, yet Marcel projects him at 1.08 this year which is almost a 20% decline. My guess is that Marcel's projection are probably more conservative by nature. Bill James on the other hand is rather bullish about Mauer, having him at a .927 OPS to go along with 93R and 87RBIs. If Bill's projections prove accurate, that would put Mauer at about 7-8 WAR which would be worthy of the $23M he is set to make this season. 

Justin Morneau - 1B - Age 29

While recent reports (Pioneer Press) regarding Morneau's health have been positive, he's pretty much one bad day away from another setback. I won't believe he's back to 100% until I've seen him on the playing field for a solid week straight. That said, he could play through Spring Training, be OK and end up having a very productive year. He's was clearly not bothered too much by the new digs, but it's impossible to say how a 6-month layoff from baseball activities is going to affect him. Fortunately he's going to have Spring Training (fingers crossed) so he'll have that time to get the kinks worked out. I'm hopeful for a good season, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Morneau has a slow start, I don't think it would surprise anyone.

Danny Valencia - 3B - Age 25

Valencia had himself a really nice rookie season, proving himself capable of handling an every-day 3B role. My favorite moment of his, personally, was the prodigious HR he hit off Jared Weaver towards the end of August. When looking at Valencia's stat sheet, my first thought was "regression." On second glance though, he's always had a fairly high BABIP and last season, overall, was pretty average for him. His home BABIP was off the charts, so we might see some adjustment there, but overall it's not that far off from what he did in the minors. If Valencia can continue to perform well at the plate and play pretty decent defense at 3rd base, he's golden. He's a pretty good OBP player and he's entering his prime for power, so he could be quite a gem if he can come close to duplicating what he did in 85 games last year. 

Delmon Young - LF/DH - Age 25

Young had a 2.1 WAR last year which is definitely the most valuable he has been as a Twin and it also represented the first time in his career that he had been all that valuable to anyone. Young's success comes down to two words: Plate Discipline. He's a free swinger, yet managed to cut his K rate down by an astounding 39% in 2010 vs. 2009. He also increased his BB rate by 37% which allowed him to reach more of his potential offensively. What's interesting when you look farther down the stat sheet, is that Delmon actually swung at more pitches outside of the zone (40.9%) in 2010 than he did in 2009 (37.1%), swung at less pitches inside the zone, and made WAY more contact with pitches outside the zone (73.4%) than he did in 2009 (53.8%). This worries me in terms of the sustainability of the success he had last year. Young had a .298/.333/.493 line last year to go along with 21HRs, 77Rs and 112RBI and held down a valuable spot in the middle of the lineup. If he can continue to show the type of plate discipline he displayed last year, there is no reason to doubt he can continue to have the type of success he long been touted to be capable of. He is, afterall, still only 25 years old. 

Jason Kubel - RF/DH - Age 28

Kubel had a bad year in 2010 due mostly to a significant correction in his BABIP. In 2009, Kubes had a career-high mark in that category (.327) only to see it drop to a paltry .280 in 2010. This helped to see Kubel's average drop from .300 in 2009 to .249 in 2010. He still managed 92RBIs, though if he had managed 8 more and cracked 100RBIs on the season, he would likely have qualified for one of the worst 100-RBI seasons ever. The maddening part about Kubel is that his plate discipline didn't change much last year from his career norms, so unless he has another lucky year, it's unlikely we'll ever see 2009 production levels again. He's making $5M this year and I'm glad the Twins kept him, but I would not be surprised to see them jettison Kubes in a mid-season trade if they have a weakness in some other area of the team. He's atrocious in the field and depends a lot on luck at the plate...that's a bad combination. 

Michael Cuddyer - RF/1B - Age 31

You have to give Cuddyer credit, he does what is required of him and last year, circumstances dictated he play 1st base for half the season. I've never played baseball at a level even remotely close to the Majors, but I have to imagine that switching from the outfield to 1st Base messes you up a bit. Cuddyer did a good job at first-base, but his batting suffered from what was a fantastic 2009 season. I think we can expect something in between 2009 and 2010 offensively from Michael in 2011 and a move back to his normal RF role should help. Cuddyer is a spark for the Twins and I think he's a valuable part of the team. His contract is up at the end of the season so we could see "contract year" type production out of Cuddy which would, of course, be nice. Hopefully Morneau plays all year and we don't have to see Cuddyer at 1st anymore, but it's good to know that if the Twins need him there, he can fill in.

So that's a quick glance at what we might expect this year. I think in an ideal world, Delmon Young would continue to emerge, Valencia would have himself a nice 2nd year, Morneau would play most, if not all, of the season healthy, Mauer would avoid injury and Kubel would return to something more closely resembling his 2009 campaign. Throwing Nishioka and Casilla into everyday roles outta be interesting but I think with D-Span & Thome included, this lineup is looking pretty damn good again this season. We'll do another one of these and look at the starting pitchers. With these projections, you have to take it with a grain of salt. I'm trying to learn more about how these projections are formulated, and what they are good at predicting vs. what they are not good at projecting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Almost Here...

It's the most wonderful time of the year. A lot of teams begin spring workouts today for pitchers and catchers, although the Twins aren't one of them. We'll have to wait a few more days, but it's a great feeling knowing that baseball is once again just around the corner. There are certainly plenty of question marks for the Twins, and perhaps this spring doesn't quite carry the optimism that we had last February with a brand-new stadium set to open, an MVP catcher signed to a historic contract and a flurry of other personnel moves the likes of which we hadn't seen in quite a while. This year, the bullpen looks weaker, we're not quite sure about the returns of Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau, and we'll have to wait and see if Nishioka-Casilla can stack up against Hudson-Hardy, but all in all we've still got plenty to be excited about. It seems like we've often been worried in the past about the Tigers and White Sox making more or better offseason moves than the Twins, but we've also seen that those players still have to go out there and get it done over the course of a 162-game season, and more often than not over the past decade, the Twins have done it better. I've had February 18th (the first workout for Twins pitchers and catchers) marked on my calendar for a while, and I've got a copy of the perennially-excellent Twins Annual 2011 (put together by John Bonnes and the rest of the TwinsCentric guys, and certainly worth your money) on its way. So here's to optimism, the end of winter and another glorious season of baseball.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Front Office Mediocrity

How long will Twins fans have to continue to see these types of "news" stories? I know, I'm joining the Liriano discussion a little late, but reading that today made me throw my hands up in the air in disgust. I read with interest a week ago as Nick Nelson and Parker Hageman argued opposing viewpoints on the one-year deal Liriano received. Then I saw another piece by Parker this morning that caught my eye because in it, Parker links to an interview he conducted with Twins assistant GM Rob Antony. In it, Antony states that the Twins have an advanced metrics statistician of sorts. Reading on, I was surprised to stumble across this:

"TC: Is that the way baseball organizations are moving in general [speaking of hiring people dedicated to analyzing stats]?
I think so. This is such a competitive game and everybody is looking for that edge. We’re probably one of the last, if not the last, team to address it with a person dedicated solely to that.
TC: What took so long getting to this point of just now bringing someone on staff?
I’m not sure we bought into the stuff and we had always been so traditional. Terry Ryan was a scouting director, he was our General Manager. Mike Radcliff, Director of Player Personnel, he was a scouting director. We’ve always been really scout-oriented, people-oriented. We just have more conviction and belief in that. I think everyone has come to the realization that you cannot turn a blind-eye to that information. It is another piece of the puzzle that might give you a better informed decision."
Really. So the thought has never previously occurred to anyone over there that you could be people oriented, while at the same time utilizing tools that help you analyze a player's abilities better than a scout's eye can?? That the Assistant GM would admit that the Twins have ignored this aspect of player analysis is beyond infuriating, it's foolish and irresponsible.
In addition to the kind of payrolls they have, there is a reason the Red Sox are good year-in and year-out. There is a reason that the Tampa Bay Rays' moves seem to work out more often than not. Because they have entire staffs of people dedicated to analyzing advanced stats that speak to a player's true abilities. The game of baseball isn't played in a vacuum! This isn't new news! Some of the stats that have been relied upon over the last several decades simply DO NOT indicate much about a given player's true performance level or value. ERA is an average of the number of runs a pitcher gives up over 9 innings. How is that a valuable stat when things like missed plays (not counted as errors), slow fielders, luck of the hitter, etc play into it? FIP (fielding-independent pitching) takes out those variables. There are a bunch of GREAT websites out there that will give you this information on almost every pitcher out there. Fangraphs is one of them, Baseball-Reference is another good one, PitchFX will give you the velocity and movement of EVERY pitch from any given game during a season and it's updated in real-time, or close to it anyway. Same goes for batters, there are a myriad of stats out there that will help you understand why a given hitter is going good, or really having a hard time.
There is simply no excuse for not having at least a few guys in the organization who pay attention to these advanced baseball metrics (Sabremetics if you will). The traditional way of evaluating players is mostly dead. There are still personality things to look at and good scouts are still exceedingly valuable in terms of spotting young talent, but when it comes to analyzing a trade target or even a player on your own team who you're trying to decide whether to lock up long-term, you absolutely cannot ignore things like FIP, xFIP, BABIP, UZR, UZR-150, WAR, and all of the various Plate Discipline metrics (O-Swing/Contact%, Z-Swing/Contact%, etc). When given a decent sample-size, these statistics measure more than you can see with your eyes.
So that's my rant. I can't help but feel that if the Twins were more committed to using all of the statistical tools that are available, they might not have parted way with JJ Hardy, they may not have traded Ramos for Capps and then re-signed Capps, and they might not be balking on locking up Liriano. When you look at the stats you see value that isn't necessarily evident in the context of a given season. You see that Hardy, when playing, has been one of the most valuable defensive shortstops in the Majors over the last few seasons. You see that Liriano was even better than his ERA or win total suggested last season, ranking in the Top 5 of Major League pitchers last season in terms of FIP, despite a very unlucky BABIP.
I'm by no means an expert in all of this, alot of this is new to me as of a couple of years ago, but I've made an attempt to learn and I feel like I have a decent grasp of things. I guess I'm just tired of seeing the Twins continue to trip over their own feet with regards to trades and free-agent signings. Other teams around the league are using the stats to their advantage and if you're not using them, I mean really paying attention to them, you're going to get taken advantage of, and I feel that is what is happening to the Twins. Not all of the time, but certainly some of the time. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Previewing the AL Central: Cleveland Indians

I remember when I was a senior in high school and my dad and I took a trip, visiting colleges along the way. Our trip took us near Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) and as you come in from the south on Hwy. 90, there it stands, quite majestic looking. At the time, the Indians were good, or had just recently been good, and had that record-breaking sellout streak (that has since been broken) so it was kinda magical seeing the stadium. Anyway, that's really the only fond memory I could think of regarding the Indians. Fast-forward 10 years and you've got a perennial loser in a city full of dismal sports teams. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this one, so here goes.

2010 Record: 39-93; 4th place, 25GB the 1st place Minnesota Twins

Key Departures:
This was the first off-season for the Indians new GM Chris Antonetti. To say that he was quiet...would be an understatement. The Indians didn't lose a single player worth noting, nor did they bring anyone in worth noting.

Key Additions:
In short, they re-signed Austin Kearns to a one-year deal, avoided arbitration with Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chris Perez and Rafael Perez, and offered a slew of players minor-league deals with invitations to Spring Training. Other than that, nothing. Except:

Mike Hargrove - Former Head Coach
This is a the proverbial rabbit in the hat folks, former head coach Mike Hargrove re-joined the Indians as a special consultant. According to the Mariners blog, Seattle PI, Hargrove will, "handle a variety of roles, the Indians said Tuesday. He will assist manager Manny Acta's staff in spring training, appear on game broadcasts and help with business, community and charity work." This could simply be a PR move on the part of the Indians front-office as their fan base continues to get more and more disenfranchised, or it could be a legitimate attempt to bring some success back to the organization. Likely it's a combination of both, but I'm not sure it will help because Hargrove isn't likely to have much authority.

Taking a Look at the Farm:
I gather that the Indians strategy heading into this season goes something like this: hope the players that were hurt last year come back and produce and also use the some of the resources in our fairly deep farm-system to put together a competitive team. This could work, particularly because the Indians farm system is pretty deep, not quite as good as the Royals, but the Indians have a number of intriguing pieces that are almost MLB-ready.

Jason Kipnis - 2B
This kid is definitely slated to be the new Indians 2nd baseman and that transition could come as early as opening day. Last year he hit well at High-A ball (.300/.387/.478) and then hit even better at Double-A (.311/.385/.502). With a .965 career fielding percentage in the minors, he's now wowing anyone with his defense, but your bat keeps you in the lineup and Kipnis has plenty of that. Baseball Prospectus projects him as a late-2011 arrival, but the Indians don't have any depth at 2B so I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he makes the jump earlier rather than later. At 23, he's old enough for his first shot and if his track record so far is any indication, he'll do just fine.

In the, "definitely appearing this year" department:

Bryce Stowell - RP
Stowell made bunch of stops last year (A, AA, and AAA) and combined, he had himself a fine year. In just over 67 innings, he struck out 102 batters and managed a 2.14 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Not bad for a 23-year-old. He has an upper-90's fastball which is his main weapon and it's highly likely he'll pitch with the Major League club this season.

A guy to pay attention to:

Drew Pomeranz - SP
Drew was drafted with the 5th pick in last year's draft and looks like he'll be a good one. Think left-handed Chad Billingsley. No joke, this kid is 6'5" and 235lbs., throws his fastball 90-93mph, but scouts really rave about his curveball. The knock on him is that he's wild at times, but most of that has been chalked up to his odd delivery, something the Indians might address at his first stop in the minors (High-A). As a hard-throwing lefty, he automatically has potential, definitely worth watching this year and next to see how he progresses.

The Future of the Cleveland Indians:
For 7 out of the last 9 seasons, the Indians have finished at .500 or below. It's hard to remember that they made the ALCS in 2007, it's like a have a blank spot in my mind there...I digress. The last 15 years of Indians history has been marked by defeat and heart-wrenching loss. Starting in 1995, they lost playoff series in 6 out of 7 seasons including World Series losses to Atlanta and Florida. Last year was Manny Acta's first season, following a pretty miserable run under the direction of Eric Wedge. Acta will likely have a couple more seasons to turn things around and with a small crop of young talent coming up in the next 2 years, he outta have a decent shot at it. With players like Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Matt LaPorta to build around (and don't forget about Grady Sizemore too, he's still only 27) they have a nice young nucleus to build around, and they have a city that is DYING for one of their sports teams to do something halfway decent.
One major factor hindering the Indians success has been their lack of starting pitching, though when you remember they traded away CC Sabathia AND Cliff Lee in the last 3 years, it's hard to feel sorry for them. Until they find a handful of decent starters, they'll continue to struggle, no matter who is in the lineup. Their young talent is exciting though and they've played the AL Central pretty tough the last few years so they're still relevant despite recent struggles.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Previewing the AL Central: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have had an active off-season and look like they could be legitimate contenders this year, but don't we say that every year?

2010 Record: 81-81; 3rd place, 13GB the 1st place Minnesota Twins

Key Departures:
The Tigers didn't really lose anyone who was integral to the team last year, they lost a few role players, here's a brief list:

* Johnny Damon
* Armando Galarraga
* Gerald Laird
* Adam Everett
* Jeremy Bonderman
* Bobby Seay

Damon is easily the headliner of this group, though I doubt the Tigers will miss him much. He has the knack for a big hit now and again, but he has become slow and is only an average outfielder, plus he's becoming injury prone at this stage of his career. Laird is a handy utility man, but again, nothing more than a role player. Jeremy Bonderman could very well re-sign, though at this point it looks like he may be going to the Indians. Seay is also a free-agent, so who knows. Galarraga, who now lives in eternal baseball lore, was traded to the Diamondbacks, but much like the bats of the hitters he faced, he won't be missed. Bottom-line: the Tigers didn't lose much this off-season.

Key Additions:
I like what the Tigers have added this off-season and I'm somewhat jealous.

Victor Martinez - FA - BOS
Martinez signed a tidy 4-year, $50M deal and will likely split time between DH and Catcher this season. Probably most importantly though, he will provide some serious lineup protection for Miguel Cabrera, making the Tiger offense quite potent. Martinez' ability to play a position will also allow the Tigers to spell Magglio Ordonez from time to time which should keep him healthier. At 31, Martinez should still have some good years left in him and at $12.5M per, he wouldn't be too hard to trade either if Detroit chose to go a different direction in a couple of years. I think it was a good move for them on a lot of fronts.

Joaquin Benoit - FA - TAM
Is there a more fun name to say in the Major Leagues? The Tigers took quite a gamble with this move in a number of ways, first, they gave him a 3-year ($16.5M) deal...he's already 31 years old. Also, aside from last season with Tampa Bay, Benoit has never been a particularly dominant pitcher. He has a career 4.47 ERA and last year's mark of 11.2 K/9 far overshadows his career 8.5 K/9 average. I'm not gonna knock the guy, he had a fantastic year but it simply does not merit such a contract. Who knows, maybe Benoit recaptures last year's magic, but more than likely he'll return to being an average reliever and Detroit will be saddled with an annual $5.5M salary for the next three seasons.

Brad Penny - FA - STL
This was another solid move by the Tigers. On December 8th, they finalized a one-year, $3M deal with Penny with an additional $3M in incentives. Penny is nothing special, but the Tigers really only need back-of-the-rotation help and Penny will fill that role just fine. If it's true that Penny is healthy entering this season, $3M could be a steal.

Coming Up on the Farm:
Though the Tigers have made a lot of moves in the past few years, it hasn't resulted in a very deep farm system. In fact, the Tigers had zero 1st round picks in last year's draft and boast only a select few high-caliber prospects. Here's a couple of their best:

Jacob Turner - RHP
Turner was drafted in 2009 out of Westminster Christian HS (different one than A-Rod) and did well in his first professional season, splitting his year between Low-A and High-A ball. In ~115 innings, he compiled a 3.28ERA, 1.11 WHIP to go along with a very impressive 4.43 K/BB ratio. At 6'5" and 210lbs., he certainly has the frame to support a power arm, and he's young (19 years old) so he'll have plenty of time to develop complimentary pitches. I suspect the Tigers will not rush him along, so realistically we're looking at 2012-13 for his debut on the big stage.

Nick Castellanos - 3B
Nick is probably the only other Tiger prospect worth a whole lot of excitement over. He was drafted out HS in this past year's supplemental draft and because of signing demands he made, he fell quite a bit. He projects as a good hitter and fielder, though he's only played 7 games at Rookie Level, so we'll have to wait till he plays a full season a Low-A/High-A before we can pass more informed judgments. He's worth watching, Baseball Prospectus says, "Many scouts saw Castellanos as the best pure high school hitter in the draft. Despite his tall frame and long arms, his trigger-free swing gets into the zone quickly, and stays there a long time. He should develop power as his body fills out, and although he's not a monster athlete, he is an average runner once he gets going."

The Future of the Tigers:
Who can really say? I can't count how many times I've thought, "man, the Tigers look good this year," only to see them fade away mid-season, doomed to another .500 season. I wouldn't be surprised if Jim Leyland's seat gets a little hotter this season. Management gave him a couple of new, expensive toys and he has the nucleus of talent (Cabrera, Verlander, etc) to make a run at a division title...but he's had that nucleus now for a few seasons and hasn't been able to do much with it. This is Leyland's last season under contract, so if the Tigers once again fall short, he might just be shown the door.
As far as the talent on the field goes, it's there. Miguel Cabrera is a great hitter to build a lineup around and with the addition of V-Mart, the Tigers have to potential to be offensively virile. Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch will have to prove that their 2010 seasons weren't flukes...I think Jackson has a great shot to prove it, I think it will be more difficult on Boesch. How much would the Tigers love to see Rick Porcello bounce back? Verlander will highlight the rotation once again, followed up by Max Scherzer, Porcello, Penny and a likely Triple-A callup (early indications point to Alfredo Figaro or Andy Oliver).
The future of the Tigers is somewhat murky. Their farm system isn't particularly deep, but they have a good young group of players that they can build on. Boesch, Jackson, Porcello, Cabrera (still only 27), Scherzer, Avila; all are good looking youngsters with a little bit of Major League experience already under their belts. I guess the Tigers fortunes will go as those players go, if they continue to produce, the Tigers will be there, if not, they'll continue to be a mediocre team.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Previewing the AL Central: Kansas City Royals

Last year, we were a bit over-ambitious and tried to do a somewhat lengthy preview of every team in Major League Baseball. We didn't end up finishing before the season started...and ironically enough, the one team we didn't preview (the SF Giants) ended up winning the World Series. So I'm gonna scale it back this year and just preview the AL Central teams, starting with the lowly Kansas City Royals.

2010 Record: 67-95; 5th place, 27GB the 1st place Minnesota Twins

Key Departures:
The Zack Greinke trade is probably the only departure worth talking about, I have to say that it surprised me that it was the Brewers that landed him. Greinke was wasting away in Kansas City, he's been pretty much the only reason to watch the Royals in the past few years. It will be interesting to see how Greinke's somewhat fragile psyche handles a new environment with a possible contender. I still think the Brewers won't make the playoffs, after Greinke and Gallardo, who do they have to pitch? Anyway, the Royals got a nice haul in return for Greinke which I analyzed in this piece.
Other notable departures include Gil Meche who left $12M on the table by retiring because he didn't feel he deserved the money. Other than that, no one is really a "key" departure.

Key Arrivals:
No one immediately qualifies on this list as "key" except, I think, Alcides Escobar. Escobar saw his first full season of Major League action last season and though it was a big disappointment from the plate, his fielding at SS was solid and his Minor League track record suggests that the bat will come around. He'll be an interesting player to watch, having been ranked as high as #12 in the Top-100 prospects coming into the 2010 season.
As many have talked about, the Royals tout one of the best, if not the very best, farm systems in all of baseball. For the past few years they have been stocking up and that payoff is probably only a couple of years off. They have 5-star talent at a bunch of different positions and several good-looking young pitchers coming up in the ranks. Their team payroll for this coming season will be extremely low (~$33M) and should remain relatively low, allowing them to retain some of the talent they have coming up. They recently re-upped with the only Major League star, Billy Butler, signing him to a 4-year, $30M deal. The point, they're young and their talent houses are STOCKED.

A Brief Look at that Farm System:
I probably won't do this for every team in the AL Central, but the Royals Top 5 is worth taking a little deeper look at, I'm using Baseball Prospectus ranking for the Top 5 in the system.

1. Mike Moustakas (3B)
Having played 52 games at AAA last season, Mike may very well get the call-up this season. He had an absolutely monster season between AA and AAA last year combining to hit 36HRs, drive in 124, all while batting .293 in a season where his BABIP was only .271. Moustakas looks like the real deal and the best part of his game from an offensive standpoint is that he's not your HR-or-nothing type guys. His career K% in the minors is 13.1% and his BB% is 5.3%. He could probably use a little more patience, but hey, he's only 21 years old. He's nothing special defensively and not particularly speedy either, but we could be looking a future-superstar at the plate.

2. John Lamb (LHP)
Given that the Royals starting pitching is a big question mark coming into 2011, we could see Lamb sooner rather than later. He had a great year last year, breezing through Low-A and High-A before struggling a bit at Double-A. According to BP, he'll start the year at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and depending on his performance, he could break through with the Big League club before the end of this season. Lamb had a 9.7 K/9 rate last season and he reportedly possesses 3 plus pitches, all of which he locate well. Being that he's a lefty, he's already got a leg-up on the competition, I would be willing to bet we'll see Lamb this season, though perhaps in a bullpen role where they can limit his innings.

3. Eric Hosmer (1B)
Holy crap.Hosmer's batting line between High-A and Double-A last year? .338/.406/.571 with 20HRs, 43 doubles and 9 triples. There's probably some regression lurking in there somewhere, he did have a .382 BABIP in 87Gs at High-A ball. He's worth keeping on eye on certainly, he'll be starting the year at Double-A and is likely a year or two away from the Majors (he's only 20) due to the re-signing of Billy Butler. Again, with Hosmer, you have a potential slugger who also possesses a good eye, definitely has star potential.

4. Wil Myers (OF)
Again, holy's unbelievable how many young hitters the Royals have in their organization. Myers split time between Low-A and High-A last season and at High-A, he had a .346/.453/.512 line in 58Gs. He's only 20 years old so he'll likely be percolating in the minors for another season, and there might even be a position change in there somewhere, but again, another prospect with potential star-power.

5. Mike Montgomery (LHP)
Montgomery and Lamb are very similar pitchers in that their fastballs hover right around the same speed (92-94, touching 96) and they both have good command of multiple pitches. Lamb is 6' 3" and 195lbs, Montgomery is 6' 5" and 180lbs. They're both lefties and they'll both be at Double-A Northwest Arkansas to start this season. Montgomery had some arm issues last season which limited his innings, but BP says, "there are no red flags in his frame or mechanics, [but] he's unproven as an innings eater."

The Future of the Royals:
Last year, I wrote this:

"Ok, check this out. In the last 8 years, the Royals have lost over 100 games 4 times. They have not made a playoff appearance since 1985. They have not finished higher than 3rd in the division in 15 years and that was in the strike-shortened year, so really it's been 20 years. The Royals have had ONE SEASON above .500 in the past 16 years. This team, along with the Pirates and Nationals, has defined mediocrity for the last quarter of a century. To say I have any optimism about this team would be ridiculous. Their management and ownership has shown that they know nothing about how to run a baseball team and their ineptitude is historic."

I still feel the same in a lot of ways, but I can no longer say that there is no reason for optimism about this team. I feel for Royals fans, much in the same way I feel for Pirates fans, there has been precious little to get excited about for a long time. Though the Royals are probably looking down the barrel of another 95-100 loss season, they've got some serious talent in the wings that could change their fortunes within the next 3-5 years. This is worth getting excited about! The best news is that a lot of this talent should emerge at about the same time and, if all things go the right way, they Royals could be a contending team in 2013, 2014 and beyond. So, to the Royals fans out there, stick with it, better times might be just a couple of seasons away.