19 December 2014

Going For Broken: The San Diego Padres

Our dads love us unconditionally, no matter how messed up we are. Baseball's dads, the Padres, appear to be applying paternal love with a vengeance this Hot Stove season. The question is, will that make the team any better?

General Manager A.J. Preller took the reins of the franchise this winter and apparently has a mandate to compete in a division that includes the Brinks truck in Los Angeles and the defending champs in the Bay.

Last year, and seemingly every year prior, the Friars trailed all of baseball in plate crossings en route to another losing campaign. Preller has attempted to remedy that with a Tasmanian Devil imitation. He's made more moves than Allied Van Lines*, swapping out fringe players and farmhands for outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, and catcher Derek Norris, then signing hurlers Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow.

*This is an awesome reference to the seminal '80s parody band, Blotto, and their signature song, I Want To Be A Lifeguard. And by "reference" I mean "theft" of the line "Summer blonds revealing tan lines, I'll make more moves than Allied Van Lines." After you click on this link, listen to this and this and be schooled.

What do all these players have in common? They all live in the Land of Lost Toys. Take Johnson, a once-upon-a-time Marlins star, who's twirled fewer than 82 innings in two of his last three seasons, posting ERAs ranging from 1.64 to 6.20. Or Norris, who busted out to a .292/.402/.477 first half of 2014 and then cratered to .245/.314/.324 second half as part of the team-wide collapse in Oakland.

Or Myers, who lit the AL on fire his first season en route to the Rookie of the Year award and then stunk up the joint during his sophomore campaign last year, bleeding 180 points of OPS before fracturing his wrist, along with much of his promise.

Of the above-named group, only Morrow, a fourth-starter type, has failed to post a sine-curve career, mostly because he's never really peaked, unless you consider his 10-save performance in '08 a crowning achievement.

Well, there is Upton, a certifiable star who's just 26. He's also a one-year rental who will be flipped to a contender if the experiment lurches out of the gate.

Padre fans could be forgiven for feeling like the glass is half full. First, the glass has been merely moist the last few years. Second, Preller has bought all of these shiny trinkets on sale. After all, the best player he's relinquished in these deals, by a wide margin, has been Yasmani Grandal, a good-looking young backstop with fledgling on-base skills and pop, but not exactly Buster Posey's profile.

While the Giants get stripped by the rest of MLB and the Dodgers throw money into the wind, Preller might just be on to something. Or he might be reprising the crash-and-burn Miami Marlins of 2012. If you're a San Diegan, have faith. After all, father knows best.

16 December 2014

If the Astros Aren't 2015's Astros, Who Are?

After the departure of Biggio and Bagwell, and repeated attempts to climb halfway up the mountain by swapping prospects for temporary fixes, the Houston Astros finally collapsed into a vortex of eternal mediocrity. When a new owner arrived in Houston in 2011, he cleaned out the front office and found a GM who was capable of flipping veteran assets for future value.

What followed has been three years of abject baseball poverty followed by a 2014 in which the rising stars picked off the opposition 70 times. Having this off-season inked Grade A relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to free agent deals that address what ails the Astros most, the team is now poised to exit the vortex completely and make a run at respectability, with contention not far down the road.

So if the Astros are no longer the Astros, and the Pirates sport a winning-season streak, and the Cubs are emerging from hibernation, and their South Side counterparts are signing everyone who will, who is this year's Astros?

Which team is gutting the lineup in a reverse-engineered effort to rise later by crashing today?

It can't be the Padres; you need veteran talent before you can trade them for prospects. The Rockies don't fit the bill; they've slept through all the trade talk. And as semantically satisfying as it would be for Arizona to claim the mantle of turning to ashes for a phoenix-like rise later, the Dbacks are not so inclined.

This year's Astros won 90 games two years ago and maintain the core of that squad, yet they're lowering the lifeboats this off-season. It's the Cincinnati Reds, who cashed in two of their starters -- Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos -- in deals that brought prospects but cost five wins against replacement. Both pitchers will begin getting expensive this year and reach free agency in 2016.

When a 76-win team sheds five wins it either has no plan or it's aiming to bunny-hop to contention in future years.  If another shoe drops; like a trade of Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto or Johnny Cueto; that will be a sure sign. If shoes stay on feet, then the current moves will be head-scratchers. Simon and Latos are too much to sacrifice if this team wants to compete in 2015 and they didn't bring enough back to punt the year and expect an immediate return to contention.

The Reds aren't a bad team -- probably somewhere between their last two records, not good enough to compete for a title but not bad enough to tear it down. So with the Cubs ascendant and St. Louis & Pittsburgh still at fighting weight, Cincinnati management may have concluded that the timing, not to mention finances, justifies an all-out strategy rather than all-in. What's curious about it is how far the Reds need to fall to really retrench. Catcher Devin Mesoraco, Votto, Phillips and third baseman Todd Frazier comprise four-fifths of an All-Star infield. Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani still anchor a middling rotation and the Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, is a human highlight reel out of the pen. 

Then there's Billy Hamilton. He's a threat to score every time he gets to first. He starts doing that more often and YouTube could blow up.

In other words, the Reds would have been an odd choice for 2015's Astros before the winter trading commenced. But if they're not the 2015 Astros now they could join the 2011 Astros in the vortex of eternal mediocrity.

13 December 2014

Spinning the Trade Carousel

For baseball fans, it's like Thanksgiving night. There was so much to consume that we don't know quite what to make of it. We're stuffed, overwhelmed and a little queasy.

Even a few days after the conclusion of the Winter Meetings and the spasm of trades there, we're still not sure what the Dodgers and A's are doing. Both have venerable GMs who have earned the benefit of the doubt. But why salary-dump Matt Kemp (on the Padres, of all teams) as the Dodgers did, and then ink Brandon McCarthy for four years when all he's proven is that he's an average starter who can't stay upright? Why cash in your three best players for prospects, as they A's did, and then sign DH Billy Butler for three years/$30 million?

We can see what the Red Sox are up to. They are rebuilding a pitching staff that they had disassembled during last year's cleansing.

We can understand the Reds' plan. They're cashing out this hand and waiting until they can assemble better cards. One less team for the Cubs to worry about as they return to contention.

The White Sox' strategy is evident. They're taking a puncher's chance by signing David Robertson and trading for Jeff Samardzjia, though it's unlikely that will amount to much.

Miami is dong likewise, taking flyers on elder hurlers Dan Haren and Mat Latos, and speedster Dee Gordon, while welcoming back from injury pitching phenom Jose Fernandez, reliever Kevin Gregg and infielder Rafael Furcal. This could be a team to reckon with.

The signing of Jon Lester is the first domino to fall in the Cubs' ascent, to mix and mangle metaphors, and the swap of farmhands for catcher Miguel Montero is the second. Watch out 2016. 

We can even fathom how the Giants, fat from a World Championship, are being picked clean by free agency, stripped of Pablo Sandoval, Jake Peavy and probably Michael Morse this off-season.

But Oakland and L.A., two playoff teams now spinning the trade carousel to make themselves simultaneously better and worse, that we're having difficulty digesting. It's making the 2015 season interesting already.

11 December 2014

With Help Like That We'd Prefer Hinderance

I got a kick out of this line from the description of the Jon Lester signing by the Cubs:

"Lester was dealt by the Red Sox to Oakland at the trade deadline in July and helped the A's reach the playoffs for the third straight year..."

Ha! Evidently the Associated Press* believes you've already forgotten the 2014 season. You know, the season in which Oakland dominated all of Major League Baseball until pretty much the moment they traded for Lester. 

*Yes, he's picking on the AP again. Sometimes it's a slow baseball news day and all looks bleak and then the AP writes something and makes life fun again. Thank you, AP. Don't ever change. 

For the record, the A's won 65 of their first 104 games, a .625 winning percentage. Three games later they acquired Lester and proceeded to lose 35 of their next 60 games, a .417 winning percentage. They relinquished the best record in baseball, the best record in the AL, the division lead, the first wild card, their air of invincibility, most of their dignity and nearly the post-season altogether, all with Lester in tow. Having stumbled into the Wild Card game, they gakked up a big eighth-inning lead, with Lester on the hill, against middling Kansas City. 

In sum, their season descending into ignominy almost immediately upon Lester's arrival. That's how he "helped" them earn a playoff berth.

Now, to be fair, correlation isn't causation, definitively not here. Lester pitched well for Oakland, allowing 2.82 runs per nine and fanning 71 while walking just 16. It wasn't his fault the A's collapsed like Ukrainian peace talks.

But he doesn't deserve credit for their post-season moment either. They earned that while he was hurling for Boston.

10 December 2014

Are the Braves Punting 2015?

They'll pay Dan Uggla $13.2 milion to stay away from their infield this season. 

They'll fatten B.J. Upton's bank account by $46.5 million for three years of keeping dust from accumulating on the dugout bench. Either that or he'll occupy a lineup spot and cost them a win against replacement.

Rather than losing Jason Heyward to the free market after this season, they traded him to St. Louis with reliever Jordan Walden for promising starter Shelby Miller.

They plugged Nick Markakis into Heyward's slot for four years at $44 million at a cost of two-to-three wins against replacement a year. 

They non-tendered TJ rehabbers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen. The pair may or may not re-sign with the team.

Either GM John Hart -- who assembled the mid-90s Indians -- is an evil genius or it's something of a rebuild in Atlanta these days. This comes a year after they inked their best young ballers -- Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran -- to long term deals.

It appears the Braves have their eyes not on 2015 but on 2017, when their new park opens in the suburbs. Everyone not nailed down, or reeking of future value, is on the trading block. We're looking at you, Evan Gattis. You're a fine asset as a slugging catcher, but your late start means you'll enter your 30s in 2017 with your prospects in steep decline.*

Hart is looking at Justin Upton, too. The 27-year-old standout hit 32% above average last season, but he's only under contract one more year. Hart will undoubtedly be shopping both players at the Winter Meetings for pre-arb talent, minor leaguers and international signing slots.

If successful, that means the surging Mets and Marlins could overtake the Braves next season as they battle the Phillies to avoid the NL East cellar. It could get ugly in Atlanta before it gets exciting in Marietta.

* Special bonus fact: Evan Gattis has walked exactly as many times in each of his two MLB seasons as he's homered. He needs to walk 45 times in 2015.

08 December 2014

Nevermind On the Whole R-E-L-A-X Thing

Okay, so maybe relaxing wasn't the right strategy. 

It didn't all work out in the end. 

It turned out there were six teams for four spots and they all had compelling cases. The music stopped without chairs for two teams of prodigious accomplishments.

So college football is still subject to the whims and vagaries of opinion. So sue me.

Even if last year's formula were in play, we'd have the same brouhaha. Undefeated Florida State, irrespective of their in-game woes against tepid competition, would have claimed one spot. Oregon would have had a strong case against Alabama for the other. Someone would have been screaming bloody murder, football-wise.

This year it's TCU and Baylor. But here's the lesson they have, painfully, learned: If you want to compete for a championship, don't schedule out-of-conference games again Northwestern State, SMU and Buffalo. These teams aren't just marshmallows, they're marshmallows that play below Baylor's level.

TCU at least played and defeated a Big "Ten" team (I almost wrote "school," tee-hee), Minnesota. But TCU fell to Baylor, which dropped them behind the Bears.

And who can blame the committee for choosing Ohio State, whose lone loss, early in the season, reflected the team's transition from Heisman candidate quarterback to second stringer, ugly though the defeat was. A shellacking of Wisconsin in the title game, with the third stringer no less, sealed their fate.

So you've got your playoff. And your endless debate. It's the best of both worlds.

07 December 2014

Nelson Now Seattle's Cruz To Bear

There are few endeavors more narcissistic than what you are about to read, and for that this blog offers you a most humble apology. That said, you are commended to peruse this post from February, in which we surveyed the value of slugger Nelson Cruz.

To save you the distaste of consuming a product based on the producer's own review, I will summarize: Nelson Cruz should have accepted the Rangers' $14.1 million qualifying offer last year because no GM was stupid enough to offer him more. I suggested that Cruz is a one-dimensional player headed away from his peak.

In fact, Cruz's best offer was a one-year, $8 million deal with Baltimore, which cashed in on a league-leading 40 home runs that helped them win the vaunted AL East. His 140 OPS and 4.7 WAR earned him an All-Star berth, MVP votes and a fat new four-year contract from Seattle.

So that's $57 million worth of consolation for Cruz and four years of a declining asset for the Mariners. Cruz had a wonderful run with the Orioles, achieving career highs in HR, RBI, runs, walks and WAR. He also largely became a DH. And he got a year older.

Which means Seattle has shelled out top dollar for a one-position player whose skills, as he enters his age 34 season, are likely to begin declining in a home stadium (Safeco Field)  that will mask some of his primary skill -- hitting for power.

As you might imagine, this is a good signing.

Wait, what?

Let's take this one concern at a time:
1. Cruz is coming off his best season. You're paying for his peak performance.
The Mariners have the money, World Series aspirations and a roster they think is close to winning it all. The cost wasn't really an issue for them.

2. Cruz is a DH at this point.
Perfect! The Mariners might as well have batted their pitchers at DH in 2014. Seattle DHs Mendoza'd .189/.271/.302 at the plate. They hit fewer home runs as a group than Cruz hit at Camden Yards alone.

3. He won't hit 40 home runs playing half his games at Safeco.
But every home run he hits there is worth a little more. So it's a wash, except if you're worried about his counting stats. But the Mariners are worried about wins, and now they have a DH and a cleanup hitter to bat behind Robinson Cano, which they didn't have last year.

4. His skills will surely decline soon.
Yes they will. Nelson Cruz almost certainly won't be worth $28.5 million in the final two years of his contract. But he'll earn every penny of 57 large if he leads them into the playoffs and, optimally, into Seattle's first World Series appearance in the first two seasons. 

So the Cruz signing is a gamble, as is any free agent signing, but a gamble based on need and a real desire to win. And if that's your team, you have to be happy because in 2014 Nelson Cruz was doing this against you and in 2015 he'll be doing it for you.

30 November 2014


Warm regards to all the crybabies bleating about the unfairness of the new college football playoff system that selects the top four teams for a three-game tournament to determine the 1A champion.

In the words of noted philosopher Aaron Rogers, R-E-L-A-X. It will all sort itself out, just as it always has.

No matter how many slots you have in a tournament, if the last team is chosen, rather than automatically qualifying, there will be anger and recrimination among the hoi polloi. (See: NCAA basketball tournament, where 68 teams qualify, leaving the fans of the 69th best outfit to wail and rend garments over the injustice.) Selecting the fourth-best team, from among a gaggle of similar squads that play completely different schedules in different regions of the country is an exercise in something akin to randomness. 

And so we find ourselves reading tea leaves and parsing results as if the BCS was the Kremlin. We attempt to distinguish among teams with identical records, the same number of "good" wins and "bad" losses, blowouts, lucky calls and so on. It leaves the situation ripe for argument, which is at least half the fun.

So this discussion is not one for self-righteousness in the first place. If your team is TCU or Baylor or Ohio State and you're not in the top four right now, you can't credibly argue that you've been robbed. The differences among these teams is so small you couldn't event fit the NCAA's credibility between them.

All that said, R-E-L-A-X. Unimpressive Florida State, which has squeaked by a series of hapless opponents, has an ACC title game to deal with against the bum-rushing Rambling Wreck. Baylor has a tussle with a tough Kansas State team in the Big 12 championship and Ohio State will have to prove itself versus the Wisconsin Melvins to capture the Big 16 crown. If any of these lose, they will certainly not make the championship tournament. If any win, they will leapfrog TCU.

And while we're at it, let's give the selection committee some credit. They have employed their weekly rankings to send messages about what they value, and they have chosen wisely. To wit:
  • They are choosing the programs that have had the best season, not the teams that are the best at that moment. 
  • Head-to-head match-ups will be tie-breakers, not fatal wounds for the losers. 
  • They will not over-react to last week's result.
  • How teams win matters when that's nearly all the best teams do. 

Relax, enjoy the games, and have some faith in the system. It hasn't failed us yet.

29 November 2014

The Window Is Open In the A.L. Least

A few years ago the Milwaukee Brewers espied a division in retreat and a closing window on Prince Fielder's contract, and decided to make a run for it when they could. So they flipped prospects for high-value rentals like Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf, and powered their way to a 96-win division title. That they rolled snake-eyes in the post-season tournament changes nothing about the success of the plan.

The Toronto Blue Jays have taken notice. With the Yankees uncharacteristically pinching pennies, not to mention becoming more decrepit by the day; the Red Sox attempting to climb out of the basement with a fallow rotation; Tampa Bay in retreat with the departure of their GM and manager; and expectations of regression in Baltimore; the AL East is suddenly open for business like it hasn't been in two decades. The Jays, who last tasted success in their '92 and '93 championships, are doubling down.

The trade they just swung with Oakland that brought All Star third baseman Josh Donaldson for infielder Brett Lawrie and two prospects suggests Toronto has not forsaken its all-in philosophy initiated last year when they traded for R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes, among others. Donaldson brings his 135 OPS+, his fine base running and superb defense to a team already thick with hitters -- Jose Bautista, Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind, plus recent free agent acquisition Russell Martin.

There's patching still to be done at second and the outfield, but the Jays scored the fourth most runs in the AL last year and figure to be strong again offensively even with bare spots in the lineup. The main flaw in their 83-79 campaign was pitching, ninth in the league in '14, before R.A. Dickey turned 40 and Mark Buehrle turned 36.

So look for GM Alex Anthopoulos to snag a couple of cheap outfield solutions and then offer heaping piles of Canadian dollars -- or trade-bait prospects -- for a top-of-the-rotation starter or two. The time has never been more right, nor the odds so much in Toronto's favor, to make a run at a pennant.

28 November 2014

Why I Would Leave Bagwell and Biggio Off My HOF Ballot

Jacque Brel and others have observed that baseball is life. But when it comes to elections, it's the opposite of life. 

In the real world, mediocre candidates rise to the ballot and leave us with too few options to choose even one worthy victor. 

We can stuff the Hall of Fame ballot with 10 names but still be forced to exclude deserving honorees.

The ballot has been released to the voting coterie and the latest batch of eligibles includes Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. 

They join Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez awaiting their enshrinement.

That's 12 certain HOFers for only 10 slots. And it doesn't even include the line-straddlers -- Mark McGwire, Alan Trammel, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent and Sammy Sosa. Or the dark horses: Fred McGriff and Larry Walker.

Of the 12 I'm touting, every one of them has accumulated 59 or more WAR over his career. Piazza is the greatest-hitting catcher of all time. Edgar is the best DH in history, and for what it's worth, maybe the best gap hitter as well. Schilling and Mussina were consistently superb workhorses. Big Unit and Smoltz hardly require an introduction and Clemens is one of the 10 greatest pitchers in baseball history.

Bonds is on the Mount Rushmore of five-tool players with Mays, Mantle, Aaron and maybe Griffey.  Bagwell and Biggio were five-tool infielders and Tim Raines the second-best speed-first player in the annals of the game. These 12 are, in my view, all no-doubters.

There's no point in worrying about the borderline Famers right now; I have to pare my ballot, at least in the make-believe world in which I get a vote. I'd leave off Biggio and Bagwell, still both early in their eligibility, and carve their busts together next year.

Obviously the election process is not just about merits on the diamond. Votes will be withheld because of steroid accusations -- some supported and some mere whispers. I don't know what to do with the issue, and I don't know what I don't know about it, so I've decided to ignore it, particularly with respect to players whose lifetime achievements clear the bar by such a wide margin.

Maybe you'd vote differently; that's the beauty of democracy. Though in this case, you would be challenged to make a credible non-drug case against anyone on my list.

27 November 2014

The Evil Empire Has Moved Northeast

Ask yourself if this sounds like a familiar strategy: Just sign all the best players without much concern for their cost. Figure out where they'll play and how they'll fit together later. Treat the luxury tax like a flea bite. And if the new mates stiffen up, just accumulate more high-priced free agents.

If you're thinking that's the Yankees, you're off by about 300 miles. This appears to be the new strategy of the Sons of New England, stung by their last place finish in 2014. 

Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were the two most accomplished everyday players on the market this winter. Although the Red Sox' primary need is starting pitching -- Rubby De La Rosa is their #2 starter -- they committed themselves to five years and $205 million for a pair of injury-inclined infielders not likely to age well or deliver much defense going forward. 

What Does $205 Million Buy?
Sandoval is a .294 lifetime hitter with 15-20 home run power and a surprisingly facile glove given his spherical shape. The Sox get his age 28-32 years, so the odds are reasonable that his glove will play at third for the length of the contract, as long as his body holds up. The Panda played 157 games this past season, but made extended excursions to the DL in 2011 and 2012 and sports a body type that doesn't necessarily inspire confidence.

Ramirez is an even tougher nut to crack. While he profiles as a superior hitter than Sandoval, HanRam is two years older, rickety (93 games/year since 2011) and sure to be moved, mercifully, from shortstop. Whether he can comfortably handle a corner outfield slot is a matter of conjecture.

Perchance, To Dream
Of course, there's plenty of upside on these signings. Sandoval solidifies the hot corner, Ramirez stays healthier in left than at short and teams up with Yoenis Cespedes and youngster Mookie Betts for a dynamic outer pasture. Both new acquisitions swat more big flies in comfy Fenway.

And then, luxury tax be damned, GM Ben Cherrington nabs Max Sherzer and/or Jon Lester and/or James Shields and/or Hiroki Kuroda to flesh out the rotation and put Boston back in the playoff hunt in 2015.

Underlying these plans is one critical concept: money is just a counting stat. The best strategy for regular-season success is to put the best players on the field. That appears to be the Red Sox' new strategy. Meanwhile, the Yankees are silently racing headlong beneath the salary cap.

24 November 2014

Unspoken Truth: Why the Royals Lost

As a former Royals fan and a supporter of cities enduring long sports droughts, the conclusion of the World Series was painful for me. But it should have been more painful for Kansas City's hitting coach, Dale Sveum. He should have lost his job.

Madison Bumgarner is an awesome pitcher. He doesn't need help from batters to produce outs. But KC batters gave away strike after strike in Game 7 of the World Series, indicating that they had learned nothing from MadBum's previous outings or from the at-bats before them. That's got to be the hitting coach's fault. Either Sveum isn't seeing what some third-rate blogger in a Charleston bar is seeing, or the two have similar amounts of influence on KC hitters.

Bumgarner is a southpaw who slots from behind lefty batters. Several of the Royals' best hitters -- Gordon, Hosmer, Aoki, Moustakas -- are left-handed. His pitches that look like strikes to lefties end up unhittably near third base. Royal after Royal swung futilely at those offerings. Jarrod Dyson took one hack in Game 7 that had to have missed by the length of two baseball cleats. How many Royal batters have to swing at pitches two feet off the plate before the hitting coach orders them to lay off?

Likewise, Bumgarner used a ladder-climbing approach with his heat against righties. By strike three, several KC batters were whiffing at hardballs nose-high. Again, the hitting coach's job is to instruct his charges to lay off anything that appears to be above the navel.

Bumgarner was on a history-making streak in the Series. His 21 frames, 0.43 ERA and 17-1 K/BB ratio were the best ever. He'd been on a roll throughout the playoffs, allowing just six earned runs in 53 innings. So a light-hitting outfit like the Royals weren't going to tally many runs without outfoxing him. Instead, their deer-in-headlights approach sealed their fate.

In the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, with a one-run Giants lead, two outs and Alex Gordon charitably invited to third by momentarily inept San Francisco defense, Royals catcher Sal Perez stepped to the plate. The game, the series, the World Championship were on the line. We were three strikes from San Francisco victory; 90 feet from advantage Royals.

I observed then to my compadres (because all my observations are audible) that Perez's approach at the plate would determine the outcome. Seeing Perez attack strike one chest high, I began gathering my belongings to head home. "He has no chance," I said. "He's learned nothing." Sure enough, Bumgarner threw pitches ever higher until Perez popped up an offering at eyeball level for the final out.

It took a fat helping of luck and bottled lightning for Kansas City to reach that point. They squandered it all with sheer stupidity.

23 November 2014

What's the Big Deal About $325 Million?

If you're old enough to recall when the baseball free agent floodgates opened and Catfish Hunter snagged a mammoth five-year. $4.25 million deal from the Yankees, your mind is likely long beyond boggled by the contracts today that sound like they are paid in Lira. 

Regardless, a third of a billion dollars seems like a windfall, even for a talent as immense as Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlin rightfielder has, by age 24, already slugged 154 homers and accounted for 18 wins against replacement. But Giancarlo Stanton's talent is a windfall for Miami, as are his electric smile and dedication to the craft.

The fact is, $325 million makes perfect sense for this unique player; indeed, it might prove to be too little. Unlike other recent examples of overpayment, this one does not reward the athlete primarily for his past accomplishments or saddle the team with his salary well into his dotage. 

Moreover, while the deal is back-loaded the way others are, it is so for a reason: Stanton isn't afforded free agency for three more years, so his contract value is significantly reduced until after the 2017 season.

In year four of the new deal, Stanton will make $25 million. That's an enormous sum, and an enormous sum less than what he is probably going to be worth to the Marlins. Seriously.

Today, a win above replacement is worth, on average, about $6 million to a team. Even if salaries don't continue to increase at the past decade's rate, a 10% annual hike will catapult a win's annual value to $8 million. Let's suppose Stanton delivers just five wins above replacement that season -- significantly less than 2014's production -- he will cover his salary plus another $15 million for the franchise. If instead he improves, he's a gold mine to the team.

But wait, there's more. Giancarlo Stanton has value beyond the field of play. Inking him to a long-term deal was management's clarion call to the fans and other free agents that it has entered another of its periodic win-now spasms. Buy tickets, consider us in free agency; Miami is relevant again.

Come 2015 and beyond, Stanton will anchor a squad awash in nascent talent. Phenom starter Jose Fernandez will be back from TJ surgery at the ripe age of 23, along with promising 25-year-olds Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart.  Talented outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna will be 23 and 24 respectively. Jarrod Saltamalachia will turn 30 -- and so shouldn't be trusted -- but is signed for two years to anchor the backstop position. If the farm continues to produce as expected and Miami can lure a player or two to South Beach -- how hard can that be, especially in an industry loaded with Latinos? -- fat crowds and TV contracts will dwarf Stanton's contract.

The formula is the same into his 30s, when the salaries escalate to $32 million. By then, the Trouts, Harpers, Kershaws and their ilk will make such sums look quaint. And then as Stanton's skills erode, so does his salary, down to $25 million at age 38.

The fact is, rich as this arrangement is for Giancarlo, it is even better for Miami -- the franchise, the people and the city. Even the 2020 player opt-out, seen by many as a fly in the ointment, keeps this mega-talent in the city for six more years at below-market prices. If he leaves then for yet fatter paychecks it will demonstrate that the numbers, now considered by some a vast overpay, weren't big enough.

20 November 2014

We Interrupt This Program for Mike Trout

That Albert Einstein feller was good at physics. The world was aware of this before the Nobel Prize committee tapped him in 1921. Likewise, this Mike Trout dude can play baseball. You probably noticed before the 2014 MVP was bestowed, unanimously, upon him.

Trout is 23. He's three years younger than Jacob deGrom, whose Rookie of the Year trophy still looks nice on his mantle. deGrom's three wins against replacement place him just 25 short of Trout's 28.

Here is a list of Major League Baseball performers with fewer career WAR than Mike Trout:
  • Paul Konerko
  • Hal McRae
  • Billy Wagner
  • Alfonso Soriano
  • Mo Vaughn
  • Clete Boyer
  • Prince Fielder
  • Chris Chambliss
  • Mike Cuellar
  • Benito Santiago
Here's the fun part: 2014 was Trout's worst season. In his worst season, he led the league in runs, RBIs and total bases, slugged 36 homers, batted 35 points above league average, ran the bases like a fiend and leaped tall buildings in a single bound.

2014 lagged offensively. Teams averaged a meager 4.18 runs per game. In 2007, teams averaged 4.95 runs. According to Grant Bisbee of SB Nation, converting Trout's season to 2007 terms gives us the following:
  • Trout pounds out a 42-143-.321 Triple Crown line.
  • He smacks 46 doubles and 11 triples.
  • He scores 148 times.
  • He posts a 1.044 OPS.
  • In the worst year of his career.
  • Wait 'til he improves.
This concludes this test of the Mike Trout broadcasting system. If Mike Trout had actually improved in 2014, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

19 November 2014

Are the Post-Season Awards A Sign We're All Growing Up?

The post-season awards in baseball have served as an occasion to highlight the chasm between advanced baseball analytics and the sports' hidebound writers, broadcasters and self-proclaimed cognoscenti. 

This year, however, there's not much opportunity for that. For one thing, the gap is narrowing. Sports media have adopted, to a greater or lesser degree, OPS and WAR, and while they continue to cling to pitching wins, seem to understand better the need to examine the larger picture when examining player performance.

In addition, several of the big awards seemed predestined, as if Martin Luther himself had cast a ballot. For example, Clayton Kershaw, already the best pitcher on the planet, turned it up a notch in '14. Even statheads can't argue with 21-3, 1.77 and 11 strikeouts per nine innings, particularly when he posts a league-leadoing 7.5 WAR despite missing the first month of the season.

And Mike Trout, the MVP-in-waiting, led his league in runs, RBIs and total bases while clubbing 36 home runs and playing a premier defensive position. He, too, paced the circuit in WAR with 7.9. Setting aside the argument whether pitchers should compete for a second award, these two were the clear MVP champs.

Likewise Rookie of the Year, where Jose Abreu and Jacob deGrom ran away with the hardware, or Kershaw at Cy Young, a conclusion so obvious it could less be said to be foregone than fifteengone. Only AL Cy Young was up for discussion, with Cory Kluber squeaking by Felix Hernandez.

Parsing the two was an academic exercise -- they posted similar won-loss records, innings pitched and runs allowed. King Felix allowed fewer baserunners; Kluber fanned more. Hernandez suffered from King Felix fatigue among the voters, and also from the legitimate belief that Cleveland is a tougher place to pitch than Seattle. If that was the finger on the scale provided Kluber's margin of victory, bully for the voters.

That there is a manager of the year award is a testament to writers' overblown self-importance; they can't possibly know which managers are best. That said, Buck Showalter seems a reasonable choice given his previous performance and his team's unexpected accomplishments. Matt Williams seems like an odd choice in the NL both because the Nats were generally considered the best team and because many observers view him as a work in progress. Perhaps most damning of all is Ned Yost's third place finish in the AL: his play-calling has come under withering criticism from knowledgeable analysts.

But that's the point about managers, isn't it? In-game strategy is much less important than in-clubhouse moral-building, and that's the part of the game even sportswriters generally don't see. Which is why the award is nonsense no matter who votes on it.

16 November 2014

Where Have All the Hall of Famers Gone?

My friends and I used to play a game that went like this: If they retired today, which current Major Leaguers would be in the Hall of Fame. In the previous decade, the number ran towards 20 -- Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Bonds, McGwire, Pedro, Manny, Pudge, ARod, Clemens, Frank Thomas and so on.

Try that game today. With Jeter retired, the sure picks left are ARod, Ichiro, Miggy and Prince Albert. (I'm ignoring the steroids conundrum.) Robby Cano's getting close but he probably has work to do. The Trouts and Kershaws of the world may be destined, but patience, grasshopper. 

You could make a case, albeit a losing one, for Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran and David Ortiz. Beltran's case requires appreciation for sustained very good play over a long time. Ortiz needs help from the "clutch leader" narrative because his greatness, dramatic though it's been, started too late to craft a Hall resume. 

As for pitchers, there aren't any far along the pipeline. The top hurlers by wins against replacement are Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, CC Sabathia and Johan Santana. None of them is close to the standards set for Cooperstown.

We can certainly dream on a clutch of players. Posey, Mauer, King Felix, Evan Longoria, Joey Votto, Tulo, Verlander, 'Cutch, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo, MadBum, etc. But we remember Dwight Gooden, Nomar Garciaparra and their ilk, who exploded like meteors and burned out quickly well short of enshrinement.

In case you're wondering, the dearth of greats is indicative of nothing. These things come in waves and the most recent wave has passed. Fear not: the next one is already gathering.

29 October 2014

I Love You, Game Seven

Besides "I love you" are there any better words than "World Series Game Seven"?

Now tonight is a pivotal game.

26 October 2014

Wait, Whose Turn Is It To Panic?

Remember when the Giants emerged victorious from Game One of the World Series to steal away the home field advantage?

Talk was rampant about how the magic show was over for Kansas City. Because the winner of Game One wins 116% of all playoff series.

Then the Royals grabbed Game Two and cosmic balance was restored. Funny how life can turn on a single game. 

After KC took Game Three, in San Francisco no less, the panic mode was switched to the Giants' side of the ledger. Home field was back in Missouri. The jitters started in California, and not because of a temblor. It was because the Game Three winner in a one-one series emerges victorious 124% of the time.

You heard the serious discussion about scrapping San Fran's rotation and pitching Madison Bumgarner on three days rest in Game Four and Game Seven. How else would the Giants defeat mighty Jason Vargas?

Bumgarner is 25. In five Major League seasons and 159 starts, he's never pitched on three days rest. Fortunately for West Bay fans, Bruce Bochy has a less active emotional metabolism. He let the panic consume sports talk radio nation while he calmly put Ryan Vogelsong on the hill.

Now with the Series squared at two, and seemingly headed for seven, Game Five is being called "pivotal." I've seen and heard that very word used four times in 12 hours. The winner of Game Five claims the crown 133% of the time, you know. But whoever pivots can pivot back after a day of travel. Someone will win Game Five and go up 3-2. Then someone will win Game Six. That might be the other team, after which the winner of Game Five will cease to matter in the sense that only Game Seven will.

By Game Seven the hyperbole will have been exhausted. The urge to over-state its importance will crash ironically into its actual import. Because the Game Seven winner dogpiles at the mound 100% of the time. And a broken clock is right twice a day.

25 October 2014

Grounding Out Makes Him the Star of the Game

The Associated Press has a formula for writing news and sports stories that allows random monkeys to hew to their standards, low expectations being the key to happiness.

This formula requires in part that the story lead summarize the event before backtracking later with details. This allows subscribers to edit the story at the beginning and yet maintain the essense.

In baseball game write-ups, the formula evidently requires the writer to acknowledge the go-ahead RBI, however and whenever it is recorded.

It appears there is no adult supervision at AP to recognize when this formula is transparent tripe. To wit, the write-up of last night's Game Three Royals victory:

Lorenzo Cain knocked in a first-inning run and Jeremy Guthrie pitched shutout ball into the sixth to lead Kansas City to a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 World Series lead.

Here's some other information you might find relevant:
1. Lorenzo Cain grounded out with a runner on third. Apparently how that runner came to be so easily transported home (a lead-off double) or who achieved it (Alcides Escobar) did not merit mention. Because RBIs are king. 
2. The false shrine of the RBI was discredited by Bill James six years before the Royals won their only World Series, 29 years ago. The AP never wrote up that story.
3. Jeremy Guthrie pitched five shutout innings; however, in the sixth he was gassed. He allowed a run, left a pair of baserunners and caught a major break when Mike Morse's 900-foot blast curved foul. 
4. Guthrie did not strike out a batter during his appearance but did benefit from several sterling defensive plays by the Royals' remarkable outfield.
5. Guthrie forced his bullpen to pitch four frames and failed to record a "quality start." 

And according to the AP, whose cancer metastasizes to nearly every newspaper in America, those were the stars of the game. Sheesh.

22 October 2014

World Series Notes That No One Is Noting

Repose or Oxidation
The question in my newspaper on the eve of the World Series was: are five days off rest or rust? It's an apt question. The research suggests it's more rust than rest, particularly for batters and fielders. Add in uncooperative nighttime weather and you may want to shield your eyes while you watch.

Another question making the rounds: If the Giants win their third World Series in five years are they a dynasty? Are you kidding? How can a team that wasn't among the eight best in baseball one year or among the 10 best two years later (in fact, they were 10 games under .500 in 2013) be a dynasty in those years? The Giants couldn't make a credible case that they were the best team in baseball any of the three seasons in which fate smiled upon them and they emerged from the playoff scrum.

In the years when the league champ over the season's marathon earned a World Series berth, or even in the nascent years of playoffs, World Series appearances were marks of a dynasty. 

Today, the standard for the post-season has been demoted from excellence to goodness, with lucky breaks and a timely performances paving the way to the Series. It's nearly impossible to cobble a dynasty out of that.

I'd cast my ballot for the Yankees' run of playoff appearances long before I'd consider what San Fransisco has done the last five years.

Some Royal Pain
Sure, Kansas City swept away their foes en route to the title series, but seven of those eight games -- including four extra inning affairs -- could have turned the other way on one play here or there. It just wasn't that surprising that they lost Game One of the Series.

A Giant Pain
That said, it's just a game. Anyone quoting the statistic that the Game One winner has taken 15 of the last 17 Series needs their lobotomy reversed. It's just one game. KC wins Game Two and we're back to square one.

I like how calm Joe Panick is.