Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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My 2014 Fantasy Baseball Team

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Adam Jones; my #1 fantasy draft pick in 2014.  Photo unk.

Adam Jones; my #1 fantasy draft pick in 2014. Photo unk.

As with years past … feel free to skip this post if you don’t care about fantasy.  I know for certain that reading about someone elses’s fantasy sports team can be a bit grating.  But, if you do play fantasy i’m sure you’ll at least appreciate reading the selections and then looking at the team’s strength analysis at the end.

I’ll include a jump line so your RSS feeds aren’t blown out either.

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MVP Races getting interesting…

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I usually don’t do post-season award analysis until, well, the post-season.  But this year the MVP races seem like they could end up being really interesting.  So lets take a look at who’s in the hunt.

The MVP candidates year in and year out generally are chosen by the voters using these criterion (fair or not):

  1. Best player on the Best teams
  2. Outstanding performances from players on non-playoff teams.
  3. Generally position players, except in a year when no position player really stands out.
  4. East Coast Bias.

I’m not going to get into an argument about whether the “MVP” means the “best player” or “most valuable” here.  I’ll leave that to the multitude of other people who can’t get over this distinction.  For me, the “MVP” still is a subjective award not entirely driven by the guy with the best WAR on the season.  There are plenty who cannot get over the fact that Mike Trout had s uch a fantastic statistical season last year and didn’t win the MVP.  Not me; I don’t see how you can be the “MVP” of a league when your team finishes 20 games out of first.

If the season ended today, your 5 playoff teams per league would be:

  • NL: Divisional Winners Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles with St. Louis and Cincinnati meeting in the wild card game.
  • AL: Divisional winners Boston, Detroit and Oakland with Tampa Bay and Texas meeting in the wild card game.

The NL playoff picture seems mostly set; the two wild card leaders have a decent lead on Arizona that seems, well not insurmountable but surprisingly strong.  The AL picture is a bit more unsettled; lots can still  happen in the AL East, and there’s three teams within 4.5 games of the wild card right now (Cleveland, Baltimore and Kansas City).  And that’s to say nothing of the Yankees, who are in the hunt but seem more of a sideshow these days than a contender.

So, using these guidelines, lets look at the leading players that are likely to be in the MVP race.  All stats are as of 8/10/13.  Per team, lets look at the “leading” player both statistically and “honorarily.”

Lets start with the NL:

  • Atlanta: Andrelton Simmons leads the team in bWAR, with almost all of it coming on the defensive side of the ball.   He’s hitting .243 and your voter base just doesn’t have an appreciation for defensive exploits just quite yet.  Justin Upton started out scorching hot and still has great stats on the year, but has cooled so significantly that I don’t believe Atlanta has an MVP candidate.  They have 4-5 really solid hitters and solid pitching driving them to their divisional title.
  • Pittsburgh: it begins and ends with Andrew McCutchen, a serious leader for the award right now.  He’s tied for the league lead in bWAR and is having an outstanding season.  Starling Marte has broken out this year but nobody denies that this is McCutchen’s team.  Pedro Alvarez leads the NL in homers but is otherwise good, but not great, in other offensive statistics.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: Yasiel Puig leads the team’s hitters in bWAR while taking the league by storm, but he’s only slightly ahead of Hanley Ramirez, who is having a relatively quiet break through season.  But neither guy has played in half the team’s games, leaving a lot of pundits to call for Clayton Kershaw, who is tied with McCutchen for the NL lead in bWAR to get MVP votes.  While I don’t advocate this scenario, it would not surprise me to see Kershaw win the Cy Young and get a top-5 MVP finish.
  • St Louis: Yadier Molina continues to be the transcendent catcher in the NL and is the “spiritual leader” of the Cardinals, but he has gone down with injury and may be losing MVP steam.  He no longer even leads his own team in bWAR (Matt Carpenter does), but remains a good candidate.
  • Cincinnati: the obvious candidate here is Joey Votto, But something seems like Cincinnati’s scuffling as of late combined with the flashier candidates out there will lead to Votto getting votes but not the award.

Other NL Candidates to consider:

  • Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt is in the top-10 in league bWAR for the Diamondbacks, but unless this team makes a huge run to the playoffs he’s merely going to be a top-10 vote getter.
  • Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez is tied for the league lead in bWAR, but his streakiness and his team’s place in the standings is going to make it tough for him to get anything other than a top 10 finish.
  • New York‘s David Wright is also putting together a great season, sitting in the top 10 in league bWAR almost entirely on the back of his bat (surprising given his prowness at third).  As with Gomez, the Mets position in the standings hurts him badly.  And his recent D/L trip (which seems like it may end his season) ends his chances.

My opinion of the NL voting right now: McCutchen, Kershaw, Molina, Votto, Gomez.


Over in the American league, the playoff situation may be murky, but the MVP race is pretty straight-forward.  There is a lot to shake out in terms of the playoff positions and the candidates from those teams don’t seem to stand out as much.  But as with 2012, there are two leading MVP candidates and we seem set to have the same arguments this year as last.  But lets go team by team:

  • Boston is being led by their two best players, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.  They are both top-10 in bWAR and are having excellent seasons.  Voters likely won’t be able to tell between them and they’ll split the vote with both guys getting top-10 MVP seasons.
  • Detroit: Is there any question?  Miguel Cabrera, who despite negative defensive bWAR is leading the AL.  Max Scherzer will get serious Cy Young consideration but not MVP votes, not with Cabrera and other candidates.
  • Oakland: Jody Donaldson has become the latest “who is that?” player that Oakland has found to drive them to a pennant in a division they have no business competing in.  But east-coast bias and lack of star-power will work against him.
  • Tampa Bay: It has to be Evan Longoria, once again, the face of the franchise.  But as with year’s past, he’s toiling in relative obscurity in front of half the fans that should be supporting a team this good.  And a lot of credit will go towards Wil Myers‘ call-up, taking away Longoria votes.
  • Texas: the story of Adrian Beltre‘s career; he’s a darn good player and nobody gives him enough credit.  Texas has shed many of its name players over the past few seasons, but Beltre continues to provide great value on both sides of the ball.  The transcendant player on Texas this year is Yu Darvish, who will struggle in the Cy Young race (subject of anohter post).

Other AL Candidates to consider:

  • Baltimore may very well sneak into a WC slot as they did last year, entirely on the backs of two guys.  Chris Davis is having a great power season while Manny Machado is having a historic 20-year old season in general.  Both guys have top-10 bWAR seasons and, as with the Boston guys, may split votes here.  Machado in particular looks like he’s already put himself in the “Trout-Harper” discussion for most transcendent young player in the game.
  • Los Angeles Angels: Here we go again.  Mike Trout has put “sophomore slump” naysayers to shame, posting as good or better numbers across the board in 2013.  Interestingly, Trout’s defensive component in 2013 is significantly hurting him whereas in 2012 it gave him a huge boost; his defensive component in bWAR is actually *negative* for 2013.  A topic for another day, the ridiculous swings we see in defensive advanced stats.  In any case, as with 2012 I think Trout’s team’s underperforming will hurt him and he will lose out again.  It is what it is.

My opinion of the AL voting right now: Cabrera, Trout, and then I have no idea.  Right now I’d probably go Machado, Ellsbury and Davis.

 


There’s still a lot of season to go, so lots could still happen. But I’m putting early markers on McCutchen and Cabrera. Both well deserved.

Ask Boswell 5/13/13 edition

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Zimmerman keeps making news for the wrong reasons. Photo AP via tbd.com

I was out all last week, hence the radio silence here.  I couldn’t help posting yesterday though about the Nats blowing another excellent start.  So lets get back into the swing of things with another episode of Tom Boswell‘s weekly chats, this one for 5/13/13.  As always I write my response here before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: With the technology we have today, do we really need umpires anymore?

A: You know, the answer is probably “Yes, we could replace Umps with robots” and have a better product on the field … but the implementation details seem so difficult that I doubt it ever really fully happens.  You have to have real people on the field to deal with all the randomness that occurs in baseball games.  I think the best eventual solution will be to have challenge systems put in place like we have with Football, only hopefully done much much faster.  Sort of like the NHL’s New York-office based replay officials.  The strike zone issues we’re seeing lately though are troubling; can you automate a strike zone call with players who move and bend over in mid-swing?  How do you establish a strike zone for these guys?  Inside and outside are no problem, but up/down is tough.  Boswell supports robot strike zones.

Q: If Harper had been just a normal everyday player, coming up through the system, would that swing of his — namely the left foot coming up and the seemingly wild attack at the ball — have been beaten out of him by now by the coaches?

A: Not necessarily.  But if Bryce Harper had been a “normal” prospect instead of an uber-prospect then I think he would have had adjustments pushed onto him.  There have been successful players with that trailing foot off the ground; Frank Thomas and Roberto Clemente come to mind.  I always have a pet peeve personally when I see a  hitter who lifts his back leg; I have the same issue in my own swing and was told by a high school coach that it was a flaw.  Well, I don’t think guys like Clemente and Thomas were flawed hitters.  I think it is what it is; if you feel comfortable hitting off your front foot and are successful, then so be it.  Boswell notes Clemente and a few others who have this trait, and agrees with me that it’s an overstated issue.

Q: Is this the breakout season for Jordan Zimmermann? Is it the changeup? I’ve never seen him look so in control out there.

A: Can it be as simple as Jordan Zimmermann has finally fully recovered from Tommy John surgery?  Fangraphs shows pretty consistent frequencies and speeds of his pitches from last year to this year.   One thing that jumps out for me right now is his very low BABIP (.209 so far this year).  That smells like some regression.  So while he can’t sustain his ridiculous numbers (1.59 ERA through 7 starts), he does seem to be on track for a very good season.  Cy Young capable?  With his current W/L streak and peripherals, he may pitch his way into the conversation.  Boswell notes that Zimmermann would have been in top 10 of league ERA last year with a few more IP, and that poor run support has cost him wins for years … so this all likely is Zimmermann finally getting the full package.

Q: How concerned are the Nats about Zimmerman’s shoulder?

A: Can’t speak for the team, but is anyone happy with Ryan Zimmerman‘s throwing issues right now?  Nothing has changed from what I wrote in Mid-April about the situation.  And I don’t know what the team is going to do with him.  Jon Heyman quoted an anonymous competing Front Office executive after Zimmerman signed his big deal that the Nationals “now have two $100M contracts but no $100M players.”  It pissed me off at the time … but is really hard to argue against now.  Will these contracts hamper this team’s development and/or ability to sign all its players in a few years time?  We’ll see.   Boswell mirrors what i’ve written before; the team has no place to put Zimmerman and they have to just ride it out.

Q: Drew Storen looks like a different pitcher this year. ERA is up to 4.73, and for the first year since his debut I’m nervous when he takes the mound. What gives?

A: A great question.  Others here have predicted that Drew Storen may be demoted this season due to performance.  His blowing of the Gonzalez gem was just one more nail in his coffin.  But a look at the stats shows that he’s basically been unlucky so far this year.  Most of his peripherals are improved in 2013 over last year; his K/9 is up, BB/9 is down.  His BABIP is incredibly high right now (.370).  Despite an ugly ERA his fip/xfip numbers are normal and low.   His velocity is a tick lower this year but not appreciably so.  I think he’s just been unlucky and will improve with more innings as he regresses downwards to the expected mean.  The one thing stats can’t measure though is his mentality; is he “depressed” because he’s not the closer?  Any way you spin it, the acquisition of Rafael Soriano represented a “demotion” for Storen, and it comes on the back of a pretty demoralizing NLCS game 5 meltdown last year where Storen single handedly lost the series for a team that most thought was the best in the game.  Boswell says his stuff is still “plenty good” but that he’s screwing around with too many pitches in his outings, relying on his sinker too much.  He needs to just go after hitters.  I agree; young guys have a tendency to nibble and work backwards if they’re too clever (see Bauer, Trevor) and need to listen to their pitching coaches.

Q: When errors occur or a bad call is made, Strasburg appears to have a difficult time making the necessary pitches to get out of an inning. Is this just an example of him being 24 and still learning or is there a bigger long term issue?

A: Great question again (lots of good ones here).  We’ve all played behind pitchers who lost their composure when a simple error occurs behind them (in adult leagues, this pretty much happens on every other ground ball, so you have to learn to go with it).  Stephen Strasburg‘s mental breakdown after Zimmerman’s latest throwing error, leading to 4 unearned runs and a loss in a game where I thought perhaps he had no-hitter stuff, was really disappointing.  Is it him being young and immature?  Could be, though I have never gotten the impression that Strasburg ran on the immature side.  How can you, when you have so much career hype?  But the evidence speaks for itself; when your manager and your catcher call you out in the press for losing your composure, you have some work to do.  Boswell posted a fantastic stat; 15% of Strasburg’s career runs allowed were unearned, twice what Justin Verlander has allowed in his career.  That’s incredibly telling.  Strasburg needs to work on his mental approach after bad things happen behind him.

Q: So Bryce has cooled off some, but what concerns me more is that even when he was scalding hot, he was hitting LHP. Should we be concerned? His OPS against LHP is .502.

A: I’m not concerned about Harper’s Lefty split, since nearly every left-handed batter in the game has a bad lefty split.  He looked downright awful against lefties in 2012 (highlighted by his 5-K game against Andy Pettitte and the Yankees), but has made adjustments.  Now it seems that the league has re-adjusted, so Harper needs to re-adjust.  So far in his young career, Harper has shown how well he adjusts (he’s years above his age in this regard), so I have confidence he’ll be ok.  Boswell prints some great numbers so far for Harper and says he’ll be ok.

Q: I recently read two articles that said that sabermetics considers a strikout to be no better or worse than any other out. This fact does not seem to make sense because missing the ball completely with two strikes eliminates any chance for productive outs, for foul balls leading to another chance, or reaching base due to normal batting average on balls in play. Also, psychologically, a strikeout has to be more deflating to the individual and team than another out.  Thoughts?

A: There’s a weird dichotomy in sabremetrics in this regard: batter K’s are “not that bad” but Pitcher K’s are what everyone strives for.  Doesn’t this seem at odds with itself?  The only reason I can think that a K is “ok” if you’re going to make an out is if it somehow prevents a double play.  But this is a research-worthy topic.  I also heard a great stat on a podcast; 3 players struck out 40 or more times in April of this year (if memory serves it was Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, and Mike Napoli).  Joe DiMaggio didn’t strike out 40 times in a season his whole career.  The league is just different now.  Boswell doesn’t really say much on the question other than the DP angle.

Q: Yesterday’s game was as strong an argument as I could make for the National League to use the Designated Hitter. Gio should have been allowed to finish the game with his low pitch count and excellent throwing, but he was pulled for a batter (who did nothing). Forget tradition! If we had the DH, we could have kept Michael Morse! And we probably would have won yesterday.

A: A good ancillary point to my rant on Gio Gonzalez‘ replacement the other night.  I support a DH across both leagues and posted many good reasons in this space in March 2013.  No reason to repeat them here, but this question goes to points #2 and #4 in my March post (fan experience and NL pitcher’s getting limited).  Boswell talks about the Gio decision and not really about the DH.

Q: Is Zim still among to the top 5 or top 10 3rd baseman in the majors in your opinion?

A: Interesting question.  A quick glance at the Third Basemen on depth charts around the league leads to this list of players who I would take right now over Zimmerman: Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, David Wright, and maybe even Chase Headley or David Frese. Now counting contract status/potential at this point given Zimmerman’s money owed and his declining performance on both sides of the ball, I’d think hard about Manny Machado, Bret Lawrie, Todd Frazier, Nolan Arenado, Pedro Alvarez and Pablo Sandoval.   Of course, potential is potential and Zimmerman already has a long list of accomplishments in this game, so on the whole of his career i’d put him just behind Wright in the above list.  So yeah I think its safe to say he’s a top 5 third baseman right now.  Ironically in my Yahoo Fantasy list, he’s also #5 and listed exactly behind the four guys in that upper grouping, in that exact order.  Boswell says no, not defensively.  But i’m not sure that’s entirely how you judge players these days.  Cabrera isn’t exactly a gold glover at third but would anyone say he’s not the “Best Third Baseman” in the game?

Q: No doubt that Jayson Werth is a phenomenal locker room presence and his home run in the playoffs last year was one of the highlights of the year, but he missed half the season last year and is on the DL now. He turns 34 next Monday and the Nats have him on contract for 4 more years. What do you think they can legitimately expect from him?

A: I think you expect Jayson Werth to contribute in the same ways he did in 2012; around a 125 OPS+ with some power and a lot of OBP.  Eventually he moves to left field, where he should be a excellent defender in the latter years of his contract.  It is what it is: the Nats paid him for his four years of unbelievable offense in Philadelphia, and he’ll be lucky to get back to that level in his mid 30s.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Is Denard Span the best centerfielder we’ve had since Clyde Milan? I don’t recall seeing a smoother Washington centerfielder.

A: Easily the best “all around” player to play center since the team moved here.  I’d probably argue that Rick Ankiel was better defensively and clearly had a better arm, but Denard Span‘s consistency at the plate gives him the easy nod overall.  Can’t speak to years prior to 2005.  Boswell agrees and signs off.

Ask Boswell 12/10/12 edition

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Denard Span's "best of 2012" defensive catch, highlighting more of what we can expect in 2013. Photo NYpost.com

I wasn’t expecting much baseball talk in Ask Boswell this week (12/10/12), not with the Redskins on a 4-game winning streak.  But there were some significant baseball moves to discuss, and a ton of baseball questions made their way in.  So here we go.  As always, I read the question and answer before reading Tom Boswell‘s response, and sometimes edit questions for clarity:

Q: I find it hard to imagine any starter of worth will sign with the Nats now that there are five rotation certainties in place.  Will the Nats get the starter depth they desire?

A: There is definitely a class of starter out there who absolutely would take a minor league contract with a team like the Nats in order to rehabilitate their FA value, which may have been eroded due to injury or a bad season.  Who would sign Erik Bedard (as an example) to anything guaranteed right now?  Or Jonathan Sanchez?   I would say though that more likely is the team acquiring guys on the minor league free agent market (where there’s 100s of guys available) and trading for farm system depth (I could envision both Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa being moved for prospect depth right now).  Boswell didn’t really address this part of the question, instead focusing on the next question.

Q: Why did Rizzo non-tender Gorzelanny, who as the LHP long man could spot start? He has been effective at times, the non-tender now seems like a false economy.

A: Simple econonmics; despite Tom Gorzelanny‘s salary being miniscule in the grand scheme of things, they couldn’t tender him and risk getting an un-acceptable award in arbitration.  I posted on the topic ahead of the non-tender deadline.  I’m hopeful that Gorzelanny re-signs with the team at something close to his 2012 salary.  But, that being said the bullpen looks awfully full right now and there might not be room for him.  5 returning RH relievers, new signing Zach Duke and only one spot left, likely being filled by Bill Bray in a pure LOOGY move.  Boswell points out that Duke exactly replicates what Gorzelanny would have given us at a fraction of the price.  Enough said.

Q: How do you like the Denard Span acquisition versus Philly’s acquisition of Ben Revere?   Should the Nats have acquired Revere instead of Span?  Do the Nats have an internal CF option after Span’s contract ends?

A: I posted my opinion on the Span deal here; quick analysis: liked the Denard Span deal but didn’t like that they made it.   Now, if I compare the Span to the Revere deals, I can’t help but say that I think Philadelphia overpaid, badly.  Trevor May was Philly’s #1 prospect in their system.  May for Revere may have been a decent deal (akin to our own Alex Meyer for Span), but throwing in a servicable starter with 46 decent MLB starts under his belt was questionable.  It isn’t like Ben Revere is the second coming of Joe DiMaggio; he had a 89 OPS+ last year in his third pro season.  Great defense absolutely, but at what cost at the plate?  At least Span profiles as a better-than-league-average hitter.   The Span contract is for 2 years, by which time the Nats have a slew of potential replacements (in likely order Goodwin, Perez, Hood, Taylor), so yes there’s plenty of rising talent in the system at center.  Boswell doubts the talent of Trevor May despite the consensus scouting opinion of the player, but he likes Worley and thinks the Phillies “took a flier on talent.”  He does think Span > Revere though.

Q: Have the Nats done enough to their roster to win it all?  Do they need another closer?

A: I believe the team has already done enough to re-qualify for the 2013 playoffs, especially in the NL East where Miami and the Mets are reeling, barring a slate of pitching injuries.  I can make a legitimate argument (tease for a future post) that the WAR improvements expected from our existing players (Strasburg, Harper, a full season of Werth, etc), plus addition by subtraction for players who hurt us last year (Nady, DeRosa, Henry Rodriguez, etc) alone will result in a better team than 2012.   Do we need another closer?  No, but I think one more right handed option out of the pen could help.   That being said, we don’t really have any 25-man room right now given the anticipated pen.  I liked last year’s Brad Lidge signing as a way to get some bullpen help, but doubt the team will do it this year.  As far as Drew Storen goes, he’s a top notch reliever and does not need to be replaced.  But I could see the team flipping him or Tyler Clippard as they get more expensive.  Boswell says the Los Angeles acquisitions change the game, and teams like the Nats may have to re-think their approaches.

Q: What do you think of the Shields trade? Who comes out ahead? Do the Rays have enough pitching to remain AL East contenders, even after trading their No 1 starter?

A: I believe Tampa Bay fleeced Kansas City; Shields was NOT their #1 starter (David PriceJeremy Hellickson) or honestly maybe not even their #3 (Matt Moore, at least on potential).  So the Rays traded a mid-rotation starter who they wanted to move anyway, along with a long-man in Wade Davis for the best prospect in the minors right now  (Wil Myers), the Royal’s #1 pitching prospect (Jake Odorizzi), another high-end pitching prospect (Mike Montgomery, a former highly regarded arm), and yet another minor league player.  That is just frankly ridiculous.  If you had told me the trade was simply Myers for both Shields and Davis, I could have squinted and understood.  But the addition of the other prospects made this a complete heist for Tampa.  You don’t trade the best prospect in the minor leagues for anything less than an ACE starter.  Does Tampa have enough to remain AL east contenders?  Absolutely yes; this was a trade of spare parts for Tampa (akin to the Nats trading Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi for some other team’s two best prospects) and they didn’t give up anything that they weren’t already planning on replacing.  Dayton Moore has gone all in on this move; if the Royals do not win the division in 2013, he’s out of a job.  Boswell didn’t really offer an opinion, just saying that the Rays are still stocked and noting that the price in prospects was why the Nats stayed away.  Disappointed not to read an opinion on the trade.

Q: Will Harper be hitting cleanup this year and, if so, what’s your thinking on this?

A: Answer: It depends.  If the team does NOT re-sign Adam LaRoche, then they have precious little left-handed hitting in the lineup, and Harper will be forced to bat somewhere in the middle of the order.  Cleanup may have to be the spot.  If LaRoche does come back, then the team can spread out its lefty power and continue with a similar lineup to what they used last year (going Harper-Zimmerman-LaRoche-Werth for L-R-L-R).  I certainly don’t think that someone like Harper will have any issues batting clean-up in the major leagues; one thing he’s never been accused of lacking is pride.  Boswell agrees with the opinion here, and then talks about just how much respect Harper earned in his rookie season.

Q: Should I be worried about our pitching depth? Our pitching was remarkably healthy this year and if that doesn’t hold true, especially with questions about Haren’s health I am not sure we can assume that will hold true this season. Don’t we need another starter or two who could eat innings if needed?

A: Yes, we have a depth issue.  Especially given that we’ve traded nearly an entire AAA team worth of rotation insurance in the last two off-seasons (Milone, Peacock, Meyer, Rosenbaum all traded away or lost to rule 5 in the last two off-seasons).  But Dan Haren has been remarkably durable through his career, only missing 28 games in his entire career to injury.  So lets temper the whole “Haren is fragile narrative.”  He’s not; he just happened to have an injury in 2012.  I’m assuming, until proven otherwise, that Haren will return to his previous form and throw 220 innings.  Does this mean that we weren’t lucky in 2012 and should plan for someone to get hurt in the rotation?  Absolutely.  I believe this is why moving either Michael Morse or Danny Espinosa for starter depth is wise.  Boswell reminds the reader about Duke’s starting capability and the team’s plans for Christian Garcia.  There’s also Ryan Perry.  And there’s also the slew of guys who won’t get MLB jobs but who aren’t ready to hang them up who will be there for the taking.  You know, guys exactly like Duke was last year 2 days before the start of the season.

Q: Don’t you think that if LaRoche was going to re-sign that he would have by now? If he goes, have the Nat’s alienated Morse?

A: No; the baseball off-season moves slowly, and few moves happen before the Winter Meetings anyway.  LaRoche is right on schedule for his negotiations.  Now, the team’s overt coveting of LaRoche has to have Morse pissed.  I would be; clearly the team is planning for your exit on a day to day basis in the open press.  Which is a real shame, because I like Morse and don’t think he did anything to warrant being treated this way.  Boswell somehow thinks that this whole dance is a compliment to Morse.  I don’t get it.

Q: Rizzo has a 2 year offer on the table for LaRoche, and history says he’s not likely to budge. Moreover, with other options like Morse and Moore, there’s no reason for him to. If another team needed help at 1B and was willing to give LaRoche 3 years, wouldn’t they have done so already? You’ve said all along you see the Nats and LaRoche amicably parting ways. Still see it that way?

A: Rizzo can budge on his demands.  Hey; at least it isn’t a four year deal that LaRoche is demanding.  I think a 2year deal with a club option for a 3rd makes a lot of sense for the team.  For the player, not so much.  This is LaRoche’s last chance at the free agent bonanza; he has to get the biggest contract he can.  The market for LaRoche won’t completely clear until Josh Hamilton signs.  While they’re not apples-to-apples comparisons, they are both lefty power hitters.  If a team that wanted Hamilton doesn’t get him, they can come looking for LaRoche to fit a middle of the order lefty bat.  The team still needs and wants LaRoche for two main reasons; plus defense and lefty power.  They’ll take a step backwards in both categories by going with Morse at first and Moore as first guy off the bench.  At the beginning of the off-season I thought LaRoche was leaving, because he’d want (and get) a 4 year deal.  Now I think he may be back.  Boswell now thinks LaRoche may be back and the team may give a 3rd year.

Q: I realize that the life with LaRoche is much preferred by the Nats. However, do you think there will be much of drop off in the quality of Nats play? Even without him, I have no doubt that the Nats will still win their share of games and make the playoffs (assuming the starting rotation stays relatively healthy). All starters are strike out pitchers. Offensive production should be about eqaul (though not as balanced),and Morse/Moore will probably make a few more errors. I feel like moving Zimmerman to first in 2014 and have Rendon starting at third would be the ideal way to make sure the core stays in tact.

A: I mostly agree; we’ll live without LaRoche but will be righty-heavy.  Morse is healthy and has shown 30 homer capabilities in the past; why wouldn’t he do that again in 2013?  It is a contract  year for him after all.  Meanwhile. the “save first base for Ryan Zimmerman” plan is one I’m 100% for; we’re just waiting for Anthony Rendon to show up.  Boswell cautions to temper expectations for Rendon, who hasn’t had an injury-free season in years.

Q: Why does Shane Victorino get a 3 year deal before Adam LaRoche?

A: Because the Red Sox made a rash, poor signing?  The LaRoche market just hasn’t played out yet.  Plus, filling a first baseman versus a corner outfielder is more risky for teams, so they do more due diligence.  Boswell doesn’t like the Victorino deal.  At all.

Q: Michael Young had the lowest WAR of ANY position player last year, do you really think he’s an upgrade for the Phillies? Personally, I can’t wait for those fans to start booing him 2 weeks into the season.

A: Yes, Michael Young looked pretty bad statistically last year.  But i’m guessing that a change of scenery may help him.  Texas has spent the past several seasons acquiring players to overtly replace Young; the year after he won a gold glove at short the team asked him to make way for Elvis Andrus and he moved to third.  Then the team moved him off of third when they acquired Adrian Beltre.  Then the team moved him to first … but then gave most of the starts at first to Mitch Moreland Maybe his 2012 was just pure disappointment in his treatment by the club where he’d played his entire career.  I think though that at his age (36 next year) he’ll be lucky to be just replacement level.  Boswell states the obvious; the Phillies are hoping for the 2011 version of Young, not the 2012 version.




Predicting the End-of-Season Awards: how’d we do?

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Cabrera wins the AL MVP as expected; can the blogosphere now declare peace? Photo AP via sportingnews.com

Here’s a wrap up of the end of season awards.  I posted my predictions here in Mid October.   The dream of going 8-for-8 is over.  Read on for a summary of my predicions versus actual results.

  • AL MVP:  Prediction: Miguel Cabrera.  Winner: Cabrera.  Trout 2nd, Beltre a distant 3rd.
  • AL Cy Young: Prediction: David Price. Winner: Price.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Prediction: Mike Trout. Winner: Trout, Unanimously.
  • AL Manager of the Year: Prediction: Buck Showalter.  Winner: Bob Melvin.
  • Sporting News AL GM: Prediction: Billy Beane.  Winner: Beane.
  • Sporting News AL Comeback player of the Year: Prediction: Adam Dunn.  Winner: Dunn.  Note that there are now also MLB and Players Choice versions of this award, and they do not always agree with Sporting News’ picks.  But SN is the oldest version so I’ll continue to guess based on it.
  • NL MVP: Prediction: Buster Posey. Winner: Posey.  Braun 2nd, McCutchen 3rd.
  • NL Cy Young: Prediction: R.A. Dickey. Winner: Dickey.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Prediction: Bryce Harper.  Winner: Harper.
  • NL Manager of the Year: Prediction: Davey Johnson.  Winner: Johnson.
  • Sporting News NL GM: Prediction: Mike Rizzo. Winner: Rizzo, who technically came in 2nd to Beane as Sporting News only awarded one Executive of the year award.
  • Sporting News NL Comeback player of the year: Prediction: Buster Posey.  Winner: Posey.

My Final Prediction results: 7 of 8 of BBWAA awards predicted correctly, 11 of 12 including Sporting News awards.

Discussion (here’s a link to all the 2012 post-season BBWAA voting with totals from Baseball-Reference.com, plus i’ve included links to the voting and ballots where I could below).

  • AL MVP: Cabrera wins over Trout; let the internet wars begin!  The only thing that surprised me here was the relative landslide victory Cabrera had; he got 22 of the 28 first place votes, far more than I thought he’d get.  This result shows what a lot of holier-than-thou bloggers need to wake up and understand; the MVP is NOT the award for the best player.  Clearly these people (often rather rudely) do not understand the difference between stats-based analysis and context.  Trout played for a 3rd place team; had he never played for the Angels this season … they still would have finished third.  Like it or not, voters start their MVP lists by grabbing the best player on the playoff teams, and adjust accordingly.  The solution to these arguments may be to create a hitting version of the Cy Young so that Trout can get his deserved due for his fantastic 2012 season.
  • AL Cy Young: Price wins in a very close race over Justin Verlander, who had almost identical (and slightly better) sabremetric numbers to his dominant Cy Young last year and was the odds-on favorite of the Sabr-nerd crowd to win.  I predicted Dickey not because he was inarguably the better pitcher; I predicted he’d win because voters sometimes like to give these awards to the fresh new candidate, and I saw that happening here.  Price and Verlander split the first and second place votes almost down the middle, except for one random first place vote that went to Fernando Rodney.  The Rodney vote, combined with both Los Angeles voters giving 2nd place votes to Jered Weaver, is the margin of loss for Verlander.  Still, this was the closest Cy Young voting race in the history of the award.
  • AL Rookie of the Y ear: No doubt here; Trout becomes just the 8th unanimous RoY pick in baseball’s history, and deservedly so.  Yoenis Cespedes second, Yu Darvish third.
  • AL Manager: My first miss on BBWAA awards in three years.  The criticism of this award is that it is less about who actually manages their team the best; it really is given to the team that “surprised” baseball pundits the most.  In retrospect, for all the reasons I predicted Billy Beane would get the executive award I should have given more thought to Melvin winning the Manager award.  Showalter’s Orioles certainly surprised, and you can squint and say that their record in one-run games is entirely on the manager.  But there’s no mistaking that the Athletics out-played their potential far more distinctly than the Orioles did.
  • AL Executive: No surprise that Beane picks up this award, after flipping 3/5s of his rotation, signing the cuban defector Cespedes and getting Josh Reddick in trade, putting together a team that I thought could lose 110 games but instead won the AL West over two of the most bally-hoo’d teams in the majors.  For all the people that chastised Beane for Moneyball, he has risen again after his early career success.
  • AL Comeback player: I really struggled to pick a winner, thinking that Dunn’s pseudo-rebound from 2011′s disaster was a good enough example, and I got lucky.  SN picked Dunn while other AL comeback awards out there went to Fernando Rodney.
  • NL MVP: Posey takes this race in a landslide, getting 27 of the 32 first place votes.  I’m really glad to see Braun get 2nd place despite the stigma surrounding his negated PED test last off-season; he won my “Modern Triple Crown” and was the best hitter in the league.  Chase Headley gets deserved recognition and a 5th place vote.  Several Nats got votes as expected, but none were factors in the race itself.
  • NL Cy Young: this race wasn’t as close as I thought it may be, but Dickey beats out Clayton Kershaw for many of the same reasons Price beat out Verlander.  Our own Gio Gonzalez comes in a close third; as it turns out, one reporter in St Louis completely left him off his ballot, purportedly because Gonzalez didn’t broach 200 innings.  Which makes no sense, since this same reporter gave his 5th place vote to a reliever.  *sigh* I hate hypocrites
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Harper won a very close race over Wade Miley and for good reason; on September 1st you would have said that Miley was the easy RoY candidate.  A strong finish combined with Harper’s narrative and probably some east-coast bias gave him the award.   One writer completely left Miley off his ballot, but that wouldn’t have made a difference in the voting totals in the end.  Another side note: have you ever even heard of the two Washington BBWAA chapter members?
  • NL Manager: Johnson picks up the “manager of the most surprising team” award relatively easily; there really weren’t any other contenders once Pittsburgh collapsed mid-season.
  • NL Executive: Rizzo’s Gio Gonzalez trade, Jackson signing and Harper call-up all led to a 17-game improvement and the major’s best record, earning him 2nd place in the overall executive award voting (to Beane) and thus the highest ranking NL executive.
  • NL Comeback player: Posey was really a no-brainer, and won the award as expected.

I’ll say this in conclusion; the Trout-Cabrera arguments were the most one-sided, rude and biased I’ve seen yet in the whole “new school” trend of baseball writing.  Even more ridiculous than the Jack Morris antagonists.  And I’m thankful that, after today, I won’t have to read one more “Why Trout is the MVP” article.

My 2012 End-of-Season award Predictions

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Mike Trout is a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year. Will he add AL MVP as well? Photo Gary Vasquez/US Presswire via espn.com

I’ve had a good string of predicting MLB’s major Post season awards in this space.  In 2010 I went 8 for 8.  In 2011 I again went 8-8 in predicting MLB’s awards, though I missed on predicting the unofficial Sporting News Executive and Comeback Player of the year.   I don’t have much confidence in going 8-for-8 this year though; the AL MVP seems way too close to predict, and I have no idea how the Cy Young awards will go.

[Editor Note: I write this in phases over the course of the season, and finalized it in early October.  After I wrote this piece some of the awards have already been announced; Sporting News announced Comeback Players of the Year last week.  I'll put up another post talking about my guesses and which awards I got right and wrong in another article once all awards are announced in November.]

Here’s a sampling of major baseball writers’ and their predictions that I could find ahead of my publishing this article: Tom Verducci, Ken Rosenthal, Bob Nightengale, Jonah Keri, and Jayson Stark.  Here’s the Fangraphs.com staff picks, heavily statistically weighted as you’d expect.  As you will see, even the national writers are all over the road with their predictions.  Here’s HardballTalk’s Matthew Pouliot‘s theoreticall ballot, with some contrarian picks.  Seamheads’ Andrew Martin has the typical sabre-slanted ballot.

Before reading on to my predictions on 2012′s winners, a statement to prevent arguments in the comments section.  These are my guesses as to who will WIN the awards, not necessarily who DESERVES them.  Invariably there’s a player who plays on a non-playoff or losing team but puts up fantastic numbers (Matt Kemp for the 2011 Dodgers, perhaps Mike Trout this year) who a number of loud pundits say “should” win the MVP.  Well, the fact of the matter is that the current voter base absolutely takes into account the circumstances behind a player’s production, and places more value on batters who are in a pennant race.  As do I.  The MVP isn’t the “Best Overall Batter Award,” which would end a lot of these arguments (since, the Cy Young essentially is exactly the “Best Overall Pitcher Award” and thus is easier to predict); its the “Most Valuable Player” award, and I agree with many who believe that a guy hitting .370 for a last place team isn’t nearly as “valuable” as the guy who hits .320 and leads a team deep into a playoff race.  It is what it is; if we want to change it perhaps the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA, whose awards these are) needs to add a category or clarify their requirements.

Secondly, when considering the Cy Young, invariably there’s one pitcher who puts up comparable numbers to another, but one plays in a weaker division so the same Sabr-focused pundits make their holier-than-thou proclamations about how the voter base failed in their picks.  And their points are valid.  But this is a prediction piece, not an opinion piece, and the fact of the matter is that current voters are still mostly old-school and put value on things like “Wins” and “ERA,” stats that most Sabr-nerds think are useless in evaluating a pitcher.

So keeping those two points in mind, Here’s my predictions for 2012:

  • AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera.  Despite the massive amount of internet baseball material devoted to talking about how great a season Mike Trout has had (mostly looking at his WAR values historically), I still see the voter base placing emphasis on three major points:
    • Cabrera plays for a playoff team, Trout does not.   The fact that the Angels will finish with a better record than the Tigers, or that the Angels clearly played in a harder division?  Immaterial to the old-school voter base.
    • Cabrara won the Triple Crown.  And most Triple Crown winners throughout history also won the MVP.  The fact that the triple crown is based on 3 relatively flawed statistics?  Irrelevant to the narrative of the achievement itself.  It remains an incredibly difficult achievement to accomplish in modern baseball’s era of specialized hitters (Ichiro for batting, Adam Dunn for homers) to hit for both average and power in the way that Cabrera consistently does.  (Rob Neyer posted thoughts about this topic, quoting random people on the internet with various takes).
    • Cabrera had a monster finish, Trout did not.  Cabrera’s OPS in the run-in months was over 1.000 each of July, August and September.  Trout peaked in July but was merely above average in the closing months.   Your finish matters (as we’ll see in the NL Rookie of the Year race discussed later on).

    Opinions like USA Today’s Bob Nightengale‘s exemplify the bulk of the voter base right now.  A few years ago the writers were smart enough to award Felix Hernandez a Cy Young with nearly a .500 record by recognizing more of the advanced metrics in play, but the Cy Young’s definition is a lot more specific than that of the MVP.

    This is nothing against Trout; the Angels were 6-14 when he got called up and finished 89-73.  That’s an 83-59 record with him, a .584 winning percentage that equates to 95 wins, which would have won the AL West.  Trout was the undeniable MVP for me nearly all season.  You hate to say it, but when the Angels faltered so did Trout’s MVP candidacy.

    The rest of the ballot?  Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano get some typical “best player on best teams” votes.  I’d give Josh Reddick some top-5 votes too.

  • AL Cy Young: David Price, by virtue of his 20 wins and league leading ERA, will squeak out the win over last year’s winner Justin Verlander. The statistical crowd will point out that Verlander was just as dominant in 2012 as he was in 2011 (when he unanimously won), and that his significantly higher innings total and lead in Pitcher WAR should get him the award.   However, as with the AL MVP you have to take into account the voter base.   Price won 20 games, that he pitches in a tougher division, that he beat out Verlander for the ERA title.  Plus, and I hate to say it, but Price is the “sexy pick,” the guy who hasn’t won before.  Verlander is the known guy and sometimes you see voters being excited to vote for the new guy.  Its kind of like the Oscars; sometimes an actor wins for a performance that wasn’t the best as a way to “give it to the new guy.”  Certainly this contributed to Clayton Kershaw‘s victory in 2011 and we may see similar behaviors again.  There might even be an east coast voter bias in play.  Jered Weaver, Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, and Felix Hernandez all get some top-5 votes, possibly finishing in that order behind Price and Verlander.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout, in what should be an unanimous vote. He could (if the MVP vote goes the way many thinks it should) become only the 3rd player ever to win both the MVP and the RoY in the same year (Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki being the others).  In the conversation: Yu Darvish (who certainly did not have a BAD year, but drifted mid-season), Yoenis Cespedes (who would win it in most years), Matt Moore (my preseason guess; I’m still shocked he displayed virtually none of the dominance of the 2011 post-season during his 2012 season), Will Middlebrooks (who made Kevin Youklis expendible within just a couple of months of arrival), and amazingly Tommy Milone (who was nearly unhittable in his home stadium and continued his performance from the Nats in the end of 2011).  A couple other names in the conversation: Scott Diamond and Jarrod Parker.
  • AL Mgr: Buck Showalter should get this this award for taking a team that should be a .500 ballclub based on pythagorean record and put them in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.  I also think he wins because of east coast bias, since certainly what Bob Melvin and the Oakland A’s pulled off is nothing short of fantastic.  Robin Ventura may have gotten some votes had the White Sox held on, but may be the 3rd place finisher.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: I almost hate to say it, but Billy Beane. The A’s were supposed to be awful this year, having traded away most of their starting rotation (as explained further in this Aug 2012 post here) and let most of their hitters walk.  Instead they acquire a couple of good pieces from Washington, sign the exciting Cespedes to go with a few bottom-barrel FAs, and overcame a 13-game deficit to win the powerhouse AL West.  A great story.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: It has to be Adam Dunn, right?  How do you go from the lowest qualifying average in history to career highs in homers and not get votes.  Jake Peavy may get some votes after two injury plagued seasons, but he was pretty decent last year and isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere like Ryan Vogelsong did last year.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP: Buster Posey‘s strong finish, combined with his team’s playoff run and his playing catcher gives him the nod over his competition here.  For much of the season I thought this award was Andrew McCutchen‘s to lose, but his fade and Pittsburg’s relative collapse from their division-leading mid-season costs him the MVP.  The rest of the ballot? Ryan Braun may be putting up MVP-esque numbers but the fall out from his off-season testing snafu will cost him votes (both in this race and for the rest of his career unfortunately). Johnny Molina getting some press too, for many of the same reasons as Posey.  Joey Votto probably lost too much time to be really considered, but remains arguably the best hitter in the league.
  • NL Cy Young:  R.A. Dickey was the mid-season choice, was challenged late but his 20th win combined with his fantastic ERA for a knuckleballer makes him the winner.  Amazingly, Dickey has pitched most of the season with a torn abdominal muscle, making his season accomplishments even more impressive.   Johnny Cueto makes a great case, leading the playoff-contending Reds, but he slightly sputtered down the stretch.  Clayton Kershaw quietly had a fantastic year, leading the league in ERA, but as we saw with David Price above, I think the voters like to vote for the new guy.  Kershaw got his Cy Young last year; this year is Dickey’s time.  Other names in the top-5 mix: Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez and perhaps even Jordan Zimmermann (who got some mid-season attention by virtue of his excellent July).  I have a hard time giving the award to a reliever, but the numbers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel are putting in as the closers of Cincinnati and Atlanta respectively may be enough to at least appear in the top-5.  Lastly, the odd case of Kris Medlen; his WAR puts him in the top 10 despite only having 12 starts.  Is this enough to give him some votes?  Maybe some 5th place votes here and there.  But look out in 2013.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, who won his 2nd rookie of the month in September, finished incredibly strong and took advantage of late-season fades from his two biggest competitors to win this award.  The National media buzz on Harper/Trout was never greater than during the season’s last month, and while games in April count the same as in September, the lasting impression is made by he who finishes strongest.   Wade Miley has a great case but I think falls short.  Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier has had a great season and was beating Harper’s numbers across the board, but he sat once Scott Rolen came back and faded down the stretch.   Milwaukee’s Norichika Aoki has had a nice season at age 30, coming over from Japan.  I don’t think guys like this (or Darvish, or Ichiro Suzuki for that matter) should qualify as “rookies” but rules are rules.  Anthony Rizzo, Wilin Rosario, Matt Carpenter, and Mike Fiers also put up good rookie numbers and may get some 5th place votes.
  • NL Mgr: Davey Johnson.  Nobody had the Nats winning nearly 100 games.  Had the Pirates not collapsed perhaps we’d be talking about Clint Hurdle. Don Mattingly had somewhat of a transitionary team playing great early, but the mid-season influx of high-priced talent, and their subsequent collapse costs him any support.
  • (unofficial award) NL GM: Mike Rizzo, pulling off the Gio Gonzalez trade, signing Jackson in a deal immediately lauded as a great move and quickly putting together a team that looks to be 15-20 games improved over 2011.  We thought they’d be in the mid-80s in wins; who thought they could be pressing for 100??
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: Buster Posey.  He went from a season-ending injury to an MVP season.  In other years Adam LaRoche may get some looks here, but not in the face of what Posey has been doing for San Francisco.  Lastly I had Johan Santana on a short list for this award until he was lost for the season in the aftermath of his 134 pitch no-hitter on June 1st.  At at point he was 3-2 but with a 2.38 ERA.  He finished the season 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA and was shut down on August 17th.  Are we sure that no-hitter was worth it?

Roster Construction Analysis of 10 Playoff Teams; 2012 edition

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Justin Verlander is one of the most important home-grown players in the 2012 playoffs. Photo unk via rumorsandrants.com

Every year I do a bit of “Team Construction” analysis to kind of gauge the trends in roster construction.  Last year’s post is here, and the links to the side have the underlying spreadsheet of player acquisition methods so you can see the pure details.  This topic was also covered in-depth by John Sickels on his minorleaguebaseball.com blog for another viewpoint.

Borrowing from last year’s post, there are four main ways teams can acquire players:

  1. Draft: The player is with the original team that drafted him.  In the case of international free agents, if they’re signed as 16-year olds they are considered in this category as well (i.e., Ichiro Suzuki is not a developed player, but an international Free Agent).  It could be better defined as “Club developed players.”  Simple examples for the Nats: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
  2. Traded MLBers: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading an established MLB player.  Most of the time these days, this means the player was acquired as a prospect (since most trades seem to be of the prospect-for-established player kind).  Example for the Nats would be Michael Morse, who was acquired by our trading an established MLB player in Ryan Langerhans for Morse while he was still (essentially) a minor leaguer.
  3. Traded Prospects: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading prospects.  This is essentially the reverse of #2.  The Nats key example is Gio Gonzalez.
  4. Free Agent: The player was acquired in free agency.  This category also includes two other types of acquisitions: waiver claims and cash purchases.  These three categories are lumped together since all three indicate that a team has acquired a player with zero outlay in terms of development or prospects.  Examples for the Nats: Edwin Jackson, Adam LaRoche.

Here is the summary of roster construction and “Construction Strategy Category” that we’ll talk about next.  Note that I only count the “core players” on a team for this analysis.  The core players is defined as the 5-man starting rotation, the setup and closer, the 8 out-field players, and the DH for AL teams.  I didn’t extend this all the way to the 25-man roster, figuring that these core 15 players are the main reasons teams win and advance.  That and huge chunks of the bullpen and the bench are either fill-in FAs or draftees and it would skew the analysis of how teams really got to the playoffs.  Here’s the summary (the table is sorted by count of Draftees):

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2012 Atlanta 11 1 3 0 15 #1
2012 St. Louis 9 0 2 4 15 #1/#4
2012 Washington 8 3 1 3 15 #2
2012 San Francisco 8 2 2 3 15 #2
2012 Cincinnati 8 2 3 2 15 #1
2012 New York Yankees 5 2 1 8 16 #4
2012 Detroit 5 5 2 4 16 #2/#4
2012 Texas 4 2 7 3 16 #3/#4
2012 Baltimore 3 1 8 4 16 #3
2012 Oakland 2 1 7 6 16 #3

So, what are the four construction methods I’ve identified? Again borrowing from last year’s version of this post, they are (with this year’s examples).  The complication this year is that some of the 10 playoff teams don’t fall neatly into one specific category.

Method #1: Build from within 100%: (Cincinnati, Atlanta).   Atlanta, amazingly, didn’t use a single Free Agent among its core 15 this year.  They made a couple of key trades to acquire a few starters, but the rest of their lineup is home-grown draftees.  That may change next year as they try to replace Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn and possibly Brian McCann, who may leave via free agency.  Meanwhile Cincinnati has just a couple of free agents and mostly rely on guys they’ve grown as well.

Method #2: Ride your developed Core and use your prospects to acquire big names: (Washington, San Francisco and Detroit to an extent): The Nats have transformed themselves over just a couple of seasons, relying less on FAs to plug holes caused by an awful farm system to having most of their core team developed at home (See the table further below to follow the transformation of our team over the past few seasons).  Those spots they couldn’t depend on have been filled by trades (three guys acquired by flipping prospects for them; in addition to Gonzalez Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Clippard also count here).  San Francisco has seen their payroll skyrocket as they extend their home-grown talent, but for the most part they have stayed true to the team development concept.  Their one major Free Agent (Barry Zito) is notoriously one of the worst contracts in baseball and it is somewhat surprising to even see him on the post-season roster.  He wouldn’t be if Tim Lincecum was pitching in 2012 like he has regularly done in previous seasons.  Detroit was entirely in method #2 until they decided to spend money like the Yankees; we’ll revisit in #4.

Method #3: Go Young and grow up Strong (Baltimore, Oakland and Texas to an extent): Baltimore acquired a massive chunk of their rosters by flipping major leaguers for prospects and watching them blossom into a surprise playoff team.  Oakland has made a habit of getting rid of guys before they hit arbitration; fully 7 of their squad was acquired this way.  The difference is that Oakland has been forced to buy a big chunk of their core group on the FA market, depending on cast-offs like Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes to plug leaks and get production on the cheap.  I’m guessing that Oakland will transform more into Category #1 as the vast amount of prospects they’ve landed lately continue to matriculate.  Lastly Texas was entirely in this category before they dropped major money on the likes of Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish, transforming them into a spending power to go with their still-excellent farm system.

Method #4: Spend what it takes to win: (New York fully with St Louis, Texas and Detroit partially here): The Yankees are the class-A example of this method (along with Boston and the Dodgers frankly), but the spending that St. Louis, Texas and Detroit cannot be overlooked.  The Yankees more and more are depending on expensive FA purchases to replace what their farm system is not developing, and the problem is only being brought into more focus this off-season.  Their 3 primary starters are FA acquisitions, their biggest FA is looking like a contract catastrophe, and their developed guys are not stepping up and taking over major roles (especially on the pitching staff).  The other three teams mentioned here are mostly built on home-grown talent, but have spent so much money on the FA market lately that they are broaching into the upper echelons of MLB payroll.  St. Louis is almost entirely built from within (as noted by other columnists doing this same type of analysis) but still has depended on a couple of key FAs to advance as far as they have.

Conclusions:

  • There’s no real formula to building a playoff team, as we see from the spread of the 10 teams among the four methods defined.
  • I think its safe to say that the most difficult methods to depend on are #1 and #3.  You need to have a very good farm system to depend on the #1 method to work for you, and over the past few years only a couple of teams really have had success using this method (Atlanta and Tampa Bay).  Kansas City has tried #1 for years and has gone nowhere.  The #3 method is also frought with issues, since it requires a ton of patience from your fan base and may not be sustainable.  Would anyone be surprised if both Oakland and Baltimore collapsed next season?  Probably not; you really need to build on a base of players once you’ve established yourself as a good team and continue to augment, either through trade or through FAs.  But even that can be dangerous; just ask Philadelphia this year, owners of the 2nd biggest payroll in baseball and just a 3rd place team.
  • Is Category #1 and #3 the same?  No, not really. #1 teams rely much more heavily on personally developed prospects, while #3 teams purposely set out to acquire prospects in trade to combine with their own development mis-fortunes.  If Baltimore had a better farm system, they wouldn’t have needed to jettison so many established MLBers to acquire prospects, and they’d probably be closer to a #2 team (a wealthy team who supplements developed players with key FAs, much like what Washington is doing).
  • Oakland is really a unique case; they do develop players but get rid of them because of a self-imposed incredibly restrictive salary cap.  Imagine what Billy Beane could do with that team if he could have purchased just $30M of players on the open market (which would have still left Oakland in the bottom third of payroll).
  • Buying your way to a team (method #4) can work, but only if you have nearly unlimited money and everything goes right for you.  There’s almost no excuse for a $175M payroll to get beat to the playoffs by a $55M payroll team (Oakland).  That is unless you overpay for poor FA targets, install the wrong manager and saddle yourself with the worst clubhouse in baseball.  In case you were wondering, the 2012 Boston Red Sox were a classic case of why money cannot buy happiness, and why unlimited funds do not necessarily guarantee playoff baseball.  The Angels are another example; owing most of their season’s turnaround and success to Mike Trout and his MLB minimum salary providing nearly 10 WAR despite having the 3rd largest payroll in baseball and having just purchased the games pre-emminent hitter in Albert Pujols.
  • Frequent commenter Clark has a good point; classifying Mark Teixeira and Raul Ibanez as the same type of player (acquired via free agency) is a bit mis-leading.  Clearly a $150M player isn’t the same as a $1M player.  But, for the purposes of analyzing how much of your team is “bought” versus “developed” the point remains the same whether its a bargain basement guy or a $20M/year player.

So, if I had just purchased a new team, what construction method would I follow?  I guess it depends; if I thought I had a patient fan base, I’d probably do exactly what is going on in Houston.  I’d gut the MLB roster, trade every tradeable asset and start over payroll-wise.  I’d follow strategy #1 until I was at least competitive, and then i’d probably switch over to a #2 strategy or a #3 strategy, depending on just how good my developed players were.  You hope for #3; it implies you’ve got so much in-house talent that all you need to do is keep extending your key guys and you’ll keep winning.

I don’t think #4 is a sustainable way of building rosters.  The Yankees have gotten away with it for years, but only because they initially had a banner crop of developed players (the “core four”) to depend on up their spine.  Would anyone be surprised if the Yankees fail to make the playoffs next year?  Alex Rodriguez looks incredibly old, Derek Jeter just broke his ankle, they’re losing a number of hitters to FA and they only have a couple of starters locked up.  Where’s their starting pitching for 2013?  And what happens if they finally get hit with injuries to their rotation to the extent that Boston did this year?  I think this is why you see $80M payroll teams beating out $170M payroll teams all the time; teams get bloated, they over pay their own players and suddenly are old, inflexible and unable to adjust financially to buy what they need.

Lastly, here’s what the Nats roster has done over the past few seasons:

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2010 Washington (end of 2010) 7 1 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (2011 opening day) 6 2 1 6 15 #2
2011 Wash (primary Roster for season) 6 2 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (end of season) 9 1 2 3 15 #2
2012 Washington (playoff roster) 8 3 1 3 15 #2

The team has been slowly replacing Free Agents with home-grown or acquired talent, and as we all know is well on its way towards a strong, home grown team.  This year’s core team only uses 3 pure FAs: Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson.  We could very well see LaRoche replaced outright with the home grown Tyler Moore, and if the team replaced Jackson with someone like John Lannan (not that we’ll possibly see that happen), we could be down to just one FA in the core squad.

My 2012 Fantasy Baseball Team

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Kemp reacts to being the first overall pick in my fantasy league. Photo unknown via ladodgertalk.com

As with last year’s edition of this post, feel free to stop reading now if you don’t want to read fantasy team analysis of a league that you’re not necessarily in.  I know that really grates some people, and I understand.  For those of you who do play fantasy, I’ll try to talk about who was available and who I had to choose from for each pick so you can get a context of the decisions I made.

League overview: 12 team 6×6 head to head.  Your categories are:

  • Hitting: Runs, HRs, RBIs, SBs, Batting Average and OPS.
  • Pitching: Wins, Saves, K’s, ERA, WHIP and Holds.

Last year we had Losses as a category instead of Holds but too many of the league hated the Losses category, but wanted to keep OPS as a 6th category.  So we’ve introduced Holds as a category for the 2012 season.  I proposed this but rather inadvertantly; my strategy going into this 2012 season was going to be to go after the exact type of pitcher who normally gets holds; the setup-guy, the excellent specialized reliever who pitchers 60-70 innings but gets 70-80 K’s with excellent ERAs and WHIPs.  With no Losses to worry about, the value of holding any type of pitcher increased over last year’s edition of the league. The only downside was that we are also introducing a transaction limit for the season (65 over the 21 week season).  So picking good arms early will be crucial.

We added an 11th and 12th team to the league at the last minute, two newer guys to fantasy baseball who made some “interesting” picks throughout the night.  I was picking 1st out of the 12 in a typical snake draft order.

My draft strategy for 2012 is as follows:

  • Get the minimum number of hitters, and get them early to get the best players available.
  • Focus on Homers.  Homers lead to Runs and RBIs, 3 of your 6 offensive categories.
  • Get a couple of top end starters early, then spend the entire 2nd half of the draft on pitching.
  • Focus on NL, high K/9 starters only.
  • Get a high end closer if they’re available, but don’t over spend.
  • Focus on the high-end Holds leaders and setup guys, getting guys who can close in a pinch.

What became  apparent about 5 rounds into the draft is the disservice of drafting 1st (or last) in such a huge league; if a run starts on a position, you have almost no chance of getting any of the top guys.  Catchers, top-end Holds guys and top-end Closers all had major runs without my even getting a consideration to get a pick in.  Once all the top closers were gone, I decided not to scrounge for saves, at all.  If a guy like Rodriguez or Holland becomes a closer and I get free saves, all the better.  But what I really want are low ERA, low WHIP innings all week that help lower the overall team ERA/WHIP.

Below are my round-by-round picks.  Yahoo O-Ranks are given; this is Yahoo’s rank for the player for the 2012 season.  Average Draft Rank (ADR) is listed as per MockDraftCentral’s ratings, though honestly after the Holds guys start going off the board the ADR is mostly useless.  Plus ADR reports are based on the classic 5×5 league, not the 6×6 league that we’re doing.   But it does illustrate some of the over-drafts and/or value picks I got.

  1. Matt Kemp: (Yahoo #2, ADR #2) With the first overall pick I really was choosing between Kemp and Miguel Cabrera.  I liked Cabrera because he’ll be gaining positional flexibility at 3B, a relatively thin position.  I also like Cabrera because he’s gaining Prince Fielder to provide lineup protection.  However; Kemp was the #1 producer last season, had 39 Hrs to Cabrera’s 30 and threw in 40 steals for good measure.  I think Kemp is the best player in baseball and I see no reason that he won’t at least repeat his (near) 40/40 performance.  With the understanding that I’ll be missing most of the high end infielders by virtue of not picking again until the 23rd overall pick, I take Kemp.  Cabrera’s grounder to the face just a few hours before the draft didn’t really factor into the decision.  Ironically Ryan Braun was ADR #1 but he didn’t go until 4th or 5th in our league.
  2. Ian Kinsler: (Yahoo #20, ADR #23).  With the 24th pick, I really wanted Curtis Granderson, who was a bit undervalued (Yahoo ranked #22 but 6th best player in 2011), but he got snagged just before I picked.  Kinsler was highest guy on the board and was the natural pick.  I’ve had Kinsler before and he’s always a solid, mid 20s producer with some consistency.  He was hurt in 2010 but in 2009 was a top 10 player.  Lets hope for a similar season.  2B is thin (even more so with Chase Utley‘s injury), so I didn’t mind getting a halfway decent one this high.
  3. Giancarlo Stanton: (Yahoo #25, ADR #26): With the 25th pick, I reached a little bit for Stanton.   I didn’t want to go with slighly higher ranked guys like Mark Teixeira and certainly not Hanley Ramirez (who Itook #2 overall last year and absolutely killed my team).  Cliff Lee (Yahoo #24) should have been there but was drafted incredibly early by one of the new guys in the league.  So, faced with a slew of positional guys after Stanton on the Yahoo chart who all under performed last year (Beltre, McCutchen, Wright) and therefore were not worth the draft position, I took a gamble on Stanton.  Personally I think this guy is going to be one of the biggest names in the game; a 45 homer guy who helps bring his team back to relevance.  Unfortunately I wasn’t aware that he’s been dinged up in Spring Training and now may miss opening day.  That’s not good drafting.  But i’d rather have him and miss a couple weeks than be frustrated with an injury prone guy.
  4. Tim Lincecum: (Yahoo #28, ADR #24)
  5. Cole Hamels: (Yahoo #32, ADR #29): After 22 more picks, drafting with the 48th and 49th overall pick I was stunned to see two NL heavyweight starters sitting there available for the taking.   According to ADR both these guys should have been long gone.  Lincecum struggled last year clearly, but Hamels overperformed based on his Yahoo ranking (#21 performer in 2011) and fit my profile of an NL starter with good stats.  No argument here; I took the two leading starters available.  Its like a repeat of 2011: I had both these starters last year and I’m looking forward to having them both again this year.
  6. Brett Lawrie (Yahoo #45, ADR #53): With the 72nd overall pick I again got great value in Lawrie.  At this point I had not drafted either a 3B or a 1B, having missed out on the first couple of tiers of both.  I had a 1B targeted (see pick #8) so I went for an upside pick.  Lawrie had 9 homers in just 150 ABs in 2011 and based on his minor league production he seems set to be a monster hitter in this league.  Based on who was left on the board at that position at this time (Mark Reynolds, David Frese, Martin Prado) I went with the best available guy.  That being said, Lawrie is a risk.  I’m slightly worried that 2 of my top 4 hitters are relatively young guys who could go south; this strategy failed me last year (when Jason Heyward and Pedro Alvarez both underperformed so badly that I had to drop them).
  7. Alex Gordon; (Yahoo #66, ADR #61): Right after Lawrie with the 73rd overall pick, I was scanning down the available hitters, with an eye on 2011 performance, I was amazed again to find a near top 20 guy from last  year.   Gordon was ranked #23 in 2011 performance but was still on the board.  I grabbed him.  23 Homers, 87 rbi along with 17 steals and I think this is a halfway decent pick.  He takes my last OF spot.
  8. Lance Berkman: (Yahoo #86, ADR #95); With the 96th pick I nabbed Berkman.  Waiting until the 8th round to find a first baseman is not usually a good strategy … but it has served me well in the past.  Instead of overpaying for one of the top 1Bs, I like to wait and get nearly as good a player but many rounds below.  Last year it was Paul Konerko (who I would have loved to get again but Jamos snapped him up a few rounds earlier) so this year I targeted Berkman.  Another undervalued pick (his 2011 yahoo ranking: 32) who qualifies at both OF and 1B but who will be playing the far less taxing 1B position fulltime in 2012.  Because of this shift to the infield, i’m hoping for a healther season and more ABs.  Berkman proved last year he can still hit, and with a relatively decent lineup still around him he should still see pitches to hit despite the Cardinals losing Pujols.  31 homers last year in just 488 ABs; he could broach 40 if he gets 600 Abs like he should.
  9. Jimmy Rollins: (Yahoo #73, ADR #88).  97th overall, still continuing to get value.  Rollins isn’t the best SS out there, but by the 9th round he’s as good as you’re going to get.  He was a decent producer in 2011 but is a far cry from his 2007-2009 numbers (when in consecutive seasons he was the 5th, 9th and 12th ranked fantasy player).  He has some power, 30 SB capability and a decent bat.  With the Phillies injury concerns, perhaps more RBI opportunities will fall to Rollins.
  10. Joe Mauer (Yahoo #95, ADR #82).  At the 120th pick, I was missing two positional players: a catcher and a utility guy.  I’ve been burned in the past drafting catchers too high, and frankly am happy to roll the dice with the recovering Mauer.  Mauer has positional flexibility of qualifying for 1B if needed but what I really need is for him to be in the lineup and hitting.  If Mauer returns anywhere close to his 2009 form (#12 fantasy producer) this will be the steal of the draft.
  11. Josh Johnson (Yahoo #101, ADR #99).  More value, but also more risk, with the #121 pick.  Johnson fits my profile of high K NL starters … but of course is coming off of a major arm injury.  Is he ready to go?  If he’s healthy, this is a 4th or 5th round talent way down in the 11th.  If not … well there’s always the waiver wire.
  12. Drew Stubbs: (Yahoo #92, ADR #79).  With the 144th pick I needed one last hitter to supplement my bench and noticed the huge number of SBs that Stubbs had last year (40).  He was decently ranked for value and I think this is a pretty decent pick.  The ADR of 79 probably is skewed higher because in a 5×5 league steals are more important.  But Steals are important here as well, and looking at this team i’ve got a ton of them.  Big fan of this pick here.
  13. Mike Adams.  Pick #145 and the beginning of my main 2012 strategy; focus on setup guys who get holds and have good peripherals.  By the 13th round the top Holds guys from 2011 (Clippard, Venters, Robinson, and Marshall) were all gone; I was most disappointed to have missed on Robinson in particular, who went just a few picks before I went.  I grabbed Adams as the best holds guy available.  (note from here on out I won’t bother with Yahoo ranks or ADRs for Holds guys since they doesn’t make any sense).
  14. Ricky Romero: (Yahoo #109, ADR #86): At this point in the draft I was targeting a few more starters and a few more setup guys and went for best players available.  but getting a guy of Romero’s caliber with the 168th pick is great.  Romero isn’t entirely my kind of starter; he’s AL, and more importantly he’s AL East.  But his K/9 is improved and he’s a good pitcher on a team that will get wins.  He had 15 wins last year with a sub 3.00 ERA; imagine if he pitched in the NL.  Regardless, he’s a good pickup at this point in the draft.
  15. Francisco Rodriguez: I like K-Rod because, well, if Milwaukee’s closer (John Axford) falters or gets hurt, suddenly I’ve got a pretty good closer getting saves.  As it stands, Rodriguez will get a ton of Hold opportunities and has all the incidentals I want in a back-end reliever (good K/9, good holds from 2011).  The only downside on him is his ERA; its a bit high for an 8th inning guy.
  16. Fernando Salas: Salas was St. Louis’ closer for most of 2011 but got demoted after a couple of blown saves in August.  He didn’t get demoted because his numbers were bad; in fact his 2011 numbers were great.  Unfortunately for Salas, Jason Motte lit it up in the post season and enters 2012 with the job clearly in hand.  Which means, like Rodriguez, he’ll get save opportunities as the former closer and would be the presumptive replacement in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
  17. Jeremy Hellickson (Yahoo #183, ADR #127); Going against my better judgement, I picked up yet another AL East pitcher, but once again went for value.  Hellickson was my 193rd pick and despite being Yahoo ranked 183, he was 86th in performance in 2011.  Lots of people think Hellickson will regress in 2012 because of his amazingly low BABIP (.223 in 2011).  However not all of Hellickson’s BABIP variation is attributed to “luck;” He’s a flyball pitcher.  And flyball pitchers will have more of their balls in play caught, keeping BABIP low.  Hellickson had only 35% of balls in play be grounders in 2011.  Roy Halladay, by way of comparison, has been 50% or more groundballs every year of his career.  Where this should be catching up to Hellickson is in homers given up (more fly balls should lead to more homers), but his home ballpark helps.  Either way. I’ll take him with the 193rd pick.
  18. Mark Melancon: Another deposed closer in Melancon, who got 20 saves for Houston last year but joins Boston as the presumptive 8th inning guy behind Andrew Bailey.  Remember; Bailey missed 2 months in 2011 with a forearm strain; Melancon ably fits into the closer spot.  This pick may be affected by recent news that Daniel Bard will be returning to the bullpen, but holds guys don’t have to be 8th inning guys.
  19. Greg Holland: What a find here; Holland has fantastic numbers and could be another steal since KC closer Soria has blown out his elbow.  I don’t think Holland gets the call as the closer immediately, but if new acquisition Broxton doesn’t step up Holland will.
  20. Alexi Ogando (Yahoo #227, ADP #208); Looking for two more starters I went for best names on the board.  Ogando may not be the best but he’ll get Ks and he has a big arm.  And at the 240th pick of the night I’m happy to get a 13 game winner on a playoff team.
  21. Josh Collmenter (Yahoo #312, ADP #305):  I don’t understand why Collmenter is so low; he plays in the weaker NL West, is in the NL, and won 10 games with good numbers last year (#140 ranked yahoo fantasy in 2011).    Oh; just found out why; he’s got a 14.00 ERA in Spring Training thus far.  Ouch.  We’ll keep an eye on his first couple starts (perhaps sitting him if he’s going against a touch lineup) and see how he goes.

Team analysis

Hitters: I’ve got a ton of power, but also a ton of SB capability.  Kemp is 40/40 guy, Kinsler and Lawrie project to be 30/30 and Gordon a 20/20 guy.  Rollins and Stubbs both get a ton of steals.  I’ve got 5 guys with 30+ homer capability.  Homers lead to runs and RBIs.  What may hurt me is AVG and OPS: Kinsler, Stanton and Stubbs all seem to be .250 hitters.  Rollins and Stubbs both are < .800 OPS guys.  So we’ll take the good with the bad.  But I do like my hitters.

Name Team Pos O-rank 2011 Actual Owned H/AB R HR RBI SB AVG OPS
Lance Berkman StL 1B,OF 86 32 97% 147/488 90 31 94 2 0.301 0.959
Ian Kinsler Tex 2B 20 22 99% 158/620 121 32 77 30 0.255 0.832
Brett Lawrie Tor 3B 45 771 97% 44/150 26 9 25 7 0.293 0.953
Joe Mauer Min C,1B 95 820 97% 85/296 38 3 30 0 0.287 0.728
Matt Kemp LAD OF 2 1 99% 195/602 115 39 126 40 0.324 0.985
Giancarlo Stanton Mia OF 25 66 99% 135/516 79 34 87 5 0.262 0.893
Alex Gordon KC OF 66 23 98% 185/611 101 23 87 17 0.303 0.878
Jimmy Rollins Phi SS 73 67 97% 152/567 87 16 63 30 0.268 0.737
Drew Stubbs Cin OF 92 103 93% 147/604 92 15 44 40 0.243 0.685

Pitchers: I’m less liking my starters versus what I had last year.  I have three good NL guns but then have three #2/#3 AL starters.  And I have a big injury risk in Johnson to go with spring dismal performances out of Collmenter.  I may be playing some waiver wire games.

Name Team Pos O-rank 2011 Actual Owned IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
Tim Lincecum SF SP 28 49 99% 217 13 0 220 0 2.74 1.21
Cole Hamels Phi SP 32 21 99% 216 14 0 194 0 2.79 0.99
Josh Johnson Mia SP 101 183 97% 60.1 3 0 56 0 1.64 0.98
Ricky Romero Tor SP 109 46 95% 225 15 0 178 0 2.92 1.14
Jeremy Hellickson TB SP 183 86 86% 189 13 0 117 0 2.95 1.15
Alexi Ogando Tex SP 227 131 68% 169 13 0 126 0 3.51 1.14
Josh Collmenter Ari SP,RP 312 140 21% 154.1 10 0 100 0 3.38 1.07

The middle relief/holds strategy should be interesting; with a transaction limit in place we’re going to have to monitor the 5 RPs closely.  I’m not after saves (clearly; having not drafted a single closer) but I wouldn’t mind getting a few here and there.  I have tried the no-closer route in the past; it didn’t work exactly as I wanted.  I had too many mediocre starters and got killed in ERA and WHIP.  This time around is slightly different; by focusing on middle relievers who generally have great stats, I’m hoping to keep ERA and WHIP down and continually add Ks and holds.

Name Team Pos O-rank 2011 Actual Owned IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
Mike Adams Tex RP 305 83 32% 73.2 5 2 74 32 1.47 0.79
Francisco Rodriguez Mil RP 374 149 33% 71.2 6 23 79 17 2.64 1.3
Fernando Salas StL RP 371 73 31% 75 5 24 75 6 2.28 0.95
Mark Melancon Bos RP 379 138 14% 74.1 8 20 66 3 2.78 1.22
Greg Holland KC RP 383 135 11% 60 5 4 74 18 1.8 0.93

That’s your fantasy team.  What do you think?