Nationals Arm Race

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

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Opening Day Starter Trivia – Updated for 2014

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CC Sabathia continues to be the active leader in Opening Day starts. Photo via wiki/flickr.

Some of my favorite trivia questions  revolves around Opening Day Starters.  With another Opening Day in the books, here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day starters.  I’ve updated my Opening Day Starters spreadsheet to Google Docs and created a link in the “Nationals Arm Race creation” section along the right.  Fyi, on a team-by-team basis you can query Baseball-Reference.com for the opening day lineups (here’s the Washington/Montreal franchise’ opening day lineup history as an example).

Current Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts

11 CC Sabathia
9 Mark Buehrle
7 Felix Hernandez
7 Justin Verlander
6 Bartolo Colon
6 Tim Hudson
6 Jered Weaver
6 James Shields
5 Josh Beckett
5 Yovanni Gallardo
4 Jake Peavy
4 Tim Lincecum
4 Clayton Kershaw
4 Jon Lester
3 Strasburg, Cueto, Wainwright, Price, Masterson, Nolasco
2 Lee, Samardzija, Liriano, Dickey, Sale, Feldman

Those players bolded in the list above had 2014 opening day starts and added to their totals.   (Note; there’s plenty of guys out there with 2 or 3 opening day starts but who did not extend their count in 2014; they are not included here).  With the retirement of Roy HalladayCC Sabathia extends his active lead in this category.  Mark Buehrle has given over the reigns of opening day starter possibly for good, based on his standing in the Toronto rotation.  Meanwhile the next closest competitors (Justin Vernalder and Felix Hernandez) could eventually supplant Sabathia, especially if he continues to struggle and gets replaced as the Yankees’ ace.

Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander continue to be the best bets to broach the all-time records (see below) based on their ages, their current counts and their new long-term contracts.

Answers to other Opening Day start trivia:

Current Active Leader in consecutive Opening Day Starts: Sabathia with 9 consecutive, split among two teams.  Second is Verlander with 7 straight, albeit all with the same team.  There was talk about how his Cy Young-winning rotation mate Max Scherzer should have gotten the ball this year, given Verlander’s 2013 struggles.

Most ever Opening Day Starts all-timeTom Seaver with 16 in his career.

Most ever Consecutive Opening Day Starts: Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris, who made 14 straight such starts.

Number of first-time opening day starters in 2014: Ten (10) guys got the ball on opening day for the first time, slightly down from last year’s 13.  Injuries gave some pitchers the ball on opening day over other expected rotation mates (this is definitely the case with the likes of Julio Teheran, Tanner ScheppersSonny Gray, Dillon Gee, Jorge De La Rosa), and its probably the case that others got the ball on opening day thanks to their own personal ascention to the “lead-dog” spot on their teams (Jose Fernandez, Madison Bumgarner).  The other three newbies (Andrew CashnerWade Miley, and Chris Tillman) probably fall somewhere inbetween these categories.

Who seems most likely to break Seaver or Morris’ Records at this point? Still Sabathia, who already has 11 opening day starts (and 9 straight), is the #1 in New York, is only 32 and still has four years on his current deal. However, he took a big step backwards in 2013 performance-wise, and the Yankees spent a ton of money on Masahiro Tanaka, and there could be a passing of the torch if Tanaka blows it out in 2014.  Meanwhile Hernandez already has 7 opening day starts, just signed a deal that takes him through 2019 with a relatively easy option for 2020.   That’s many more seasons under contract and he’d only be 34 years of age by its end.   He could be the standard holder if he stays healthy and continues to pitch like an ace.

Most Inconsisent team using Opening Day Pitchers: Oakland.  They’ve used 9 different opening day starters in the last 9 seasons, and that’s likely to continue since both the candidates for this year had injuries that forced them to go to a rookie for 2014.  Pittsburgh is right behind them;  they have used 7 different opening day starters in the last 7 seasons, and 13 different starters in the last 15 seasons. The Nats have at some point employed no less than three former Pittsburgh opening day starters: Ron Villone, Oliver Perez and Zach Duke.   Colorado, Baltimore and Minnesota have also struggled for most of the past decade to find a dominant, reliable “Ace” and constantly cycle through new opening day starters, and once again each is using a different guy in 2014.

 

2014 Rotation Rankings 1-30

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The ace on the best rotation in the game.  Photo: talksportsphilly.com

The ace on the best rotation in the game. Photo: talksportsphilly.com

Last year, with my excitement over Washington’s Dan Haren signing and my supposition that Washington had the best rotation in the game, I ranked all 30 team’s rotations ahead of the 2013 season.  Then, after the season was done, I revisited these pre-season rankings with a post-mortem to see how close (or, more appropriately, how far off) my rankings turned out to be.

Here’s the 2014 version of this same post: Pre-season rankings of the MLB’s rotations; 1 through 30.  Warning; this is another huge post.  I guess I’m just verbose.  At this point midway through Spring Training there’s just a couple of possible FAs left that could have altered these rankings (Ervin Santana being the important name unsigned right now), so I thought it was time to publish.

The top teams are easy to guess; once you get into the 20s, it becomes pretty difficult to distinguish between these teams.  Nonetheless, here we go (I heavily depended on baseball-reference.com and mlbdepthcharts.com for this post, along with ESPN’s transaction list per team and Baseball Prospectus’ injury reports for individual players).

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Written by Todd Boss

March 10th, 2014 at 9:50 am

Posted in Majors Pitching

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What is the “ceiling” of various Nats pitching prospects? (Updated for 2013)

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Can Giolito live up to his potential? Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Can Giolito live up to his potential? Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Two off-seasons ago, I did an analysis piece discussing the “ceilings” of the various pitchers (focusing on starters in the system) on our major and minor league rosters.   That led to some good discussions in the comments about what the definition of a pitcher’s ceiling is, about what a “#3″ starter is, etc.

Now that the 2013 season has ended, I thought it’d be a good topic to revisit and factor in recent performances and the last couple year’s worth of player movement in and out of the organization.

This post mostly focuses on the Starters we have in the organization.  There’s no real mention of guys who are already in the bullpen (either in the majors or the minors) unless we have heard rumors of them converting back to being starters at some point or another.


Some setup

What do I mean by a #1, #2, #3, #4 or #5 starter?  With some simple examples (from the 2011 post)

  • A #1 starter is a MLB-wide “Ace,” one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, opten mentioned in Cy Young conversations.   Guys like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander.
  • A #2 starter is a  slight step down from your elite “Aces,” but still an excellent starter.  Can challenge for the top awards if they put everything together for a season, but remains consistently above average.   I see guys like Madison Bumgarner, Homer Bailey or James Shields in this category
  • A #3 starter is better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that.   I think of guys like Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse, or John Lackey here.
  • A #4 starter is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, usually a veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond or a younger guy who is establishing a foothold of a career.   Good examples from this year could include the likes of Kyle Kendrick, or Edwin Jackson or Bronson Arroyo.
  • A #5 starter is just good enough to fill out your rotation.  Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game.  Think of someone like Jason Marquis at this point in his career, or Ryan Vogelsong.

For clarity; if your team has three excellent pitchers, it does not mean that a league-wide ace is defined by these standards as a “#3″ starter.  When the Phillies big 3 of Roy HalladayCliff Lee and Cole Hamels were all healthy and firing on all cylinders a couple of years back, all three were #1 starters in my book.  Just because Hamels pitched third in the rotation didn’t mean he was a “#3 starter.”

Also before getting going, a quick discussion on “ceiling” versus “predictions” and what I’m trying to do here.  As was pointed out when I posted on this topic in 2011, a pitcher’s “ceiling” is quite literally the highest level of capability that we can expect that pitcher to accomplish given a perfect set of circumstances.   Scouts routinely talk about player “ceilings” and “number X” starters as a convenient way to speak a common language when describing a pitcher.   I like to be a bit more grounded in predicting what may happen to pitchers, so this analysis is less about the perfect-scenario “ceiling” as it is a thoughtful prediction on where a guy may eventually fit in given his talents and his performances as compared to scouting reports and industry buzz.


Updated ceiling predictions for Nats pitchers post 2013 season:

Nationals Starter Ceilings (per scouting reports, personal observations).  I’m not going to include any MLFAs here, assuming that they’re all either 4-A or minor league starters as a ceiling.  I’m also only really going down to full-season ball guys, throwing in a couple of our higher-end prospects.  Its just impossible to really project guys in rookie ball unless you’re a professional scout.

  • #1: Strasburg, Giolito
  • #2: Gonzalez, Zimmermann
  • #3: Cole, Ray
  • #4: Jordan, Roark
  • #5: Detwiler, Solis
  • MLB bullpen: Purke, Karns, Ohlendorf, Garcia, Johansen, Treinen
  • 4-A starter: Hill, Mooneyham, Schwartz, Voth, Meyers
  • Minors starter: Rosenbaum, Maya, Gilliam, Rauh, Anderson, Encarnacion, Bacus, Turnbull
  • Minors bullpen: Perry, Demny, RPena

Discussion:

#1 Starters: Stephen Strasburg is already an “Ace” starter in this league, ranking up among the 15-20 best arms out there.   However he’s no longer considered in the same class as the likes of Kershaw, thanks to injury and a curious lack of dominance this year (have a draft post on this topic that i’ll expand on later).  Lucas Giolito is widely considered the Nats top prospect and an easy future #1 pitching prospect.  Big guy, big arm, and by all accounts has come back post TJ surgery.  The BA guys think that he could be the #1 prospect in the entire minors with another dominant 2014.  How quickly can he move through the minors?  Can he stay healthy?  Right around the time Giolito arrives, the Nats “3 big names” could all be at the end of their current contracts and an interesting conundrum could face the team; keep the band together?  Or let these guys go and re-load/re-build?

#2 Starters: Just as Gio Gonzalez made the leap to a #2 starter with his Cy Young challenging 2012, Jordan Zimmermann has made that leap by virtue of his near-20 win season in 2013.  I believe these two guys can stay as #2 starters for the next few years, until they hit the regression stages of their careers.

#3 Starters:  A.J. Cole has regained his mojo after bouncing around the California league and advanced to AA this year.  He features a significant fastball and but complaints in the scouting world about his secondary stuff lead him to a #3 starter prediction.  I think he should be a #2 ceiling, and perhaps a spring training working with the Nats staff can get him back where we thought he was when we drafted him.  I’m sure picking Robbie Ray to have a higher likely ceiling than his 2013 AA counterparts would be mocked.  But look at the evidence: he’s the same age and same draft class as Cole and has consistently out-performed him when they’ve been on the same team.  He’s lefty, he averaged well over a K/inning this year, and suddenly he’s 22 and he may be “done” with AA.  Why aren’t his credentials higher with prospect-watchers?  It isn’t has if he’s a soft-tosser; he throws decent stuff from the left side.  I continue to think he’ll move along with Cole and they’ll be promoted to the majors within a couple of weeks of each other, perhaps mid 2015.

#4 Starters: If you want to say I’m crazy for thinking that Tanner Roark can maintain his September pace as a starter for this team, I can understand.  I’m not personally convinced that he’s going to be a mediocre 6th inning reliever or continue to be a Kris Medlen-in-2012 anomoly who continues to get guys out.  For now, i’m rooting for the better story.  Meanwhile I’m also not convinced that I have Taylor Jordan pegged properly; I think honestly he could be a #3 pitcher in the league.  This lack of real punch-out capabilities is what’s holding him back for now.  That being said, guys don’t just come up to the majors and post a 3.66 ERA.  For now, a #4 ceiling sounds good.

#5 StartersI’ve come to believe that Ross Detwiler‘s reached his ceiling; his 2012 season is as good as we’re going to see him.  Not because of a lack of talent; its because he just can’t stay healthy.  I’ve seen and heard reports that Detwiler’s stuff is fantastic; that’s great on paper but he just can’t seem to translate that to the big club on a consistent basis.  I would not shed a tear if he headed to the bullpen, other than to think that its a waste of his talents.   I also feel like Sammy Solis will stay as a starter and continue to climb up the ranks, and tops out as a 5th starter just by virtue of his being left handed.  There’s just something to be said about being a lefty with decent stuff being able to hang around the league (think of someone like Eric Stults).  

MLB Bullpen: Right now i’m projecting a whole handful of our good minor league starters to eventually get transitioned to the bullpen.  Which is good and bad; good for this team as they continue to develop arms and continue to have quality guys in the pen.  But bad in that it predicts a severe thinning of the starting pitching corps.  First off, I think the Christian Garcia as starter experiment is over; he needs to focus on being a reliever so that he can stay healthy and contribute.   I believe that Ross Ohlendorf‘s time as a starter is over, but he should slot in nicely as the 7th guy/long-man/spot-starter that this team will need here and there in 2014.  The more I think about Nathan Karns, the more I think he’d make an excellent setup guy.  Big arm, big fast-ball, not really that much secondary stuff.  He got hit hard as a starter; in shorter stints he could dial it up more and focus on his limited arsenal.   Unfortunately I think Matthew Purke may be headed to the pen as well, but his gun-slinger action could make him an excellent later-innings pitcher, perhaps even a closer, if he can translate that to a bit more velocity.  Lastly the reported two biggest arms in the minors (Jake Johansen and Blake Treinen) project for now as bullpen guys.  Again, I hope I’m wrong, but so far the evidence seems to point at big velocity and little else.

What is a 4-A starter?  A guy basically who looks good in AAA but who, for whatever reason, can’t translate that success to the Majors.  They may get a call-up here and there but never pitch well enough to stick.  This is how I see a handful of guys ending up: Brad Meyers has been hanging around this status for several seasons and just can’t get a break.   I’ve also tagged some guys with good numbers in the lower minors but with fringy scouting reports with this for now, thinking that a lack of a dominant fastball means they’ll stay as a starter until they reach their peak.  Taylor HillBlake Schwartz, and Austin Voth all seem to fit this bill.  Lastly the curious lack of dominance of Brett Mooneyham lends me to believe he’ll end up in this predicament as well.  I hope I’m wrong here; I’d love to see these guys take the leap, or (save that) find success in the bullpen.

Career Minors Starter: Unfortunately, I think we’ve seen the best that Danny Rosenbaum and Yunesky Maya can give; they’ve both had shots at a major league roster and couldn’t stay.  I think they’ll retire as AAA starters.  The rest of these guys listed are mediocre-to-decent starters in the system who don’t seem to be listed as true prospects.  I’m specifically disappointed thus far in Kylin Turnbull, who couldn’t make the leap to high A and seems like he needs to make some sort of adjustment in 2014.

Career Minors Bullpen guys: When Ryan Perry passed through waivers off the 40-man roster, his chances of ever making it back to the majors took a huge dent.  Paul Demny‘s precipitous drop this season also seems to spell doom for his career.  And apropos of nothing else, Ronald Pena seems like he has achieved the dreaded “organizational arm” tag.


On the bright side, the top-heavy nature of this list gives fans optimism for the power of this rotation for years to come.  In 3 year’s time (if Giolito, Ray and Cole all matriculate as expected) you’d have two Aces, two #2s and two #3s to choose from for your rotation.  That’s significant, considering that lots of teams are scraping the bottom of the barrel for their 5th starter.  If Ray and Cole turn into servicable major leaguers, you could trade/let go a guy who gets too expensive (Gonzalez or Zimmermann) with an able, cheap replacement.  Maybe I’m too high on Ray and Cole (who are both youngsters) … but then again maybe i’m too low on Jordan and Roark (both of whom have already shown the ability get major league hitters out).

Agree/Disagree/Hate what I’ve written?  I’m open to criticism.

 

2013 Pre-season Rotation Rankings revisited

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Scherzer's dominant Cy Young season brings the Tigers to the top.  Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Scherzer’s dominant Cy Young season brings the Tigers to the top. Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

In January, after most of marquee FA signings had shaken out, I ranked the 2013 rotations of teams 1-30.  I was excited about the Nats rotation, speculated more than once that we had the best rotation in the league, and wanted to make a case for it by stacking up the teams 1-30.

I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to revisit my rankings now that the season is over with a hindsight view, doing some post-mortem analysis and tacking on some advanced metrics to try to quantify who really performed the best this season.  For advanced metrics I’m leaning heavily on Fangraphs team starter stats page, whose Dashboard view quickly gives the team ERA, FIP, xFIP, WAR, SIERA, K/9 and other key stats that I’ll use in this posting.

  1. (#2 pre-season) DetroitVerlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Porcello (with Alvarez providing some cover).  Scherzer likely wins the Cy Young.  Three guys with 200+ strikeouts.  The league leader in ERA.  And we havn’t even mentioned Justin Verlander yet.  A team starting pitching fWAR of 25.3, which dwarfed the next closest competitor.  There’s no question; we knew Detroit’s rotation was going to be good, but not this good.  Here’s a scary fact; their rotation BABIP was .307, so in reality this group should have done even better than they actually did.  Detroit’s rotation was *easily* the best rotation in the league and all 6 of these guys return for 2014.
  2. (#3 Preseason): Los Angeles DodgersKershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Nolasco, and Capuano (with Fife, BeckettLilly, Billingsley and a few others helping out); The 1-2 punch of Kershaw (the NL’s clear Cy Young favorite) and Greinke (who quietly went 15-4) was augmented by the stand-out rookie performance of Ryu, the surprisingly good half-season worth of starts from Nolasco, and then the all-hands-on deck approach for the rest of the starts.  This team used 11 different starters on the year thanks to injury and ineffectiveness, but still posted the 2nd best team FIP and 5th best fWAR in the league.
  3. (#8 pre-season): St. LouisWainwright, Lynn, Miller, Wacha and Kelly (with Garcia, Westbrook, and a few others pitching in).  Team leader Chris Carpenter missed the whole season and this team still was one of the best rotations in the league.  Westbrook missed time, Garcia only gave them 9 starts.  That’s the team’s planned #1, #3 and #4 starters.  What happened?  They call up Miller and he’s fantastic.  They call up Wacha and he nearly pitches back to back no-hitters at the end of the season.  They give Kelly a starting nod out of the bullpen and he delivers with a better ERA+ than any of them from the #5 spot.  St. Louis remains the bearer-standard of pitching development (along with Tampa and Oakland to an extent) in the game.
  4. (#22 pre-season): Pittsburgh:  Liriano, Burnett, Locke, Cole, Morton (with Rodriguez and a slew of call-ups helping out).  How did this team, which I thought was so low pre-season, turn out to have the 4th best starter FIP in the game?  Francisco Liriano had a renessaince season, Burnett continued to make Yankees fans shake their heads, and their top 6 starters (by number of starts) all maintained sub 4.00 ERAs.  Gerrit Cole has turned out to be the real deal and will be a force in this league.
  5. (#1 pre-season) WashingtonStrasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Haren, Detwiler with Jordan, Roark and other starts thrown to Karns and Ohlendorf).   Despite Haren’s continued attempts to sabotage this rotation’s mojo, they still finished 3rd in xFIP and 5th in FIP.  Haren’s 11-19 team record and substandard ERA/FIP values drug this group down, but there wasn’t much further up they could have gone on this list.   If  you had replaced Haren with a full season of Jordan’s production, maybe this team jumps up a little bit, but the teams above them are tough to beat.
  6. (#11 pre-season) Atlanta: Hudson, Medlen, Minor, Teheran and Maholm, (with rookie Alex Wood contributing towards the end of the season).  Brandon Beachy only gave them 5 starts; had he replaced Maholm this rotation could have done better.  Hudson went down with an awful looking injury but was ably covered for by Wood.  They head into 2014 with a relatively formidable  and cheap potential rotation of  Medlen, Minor, Teheran, Beachy and Wood, assuming they don’t resign Hudson.  How did they over-perform?  Teheran finally figured it out, Maholm was more than servicable the first couple months, Wood was great and came out of nowhere.
  7. (#26 pre-season) ClevelandJimenez, Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Kazmir.  Too high for this group?  7th in rotation fWAR, 8th in FIP, and 6th in xFIP.  This group, which I thought was going to be among the worst in the league, turned out to be one of the best.  Jimenez and Masterson both had rebound years with a ton of Ks, and the rest of this crew pitches well enough to remain around league average.  They were 2nd best in the league in K/9.  You can make the argument that they benefitted from the weakened AL Central, but they still made the playoffs with a relative rag-tag bunch.
  8. (#9 pre-season) CincinnatiCueto, Latos, Bailey, Arroyo, Leake (with Tony Cingrani).  Cueto was good … but he was never healthy, hitting the D/L three separate times.  Luckily Cingrani came up from setting strikeout records in AAA and kept mowing them down in the majors.  Latos was dominant,  Leake took a step forward, and Bailey/Arroyo gave what they normally do.  If anything you would have thought this group would have been better.  6th in Wins, 7th in xFIP, 9th in FIP.  Next year Arroyo leaves, Cingrani gets 32 starts, Cueto stays healthy (cross your fingers, cross your fingers, cross your fingers) and this team is dominant again despite their FA hitting losses.
  9. (#25 pre-season) New York MetsHarvey, WheelerNiese, Gee, Hefner and a bunch of effective call-ups turned the Mets into a halfway-decent rotation all in all.  7th in xFIP, 11th in FIP.  Most of this is on the backs of Matt Harvey, who pitched like the second coming of Walter Johnson for most of the season.  Wheeler was more than effective, and rotation workhorses Niese and Gee may not be sexy names, but they were hovering right around the 100 ERA+ mark all year.  One superstar plus 4 league average guys was good enough for the 9th best rotation.
  10. (#12 pre-season) TexasDarvish, Holland, Ogando, Perez, Garza at the end.  Texas’ fWAR was the 2nd best in the league … but their accompanying stats drag them down this far.  Despite having four starters with ERA+s ranging from 114 to Darvish’ 145, the 34 starts given to Tepesch and Grimm drag this rotation down.  Ogando couldn’t stay healthy and Perez only gave them 20 starts.  Garza was mostly a bust.  And presumed #2 starter Matt Harrison gave them just 2 starts.  But look out for this group in 2014; Darvish, a healthy Harrison, and Holland all locked up long term, Ogando in his first arbitration year, and Perez is just 22.  That’s a formidable group if they can stay on the field together.
  11. (pre-season #6) Tampa BayPrice, Moore, Hellickson, Cobb, Archer and Roberto Hernandez.   Jeff Niemann didn’t give them a 2013 start, but no matter, the Tampa Bay gravy train of power pitchers kept on producing.  Cobb was unhittable, Archer was effective and Moore regained his 2011 playoff mojo to finish 17-4 on the year.  An odd regression from Price, which was fixed by a quick D/L trip, and a complete collapse of Hellickson drug down this rotation from where it should have been.  They still finished 12th in FIP and xFIP for the year.
  12. (pre-season #21) SeattleHernandez, Iwakuma, Saunders, Harang, Maurer, and Ramirez.  Seattle featured two excellent, ace-leve performers and a bunch of guys who pitched worse than Dan Haren all year.  But combined together and you have about the 12th best rotation, believe it or not.
  13. (pre-season #7) PhiladelphiaHalladay, Hamels, Lee, Kendrick, Lannan (with Cloyd and Pettibone as backups).  The phillies were 13th in xFIP, 10th in FIP on the year and regressed slightly thanks to the significant demise to their #1 guy Halladay.  Lee pitched like his typical Ace but Hamels self-destructed as well.  The strength of one excellent starter makes this a mid-ranked rotation.  Had Halladay and Hamels pitched like expected, they’d have finished closer to my pre-season ranking.
  14. (pre-season #17) BostonLester, Buchholz, Dempster, Lackey, Doubront, and Peavy: Boston got a surprise bounce back season out of Lackey, a fantastic if oft-injured performance from Buchholz, a mid-season trade for the effective Peavy.  Why aren’t they higher?  Because their home stadium contributes to their high ERAs in general.  Despite being 3rd in rotation fWAR and 4th in wins, this group was 17th in FIP and 18th in xFIP.  Perhaps you could argue they belong a couple places higher, but everyone knows its Boston’s offense that is driving their success this year.
  15. (pre-season #16) New York YankeesSabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Nova, Hughes/Phelps Hughes and Phelps pitched as predictably bad as you would have expected … but Sabathia’s downturn was unexpected.  Are  his years of being a workhorse catching up to him?  The rotation was buoyed by unexpectedly good seasons from Nova and Kuroda.  Pettitte’s swang song was pretty great, considering his age.  Enough for them to slightly beat expectations, but the signs of trouble are here for this rotation in the future.   Pettitee retired, Kuroda a FA, Hughes a FA, a lost season for prospect Michael Pineda and other Yankees prospects stalled.  Are we in for a dark period in the Bronx?
  16. (pre-season #29) Miami: FernandezNolasco, Eovaldi, Turner, Alvarez, Koehler and a few other starts given to either re-treads or MLFAs.  For Miami’s rotation of kids to rise this far up is amazing; looking at their stellar stats you would think they should have been higher ranked still.  Fernandez’s amazing 176 ERA+ should win him the Rookie of the Year.  Eovaldi improved, rookie Turner pitched pretty well for a 22 year old.  The team dumped its opening day starter Nolasco and kept on … losing frankly, because the offense was so durn bad.  Begrudgingly it looks like Jeffry Loria has found himself another slew of great arms to build on.
  17. (pre-season #5) San FranciscoCain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Zito, Gaudin.  What the heck happened here?  Cain went from an Ace to pitching like a 5th starter, Lincecum continued to completely forget what it was like to pitch like a Cy Young winner, Vogelsong completely fell off his fairy-tale cliff, and Zito completed his $126M journey in typical 5+ ERA fashion.  I’m surprised these guys are ranked this high (14th in FIP, 16th in xFIP but just 27th in fWAR thanks to just horrible performances all year).  What the heck are they going to do in 2014?
  18. (pre-season #10) Arizona: CorbinKennedy, McCarthy, Cahill, Miley and Delgado.  Corbin was 2013′s version of Miley; a rookie that came out of nowhere to lead the staff.  Miley struggled at times but righted the ship and pitched decently enough.  The rest of the staff really struggled.  I thought this was a solid bunch but they ended up ranked 23rd in FIP and 14th in xFIP, indicating that they were a bit unlucky as a group.
  19. (pre-season #15) Chicago White SoxSale, Peavy, Danks, QuintanaSantiago and Axelrod.  Floyd went down early, Peavy was traded.  Sale pitched well but had a losing record.  The team looked good on paper (16th in ERA) but were 26th in FIP and 17th in xFIP.
  20. (pre-season #14) Oakland: ColonAnderson, Griffen, Parker, Straily, Milone, with Sonny Gray giving 10 good starts down the stretch.  This rotation is the story of one amazing 40-yr old and a bunch of kids who I thought were going to be better.   Oakland is bashing their way to success this season and this group has been just good enough to keep them going.  I thought the likes of Griffen and Parker would have been better this  year, hence their falling from #14 to #19.
  21. (pre-season #19) Chicago CubsGarza, Samardzija, JacksonWood, and FeldmanFeldman and Garza were flipped once they showed they could be good this year.  Samardzija took an uncharacteristic step backwards.  Jackson was awful.  The Cubs ended up right about where we thought they’d be.  However in 2014 they look to be much lower unless some big-armed prospects make the team.
  22. (pre-season #20) Kansas CityShields, Guthrie, Santana, Davis, Chen, Mendoza: despite trading the best prospect in the game to acquire Shields and Davis, the Royals a) did not make the playoffs and b) really didn’t have that impressive a rotation.  12th in team ERA but 20th in FIP and 25th in xFIP.   Compare that to their rankings of 25th in FIP and 26th in xFIP in 2012.   But the results on the field are inarguable; the team improved 14 games in the Win column and should be a good bet to make the playoffs next year if they can replace the possibly-departing Santana and the ineffective Davis.
  23. (pre-season #23) Milwaukee: LohseGallardo, Estrada, Peralta, and dozens of starts given to long-men and call-ups.  I ranked this squad #23 pre-season before they acquired Lohse; in reality despite his pay and the lost draft pick, Lohse’s addition ended up … having almost no impact on this team in 2013.  They finished ranked 23rd on my list, and the team was 74-88.
  24. (pre-season #13): Los Angeles AngelsWeaver, Wilson, Vargas, Hanson, Blanton, Williams: The Angels are in a predicament; their two “aces” Weaver and Wilson both pitched well enough.  But nobody in baseball was really that surprised by the god-awful performances from Hanson or Blanton (2-14, 6.04 ERA … and the Angels gave him a two year deal!).  So in some ways the team brought this on themselves.  You spend half a billion dollars on aging offensive FAs, have the best player in the game languishing in left field because your manager stubbornly thinks that someone else is better in center than one of the best defenders in the game … not fun times in Anaheim.  To make matters worse, your bigtime Ace Weaver missed a bunch of starts, looked mortal, and lost velocity.
  25. (#28 pre-season) San DiegoVolquez, Richards, Marquis, Stults, Ross, Cashner: have you ever seen an opening day starter post a 6+ ERA in a cave of a field and get relased before the season was over?  That happened to SAn Diego this year.  Another case where ERA+ values are deceiving; Stults posted a sub 4.00 ERA but his ERA+ was just 87, thanks to his home ballpark.  In fact its almost impossible to tell just how good or bad San Diego pitchers are.   I could be talked in to putting them this high or all the way down to about #28 in the rankings.
  26. (pre-season #27) Colorado: ChatwoodDe La Rosa, Chacin, Nicaso, Francis and a few starts for Garland and Oswalt for good measure.  Another staff who shows how deceptive the ERA+ value can be.  Their top guys posted 125 ERA+ figures but as a whole their staff performed badly.  26th in ERA, 19th in FIP, 26th in xFIP.  Colorado is like Minnesota; they just don’t have guys who can throw it by you (29th in K/9 just ahead of the Twins), and in their ridiculous hitter’s park, that spells trouble.
  27. (pre-season #4) TorontoDickeyMorrowJohnson, Buehrle, Happ, Rogers, and a line of other guys.  What happened here?  This was supposed to be one of the best rotations in the majors.  Instead they fell on their face, suffered a ton of injuries (only Dickey and Buehrle pitched full seasons: RomeroDrabeck were hurt.  Johnson, Happ, Redmond only 14-16 starts each.  This team even gave starts to Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz.  Why not call up Fernando Valenzuela out of retirement?  It just goes to show; the best teams on paper sometimes don’t come together.  The Nats disappointed in 2013, but probably not as much as the Blue Jays.
  28. (pre-season #18) BaltimoreHammel, Chen, Tillman, Gonzalez, FeldmanGarcia with a few starts given to Gausman and Britton.  I’m not sure why I thought this group would be better than this; they were in the bottom four of the league in ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA.  It just goes to show how the ERA+ value can be misleading.  In their defense, they do pitch in a hitter’s park.  Tillman wasn’t bad, Chen took a step back.  The big concern here is the health of Dylan Bundy, who I thought could have pitched in the majors starting in June.
  29. (pre-season #30) Houston: BedardNorris, Humber, Peacock, Harrell to start, then a parade of youngsters from there.  We knew Houston was going to be bad.  But amazingly their rotation wasn’t the worst in the league, thanks to Jarred Cosart and Brett Olberholtzer coming up and pitching lights-out for 10 starts a piece later in the year.  There’s some potential talent here.
  30. (pre-season #24) MinnesotaDiamond, Pelfrey, Correia, Denudo, Worley and a whole slew of guys who were equally as bad.  Minnesota had the worst rotation in the league, and it wasn’t close.  They were dead last in rotational ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and it wasn’t close.  They were last in K/9 … by more than a strikeout per game.  They got a total fWAR of 4.6 from every pitcher who started a game for them this year.  Matt Harvey had a 6.1 fWAR in just 26 starts before he got hurt.  Someone needs to call the Twins GM and tell him that its not the year 1920, that power-pitching is the wave of the future, that you need swing-and-miss guys to win games in this league.

Biggest Surprises: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Miami and New York Mets to a certain extent.

Biggest Disappointments: Toronto, the Angels, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore to some extent.

Disagree with these rankings?  Feel free to pipe up.  I’ll use this ranking list as the spring board post-FA market for 2014′s pre-season rankings.

Written by Todd Boss

October 10th, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Majors Pitching

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Ranking the 2013 Playoff Rotations

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Kershaw leads the best rotation in the playoffs. Photo via wiki.

Kershaw leads the best rotation in the playoffs. Photo via wiki.

Now that the playoff fields are set … who has the most formidable playoff rotation?

Unlike previous rotation rankings posts, the playoffs focus mostly on the 1-2-3 guys.  Your 5th starter may not even be on the playoff roster and your 4th starter usually just throws one start in a series where you can line up your guys, and some teams skip the 4th starter altogether if they at least one veteran pitcher who can all go on 3 days rest (there’s enough off-days in the 2-3-2 format to allow most guys to go on regular rest).  So the focus here is on the strength of your top guys.

Here’s how I’d rank the 10 playoff teams’ rotations, despite the fact that two of these teams will be wild card losers and never get a chance to use their rotations:

  1. Los Angeles: Kershaw, Greinke, Nolasco, Ryu (Capuano left out).  As great a 1-2 combination Kershaw and Greinke are, Nolasco has for stretches outpiched them both since his trade, and Ryu is a #2 starter talent in the #4 slot.  They’re going to be a tough out in any short series where Kershaw gets two starts.  Easily the #1 playoff rotation.
  2. Detroit: Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister (Porcello left out).  Hard to believe that a guy who most thought was the best or 2nd best pitcher in baseball (Verlander) may not even get the start in the first game of the playoffs.  But they’re still the 2nd best rotation.
  3. St. Louis: Wainwright, Miller, Wacha, Kelly (Westbrook and Garcia hurt, Lynn left out).  The knock on St Louis’ current rotation is their youth; two rookies and a 2nd year guy who was in the bullpen all last year.  Are there any innings-limit concerns here that could force a shutdown  It doesn’t seem so at this point?  It continues to amaze me how well St. Louis develops players.  Carpenter and Garcia out all year?  No worries we’ll just bring up two guys in Wacha and Miller who are barely old enough to drink but who can pitch to a 120 ERA+.
  4. Tampa Bay: Price, Moore, Archer, Cobb (Hellickson left out); A tough top 4, if a little young on the back-side.  Moore has quietly returned to this dominant form upon his call-up and gives Tampa a formidable 1-2 punch.  Price has already pushed them past game 163.
  5. Pittsburgh: Liriano, Burnett, Cole, Morton (Rodriguez hurt, Locke left out).  The team previously said that Cole would likely a reliever in the playoffs, but I’ll believe that when I see it; he’s been fantastic down the stretch.  It is difficult to put a rotation headlined by the burnout Burnett and the reclamation project Liriano this high, but their performances this year are inarguable.
  6. Boston: Lester, Buchholz, Peavy, Lackey (Dempster, Doubront left out).  Buchholz just returning mid September after a hot start; could push this rank up.  I don’t necessarily trust the #3 and #4 spots here in a short series, but Boston can (and probably will) bash their way to the World Series.
  7. Cincinnati: Bailey, Cueto, Arroyo, Cingrani (Leake left out, Latos hurt).  Cingrani may be hurt, Cueto has returned to replace the sore-armed Latos.  Leake’s performance may push him over Arroyo if they get there, but the odds of them beating Pittsburgh were already slim after their poor finish and were vanquished last night.  Still, isn’t it nice when you have more quality starters than you need heading into a season, Mike Rizzo?
  8. Atlanta: Minor, Medlen, Teheran, Wood (Hudson hurt, Maholm left out).  If Wood is shutdown, Maholm makes sense as the #4 starter but has struggled most of the 2nd half and finished poorly.  I may have this rotation ranked too low; they’re solid up and down, just not overpoweringly flashy.
  9. Cleveland: Jimenez, Kluber, Kazmir, Salazar (Masterson in the pen, McAllister left out).  How did these guys get a playoff spot?  Amazing.  They’re all solid, nobody especially flashy, and they won’t go away.
  10. OaklandColon, Parker, Griffen, Gray (Milone, Straily left out, Anderson in long relief).  I didn’t want to rank them last, considering Oakland’s record over their last 162 game stretch.  But here they are; on an individual level one by one, they just do not stack up.  The age-less wonder Colon is easily the staff Ace.  The rest of these guys’ seasonal numbers are just not impressive.

These teams obviously didn’t make the playoffs, but were in the hunt until late, and since I had already typed up this content might as well say where I’d have ranked them, had they made the playoffs…

  • Washington: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Haren (Ohlendorf, Roark left out, Jordan shut down)  Perhaps you’d replace Haren with Roark based on September performances;  I just can’t imagine trusting Haren in a 7 game series..  I’d put them about #4, just ahead or just behind Tampa.   Gonzalez and Zimmermann have shown themselves to be oddly vulnerable here and there coming down the stretch, and I just don’t put Strasburg in the same elite category as Kershaw right now.  Too bad months of indifference cost them the 4 games they needed to make up in the standings to reach the WC game.
  • Kansas City: Shields, Santana, Chen, Guthrie (Duffy, Davis, Mendoza left out): Duffy may be a better choice than Guthrie based on small sample sizes.  I’d have put them just behind Cincy at #8 in terms of rotation depth.
  • Texas: Darvish, Garza, Holland, Perez (Tepisch, Grimm left out, Harrison hurt): Great Ace in Darvish (even if he has occasaional blowups), but falls off badly after that.  The Garza acquisition has just not worked out, and the rest of the rotation is good but not overpowering.  I’d put them behind KC but just ahead of Baltimore.
  • Baltimore: Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, Feldman (Norris, Garcia, Hammel and others left out).  They’d probably be behind Atlanta at #9, only ahead of Oakland/Cleveland.
  • New York: Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Pettitte (Hughes, Phelps left out): Kuroda has been the ace of the staff this year, but you’d always lead off with Sabathia (though, had they made the playoffs it would be unknown if Sabathia could even go with his late-season injury).  Either way, this would be behind any other playoff team’s rotation.

Taylor Jordan: Never too soon to think about the future…

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Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization.  Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

Taylor Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization. Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

I’ll file this as one of the “Patently Obvious” responses that have come out of Mike Rizzo‘s mouth in response to a reporter’s question, but Rizzo went “on record” as saying that Taylor Jordan will “get every opportunity to be in the mix for the rotation next year” per beat reports (this example from Byron Kerr) after Jordan got his first major league victory in Sunday 7/28/13′s 14-1 blow-out of the Mets.

Well, of course he’ll get a chance to compete for the rotation.   He’s pitching a hell of a lot better right now than $13M man Dan Haren, for approximately 1/30th of the cost.  What GM doesn’t want that??

One of the big reasons I started this blog was to talk about the development of Nats minor league pitchers.  Back in the dark days, when the team was spending $15M on the FA market to acquire 5th starters like Jason Marquis, I became convinced that the single most valuable commodity in Major League Baseball (in terms of talent development and acquisition) was the pre-arbitration starting pitcher.   Our farm system had the “Loria/Bowden” holes in terms of player development in the 2007-2009 time frame and for a few years the team couldn’t develop an effective starter, instead relying on guys like Marquis and on other minor league/low-end free agent signings (think Tim ReddingDaniel Cabrera, and the aging Livan Hernandez being examples).   Rizzo came in, put the emphasis on drafting and development, and now the opening day rotation features 3 home-grown guys and a fourth in Gio Gonzalez who was acquired by trading other home-grown guys.

One of my biggest data-collection projects was the information behind my regular “Pitcher Wins on the Free Agency Market” post.   After looking at pretty much every significant FA pitcher signing that baseball has ever had, and calculating salary versus wins, it became clear that teams are historically doing well if they get about one win per $1M spent on a FA pitcher.  Sign a guy for $13M a year?  You hope to get 13 wins out of him.

But this analysis also shows just how valuable the pre-arbitration, cost-controlled starter is.  Consider Clay Buchholz for Boston in 2010; he goes 17-7 in his 3rd active year, earning the MLB minimum of $443,000.  That 17-win capability eventually earned him a $12-$13M/year contract, but while he was getting the minimum he was winning games for Boston for pennies on the dollar versus what it would have cost Boston to purchase that capability on the open market.

Combine this point with the continually dwindling talent available on the FA market these as teams lock up their players earlier and more frequently, and the price for pitching just continues to go higher.  Zack Greinke signed a 6 year $147M contract paying him more than $24M annually last summer partly because he was the only significant pitcher out there.  Grienke is talented, don’t get me wrong, but outside of his unbelievable 2009 season he’s basically pitched like a #3 starter.   Even this year, he’s pitching to a rather pedestrian 103 ERA+, just barely above the league average of adjusted ERA for starters.  Not exactly what you expect for that kind of money.  The 2014 Free Agent Market in terms of pitching is looking equally as bare as 2013.   The best guy out there may be Matt Garza, who again is talented but is also injury prone and not exactly a league-wide Ace.   Get past Garza and you’re looking at inconsistent (Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes), injury plagued (Shawn Marcum or Colby Lewis), just old guys (Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and pure wild cards (Tim Lincecum or Scott Kazmir).

There’s a reason Tampa went nearly 8 full seasons without having a Free Agent acquisition start a game for them; they know exactly what it means to develop effective starters, and they have a stableful of them.  Trade away James Shields and Wade Davis?  No problem; just call up Chris Archer and Alex Colome (never mind the rest of their Durham rotation).

So, back to Jordan.  If the Nats can find an effective 4th or 5th starter from their farm system right now, it frees them from the one-year hired gun strategy of Haren and Edwin Jackson.  It gives them the flexibility to continue to allow their best prospects in the lower minors to develop (i’m thinking specifically of A.J. ColeRobbie RaySammy Solis, and Matthew Purke, though Cole and Ray aren’t exactly in the “low” minors anymore with their promotions to AA).  It gives them the depth they did not have this year to cover for a starting pitcher injury.   It gives them time to let Nathan Karns figure out if he’s going to be a starter or a reliever at the MLB level.  It gives them added payroll flexibility can go towards fixing holes in the short term.  Longer term it allows the team to spend money on extending the core guys, or allows them to consider whether the rising price tag on someone like Ross Detwiler is worth paying (much like they cut loose John Lannan last year).  If you’re going to pay market value for Strasburg and Harper, then you’re going to need some low-cost players who can contribute to counter balance the payroll.

Or, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this either, it gives Rizzo interesting trade chips that he could package with other guys to acquire the Haren/Jackson hurler instead of buying him.

Two years ago we acquired Gonzalez for two near-to-the-majors starters, a surplus catcher prospect and a low-minors/high profile arm.  Right now it seems like we could put nearly the same package together (Jordan, Karns, Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon and then a decent arm from A-ball, or maybe even a Ray or Cole) and move them for such a resource.  I wouldn’t put it past Rizzo; Jordan may be looking good right now, but his peripherals don’t project as a “Rizzo Guy.”  Neither did Tommy Milone so he got shipped out; will Jordan be a 5th starter candidate in 2014 or trade bait?

Personally, I’d like to see Jordan succeed.  He’s a great success story; unhearalded 9th rounder coming off an injury that most of us thought was good, but who also thought that finishing the year successfully at high-A would have been a great achievement.  Instead he blows through high-A and AA ball and is now more than holding his own in the majors.

Would you rather have Houston or Durham’s rotation?

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My Pitching Rotation Rankings post (published on January 7th 2013)  ended up with poor Houston ranked as the 30th best rotation heading into the 2013 season.  They’re heading into the 2013 season with this rotation of guys:

Rank Name Age 2012 Stats
1 Bud Norris 28 (MLB Hou) 7-13, 4.65 ERA, 1.37 whip, 86 ERA+, 4.23 fip
2 Lucas Harrell 28 (MLB Hou) 11-11, 3.76 ERA, 1.36 whip, 106 ERA+, 3.75 fip
3 Philip Humbel 30 (MLB CWS) 5-5 6.44 ERA, 1.54 whip, 68 ERA+, 5.77 fip
4 Erik Bedard 34 (MLB Pit) 7-14, 5.01 ERA, 1.47 whip, 74 ERA+, 4.07 fip
5 Brad Peacock 25 (AAA Sac) 12-9, 6.01 ERA, 1.58 whip, 4.26 fip

There’s a couple of decent possibilities here: Norris looked pretty good opening day and Harrell’s numbers last year weren’t bad.  The other three though?  Phew.  Even Nats favorite Brad Peacock isn’t that convincing right now as a starter, based on his numbers in the PCL last year.

Now, here’s Tampa Bay AAA affiliate Durham Bull’s opening day 2013 rotation:

Rank Name Age 2012 Stats
1 Chris Archer 24 (AAA Dur): 7-9, 3.66 era, 1.258 whip, 3.25 fip
2 Jake Odorizzi 23 (AAA Oma): 11-3, 2.93 era, 1.35 whip, 4.19 fip
3 Alex Colome 25 (AA Birm) 8-3, 3.48 ERA, 1.37 whip, 2.91 fip
4 Mike Montgomery 23 (AAA Oma): 3-6, 5.89 ERA, 1.67 whip, 4.95 fip
5 Alex Torres 25 (AAA Dur): 3-7, 7-30 era, 1.93 whip, 4.56 fip

Tampa’s AAA rotation includes Keith Law‘s #53, #68 and #81 top prospects for 2013 in Archer, Odorizzi and Colome respectively.  Montgomery was Kansas City’s #1 prospect for quite a while and has struggled in AAA, but he reached AAA as a 21 year old in 2011.  Torres may switch places with a 6-year ML FA signing (the Bulls do have former Nat favorite J.D. Martin on their roster among other candidates) but the strength of this group is the first four guys.

Given that Tampa is notoriously slow in bringing along its starting pitcher prospects, its safe to assume that most of these guys would have already matriculated to lesser team’s rotations (of them only Archer has MLB service time; he got 4 starts and 30 innings late last year).   As it stands now, none of them can crack Tampa’s MLB rotation of David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and Roberto Hernandez.  And this is all AFTER the big Tampa-KC trade which sent two other starters (James Shields and Wade Davis) to Kansas City.  And this doesn’t include former rotation stalwart Jeff Niemann, who just had season ending shoulder surgery. Man that’s a lot of starting pitching depth.

(Side note: Roberto Hernandez is officially “Roberto (Heredia) Hernandez,” the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona.  He is also the first Free Agent to start a game for Tampa Bay since 2005!  Just an amazing statistic frankly, and an amazing tribute to Tampa’s pitching development staff).

So, honestly, which of these starting 5 would you want right now?  Not on potential, but on the ability to get major league hitters out in 2013?

MLB 2013 Predictions

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Opening day has past and I forgot to post the obligatory “predictions” piece for 2013.  Here’s some far-too-early predictions on who makes the playoffs this year.  For comparison purposes. here’s the Si.com Writer’s slate of predictions, with lots of success predicted for our Nats.  My predictions below look awfully similar to Si.com’s Baseball Preview standings too.

(For a trip down memory lane, here’s a link to my 2012 seasonal predictions, and as you may have guessed, I was way off).

  • AL East: Tampa Bay
  • AL Central: Detroit
  • AL West: Los Angeles Angels
  • AL Wild Cards: Toronto, Oakland

AL East Narrative: The year the Yankees died; they’re too old, too dependent on aging arms and aging bats, and did next to nothing to improve in the off-season (though they did just pick up Vernon Wells, the Angels’ 4th outfielder.  Great!)  For a team that makes hundreds of millions of dollars of profits a year from the stadium and their TV station, they seem awfully worried about a few million dollars of luxury tax.  (see *ahem* Los Angeles Dodgers *cough*).  I think Baltimore regresses back to the .500 team they should have been in 2012 (they too failed to appreciably improve their playoff team), and Boston seems stuck in some weird middle-ground for the time being.  Toronto seems greatly improved but falls slightly short of the champ.  Tampa is left standing in the AL East; they won’t miss James Shields that much with their amazing pitching depth and can call up the next version of Trout/Harper in Wil Myers in mid June.

In the AL Central, Kansas City’s short sighted trade will net them a .500 record, but isn’t nearly enough to catch the Tigers, who return their whole rotation, get back Victor Martinez and add a possibly underrated Torii Hunter to add to their formidable lineup.  How they only won 88 games last year still amazes me.  The White Sox could challenge, but what have they really done this off-season either?   On the bright side, all these teams get to feast on Cleveland and Minnesota, both of whom look to lose 90+ games.

In the AL West, the Angels (who had the best record in baseball post Trout-callup) continue where they left off and bash their way to a 90 win divisional title despite serious questions in the rotation.  Texas hasn’t replaced what they lost in the last two off-seasons in terms of either hitting (Josh Hamilton) or pitching (C.J. Wilson, Ryan Dempster, or Colby Lewis)  but should still compete for the 2nd wild card.  But, absent signing Kyle Lohse (too late; he went to Milwaukee) or doing something to augment their starting pitching, I see trouble in the back of their rotation.  Meanwhile, Seattle made one curious move after another this off-season, all to finish in 4th place.  And Houston will challenge the 1962 Mets for futility, to the benefit of the entire division.

Wild Cards: Toronto has bought themselves a playoff team with their wholesale purchase of half the Marlins team.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both WCs come out of the AL west, who get to feast on two pretty bad teams.  For the time being i’ll predict that Oakland and Texas duke it out to the wire, with Oakland pipping them for yet another surprise playoff appearance.  Oakland won the division last year; who would doubt them again this year with a very young pitching staff having one additional year of experience?  I think it comes at the expense of Texas this year instead of the Angels.

How about the NL?

  • NL East: Washington
  • NL Central: Cincinnati
  • NL West: San Francisco
  • NL Wild Cards: Atlanta, St. Louis

NL East Narrative: Despite some people thinking that Atlanta has done enough to get by the Nats, I don’t quite see it.  The Upton brothers are high on potential but so far relatively low in actual production except in fits and spurts.   Philadelphia can make a decent run up to perhaps 88 wins … but it won’t be enough, and reports of Roy Halladay‘s declining velocity are more than troubling.  Meanwhile the Marlins are going to be historically bad; in the past when they’ve done sell-offs they had marquee crops of rookies to rise up.  Not this time; their farm system is decimated and they didn’t really get back the A-1 prospects of all their salary dumps that they should have.  The only way the Nats don’t cruise to a title would be significant injuries in the rotation, for which they have little insurance.

In the NL Central, St. Louis’ loss of Chris Carpenter may be just enough to knock them out of the divisional race, where Cincinnati looks like the most complete team outside of the Nats in all of baseball.   Pittsburgh is a couple years (and a couple of pitching aces in Jamison Taillon and Gerrit Cole) away from really competing, the Cubs are content losing 95 games, and Milwaukee still looks like the same team that barely was .500 last year (even given the Kyle Lohse signing).

In the NL West; who would bet against the Giants at this point?   Despite the ridiculous payroll, I don’t think the Dodgers are really that good and they’re hoarding starting pitchers for too few spots (though, looking at the Spring Training performance of some of these guys … they’ll likely not fetch what the Dodgers need).  Arizona keeps trading away its best players to get marginal prospects who happen to fit Kirk Gibson‘s mold of a “gritty player” … and they seem to be set to be a 3rd place team again.  Colorado and San Diego seem to be in various states of disarray, again.

Wild Cards: Atlanta may be a 96 win wild card.  Meanwhile, despite losing Carpenter the Cardinals can slot in any one of a number of high-powered arms to replace him in the rotation and continue to draw from what is now the consensus best farm system in the majors.  They’ll sneak into the wild card much as they did last year and commence bashing their way through the playoffs.

AL Playoff predictions:

  • WC play-in: Toronto beats out Oakland, whose youngsters will be completely baffled in a one-game playoff versus R.A. Dickey.
  • Divisionals: Toronto beats intra-divisional rival Tampa Bay, while Detroit takes advantage of a weakened Los Angeles rotation and takes a close series.
  • ALCS: Detroit outlasts Toronto in the ALCS on the strenght of its starting pitching.

NL Playoff predictions

  • WC play-in: Atlanta beats St. Louis in the play-in by NOT allowing an infield-fly pop up to fall in this year.
  • Divisionals: Washington outlasts Atlanta in one brutal divisional series, Cincinnati gets revenge on San Francisco in the other.
  • NLCS: Washington over Cincinnati; they’re just slightly better on both sides of the ball.

World Series: Washington’s proclivities to strike out come back to haunt them as the Tigers excellent starting pitchers dominate.   Can’t be too confident in our Nats; i’d love to be wrong and send out Davey Johnson a winner.

Awards: this is just folly to do pre-season awards picks but here’s a quick run through without much commentary:

  • AL MVP: Mike Trout gets the award he should have won last year
  • AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander as he wins 24 games in the weak AL Central
  • AL Rookie; Wil Myers, who rakes once he gets called up in June
  • AL Manager: Joe Madden, who guides Tampa to the best record in the AL.
  • NL MVP: Joey Votto, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bryce Harper in the mix either as the default “best player on a playoff team” voting scheme takes over.
  • NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, who won’t have as good of numbers as Clayton Kershaw but gets the nod because of east coast bias.
  • NL Rookie: Jedd Gyorko, though Julio Teheran could finally have it figured out.
  • NL Manager; I have no idea; this usually just goes to the most “surprising” team and I don’t see many surprises in the NL this year.  Bruce Bochy.

Opening Day Starter Trivia

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Sabathia is your current Active leader in Opening Day starts. Photo wiki/flickr chris.ptacek

One of my favorite annual trivia questions amongst my baseball buddies revolves around Opening Day Starters.  With another Opening Day in the books, here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day starters for my readers.  I’ve uploaded my little Opening Day Starters spreadsheet to Google Docs and created a link in the “Nationals Arm Race creation” section along the right.

Current Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts

10 Roy Halladay
10 CC Sabathia
9 Mark Buehrle
6 Bartolo Colon
6 Derek Lowe
6 Tim Hudson
6 Felix Hernandez
6 Justin Verlander
5 Aaron Harang
5 Josh Beckett
5 Jered Weaver
5 James Shields
4 Jake Peavy
4 Barry Zito
4 Tim Lincecum
4 Yovani Gallardo

Those players bolded in the list above had 2013 opening day starts and added to their totals.  Roy Halladay‘s difficult spring training cost him his shot at Opening Day and thus CC Sabathia moves into a tie for first.  Mark Buehrle has given over the reigns of opening day starter possibly for good, based on his standing in the Toronto rotation (4th starter?).

Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have chances to broach the all-time records (see below) based on their ages, their current counts and their new long-term contracts.

Current Active Leader in consecutive Opening Day Starts: Verlander with 6 straight.

Most ever Opening Day Starts all-time: Tom Seaver with 16 in his career.

Most ever Consecutive Opening Day Starts: Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris, who made 14 straight such starts.

Number of first-time opening day starters in 2013: no less than 13 first timers this year, nearly half the league.   Some guys got deserved first-time opening day starts (Jeff Samardzija, Matt Cain, and R.A. Dickey), some guys got Opening Day starts mostly out of attrition of other worthy pitchers (Jon Niese, Bud Norris, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley and Jhoulys Chacin) and some guys are taking over as the new big-dog of their rotations (Brett Anderson, Chris Sale).

Who seems most likely to break Seaver’s Record at this point? Sabathia, who already has 10 opening day starts, is clearly the #1 in New York, is only 32 and still has five years on his current deal.  Question is, if he renews past 2017, can he still earn the #1 spot?   Meanwhile Hernandez already has 6, just signed a deal that takes him through 2019 with a relatively easy option for 2020.   That’s 8 more seasons on his existing 6 opening day starts and he’d only be 34 years of age.   He could be the standard holder if he stays healthy and continues to pitch like an ace.

Ladson’s inbox 1/7/13 Edition

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Readers ask creative questions for keeping Morse around. It won't matter. Photo Cheryl Nichols/Nats News Network

Slow week for baseball news; I’m sure that will end tomorrow when the Hall of Fame class (or lack there of) is announced.  Meanwhile MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson published a mailbag on 1/7/13.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions.

Update: after I wrote this, LaRoche signed.  So much for a slow news week for our Nats.  Some of the below may now be slightly dated analysis.

As always, I write the response here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity/conciseness.

Q: If Anthony Rendon stays healthy, could you see Ryan Zimmerman moving to first base and Rendon playing third base?

A: Yes, absolutely.  I’m now firmly on the following succession plan: Rendon hits his way to the majors, proves he can play excellent 3B defense, and we move Zimmerman and his nearing-Chuck Knoblock/Steve Sax issues with his throwing arm to first base.   Zimmerman would save the wear and tear on his body by not having to field bunts and dive for as many grounders, and would not have to make any more casual throws across the diamond (he’s proven that under duress or when hurried that he is very accurate, a clear indication that when he doesn’t think about the throw, he makes it).   And we install Rendon at third where by all accounts he’s just as good a defender as Zimmerman is.

However.  There’s a few things that need to happen for this plan to work.  Rendon (as the question mentions) needs to stay healthy.  He needs to prove he can hit MLB pitching.  And the Nats need to NOT lock up first base for the next three seasons with Adam LaRoche, else the position is blocked, Zimmerman stays at 3B for the duration of LaRoche’s deal and Rendon will have to push someone else off their position (Espinosa at 2b is the likely target … but Espinosa is nearly a 4 win player despite his strikeouts.  They don’t grow 4 win players on trees).   So Rendon may be stuck until another solution presents itself, perhaps by way of injury.

Update: with LaRoche’s signing,  we now know that Zimmerman isn’t moving to 1B for at least two  years, so now Rendon’s path is more complicated.

Ladson kind of hedges and says “well, lets just see what happens.”

Q: Why the talk of trading Michael Morse when trading Jayson Werth would be far better for the team? Besides all the money it would free up, Morse is three years younger, hits far better, especially with men on base, and has more power.

A: Because who in their right mind would take Jayson Werth with the massively backloaded contract he’s currently on while he’s in his decline years in his mid 30s and has shown himself suddenly to be injury prone??  That sentence is exactly the reason that the Werth contract was and is criticized as being one of the “worst in the game.”   Because its unmoveable.   He’s going to be paid $21.57 million dollars in the year 2017 when he’s 38.   If Werth was still producing at his last Philadelphia year level (he posted a 4.3 bWAR in 2010, which using a rough FA estimate of $5M/war would mean he was “valued” at exactly $21.5M), there wouldn’t be as much complaining.  But in the first two years of the contract, he hasn’t produced anywhere near that WAR value (bWARs of 1.0 and 0.6 in the first two years of the contract).  Yes he was hurt in 2012, but its not like he’s giving back the money for the 81 games he didn’t play.

This is such an ignorant question, you wonder why Ladson took it.

All that being said, yes I understand why the Nats made the Werth deal.  I think it was done fully well knowing what an albatross it was to be.  It was done to acquire the competitive nature of Werth and to send a message to the league that the Nationals were a new regime post Jim Bowden.

Ladson talks about Werth’s “non number” contributions to the team, saying he’s more valuable than numbers suggest.  I think that’s a really myopic viewpoint of Werth’s contract, his production and the point of the question.

Q: Any worries about losing three left-handers out of the bullpen? That was a big strength last year. What are the options?

A: Was our three lefties really that big of a strenth last year?  Other readers here have pointed out Michael Gonzalez‘s complete inability to deal with right-handers (they hit him for a .297/.378/.484 slash line in 2012), meaning that the team really could only trust Gonzalez for solely lefty-lefty matchups.  Tom Gorzelanny was the 7th guy out of the pen, the long-man/mop-up guy whose large majority of IP were defined as “low leverage,” implying that despite his excellent ERA in 2012 his production can be replaced relatively easily.  Sean Burnett was inarguably great … but also was commanding 3 year guaranteed contracts in a baseball management era where we now know that relievers should be treated as fungible assets and never guaranteed major money to.  So allowing him to leave was the right decision to make.

Gorzelanny has been replaced by Zach Duke, who (as I’ll begrudingly admit that “peric the troll” was right about, stemming from a conversation here last September) seems to be a better option and who seems to have been given all of Gorzelanny’s appearances last September (Gorzelanny didn’t appear in a game for nearly two weeks in the middle September).

However, I will admit that I am slightly worried about the fact that we seem set to replace the value of both Gonzalez and Burnett at this point with Bill Bray, who may or may not even make the team.  I really thought we’d win the J.P. Howell FA sweepstakes.  Now at this point, I’m guessing perhaps the team just trusts the matchups and remembers that Tyler Clippard is lights out against lefties despite being a RHP (lefties hit him for a .170/.260/.259 slash line in 2012, a year when Clippard was significantly worse than in 2011).  Maybe the team finds a MLFA or a career reclamation project out there (much as they did with Gonzalez and Duke last year).   Or (most likely) maybe the team demands a lefty bullpen arm in trade for the eventual Michael Morse transaction once LaRoche signs on for 2013 and beyond).  We’ll see; lots of hot-stove league left.

Ladson thinks there’s more acquisitions coming.

Q: Morse was drafted as a shortstop, so is there a way the Nationals could convert Michael into a second baseman?

A: If Morse’s mobility is that poor in LF, he’d be considered a statute at 2nd.  There’s just no way he could possibly move there at this point.  Besides, Espinosa is considered a very good defender and the Nats regime values plus defense.  He may have been a shortstop once, but that was long ago.  Ladson says its never going to happen.

Q: What are the chances the Nats try to make a trade for Giancarlo Stanton? Then they can put Werth or Bryce Harper at first base.

A: Hah.  Well, I’m sure the Nats (and most every other team in the league) would kill to have Stanton.  But Stanton is probably the most valuable resource in the game; a pre-arbitration premiere slugger.  The only thing more valuable probably is a pre-arbitration Ace starter (think Tim Lincecum before he hit arbitration).   Stanton is under team control for four more years and isn’t even arbitration eligible yet.  On the open market he’s worth $25M/year; he’s set to earn somewhere in the mid $500,000 in 2013.   It would have to take something well north of the prospect haul that Tampa Bay got in the James Shields trade, and that trade netted Tampa Wil Myers, basically the best propsect in the game.

The Nats (and most teams in the game) simply do not have enough prospect depth to pry Stanton away.  And, the Marlins would have to be crazy to trade him intra-division.  Just isn’t happening.  I think the penny pinching Marlins keep him for another year and trade him before he hits arbitration, making him someone elses’s escalating salary issue.   Ladson says that the team wouldn’t trade for Stanton because their outfield is set for the next two seasons.  Really!?  You wouldn’t trade away Span or Werth, even if you paid their entire ride, to acquire someone with the talent of Stanton?

Q: What are the Nats’ plans with Jhonatan Solano going forward?

A: Catcher depth.  Despite his .300+ BA in his short MLB stint, I don’t think he’s anything more than a 4-A player.  We keep him on the 40-man until his options expire and then DFA him, all the while he serves as a 3rd catcher in case Ramos/Suzuki gets hurt.   Ladson points out that Suzuki is a FA after 2013, so perhaps Solano becomes the #2 in 2014 and beyond.  However, Suzuki has a club option for 2014 that could move this schedule out a year.