The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Friday, February 01, 2008

 

Clearing the Bases--Prospects, not PEDs

Writing about steroids in a way that challenges people's assumptions isn't much different from taping a "kick me" sign to your own ass. You can expect to mix it up with a certain percentage of passers-by who are just spoiling for a fight. Some of them are articulate, some laughably not; responding is usually fun, though it certainly helps if I'm in a bit of a pugnacious mood.

But having done enough of that last week, I switched gears for this week's Prospectus Hit and Run. I tied up up a few loose ends by revisiting the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, the close-but-no-cigar crew who topped Jim Rice's 72.2 percent, and correcting myself regarding a slip on David Justice. Finally, I turned my attention to the forthcoming season via a topic I covered in the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2008 (which ships February 18), namely the Brewers' abysmal defense:
As I wrote a few months back, the Brewers finished 28th out of 30 teams in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They were 3.44 percent below average in converting batted balls into outs, a shortcoming that translates to -44.7 runs (every one percent away from average equals 13 runs). A look at the defensive numbers of the infielders suggests that number isn't far out of line. Based on their Fielding Runs Above Average totals and a simple Linear Weights conversion of Baseball Information Solutions' Plus/Minus ratings into runs, the quartet of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun came in a whopping 49 runs below average.

In a tight but winnable division, that simply won't do, so kudos to the Brewers for not sitting on their hands. The recent signing of Mike Cameron to play center field created a domino effect, shifting incumbent Bill Hall, who struggled to hold down the middle pasture, to the hot corner, and Braun, who put up a ghastly .895 fielding percentage, to left field. According to the Davenport fielding numbers, Hall has performed as a league-average third baseman in 84 career games, 59 of them in 2005. Braun, however, is untested in the outfield.

How much will all these moves improve the defense? I set out to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, incorporating 2007 FRAA, Plus/Minus and the new kid on the block, Dan Fox's Simple Fielding Runs...
I did two estimates, one the those numbers, the other using the 2008 PECOTA projections, which account for multiple years of data, player aging patterns, and regression to the mean. Between the two estimates, I bracketed the defensive improvements as worth between 1.5 and four wins, something that should comfort my Brewer-loving in-laws.

• • •

Elsewhere at BP, yesterday was a big day, as Kevin Goldstein published our Top 100 Prospect list, then submitted to a full afternoon of interrogation. Topping the list is Cincinnati center fielder Jay Bruce, and the Reds can also boast pitcher Homer Bailey (#), first baseman Joey Votto (21), and pitcher Johnny Cueto (41). That's a nice bit of high-end talent, but nobody can touch the Rays, who have five of the top 25 prospects; their days as the AL East's doormat may be at an end.

The Yankees' Joba Chamberlain comes in ranked an impressive #4, though that won't be enough to appease the nitpickers who sweat Boston's Clay Buchholz being ranked #2. The Yankees placed five kids on the list, the Red Sox seven, but beyond that raw count, it's it's actually a tossup between the two beasts in terms of strength. Boston has the higher-rated player and two in the top 20, but the Yanks have four in the top 50. Ian Kennedy is ranked 34th, outfielders Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata 47th and 48th, respectively, and pitcher Alan Horne 67th (Philip Hughes, in case anybody was wondering, is no longer eligible for the list, having topped 50 innings last year). Beyond Buchholz, the Sox have center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (16), starting pitcher Justin Masterson (53), "shortstop" Jed Lowrie (57), outfielder Ryan Kalish (60), starting pitcher Michael Bowden (95th) and first baseman Lars Anderson (100).

The Dodgers fared well, too. Starter Clayton Kershaw ranks fifth; according to Goldstein he's the early favorite for next year's #1. Third baseman Andy LaRoche is 14th, shortstop Chin-Ling Hu 32nd, and pitcher Scott Elbert 66th. That's solid but not incredibly strong, but when one considers that the system has graduated Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Russell Martin to the bigs in the last two years, whoa. Goldstein's Top 11 Dodger prospects will be up later today; I'll check back with a link.

• • •

We won't know until this evening whether the deal will become official or not, but the Mets are poised to steal Johan Santana from the Twins. You know it's bad when Baseball America's home page boldly greets you with the headline "Twins Didn't Get Enough."

Of the four prospects headed Minnesota's way, the highest-ranked on BP's list is center fielder Carlos Gomez at #65. He's a toolsy guy with what they call a projectable body, which is to say he causes scouts' hearts to go pitter-patter despite the fact that he has yet to translate his physique into results. As a 21-year-old he was pressed into big-league duty by injuries in the Mets' outfield last year, he hit just .232/.288/.304 in 125 big-league at-bats. As bad as that is, the kid has hit just .278/.336/.399 in four minor-league seasons, and between being overmatched in the bigs and suffering a broken hand, he lost a good bit of development time. PECOTA forecasted a weighted mean equivalent performance of .265/.315/.392 in 2007 (that's translated from wherever he played in the minors); for this year it's .253/.310/.371 -- about 25 OPS points lower. Backwards moving is he.

The deal gets worse for the Twins. Neither pitchers Phillip Humber nor Kevin Mulvey crack BP's Top 100; both are seen as back-of-the rotation guys. Nineteen-year-old pitcher Deolis Guerra ranks 79th, but that's again a function of his projectable body rather than his results to date. After an impressive 2006 as a 17-year-old, he put up a 4.01 ERA and 6.6 K/9 in the Florida State League last year; he'll need to bulk up his repertoire so that he actually misses bats if this deal is to be salvaged for Minny.

Here's what BA's Jim Callis had to say:
Guerra (No. 2), Gomez (No. 3), Mulvey (No. 4) and Humber (No. 7) all ranked prominently on our Mets Top 10 Prospects list. But there’s simply too much risk involved in this deal for Minnesota.

The two best prospects in the trade, Guerra and Gomez, come with high ceilings but also lack a lot of polish and have a long ways to go to reach their potential. The odds that they both will do so are slim.

Guerra has an 89-94 mph fastball and a promising changeup and he’s only 18. But he also has a below-average breaking ball, has yet to pitch more than 90 innings in a season and while he has held his own, he hasn’t dominated. Gomez had the best package of tools in the Mets system, but his bat is still extremely raw...

Mulvey has an arsenal of four average pitches and throws strikes. He’s not overpowering and he’s most likely a No. 4 starter. Since having Tommy John surgery in 2005, Humber hasn’t fully regained the stuff that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft. His curveball is his best pitch but his fastball now sits at 87-91 mph. He too projects as a No. 4 starter.

The Twins have traded Santana for two high-reward but also high-risk prospects, and two back-of-the-rotation starters. They didn’t get a prospect whose combination of ceiling and certainty approaches that of Hughes, whom the Yankees were willing to deal for Santana earlier in the winter. They didn’t get a package comparable to the ones the Red Sox reportedly offered earlier, fronted by either Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester and also containing two solid prospects nearly ready for the majors: righty Justin Masterson and shortstop Jed Lowrie.
BPs Joe Sheehan was none too wild about the haul either, though he did counter some of the conventional wisdom based on the rumors that have floated around all winter:
The package just wasn’t the right one. I’m not going to compare this trade to the long-rumored and varying offers that were reportedly on the table at varying times this winter, because I’ve come around to the idea that what’s actually offered and what gets reported are two wildly different things. We can’t compare an actual trade to rumors. However, evaluating this deal in a vacuum, we see that it adds just one position player of note, one with some major flaws and who wouldn’t be one of the top ten prospects at his position in the game. The rest of the deal is mid-rotation pitching prospects.

There are mitigating circumstances here that must be noted. Santana forced Bill Smith’s hand by threatening to invoke his no-trade clause, which would have ended all talks and forced the Twins to either sign Santana or lose him at the end of the year for nothing. With the Twins looking up at the Tigers and Indians in the division, and the Red Sox and Yankees in the league, it didn’t seem reasonable to keep him in a push for success in 2008, and the Twins have never acted like signing Santana was a reasonable option for them. With Santana pointing the gun, apparently wishing to have his 2008 status settled right now, Smith had little choice but to make a deal. This trade does little for me, but when positioned as “one year of Johan Santana or this trade,” it’s a bit more defensible... Blame Bill Smith for the deal that he did make, but save a little ire for Terry Ryan, whose decision three years ago [to grant Santana the no-trade clause] set these events in motion.
What's really funny is that I spent nearly six years at a design studio with a boss named Bill Smith. Didn't know much about baseball; the story goes that when he was taken to a game, he brought magazines to read and asked when halftime was. Possibly more legend than fact, but good for a punchline in this context.

Mainly I'm relieved that the Yanks didn't give up Hughes to get Santana, and that they won't have to face him in what would have been an insanely stacked Red Sox rotation. If it goes through, the Mets are a solid bet to finish the job they botched last year and take the NL East, though I really think the Braves, with a full season of Mark Teixeira and continued development of their young nucleus (Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Jeff Francoeur) will be a continued threat (Philly's lack of pitching will doom them).

Anyway, I've got more links to share, but that's enough blogging for one entry.

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