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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Clearing the Bases - Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Edition

A fistful of links from the past couple of weeks, none of them having to do with steroids or A-Rod (we'll get those in another post. Maybe.)...

• Baseball Prospectus 2009 is shipping from and on the bookshelves of your local retailer. I've had a copy in hand since last Friday, and it's as chockfull of wit, wisdom and data as ever, with stats and projections for over 1,600 players across 628 pages by the BP crew. Your truly contributed five team essays and two sets of player comments, the most I've ever contributed to a BP annual. Get it.

• At BP I've been working my way through the new PECOTA projections to examine the offseason departures and arrivals on each team and in each division. By taking the Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) projections of each player signed (or lost) via free agency or acquired (or offloaded) via trades we can get a better sense of the flow of talent into or out of the various divisions and the way this winter's hard economic times have had an impact on roster construction. Combining that knowledge with the publication of the PECOTA-based projected standings, we can see how these moves have an impact on the division races.

The series is called "Outside Help," and thus far I've done the NL East, NL Central and NL West. Here's a sample from today's piece:
The West projects better than the Central in part because of high-upside pitching talent, with six of the majors' top 15 pitchers according to the PECOTA VORP projections: Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Chad Billingsley, and Max Scherzer. The Central has just two among the top 15, Rich Harden and Roy Oswalt. The West has 13 pitchers projected for at least 20 VORP, the Central just eight—double the number per team, basically. Even given the fact that PECOTA underestimated the Central last year, the advantage seems clear.

As for the outside help, it bears repeating that what's presented here is just one piece of the puzzle, with no attempt to account for longer-term concerns such as prospect trades or multi-year deals. This is just a rough guide to who's new and who's gone, and how much impact they're expected to have on the division race this year. Teams are listed in order of 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.

Los Angeles Dodgers

IN: C Brad Ausmus (0.7, .235), SS Juan Castro (-0.5, .177), SP Shawn Estes (0.8, 5.40), SP Charlie Haeger (-0.4, 6.64), INF Mark Loretta (0.3, .249), RP Guillermo Mota (0.7, 4.88), SP Claudio Vargas (1.3, 5.00), SP Jeff Weaver (0.4, 5.76), SP Randy Wolf (2.4, 4.72)
OUT: C Gary Bennett (-0.1, .218), CF Andruw Jones (1.4, .267), SP Derek Lowe (4.2, 4.00), SP Brad Penny (1.8, 4.85), RP Scott Proctor (0.9, 4.56) LF Manny Ramirez (4.3, .316), RP Takashi Saito (2.7, 2.99)
NET: -9.5 WARP (-5.2 if Ramirez returns)

As you'd expect, the wealthiest team in the division has spent the most money this winter, primarily in the service of retaining their own. Presuming that the Dodgers will eventually strike an agreement with Ramirez, whose list of potential suitors has dwindled to LA and San Francisco, they'll have given out three of the division's four most lucrative contracts this winter. As it is, Rafael Furcal's $30 million deal and Casey Blake's $17.5 million deal rank first and third, respectively. Despite that spending, they've made some cuts that they otherwise might not have if they weren't saving room for Manny, winding up with a net talent drain even if he does return. Lowe's departure is the most significant, exposing a rotation that's got plenty of health concerns, but while we're on that subject, the losses of Penny and Saito may not be as painful as advertised, particularly since the latter's elbow woes may be serious enough to merit Tommy John surgery. The most damaging blow, however, would be in losing Ramirez, whose return would improve the Dodgers' eight-game deficit in the projected standings by three wins. And so long as we're alluding to useless outfielders, the Rangers will take that projection from Jones, whose remaining $21 million the Dodgers figured out a way to eat on the installment plan. As for the players that the team has acquired, aside from solid fourth starer Wolf, they're a singularly unimpressive lot, many of whom could be swapped out for Shawn Estes in Dodger Thoughts blogger Jon Weisman's instant classic of a quip: "When I think of Estes, I think of a game show in which the category is 'Pitchers I've been eager for the Dodgers to face in the 21st century.'"

Arizona Diamondbacks

IN: C Luke Carlin (1.0, .251), SP Jon Garland (2.1, 4.92), RP Tom Gordon (0.3, 4.53), 2B Felipe Lopez (2.2, .267), RP Scott Schoeneweis (0.7, 4.73)
OUT: UT Chris Burke (0.3, .238), RP Juan Cruz (1.3, 4.27), 1B/OF Adam Dunn (3.8, .308), SS David Eckstein (0.8, .243), C/UT Robby Hammock (-0.1, .201), 2B Orlando Hudson (2.6, .267), SP Randy Johnson (3.5, 4.01), RP Wil Ledezma (0.6, 5.1), RP Brandon Lyon (1.7, 4.33), RP Conor Robertson (0.5, 5.51), OF Jeff Salazar (1.0, .276)
NET: -9.7 WARP

As noted before, the Diamondbacks have already made a conspicuous show of belt-tightening this winter by laying off 31 employees and foregoing the Big Unit, not to mention other relatively high-quality free agents like Dunn and Hudson. As such, they've lost the most talent of any team in this division, though PECOTA still gives them a generous cushion in the standings. That only partially mitigates the decision to bypass Johnson, who took $8 million from the Giants, in favor of Garland, whom the Snakes signed for $7.25 million. While Arizona was one of the league's most efficient teams in terms of marginal dollars per marginal win last year, this is an obvious error, as they could have bought the extra 1.4 wins forecast for Johnson at about 20 percent of the going rate. Meanwhile, the decision to let Hudson depart in favor of Lopez is closer to a wash, though the five-run difference in defensive projections (+2 for Hudson, -3 for Lopez) may have a ripple effect once the defense is factored into the pitching projections.
So far the numbers show the NL East gaining a fair amount of talent, with four out of five teams showing positive net WARPS via trades and free agency, while the Central and West both have seen talent drains, with only one team in each division bucking the trend. Pretty amazing. I'll start working my way through the AL soon.

• Last week at BP and at ESPN Insider via our new syndication deal, I took a look at the Mets' offseason efforts to upgrade their pitching staff:
[Mets GM Omar] Minaya entered the offseason with just three starters under contract: Johan Santana, John Maine, and Mike Pelfrey. Santana went 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 206 strikeouts last year, numbers that propelled the two-time AL Cy Young award winner to a third-place finish in his first NL vote. Maine pitched reasonably well (10-8, 4.18 ERA and 122 strikeouts), but a bone spur in his shoulder limited him to just six second-half starts and required off-season surgery. Pelfrey established himself as a viable starter by going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA after getting the stuffing knocked out of him in 2007.

With the re-signing of Perez (10-7 with a 4.22 ERA and 180 strikeouts), the front four is thus unchanged, and a stronger unit than the one they left the gate with last year, given that Pelfrey is replacing Pedro Martinez, whose injuries limited him to just 20 starts and an ugly 5.61 ERA. Indeed, Martinez's departure should liberate an organization that spent the past three years overestimating his capabilities and his durability; he averaged 16 starts and a 4.73 ERA in that span. Lacking in depth, the 2008 club called upon globetrotting journeymen like Nelson Figueroa and Brandon Knight to patch their rotation when Martinez or Maine were sidelined.

Minaya has improved that depth with fifth-starter options that include journeymen Tim Redding and Freddy Garcia, and homegrown prospect Jon Niese. Redding took the ball every fifth day for the Nationals last year, putting up a 4.95 ERA in 33 starts, while Garcia showed promise in a three-start audition with Detroit after more than a year lost recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum and frayed rotator cuff. Niese made three starts last September for the Mets, but with less than 40 innings of Triple-A experience, the 2005 seventh-round pick could use more minor league seasoning. Though a few starts remain unaccounted for, here is the rotation's initial prognosis:
Pitcher    GS    IP    ERA   VORP
Santana 30 210 3.14 50.6
Maine 26 145 4.16 20.8
Perez 29 180 4.26 21.0
Pelfrey 26 145 4.39 13.6
Garcia 15 75 4.62 8.3
Redding 23 120 4.83 7.2
Niese 7 35 5.09 0.6
Total 156 910 4.14 122.1
Accounting for scoring inflation, that's the equivalent of a 3.92 ERA last year, which would have ranked fourth among starters, and which is essentially on par with their warts-and-all showing of 3.98. Note the effect of regression upon Santana, who has bettered a 3.14 ERA five times in six years as a starter, and that neither Maine nor Pelfrey are projected for a full complement of innings. PECOTA's initial forecast cautiously called for just 107 frames from the former because of last year's dip in playing time, and was wary of Pelfrey's 200-inning workload as a 24-year-old—48 more than he threw in 2007, including those in the minors. The Verducci Effect suggests that he'll have trouble repeating that success, as do his peripherals, but the more innings either throws, the more this unit will improve relative to that projection.
The Mets are currently forecast for 92 wins, while the Phillies and Braves come in at 87 wins. Adjustments to those numbers will be made throughout the spring as injuries and trades happen and as job battles are settled, but the early line is favorable. Not that it will heal the wounds of 2007 and 2008.

• Speaking of job battles, one more syndicated column that ran on both BP and Insider addressed some of the highest-profile ones using the PECOTA projections. Here's what I said about the various battles on the beasts of the AL East
New York Yankees: Center Field, Right Field
As they attempt to rebound from their first non-playoff season since 1993, the Yankees' biggest question mark looms in center field. After solid performances in '06 and '07, Melky Cabrera's horrid 2008 (.249/.301/.341) threw the job up for grabs, and while Triple-A farmhand Brett Gardner didn't clinch it, his .294/.333/.412 showing in 73 plate appearances after a mid-August recall may have given him a leg up. PECOTA doesn't see either as a slam dunk, but favors Gardner's blend of speed and OBP, forecasting a .253/.339/.351 showing with 32 steals (2.4 WARP), compared to Cabrera's .267/.326/.376/10 steal forecast (1.8 WARP). Meanwhile, in right field, the system is more sanguine about off-season acquisition Nick Swisher's ability to shake off a down year than it is about Xavier Nady living up to the career bests he set in all three triple-slash categories. It forecasts a .244/.353/.460 performance for Swisher, compared to .270/.323/.444 for Nady. A platoon arrangement limiting the latter to lefty-mashing would maximize the duo's production.

Boston Red Sox: #5 Starting Pitcher, Shortstop
Touted as the game's top pitching prospect going into last year, Clay Buchholz thoroughly flopped (2-9, 6.75 ERA), plagued by mechanical woes. Hot stove rumors had him Texas-bound in exchange for a young catcher, but he returns to compete for the rotation's fifth spot against Brad Penny and John Smoltz, two veteran free agents attempting comebacks from shoulder injuries. PECOTA remains optimistic about the 24-year-old Buchholz, forecasting a 4.56 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine. Penny, who made a miserable showing in LA (6-9, 6.27 ERA) after a Cy Young-caliber 2007, was initially forecast for a 4.47 ERA, but that adjusts to 4.85 in the move to Fenway. Smoltz, who needed labrum surgery after just 28 IP last year, is forecast for the best ERA of the three (3.57), but he won't return until June, and the number of innings left in the 42-year-old's arm is an open question, so the additional depth is a bonus. As for shortstop, PECOTA is bullish on the 25-year-old Lowrie (.260/.341/.432, 2 Fielding Runs Above Average) outdoing Lugo (.255/.325/.347, -2 FRAA), though the $18 million remaining on the latter's deal is a tough pill to swallow.
Since I was on a word count, I didn't have room to fit the Rays' job battles in there. I'll probably tackle them in another article in the near future given the interest level from readers.

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