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.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Quick Thoughts on the Blockbuster

Crawling out of my hole to offer a quick take on a nearly-completed three-way blockbuster between the Yankees, Tigers and Diamondbacks, I'm left with these take-home points.

• The Yankees get center fielder Curtis Granderson at the cost of Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke. It's a win-now move for a team that just won it all, which makes it rather curious. Granderson's performance collapsed against lefties (.183/.245/.239 in 2009) and during the final week his routes to the ball looked awful, but he's basically a plus defensively according to the major systems, and a relatively affordable player ($5.5/$8.25/$10 million in 2010-2012 with a $13 million club option and $2 million buyout for 2013). The Yankees' big-picture desire to decrease payroll from their 2009 level wound up costing them a decent prospect whose upside may be Grandersoneque in Jackson (#7 on Baseball America's list of top International League prospects). Kennedy has some upside as well, but he's managed to throw more than 120 innings in just one of three professional seasons, and is more likely to wind up a fourth starter or setup man at this stage. Coke is a lefty who can get guys out but has gopher problems as well -- a completely replaceable commodity.

Granderson's arrival strengthens the team's hand in negotiations with Johnny Damon. They're now dealing from strength, and don't have to dance to the tune Damon and his agent call. That may preclude him coming back, but it also precludes the team making an overly generous deal just to retain somebody whose value is a bit distorted by the euphoria of winning the World Series this year.

• The Tigers have $72 million of junk on their 2010 payroll in the form of contracts to Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen, a group that was worth all of 3.6 WARP3 last year. They trimmed none of that deadwood while trading the two players, Granderson and Edwin Jackson, who might have enticed another team to eat salary in return for taking on a good player. In the past, Granderson would have been handcuffed to a Robertson or a Willis. The Tigers do get a decent haul in the form of Austin Jackson, Coke and the Diamondbacks' young hurler Max Scherzer, but this is the move of a team rebuilding, not a team contending.

• As for the Diamondbacks, all I've got on my scorecard are underpants gnomes, ? and profit. I like Scherzer (4.12 ERA, 9.2 K/9 in 170.1 innings as a 24-year-old) more than Jackson (3.62 ERA, 6.8 K/9 in 214 innings) because he's got better command of a more electrifying arsenal, though I suppose there's a bet to be made on Kennedy's upside as well.

Update: Apparently Daniel Schlereth, the Diamondbacks' #2 pitching prospect coming into the year, is also headed to Detroit. Schlereth grazed the majors last year, going 1-4 with a 5.89 ERA and 22/15 K/BB ratio in 18.1 innings. He's a pure reliever who offers mid-90s velocity from the left side, a rarity. The deal now makes even less sense for the Diamondbacks, and more for the Tigers.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Arbitration Blues

Tuesday marked baseball's arbitration deadline about which I had much to say in the Twitscape regarding both the Yankees and Dodgers. Neither team offered any of their free agents arbitration, decreasing the likelihood that they'll return, but the landscapes surrounding those decisions are quite different.

The Yankees' only Type A free agent is Johnny Damon, who's coming off an excellent season capped by a key role in the team's World Series win. He made $13 million a year over the life of his deal, but just turned 36. A one-year deal for him to return via arbitration might have cost the Yankees $15 million, a figure that apparently was too rich for Brian Cashman's blood. Damon's got a strong enough hand that he can likely do better in length if not average annual salary, even from the Yankees (two years, $25 million with an option, perhaps).

What's annoying is that because he's a Type A, foregoing the arbitration offer costs the Yankees two high draft picks, one in the 16-30 range of the draft (the top 15 picks are protected), the other in the supplemental phase (31-50, roughly speaking). That's a substantial amount of value; four years ago, colleague Nate Silver estimated those two picks as worth $9 million for the 16-30 and $3 million for the supplemental. Since then, the market has leveled off, inflation has occurred, and WARP has changed, but if anything, the value of those picks is probably higher. Apparently, the fear of being stuck with a pricey one-year deal — though really, it's difficult to get too badly burned on such a pact — outweighed the return for the Yanks, offering further evidence that even Cashman is on a budget.

The Yankees also decided not to offer arbitration to Andy Pettitte and Hideki Matsui, but both of them are Type B free agents, meaning all the Yankees turned down was the right to supplemental picks worth about $3 million apiece. Weighed against the higher likelihood that both would accept and win their cases at prices out of Cashman's control, again, the risk was apparently too great. It's still a likelihood that at least Pettitte returns; the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement struck down a provision that teams who didn't offer arbitration to their free agents were prevented from signing them until the following spring. Now, the two sides can hopefully negotiate a more sensible deal.

If the Yankees' moves generated a few headscratches, the Dodgers' moves left observers — and particularly fans of the club — slackjawed. They had two Type As, Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf, both of whom were extremely unlikely to return. Hudson, who was benched in September and never regained his job, poured gasoline all over whatever bridge back to Chavez Ravine existed, while Wolf, as the second-best pitcher available on the market after John Lackey, will almost certainly draw multi-year offers that would exceed what he could get in arbitration. Neither of the two was offered arbitration, a pair of decisions that offer resounding evidence that GM Ned Colletti's hands have been tied by the unseemly divorce proceedings of the McCourts.

The Dodger blogosphere understandably went into a lather over the news, and I threw some fuel on the fire via Twitter: "Picturing Colletti wearing nothing but sandwich board reading 'What part of "We have no money" don't you get?'" I wrote, followed shortly by a back-of-envelope calculation based upon Nate's research: "So, for avoiding 4 bonuses ($1-2 mil per, max), Dodgers lose out on $24 mil of picks by not offering Hudson & Wolf arb." The conclusion, to me, was obvious: "Frank McCourt hates America more than he does his wife."

As heads cooled, the reality of just how screwed the Dodgers are began to set in. In the aftermath, Colletti framed the non-moves as "made strictly from a baseball perspective," adding in a separate note (link unavailable), "While I am blindfolded and bound to this chair, it really is a comfortable chair. I ask my family and friends to remain calm and don't try to be heroes, as I am unharmed and will be released if you comply with the demands."

Despite having lowered payroll by $18 million dollars between Opening Days 2008 and 2009, clearing $30 million more via the current crop of free agents, and saving about another $13 million via Manny Ramirez ($8 million in lost salary due to the suspension, and $5 million less in 2010 than in 2009), the Dodgers are expected not to make any major additions this offseason because eight key young players — Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Hong-Chih Kuo, James Loney, Russell Martin, and George Sherrill — are arbitration-eligible, and thus in line for sizable raises. Furthermore, not only are they pennywise and pound-foolish when it comes to a substantial return on a relatively small investment in 2010 first-round picks, but they've been that way for longer than most of us realize. In an around-the-horn play, True Blue LA pointed me to a Memories of Kevin Malone entry which in turn pointed to a Los Angeles Times piece containing research from Baseball America, including the following double whammy:
The Dodgers have paid $8.5 million in signing bonuses for draft picks over the last two years — the lowest figure among all major league teams, according to Baseball America.

The Dodgers, so proud of their heritage in Asia and Latin America, today are a non-factor in bidding for top amateur players abroad. In 2008, according to Baseball America, major league clubs combined to sign 115 such players for bonuses of more than $100,000. The Dodgers did not sign one.
Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Still on a roll, True Blue details a laundry list of cost-cutting maneuvers over the past two years; basically, because of a mandate that they be more or less payroll-neutral, their big trade acquisitions have cost them better prospects, such as Andy LaRoche, 2007 second-round pick Michael Watt, and Indians' top prospect Carlos Santana, a 22-year-old catcher whose loss resounds given Martin's 2009 decline. Quoth colleague Kevin Goldstein: "Santana's bat is so special that if he was a first-base prospect, he'd still be elite." I asked Kevin if he would rank among the game's top 10 or 25 prospects in his 2010 Top 100 list, and he suggested that he'd likely be somewhere in between those two numbers. Ouchie.

The big concern for 2010 comes down to how the Dodgers are going to fill their rotation behind Clayton Kershaw, Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. They have some in-house prospects (Scott Elbert, James McDonald and Josh Lindblom) and suspects (Eric Stults, Charlie Haeger), but none of them is so obviously ready that they are a guarantee to fill even one spot. Which means that they not only need to find the next Randy Wolf, but they'll need substantial reinforcements as well. And I don't mean Jeff Freakin' Weaver or Braden Freakin' Looper. Their road back to the playoffs, let alone the NLCS, just got a bit harder.

Even so, Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman outlines a best-case scenario expectation for 2010, while Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness offers a modest proposal that the team trade Andre Ethier for pitching. I don't really think the choices help the 2010 club enough to tempt Colletti, who's been forced to think about nothing but This Year by ownership's shortsightedness, into attempting the pursuit of any of them, but it's an interesting piece if only because it serves to remind that the team may need to breach its current core in order to improve in other areas.

It's a dark day for Dodger baseball, as both Weisman and MSTI conclude. I concur, to the point that I'm going to have to substantially rewrite my Baseball Prospectus 2010 team essay in light of this news. Which is about the last thing I need given all the other fires I've got going.

• • • 

In better news, ironically released the same day (perhaps to soften the blow of the arbitration shitstorm), the Dodgers made it official that Vin Scully would return for his 61st season in 2010, and that he'd continue to do NL West road games as well as the home games. Big League Stew calls attention to the good news with a three-minute clip of Scully highlights dating back to the days of Jackie Robinson, and including some non-baseball ones. True Blue LA ups the ante with a link to Scully's nine-minute call of the Kirk Gibson home run in the 1988 World Series. Also on YouTube is Scully's incomparable call of the four consecutive homer game set to a video-game re-enactment. Bask in some of the work of the game's greatest announcer, and remember, Dodger fans, that we at least have that to look forward to in the coming year.

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Clearing the Bases—Post-Turkey Lurkey Edition

Still buried in winter work, and will be for the next few weeks, limiting much of my current writing to 140-character missives via Twitter. Rounding up some of my stray BP links in case you haven't been following along:

• A few weeks back I looked at 2009 home run rates, overall, by league, and by ballpark. Overall, home runs per game increased by 3.3 percent this past season, a figure that masks a 4.9 percent drop in the NL and a 12.7 percent climb in the AL, producing the widest AL-NL split since 1996. The changes aren't entirely explained by the two new New York parks, though Nu-Yankee Stadium was the easiest place to homer (1.463 per team per game) and CitiField the sixth-hardest (0.802 per team per game).

• Next up was an analysis of the top two free agent hitters available, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. The pair share the same position (left field) and thus have relevance to the beasts of the AL East given that they've both got vacancies — the latter, of course, having served as the Sox's left fielder since Manny Ramirez's trade to the Dodgers. The two are very close as hitters, with virtually identical translated OBP and SLG lines (career-wise) but differing walk rates and batting averages: "The major point of contrast is that Bay walks considerably more often, drawing an unintentional pass in 11.8 percent of his career plate appearances, compared to 8.2 percent for Holliday. It all comes out in the wash: Holliday owns a Clay Davenport-translated career line of .312/.384/.541, while Bay is at .285/.384/.540."

Where the two differ is defense. Using a three-year average of the big three defensive systems (BP's Fielding Runs Above Average, Fangraphs' Ultiamte Zone Rating, and John Dewan's Plus/Minus), Holliday has a staggering 18-run annual advantage, making him worth something like $3.6 to $5.4 million per year more depending upon where you set the value of a marginal win.

• In an Unfiltered post, I revisited Jaffe's Ugly MVP Predictor in advance of the AL MVP announcement. At the time of the original article, Joe Mauer's Twins were a game under .500, making him an extremely unlikely winner based upon Wild Card era voting trends, but the Twins' late rush to the postseason vaulted him into the system's crosshairs. JUMP doesn't peg him as the winner, but it places him in the AL top three between Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. That classifies him as a "secondary hit" for the system, which as designed can put every MVP since 1995 except 1999's Pudge Rodriguez in that class. Which isn't to say either of those Yanks should have won, just that historical precedent favors big sluggers and middle infielders on 100-win teams over catchers on Wild Card winners. In the NL, JUMP nails Albert Pujols as the winner, which wasn't too surprising given his monster year.

• In part of what will be a six-part series on the winter free agent market, I examined the available relievers. It's a group that upon examining three-year track records for performance and health, can basically be divided in two by a sizable gulch, with the top six clearly separated from the rest of the pack. Number one on the list is Billy Wagner, who agreed to a deal with the Braves last night. Numbers three and six, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, who both spent time as Atlanta's closer last year, are that much more available; both have drawn interest from the Yankees and Red Sox. Number seven, the first one on the other side of the divide, is Brandon Lyon, who apparently is also drawing interest from the Yankees, but it sounds as though their rotation plans need to fall into place first.

• Which brings us to Tuesday's arbitration news, which, come to think of it, deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned.

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