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Monday, April 1, 2013

Quick Thoughts: Reacting to Cubs Opening Day

One thing I've never done on this blog is do write-ups on individual games.  This year, I'm going to write every now and then on the performance of random teams in random games to keep you all on your toes.  Let's get started:
Final: Chicago Cubs 3, Pittsburgh Pirates 1
Really, this game was all about strikeouts.  There were a staggering 25 of them, in fact (15 on the Cubs side and 10 on Pittsburgh's side).  Combine the totals, divide by 18, and multiply by 9 and you get a combined K/9 ratio of 12.5.  Yes, 12.5 K/9 combined between TWO TEAMS.  The bulk of the work was done by starters Jeff Samardzija and A.J. Burnett, who racked up 19 of the day's strikeouts.  The more impressive thing?  There were only three combined walks!  Yes, a combined K/BB ratio of 8.33 throughout this game.  As you can see, the results on the side of runs were...disappointing.  All in all, there were only nine hits (but who are we kidding, there were 25 strikeouts!).  The big hit, however, came very early on off the bat of the Italian Stallion Anthony Rizzo, who planted a first-pitch fastball from A.J. Burnett well out of PNC park in right-center field.
This game was all about the starting pitching, as I mentioned before.  Samardzija got things done by using his explosive fastball, which was touching 96/97 in the 6th and 7th innings.  A.J. Burnett countered with his impressive curveball and a solid mix of pitches overall.  However, none of this will come out of this game as the day's biggest story.  That belongs to the Cubs' group of relievers who tried to close the game out.  Carlos Marmol started the ninth by going: strikeout, HBP, SB, single, BB, and then he got pulled.  James Russell came in, recorded a flyout, and left.  Then, Kyuji Fujikawa made his Cubs debut by throwing two pitches and getting the last out on a soft fly ball.
It's going to be tough to tell who is going to be the Cubs' closer at the end of the day, but for now I wouldn't be surprised at all if the job wound up in the hands of multiple guys.  After all is said and done, the Cubs have finished the afternoon alone in first place in the NL Central.

The Elvis Andrus Extension and the Glories of Roster Flexibility

Another extension went down last night, so let's dive right in:
Elvis Andrus, SS
Deal: 8 years/$120 million (now 10 years/$131.275 total, no options, probably an out clause somewhere)
After agreeing to a 3 year/$14.4 million extension last February, it looks like the Rangers managed to lock down their man for good this time.  Late last night it was reported that the above extension was agreed to, and it appears that Elvis Andrus is taking his physical this morning/afternoon.  This deal has brought up a lot of questions regarding the Rangers' roster, but for now I want to focus on the deal itself.  Firstly, the most interesting thing about this deal is that Elvis Andrus is a Boras client.  Yes, a Scott Boras client signed for the long-haul without ever touching the free agent market during his career (well, at least through his early 30's, anyway).  This represents, IMO, a change of heart for Scott Boras and the rest of his corporation, and it would not surprise me if this is his response to how poorly the last off season appeared to have gone for him.  Secondly, the deal is...well...pretty darn amazing for Texas.  Over the next 10 years, they'll only be paying Andrus an AAV of $13.1 million, and they will only be paying $15 million AAV to Andrus over the new years on the deal.  Using the extension model of 4.3 d/WAR (remember, Andrus was still two years from free agency), this deal calls for Andrus to produce 27.9 WAR over the life of the new part of the deal.  Can he do it?  Let's see:
2015 (26): 4.5 (I'm going to say that, if not for a fluke BsR number, Andrus would have been worth about this much in 2012, and I think he's really reached his plateau as a player)
2016 (27): 4.5
2017 (28): 4.5
2018 (29): 4.2 (speed guy, lots of miles on his legs by this point, you never know...better safe than sorry)
2019 (30): 4.0
2020 (31): 3.7
2021 (32): 3.5
2022 (33): 3.5
I typically like to give the benefit of the doubt to guys, and I think I did here.  Andrus is a guy whose greatest asset is his speed.  He uses it on the bases, where he's an elite-level runner, and he uses it in the field to build range.  His second greatest asset is his defense, where he has been consistently rated among the best in baseball since he showed up in the league.  These are two skills that should carry well over time and really are not prone to flukes the way things like hits (yay BABIP) and power are(no matter what defensive metrics say, really).  If this model pans out, Andrus will be worth 32.4 wins, which is slightly better than what the extension calls for (and as I've mentioned in other posts, the 4.3 d/WAR number will likely start to climb rapidly).
So the Rangers got, at worst, a very good deal for Andrus.  Even though he is now under control for ten years, 70% of that time comes before he hits the age of 31, which sits in that magical realm of production I talked about in my WAR study.  However, this deal doesn't come without some consequences.  Let's get into that now.
Roster Flexibility and the Fate of Jurickson Profar and Ian Kinsler
This right here, ladies and gentlemen, is why having a strong farm system is the greatest resource any team can have.  When you have a strong farm, you get many choices.  You can choose to promote the prospect and play him or you can trade the prospect and upgrade at another position on your roster.  After losing Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson the past two years, many questioned what Mr. Daniels was doing.  Well, this is what he was doing.  He now has the ultimate asset: a young shortstop who happens to be the best prospect in baseball.  He also has a second shortstop who just so happens to be among the best at his position and is now signed for the next decade.  Oh, and as a kicker, he has a second baseman who is still producing high amounts of value.  Let's look at two scenarios: in the first, we're going to make the Rangers...*gasp*...TRADE Jurickson Profar, and in the second, we're going to move Ian Kinsler to a couple different positions to see what happens.
Scenario One: Trading Profar
This is glorious for Texas.  Jurickson Profar is one of the most valuable assets in baseball, and he hasn't started a full season in the bigs yet.  But what could the Rangers do with Profar?  Well, just about anything.  Luckily for Texas, the St. Louis Cardinals have the best farm system and a great need for a shortstop.  If the Rangers were to trade Profar to St. Louis, they would most surely get back Oscar Taveras and MORE from the Cardinals (well, if they did the deal smartly).  However, the Cardinals aren't the only club with young talent to pair with Profar.  A better deal for Texas would be to trade Profar for more of a sure bet.  How about Giancarlo Stanton?  The Marlins won't want to pay him shortly, and they certainly need a large amount of young talent to continue their rebuilding effort.  Stanton provided nearly six wins in value last year in 123 games, and he's still only going to be 23 next year.  I would wager that the Rangers could immediately extend Stanton after a trade and move Nelson Cruz out to left field (or, more ideally, to DH).  This move would add six wins of immediate value to Texas, which is more valuable than waiting to see if Profar will develop.  However, a deal of Profar for Stanton surely won't be enough, so young guys like Leonys Martin and Mike Olt would have to be dealt as well (which might work, because Olt is blocked like no other).
Scenario Two: Shifting the Lineup by Moving Kinsler
So let's say the Rangers decide to hold onto Profar.  Well, this most certainly means he becomes their regular second baseman going forward.  However, what becomes of Ian Kinsler?  Well, David Murphy is only under contract through this season.  This means that left field is vacant, and someone needs to go out and fill it.  One thought is that Ian Kinsler could head out that way himself, but he's never played in a MLB outfield before, and the saying goes "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."  Another thought is that Mitch Moreland could go out to left field himself.  But really, the most likely scenario is this:
Kinsler to first
Moreland to DH
Berkman to retirement
Murphy gets re-signed
This doesn't change a ton in value, but it does hurt Kinsler's value a bit.  His offense at first would be among the worst at the position in the league, and his contract suddenly loses a lot of value.  However, the team also gets the added bonus of having Profar at second.  If scouts are right, Profar will be producing enough value to make everyone forget that Kinsler was a second baseman in the first place.
Lasting Thought
Ideally for Texas, this deal turns into a blockbuster trade for Giancarlo Stanton paired with a long-term extension.  More realistically, it means that the Rangers have the best defensive middle of the infield since Vizquel/Alomar and have to deal with Kinsler at first base.  While some will say the Rangers should have just given Profar the chance at shortstop, there's just too much risk involved there.  They went with the very young sure bet at a premium position, which is never a bad decision.  They now have plenty of roster flexibility to do as they please.  Ultimately, this is just another great move added to the long list of great moves the Rangers have made over the past five years.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goldy and the Three Extensions

Mark your calendars, folks!  Friday, March 29th, 2013 will probably go down as one of the more memorable days in contract history (not that anyone actually remembers the specific days when contracts are signed).  Three different extensions were handed out today to three very different and very deserving players.  The Diamondbacks locked up Paul "Goldy" Goldschmidt, the Tigers made Justin Verlander a 200 million dollar man, and Buster Posey doubled up on an old-ish record.  Let's dive right in:
Paul Goldschmidt
Deal: 5 years/ $32 million, option for $14.5 million
This goes down as the least surprising deal of the day.  It has been reported throughout the off season that extending Goldy was right at the top of the Diamondbacks' wish list.  Goldschmidt is starting to emerge as one of the best young hitters in the game, and it's clear that the D-Backs hold the opinion that there is certainly room to improve.  Whether you like fWAR or rWAR, it's probably safe to say the Goldy put up three wins in value last year.  On the free agent market (remember, I use a 5.2 d/WAR model) this performance is worth ~$15.6 million AAV.  In terms of extension talk (remember, the hole point of an extension is to use the lack of leverage against a player in negotiations to sign a deal for *less* than the free agent market would bear), this performance would probably be worth something along the lines of $12-$13 AAV (I'm not sold on any extension model yet, but I like the low-4's for now).
Now let's get to the projection section.  Clearly, Goldschmidt does not lack power.  With a swing conducive to power production (both heavy line drive numbers and home run numbers), I think it's also a bit safe to say that Goldschmidt should be a lock for some consistent offensive production.  He got his strikeout rate well down from 2011 and kept it at 22%, which can be worked with.  He also walks 10% of the time, and his ISO has been steadily over .200 over 764 PA in his young career.  This basis suggests consistent development, so I'll go with a projection that looks like this (Goldy is also an adequate defender and is decent on the bases):
2014 (25): 4.5 WAR (extension starts in 2014)
2015 (26): 5.0 WAR
2016 (37): 5.3 WAR
2017 (28): 5.5 WAR
2018 (29): 5.3 WAR
2019 (30): 5.3 WAR (option year)
Again, I try to be favorable to players and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Rapid development into his prime and a solid plateau through his prime years.  This model suggests 30.9 wins in six years, which is about $132.87 million over those six years if we assume an extension ratio of 4.3 d/WAR.  Now, here's something new I'm going to throw's easy to look at $32 million vs. $132,87 million and say "well that's a no brainer for the D-Backs if they are right about his development."  However, the $32 million number doesn't factor in what the player would have made without the contract.  Goldschmidt was scheduled to start arbitration after the 2014 season, and he would have gotten a significant chunk of change.  Just to take a guess (as arbitration numbers can be odd and variant), here's what his arbitration numbers may have looked like:
2014: 750k
2015: 4 million
2016: 7 million
2017: 11 million
2018 (FA): 20 million (I think it's safe to say that 20 million is pretty conservative for a 4.8 win player in 2018)
2019 (FA): 25 million (sweet goodness)
That total is about $67.75 million, which is considerably more than the deal the D-Backs gave Goldschmidt. The deal gives Goldy a guaranteed $32 million with a 2019 club option for 2019 that would be $14.5 million, bringing the total to 46.5 million over 6 years, or an AAV of 7.75 million (and remember, the deal doesn't cover 2013, where the D-Backs will be paying Goldschmidt scraps as a pre-arb player).
All in all, a fantastic get for the D-Backs, especially after reports that Goldy had turned them down earlier in the off season.
Justin Verlander
Deal: 5 years/$140 million (w/2020 option for $22 million)
This deal is a big one.  When you add on the two years Verlander was already under contract, the hurler can reach a total of $202 million over the next 8 seasons, which makes him the first $200 million pitcher in history.  All in all, I'm not concerned about the next two years' commitments as they were already guaranteed to happen.  The deal adds $162 million in potential new money to his contract (still making him the highest paid pitcher in history).  Using an extension model, this deal assumes Verlander produces 37.7 wins IF his option vests (and it does so if he finishes top 5 in Cy Young voting in 2019).  The question is: can he get there?  My answer is "probably" in this scenario.  Why?  Well, the deal starts with Verlander's age 32 season (aka, two years down the road in 2015).  Here's a predictive model:
2015 (32): 6.4 WAR
2016 (33): 6.1 WAR
2017 (34): 5.8 WAR
2018 (35): 5.5 WAR
2019 (36): 4.8 WAR
2020 (37): 3.5 WAR
This model is pretty conservative, because it has to be (sorry, pitchers).  While I favor the argument that he is a horse with strong mechanics and a strong body/work ethic, I also thought the same thing about Roy Halladay.  Well, I think it's obvious that Roy Halladay hit a wall last year in his age 35 season.  I understand that Verlander is strong, but 240+ innings is a ton for any pitcher these days.  That's what concerns me the most.  Anyway, this model still predicts Verlander to create 32.1 wins over the course of this added money.  While not quite what the contract demands, there are other factors in play here.  Firstly, other pitchers are breaking contract records left and right.  By the time Verlander hit free agency in 2015, we probably would have seen the first $300 million dollar player (eyeing you, Clayton Kershaw), which means the going rate for Verlander on the open market would have been HUGE.  This alone destroys the validity of the 4.3 d/WAR extension model, and it probably also throttles the 5.2 d/WAR model for free agency.  Using the 5.2 d/WAR model, Verlander only has to produce 31.2 wins, which means that the Tigers still got Verlander for juuuuuuust under current market value (but as I said, that model will be destroyed at this pace).
Overall, the money in this deal is fair.  Roy Halladay may have hit a wall at age 35, but he produced some of his greatest seasons in his early 30's.  This gives me hope that Verlander can do the same, and the Tigers aren't locked into that 2020 option if Verlander does fall off.  Considering the way the pitching market is developing, this is probably also a pretty strong contract.  It was also probably wise to get this deal done now instead of waiting until after the Dodgers attack Kershaw.
Buster Posey
Deal: 8 years/$159 million (9 years/$167 million if you include 2013 salary) + 2022 option for $22 million
Oh boy, this one is huge.  For reference, Carlos Gonzalez and the Rockies set the record for total dollars given to a player with less than three years of experience at $80 million back before the 2011 season.  This deal almost DOUBLES that record!  As a Super 2, Buster Posey is already in arbitration, with a scheduled 2013 salary of $8 million.  Posey turned 26 two days ago, and he was scheduled for free agency in 2017.  This contract covers those arbitration years and the first few years of his free agent eligibility, as well as giving him full no-trade rights.  Unlike the other deals, the breakdown was reported with this one:
2013 (26): $8 million (already scheduled, not new to the deal)
2014 (27): $10.5 million
2015 (28): $16.5 million
2016 (29): $20 million
2017 (30): $21.4 million
2018 (31): $21.4 million
2019 (32): $21.4 million
2020 (33): $21.4 million
2021 (34): $21.4 million
2022 (35): $22 million (option, $3 million buyout)
As expected, this contract is a beautiful example of deferring money to later years.  The deal is strikingly similar to Joe Mauer's extension from 2011, and it actually pays less money, even though it is over about the same age range that Mauer's deal is (28-35 for Mauer vs .27-35 for Posey).  Granted, Posey was further from free agency than Mauer (and Mauer was far more established within the Majors), but the deal is still great.  Using the 4.3 d/WAR extension model, the total over 9 years (if we count the extension) calls for Posey to create 38.8 wins in value.  I really don't want to get into projection value for a catcher long-term, but if I had to, I'd go with something like this:

2013 (26): 6.0
2014 (27): 6.3
2015 (28): 6.0
2016 (29): 5.7
2017 (30): 5.5
2018 (31): 5.2
2019 (32): 4.8
2020 (33): 4.3
2021 (34): 4.0
2022 (35): 3.7
If you're wondering why the value numbers aren't being projected upward into Posey's prime, it's because I'm automatically assuming that he is going to get less and less time behind the plate as his career goes on.  It's no secret that playing catcher requires a lot of stamina and durability, and with a contract this large, the Giants will want to limit risk as much as possible.  Posey already was down to 114 games caught in 2012, and I don't anticipate that number going anywhere but south in the near future.  The Twins have done the same thing with Joe Mauer, and I feel that both players will be treated the same way.  Now, this all being said, that's 51.5 wins in value over 10 years, which is a solid 5.15 WAR/year clip.  This kind of production mandates an average AAV of $22.145 million using the 4.3 d/WAR model, so it looks like the Giants just about nailed this one right on the head.  Given the fact that Posey is sitting alone atop his position right now, this deal looks like a fantastic get along the lines of the deals given to Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki.
All in all, this is a great contract.  Let's just hope Scott Cousins isn't going to try to run him over in the near future.
Lasting Thought
We are seeing more of the same in these extensions.  Arbitration is going to be dead as a process very soon, if it isn't already considered legally dead within MLB.  Teams and players just don't want to deal with the process.  It's also clear with the extensions given to Felix and Verlander that teams aren't about to play the free agency game with their top players any more.  The new television contracts are bringing in a new element to free agency: more teams capable of paying out massive contracts.  This is even bringing loaded owners like Mike Ilitch to lock up their players before they hit the market, even if the contracts are basically being handed out at projected current market value.
Down the road, there are two key players that will mean a lot to the future understanding of how teams will approach new deals: Clayton Kershaw and Robinson Cano.  With he money the Dodgers have, it would not surprise me if Kershaw (25 years old) became the first $300 million man in baseball.  A deal totaling 10 years and $300 million isn't out of the question, given that he's scheduled to make $11 million in 2013 as it is, and it's pretty much a given that the Dodgers won't let him get to the open market.  With Cano, it seems he and Scott Boras are intent on making him the next big free agent signing in MLB.  In the modern landscape, his status as a superstar at a thin position hitting the market at a reasonable age is incredibly rare.  There is no doubt in my mind that Boras and his staff will use this as incredible leverage, and it's likely that there won't be a shortage of teams seeking Cano's services.
At the end of the day, the MLB landscape is changing, and it's changing quickly.  Teams are countering the inflated revenues due to TV deals by simply not allowing their players to hit free agency in their primes (another example: the Cardinals extended Adam Wainwright for nearly $100 million this week).  We'll have to see what the next CBA does about this, but for now: enjoy it.  We are living in the golden age of professional baseball, IMO.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Yuniesky Betancourt: Finally Done?

Today the Phillies released Yuniesky Betancourt, and with less than a week left in spring training it appears likely that "Yuni B" will not be breaking camp as a regular contributor with a club.  The first question that comes to my mind is, "Why in the world has it taken this long?"  Betancourt's career has been defined by swinging at bad pitches and misplaying routine balls on defense.  Yet year after year, he was handed a starting job.  Year after year, negative rWAR performance after negative rWAR performance, he started.  Last year, the Royals wouldn't give him a chance at short, but they let him play at second.  By August, he was released.  The Phillies brought him in this year to give him a shot to make the club, but it appears that Yuni B is finally out of options.  Finally, it appears that MLB has reached a collective state where it has determined that Yuni B is done as a significant contributor.
Career Summary
To keep this short, I'll skip the finer details of Betancourt's career.  The Seattle Mariners signed him as an amateur free agent in 2005 as a defector out of Cuba.  In his first few years, Betancourt was actually pretty serviceable.  While he never obtained the status of "Major League average player" in his career, he did have some value early on.  At the trade deadline in 2009, the Kansas City Royals traded for Yuni B to have him as their primary shortstop.  By this time, Betancourt's defense had severely dwindled and he was frequently unable to contribute positive value in any facet of his game.  In December of 2010, he was part of the trade that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee.  After another disappointing season up in the Beer City, Yuni B was granted free agency, and he eventually signed with the Royals.  After contributing -1.2 rWAR and -0.8 fWAR, he was given his outright release and did not appear in the majors after that point.
Looking back on Betancourt's career, it's really hard to see how teams justified bringing Yuni B on as a player, let alone as a starter.  When you watch him on tape and look over his numbers, he just doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities.  To get what I mean, let's go over some traditional scouting tools:
1) Hit tool: Betancourt has always been a free swinger who rarely strikes out.  He's able to make contact, but he just doesn't do anything with it. He has a career LD% of 18.2 and only missed pitches he swung at 6.2% of the time.  The line drive percentage is tied for 131st among qualifying 2012 batters, and the swing-and-miss rate would have been tied for 35th best.  So overall, really not that good.
2) Power tool: Career ISO of .126 and HR/FB rate of 5.0.  Even though he played quite a bit of his career in Safeco and Kaufman, these numbers are still exceptionally low for a guy who showed up in a pretty favorable offensive era.  His HR/FB rate would have been 130th best in MLB among 2012 qualified batters and the ISO would have been 115th (and remember, we are currently in a pitcher-friendly offensive environment).
3) Speed: Betancourt was never a speed guy, and he was 30/60 on stolen base attempts in his career, which is atrocious.  75% is often considered the cutoff for being valuable, and Yuni B was well off of that mark.  As far as his other baserunning tools, his career BsR is -5.3.
4) Fielding: Career UZR of -56, career dWAR of -3.1, and a career marked by laughable efforts in the field.  Overall, he's been a terrible fielder.
5) Arm strength: This is one thing I'm not sure you can hold against Yuni B.  He's always had an adequate throwing arm, and he's made his fair share of great throws in his career.  You can be the judge.
Lasting Impact
I think it's safe to say that it is remarkable that Yuniesky Betancourt lasted as long as he did in the Major Leagues.  Without any real redeemable MLB qualities, Betancourt kept getting starts.  I guess what is most mystifying about Yuni B's career is the fact that he did it all in the "Information Age" of baseball.  With all of the emphasis on advanced scouting video, detailed reports, and statistical analysis, it just surprises me that teams kept concluding that he was worth a shot.  Even his release came as a surprise to me, given the fact that the Phillies also have employed Michael Young and Delmon Young this spring.  Either way, the Phillies made the right choice.  It's time for Yuni B to walk off into the sunset and enjoy his life.
But who knows, teams are reportedly interested in signing him.  Perhaps he's still got some starts left in his system.