Archive for July, 2010

A History of “Lose-Lose” Trades

As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, general managers are busy working the phones for a deal that improves the current roster or lands intriguing, cost-controlled prospects who may play a prominent role in the years to come.

Baseball’s trade deadline history includes both the lopsided swap — such as the 1997 deal in which the Seattle Mariners sent Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb — and the win-win trades, like the 2008 CC Sabathia blockbuster that netted the Milwaukee Brewers an ace for a playoff run (plus two free agent compensation draft picks) and gave the Cleveland Indians two potential starting position players in Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta.

Getty Images
Danny Tartabull’s deal in 1995 was ultimately lose-lose.
Not every transaction this time of year makes an impact, though — some trades provide both teams with a whole lot of nada.

Today, we’ll focus on five of the biggest lose-lose trades made in June and July over the past 25 years, as measured by wins above replacement. All WAR values given for major leaguers are rest-of-contract numbers — we’re interested in the value of the service time teams acquired in a trade, not what they subsequently paid to retain a player by bidding on his services on the free-agent market. For prospects and young major leaguers, the value is the WAR contributed during their inexpensive, team-controlled seasons before they hit free agency. By looking at the production teams received (or in this case, didn’t), we can get a feel for which deals gave general managers headaches and huge phone bills, but little on-field value. Despite winning five World Series in the past quarter-century, the Yankees still crack this list three times.

1. 2006: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded Joel Guzman and Sergio Pedroza to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Julio Lugo.
WAR received: minus-0.7
WAR forfeited: minus-0.2
Lugo averaged 3.5 wins per year from 2003-2005, and he was off to a great start with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 with a .383 wOBA and 2.5 WAR. But his bat didn’t make the cross-country trip to L.A., as Lugo posted a .240 wOBA while seeing time at second base, third base and the outfield corners. Guzman was ranked as the No. 26 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2006, but he flamed out by moving down the defensive spectrum and displaying wretched plate discipline. While Pedroza hit well as an old player in the low minors, he tanked at Double-A.

2. 1995: The New York Yankees traded Danny Tartabull to the Oakland Athletics for Jason Beverlin and Ruben Sierra.
WAR received: minus-0.6
WAR forfeited: zero
“The Bull” inked a lucrative free-agent deal with the Bombers before the 1992 season, and the outfielder remained highly productive through ’93. But his bat no longer compensated for his lumbering defense after that (thanks for the swing tips, George Costanza). Plus, he had a very public spat with the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 1995 after the team refused to put Tartabull on the DL with a rib injury. The Bull aggravated that rib ailment just a few games into his Oakland Athletics career, which would last all of 98 plate appearances. Sierra, meanwhile, turned in fantastic 1989 and 1991 seasons with the Texas Rangers, but his career flatlined in Oakland and he fared poorly in New York. The Yankees used him as part of a 1996 trade with the Detroit Tigers for Cecil Fielder.

What Will Happen?
Follow along with all the potential moves at MLB Rumor Central.

3. 1987: The Houston Astros traded Mel Stottlemyre Jr. to the Kansas City Royals for Buddy Biancalana.
WAR received: minus-0.6
WAR forfeited: plus-0.1
The son of Mel Sr. and brother of Todd Stottlemyre, Mel Jr. is the new pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But before that, he was the third overall pick in the January phase of the 1985 draft. Mel Stottlemyre Jr.’s major league career would last all of 31.1 innings, logged in 1990. Roland Americo “Buddy” Biancalana, a middle infielder taken 25th overall in the 1978 June draft, has an awesome name. But alas, he barely stayed above the Mendoza Line as a big league reserve from 1982 to 1987.

4. 2008: The New York Yankees traded Kyle Farnsworth to the Detroit Tigers for Ivan Rodriguez.
WAR received: minus-0.1
WAR forfeited: minus-0.1
The Yankees figured they had killed two birds with one stone by getting rid of chronic underachiever Farnsworth and bringing in Pudge to fill in for Jorge Posada, who was out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Unfortunately, Rodriguez posted a .263 wOBA that made Jose Molina puff out his chest in pride. Farnsworth’s second stint with the Tigers didn’t go very well — he had a 5.07 FIP in 16 innings pitched. And he didn’t even body slam anybody this time. Bummer.

5. 2000: The Cincinnati Reds traded Denny Neagle and Mike Frank to the New York Yankees for Drew Henson, Jackson Melian, Brian Reith and Ed Yarnall.
WAR received: minus-1.4
WAR forfeited: plus-0.9
Before he got stacks-o-cash from the Colorado Rockies in free agency, Neagle compiled a 5.23 FIP for the Yankees. The Reds had to feel good about the return for trading the lefty — third baseman Henson ranked as Baseball America’s 24th-best prospect in the minors prior to 2000, and outfielder Melian ranked No. 72. Yet, Henson’s baseball career crumpled. The former star QB at Michigan was traded back to New York the following year for fellow enigma Wily Mo Pena, and Henson eventually quit the sport entirely to pursue a career in the NFL. That didn’t go so well either, and he’s currently retired. Neither Melian nor Yarnall ever reached the majors with Cincinnati, and the Reds probably wish Reith (minus-1.4 WAR) hadn’t either.

Visions of pennant-clinching trade acquisitions and blue chip prospects dance through the heads of fans and GMs alike as the deadline nears. Sometimes, however, reality bites.

The Andre Dawson HOF effect

Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall of Fame this weekend is being celebrated by many different groups: fans of the dearly departed Montreal Expos who witnessed Dawson at his peak, fans of the Chicago Cubs who enjoyed his somewhat-dubious 1987 MVP performance and many others who admired Dawson as much for his character as for his baseball ability.

One group should be added to this list: analysts eager for a “baseline” Hall of Famer, a player about whom one could say, “If this guy is in, any player whose career has been as good or better should be in.”

Using Dawson as the baseline, what currently active outfielders are currently deserving of enshrinement in Cooperstown?

Dawson makes a good baseline because, while there was hardly a consensus that he should be in the Hall, few felt his election was a travesty. If you compare Dawson’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with other consensus Hall of Famers, he comes off as in the same league. Rather than relying on arbitrary milestones such as numbers of hits, home runs or runs batted it, WAR measures a player’s offensive, positional and playing time contributions relative to the leagues in which the player played.

Dawson’s career WAR, according to FanGraphs, included being 246 runs above average offensively and 69 runs above average in the field. After adding in his playing time contributions and position, it all comes to 62.3 WAR.

But we don’t want “mere accumulators” getting into the Hall, we want someone with at least several years of greatness. To clarify: something like a 2.0 WAR season is league average. While Dawson had a number of average-ish seasons, he also had four or five above-average, 3.0-4.0 WAR seasons (including his 1987 MVP season), but most importantly, he had a tremendous four-year peak in Montreal from 1980 to 1983; in those four years his WAR value never dropped below 6.1. By setting out his career seasonal WAR on a line graph moving from his best to worst seasons, we can generate a “visual baseline” against which to compare others (you can view the graph in a new window here):

Some currently active outfielders with career WAR metrics around Dawson’s are Manny Ramirez (72.1 career WAR), Andruw Jones (69.0), Jim Edmonds (67.1), Vladimir Guerrero (61.5) and Bobby Abreu (60.0).

Here’s a chart comparing Ramirez and Dawson (you can view it in a new window here):

Whereas Dawson neatly balanced offense and defense, Ramirez’s reputation as a bad fielder is reflected by TotalZone and UZR’s evaluation of him at 154 runs below average. However, Ramirez has been an absolute monster with the bat, at nearly 700 runs above average. As the graph shows, while Dawson’s peak was slightly better than Ramirez’s, the bulk of Manny’s career was superior. Whatever the voters make of Manny’s personal reputation, the numbers taken by themselves (including 554 home runs and counting) peg him as a Hall of Famer.

The chart comparing Dawson and Andruw Jones can be seen here (new window):

Jones has more career WAR than Dawson, but also embodies two minefields for players facing traditional voters. First, while Jones was a very good hitter in his prime, the bulk of his value comes from his defensive exploits, which, according to TotalZone and UZR, rank him as the best defensive outfielder of all time by far.

Everyone agreed that Jones was defensively great at his peak, but will they buy into defensive metrics enough to think he was that good? Second, while Jones was an absolute monster for seven or eight seasons, his sudden collapse in 2008 highlights the “peak versus overall career” issue. Still, if Dawson is a Hall of Famer, Jones’ 11 best seasons were all more valuable than Dawson’s 11 best, and he’s one of the best defensive center fielders of all time, if not the best — should he be kept out of the Hall for not tacking on two or three more mediocre seasons at the end?

Now the chart for Dawson versus Edmonds (new window):

Jim Edmonds is currently enjoying a surprisingly successful age-40 revival with the Milwaukee Brewers. This is perhaps not completely surprising, as his best seasons according to WAR were in his 30s — unlike most players, who peak during their mid- to late-20s. Like Jones, Edmonds’ down years were not as good as Dawson’s, but his peak was slightly better and lasted longer.

Here’s the chart comparing Dawson to the currently revived Vlad (new window):

While Vlad was a decent enough fielder in his prime, most of his value comes from his bat, which seemed to make hard contact with everything inside (and outside) of the strike zone. Guerrero’s relative lack of postseason experience and gaudy counting numbers might hurt him with the voters, but his best seasons are equal to Dawson’s, and his peak lasted longer.

Here’s the chart comparing Dawson to Abreu (new window):

Bobby Abreu has spent most of his career being underrated. While he has hit 30 or more home runs only twice, he has tremendous plate discipline (.401 career OBP). Having a long career that peaked in his mid-20s perhaps also made it seem like he was constantly in decline, particularly given the way that his defense collapsed in latter years. It would be quite surprising if Abreu was voted into the Hall, yet his overall career WAR is essentially the same as Dawson’s, and his peak was just as impressive and lasted three seasons longer.

The players above are older players near the end of their careers. What about guys who are younger now and their chance of reaching this “Dawson line?”

Here’s a chart that looks at Dawson in comparison to Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun and Carl Crawford (you can view it in a new window here):

Ryan Braun is only 26, and his 2008 and 2009 seasons at the plate were better than any single offensive season of Dawson’s. Yet his best overall season (2009) barely reached 5.0 WAR — impressive, but not Hall of Fame quality. Given his dreadful chops in the outfield, he’s probably going to have to hit like Manny to reach Dawson’s overall standard. Carl Crawford (28) contributes in every phase of the game, and gets plenty of attention because of his steals. Still, Dawson has four seasons better than Crawford’s best. Matt Holliday’s 2007 season ranks with Dawson’s best, but while he has several other excellent seasons on his résumé, none of them match Dawson’s peak, and Holliday is already 30. While Braun and Crawford are younger than Holliday, it’s worth noting even from the players listed above that it is very rare for a great player to have his best seasons in his 30s (as Edmonds did).

This isn’t to say it’s unforeseeable that Crawford, Braun or Holliday might have new levels of greatness awaiting them — just that it is highly unlikely. Nor is it to deny that these are three of the best outfielders currently active in the major leagues. They have so far fallen short of what is typically necessary to reach the Hall of Fame standard set by Dawson’s “baseline” career; this should simply help us appreciate the gap between “very good” and “all-time great.”

Trade-Deadline Blunders

This is the time of year when general managers are constantly conversing with other GMs and reassuring fans that they’re looking for the “right deal” or a “win-win situation.” The elusive goal is a deal that works for both sides, but that’s obviously easier said than done.

So let’s take a look at some notable trade-deadline deals in baseball history and separate the talk from the truth. John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander and Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson were both stinkers and are often cited as some of baseball’s worst, but both were completed in August and were waiver deals. Because of the rules of waiver trades, any team in baseball could have blocked them. In other words, all 28 teams not present in those swaps are somewhat at fault for letting those trades go through.

Instead, we’ll be focusing on deals in June and July — true deadline deals. Using the wins above replacement (WAR) that each team gave up, we can quickly appraise some of the most lopsided deals of the past 25 years. In this context, all WAR values are rest-of-contract numbers. When Mark McGwire was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997, he had only two months of his contract left. Let’s not burn the Oakland Athletics for those 70 home runs in 1998. For prospects, the value is the WAR accumulated during their cheap, arbitration-controlled years.

Now, on to the trades.

1. The Montreal Expos traded Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens to the Cleveland Indians for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew in 2002.

WAR received: 2.4
WAR forfeited: 55.8

This is the most classic blunder, and the worst blemish on Omar Minaya’s résumé. It’s not that Colon didn’t help — he accrued 10 wins and 2.3 WAR over the second half of the season. It’s just that the Atlanta Braves were too good that year, and the Expos finished 18½ games back in the division. And look at the prospects Montreal gave up in the deal: Phillips didn’t quite blossom in Cleveland, but he was still arbitration-controlled when he broke out with the Cincinnati Reds; Sizemore and Lee combined to put up 49 WAR before they signed free-agent contracts (Andy Pettitte’s career WAR is around 49, just for reference). At first, it might have seemed like a win-win deal, but Cleveland ultimately snatched a much larger share of the success.

2. The Seattle Mariners traded Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997.

WAR received: 0.6
WAR forfeited: 40.4

Close behind Minaya’s blunder was the straight-up robbery performed by the Red Sox in 1997 when they turned their passable closer, Heathcliff Slocumb, into two franchise cornerstones in Varitek and Lowe. The duo gave the Red Sox great production at key positions before their arbitration years ran out. Considering that Slocumb gave the Mariners only 0.6 WAR the rest of that season, this move qualifies as one of the worst trade-deadline deals of all time, and a warning about the limits of what one should give up for a reliever.

3. The Boston Red Sox traded Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling to the Baltimore Orioles for Mike Boddicker in 1988.

WAR received: 10.8
WAR forfeited: 43.3

The Red Sox were on the other side of the deal, but it was hardly as poor of a swap as the Mariners’ disaster. Boddicker was actually a decent starting pitcher — he even won 17 games for them in 1990. Of course, Anderson accumulated 28.6 WAR (of his 36.2 career WAR) during his arbitration-controlled years in Baltimore. Had Schilling put together more than 0.3 WAR in Baltimore (he was traded to Philadelphia and had 14.4 WAR before signing his first free-agent contract there), this deal would be more widely remembered as a stinker.

4. The Arizona Diamondbacks traded Abraham Nunez, Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny to the Florida Marlins for Matt Mantei in 1999.

WAR received: 2.7
WAR forfeited: 12.6

As proven time and again, teams most easily get burned when they give up starting pitching prospects, especially when they only get a reliever in return. Mantei was actually a decent closer for the Diamondbacks for a couple of years, and none of the other prospects Arizona gave up did Florida any good, but Penny alone was worth the deal. New York Mets fans might have expected to see the infamous trade of Scott Kazmir (15.6 RoC WAR) for Victor Zambrano (4 RoC WAR) here, but this one was far worse because Mantei was just a reliever.

5. The New York Yankees traded Rich Balabon, Troy Evers and Jay Buhner to the Seattle Mariners for Ken Phelps in 1988.

WAR received: 1.1
WAR forfeited: 12.6

Yankees fans, particularly Frank Costanza, will remember Buhner as one who got away. Phelps put up 17 home runs and a sub-.250 batting average in less than a full year at DH before moving on. The position player equivalent of not trading starting pitching prospects for relievers is not trading position player prospects for designated hitters.

It’s easy to forget the trades that work out for the buyers, but they are not rare. Take the Cliff Lee trade in 2009. Lee gave the Phillies an invaluable 2.4 WAR (and an NL championship) last season, and is still providing value on that contract, albeit for his fourth team in two years. The book isn’t closed on the prospects the Phillies gave up, but so far they have only provided 0.3 WAR of value to the Indians. They have some arbitration-controlled years left, but Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson and Jason Donald all seem like bit parts right now.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from all of this is not to give up decent prospects for relievers and designated hitters. That shouldn’t be too hard for the GMs to remember.

Infield Shift: Cincy’s Now Rules the NL

Before this season, which team would you have said had the best infield in the National League? Likely answer for most baseball fans: the Philadelphia Phillies. Their infield has two former NL MVP winners in Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard; you also could make the case that Chase Utley probably could have won that award once or twice. On top of that, Placido Polanco was replacing the light-hitting Pedro Feliz at third base.

As expected, Philadelphia’s infield has been solid, posting 8.7 wins above replacement to date this season.

However, the best infield in the National League right now isn’t in Philly; it belongs to the Cincinnati Reds. No wonder Cincy is the surprise leader of the NL Central.

With Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera, the Reds’ infield already has been worth 10.6 WAR; that’s more WAR than all the batters from nine different teams, including the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels. It’s also the best of any starting infield in the National League. Among all MLB clubs, only the Boston Red Sox’s infield (WAR of 12.3) is performing better; the Reds are even ahead of the highly paid New York Yankees infield, which is registering a WAR of 10.5.

Votto’s .429 wOBA leads the entire National League — including Albert Pujols — and is third to only Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera in MLB overall. Plus, but by all accounts, Votto is a tremendous fielder. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) has Votto as four runs better than the average first baseman to date this year and 14 runs better over his career, both fantastic numbers.

With the presence of Utley and Robinson Cano’s breakout this season, Phillips has fallen under the radar a bit, but he’s still among the elite second basemen in the league. Phillips always has had decent contact skills, but he’s doing a bit more with them this season, posting a .358 wOBA; that currently ranks as the highest of his career. The reason he doesn’t get as much play as Utley, Cano or players like Ian Kinsler is that much of his value comes from his fantastic glovework. Phillips won a Gold Glove in 2008 and pretty clearly deserved it: He posted a plus-16 UZR that season. Phillips has finished in the top eight in the Fielding Bible award voting every season since 2007, and his plus-4 UZR to date suggests that he’s well on his way to another top-caliber season with the glove at second base.

Rolen’s 2010 performance is more of a surprise, given that he turned 35 the day before Opening Day and hasn’t hit for big-time power since 2004, when he hit 34 home runs and posted a tremendous .284 ISO (isolated power, as explained here). He has 17 homers to date this season, although he’s out indefinitely with hamstring issues. His absence is the biggest reason to worry about the Reds’ ability to stay atop the NL Central.

Even while healthy, Rolen is unlikely to maintain his late-career power surge. His 14.7 percent homer/fly ball rate is his highest since that 2004 season and is more than 8 percent higher than his average from the past three seasons. Not only that, but according to HitTracker Online, Rolen’s average home run speed of 101.6 mph is 1.6 mph slower than the league average; this suggests he’s not hitting the ball as hard as most other power hitters. Still, even if Rolen regresses in the second half, he should be an above-average hitter thanks to his solid plate discipline and contact skills, and his always-great defense (plus-26 UZR since 2006) will be valuable.

That said, with the trade deadline approaching fast, there is still room for improvement. Cabrera has been awful at shortstop, as his .286 wOBA ranks only above Ryan Theriot and Alcides Escobar among qualified NL shortstops. And the fact that the Reds still have the NL’s best infield in spite of Cabrera is a testament to the excellence of Votto, Phillips and Rolen. Cabrera still brings roughly average defense to the table, but he’s a black hole at the plate. He doesn’t walk (20 this season) and has little to no power (three homers thus far). As such, he’s been only a 0.5 WAR player. If the Reds want to outlast the St. Louis Cardinals, shortstop is one position that they could look to upgrade before July 31, possibly with Stephen Drew or other shortstops on the market.

The Reds have Rolen and Phillips under contract until 2013, and Votto is under team control until 2014. The core of this infield and this stunning Reds team will be around for at least the foreseeable future. Even without a solid regular shortstop, this infield has performed as the best in the National League and should be one of the best for years to come.

10 Key Players for NL’s Second Half

As the second half begins — nice win by Tim Lincecum Thursday night — FanGraphs is looking at 10 players who are essential to the stretch run in each league; on Thursday we focused on the AL. What follows is the National League edition.

Dexter Fowler
The Rockies’ former top prospect offers a blend of speed and on-base savvy perhaps unseen since Kenny Lofton. Despite a legitimately horrible UZR in 2009 (minus-16.2 runs), Fowler is a better defender than right fielder Brad Hawpe. Assuming Fowler can cut down on the strikeouts (nearly 30 percent rate right now), the switch-hitter should be able to secure a full-time position, which would knock Hawpe to first base, removing the toasty Todd Helton from the equation while instantly improving the Rockies’ defense and lineup.

Nate McLouth
Acquired a little over a year ago from the Pirates, it seems that McLouth left his talent at PNC Park. McLouth is having the worst season of his career offensively and it’s not particularly close. His .269 wOBA is only part of the story, though, as he’s also played brutal defense (minus-6.9 UZR to date). A resurgence by Melky Cabrera or McLouth could help pull the Braves away from the outfield trade market. One worrisome factoid about McLouth is that he suffered a concussion in early June and might not be able to return for another few weeks.

Carlos Beltran
Beltran returned Thursday night; his overall return should knock Jeff Francoeur to the bench permanently — which would be nothing shy of a blessing for a team that desperately needs to rid itself of his dead weight.

Edinson Volquez
Another player making his 2010 season debut after the All-Star break, Volquez has recovered from Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PED usage. In 31 minor league innings, he has struck out 66 and walked only 21, which is encouraging. Another above-average arm in the rotation would make the Reds even more legitimate contenders for a playoff berth.

Jair Jurrjens
Same story, different verse for Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves. If he can regain any semblance of the pitcher who posted consecutive FIP of 3.59 and 3.68 in 2008 and ’09, the Braves will probably run away with the NL East, leaving the Mets and Phillies to duke it out for the wild card.

Buster Posey
The Giants are the forgotten team in the NL West. If they were to get a bat like Dan Uggla, they’d be dangerous; their problem for the last year-and-a-half has been offense. Posey helps immeasurably with that. In 149 plate appearances this season he has a .409 wOBA, and could be the NL’s answer to Joe Mauer.

Manny Ramirez
Even if Manny isn’t quite the slugger he used to be in the golden days, he’s still much better than Garret Anderson and Reed Johnson, the men who have played in his absence. When Ramirez is in, the Dodgers have the best offensive outfield in the National League, and when he’s out, well, they have Garret Anderson (.467 OPS) playing in meaningful games.

Chad Billingsley
One of the league’s best-kept secrets, Billingsley deserves none of the grief he’s received for a so-so win-loss record and career-worst ERA. He is currently toting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career and as a result a 3.40 FIP, which is the second-best of his career. He’s been brilliant all along, and if that .337 batting average on balls in play can regress during the second half, everyone else might take notice.

Johan Santana
Ignore the ERA. Santana isn’t pitching very well. He has horrible strikeout and walk ratios relative to what we’re accustomed to, and the lone saving grace is his deflated home run rate. Santana has always been able to stay slightly below the league average for jacks given up, but he’s currently halving his career average. That won’t continue for long and it won’t be pretty if that relapse coincides with his other struggles.

Jon Garland
The Padres are the surprise of baseball, but things are about to get complicated. If the Padres stick to their plan, staff ace Mat Latos will be shut down before he goes too far over the 150 innings mark. Of course, that plan didn’t involve the playoffs, and yet here they are, in first place at the break. That makes Garland’s performance all the more important. He’s pitched well to date, with his best xFIP in years, but that needs to continue and perhaps improve when and if the Padres put the lock on Latos.

Make-or-Break AL Players

Baseball games that actually count resume today; so upon starting the second half, it seemed prudent to look at some players with pivotal roles in the American League playoff race. Almost all top-10 lists will be ripe for subjective arguments and this one should be no exception.

That said, here are 10 players, in no particular order, who could make or break the AL playoff races.

Joaquin Benoit, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays’ bullpen is a big reason why they’re ahead of the Red Sox for the Wild Card and maintaining that advantage will be essential down the stretch. Joaquin Benoit has been nothing short of amazing for Tampa Bay and is one of the season’s best free-agent signings. Tampa inked him to a minor league contract back in February, and Benoit has delivered a career-high in strikeout and ground ball rates along with a career-low walk rate. His 1.99 xFIP, a measure of fielding-independent ERA calculated by strikeouts, walks and normalized home-run-to-fly-ball rate, is the second-best mark in baseball behind Jonathan Broxton. This level of success is unprecedented for Benoit, and the Rays need it to continue.

Adrian Beltre, Boston Red Sox
Boston currently sits three games outside of a playoff spot. They are going to need some improvement, especially in the rotation, to catch up. But they can’t afford any player falling back from his first-half performance. The player this might be most important for is Adrian Beltre. Now, anyone who watched Beltre play with the Seattle Mariners could have foreseen that Beltre would do well once removed from Safeco, but Fenway Park has not been the end-all, be-all catalyst for Beltre’s offensive resurgence. Beltre has .841 OPS at home compared to a remarkable .979 mark on the road. Beltre is hitting at an offensive level that he has not even sniffed since his monster 2004 season. Can he keep it going through the second half?

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers
Yes, the Rangers are in first and they now have Cliff Lee, but their lead in the AL West (4 1/2 games) isn’t huge. Colby Lewis (3.33 ERA in 17 starts) was about as unknown as you could get entering this season. After spending some unremarkable time coming up through the minors, Lewis ended up in Japan from 2008-09 and underwent a complete transformation. His success in Japan still presented difficulties when figuring out how he might do stateside — difficulties that Lewis has mitigated but not fully assuaged in this first half. Lewis has been nothing short of — pardon the expression — a home run for the Rangers. What is important for Texas is that he stay somewhere in the vicinity of this new Colby Lewis and not revert, as Major League hitters get to see him for the third or fourth time, back to pre-2008 Colby Lewis.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels are yet again trying to beat projections and over-perform. They are in a tough position this season, already trailing in the AL West standings by a sizable margin that could get larger after the Rangers traded for Lee. The Angels need some serious improvement in their overall talent level to catch the Rangers and for that they need Scott Kazmir (6.92 ERA) to rediscover his talent.

Kazmir has been a fickle performer for Anaheim. While he was superb down the stretch for them last season, his strikeout rates continued to fall and he eventually bombed in the postseason. He straightened out that inconsistency in 2010 but in a negative way. His average fastball velocity, 90.5 mph, is at the lowest point of his career, but that, by itself, does not mean he is injured. If Kazmir is actually healthy, there might still be a chance for Kazmir to pitch as he once did. If he could find that form again, that would represent a huge upgrade for the Angels, arguably one of similar magnitude as the Rangers’ addition of Lee.

J.J. Putz, Chicago White Sox
The AL Central houses the real dogfight in the American League. Two teams are within 3 1/2 games of Chicago but, as division leaders, the White Sox still have two key questions facing their pitching. The bullpen has been an asset for Chicago but almost totally because of Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz. Thornton has been performing well for several years now, but Putz was a disaster for the Mets last season. This year, Putz is back to his old glory. Thanks to an increased use of his splitter, Putz has his strikeouts back above one per inning and his 2.41 xFIP is his best mark since 2006. Can he keep it up? Putz is certainly an injury risk and if he slips, then the White Sox bullpen gets a lot weaker.

Daniel Hudson, Chicago White Sox
Other than Putz, the biggest key to the Sox’s second half is Hudson. With Jake Peavy out for the season, Hudson will fill his spot in the rotation. Hudson’s meteoric rise in 2009 saw him climb from Class-A to the majors and he hasn’t cooled off yet. He began this season back in the Triple-A rotation and excelled with 108 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 93 1/3 innings. Hudson’s performance in Chicago is critical to the White Sox’s success; solid performances from him directly helps their postseason chances and takes the pressure off the White Sox’s front office to go shopping for a starting pitcher.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
The Twins were the early-season favorite for the AL Central and still remain in the hunt, but so far have disappointed. One of the causes of that disappointment is the less-than-expected production of Joe Mauer. Few expected Mauer to repeat his 2009 numbers, but a repeat of his 2008 numbers was certainly achievable; instead, Mauer has skipped another year back to his 2007 self. (His .293 average is the same as it was in ’07.) He’s still a valuable asset, but Minnesota is relying on more out of him. Mauer is suffering from a batting average on balls in play (.315) that is much lower than his career average (.341), so a resurgence in the second half seems more likely than not.

Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins
For the Twins to have success, any improvement from Joe Mauer must be met with zero diminishing production from anyone else, and that’s where Justin Morneau factors in. Morneau has been an absolute beast at the plate this year, upping his line-drive rate and spiking his batting average to a level unusual even for him. In fact, Morneau leads all hitters in WAR with a 5.0 mark at the break. While his power is at a career-high level as well, the real outlier is in his batting average. Morneau’s previous career best was a .300 average in 2008 — he is hitting .345 this year. That is just a point behind the major league lead, and a figure that’s a fantastic bet to return to Earth. His contributions thus far have been terrific, but they might go for naught if he does not manage to sustain them.

Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
A half game behind Chicago for the division lead, the Tigers have serious questions too. Namely, can Jose Valverde keep up the career year? Valverde’s ERA stands at 0.92 coming into the second half but his FIP and xFIP (projected FIP) indicate that he’s been very fortunate to keep it that low. Valverde, remarkably, has gone from a high-strikeout, fly ball-heavy pitcher to one getting an extreme number of ground balls without losing too many of the strikeouts. Valverde has been a big success for the Tigers, but with Joel Zumaya now out for the rest of the year, the Tigers will be leaning on Valverde even more. If he falters it would represent a big blow to the bullpen’s overall effectiveness due to the high leverage of innings that Valverde has been spitting out with great success.

Brennan Boesch, Detroit Tigers
The bullpen isn’t the only unit sitting on a precarious edge for Detroit. The Tigers have featured just four serious hitters. Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon and Miguel Cabrera come as no surprise, but the fourth, Brennan Boesch, should. Boesch’s .990 OPS is surprising because his minor league development didn’t hint at such an output.

After just 66 trips to the plate with Triple-A Toledo this year, Boesch’s 1.076 OPS got him noticed and subsequently promoted. What drove that improvement, however, was a ridiculous .500 average on batted balls, a figure not even Ted Williams could dream of maintaining. Boesch has adjusted to the Majors well, but once again he is benefitting from an inflated (.381) BABIP that should fall. That would create a hole in the middle of Detroit’s lineup and could sink the Tigers’ playoff chances.

Five Necessary Moves for Contenders

When the regular season resumes, 11 teams will be within five games of first place in their respective divisions. For those squads, the time to act is now.

With that in mind, here are five moves that would make a difference to those contending teams.

Colorado Rockies: Go get Dan Uggla

With Troy Tulowitzki out until mid-August, the Rockies have used Clint Barmes and Jonathan Herrera up the middle. For a mediocre team this might work, but that pair just doesn’t hit well enough to start for a team only two games out of first place in the NL West. The Rockies can’t afford to lose any ground right now, and need to improve on that unit.

Acquiring Uggla from the Florida Marlins would not only immediately replace Tulowitzki’s production, but would also help create a stronger offense once he returns. That would relegate Barmes to the bench and give the Rockies a strong up-the-middle duo. Uggla currently has a .375 wOBA, fifth among major league second basemen, and his 42.5 percent fly ball rate ranks third. The natural loft in his swing would play well at Colorado’s high altitude.

With the Marlins 10 games back in the NL East, they’re essentially out of contention. Uggla could make $10 million or more in his final year of arbitration this winter, and that’s a figure the Marlins probably can’t afford. It would be best to trade him now, while they still hold some of the cards. This winter, other teams know they’ll be desperate to trade him.

Texas Rangers: Call up Tanner Scheppers
The Rangers already struck big when they acquired Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners, but that doesn’t solve all of their pitching problems. C.J. Wilson’s 113 innings are more than he has pitched since when he was in the minors in 2003, and he could wear down in the second half. Rich Harden and Derek Holland are currently on the DL, and there’s no guarantee that either will pitch effectively when they return. If the Rangers could add one starter, they would help answer those question marks. Thankfully for them, that starter might already be in their system.

Scheppers, a 2009 first-round pick, opened the season in the pen, but has begun to stretch out in Triple-A, having started in his last five appearances. He’s gotten hit around a bit, but once he gets used to starting again he could be an asset for the Rangers’ rotation. He’s whiffed 11 men per nine innings in his minor league career. He can help the team solidify an already-strong unit, even if he has to move back to the bullpen. There appears to be little reason for the Rangers to leave Scheppers in the minors any longer.

Cincinnati Reds: Call up Aroldis Chapman
A few weeks ago the Reds announced that they’d move Aroldis Chapman to the bullpen to see if he could eventually help the major league team there. The Reds could certainly use him. Their current relief corps had a 1.49 WHIP, which ranks 12th in the NL.

Getty Images
Aroldis Chapman would bolster the Reds’ shaky bullpen.
The question, of course, is whether Chapman can pitch effectively at the major league level. He probably won’t help the bullpen’s WHIP — he has 14 strikeouts and seven walks in 9 1/3 innings of Triple-A relief — but his strikeout stuff would give Dusty Baker someone who could get the Reds out of jams. He might not be a sure thing, but it’s hard to imagine Chapman performing worse than the current relief options.

St. Louis Cardinals: Sit Skip Schumaker
The Cardinals have something of a problem in their infield. Their starting third baseman, David Freese, is on the DL until later this month. Felipe Lopez is a quality fill-in, but the Cardinals could use him elsewhere. The middle infield has been subpar so far, and the Cardinals need to improve in that area if they’re going to keep pace with, and eventually pass, the Reds in the NL Central.

They have already done something about their Opening Day shortstop, Brendan Ryan, who has a .251 wOBA. Tyler Greene, the club’s 2005 first-round pick, has been filling in for Ryan and has a .347 wOBA. Second baseman Skip Schumaker has also been a problem; he’s produced a well-below-average .318 OBP this season. The Cardinals can replace his production with Lopez’s. Once Freese returns, it’s a move that Tony La Russa has to make.

Tampa Bay Rays: Call up Desmond Jennings
At 54-34, the Rays would be leading any division in baseball except their own. They’ll face a challenge in the second half as they try to catch the first-place New York Yankees while subsequently holding off the Boston Red Sox. The pitching staff appears to be in good order, so the Rays will look to improve their offense. They have a number of options here, since they have a number of players who can handle multiple positions.

Their answer might lie within the organization. Desmond Jennings, their No. 1 prospect heading into the season, has hit his stride in Triple-A, and is batting .297 with 21 steals for the Durham Bulls. He could help in the outfield by playing right field and occasionally filling in for B.J. Upton in center. That would open up Matt Joyce (.365 OBP and career .348 wOBA) to play DH and Ben Zobrist to regularly shift to second. Both moves would make the Rays stronger.

Oswalt’s Mysterious Weapon

Roy Oswalt wasn’t supposed to be this good at age 33. Listed at 6-feet and 192 pounds, Oswalt seemed like a guy who might break down from the rigors of starting every five days — a guy who wouldn’t have a long career.

And, at the start of this season, it certainly looked like he was declining. From 2005 to 2009, his ERA rose from 2.94 to 4.12; last year, he had a career-low in innings (181.1) and strikeouts (138). So it was forgivable to expect a mediocre year.

But the advanced statistics tell a different story: While Oswalt’s overall strikeout was down last year, his whiff rate was higher than it was in 2007. His walk rates have remained strong. FIP, a statistic that strips out batted-ball luck and produces a defense-independent number on the ERA scale, shows a tale of sustained above-averageness. Going into this year, Oswalt wasn’t quite the pitcher he used to be, with FIPs in the low 3s, but he was still a solid pitcher without any obviously declining peripheral statistics.

Now, coming off last night’s complete-game, one-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it looks like Oswalt has been reborn. His 8.43 K/9 this year is the second-best of his career and 1.5 strikeouts per nine more than last year. His current FIP is the best he’s put up since 2006. He’s talking less about retiring as he did with Buster Olney in 2006, and more about where his team will trade him so that he can compete for a ring.

But figuring out how he’s doing this isn’t easy. Looking at his pitching mix, you can see that he’s used his changeup more this year (12.0 percent), which is twice as much as he has over his career (5.9 percent). It’s strange that using the changeup more would be a good thing, because by linear weights — the FanGraphs’ statistics that evaluate single types of pitches by outcomes — his change-up is not a great pitch. It’s been worth 18.9 runs below average over his career (compared to his fastball at 122.2 runs above average). But is using the changeup now suddenly leading to more strikeouts?

We can tell by linear weights that, even though the changeup is again eliciting below-average results this year (-2.2), the rest of his pitches have put up stronger results with its increased usage. This is where our toolbox comes to an end of sorts. So we have to speculate: Is it because the changeup, though below-average, is setting up the rest of his pitches better? Is it something in the movement of the pitch, or the speed?

It’s not yet in our power to know why Oswalt is striking out more batters, especially since his swinging strike percentage (9.3 percent) has been no different from his career number (9.5 percent). But it does look like the slight change to his mix could be a big factor.

Papi’s New (Old) Look

Last time FanGraphs checked in on David Ortiz on TMI RJ Anderson noted that Ortiz was in the midst of a horrible April: Ortiz hit just one HR and had a dreadful 0.232 wOBA. RJ noted that during April 2010 and Ortiz’s poor 2009, Ortiz was having trouble contacting on inside pitches and consequently was not generating as much power to right field, where as a typical pull-hitter Ortiz generates much of his power.

Since then Ortiz has been great, hitting 16 HRs since the calendar flipped to May and posting a wOBA of 0.439. It looks like he has returned to his better 2007-esque numbers. How has he done that? To investigate the change it’s best to compare his numbers this year to his disappointing 2009.

First thing to note is the rate at which he makes contact with pitches that he swings at based on their horizontal position (where they cross the plate).

You can see that compared to 2009 Ortiz is making more contact with inside pitches. He is making contact less on outside pitches and his overall contact numbers are down this year — leading to his very high strikeout rate; over 30 percent — but it also looks like he is making contact with the right pitches.

Here is a diagram which shows where Ortiz hit his non-grounders in 2009 and again in 2010. The numbers in each region are the fraction of non-grounders to that region (the first region is the infield and each ring after that 100 feet from the pervious). The color of the region is Ortiz’s slugging rate on non-ground balls hit to that region, with gray denoting zero all the way up to red, which is a rate over two.

You can see that he has nearly twice the fraction of hits to deep right (right field is the pull field for the left-handed Ortiz). Those balls in play turn into HRs and extra-base hits more than any others and show why Ortiz is doing so much better now than in 2009. Most likely, a fair number of those long balls to right are from contact on inside pitches. In addition, you can see that he has slightly few infield pop-ups (the first region) and many fewer balls in play just beyond the infield. These balls in play are most likely to be outs or just bloop singles.

So it looks like Ortiz has turned it around so far this year by doing a better job of making contact with inside pitches — even if overall he is making

The Meaning of Age

The Cleveland Indians got beat real hard Wednesday night in Texas, losing 12-1 to a Ranger club that has its eyes on a division championship.

Normally, a blowout loss like this wouldn’t be interesting enough to make these pages. But this game is unique in its own right.

Towards the end of said game, three notable writers shared an exchange on Twitter: KenTremendous (a.k.a. Michael Schur, of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame), Jonah Keri (late of Baseball Prospectus, among other places), and Steve Buffum (keeper of The B-List Indians Blog, part of ESPN’s own SweetSpot Network).

The conversation in question went as follows:

KenTremendous The Red Sox’ CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

jonahkeri Yet active payroll’s still huge RT @KenTremendous The Red Sox’ CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

stevebuffum @jonahkeri Well, no other team has had injuries. Cleveland’s 3B and SP were in their roles opening day (no one else was).

Schur’s point is well taken: with Kevin Youkilis’ ankle injury during Boston’s 3-2 loss at Tampa, the Red Sox have definitely suffered their share of roster turnover — and have remained competitive in the AL East while doing so. That’s pretty incredible.

Keri’s is, too: one could make the claim — fairly so — that, with their resources, the Red Sox should be able to deal with injuries as they come.

But Buffum really holds the trump card in this discussion, as the Cleveland Indians he’s watching now are almost an entirely different team than the one that greeted him back in the beginning of April.

By way of illustration, here’s that Opening Day lineup:

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
Grady Sizemore, CF
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Travis Hafner, DH
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Matt LaPorta, 1B
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Lou Marson, C
Michael Brantley, LF

Now here’s Cleveland’s lineup for July 6 at Texas:

Michael Brantley, CF
Jayson Nix, 2B
Carlos Santana, C
Austin Kearns, RF
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Shelley Duncan, DH
Andy Marte, 1B
Trevor Crowe, LF
Jason Donald, SS

It should be noted that there’s a little bit of cheating here: Hafner was sitting against Ranger lefty C.J. Wilson in the latter game, and LaPorta got whacked in the head the other night, otherwise he’d be playing, too.

The other changes, though: they’re legit. Cabrera, Sizemore, and Choo are all out with injuries. Grudzielanek was released by the club a month ago. Lou Marson was optioned to Triple-A around the same time. The only holdovers from the original lineup are Peralta and Brantley — which isn’t even to mention that Brantley has spent most of the season in Triple-A!

Question: Why is any of this important?
Anwswer: Because we can learn about a team, and its intents, by looking at how it solves its injuries problems.

Of particular interest is to look at the relative ages of the pre-injury and post-injury lineups. If we assume that, generally speaking, younger players have the chance to improve while older players have reached their developmental ceilings, then we can guess at a team’s motivations for employing one or the other.

The Red Sox have been one of the oldest teams in the league this year, with an average batter age (weighted by at-bats, per Baseball Reference) of 31.4. Last night’s lineup at Tampa — even with several players who weren’t present at the beginning of year — wasn’t actually much lower than that: just 31.1 years old. Players like Kevin Cash (32) and Bill Hall (30), though not terribly exciting, are known quantities, and they’re helpful to a team trying to hold its ground during a bad run of injuries.

The Indians have taken a different approach. Their average batter age this season is 28.3 years old. Against Texas on July 6, however, that number dipped to 26.6 among the starting lineup — almost a full two years younger. While the Indians gave plenty of playing time to older players like the 40-year-old Grudzielanek and 34-year-old Russell Branyan earlier this season, the front office has definitely sought to get younger this past month, in an attempt to give extended trials to younger players. The 26-year-old Trevor Crowe, 25-year-old Jason Donald, and 24-year-old Carlos Santana have all benefited from this tack.

Though it’s by no means infallible, looking at the starting age of a starting lineup relative to the team’s average batting age for a season, can give clues as to the direction a team has opted to take its season. For Boston, post-season baseball is a priority; for Cleveland, it’s developing players for the future.