Archive for October, 2011

Five Teams, Five Free Agents

This year’s World Series was truly a fall classic. However, for the fans of the other 28 teams, it was just one more week before the fun of the Hot Stove season begins.

As we saw with the St. Louis Cardinals signing Lance Berkman before this season, sometimes one signing can go a long way. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest holes that need to be filled this winter, and how that can be accomplished.

San Francisco Giants: shortstop

It’s something of a minor miracle that the Giants were able to win 86 games and notch a second-place finish despite ranking 15th in the National League in wOBA. As you can imagine, that was due to a systemic failure on offense, but the most obvious need going forward is an upgrade at shortstop. Last season, Giants shortstops combined to “hit” a measly .210/.265/.299. Suffice it to say, that’s an unacceptable level of production. Since there’s little in Brandon Crawford’s minor league dossier to suggest he can hit at the highest level, an external solution is necessary.

The free-agent gold standard is, of course, Jose Reyes. While the Giants certainly have the resources to afford him, it figures to be a crowded fray of suitors. The next-best option is Jimmy Rollins, who can still provide above-average production by positional standards and plus fielding. Down-ballot options include, for the most part, Rafael Furcal. So if there’s any team that needs to be committed to paying the going rate for Reyes, it’s San Fran. This might be the best fit in term of need, resources and solution in this year’s market.

Chicago Cubs: first base

No, the Cubs are probably not going to contend in 2012, but this is more about establishing a foundation for future seasons. You can’t gauge the market for a player until after he signs, but provided conditions aren’t grossly out of whack, the Cubs should pursue Albert Pujols and/or Prince Fielder.

First and foremost, either would fill what will be a gaping hole following the departure of Carlos Pena (more on him in a moment). Second, both are excellent, established and popular players who would help build the brand in addition to helping win games. Third, either would be plucked directly from a division rival.

Concerns? Certainly. Pujols is aging and could potentially command a contract that extends beyond the bounds of his usefulness. And Fielder’s body type doesn’t lend itself to productivity deep into one’s 30s, though he has played at least 157 games in every season since 2006. Still, both are going to be top-tier performers for at least the next handful of seasons, and that matters to the Cubs. The buy-in for contention in the NL Central is relatively low, particularly when you consider two things: The Cubs’ resources are so much greater than those of their label-mates, and the Central will probably soon be a five-team division.

For Cubs fans, it would be a rousing way to begin the Age of Theo.

Cleveland Indians: first base

The Tribe, garrisoned with a solid lineup, underrated rotation and strong bullpen, could challenge in the AL Central next season. They could also, however, use an upgrade at first base.

Obviously, Cleveland doesn’t have the revenue to sign Pujols or Fielder. The Indians should, however, be able to afford a Carlos Pena. Last season, Pena tallied 28 homers and 101 walks for the Cubs, and he hit .255/.388/.504 against right-handed pitching. The Indians could use Pena to forge a platoon with the heretofore disappointing Matt LaPorta, and they could continue, for at least one more season, deploying Carlos Santana as their regular catcher.

Washington Nationals: center field

It’s absolutely possible the Nats will contend for a playoff berth in 2012. They went 80-81 this past season, and in 2012 they’ll enjoy (one assumes) a full season of Stephen Strasburg. Additionally, young core contributors like Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos will be another year closer to what should be their prime seasons.

One glaring weakness, however, is center field. In 2011, Nats center fielders ranked near the bottom of the league in WAR. Chief placeholder Roger Bernardina can be a useful fourth outfielder in the majors, but as a regular center fielder he’s stretched, both with the bat and the glove.

Fortunately, the Nats have some options. They tried to trade for Denard Span before the trade deadline in July, and that remains a possible (if not optimal) outcome. Some more intriguing options can be found on the market. Provided he can still handle the physical rigors of the position, Carlos Beltran would be an excellent fit. He’d give the Nats a whopping upgrade offensively, and even in decline Beltran’s a better fielder than what they trotted out last season. In the “calculated risk” category, there’s Grady Sizemore, who might be on his way out of Cleveland thanks to his injury history and pricey option for 2012. When healthy, Sizemore is an elite talent, but the rub, of course, is staying healthy. Nonetheless, he’s the sort of high-upside, risky addition that can distinguish a mid-market squad trying to surmount an established behemoth like the Phillies. Elsewhere, Coco Crisp, while not much of a hitter these days, would provide a lower-cost upgrade over the incumbents.

New York Yankees: starting rotation

The Yankees’ offense can forgive many a pitching sin, and, despite its age, that offense should again be potent in 2012. With that said, the Yanks will have rotation concerns, and that will be the case even if they’re able to retain CC Sabathia.

They can hope A.J. Burnett achieves tolerability, and they can hope that Phil Hughes is able to stay healthy. They can also hope that pups like Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos can contribute. Even so, they’re still likely to need established help behind Sabathia and Ivan Nova. So long as Sabathia is back, they can lower their aim a bit. A veteran capable of 180 to 200 innings and league-average-ish ERA will suffice given the front end and given the likely run support. To that end, possibilities include Edwin Jackson, Paul Maholm or, best of all, Hiroki Kuroda.

In the absence of Sabathia? Then the Yankees will need to make at least one splash addition. Unfortunately for their purposes, this year’s free-agent crop is light on such hurlers. C.J. Wilson leads all comers, and then there’s Mark Buehrle or perhaps the tantalizing promise of Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. It’s obvious the Yankees will add an arm; the question is how much they will spend. If they go all in, Darvish is probably the play.

Bullpens Key to Cards-Rangers

If both League Championship Series are any guide, the bullpens of the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers will play important roles in determining the World Series champion.

The Cardinals’ bullpen weakened the powerful Milwaukee Brewers lineup in the NLCS, posting a 1.88 ERA for the series. Even more noteworthy is that in the NLCS, the Cardinals’ bullpen worked more innings (28 2/3) than and threw almost as many pitches (431) as the St. Louis starters (24 1/3 innings and 450 pitches). St. Louis’ rotation yielded zero quality starts, only one outing of at least five innings and only one win. It’s a minor miracle that despite such lousy starting pitching, the Cardinals won the series in six games and outscored the Brewers 43-26. Their story, rare though it may be, is not unlike Texas’. In their six-game ALCS triumph, the Rangers also benefited from uncommon bullpen excellence (1.32 ERA) and an uncommon bullpen workload (27 1/3 innings and 391 pitches). Viva la pitching changes!

There’s also a flip side to all of this: The Rangers are moving on despite an ALCS rotation ERA of 6.59 and the Cardinals despite an NLCS rotation ERA of 7.03. If the Philadelphia Phillies’ early exit didn’t kill off the “starting pitching uber alles” strain of postseason thought, these LCS outcomes surely will. At least for 2011.

All of these improbabilities raise a question looking forward: Who has the bullpen edge in the World Series?

In the regular season, the Cardinals ranked 11th in the 16-team NL with a bullpen ERA of 3.73. However, the worst Cardinals relievers during the regular season will play no role in the World Series. If you remove from the calculus the numbers of Ryan Franklin, Miguel Batista, Bryan Augenstein, Maikel Cleto, P.J. Walters, Brian Tallet, Trever Miller and, um, Skip Schumaker (Aug. 23!), the bullpen ERA drops to 2.83. In other words, the bullpen that the Cardinals will trot out for the 107th World Series will be very, very good.

What’s particularly encouraging from St. Louis’ standpoint is that its current relievers are stingy when it comes to giving up homers. Against the Texas offense, which ranked second in the majors in home runs, that will serve them well, especially when the scene shifts to Arlington. The Cardinals have plenty of impact right-handed arms to counter righty power bats like ALCS MVP Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli, who, on a rate basis, was one of the best hitters in baseball this season.

From the left side there’s Marc Rzepczynski, who has been incredibly effective since adjusting his arm slot. There’s also Arthur Rhodes, but he’s been ineffective even in his limited role. On the upside, Josh Hamilton is Texas’ only power left-handed bat, and he’s hardly himself these days. Also, the Rangers likely won’t have any switch-hitters on their World Series roster.

The real key in the middle and later innings is that the Cards could blunt the Rangers’ right-handed attack with right-handers like Jason Motte, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas, Octavio Dotel and Mitchell Boggs. The series could hinge on that strength-versus-strength subplot.

For Texas, things are similarly promising. The Rangers ranked a meager 12th in the American League in bullpen ERA this season, but if you look at runs per game to eliminate the mostly pointless distinction between earned and unearned runs, the Texas ‘pen improves to fifth in the AL. Alexi Ogando, assuming he’s deployed as a reliever in the World Series, provides a nifty upgrade over what was in place for most of the regular season, and Neftali Feliz has emerged as one of the elite relief arms in baseball.

With Ogando spending the summer in the rotation, Rangers GM Jon Daniels buttressed his relief corps by acquiring right-handers Mike Adams and Koji Uehara at the non-waiver trade deadline. Adams has pitched in line with his excellent career norms, but Uehara has struggled to keep the ball in the park. That’s not surprising given his fly-ball tendencies, but he could be useful when the situation demands a strikeout. Depth from the left side is a concern for Texas, but the same goes for St. Louis.

Given recent events, workloads could be worrisome. These, of course, are cumulative matters, so it’s worth noting that in the full light of the regular season, the Rangers are much better off in terms of games pitched, multiple-inning appearances, appearances on consecutive days and total number of relief innings and pitches.

All things considered, rating the teams’ relief corps appears to be a perilously close call. Both bullpens as presently assembled are better than the overall numbers would suggest, and both are coming off heavy, stressful usage. Still, give the slight edge to the Cardinals because of how their young and outstanding relief arms match up with the driving forces of the Texas offense.

The Game 1 Advantage

The Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and the open-roof jet stream at Miller Park combined for 15 runs in the opener of the NLCS (a 9-6 Milwaukee win), and the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and the rain cloud that follows Justin Verlander wherever he goes lately yielded a 3-2 Texas victory in the ALCS.

And so the American League and National League championship series have unfolded similarly: The home team won Game 1.

There is, of course, a self-evident advantage to winning Game 1: The team that takes the opener needs to play merely .500 ball during the remainder of the series in order to advance. The team that loses Game 1, meanwhile, must win at least four of six, which is — breaking news to follow — substantially more difficult. In fact, over the sprawling history of the seven-game series in baseball, the Game 1 winner takes the series a shade less than 66 percent of the time.

But what happens when, as in the cases of the Brewers and Rangers, the team that wins Game 1 is also the team in possession of home-field advantage? Is the distinction significant?

In the history of the best-of-seven League Championship Series (meaning from 1985 — when the LCS expanded from a best-of-five format to the current best-of-seven — through 2010), if the home team wins Game 1, then that team goes on to win the series 61.5 percent of the time. And in the history of the best-of-seven World Series (the 1903 and 1919-1921 seasons have been omitted because of the best-of-nine format, which is sadly no longer with us), the home team that wins Game 1 takes the entire affair 69 percent of the time.

So, for whatever reason(s), Game 1 outcomes are somewhat less predictive in the LCS than they are in the World Series and, by extension, the postseason as a whole. Why would this be the case? Answering this question is a speculative exercise.

Perhaps familiarity with the opposition and the opposition’s home park contributes to those compressed winning percentages? Perhaps it’s the similar roster construction (NL teams have no need to plan for the DH, and AL teams have no need to plan for batting the pitcher) that plays a role? Perhaps it’s the function of a limited sample size (just 26 series meet the criteria)?

Whatever the elements in play, combine the data pools (i.e., lump together all best-of-seven series) and the home team that wins the opener goes on to win the series 66.7 percent of the time, which is roughly the same percentage for all Game 1 winners. In other words, teams that win the series opener go on to win the whole thing about two-thirds of the time, regardless of whether it is the home or road team. It’s the mere winning of Game 1 that matters greatly, not where that win occurs.

Additionally, the value of winning Game 1 of a series is less in a seven-game series than in one with only five games. But even so, the Brewers and Rangers now have the advantage by jumping out to 1-0 starts, and they have the aforementioned odds in their favor.

Winning Game 1? A very good thing. Winning Game 1 as the home team? That’s irrelevant, as it turns out.

Setting the Tigers Line-Up for the ALCS

In his ALDS victory over the New York Yankees, Jim Leyland used a different line-up in each game. The mixing and matching worked out when he got key hits from the likes of Ramon Santiago and Don Kelly, but the Tigers also only managed to score 17 runs in the series, and they’ll have to produce more offense against the Rangers if they want a shot at the World Series.

So, we’re here to lend Leyland a hand, and help him come up with a steady line-up that can maximize his team’s offensive output against Texas. He has some good hitters, but the order in which they’re being used could be improved. Given that the Rangers are going to throw left-handers C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison in the series, he’ll also want to focus on getting his best anti-southpaw hitters to the plate as often as possible.

The line-up below might be unconventional, but it would improve the Tigers chances of scoring runs and advancing to the World Series.

#1: Ramon Santiago, 2B, Switch – .305 wOBA

Austin Jackson’s speed has kept him at the top of the order all season, but the reality is that he just doesn’t hit well enough to justify staying there. He struck out in 27 percent of trips to the plate this year, and the Yankees were able to consistently get him out by throwing off-speed pitches out of the zone. Santiago isn’t anyone’s idea of Rickey Henderson, but his better contact rates and performance against southpaws this year win him the top spot in the batting order.

#2: Victor Martinez, DH, Switch – .368 wOBA

Martinez has gotten a lot of credit for making pitchers pay after they intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera, but right now, Cabrera needs someone in front of him who can get on base. He came up with the bases empty far too often in the ALDS, and moving Martinez’s .380 OBP to the second spot in the line-up will give the Tigers star more RBI opportunities. Having two switch-hitters at the top of the line-up will also help keep the line-up stable when the Rangers go to the bullpen.

#3: Delmon Young, LF, Right – .303 wOBA

While most teams give the #3 spot to their best hitter, Leyland has this one right, as Cabrera is more likely to produce runs from the #4 spot in the order. Young’s OBP isn’t what you’d like from a hitter in this spot, but he hit left-handers significantly better than right-handers and has enough power to drive Martinez in on his own from time to time.

#4: Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Right – .436 wOBA

This one’s easy – he’s the beast of the Tigers line-up and belongs in the run producing spot. The rest of the line-up is just there to try and ensure he gets chances to do as much damage as possible.

#5: Jhonny Peralta, SS, Right – .353 wOBA

Peralta wasn’t able to sustain his tremendous first half performance, and he faded a bit down the stretch. However, he’s still one of the Tigers best hitters, and he has enough power to make teams pay for pitching around Cabrera.

#6: Ryan Raburn, RF, Right – .314 wOBA

Magglio Ordonez got most of the playing time in round one, but Raburn is just the better player, especially against a left-handed heavy pitching staff. He hit .274/.321/.486 against southpaws this year, and he was the Tigers second best hitter in the final two months of the season. Compared to Ordonez, he’s also a defensive upgrade in right field.

#7: Alex Avila, C, Left – .383 wOBA

If Avila was healthy, I’d suggest hitting him a lot higher, but his knee problems appeared to be taking a significant strain on him at the plate in the ALDS. His production was a huge part of why the Tigers got to the playoffs in the first place, and if he shows he’s healthy, he should move up to the #5 spot in the order, but the current version of Avila barely resembles the one that the Tigers saw in the regular season.

#8: Austin Jackson, CF, Right – .309 wOBA

While Jackson’s speed may seem wasted at the bottom of the order, this is actually a better spot for his skills. The negative value associated with a caught stealing is dramatically reduced with weaker hitters coming to the plate, so Jackson could run more frequently when he does get on base.

#9: Brandon Inge, 3B, Right – .247 wOBA

Inge had a terrible season by any standard, but most of his struggles came against right-handed pitchers, whom he hit .170/.220/.228 against. He was reasonably effective against left-handers (.245/.339/.378) and has a significant platoon split over the course of his career, so the Tigers should be willing to roll him out there against the Rangers’ southpaws. As soon as the Rangers go to the bullpen, though, Wilson Betemit should be ready to pinch-hit – Inge should never face a right-hander in a close playoff game.

ALDS Reset

Both American League Division Series stand at 1-1, and that provides us with at least two key considerations. First, both series are now, for all intents and purposes, best-of-three series; and second, the lower-seeded team in each series now enjoys home-field advantage. Given these facts, is it time to recalibrate our expectations as far as the Detroit Tigers-New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays-Texas Rangers series are concerned? The short answer: yes.

Here’s how the pitching matchups for rest of the Tigers-Yankees series will look:

Game 3 — CC Sabathia vs. Justin Verlander
(at Detroit)
Game 4 — A.J. Burnett vs. Rick Porcello
(at Detroit)
Game 5 (if necessary) — TBD vs. Doug Fister (at New York)

That suspension of Game 1 on Friday night pushed each team’s ace back to Game 3 and switched the venue. The latter consequence won’t mean much to Verlander, who hasn’t shown any home-road tendencies of note this season. The same goes for Sabathia.

Comerica Park, however, may present some challenges to the Yankees’ offense. They’ll be facing a pair of right-handers in Detroit, and that means Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher will be batting from the left side. While both players hit for more power as left-handed batters, Comerica greatly suppresses the power numbers of left-handed batters. For park factors, a score of 100 is average. And as you can see in the link, Comerica has a home run park factor of 88 for left-handed hitters, which is well below average (lower numbers favor pitchers). In fact, only one AL park — Kauffman Stadium — has cut down on lefty home runs to a greater extent. In contrast, Yankee Stadium is, by a rather absurd margin, the most accommodating environment in all of baseball for left-handed power hitters with a left-handed home run factor of 143. Some Yankees hitters — Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, in addition to Teixeira and Swisher — will suffer as a result. For an offense that depends heavily on lefty power, this is not good news.

While the sample size is quite small, it’s also worth noting that the Yankees went 1-3 in Comerica Park during the season and scored just 10 total runs in those four games. Quite possibly, that’s because Comerica’s peculiarities dovetail with those of the 2011 Yankees.

The other, perhaps larger consequence of the Game 1 rainout is that Burnett (5.20 ERA over the last two years) will be given a start. Ideally for their purposes, the Yankees would have been able to give a pair of starts to Sabathia and thus avoid inflicting Burnett upon themselves and the world at large. Instead, Burnett will pitch Game 4 in Detroit, which will be one team’s chance to close it out. Burnett, of course, has induced more hand-wrings in 2011 than any pitcher not named John Lackey.

Indeed, Burnett has struggled mightily away from home, and he’s struggled more mightily still against right-handed batters (and this has generally been the case throughout his career). Righties had an .831 OPS against him this year, while lefties have a .777 mark. Those trends will work against him in Game 4. The Tigers, if manager Jim Leyland chooses to do so, can lard the lineup with right-handed hitters such as Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Magglio Ordonez, Austin Jackson and Delmon Young. If the Tigers want to get crazy, they might even have switch-hitter Victor Martinez bat from the right side against Burnett. Martinez has a line of .368 AVG /.478 OBP/.579 SLG against righties as a right-handed hitter in his career (in just 23 plate appearances). Presumably, that’s mostly come against knuckleballers, but Burnett’s splits are such that it’s worth discussing.

Based on the fact that the Yankees’ primary offensive strength is neutralized by Comerica Park, and the fact that they will be forced to use Burnett, the Tigers are legitimate favorites to win each of the next two games.


Game 3 — Colby Lewis vs. David Price (at Tampa Bay)
Game 4 — Matt Harrison vs. Jeremy Hellickson (at Tampa Bay)
Game 5 (if necessary) — James Shields vs. C.J. Wilson (at Texas)

Lewis, a right-hander, likes to pitch on the road (3.43 ERA on the road this year, 5.54 at home), and he likes to face same-side hitters (.616 OPS against). On the flip side, Price could struggle against the righty-heavy Texas lineup: In his career, righties have homered once every 37 plate appearances against Price, while lefties have gone yard once every 63 PAs. So while Price is a better pitcher overall, the location of the game and the makeup of the Rangers’ lineup make this pitching matchup a lot more even than it appears at first glance.

With that said, the Rays will have an edge in Game 4. Hellickson gets to pitch Game 4 at home, where his numbers are uniformly better this season, and, as mentioned, the Rangers’ lineup is almost exclusively right-handed, which will benefit him.

And that brings us to Game 5. Rookie sensation Matt Moore utterly tamed the Rangers in Game 1, but Rays manager Joe Maddon is still saying that Shields will be his Game 5 starter if he needs one. It’s hard to properly analyze this game without knowing the starting pitcher, and Moore is proving to be this October’s big X factor.

We know the Rangers will start Wilson, one of this season’s most effective pitchers. However, despite his recent credentials, Wilson was abused in Game 1 opposite Moore, so the usual narrative of “playoff veteran versus untested rookie” yielded unanticipated results. And Wilson, in the regular season and his lone 2011 postseason start, has, by his own standards, struggled at home (3.69 ERA at home, 2.31 away).

In the end, this remains the most difficult series to predict. If pressed, bet on Texas’ superior offense, underrated back-end relief corps and solid rotation to carry the day, but Moore could change everything.