Archive for March, 2012

Johnson or Buehrle? Who is more valuable?

On today’s list of the #26-#50 players in baseball according to the ESPN 500, Marlins ace Josh Johnson came in at #30, one spot behind fellow sometimes-injured starter Chris Carpenter. It’s easy to see why Johnson (and Carpenter, for that matter) ranked so highly, as they are dominating starters when they take the mound. Johnson’s career ERA- is 70, meaning that he’s prevented runs at a rate 30 percent better than an average pitcher over that time. To put that in perspective, Roy Halladay’s career ERA- is 71. On a per-inning basis, Johnson stacks up favorably against any pitcher in the game.

However, while Johnson’s quality level is extremely high, his quantity of innings pitched is relatively low. He’s managed just 725 innings across parts of seven seasons, and has managed to make more than 14 starts in a season just three times in his career. Persistent health problems have been an issue that Johnson just hasn’t been able to shake, and given his lingering shoulder problems that limited him to just 60 innings pitched last year, the Marlins need to have muted expectations for how often he’ll be able to take the hill in 2012.

That realization is a large part of the reason that the team aggressively pursued Mark Buehrle as a free agent. Buehrle might be the furthest thing from Johnson currently pitching in the game today – a soft-tossing left-hander who rarely gets a strikeout but who is a mortal lock to take the hill every fifth day, and pitch deep into the ballgame at that. Buehrle has reached the 200 inning mark in an astounding 11 consecutive seasons, and has never once been on the disabled list. In fact, he’s never missed a start for any reason since being called up to the big leagues in 2000. And yet, the ironman among current starting pitchers was rated only 134th by the voters in the ESPN 500, sliding in between Aramis Ramirez and John Danks.

So, we know that the voters prefer quality over quantity in their starting pitchers, but now that the Marlins have both, which one is likely to provide more value for Miami in 2012?

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What’s Next For These Underachievers?

As we begin to climb higher on the ladder of our rankings of the top 500 players in baseball, we’ve seen similarities between groups begin to emerge. The 401-500 section contained a lot of middle relievers, #5 starters, and utility infielders. In the 301-400 section, we found a lot of aging former stars hanging on as role players and trying to squeeze a bit more life out of the end of their careers. And now, today, in looking at the group from 201-250, one common theme stands out among the many names on the list – underachievers.

This list is full of guys who have, at some point in their careers, flashed the potential to be stars. Many of these players are former top prospects, and some even have had success in the big leagues, but they’ve never become what they were supposed to be. For players like Delmon Young, the clock is now working against them, and we have to assume that they’ll never live up to the expectations that they generated early in their careers. For four others on this list, however, 2012 is their make or break year – they’ll either become what they were supposed to be or enter camp next year fighting for a spot on a big league roster.

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Expectations for Strasburg in 2012

Before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John Surgery, Stephen Strasburg was pitching at a level that few men have been able to match. Now nearly 19 months removed from surgery, the Nationals are hopeful that their ace will be able to match his previous dominance and establish himself as one of the National League’s best starting pitchers.

Is that a realistic goal for a pitcher in his first season after returning from elbow surgery? To examine that question, we will look at six other starting pitchers who are Tommy John survivors, and we will measure their performance in year one after surgery against their performances in the season preceding the year in which they went on the DL and their second year after coming back from injury.

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When Should Bryce Harper Get The Call?

The Washington Nationals have already decided that Bryce Harper will begin the season in the minors, as they optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday. However, they have another critical decision to make regarding their 19-year-old phenom, and how they decide to proceed will have a significant impact on the amount of money they’ll be paying him over the next seven years.

By keeping Harper in the minors for the entire month of April, the Nationals will ensure that he will fall short of the necessary 172 days of service required for one full year of service, as defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Having Harper begin 2012 in the minors will allow the team to retain his rights for the 2018 season – had he began the year in the Majors and accrued six full seasons of service time by the end of the 2017 season, he would have been eligible for free agency after his age 24 season. Now, the Nationals will also own the rights to his age 25 season.

However, the timing of his debut will go a long way in determining his salaries from 2015 through 2018. If Harper is called up before July 1st, he may be classified as a “Super Two” at the conclusion of 2014 – the top 22 percent of players with 2+ years of service (but less than the full three needed to qualify for arbitration) are upgraded to early-entry arbitration. Instead of going through the process three times, they are granted four arbitration hearings, and can begin to escalate their salaries a year earlier than players with two years of service time who do not qualify as Super Twos.

The total cost differences can add up very quickly, and beyond just allowing Super Twos to receive a substantial paycheck a year earlier, the system of annual raises creates a compounding effect where these benefit from their status even after the initial trip through arbitration. For example, here are Hunter Pence’s annual salaries during the first six years of his career:

2007 – $380,000
2008 – $396,000
2009 – $439,000
2010 – $3,500,000 (Super Two eligible)
2011 – $6,900,000
2012 – $10,400,000

Total: $22,015,000

Pence was called up to the Majors on April 28, 2007, so he’s just a bit short of having five full years of service. However, because he was a Super Two, he’s already had three shots at arbitration, and his salaries have risen much faster than if he had been called up later in the season.

To see the magnitude of the difference, here is the same salary table for Jacoby Ellsbury, who was called up from the Majors on June 30, 2007, and did not qualify as a Super Two.

2007 – $380,000
2008 – $406,000
2009 – $449,500
2010 – $497,000
2011 – $2,400,000
2012 – $8,050,000

Total: $11,802,000

Since getting called up, Pence has made twice as much as Ellsbury, even though they’ve been similarly productive players when on the field. Ellsbury’s 2011 salary was held down a bit because he missed nearly all of the 2010 season due to injury, but you can see the effects of starting arbitration early in their 2012 salaries, as Ellsbury was still not able to earn a salary as large as Pence even coming off his monster 2011 season where he finished second in the AL MVP voting.

So, what does this effect mean for Harper? It’s impossible to know exactly what he’s going to be paid in future arbitration sessions considering that we don’t know exactly how well he’s going to perform, but we can make assumptions based on projections that have him ending up as one of the game’s best players by the time he would be Super Two eligible after the 2014 season.

Here are the breakdowns of expected salaries for both situations (his 2012-2015 salaries are based on the MLB deal he signed out of the draft – he can opt out of the 2015 salary if he’s arbitration eligible), based on Harper developing into a star by the end of the 2014 season, and adjusting for normal inflation through the arbitration process.

Called up May 1st, Super Two eligible:

2012 – $500,000
2013 – $750,000
2014 – $900,000
2015 – $7,000,000
2016 – $10,500,000
2017 – $15,750,000
2018 – $23,625,000

Total: $59,025,000

Called up July 1st, not Super Two eligible:

2012 – $500,000
2013 – $750,000
2014 – $900,000
2015 – $1,000,000
2016 – $9,000,000
2017 – $13,500,000
2018 – $20,250,000

Total: $45,900,000

Harper’s starting salary in arbitration is a bit higher in scenario two, because presumably his numbers in 2015 will be even better than they were the year before, but you can see the significant cumulative effects that going to arbitration after the 2014 season can have on his salaries going forward. Just by reaching arbitration early, the total difference over the next seven years is nearly $14 million.

That’s a pretty expensive cost for giving Harper two extra months in the Major Leagues this season. If they believe that he’s going to be a drastic upgrade over their current set of outfielders and could push them towards playoff contention, it’s probably still worth doing, but if Rick Ankiel is playing well, they should consider giving Harper a couple more months to hang out in Syracuse. The cost of bringing him up on May 1st compared to July 1st is substantial, and the Nationals should be sure that they’re getting enough reward to justify giving Harper an early bite at arbitration.

Examining The Indians Rotation

Last year, the Cleveland Indians starting pitchers gave up 540 runs – the fourth worst total in Major League Baseball. Their only notable rotation addition over the winter was Derek Lowe, who the Braves were desperate to get rid of after he posted a 5.05 ERA last year. And yet, despite retaining most members of a group that were part of the team’s failure last year, advanced projection systems suggest that the Indians could have one of the best rotations in baseball in 2012.

The fact that Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections like Justin Masterson (204 IP, 3.31 FIP) shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that Masterson had a breakthrough season last year and doesn’t turn 27 for another 10 days. Masterson’s improvement of his command while maintaining his groundball and strikeout abilities make him one of the game’s best starting pitchers. For reference, Masterson’s projection ranks him as essentially the equal of CC Sabathia (3.30 FIP) and slightly ahead of Dan Haren (3.36 FIP), so while he may not be widely recognized as a legitimate front-end starter, ZIPS expects Masterson to remain one of the elite starters in the American League.

However, Masterson was terrific in 2011 and the Indians rotation still struggled, so the expected improvement has to come from the #2-#5 spots in the rotation. And, this is where ZIPS believes that Cleveland will see drastic improvement.

Ubaldo Jimenez wasn’t particularly great for the Indians after coming over in a mid-season trade that cost the team two of their top pitching prospects, but his strong track record in prior years and the fact that his rise in ERA was based mostly on a drop in strand rate – something that has been shown to have little predictive power – combine to create a projection for Jimenez (197 IP, 3.26 FIP) that is actually even better than Masterson’s. In fact, among American League starters, only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Jered Weaver are projected to post a better mark than Jimenez. Like Masterson, his combination of strikeouts and groundballs give him the chance to be a dominant front line starter, and while his reputation took a hit last year, he’s still just 28-years-old and has a long history of premium performances. Few teams in baseball have as strong a 1-2 punch as the Indians have in Masterson and Jimenez.

There’s a significant drop-off between those two and the rest of Cleveland’s rotation, but the three starters penciled in for the back of the rotation are all still projected to be useful starting pitchers. While Derek Lowe had his problems in Atlanta and didn’t come close to justifying the contract he was given back in 2009, his durability is still an asset, and his underlying performances have been better than the results would indicate. ZIPS projects a 4.01 FIP for Lowe, putting him in the company of guys like Trevor Cahill, John Danks, and Derek Holland. Even if he doesn’t perform quite that well – Lowe has generally posted ERAs a bit higher than his FIPs throughout his career – he should still provide value as an innings-eater who can keep the Indians in most games.

Behind Lowe, the final two spots are expected to be filled by some combination of Kevin Slowey, Josh Tomlin, and Zach McAlister. The projections for all three peg them as useful back end starters, and give the team some needed depth that can help bridge any gaps created by injuries. While many AL contenders have serious weaknesses in the #5 spot, ZIPS believes that the Indians have multiple good options for the final rotation spot, and that buffer can provide an alternative if a member of the opening day rotation ends up struggling.

While the Tigers are still the clear favorites for the AL Central title, the difference in expected performance from each team’s starters is not where their advantage lies. Below are the projected lines for each team’s top six starters, with the results weighted by expected innings pitched for each group:

CLE (Masterson, Jimenez, Lowe, Slowey, Tomlin, McAlister): 2.70 BB/9, 6.35 K/9, 0.91 HR/9, 3.82 FIP

DET (Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello, Turner, Oliver): 2.81 BB/9, 6.75 K/9, 0.96 HR/9, 3.85 FIP

The Tigers get a few more strikeouts, but the Indians starters are expected to issue fewer walks and give up fewer home runs, and the overall output for both groups is expected to be quite similar. While Detroit’s starters get more recognition and are coming off better 2011 seasons, ZIPS believes that Cleveland’s depth advantage will help the battle of rotations end in something akin to a draw.

The Tigers offense is still the clear cream of the crop in the division, and Cleveland may not have the bats to stay in contention all year long, but their rotation is stronger than they’re given credit for. If the Indians can find a way to score enough runs, their starting pitchers have the ability to help them contend for a playoff spot.

The Importance of Stephen Drew

Stephen Drew is not the Diamondbacks best player – that would be Justin Upton. He’s not the best player at his own position, nor do his numbers (including a career .270/.330/.442 line) jump off the page at first glance. And yet, given the current state of Major League shortstops, Drew’s health might be as critical to the teams success as any other variable.

Drew is recovering from a fractured ankle, and his status for Opening Day is in serious doubt. More likely, he’ll continue to rehab once the season begins and join the team in early May. How quickly he’s able to get back to what he was before the injury could very well determine how successful the Diamondbacks will be in 2012, however.

That’s because a player’s value is directly related to how good he is compared to the alternative options a team can field, and indirectly, how much better he is than his peers at the same position on other teams. And right now, Major League shortstops are a barren wasteland of offensive talent.

There are essentially three guys in the sport who can play shortstop and be significant difference makers at the plate – Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes, and Hanley Ramirez. The latter two are now teammates, so Ramirez has shifted off the position, even further diluting the pool of talent at shortstop around the game. Last year, Major League shortstops hit .263/.317/.380, and only the Rockies and Mets received an .800 OPS or better from their combination of shortstops. For comparison, seven teams got at least that level of production in 1999, and three teams got a .900 OPS or better from their shortstops.

Granted, 1999 was the zenith of offensive shortstops – Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra all had MVP caliber seasons, and even Omar Vizquel had a monster year at the plate – but we’ve still seen a significant loss of offensive production from the position over the last 10 years. When evaluating Drew’s value, we have to account for the enormous black hole that the Diamondbacks have to put in the line-up when he’s not on the field.

Last year, Arizona gave 350 plate appearances to shortstops not named Stephen Drew, and those players combined to hit .246/.292/.328. Their .621 OPS was worse than Carlos Zambrano’s career mark at the plate. Zambrano’s a good hitting pitcher, but he’s still a pitcher, and the non-Drew shortstops provided less offensive value than he has during his big league career. And yet, rather than look for upgrades to help give the team a bit more punch at the plate when Drew isn’t able to play, Arizona rewarded both Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald with two year contract extensions. This isn’t so much a criticism of Kevin Towers as it is an example of just how thin the crop of available players at the position currently is – the bar is now so low that just being able to defend at an adequate level and having a pulse qualifies you for a multi-year deal.

This is why Drew offers such a significant value for the Diamondbacks, and why he’s such an advantage for the Diamondbacks if he’s healthy. Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections have Drew hitting almost exactly at his career numbers, and the .765 OPS he’s projected for is a better total than 25 teams got from their shortstops last year.

Over the last three years, only nine shortstops have posted a higher WAR than Drew, and eight of the nine have needed more plate appearances to beat his total. On a per plate appearance basis, only The Big Three significantly outperformed Drew since the beginning of the 2009 season. And, of course, Ramirez’s move to third means that it’s now really The Big Two.

Drew might not get the recognition of his more famous teammates, but when he’s on the field, he’s one of the best players in the game at his position. The drop-off when he’s out of the line-up is staggering, and he provides a significant advantage for the Diamondbacks when he’s at full health. If the D’Backs are going to repeat as NL West Champions, they’ll need Drew to get healthy in a hurry.

How Good Will KC Be in 2012?

The Royals have an awful lot of young talent. Even after graduating top prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy to the Majors last year, they still placed five players on Keith Law’s list of the 100 best prospects in baseball, and he rated their farm system as the fifth best in the game right now. Their oldest projected position player is Alex Gordon, who just turned 28-years-old on February 10th, and besides Bruce Chen, their entire pitching staff is a bunch of 20-somethings.

The Royals will almost certainly be one of the youngest teams in Major League Baseball this year, and with all the highly touted young talent they’ve developed internally over the last few seasons, comparisons to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays are inevitable. However, a closer inspection of what we should actually expect from the Royals young talents this year suggests that this team just isn’t ready to win yet.

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Goals for the Non-Contenders

Despite spring proclamations of hope and what could be possible, not every team has a serious chance of capturing the World Series title this year. For some clubs, the lack of talent on the field makes that an unrealistic goal for 2012. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a successful season, especially if they set their sights on things that they can accomplish this year. So, let’s take a look at outcomes for nine expected non-contenders that would make 2012 a worthwhile campaign, even if it doesn’t end with a run at the playoffs.

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